According to Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, there exists a category of New Testament alterations which includes changes that occurred because copyists “who were not altogether satisfied with what the New Testament books said modified their words to make them … more vigorously oppose heretics, women, Jews, and pagans.” Yet he fails to come up with even one significant change that can’t be corrected by looking carefully at manuscript evidence from the ancient world.
Despite Ehrman’s contention that a scribe excised Luke 23:34 due to anti-Jewish sentiments, the manuscripts simply don’t support this supposition. It does seem that some changes may have been made at various times to shield Christian faith from the charges of pagans and heretics—but none of these changes alters any essential belief that Christians hold regarding the nature or work of God through Jesus Christ.
A handful of changes could potentially relate to the role of women in churches today. It appears that women may have played more prominent roles in the early church than they did in certain later eras. As a result, some scribes in late ancient and medieval times seem to have altered some texts that seemed to place women in prominent positions.
For example, in the most ancient manuscripts of Acts 18:26, a woman named Priscilla seems to have been listed first as a teacher of Apollos. Centuries later, a copyist switched the order of names, placing the name of Priscilla’s husband Aquila first. In Romans 16:7, someone named Junia is said to be “significant among the apostles”—most likely in the sense of “esteemed as significant by the apostles”—but a later scribe turned “Junia” into a form that was clearly masculine. In Acts 17:4, another scribe changed “prominent women” into “wives of prominent men.” In each of these cases, however, it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording.
Less certain is Ehrman’s claim that a later copyist added 1 Corinthians 14:34-35—verses that declare, in the King James Version, “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”—to Paul’s original letter. In some Greek manuscripts, these two verses appear after 1 Corinthians 14:33, but other manuscripts place them after verse 40. To some scholars, including Ehrman, this suggests that later scribes added these sentences to Paul’s text. Three Greek manuscripts do place these disputed sentences after verse 40, but no surviving text omits the verses completely. Every surviving manuscript includes these verses, and all of the earliest and best Greek texts place them after verse 33. As such, Ehrman’s reconstruction seems less than convincing. Even if we suppose that these verses were not part of Paul’s original epistle, though, it is entirely possible to understand them in ways that value women as equal partners with men in God’s work, with distinct and complementary roles.
Perhaps these verses have been misconstrued at times in ways that dishonor women. If this has occurred, it’s wrong—–just as Christians’ choices to wrench the good news of Jesus Christ into excuses to violate Jewish people and to suppress African-Americans have been wrong. And yet, the fault is not with the biblical text. It is with the choices of individuals to twist the biblical text to sanction something less than what God has offered humanity in Jesus Christ.
For more on this topic, see my book Misquoting Truth.