A religious studies scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become a hot-selling author, thanks to his accessible account of how scribes changed the Bible as they reproduced it. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (Harper San Francisco) was cited as a sleeper pre-Christmas hit by booksellers (“So-So Holiday Sales”) and reprinted three times after an initial run of 23,000.

RBL: Could you tell me about the structure of the book and what you aimed to achieve with it?

Ehrman: The book is about the New Testament and how we don’t have any of the originals of the books. We have copies that were made hundreds of years after the originals. [I address the question of] how they got copied and modified so that sometimes we’re reading a modified text rather than the original text.

RBL: Were you surprised the book sold so well in the month of December?

Ehrman: No (laughing). What really helped was the kind of media attention it got. I was on [NPR’s] Fresh Air and TheDiane Rehm Show. That was a double-whammy that got people’s attention and it began the word of mouth. The other thing that attracted people to this book is that it begins by giving my own spiritual autobiography. I started out as an ultra-conservative evangelical Christian who thought that the words of the Bible were without error. In part it was my study of these manuscripts that made me realize we didn’t have the original words, and that made me change my views about the Bible. Eventually it came to have a very serious effect on my religious outlook.

RBL: What is your religious outlook now?

Ehrman: I’m a happy agnostic.

RBL: Why do you think the time was ripe for this?

Ehrman: Religion is fairly hot in the public discourse right now. And issues pertaining to the New Testament are hot. One of the reasons for the success of The Da Vinci Code is that it deals with unknown information about early Christianity, in that case Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their alleged marriage. My book is more information that people didn’t know about early Christianity, only this is not fiction. This is fact. People are right now very interested in the beginnings of the Christian religion.

RBL: What are you hoping ordinary people, not biblical scholars, will do with this new knowledge?

Ehrman: It’s part of a larger argument that early Christianity was very diverse. These scribes who copied the texts had different points of view that they sometimes implemented in their copies. For me this highlights the diversity of early Christianity, and my hope is that when people see how diverse Christianity was in its origins, they will be a little bit more tolerant of diversity in Christianity today.

This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2006 issue of Religion BookLine. For more information about Religion BookLine, including a sample and subscription information,click here»