This is a disturbing statement that I first read in the books of Dr. Bart Ehrman. He is ranked among a very small group of first-class bible scholars, one of the few who are called immediately when there is an important discovery such as the purported "ossuary of St. James," an artifact that was claimed at one time to be the repository of the remains of the Lord Jesus' brother.
In his seminal book, Misquoting Jesus, which everyone who is interested in Holy Scripture should consider a must-read work, Ehrman points out something that passes by the reader in a fairly low-key way the first time around. The earliest copies of the New Testament that anyone has in their possession date from the Third Century, some of them perhaps from the late Second Century. Why is this? Well, it's actually pretty simple: the original Scriptures that were written by people's hands, such as the Letters of Paul, have simply crumbled away. They no longer exist.
What we refer to as the New Testament today are copies made many times over from the first copies that were made from the original works such as the Letter of St. James. The Letter of James as we have it was translated from the Hebrew, but we have no guarantee that it was actually composed in Hebrew--because the original letter that James wrote, or more likely dictated to a scribe, does not exist.
It is not going too far to say, as Ehrman does, that most probably you have never read the Bible. That is to say, like me, you have probably read English translations of the original Hebrew and Greek languages that Scripture is written in. It has been proven by observation and comparison that the primary duty of a Jewish scribe was to copy the Hebrew Scriptures word for word, without alteration of any kind. We have seen this in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which do not differ from other copies of the Hebrew Scriptures.
But Christian scribes cannot make that same claim to integrity; on the contrary, what we can see for ourselves in manuscripts of the New Testament is alteration from one source to another. In one copy of St. Paul's First Letter to Timothy, this passage appears:
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." [I Timothy: 11-15]
However, in the oldest copies that we have--the ones from the Third Century--that passage does not appear. Therefore it is clear that Paul did not write it. Someone placed the sentences into a copy he was making. This fact is not open to dispute.
The probability has also emerged that it is likely that Paul did not actually write the Letters to Timothy anyway. This presents a problem to preachers, who, if they value their integrity, ought to preach only from the Letters of Paul that are universally accepted as his writing. They are First and Second Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians.
Preachers have no business taking a passage from a disputed letter and build a whole dogma upon it. This is an example of reverse-engineering theology to fit what a Scripture says. It is also an example of preachers who will pick up any copy of the Bible and assume that it is as infallible as any other translation. But that is not true; versions of the Bible vary widely. Another researcher noted that there are more than twenty thousand errors of translation in the King James Version of the Bible. It ill behooves any denomination to stake their credibility on the King James, not to mention that a large percentage of Christians do not understand the language and vocabulary of Elizabethan England.
The process that I refer to as reverse-engineering theology is tantamount to admitting that you cannot accept what is written in the Bible as it is. You have to reverse-engineer the theology of Judaism to rationalize that the destruction recounted in the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was justified, when it could not have been a moral act by a good God. The hundreds of innocent bystanders, not to mention animals, could not be considered "collateral damage" by a God who wanted to punish a few men. If you attempt to justify the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by a supposedly good and lawful God, you will be forced to say that somehow the people there deserved it. But there is no way that pregnant women and unborn babies could have deserved the destruction of fire raining down upon them from the sky, from which they were defenseless.
And then, many centuries later, it becomes known that on a certain date in history an asteroid careened over the Middle East and crashed over Europe. That accounts for the fall of a debris trail of red-hot detritus that resulted in the actual destruction of two villages named Zoar and Bab edh-Dhra; this real event has morphed into the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And since these two villages were in ruins by the time they were encountered by the wandering Hebrews, the morality tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was tailor-made to fit the scenario. Nothing of the sort actually happened; it was a reverse engineering of physical ruins to be used as the basis for a story that was meant to teach us something: never flout the Law of Hospitality.
As soon as you admit that you cannot really accept the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as written, you admit that human intellect and our powers of critical thinking are going to begin to separate the threads of authorship and interpretation that make up Bible criticism. We have to admit that we do not actually know how King Saul died; we have to admit that there are two, separate stories of Creation that do not agree. But once we get past that, we arrive in a new territory where we can discover more and more about the nature of God and what it was that made Jesus inspire people to a new faith and love for God.