A young Bart Ehrman, a born-again Christian, set out after high school to learn as much as he could from original biblical texts.
What the Lawrence High School graduate learned shocked him: Not only were there no original texts, but the Bible's words had been changed through the years, entire stories had been added much later, and the Bible's content remained under intense debate among scholars.
Ehrman has spent 30 years attempting to unravel the complicated history of the Bible. His new book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," relies on those decades of research to explain the evolution of the Bible to the masses.
"Even though scholars have been talking about this stuff for hundreds of years, I realized regular folk don't know anything about it," says Ehrman, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "I thought it would be interesting to try to write a popular book more for a Barnes & Noble crowd."
"Misquoting Jesus," Ehrman's 19th book, has earned the 1973 LHS graduate a lot of attention in recent months. The book is seventh on this week's New York Times best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction, and Ehrman has been the subject of profiles in newspapers such as The Washington Post and was a guest on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
"He always was a funny guy, and now we'd call him charismatic," says Robin Rowland, a Kansas University communications professor and Ehrman's friend since high school. "He's really carried that out in his teaching and his writing. How many academics would kill to be on 'Jon Stewart'? And yet, he's there."
"Misquoting Jesus" offers a series of examples of how the Bible has been altered over time - sometimes, Ehrman says, because those transcribing it had an agenda of their own.
Perhaps the most striking example is the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. When a crowd wants to stone her to death, Jesus says, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
Though it's a beloved and oft-quoted passage, Ehrman says it didn't exist in any of the four original gospels. It was inserted into the book of John centuries later.
Clips of audio interview with Bart Ehrman
"I'm not trying to poke holes in the Bible," Ehrman says. "I'm really stating historical facts. It's not a matter of interpretation that we have 5,700 Greek manuscripts and no two of them are alike."
Ehrman, now 50, spent most of his childhood in Lawrence. He and his family attended Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt., and he was an acolyte through high school.
His first transforming faith experience occurred when he was a sophomore in high school. He attended a Youth for Christ club meeting that, he says, led him to be a born-again Christian.
His newfound fundamentalism sparked him to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
"I was interested in knowing what the original words of the New Testament were, since what I thought was that the words had been inspired by God," Ehrman says. "So I wanted to know what the words were."
He later learned Greek at Wheaton College and eventually studied at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Over time, he realized those original words didn't exist, which, along with other biblical inconsistencies, made him shy away from his fundamentalist beliefs. About eight or nine years ago, he decided he was agnostic.
"I ended up becoming an agnostic not because of my scholarship," he says, "but because I finally came to a point where I couldn't reconcile my belief in a benevolent God who is in control of the world with the state of the world. There's so much pain and misery in the world."
Teaching the people
Facing those sorts of faith questions is common for biblical scholars, says George Wiley, chairman of the religious studies department at Baker University.
"Let's say you start out as a believer, you're a religion major in college, and you do graduate study to become a teacher," Wiley says. "You will run into ideas that challenge your faith. Most people absorb it, think about it and keep their faith."
For some, however, there is a breaking point, Wiley says.
Ehrman says his research isn't aimed at a particular audience. He says the field of biblical history should be available to everyone - and not just kept to scholars any more.
"People in the church ought to be given factual information about the Bible they revere," Ehrman says. "But in fact they don't know the first thing about it. They have no clue."