Thursday, June 22, 2006

Teach the Controversy

On Tuesday of this week, Stephen Colbert had as his guest Bart Ehrman, author of the important new book Misquoting Jesus. (Props to the Fabulous Jackass – a devout atheist – who gave me a copy.) As much as I enjoy both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, one of the weakest aspects is the extremely limited time they allot to some of their incredibly important and interesting guests. Mr. Ehrman was particularly ill-served by this setup, whereby he functioned as a de facto straightman to Colbert’s comedy routine. There wasn’t the slightest opportunity for him to explain how his book has the potential to shake the very foundations of western civilization.

No, I’m not kidding.

Mr. Ehrman’s book does not contain any new information; in fact, the majority of it has been known for hundreds of years. But I don’t believe there has ever before been a book as accessible to the average person. Misquoting Jesus is a brief and extremely illuminating book about the history of the New Testament and the problems with translation.

There are millions of people around the world – many of them right here in America – who believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, passed down through the centuries, inerrant, inviolable and constant. They live in willful denial of the plainly obvious fact that biblical text is historically inaccurate, occasionally immoral and sometimes even contradictory. It cannot, in any intellectual sense of the word, be interpreted “literally” unless one is willing to live in a permanent world of cognitive dissonance.

The first and most important thing for fundamentalist Christians to understand is that we do not have the original versions of ANY of the books of the New Testament. I don’t feel like typing that sentence over again for emphasis, so please just re-read it. I am not kidding. We don’t have ANY of them. The oldest existing manuscripts are copies of copies, 200 years or more older than the lost originals. And those manuscripts don’t agree.

Actually, if you add up all the existing ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, the differences between them quickly run up into the hundreds of thousands. Many of them are insignificant, obvious errors caused by the difficulties of hand transcription. But others pose very serious questions indeed.

Whenever the sacrament of communion is performed, a passage from the Gospel of Luke is read: “This is my body, which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ Likewise after supper He took the cup and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, given and shed for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’”

Ready for a surprise? None of the words following “This is my body” appear in any of the manuscripts judged by scholars to be the oldest and best. As an Episcopalian, I hear those words read aloud in church every Sunday. What are the implications for me if they weren’t originally part of the Gospel of Luke?

Ehrman details the arguments that many of Christianity’s most revered passages were added by later scribes, for a variety of possible reasons. The woman taken in adultery? Added later. Jesus sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane? Not original text. In fact, the entire book of I Timothy, one of the letters of Paul, most likely wasn’t written by Paul at all.

That leads us into a present-day controversy. Just this past week, the American Episcopal Church elected as its presiding bishop the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In response, the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, which does not support the ordination of women as priests -- let alone bishops -- wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican church’s global spiritual leader, and requested “alternative leadership.”

Presumably, their justification for opposing women as priests comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which says, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.”

Guess what? Textual evidence suggests this passage is not part of the original epistle. Moreover, this contradictory passage from Galatians probably is original. This is just a tiny sampling of the places where the modern “Bible” differs from the manuscripts judged to be the most authentic.

The potential repercussions of the Christian religion widely recognizing that the Bible is, as I put it earlier, an edited anthology of approved historical writings about God, are enormous.

Does the fact that the “do this for the remembrance of me” passage was not part of the first version of the Gospel – as far as we can tell! – mean that it wasn’t divinely inspired? Absolutely not.

But Christianity should be a religion of integrity, and we owe it to ourselves and to our God to stop pretending that the Bible is and always has been the inerrant “Word of God.” Whichever version you’re reading is inevitably different than the original texts. Over a period of nearly 20 centuries, scholars have had to make choices based on the evidence available – and sometimes their personal biases – about what the orthodoxy should be. The online concordance I like to use, Crosswalk, offers 29 different English translations of the Bible. The reason there are so many is that scholars do not agree on either how certain words from ancient, extinct languages should be translated or which existing manuscripts are the most authoritative. And that’s just English! The Bible has been translated into over 2,000 different languages.

Regarding the theory of evolution, supporters of Intelligent Design claim that they’re not suggesting we stop teaching evolution, merely that teachers be required to note that there is disagreement (grossly exaggerated, I must add) within the scientific community. “Teach the controversy!” they harmlessly recommend.

They should recommend the same for Bible study.


Lee Elliott said...

When I was a kid I found the bible to be a pretty dull read. Now as an adult I realize that if you follow the bible literally you might wind up arrested.

Perhaps its time toss out the whole thing and write a completely new bible. Since as you say the current bible bears little resemblance to the original, then a totally new one could be no less accurate than the one we're currently using.

I thought Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason" certainly did an excellent job of pointing out the inconsistencies within the text.

Some of the miracles in the bible make more sense if you attribute them to aliens from another planet. Ezekiel and his flying machine comes to mind.

Anyway, I've ear marked your site and look forward to more posts

Andy said...

Well, I hope I didn't come across as arguing that the Bible bears "little resemblance" to the original, because that certainly wasn't my intent. I don't think we should discount the Bible wholesale, either.

I still believe that the Bible is the best authority on God that we have, but we need to stop insisting that it's the inerrant, literal Word of God and acknowledge that it's only the best reconstruction we can make of a series of lost, ancient writings about God.

These possibly non-original passages that I have cited might still be divinely inspired, but Christians need to make an intellectual argument on their behalf instead of simply saying, "The Bible says so, period."

But I genuinely thank you for your comment and hope you'll visit again!

Jarred said...

This is a well written entry, Andy.

Unfortunately, I don't foresee people letting go of their attachment to Biblical literalism any time soon. After all, letting it go would, to paraphrase your own thoughts, completely shake the foundations of their faith. Actually, I think it would do more than that, because Biblical literalism has become the very foundation of their faith. This can be seen in their "all or nothing" paradigm. Either every last word of the Bible is literally true or none of it can be trusted at all. (Strangely, this seems to be the only document they apply this approach to.) Unfortunately, this makes for an extremely fragile faith, and it's no wonder how any dissenting point of view to even one point of their belief is often interpreted as a dangerous attack.

I hope that people eventually do find a way to move beyond Biblical literalism. But the pragmatist in me says that it will take a great many years (probably more than I have to spend on the earth this time around) and a high number of growing pains along the way. And let's face it, none of us like pain, so avoiding the growing pains is a very tempting reason for avoiding the growth.

kr pdx said...

'Can't say I'm sorry to see the "women must be quiet" passage questioned ;). Maybe I actually like Paul, just not his editors, then ...

Yet another book on my Must Read list. It sounds great :).

Andy said...

Maybe I actually like Paul, just not his editors

You know, I had exactly the same thought. I find portions of the book extremely repetitive; Ehrman has a tendency to continually remind us in the same language of the kinds of routine mistakes that are made in hand transcription. But it's a short book, an easy read, and contains some stuff I certainly didn't know, such as The King James Bible is an English translation from a Greek text...NOT an original Greek manuscript, but from a Greek translation of the Latin Vulgate. Hence, errors galore.

Andy said...

Jarred: I think you're right. It's threatening, even to me. If we can no longer be certain what the original words of the Gospel were, why believe any of it, as Lee suggests?

I think the answer is that intuitively we understand that portions of the Bible are absolutely right. Is the universal Christian community ever going to agree on every issue? No.

But why place so much emphasis on the original texts? Who knows, maybe Paul was wrong, maybe the later scribe was inspired by God to add the passage about women not speaking in church, and we should honor that.

The Bible is our best resource for knowing God. But worshipping the Bible as God itself, immortal and infallible, is idolatry.

This is not just crossing out Biblical passages willy nilly because we don't like them. This is sound, scientific, historical research suggesting that they aren't original texts. This provides us with both an opportunity and a duty to meditate on them and decide as a faith community whether we believe they reflect the will of God or the prejudices of an ancient culture.

Saying "I believe women should not be church leaders" is possibly defensible. Saying it's defensible "because the Bible says so, period" is not.

Jarred said...

On a semi-related topic, have you heard of...I believe it's called the Narrative Approach to Biblical Interpretation? A friend of mine who attended Asbury Seminary in Lexington Kentucky told me about it. It seems to me that its focus on approaching the Bible as whole in order to understand the character of God and the nature of His relationship with man -- rather than focusing on individual passages to "prove" specific doctrines -- would be a useful approach to dealing with this issue. Naturally, you still have to address specific passages and their meaning, but the Narrative Approach does seem to help mitigate the danger of "theological tunnel vision."

Jere said...

I've never understood Biblical literalism. Regardless of the details of their faith, I think everyone can agree that the books of the Bible were not originally written in English. That's a pretty common understanding, even among people who know nothing about religion; even people who might not make the connection in their minds that Jesus et al. did not speak English can plainly see the paragraphs of footnotes that appear in every edition of the Bible I've ever seen.

Any document that goes through the process of translation from one language to another loses something because no two languages have ever been precisely analogus in the history of the world. While a good translator will work hard to approximate the "feel" of the document in the original language, there will always be nuance, subtlety and meaning lost and/or changed somewhere along way.

That's not even getting into the debate of literal word-for-word transcription versus the attempt to recreate the rhythm and poetry of the original in the new language.

And that goes for translating the works of Moliere or Sophocles or Chekov or Yasmina Reza as well as ancient texts (although dead languages certainly present greater challenges than French or Russian).

So, from a completely faith-neutral point of view, how could the Bible possibly be the literal word of God? How could any seminary anywhere possibly teach that it is (if there are places that do)? And how could any trained pastor say that it is with a straight-face? And how could any congregant with a functioning brain simply accept that notion without question?

It's all a big mystery to me and one that I think must give Jesus a HUGE laugh (if He exists at all, of course).

Andy said...

Here's another problem with literal translation that most people don't know about. Ancient Greek did not utilize capital letters, punctuation or put spaces between words. Ehrman uses this example: ISAWABUNDANCEONTHETABLE

Now, which is it? Was there abundance on the table, or did you see a piece of bread doing a jig? So translators in many cases have to choose how to break up these sentences. All those numbered "verses" we are so familiar with were determined centuries after the original writing.

Jarred said...

Hey, who said it was a "bun" made of dough? ;)

Okay, back to being more serious. You make a good point. I knew that the Greek texts lacked capitals and punctuation. I didn't know about the lack of spaces. And of course, then you have the Hebrew texts which, as I've been told, originally lacked vowel markings. (Which is why there's still some debate whether "YHWH" should be pronounced "Jehova" or "Yahweh," or whether both pronunciations are in fact wrong.

Andy said...

Jarred, you're absolutely right with your bun comment! There's also the problem presented by homonyms: maybe it was a dancing hair extension. Also, meanings of words change with time: saying someone is "a very gay fellow" in the 1880's meant something different than it does in 2006. And then we have all the problems of transcription that Ehrman notes. Let's say a scribe screwed up just one letter: ISAWABINDANCEONTHETABLE. Today you'd have people screaming in red-faced certainty that the Bible proclaims that containers danced on tabletops in ancient days at the command of the Lord, when in fact the original phrase was meant to indicate that there was a lot of food on the tabletop. We can laugh, but unfortunately these difficulties present SERIOUS issues for understanding Biblical meanings.

little-cicero said...

A few clarifying questions:

Do you doubt the Torah and the Gospels as well as the minor works of the Bible?

Would you consent to regions in which corroborating evidence has been submitted: If a fact is repeated in several gospels or other works, do you accept it as...well, "Gospel".

On that last one, if you look at the Last Supper as described in the Bible,

Mark : This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Verily I say unto you, I shall no more drink of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Luke: Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.

Matthew: Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins. But I say unto you, I shall not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.

WHERE'S THE CONFLICT! If all of three Gospel accounts covering the Last Supper said "this is" then why should there be doubt that Jesus said "this is"? To me it doesn't matter what the manuscripts of that Gospel say because of this. The pronouns could simply have been lost in translation. Since there is no reason the words would be forged intentionally as in some conspiracy of Dan Brownesque proportions, why should the words be doubted?

Andy said...

Little Cicero, why don't you read the book?

And, um, you have missed THE ENTIRE POINT OF THIS BLOG.

Those texts you are citing, the "Gospels," are NOT THE ORIGINAL TEXTS. They have been pieced together based on analysis of hundreds of conflicting manuscripts. Much of what is contained in your Bible cannot be traced back to the earliest available versions of these texts.

Does that not concern you a bit?

little-cicero said...

Of course it concerns me, particularly where conflict of interest may exist, but what I'm saying is that when two gospels attest to the same thing having happened or been said, doubt should be significantly decreased.

Oh, and I would love to read this book as I would love to read most books, but my "Must Read List" is too long as it is to read this book, especially since I'm a slow reader.

Andy said...

two gospels attest to the same thing having happened or been said

Well, you need to read this book.

Andy said...

Let me suggest this to you, LC: the original Gospels did NOT agree. Subsequent versions of them were modified so that they were more in agreement. This is evident from the historical progression of the various available manuscripts.

kr pdx said...

King James Bible misc.: the translators were also charged with making the new English text beautiful to read and hear, as I recall ... direct scholarly translation, the way we understand it, wasn't even the focus ... they plaed a much higher value on poetry and language at the time.

Narrative approach: a very interesting book: God: A Biography, by some former Catholic something ... Jesuit priest maybe? It's OT only and has its flaws, but it's a good lever out of myopic verse-by-verse thinking.

LC: even without historical manuscript analysis, previous centuries have posited that there was a missing Gospel ("Q") consisting only of the sayings of Jesus, from which the others may have copied, or that more or less complete circulating versions of The Gospel of Mark may have affected Luke and Matthew (both later writers, even according to just tradition, and both obviously did some research--eg., Luke seems to have interviewed Mary). The Gospels agreeing on phraseology could easily spring from either source, even if one prefers not to believe in purposeful editting in later centuries.

little-cicero said...

"Subsequent versions of them were modified so that they were more in agreement. "

Logically this doesn't seem likely, since there are differences between the specific words documented in each Gospel. If an attempt to create corroboration was taking place, they would have done it right- they would copy the original words from the original manuscript. I think the insignificant differences in phrasing and wording between the three Gospels is encouraging for this reason.

Andy said...

Little Cicero, read the book. You CANNOT look at modern versions of the Gospel and justify them by comparing them with each other. You're missing the ENTIRE point. Some manuscripts of Mark say this, some manuscripts of Mark say that, some don't mention it at all.

The point is, there is no "one" authoritative version of ANY of the books of the New Testament. Not a one. And we need to know that.

That doesn't invalidate them, but as I said in this post, we owe it to ourselves and our God to be honest about the history of how the Bible was assembled.

I HIGHLY recommend you read this book. It's short and easy.

kr pdx said...

If God is Truth, what need have we to fear the truth?

Read the book. However important all of your other reading is, this book touches on your faith, which is what you fall back on when you don't have worldly information with which to argue. Until you have a better grasp of the text issues surrounding the Bible, people will easily be able to write off anything you say about the Bible with a simple, "you're ignorant."

I have several text-analysis books, which disagree between themselves on all sorts of things ... but my first was the Bible I got for First Communion at six (NAV translation), which has in its own footnotes information about some of the more disputed passages and translations, and even brackets some "probably added by an editor" passages. Besides the text-analysis books, I own four different English translations of the Bible, my husband has one more ...

You have an observably hard time accepting that people (especially people who call themselves Christians) question the Bible's moral authority ... analysis of the available historical texts is the most objective of the sources for such ... objections ... (ouch, that was a painful language juxtapostion, sorry), followed by the somewhat more subjective anthropological/historical analyses that can inform interpretation. Modern cultural tastes and philosophies are not the only source for naysayers and doubters. It might give you a clearer eye in your moral arguments if you can at least begin to admit that doubting the Bible's authority is reasonable. Not that it is necessarily logically "correct," but that it is necessarily logically "reasonable." Then your pro-Biblical morality arguments can speak more of reason and less of reaction.

Which doesn't guarantee they will be right :). Just that they will be more pertinent/useful/readable for everyone else.

Andy said...

Phew, I was hoping KR would step in there. I couldn't articulate it remotely that well.

kr pdx said...

Thanks :)!

little-cicero said...

Honestly, it may be best for me to simply avoid this controversy for the time being and read the Bible in its entirety. I'm not going to read the book you've prescribed until I've done so.

Andy said...

No, no, no, no, NO. A thousand times NO.

One doesn't read Animal Farm first and then start learning about Communism. Please, do yourself an ENORMOUS favor and read this book first. It will give you a greater appreciation for and understanding of the Bible.

If you want to be a thinking Christian -- and I should hope you do -- you need to understand how the Bible was assembled. You simply cannot rely on any modern version of it and come to the conclusion you've read something definitive. You just can't take everything that's in the "Bible" at face value. Please give yourself a nice background of historical and academic context.

This will strengthen your faith, not undermine it. Well, it may undermine much of what you presently believe. But you need to embrace Christianity's historical truths -- some of which are uncomfortable -- as well as its doctrines.

kr pdx said...

I'm less "no" than Andy, and I have to admit that my "no" is somewhat selfish: I am tired, LC, of watching you dig your own rhetorical grave every time a moral question comes up that you have no basic answer for except "God said so." It is SO EASY for others to pick apart the thesis that "God Said" any specific thing in the Bible; you have no foundation for your arguments at all until you can speak to that at least minimally.

Less self-interestedly: Andy, he deserves to have a chance to see what he can make of it first, if that's the way he prefers to approach the problem. (I, like you, prefer a little context before I dig into something heavy.)

And LC, seriously, unless you are new to the Church, haven't you heard more or less most of the Bible by going to mass? I know a lot of it is only read at the daily masses ... but if you follow the readings every day you hear the bible every three years. Even if you only hear Sundays, I am sure you have enough of the Bible to begin to consider some of the Biblical analysis books out there, and this book sounds like a short and easy way to begin to gain traction in your Biblical discussions here. You can choose some other if you prefer not to trust Andy's judgement ... I'm sure's staff can point you in the direction of a Catholic-friendly text-history (one that doesn't accuse the Church of deliberately changing the texts, for instance, but still discusses the discrepancies that exist) or some other pertinent resources.

Andy said...

Why shouldn't the church be accused of deliberately changing texts? Because, that is almost certainly what they did in several places. You well know that early Christians were not monolithic in their beliefs, and there is ample evidence to support a hypothesis, if inconclusively, that the dominant sect that became the Catholic church reworded certain Scriptural passages to support their doctrine vs that of, say, the Gnostics or the Adoptionists.

I see your point in your comments to LC, but I still emphatically suggest he read this book (or one like it -- I like this one because aside from enlightening us to historical research there is no religious agenda -- because he still insists on believing the modern Bible can be read as the literal Word of God and that modern Biblical texts are the same today as they were in the time of Paul. They're not. Clearly.

The changes that were made are still theologically defensible. But LC needs to learn and learn NOW that "the Bible says so" is not an intellectually or theologically sound argument.

kr pdx said...

ah, worded that wrong, sorry
some "text analyses" I have read are focused primarily at discrediting the Church; the entire point of the work is to "accuse the Church"
those are the ones it might be easier if LC avoided for the moment at least
thanks for catching that

it's certainly part of the historical record that the Church had to (prayerfully) choose between differing scriptures and differing versions of the scriptures at LEAST up until the Canon was settled (what, 300 or 400 years CE?), although I would hope they didn't just create stuff wholesale through any purposeful or official route. (I expect some stuff was copied in less-officially: someone wrote a margin note, the next guy put it in as a parenthetical remark, the next guy removes the parentheses ... not that they used parentheses, but that concept, I mean). Although of course it could be argued that Catholics created the entire New Testament from scratch--tee hee ;)!

Anyhow, dealing with text and interpretive discrepancies is why we started having global Councils, so it would be silly to deny there had been some--and serious enough to require bishops and theologians to travel to one place to hash them out.

Andy said...

Anyhow, dealing with text and interpretive discrepancies is why we started having global Councils, so it would be silly to deny there had been some

Agreed, but many people do deny it, out of pure ignorance. Misquoting Jesus has a good chapter on how some texts were deliberately changed, sometimes as simply as altering one word in a verse that had given rise to a variant interpretation that they regarded as heretical. And again, I concede that this was done prayerfully, not arbitrarily, but we must all allow that it was, in fact, done.

kr pdx said...


little-cicero said...

Sorry, I thought this thread was over!

I'm going to try and put as much of a dent in the Bible as possible this summer. We do hear a lot of scattered verses in church, but a combination of bad speaking skills, broken English and a horrible speaker system causes me to miss about a third of the readings. That's the price that comes with going to an Italian church. :)

I appreciate your advice, but no thanks! I have my priorities listed and this book IS on the list.

kr pdx said...