Old Time Religion

I've been reading the bible.

Well, mostly I've been reading about the bible.

Well, mostly I've been reading about the process which led to the complilation of the book whose name just means "The Books".

But here's a thought. When reading the new testament in the original (or is it?) greek, the question is usually: What does this word mean in this context, and how does it affect the general message?

When you look at the old testament in hebrew, it's more often: What should this word be, once you put in the vowels and decide where the word and sentence boundaries are?

If you look at the quran in arabic, the question is: Where are the words?

By analogy, here's something in english:

This is the house that jack built. It is a very fine house.
Take out the spaces and punctuation, and you've got something like the greek new testament situation:

Now take out the vowels, and we're in old testament terriatory:

And now, remember that ancient arabic had a highly ambiguous alphabet, where one symbol could refer to three or four consonants:

Your challenge Mr Phelps, should you chose to accept it, is to take this stream of consonants, and turn it into a grammatically correct set of one or more sentences. And they've got to match the theology of your ruling sect at the time.

Oh, and although you're not supposed to admit it, you know it was written in many dialects by many amenuenses, some of them barely literate, who inevitably made mistakes even if they weren't, and some of who weren't above a little creative fraud.

So it's no accident that large sections of the quran are gibberish, and the best interpreters can do is make almost-grammatical word-salad...and then try to interpret it as pointlessly convoluted metaphor. Actually, each clause is several dozen pointlessly convoluted metaphors, because you've got a lot of doctrine to justify, and not much text.

But our muslim friends do have one advantage: There's only one version of the quran. Somewhere between 650 and 700CE (depending who you ask), the caliph Uthman compiled all the surviving scriptural fragment which were politically useful to him...and had all the others destroyed.

Compare with the new testament situation, where we have between 5,500 and 5,800 hand-copied fragments. A few are complete copies, some are entire letters or gospels, and most are bits of scrolls with holes in them.

And no two copies of the same text exactly agree.

There are about 400,000 textual variations. 99% are spelling differnces, slight paraphrases...or in some cases entire missing sentences left out by sleepy scribes. Of the remainder, 99% constitute minor doctrinal variations. Which means a few constitute major doctrinal variations.

Things like: Is there one god, two, three or thirty? Was Jesus a flesh-and-blood man, or a holy hologram? Is he the adoped son of god, or a "real" one, whatever that might mean? Is there a hell? And if there is, can we be saved by faith alone or by good works? Can women preach?

Is the afterlife an eternity playing a harp on a cloud telling god how wonderful he is? Or is your soul put into cold storage (purgatory?) until the end of the world, after which you get a new, perfect physical body on a new, perfect earth? The book of revelation says the latter.

If you're a non-jew converting to christianity, do you need to avoid bacon sandwiches and mutilate your genitals? Speaking of which, would you be closer to god if you cut them off entirely? On the other hand, should you seek out every experience god has made available to you?

Is now a good time to mention that at least six of Paul's thirteen epistles are almost-definite forgeries?

Surely though, if you go back to the earliest versions, that should tell you what the original writers really said. Good luck. In the first 1000 years, there are about 300 fragments. In the first 200, a grand total of four. And in the first century...exactly zero.

Oh, and the earlier you go, the more variation there is. Apologists acknowledge this and like to claim the original inspired wording must be scattered among the variations because...actually they don't give a reason.

The odd thing is, all of this is mainstream in the world of biblical scholarship. Which is composed mainly of committed believers. So, before you start to study a subject, expect to find two things. First, everything the general public know is wrong. Second, an expert is someone who knows what's almost certainly not true, not someone who's absolutely confident what is.

1 comment:

  1. I've read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation when I was 12. It was a right of passage with my mother; her side of the family is made up of pastors, missionaries, deacons, some nuns and priests over on the Catholic side, and ministers and bishops scattered throughout.

    We were a heavy mix of Congregationalists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and other smidgeons of Protestants. But we also had Catholics, Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, and Unitarians and a few Baptists. We're all praying to the same God, as it was commonly said in my mother's family. When you turned 12, you get a Bible as a gift.

    And every one of my siblings (and a few nieces and nephews after me), spent the summer reading the Bible with my mom from cover to cover. Granted, some passages were confusing and the euphemisms about sex were totally lost on me. But I did gain an appreciation for the variety of (conflicting yet) compelling stories collected in the Bible. And it was interesting to learn how the Catholic Bible was different from the Protestant Bible, and it was interesting how the varying sects had different versions of the Bible.

    My mother said that it was the spirit of the Bible, the ideas that Jesus expressed about treating others the way you want to be treated and loving thy neighbor that was the most important message of the Bible.

    My favorite books are Genesis, the creation, and the finding clues about Lilith, Adam's first wife and the subsequent creation of Eve. It's fascinating how there are two creation stories regarding humans in Genesis. And what about the Flood, the retelling of an ancient Gilgamesh epic? I also love the battles the wandering Israelites wage upon the Canaanites and other enemies. And I love the epic of Revelations, apocalyptic end of days battle with beasts and dragons and warriors and the dead rising! Zombies!

    I love reading the various new material long buried by the old Church fathers in their efforts to consolidate power and eliminate other early Christian sects they didn't agree with. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the gospels of Mary Magdalene and other Apostles found after eons of burial all make fascinating and wonderful reading, as it reveals the dynamic and passionate and interesting ideas and beliefs that the early Christians debated regarding God and Jesus and the meaning of life (and the afterlife)!

    I think you make an excellent point about Bible experts. Most are believers; and most often have to struggle balancing science with faith.