Christianity is, and always has been, a religion of the book. The 66 books which comprise the modern Bible contain the stories, prophecies, actions, and acts of the characters on which the Christian faith is built. From Adam to Abraham, Moses to Jesus – they are all contained in those 823,156 words.
Like every other book in history, the Bible is made up from words. All the beliefs, tenants, rituals, policies, proclamations, and prophecies are all derived from the individual words. It is therefore vitally important that we know what the words ARE to ascertain their correct meaning and interpretation.
Some religionists attempt to evade scripture altogether by claiming the Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ. In my opinion, this is an egregious error as it ignores the origins of the character in the first instance – the Bible. To claim that humanity innately feels the presence of the “holy spirit” and acts accordingly completely deprecates the book. It reduces the faith to human instincts and constructs alone – effectively transforming Christianity into pure Humanism. So the book is of ultimate importance to the Christian faith, even if some wish it were not.
But what if God did not say it? What if the words used in modern Bibles are completely different to the original authors words, and as such carry entirely different meanings in completely different contexts? What if modern versions completely omit critical aspects of the story? What effect does this have to the stories contained in the Bible and there reported historical accuracy? What if Jesus never said the words or performed the feats attributed to him according to the book?
Think of how many sermons have hinged on the meaning of a single word in scripture? What happens if this word never occurred in the original writings and therefore cannot have been the intended meaning of the original authors?
Many people believe the Bible to be the perfect word of God. Other think the words are divinely inspired, or convey many deep layers of meaning, understanding, purpose, direction, and instruction. Many believe the words contained in the 66 books which comprising the modern canon are inspirational, and provide a perfect guide on how to live morally. These rules cover everything from what you should eat or abstain from, what you can wear, who you can sleep with and how, which days of the week you can work and what you should do or not do on that day, how you should treat others, and who to condemn, vilify, and discriminate against. Almost every aspect of life is covered and often harsh penalties are applied to those who break divine rules, lest they place the entire society in jeopardy one assumes. The fact most modern versions of Christianity fail adhere to many of these proclamations is as irrelevant as it is perplexing.
Since the components of books are words, and given different words convey different meanings, it is of prime importance that we know what those words are. For how can we know what the original authors meant if we do not know what they said? But given the history of the Biblical text, it is far from certain what the original words of the Bible actually are, and therefore what the authors might have intended to convey.
The problem is only compounded if we assume the original authors were eye witnesses of guided by the holy hand of God. If this is the case, knowing what the original words are must be the most important endeavour of all humanity.
Biblical scholars date the gospels to within 30 to 60 years of the supposed events they describe, and even these early accounts vary wildly in their detail. The oldest manuscripts we have are written in Greek, which seems usual since the inhabitants of Israel probably did not *speak* Greek, rather Aramaic. Nevertheless, we can always assume they spoke Greek – it matters not. What matters is what the earliest copies of the texts say, and what they could possibly mean.
Overlay the high probability that many people of the time were incapable writing anything, including their own name, and you are left with a very intriguing situation. Indeed, many of Jesus’s disciples were simple fishermen and labourers, who were unlikely to be highly educated, even for their time – a point to which I will return shortly. So given many people of the times were largely illiterate, how did the stories of the Bible pass from to those who recorded the oldest known manuscripts we have? The answer is – word of mouth.
One person tells another of a story he heard and converts them to the burgeoning new faith. They, in turn, tell another who in turn relays this incredible story to others in the hope of converting and saving their eternal souls. Thus the religion spreads like a noxious weed over antiquity.
Astute viewers will notice an obvious potential for error here. As the story is heard, interpreted, and relayed to others it is open to embellishments, exaggerations, and alterations – all in the name of good story telling, of course. It seems some sections of society consider fantastic stories more plausible due to exactly that fact. We often hear how Jesus must have been Lord, lunatic, or liar due to the fantastic claims he made (although we should not limit ourselves to those options, since Jesus may have been a legend, for example).
As the story wonders through an unknown number of minds it morphs and evolves. The factual truth withers and dies as it competes with more successful memes in this cerebral (indeed celestial) game of Chinese whispers.
At this point I should address a concern which may be raised. The gospels are universally referenced as “the gospel according to Mark”, or “according to Luke”. They are not “the gospels OF Mark” or “BY Luke”, which is an indication that Mark or Luke did not write the original words (whatever they were), but whoever wrote the book or told the story attributed it to one of these characters. Either the authors were told the stories by possibly illiterate “eye witnesses”, or, more likely, by one of the many people who relayed the stories via word of mouth until they reached the ears of a scribe.
Reach for the New English translation of the Bible and the Biblical scholars frankly concede they have no idea who Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John actually were. It is well known that these names were later attributed to the various version of the accounts. We do not know the names of the original authors of these stories. We do not know if there even were original authors, such is the way of urban myths.
Eventually the stories were recorded by scribes, either because they were “professionals” or had been instructed by another party to perform the task. Each author records their version of events, possibly embellishing along the way themselves, or accidentally introducing errors in the text through sloppy workmanship.
To promulgate the book, publishers did not have the technology we have today. The medium of the time was papyrus (a crude paper made from reeds) and more scribes. Papyrus does not last very long – especially when handled frequently and travelling far as holy texts would. These books would require frequent replacement due to wear and tear, and another round of scribes would intervene.
Papyrus scrolls are also impossible to produce in bulk - they must be copied letter by letter, word by word, line by line, page by page. A painstaking slow, monotonous, and mind numbing task. Initially such tasks may have been performed by anyone who had the time and the basic skills required. Many times scribes were just housekeepers or slaves who, when all their other tasks had been completed, copied the symbols as they appeared on the page – probably without any idea what the words actually said, let alone meant.
It must be said that the definition of “literate” is a tricky one. It does not necessity mean being able to read and write, for example. There is strong evidence to suggest that in many instances “literate” simply meant being able to wield a quill with sufficient skill to copy symbols. In other cases one was considered literate if you could sign your own name – or at least a scrawl a symbol that represented your name. Again, this does not imply that you are able to interpret the characters, or at least anything beyond those that appear in your title.
Soon amateur scribes were replaced by “professionals”, at least professional in the sense that they primarily earned their living by copying texts. Again, that is not to say that these people knew what they were writing either, and there is clear evidence to suggest that some certainly did not. An early professional scribe was merely someone of sufficient skill fulfilling a need in society.
Take, for example, Petaus who lived around 184 CE and was employed as a professional scribe. We have a copy of Petaus writings where he seems to be practicing the phrase:
“I Petaus, the village scribe, have submitted this.”
On the page appears 12 copies, but he made an error on the fifth attempt. This in itself it not disastrous, but repeating the error the remaining 7 times is unforgivable – especially considering he was the village scribe! If we count Petaus among the “literate”, how many people could actually read texts and make sense of what they said?
Even the most faithful scribes might attempt to copy the texts exactly as they have received them; letter by letter, word by word, line by line, page by page, but differences between the source text and the copy would occur. Sometimes deliberate changes were made to correct spelling errors, confusing word order, or more seriously clarify meanings. Other times new passages were adding to “help clarify” the text, clear up some contentious area of theology, or to correct other obvious “errors” in earlier copies.
Others still attempted translations other languages (a task requiring considerable skill even today). Such feats require a deep understanding of at least two languages including their written word, grammar, structure, and interpretations to achieve successfully. The opportunity for error between languages is large but not impossible to overcome in most cases. Although this thinking probably fuels Islam’s instance that the Koran must be read in its native tongue (for reasons never fully explained). Why an all knowing and all powerful deity would insist of his creation learning a single language to understand and interpret his word is inexplicable. Indeed, this is the main argument Thomas Paine made in his book “The Age of Reason”.
If this sounds confusing, then you may see why scribes altered the texts to make better sense of them. Obvious discrepancies between the various accounts, the authors own personal opinions on Jesus, and his theology all resulted in changes. What we are left with are the remnants of all these changes, and it still is a confused mess of obvious contradictions.
A rule of thumb used in textual criticism states that the more problematic and difficult versions of the texts probably more accurately represent the writings of the original authors. The assumption is that alterations are made to simplify the understanding of the story, not to complicate them. So the question that must be asked when presented with competing version of a text is “Does it make more sense to add these passages, or remove them? Is this portrayal of Jesus more cohesive, or less?”
Changes to the words of the text change the meaning. Again, we cannot interpret the words of the Bible are unless we know what those words actually were. And since we do not have the original words, we cannot know what they were, or what they meant.
This process of continual copying, interpretation, and alteration would continue until German Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, although it took a further 60 years for the machines to spread across Europe.
After the printing press things became somewhat simpler. Today we are accustomed to seeing hundreds of seemingly identical books lining the shelves of local stores that we hardly give much consideration as to what it might have been like before its invention. Any book selected from the shelf of your local bookstore will be functionally identical to other copies of the same book. All will contain the same words, in the same order, on the same pages. This was not the case in the formation of the Biblical texts.
At the onset of the printing press books were a very expensive exercise and only those with the means could produce volumes of any significance. The machines were specialist, bulky, and slow. And we have not yet dispensed with the issue of rival versions of the texts.
Source texts would be obtained, interpreted, and copied ready for the printing press. Authors would mistakenly miss letters, words, or entire lines by accident. Sometimes they would copy margin notes mistakenly thinking they should be part of the original text, or because the notes clarified some crucial point within the narrative. Sometimes authors noticed obvious contradictions and attempted to correct them. Sometimes, due to political reasons or personal bias, authors might change the texts to more closely align with their predetermined theology. In some cases theology was revised to explicitly exclude revival denominations from gaining a foothold, or to persecute them into oblivion. Whatever the reason, the texts were changed, and slowly and inevitably moved further away from the original authors.
For example, early copies of the texts are missing crucial portions of the Jesus narrative. The story of Jesus forgiving an adulterer in John 8:3-11 is not in any early text. Is Jesus compassionate or angry when he is asked to heal a leaper in Mark 1:41. Which is it, because it makes a huge difference in the interpretations of the narrative. What did Jesus say right before he “gave up the ghost”? How many women went to the tomb? When did they go? How many men and/or angels meet them? Was there a second Earthquake which opened the tomb for them, or did they roll it away, or was it already done when they got there? Is the number of the devil 666, or had some early scribe mistakenly copied 616? Such errors have massive impacts on the beliefs of some Christians.
For centuries the texts continued to be read, interpreted, revised, corrected, translated, and printed until today we see the plethora of Biblical texts.
The New International version, the New American Standard Bible, The Message Bible, the Amplified Bible, the English Standard version, the Contemporary English version, the King James version, the New King James version, the 21st Century King James version, the New Century version, the American Standard version, the Young’s Literal translation, the Darby translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New International Readers version, the Wycliffe New Testament, the Worldwide English version, the New International version, and Today’s New International version are all competing for the crown of the “one true version” – and they are JUST the English translations of the Bible!
For those who think the King James version was “good enough for Jesus”, then I suggest you watch DPRJones’s video on it’s creation.
So what do we end up with?
The Bible was written by unknown authors who received the text via word of mouth, and whose texts were read, interpreted, changed, edited, revised, translated, and republished innumerable times by anonymous people with varying skills, political persuasions, theological positions, and personal opinions, over 200 decades. In short – it’s a total mess.
The Bible has changed so many times it is highly unlikely any of the original words survive. And we CANNOT know what the original words MEAN if we don’t know what the words ARE. Consequently, the entire ivory tower of Christianity falls since it’s built upon sand.
“And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand” – Matthew 7:26
I highly recommend reading Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus”, which was the inspiration behind this short essay.