The word of God.

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

Note

I highly recommend reading Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus”, which was the inspiration behind this short essay.

Posted May 4, 2010
Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • mare vaporium

    Is it so wrong of me that I am seriously considering making my (christian) mother watch these videos?

    • askegg

      No – I think that's the entire idea :)

  • ladystardust

    fuck god , there is none period

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/askegg askegg

      Sigh. I guess you have already read the comments here explaining why you cannot make such a claim, but I agree there is no reason to suspect there is a god.

      None. Zilch. Not a fucking thing.

      Of course, people like you will reject such arguments because you're know it all assholes.

  • AndrewFinden

    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.

    The reality is that as popular as this kind of arugment is on the internet, it remains at the fringe of real mainstream scholarship. The reality is that the vast majority of the textual variants are as insiginificant as the spelling mistakes in this paragraph – no major, core claim or doctrine is effected. Further, because there are so many extant manuscripts (far more than any other ancient document – if you want to be consistent with your reasoning you will be forced to say that we don't know anything that was written in antiquity, which is truly and absurd position) such variants can generally be figured out, to the point that the we can be sure of over 90% of the biblical text. Also, you fail to recognise the significance of Oral tradition – a case of chronological and cultural snobbery – just because we live in a literary tradition culture, does not mean that a culture who trusted oral tradition over the written is somehow less valid or unreliable. On the contrary, when a culture is well practised at oral tradition it becomes much more reliable than it would in a culture where it is not practised, such as ours.

    At least you acknowledge that you've just rehashed Ehrman's popular, but oft criticised methodology (he really does overplay his hand significantly – interesting too that he doesn't have much in the way of peer edited commentaries to his name, he just went straight for the big bucks of sensationalist publishing.. for what that's worth). The funniest thing, is that when Ehrman's methodology is applied to his own book, we see that there are millions of variants.. so we should probably just throw it out too, right? http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/11/bart-eh
    http://mmcelhaney.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-ehrma

    • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/madmanwoo Nathan

      Andrew the difference between Ehrmans book and the bible is he doesn't claim anything supernatural. We can't be 100% sure that anything in history happened the way people said it did, due to errors and poor records but nothing else in history claims to do things that don't happen in normal life,. How many people do you know that have risen from the dead, what about walked on water, turned water in wine, healed sick etc etc.

      My arguments are not that the text is dodgy (which it is) but the claims that it makes are extraordinary and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and some crappy book that has been changed over and over again written by people years after the fact is not extraordinary evidence.

      • AndrewFinden

        Hi Nathan,

        Personally, I don't buy Hume's axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. His argument against miracles has, to my mind, been shown to be deficient, and would justify a person on a remote pacific island rejecting the concept of snow, for example. All claims, no matter what, require persuasive evidence, and sometimes there just isn't going to be evidence that will persuade everyone, regardless of their philosophical assumptions.

        I agree that we can't be 100% sure of anything in history, however, my personal experience is moot when speaking of a unique event that is said to have happened several millenia ago. It is the reason why there are historical criteria. The biggest issue at play here really is philosophical assumptions. If one is a philosophical naturalist, it often becomes circular.

        It's worth noting that 'the bible' isn't a book, but collection of many different document, by different authors, in different styles and genres over a long period of time. The collation of them into a single volume in the C4th or so is rather irrelevant. The documents in question re: Ehrman and Jesus are of course, the NT documents – primarily the synoptics and Pauline epistles, and when one looks comparatively with other ancient documents of that era, the time frame is well within acceptable periods (the creed in 1 Cor 15 for example, can be reliably traced to within 5 years!), so the 'years after the fact' argument is pretty weak. Further, as I've pointed out, the extant manuscripts are considerably better for the NT documents – literally thousands more than most other documents, meaning the variants can be generally eliminated. The claim that is has been 'changed over and over again' really has little merit and as I said, is for the most part, spelling errors and the like, and not wholesale insertion of supernatural claims as you seem to imply. Certainly, no core doctrine is effected, even with the ending of Mark taken out. That Ehrman's book doesn't make supernatural claims is beside the point – his argument is that we can't know what was written because of all the errors – and the methodolgy applied to his book shows a considerable number of errors, so we could rightly say that we don't know what he originally wrote either.. Of course, the point is to show how misguided his methodology is!

        • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/madmanwoo Nathan

          "Personally, I don't buy Hume's axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

          Well now I know why your believe what you do, the line you draw between normally events and extraordinary ones is no existent. Again I ask you, how many people have you seen risen from the dead? If I said I died and then had come back, what would you say? Is me not coming from the dead extraordinary? What kind of evidence would you need to prove that I had died and came back? Would a simple hearsay from someone be enough for you?

          Whether the bible is one book or a collection of writings is irrelevant, it is the claims they make, which have no evidence. I have plenty of books around my house that are a collection of writings all based around the same events from different people point of view, the places they are set do exists in real life but the stories are extraordinary and have no evidence to support them so they are just fiction, the same as the bible.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/AndrewFinden AndrewFinden

            I believe what I do because it is the best explanation of the historical data, because of philosophical reasoning, and because my own experience corroborates both of those for me (I realise that personal experience is not going to be persuasive to anyone else, but I think we all base our beliefs on personal experience to some degree or another).

            Who gets to draw the line at what is 'extraordinary' though? It's completely arbitrary. Of course, certain things will have greater evidence or reason weighing against them – for example, claiming to buy a matchbox ferrari for my nephew is entirely more plausible than saying a bought a real ferrari for him, for any number of reasons. What this means though, is that our philosophical assumptions will weigh differently for or against different ideas. It seems implausible that I'd buy a Ferrari for my nephew as you've probably assumed I don't have that much money, were I a Saudi businessman, you might assume it to be more plausible. So too, here, our assumptions about the universe and reality and so forth will bear on what we regard as extraordinary. In any case, the argument and evidence still needs to be persuasive, and if you want to say that in some 'extraordniary' cases it takes more to be persuaded, then that's fine.

            Again I ask you, how many people have you seen risen from the dead?

            What I personally have seen is irrelevant. I never saw Caesar cross the Rubicon either.

            If I said I died and then had come back, what would you say? Is me not coming from the dead extraordinary? What kind of evidence would you need to prove that I had died and came back? Would a simple hearsay from someone be enough for you?

            Well, I would need reliable evidence that you were dead, and now aren't. Basically, I'd need to see the known data and then look for the explanation that best accounts for it all.
            Please don't think my belief in Jesus' resurrection is simply 'it says it, must be true…'. That would be a strawman to argue that.

            Whether the bible is one book or a collection of writings is irrelevant, it is the claims they make, which have no evidence.

            From a literary analysis and source document point of view, it is very important to make that distinction. You wouldn't take articles from different authors in the same journal to be a single source.
            I disagree that there is no evidence for the resurrection – that you don't find it persuasive doesn't render it non-existent. Despite what you might read on anti-theist blogs, explaining how the church even got going, how this unlikely claim came about and survived and thrived is still a very real and perplexing question for historians.

            the stories are extraordinary and have no evidence to support them so they are just fiction, the same as the bible.

            That's actually a non-sequitur fallacy. Lack of evidence does not necessarily make an historical claim untrue, it just makes it unknowable.
            The problem with saying 'the bible is fiction' is that it can be a confusing thing to say. I understand that you wish to say that you don't accept its claims as true, but that of course doesn't mean it is of the genre of fiction, nor does it mean that there isn't a reliable historical core in the NT documents – there is. You might not accept the historicity of the resurrection, but that doesn't make 'The Bible' wholesale fiction, and many historians who likewise reject the resurrection still acknowledge an historical core in the NT documents.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/askegg askegg

          Andrew,

          Inhabitants of remote Pacific islands might indeed find the idea of frozen water falling from the ground extraordinary. However, we can provide (in their eyes) extraordinary evidence. We can show them pictures of frozen wastelands, or demonstrate water turning to ice. We can even put them on a boat and sail them to Antarctica to witness snow for themselves. This would all constitute extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claim in their eyes.

          Reality is like that. We can share it, demonstrate it to each other, test it, observe it, and experiment with it. Fanciful ideas within one's own head do not qualify as evidence for this reason.

          It's interesting to note your comment about the Bible being a collection of books from different authors, locations, eras, and languages. Given your previous comment regarding uncertainty of historical events, we can safely discard repeats of biblical stories on the same grounds.

          All retellings of the original stories rely on previous tellings. They are dependent and necessarily derivative. Only the original writings could ever be considered "eye witness" accounts, and as such the most accurate records of events (not withstand just how bad eye witness testimony can be).

          Many stories passed down through history are not considered fact anymore. I am sure "Homer Odyssey" might have been considered fact by some people, but like so many other stories it is now considered myth. When you understand why you discount other extant religious claims, you might understand why I and others approach yours with scepticism.

          Lastly, Ehrman is conveying ideas not purported historical facts. Rewording of texts to better convey the central ideas does not change the idea, just as rewording historical records does not change historical facts. I will gladly accept ideas (however worded) that stand logical criticism, and discard ideas which do not. I expect the same for historical accounts.

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/AndrewFinden AndrewFinden

            Of course, you've had to alter the analogy and introduce a whole heap of things in order to sustain it – the issue is eyewitness testimony (at least, that's what Hume was talking about), and so by that logic, no amount of eyewitness testimony would be sufficient to convince the islanders that snow exists, which is where the argument falls. Even one prominent atheist Philosopher (Earman.. let's not get confused!) has written a book called 'Hume's abject failure' on this very argument.

            It's interesting to note your comment about the Bible being a collection of books from different authors, locations, eras, and languages. Given your previous comment regarding uncertainty of historical events, we can safely discard repeats of biblical stories on the same grounds.

            I don't quite follow your argument here.
            Multiple attestation is when the sources are reliant upon eachother – now it's true that some parts of Luke and Matthew rely on Mark, but even if we consider them one source, Paul is still independant, not to mention the non-canonical sources. I know it's popular on the internet to try and make them all one source, but that's not how the historians work.

            Many stories passed down through history are not considered fact anymore. I am sure "Homer Odyssey" might have been considered fact by some people, but like so many other stories it is now considered myth.

            Not a good comparison. The Odyssey, like the Illiad is an epic poem and has always been considered so. Paul's epistles are just that, and the synoptics are a type of biography.
            Do you regard Seutonius as myth, just because it's old and perhaps has things that might not gel with your philosophical assumptions?

            When you understand why you discount other extant religious claims, you might understand why I and others approach yours with scepticism.

            I understand why you approach it with scepticism. I also understand very well why I accept this claim but not others, and it is not arbitrary. http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/06

            Lastly, Ehrman is conveying ideas not purported historical facts. Rewording of texts to better convey the central ideas does not change the idea, just as rewording historical records does not change historical facts. I will gladly accept ideas (however worded) that stand logical criticism, and discard ideas which do not. I expect the same for historical accounts.

            Ok, I don't understand this point either.. Are you saying that textual variants aren't then a problem to core historicity?

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  • http://www.ilovegodsite.com/ Word of God

    I love and agree with the part you said "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"

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