Wednesday 22 April 2009

The Bible is the word of...who? Not God.

The Church of Scotland said something sensible Monday: "Every student of the Bible is a selective literalist. Those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus wouldn't publicly advocate slavery or stoning women taken in adultery. They presumably no longer accept Biblical teaching on sexual matters such as polygamy and sex with slaves. And yet there are many who continue to be bound by a few Biblical verses - none of them in the Gospels - about homosexuality, nowadays understood as a matter of genetics rather than lifestyle."

But let's look at the larger question: where did the Bible really come from?

The evangelicals insist that the Bible is the unchallengeable word of God, as passed directly to the prophets. The problem is that no one knows where these texts really came from.

As Thomas Paine pointed out, the Bible is allegedly based on the word of God, divine revelation to man. But it is only a revelation to that man – everything after that is hearsay. Bush claims God told him to invade Iraq; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, claims God told him to kill women. This is why you can’t rely on hearsay.

And much of the Bible cannot be claimed as revelation of any kind, even the second-hand variety. When the Bible reports observable historical events, that is not divine revelation – that wipes out the Old Testament histories, the Gospels, and Acts. The Bible’s songs are not divine revelation either, or the proverbs, or the letters, or the lamentations. So right away, most of the Bible is not the word of God.

A number of biblical references seem to indicate that the “prophets” were poets or musicians.

This stuff in the Bible started as oral and then written fragments, and no one knows who created them. Religious scholars have concluded that every book of the Bible may have been written by more than one person – so can a burning bush “reveal” to two people at once? No one can say within 500 years when the Torah was written. Even Jewish leaders argue about whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch, particularly since it refers to Moses in the third person and discusses Moses’ death; by the 17th century, scholars essentially proved that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, although the Church tried to suppress these facts. The Book of Ruth was probably “written” by someone who wasn’t even Jewish. Judges is anonymous – you can’t have God revealing his word to someone we don’t even know. Samuel couldn’t have written the book attributed to him since it describes his death; Isaiah was also written after Isaiah was dead.

The first three gospels – the “synoptic” gospels – were based in part on a mysterious “Q” document. No version of it exists and no one knows who wrote it, let alone who or what inspired it. Scholars are still arguing about which gospels stole from each other and which passages were written first. Much of the material seems to have been assembled from tiny fragments of scripture, and none of the material is first-hand from anybody, let alone God. Mark and Luke were not present for the events they reported, and we don’t know where they got their information from, other than the Q, which the Almighty, with suspicious carelessness, managed to lose for all time. Of all the epistles of Paul, only seven are deemed with any confidence to be Paul’s actual work; as for the rest – no one knows for sure who wrote them. The authorship of all John’s books is in dispute, particularly since some geographical errors in his alleged works suggest he was not from Palestine; on the other hand they could have been written by Mary Magdalene. And many of these texts may be corrupted by the extensive use of scribes by illiterate or semi-literate religious leaders.

If God wanted to make his will known to all nations, he wouldn’t choose a poor carpenter in a despised ethnic group in a distant corner of the Roman empire.

So....What does the Bible really say?

A problem with the Bible is that the text is widely open to interpretation, and therefore cannot be the unchallengeable word of God. During the first two centuries of the Christian era, the beliefs of the various Christian groups varied wildly – they couldn’t all have been right. Also during the first few centuries of the Christian era, many different versions of the “word of God” were bouncing around the Mediterranean.

Four hundred years ago, a team of English scholars tried to bring order to the chaos, and worked endlessly to argue about interpretations and translations of the ancient texts. The purpose was to create a text that conformed to the views of the King of England. Forty-seven men argued and argued as to what the word of God meant. In the end they had to reach an agreement on what the word of God was. The result: the King James Bible, all a matter of opinion and interpretation. Since the King James Bible has passed out of copyright, anyone can print their own version – and alter it if they choose.

Keep in mind that the authors of the King James made little effort to study the original ancient manuscripts first-hand. The revered King James New Testament relies for 90 percent of its text on the Tyndale Bible, written by a man who didn’t even have access to the ancient texts. So essentially you have interpretations of interpretations.

Yet another problem: over the centuries the “unchallengeable” word of God has been loaded with errors. The ancient oral versions and the early handwritten manuscripts – errors everywhere. The early Bibles contained explanatory words, prefaces, pictures and other bits which clearly were not the “word of God”. In many cases, scribes from early periods wrote commentaries in the margins of their texts, which later scribes included in the actual text, because they weren’t sure whether they were text or just marginal notes; in this way, marginal scribbling became the “word of God”. During early printing efforts in the 16th and 17th centuries, texts were changed at whim, sometimes by printer/editors who wanted to remain anonymous. Quality control was notoriously bad, as typified by the 1631 “thou shalt commit adultery” Bible. 150 years after the King James version, there were so many corrupted versions that the English Church had to go back and clean it all up with new versions; thousands of changes were made.

And a key dealbreaker on this point is the many contradictions within the Bible itself: the same story told in different ways. The Gospels alone contradict themselves and each other on Jesus’ lineage, crucifixion and resurrection; Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah pose the same problems. If the Book challenges itself, why can’t we challenge it too? Religious leaders will argue either that (a) the contradictions are God’s mystery, or (b) only a truly “inspired” reader can see the contradictions for what they really are, “counterpoints”. Oh, bull.

The Bible also collides with proven fact in many places as well, and not just in the fractured science of Genesis. Luke had the wrong governor of Syria for the time of Jesus’ birth; the records of Josephus and the Romans show that there was no census at that time, and that when they did conduct a census they did no require that families return to their birthplaces.

The written Torah is often incomprehensible without an oral tradition which divides texts into sentences and puts vowels on words, which can change the meaning in Hebrew. Jews are still arguing as to whether that is acceptable, and whether the result is actually the word of God. You could reasonably argue that the consonants are the word of God, but the vowels aren’t. By the same token, originally the New Testament didn’t even have punctuated sentences, leaving even more room for interpretation and error.

The next problem: teams of translators (and other interpreters) have been changing the meaning of the word of God for 3000 years. The Bible, or parts thereof, has been translated into hundreds of languages, and the word of God varies from language to language. Some translations cater to prejudice, like changing the “he’s” to “he/she’s” etc. Even today, religious leaders argue over whether literal or idiomatic translations are preferable.

Over the centuries, hundreds of people had a hand in creating or altering the alleged word of God, and we have almost no information on who these people were.

Human language has never been universal and has been constantly changing in meaning. How could a God possibly use it to express his will?

The first Biblical texts were written in Hebrew, but they were written for people who spoke Aramaic and didn’t understand Hebrew, so even in the early days, the Bible was in a language which its adherents couldn’t understand, just as Christians had to put up with a Latin Bible for hundreds of years, and a Latin mass for even longer. The word of God was overwhelmingly delivered in a foreign tongue to the locals. By the same token, the famous Douai Bible is based on translations of translations, which greatly increases the number of errors.

Human choice determines the word of God.

Christians can’t even agree on what the “unchallengeable word of God” even means. Some follow the doctrine of inerrancy, which means that the whole Bible is accurate, even on history and science; the second doctrine, infallibility, merely asserts that the Bible is accurate only on faith and practice. Christians are still arguing about which is true. A third school, the “authoritativeness” school, says the Bible is accurate on issues of morality. Likewise, even Conservative Jews have four ways in which they interpret the divinity of the word of God.

To make matters worse, all of this interpretation has been tangled up in human political issues. Medieval Christian leaders discouraged translations of the Old Testament for political reasons. Pope Innocent III banned unauthorized translations – people who tried to reach out and understand the word of God were punished (rather like Adam and Eve at the tree of knowledge). Likewise Henry VIII suppressed the circulation of English-language Bibles; Henry changed his mind and tried to make the Bible available to the people, but then changed his mind again and decreed that only the upper classes could have it. Mary I, his daughter, also suppressed the circulation of Bibles. During the early days of the Reformation many competing versions of the Bible were in circulation, and the ones unpopular with the monarch of the day were burned.

Even the issue of which texts were, in fact, the word of God was argued over, by humans, from the beginning. For 600 years, Jewish leaders known as Masoretes argued about what should even BE in the text of the Bible. For 600 years there was no agreement on what the word of God even was. It is possible that ancient Jewish leaders decided which books to include as the “word of God” based on what the Christians put in their own Bible.

Things got worse when the Christians got involved. The Church didn’t even get everyone on the same page with regard to doctrine – let alone scripture – until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. In the fourth century Christian leaders held a series of meetings to decide which texts were the word of God. The books of the New Testament were “canonized” – deemed holy – 300 years after Jesus and most of the other central players were dead. Originally the Book of Revelation was left out – and no wonder.

When the Protestant reformation came around, the arguments about which books were really the word of God started all over again. Different denominations now include different books: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Slavonic. Different traditions include different books in the Bible as “God’s word”.

Protestants established four “criteria for canonicity”, to decide which scripture is “holy”. First, apostolic origin, which means it came from the disciples chosen by the church’s followers. Universal acceptance, which means the texts were chosen by the church’s followers. Liturgical use, which means that the church’s followers chose to use it in church. Consistent message, which means the text preaches a message which agrees with what is popular with the church’s followers. In other words, the divinity of the texts was a popularity contest among humans.

So what do we have here? No one knows where this stuff comes from. We don’t know when these fragments of oral storytelling were first jotted down, or by whom, but we know they were human beings. As the centuries rolled on, their successors (who had no part in the original “revelation”) added their own human translation abilities, their own human interpretations, their human political issues, and their many, many human errors. And these human beings have been arguing about what these texts mean, for centuries. They have even argued about which books should be included at all. And in the middle of all this, they have decreed that these texts (whichever ones they decide to include) were passed on centuries ago as the unchallengeable word of an unchallengeable God – and then they set about arguing about what “unchallengeable” means.

For my money, as soon as you have dozens of denominations and sects using dozens of different versions of the same book (which itself has four different versions of Jesus’ life), the whole “unchallengeable” notion goes out the window. As soon as you get to a point where you can simply use your own human impulses to choose which of these versions is the right one, you’ve lost “unchallengeability”. The fact that all those other versions even exist, is in itself a challenge to the book you choose.

And without the “unchallengeable” word of God, where do we get God from?


Anonymous said...

And why would God only speak through men and not women? The Bible is a Myth. And all other religion text. Why am I an agnostic? Because I don't believe some of the things that other people say they believe. Where do you get your religion, anyway? I won't bother to discuss just what religion is, but I think a fair definition of religion could take account of two things, at least, immortality and God, and that both of them are based on some book, so practically all of it is a book.
Is the Bible the work of anything but man? Of course, there is no such book as the Bible. The Bible to made up of 66 books, some of them written by various authors at various times, covering a period of about 1,000 years -- all the literature that they could find over a period longer than the time that has elapsed since the discovery of America down to the present time.

Is the Bible anything but a human book? Of course those who are believers take both sides of it. If there is anything that troubles them, "We don't believe this." Anything that doesn't trouble them they do believe.

HelloDollyLlama said...

It is quite possible that Mary Magdalene had her own gospel that was poopooed by the first apostles and then rejected by the church.