Monday, March 30, 2009

Beware, the Truth Might Set You Free

Warning: Those that believe that our Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God may need to navigate away from this post which radically challenges this view. Neither I nor the author are attacking the spiritual content of this sacred text but merely illustrating that man is fallible. If you choose to continue, do so in the spirit of the search for historical truth.

There was one book that always caught my eye when I walked past it in the bookstore: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It has such an intriguing and controversial topic that even though I was tempted to read it I feared my soul might be in danger for reading such heresy. Now, I feel completely moronic for all the fear I had over an incredibly illuminating book. At that point in my life I was afraid to ask hard questions about my religious beliefs. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid that the book would make sense, and it did. This book is a basic introduction to the field of textual criticism, a field that most Christians are not familiar with. The very reason for this is noted in the field's name. How many Christians do you know that would take a fine tooth comb through their Bible?

Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes often made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand. Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document's transcription history. The ultimate objective of the textual critic's work is the production of a "critical edition" containing a text most closely approximating the original.
We do not have the original manuscripts to anything found in our New Testament. All we have are copies of copies of copies of copies. Because we lack the originals the best we can do is look through all the manuscripts we do have and find the earliest and most reliable witnesses (manuscripts) to get a glimpse on what the originals said. There are over 5200 Greek manuscript fragments that have survived the tests of time and collectively share over 200,000 differences. Differences do not mean errors, but they have differences which begs the question: if all 5200 Greek manuscripts contain differences how do we know which set of manuscripts contains the least amount of errors?

I won't go over the process here but Ehrman explains it in his book. This is a scientific way to look at our text and find what was originally said. The main defense that Christians take to textual criticism is that God was in control of the canonization process and the Bible is exactly how He wanted it. This is perfectly fine to accept and live by as long as it is making you a more loving person but looking into the history of the Bible should not offend anyone. If something is found that proves that someone added or changed a line in the original inspired word of God because either 1) they thought what was originally written was wrong so they corrected it or 2) they have a political agenda so they changed a line to fit their theology, wouldn't you want to know about these changes? Do you honestly believe that if 1 person adds a few lines about keeping women as subordinates that this is God's Will? As I said before, if this leads you to your Creator and your acceptance of the Bible, as it is, helps you to become a more loving person then please continue as you were. But the fact that there are anomalies in the manuscripts should be enough for us to take a second look at our holy text.

These are not Atheists and Agnostics with an axe to grind, Christians have been examining the manuscripts for hundreds of years and now we can look at our earliest and best manuscripts to weed out the verses that weren't originally there. In fact, my NIV Bible contains the occasional footnote throughout the New Testament stating that these verses were removed because they were not found in our best witnesses.

So what does this mean for the average Christian? How can one balance the truth found in the Bible with reality? How does this set someone "free"? The freedom I talk about is a freedom from reading the text as literal. I believe that if you read spiritual texts in a literal fashion it suffocates the spiritual message and the ability to Reason. Holy texts should be read in a manner that brings the reader closer to God and His attributes (Love, Compassion, Justice, etc.). It should be a matter of the spirit. Spiritual maturity and growth doesn't care if the world was created 6000 years or 14 billion years ago. This has nothing to do with matters of the heart but with scientific inquiry, and vice versa on scientific issues. If we were to prove (and some say we have) that the Israelites wrote the Old Testament as a collection of tales of tribal morality and myth then this should not affect matters of the spirit.

Books like Misquoting Jesus are not set out to disprove that God exists but to prove that man can make mistakes, and that anything that man handles has the possibility of being fowled up. This is a very challenging topic to millions of people and if you sat and read my entire post without fuming in anger then I applaud you. If you did become angry then there's nothing wrong with you, it is human to get upset when someone challenges your view on reality. I am not saying my view on reality is any more correct than anyone elses, but that analyzing how you see the world is a healthy practice. As Humans, with the God-given ability to reason, let us remember that we are brothers, all of us. Although we are surrounded by difficult questions we should not let our answers to these questions divide us, but that we should transcend our answers and never forget our brotherhood.


Anonymous said...

A great book that was a key element of my spiritual growth. His book, “Lost Christianities” is also excellent. It explores the many radically different varieties of Christianity that fought for dominance in the early centuries following Jesus’ death. Christianity is not the easy broad path into orthodoxy that my preacher told me it was. Another favorite author of mine is Marcus Borg. I highly recommend “The Heart of Christianity.”

Unknown said...

I have read both of these including Peter, Paul, and Mary (another interesting Ehrman book which highlights each of these characters). I have a long wishlist of other books by Ehrman and a few by Marcus Borg. I was recently introduced to Borg's work by my religious studies professor at MTSU. Thanks for the comment and book suggestion.

Ben said...

"anything that man handles has the possibility of being fowled up."

Exactly! Humans are idiots, lol. Even in the old testament there is something where God says they have corrupted the scriptures. So I agree that not everything is 100% perfect since it is a copy.

However, I do hold that the original first writings were the flawless word of God, and even now there may be some small errors, but the main core message is the truth. But now, we should be researching any possible errors. I know they have found a few earlier documents that have found errors of certain translations, and Isaac Newton uncovered a few himself (he was also a serious religious person on top of being a scientist).

By the way, do you happen to know what exact religious belief your professor has? If he tells you during the semester I would love to know. I am always interested to know what people's views are who have studied religion their who life. Although, he may not want to tell them to remain objective during the course.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben, it's always good to hear from you.

"However, I do hold that the original first writings were the flawless word of God, and even now there may be some small errors, but the main core message is the truth."

I agree that if one believes (which I do) that God communicates to people through messengers then this would make sense. The further you go back the more faithful our earlier documents are to the originals. The telephone game is a cliché that historians use when speaking on the transmission of the Bible. My burning question (which I plan to write about next week)is if(big if)we were to find at least 1 original manuscript of the 4 Gospels, how will this affect Christianity? More on that later.

Rabbi Rami, I believe, considers himself a humanist when it comes to religion. He believes that all religions are man-made or are at least been manipulated and influenced by man. Religion tells us more about the believer than it does about God. He has studied in so many world religions that it is hard to figure his views on God but I believe he takes the position that God is manifested as a Universal Consciousness than a Creator God outside of the Universe. Oh yeah, and he's Jewish, but I guess that is obvious.

Rabbi Rami's Blog

Rabbi Rami's Website

He is a very open man and probably would be more than happy to speak to you about his beliefs. His email is located at the bottom of his website. Thanks Ben for the comment and have a great day.

Anonymous said...

I had a conversation thread with another blogger recently (Timethief, as a matter of fact, who I see has visited your blog) in which she wrote something that made a lot of sense to me. She said "We don't see thing as they are. We see things as we are." How absolutely true! And how certain that is to have an effect on what and how a man communicates including an ancient scribe.

ernie said...

I've read all of his books. Great reads and I lvoe the textbook approach (since I'm an eternal student) he uses on most; however, I am disappointed that the journey (so far) has led him back to agnosticism. But, we all have our detours. :-)

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