Sunday, May 14, 2006

Progressive Faith Blog Carnival: Misquoting Jesus

The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all place great importance and hang a good bit of their legitimacy on sacred Books. In fact the youngest of these refers to their adherents as "People of the Book". Whether it's the Quran, the Gospels or the Torah the faithful look to their texts for guidance, validation and G-d's words. The question that comes immediately to mind is "How do you know your Book is accurate?" Let's leave aside the arguments that insult one's intelligence like "The Book is true because it says so right in the Book", supposed codes that are almost certainly applications of the law of large numbers and that classic of theological persuasion "Believe or I will kill you, you blaspheming heretic." Where do the books come from? How do we know they are accurate?

We've bought most of our books at Amazon for some years now. Their cluster-analysis software has gotten terrifyingly good at predicting what we will enjoy, so just a couple months ago I was surprised to see Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why on our recommendation list. I'm not a Christian. The Gospels and the letters of Paul are of no interest to me. But I had enjoyed the Nag Hammadi texts and some of the non-canonical Gospels such as Thomas and Mary Magdalene. My next thought was that it was the latest in a long line of ill-tempered rants about the Christian Bible. But the price was attractive, and it was paired with something else I was interested in, so a copy was soon on its way from Nevada to Oregon.

Dr. Ehrman has impressive academic credentials - doctorate from Princeton and currently chair of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. But he's not just a liberal scholar with no real religious background. He was Born Again in high school and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton. His criticisms of his faith and its underpinnings are reluctant. His enthusiasm is obvious. Textual criticism is one of the driest possible subjects. His passion for the subject is infectious.

Misquoting Jesus addresses a number of important areas. First, there is the formation of the Christian canon. This has been dealt with in detail elsewhere, but he goes over it lightly - church letters and their significance, martyrologies, apologetics, tracts, acts of the apostles, apocalypses and important attempts at formalizing the canon such as Marcion's. Much is made of the fact that the original manuscripts have been lost and had, in fact been lost for decades when the earliest Christian Bibles were first put on paper.

A large portion of the book is devoted to copying and copyists. We think of a book as being published in editions each of which is a letter-perfect replica of all the others. I was amazed at how false that turned out to be. In an age when literacy, defined so loosely as being able to recognize one's own name on paper, was at about 5% there were very few Christian scribes who could actually read and write. Accidental changes were common as were intentional alterations to fit the views of the copyist. In fact, the earlier the manuscript the worse the errors and the more the editorial changes. A long piece on the history of textual criticism of the Christian Bible points out that the discrepancies run into the tens of thousands and that is impossible to honestly say what the "original" text said. A number of important passages are shown to be of questionable provenance either through error or deliberate adulteration to support the copyist's beliefs.

So what's the point here? Is it just an attempt to pull down Christianity? I would say not. The easy certainties are always casualties of the search for truth. Biblical scholarship is no exception. The author makes the point forcefully and repeatedly that the authors of the Christian Bible were trying to make sense out of the world. They had texts of varying reliability. There was doctrine. There was argument about doctrine. Somehow what they believed had to be reconciled with the words of the Divine. Thus we have four very different views of Jesus, passages corrected to accord with what the writer knew in his heart to be true, alterations to emphasize or support the wholly Divine Jesus versus the half-Divine or the Adopted Jesus and many others. The Bible has to be seen as a collection of documents coming out of a living tradition, a very human collection that must be viewed more as an exploration than a destination.

On a deeper level, these scribes and copyists, secretaries, monks and apologists were trying to do something which is ultimately impossible. They were trying to take a picture of G-d, to encompass and put a form around that which is by nature beyond human comprehension. We have to do this since human minds are all we have to work with. The effort will fail. It is still important to try.

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