Tuesday, 6 March 2012

It's the Bible truth

It might seem a little odd to review a book of Bible scholarship in a blog that's primarily about science and science writing, but bear with me. This is no normal religious book - and I came to it because it was recommended by no less than Richard Dawkins.

I have to say I found this book, which looks at the way the copying of the New Testament of the Bible introduced errors into it over the years, fascinating. This was for three reasons. First because as a writer. It's remarkable to see such a study of how a series of manuscripts going back a couple of thousand years have accumulated errors and changes. Secondly it really makes you wonder about people who think the Bible is an inerrant source of guidance (Dawkins' main point) and thirdly it shows how some of Christianity's less popular aspects are probably not part of the original version.

Because the book is quite thorough in detail, it helps to really be interested in language and also to have a mild familiarity with the Bible - otherwise it could be a bit of an uphill struggle.

What Ehrman reveals is the way that our translations of the New Testament of the Bible are based on various copied manuscripts and how errors in copying (both accidental and intentional to change the meaning) made various versions drift away from the originals. The detective story of piecing this together is really interesting, especially bearing in mind we don't actually know exactly what the originals said, so textual analysis has to be used to try to pin down what are the changes and what was the earliest version.

This is clearly a body blow for any intelligent person who believes the Bible is the absolute word of God containing no errors. (If that's not an oxymoron.) Such people often take the King James (AV) Bible as their 'absolute truth' version - yet it turns out that the New Testament of this was taken from a single, pretty dubious, late Greek source. It gets lots of things wrong.

I won't go through all the interesting stuff, but one result of reading this is that St Paul has gone up in my estimation. Some of his letters in the Bible make him come across as seriously misogynistic. He appears to say that women shouldn't speak in public and should only do what they are told by their husbands. But it turns out this anti-female stuff was added later by a tinkering scribe who clearly wanted to assert the traditional place of men in society. The original has quite a lot that puts forward women as equals, including naming a female apostle, a female deacon and eminent female members of the congregation. So, sorry St Paul - I got you wrong.

All in all an absorbing read for anyone into the way the written word changes with time and an absolute must for anyone who takes the Bible seriously.

See the book at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

2 comments:

  1. This is fascinating stuff and mirrors the train of my thoughts about how Christian core beliefs have evolved and gradually moved away from Christ's ministry. I started by reading the findings of the first 7 ecumenical councils and the writings of some of the founding bishops and others. I suppose that we have to bear in mind that the restraints under which they were working were numerous viz:
    1. They had to be seen to concur with all the prophesies
    2. They had to keep the Jews onside whilst there was still a chance that Jesus could be acceptable as their Messiah too.
    3. They had to closely follow the Gospels in spite of the variations in fact and emphasis
    4. They had to avoid persecution by the Roman authorities,which they did by sheltering behind the offered protection of Judaism, since they were conceived as a slightly bizarre offshoot of that religion.
    5. Above all, there was a very real risk of accusations of heresy from peers which could result in death.

    You only need to read about the difficulty in agreeing the Nicene Creed to understand range of opinions that abounded.

    My contention is that so much that is considered by Christians as core, was actually human construct, such as St Augustine's later addition of the concept of original sin which turned Christianity into a very profitable plc since only the Church can assuage it (at a price). There was plenty of oppositon to this at the time on the basis that if sin was genetic, how could you lawfully punish it. St Augustine was extremely good in debate but I suspect that he was also a bit of a bully. I don't think that he can escape the criticism of hypocrisy either since, on the one hand, he is saying that you must not believe anthing that isn't in the Scripture and then go on to manufacture answers to questions such as "How could the ark carry enough food to feed all the animals?" by saying with some authority that God put them all in a trance so that they did not need food. That is not the only example by any means.

    My thesis is that Christians should convene another ecumenical council in our age of enlightenment with a blank sheet and the most eminent biblical scholars representing every branch of Christianity, with the object of rehearsing the earlier deliberations,using the same core documents to see whether they now come up with he same interpretations of Christ's ministry. The only difference being that they no longer need to be concerned about trying to appeal to the Jews.

    The timing of this review is perfect when it looks as if scientists may have to undertake the same sort of exercise in view of the newly found deficiencies in Newtonian and Einstein's theories and to account for dark matter, neutrinos and some of the new findings from the Hadron collider. It is an exciting time to be alive. Colin

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brian,

    Thanks for this insight; it makes sense. Someone once told of story of a letter they had translated into another language. Later, they had the "translation" converted back into English. And you may have guessed what happened, the information was totally different and confusing from the original. This is a perfect example of religious texts, which have been interpreted through hearsay and translated or converted many times.

    It's interesting that no one knows what or who God really is - or if it exists at all. However, considering this magnificent place we live, 'something' invisible may be part of the infrastructure, as we have discovered with the hidden power of electricity that went unseen for centuries.

    Many scientists like Isaac Newton of the past or Bernard Haisch of the present day resonate with a potential for discovery. As David Hilbert would say, "Wir mussen wissen; wir werden wissen."

    Joie

    ReplyDelete