Sunday, April 13, 2008

What everyone knows about the bible

Micheal Rivero shares some thoughts:
We cannot know what the real historical Jesus said and did because the written record has been subject to editing and alteration for 2000 years by church leaders with varying and often conflicting agendas.

It is known that there are numerous translation errors on the path from Aramaic to English. For example, in describing Joseph of Arimathea's request to Pontius Pilate for Jesus' body, the original texts used the word "Soma", a word that describes an unconscious body. Had Jesus been truly dead, the word "Ptoma" would have been more appropriate. In Latin, Jesus' mother is described with the word "Virgo", which simply means a young woman. The proper Latin phrase for a young woman who has not yet engaged in sex would be "Virgo Intacta", but this phrase is NOT used in the early Latin texts that describe Jesus' mother.

Then we have the discovery by Professor Morton Smith of a document written by Bishop Clement of Alexandria which proves that the Book of Mark has been edited, and a portion or the original writings deleted. Bishop Clement's justification for what could be called a sacrilege was that simply because something was the truth was no reason to allow the masses to know it...
It goes on for what seems like pages, but you get the idea. And the frustrating thing is that it might have been written in the New York Times, because it's what "everyone knows" about the Bible. Except that much, if not most, of it is dead wrong. I thought it might be rather interesting* to see how many errors of fact** turn up in just the first few paragraphs. So here we go:
the written record has been subject to editing and alteration for 2000 years
Our author might be unaware of this, but as translations of the Bible are generally based on the oldest available manuscripts, and a few of those manuscripts were composed within a few hundred years of Jesus' death and resurrection, it is quite impossible for the written record to be subject to revision since then. So immediately, we have to shave 90% or more off this number. It makes perfect sense from a common sense perspective; if I were to introduce "The Book of Second Opinions" or such into the bible today, do we think no one would notice? The written record, translated into a multitude of languages as soon as it was written, simply cannot be subject to alteration that way.

"But El B," I can hear you saying, "new Bibles come out all the time, and they contain changes from the old KJV I have on my mantle. " Of course, you are correct, and there are two reasons for this: language and manuscripts. The language part is simple: it is not always easy to understand what "He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers" (Job 15:26, KJV) means. We don't speak the same English that was spoken 200 years ago, not to mention 400. Modern versions read something like, "Running against him like a man of war, covered by his thick breastplate; even like a king ready for the fight" (same verse, BBE version). Language changes: occasionally you have to re-translate.

Manuscripts takes a little more work, so bear with me. Our modern bibles are not based on one set of handwritten copies, but on a collection of such, ranging in age from 1600 years old (with older fragments) to 600 or so years, and the reason for this is that before the invention of the printing press, the Bible (or individual books thereof) were copied by hand. These hand-copies are then compiled into a "text," usually still in the original Greek, and from there translated into English. Over time, there are changes to the text***, but those changes take a consistent form: they are toward older versions, which means that over time, our texts tend to eliminate the very "alterations" our author assures us are still going on. Since the purpose of lower biblical criticism is to find the "original" text, to claim that the Bible has been subject to systematic editing by church leaders to accomplish their own agendas could not be further from the truth****.
in describing Joseph of Arimathea's request to Pontius Pilate for Jesus' body, the original texts used the word "Soma", a word that describes an unconscious body. Had Jesus been truly dead, the word "Ptoma" would have been more appropriate.
Unfortunately, this is one of the sillier errors that one comes across, because it makes no sense on its surface - if it was the purpose of the Romans to kill Jesus, and it was, why would Joseph ask for an unconscious Jesus? Such would simply have not been granted. The claim is usually only found in such "conspiratorial" works as "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" and "the Passover Plot." Not that something coming from such works is necessarily wrong, but it takes more than confident writing to make them true. The Greek word "soma," according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, means:
1) the body both of men or animals
1a) a dead body or corpse
1b) the living body
1b1) of animals
If Soma is a correct recording of Joseph's request - and we don't know if Joseph conversed with the Roman soldiers in Latin or Greek, but it was almost certainly not the Aramaic mentioned above - it's probable that Joseph was just being polite in not using a more technical term. We do the same today. When we go to a wake, we go to view a "body." Asking the survivors if you could view the "corpse" would be considered to be in particularly bad taste.
In Latin, Jesus' mother is described with the word "Virgo", which simply means a young woman...this phrase is NOT used in the early Latin texts that describe Jesus' mother.
Which statement is possibly true - I don't know the Vulgate - but irrelevant. Since English bibles are translated directly from the original Greek into English, what another "off" language translates doesn't really matter - it's like complaining that the Spanish is incorrect. The author probably means Hebrew rather than Latin anyway (and one can make that case, as the Hebrew "Almah" CAN mean "young woman" but was translated by the Jews - pre-Christ, I might add - into Greek as "virgin"), but that would open the author to a charge of the kind of carelessness that I would be the first to glom onto.
Then we have the discovery by Professor Morton Smith of a document written by Bishop Clement of Alexandria which proves that the Book of Mark has been edited...
This is the old "Secret Gospel of Mark" argument, which seeks to make Jesus part of a secret "mystery" religion. It is not based on textual data, but on the discovery of a letter (since lost) found in a 17th century book and alleged by its finder to be originally written by Clement of Alexandria 15 centuries prior. It was never examined by other experts and since it cannot be examined today, it makes a very shaky foundation for any sentence that has the word "proves" in it, especially in the face of 18 or more centuries of manuscript data.

If one wants to be on more solid ground, one could bring up the fact that there are Mark manuscripts with different endings, known as "Long Mark" and "Short Mark," and one of them is wrong. But these issues have been known to Bible translators since Clement was in diapers - there's nothing either new or conspiratorial about them.

It goes on, but you get the idea. Our author knows as little about the Bible as the religion editors of the Times, relies on questionable scholarship, and fails to check his claims against both history and common sense. But he passes it all on as fact, with nothing more than a confident if conspiratorial tone as proof. That's one reason what "everyone knows" about the bible is on par with what your average creationist Christian "knows" about evolutionary biology.

* forgive me if I'm the only one who thinks so.

** though to be honest, many of them are errors of carelessness. People who don't know the Bible but write about it tend to make the same kind of mistakes I would make were I to try to tackle, say, astronomy or women's fashions.

*** because all (repeat: ALL) hand copies have some errors that are discovered by comparing them to other copies, usually older ones.

**** that's almost a true statement. One example of just that I can think of resulted in the inclusion of 1 John 5:1 in the KJV. But it is generally excluded from modern versions.

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