Thursday, 29 March 2007

Intentional Changes to the New Testament - Factual and Interpretive Errors

The following quote comes from, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why pp. 94-95 by Bart D. Ehrman.

Sometimes scribes changed their texts because they thought the text contained a factual error. This appears to be the case at the very beginning of Mark, where the author introduces his Gospel by saying, "Just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, 'behold I am sending a messenger before your face...Make straight the paths.'" The problem is that the beginning of the quotation is not from Isaiah at all but represents a combination of a passage from Exod. 23:20 and one from Mal. 3:1. Scribes recognised that this was a difficulty and so changed the text, making it say, "Just as is written in the prophets..." Now there is no problem with the misattribution of the quotation. But there can be little doubt concerning what Mark originally wrote: the attribution to Isaiah is found in our earliest and best manuscripts.

On occasion the "error" that a scribe attempted to correct was not factual, but interpretive. A well-known example comes in Matt. 24:36, where Jesus is predicting the end of the age and says that, "concerning that day and hour, no one knows-not the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father." Scribes found this passage difficult: the Son of God, Jesus himself, does not know when the end will come? How could that be? Isn't he all-knowing? To resolve the problem, some scribes simply modified the text by taking out the words "nor even the Son." Now the angels may be ignorant, but the Son of God isn't.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

The popular perception of the Bible as a divinely perfect book receives scant support from Ehrman, who sees in Holy Writ ample evidence of human fallibility and ecclesiastical politics. Though himself schooled in evangelical literalism, Ehrman has come to regard his earlier faith in the inerrant inspiration of the Bible as misguided, given that the original texts have disappeared and that the extant texts available do not agree with one another. Most of the textual discrepancies, Ehrman acknowledges, matter little, but some do profoundly affect religious doctrine. To assess how ignorant or theologically manipulative scribes may have changed the biblical text, modern scholars have developed procedures for comparing diverging texts. And in language accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman explains these procedures and their results. He further explains why textual criticism has frequently sparked intense controversy, especially among scripture-alone Protestants. In discounting not only the authenticity of existing manuscripts but also the inspiration of the original writers, Ehrman will deeply divide his readers. Although he addresses a popular audience, he undercuts the very religious attitudes that have made the Bible a popular book. Still, this is a useful overview for biblical history collections. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Saul, Saul, which was it?

I mentioned the contradictions in Paul's conversion stories here, but it seems that there is yet another major contradiction that either calls Galatians or Acts into question.

In Galatians, a largely undisputed epistle of Paul, he says that he did not straight away go to Jerusalem to see the other Apostles after his conversion.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) (Galatians 1:15-20 RSV)
But then the account in Acts say the exact opposite. After he left Damascus the first time he went straight to Jerusalem and eventually mixed freely with the Apostles.
And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, (Acts 9:26-28 RSV)
This contradiction matters as Paul is making a serious point in Galatians which testifies to his right to claim Apostleship. Paul claims to have been called directly by God. His Apostleship was not given by other Apostles and he did not confer with them. If the Acts account is true then Paul's argument here in Galatians is undermined. He even goes so far to assure us that he isn't lying.

Jesus Gets it Wrong...

This one is a problem for those who hold to a perfect Bible as Jesus refers to a story from the Old Testament but gets a major detail wrong. In Mark 2 Jesus says the story happened "when Abi'athar was high priest".

And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abi'athar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?" (Mark 2:25-26 RSV)
But when one looks back to the Old Testament telling of the story we see that Abi'athar was not yet the high priest, rather it was his father Ahim'elech.
Then came David to Nob to Ahim'elech the priest; and Ahim'elech came to meet David trembling, and said to him, "Why are you alone, and no one with you?" (1 Samuel 21:1)
The NIV Bible tries to accommodate this apparent error by saying, "In the days of Abiathar the high priest" (Mark 2:26 NIV) thus implying that it happened when Abi'athar was alive but not necessarily holding the office of high priest (at that time). But if you read most translations you will see that this is just creative translating by our Evangelical friends responsible for the NIV.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Atheist? Who me?

I don't like the word Atheist. I think because it was such a loaded term back when I was a Christian. Since walking away from Christianity I have come to realise that just as there are many kinds of Christians, there are many kinds of Atheists.

It seems there are two main types of Atheists. Active Atheists are those believe there is no god and are certain of it while passive Atheists feel there is not enough evidence to warrant or justify a faith in a god. It may sound like semantics but the difference is marked. The passive Atheist is really more like what most Christians would define as an Agnostic. To many though, the term Atheist seems to be the active kind, and I am not that.

As you know, I label myself an Agnostic on this blog, but the thing is, I am not entirely comfortable with that term either. It sounds, I dunno, kind of weak. As if I am simply not informed enough to be a Christian or an Atheist. It means to not have gnosis or knowledge. As a matter of fact, I feel that as an Agnostic I have far more information and knowledge than I ever had as a Christian. Go figure.

Some have suggested other labels such as non-Theist, unbeliever or free thinker. But the problem with these terms is that they are derived from the terms believer and Theist, thus denoting a stance opposed to belief or faith. Some have suggested using the term a bright to define unbelievers thus creating a word not linked to belief. A bright is someone who believes as they do and is not defined by those who believe otherwise. Just as a Muslim, Hindu or Jew is not defined by their stance toward Christianity, a bright is not defined by their stance on Theism.

According to some definitions I am an Atheist, unbeliever, non-Theist and a bright. You pick which one you want to see me as. For now I am sticking with Agnostic, it seems less...Atheistic.

Richard Carrier has more to say on the matter here.

How Mum, Hollywood and Ozzy Osbourne brought me to Christ

I've been thinking a lot about my conversion process lately and how it all fell together and brought me to a Christian faith. It is funny how we interpret and reinterpret things in light of who and where we are at the time of reflection. History is never objective but always interpreted in light of the historian's world view.

My parents were not practising Christians beyond having my brothers and myself baptised or 'christened' as infants in the Anglican Church. As an Evangelical I would share my testimony with people and always say that, "I was not raised in a Christian home..." On later reflection though I realised that my upbringing, geographical and social contexts did play a large part in my conversion.

1. I knew from a young age that our family's religion was Christian, Church of England (or Anglican) to be exact. When as a child your parents tell you things, you believe them. So I was already in a place of (at least conditional) acceptance of the Christian religion. While my parents never gave us dogmatic religious training, we were taught that Jesus was God's son, he died on a cross, rose again and the Bible was God's book. We all had our own children's Bibles and were taught the story of Adam and Eve at a young age. We never heard concepts or words like inerrancy, Trinity, incarnation or atonement. As I said, we were only nominally Christian, but we knew the least the major ones.

2. As an Australian I was told that I was part of a Christian nation. Now back in the 70s and 80s, Australians didn't use the term 'Christian nation' in quite the same way as Americans do now. It wasn't such a politically laden term. It was simply another identity marker we used. You didn't need to be a Christian to be considered truly Australian or patriotic. Nevertheless, this fed my identity as a young person.

3. Despite what the religious-right in the US want us to believe, one of the biggest influences that led to my conversion was pop music. I was very much into heavy metal music as a kid. Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and the like were always in my Walkman in the early 1980s. The clever marketing behind these bands was rooted in what Sharon Osbourne called 'horror-rock'. Satan, demons, witchcraft and black magic were touted as both real and somehow infused in the music. Of course I no longer believe there was ever any sinister Satanic plot to undermine young people through music, rather I think the image portrayed struck a rebellious chord with teens and sold records. And as a teen, I had no trouble believing Ozzy Osbourne worshipped a very real, literal devil. Because I believed it to a degree, the music scared me, which was part of its appeal I suppose. Nevertheless, a lot of the imagery used in the music and marketing was drawn from a Christian world view. A world view I held to be true.

4. Perhaps more influential, were the movies I saw. Horror films like The Exorcist, said to have been based on a true story, filled me with such a fear of being demon-possessed at ten years old that I refused to sleep in my own bed for months. The Omen, which I was told was based on Biblical predictions about the coming anti-Christ, also terrified me. Only the true followers of Christ could resist Damian's control, Regan flailed at the name of Jesus and the heroes in these movies were either priests or used Christianity is some way to defeat the devil. Though the Christian imagery has been toned down in more recent incarnations, the vampire films of my youth showed holy water, churches and crucifixes were among the weapons of choice when fighting the undead. Hollywood taught me that the only defence against the devil was Jesus or Christian icons.

The philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce called this way of knowing something, knowing by tenacity. These basic assumptions are are often untested and seen as 'ordinary' or 'usual'. These can be fairly innocuous beliefs like, 'swimming less than one half hour after eating gives you a cramp' or 'carrots are good for your eyesight.' They can also be more serious life effecting beliefs such as superstition and racism. The thing about these kinds of beliefs is that once they are accepted, they are accepted tenaciously. People who hold these tenacious beliefs can be shown evidence contrary to their belief but the evidence is then either ignored or all too easily dismissed. The odd thing is that knowing by tenacity is perhaps the least reliable method of knowing something, and yet it is the most difficult form of knowing to challenge in people. People simply won't, or don't want to, abandon these kinds of beliefs.

Once I began to take a critical approach toward Christianity, I realised how much of my faith was based on these tenacious assumptions. The very existence of God, Heaven and Hell, Jesus, Satan and even the Bible were all bred into me and then fed by the world I lived in and the culture I was immersed in. When the Christian evangelists eventually crossed my path and told me I could have the Holy Spirit live inside me, I was thrilled. Not only was I free from my long carried fear of demon-possession or Satanic control, but now I was one of the good guys. I never stopped for a second to weigh up the truthfulness of their claims. Besides being only 13 years old I was already primed, "white unto harvest." I had NEVER tested the assumptions that my conversion and later faith was based upon.

I wonder how different my story would have been had I been born in China, India or Saudi Arabia...

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Saul, Saul, why getteth thee thou story wrong?

What is up with Christians and the story of Paul's conversion? Why do they throw this story up as 'evidence' or 'proof' of the Christian religion? As a Christian I always thought the story of Paul's conversion was relevant in that it was the conversion account of the most influential Apostle for the later Church, but proof or evidence? Why would a non-believer be moved by the account of an Apostle's conversion? I never used it in my witnessing as I could just hear non-believers saying, "So? How do we even know that is a true story?" or "Who cares? Who's he?"

Yet for many Christians this story holds water for some reason. Evangelists would sometimes preach the story and even get a response at the altar-call. I never understood that. As I ponder it I think that maybe it is the drama of it. The hard-ass persecutor gets zapped and becomes the hard-ass Apostle. I guess that much of it makes a good story. Perhaps there are some archetypes in there that resonate with us. Like Darth Vader's deathbed conversion at the end of Return of the Jedi, we all love it when bad guys turn good.

The story of Paul's conversion is told 3 times in the book of Acts (9; 22; 26). And yep, you guessed it, the stories don't match up. The accounts are not only different but in some places, irreconcilable.

After the light hits Paul and Jesus talks to Paul the stories conflict.

Act 9:7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
Act 22:9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

OK, so there we have the guys with Paul hearing the voice and then not hearing the voice. So which one is it? It can't be both.

Act 9:4, 7, 8 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?...And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless... And Saul arose from the earth
Act 22:7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Act 26:14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And here we have Acts 9 & 22 saying it was only Paul who fell and then chapter 9 even saying that that the other men were standing, but chapter 26 says they all fell. Which is it? It can't be both. Either Paul fell alone, or they all fell together.

Go and read the NIV to see how the Evangelicals involved in that translation have amended this apparent error. They have changed the word 'hear' in Acts 22:9 to 'understand' which is something earlier and later translations including the KJV and RSV do not do for good reason. The Greek word for 'hear' in verse 9 simply shouldn't be translated as 'understand' (see here).

One guy fell, they all fell. One guy heard a voice they all heard heard a voice. How did I ever believe God had a hand in that book?