Friday, August 23, 2013

Misquoting Jesus, Introduction and Chapter One: The Beginnings of Christian Scripture

Posting has been light lately. I'm in my penultimate week of work, i don't have a new job yet, and if my MTEL scores don't come in soon i won't be able to student teach until January, meaning i will have to start paying student loans now. So my anxiety has been a little overwhelming.

BUT, i started a new book this week: Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman. This is not a reflective spiritual journey, but a scholarly analysis of the Bible and how it happened. I've taken two classes on this subject already, not to mention reading tons of articles and blog posts and listening to sermons and my dad, so i know a fair deal about the Bible's history. But i'm only one chapter in and i've already placed a dozen sticky notes, so i'm excited about all the learning to come!


"The Bible did have a revered place in our home, especially for my mom, who would occasionally read from the Bible and make sure that we understood its stories and ethical teachings (less so its "doctrines"). Up until my high school years, I suppose I saw the Bible as a mysterious book of some importance for religion; but it certainly was not something to be learned and mastered. It had a feel of antiquity to it and was inextricably bound up somehow with God and church and worship. Still, I saw no reason to read it on my own or study it." (pg 2)

I was actually very serious about my Bible reading until college, at which point i was like, "I've read this thing in its entirety at least half a dozen times, not to mention all the bits and pieces from devotionals, Bible stories, Bible studies, sermons, youth group, and so on. Do i really need to read the descriptions of the temple measurements AGAIN?!" Which is, in part, the reason for this whole blogging and exploration thing: trying to keep myself accountable so that i will have to be intentional about my spiritual health.

"There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired -- down to its very words. As we learned . . . we don't actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings . . . Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places . . . Surely we have to know what those words [of Scripture] were if we want to know how [God] had communicated to us . . . having some other words . . . didn't help us much if we wanted to know His words." (pg 4-5)

I posted something about this a while back, how if God wanted us to take the Bible literally, He probably would have designed language in such a way that translation errors were impossible. Instead, if i write something this very second and hand it immediately to someone who is perfectly bilingual in English and Spanish, there is still room for translation error. Because other languages are not simply codes. You can't just substitute an English word for a Spanish word and have it work perfectly every time. There are nuances and connotations and grammatical structures that complicate things. Even a perfect translation isn't perfect, and the translations of the Bible are based on imperfect copies of languages that no one speaks anymore.

"I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes -- sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don't have the originals!" (pg. 7, bolding mine)

"Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the Church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point." (pg. 10)

". . . I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew)." (pg. 11)

Yes. This.

The Disciples actually met and talked with Jesus, but we don't know if they all read one another's Gospels (were they all even literate?), especially the Big Four, and most of them were probably martyred long before some books were even written. So is talking to Jesus more or less important than reading Acts or 2 Timothy or Revelations? Less important? Okay, great. I'm going to go pray now. You can take your King James and go home.

"Among other things, this meant that Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he didn't mean the same thing as Luke. John is different from Matthew -- not the same. Paul is different from Acts. And James is different from Paul. Each author is a human author and needs to be read for what he (assuming they were all men) has to say, not assuming that what he says is the same, or conformable to, or consistent with what every other author has to say. The Bible, at the end of the day, is a very human book." (pg. 12)

I once witnessed an argument where one guy was talking about two books in the New Testament whose authors disagreed, and another guy was like, "No, but really they were saying the same thing, because they were all inspired by the Holy Spirit." And the first guy was like, "WTF. These are different words. Can you read?" It's okay to disagree, as long as we keep talking through it and loving Jesus.

"What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words? What if the Bible doesn't give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age -- abortion, women's rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like? What if we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol -- or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty?" (pg. 14)

Chapter One: The Beginnings of Christian Scripture

"Four such gospels became most widely used -- those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament -- but many others were written. We still have some of the others: for example, Gospels allegedly written by Jesus' disciple Philip, his brother Judas Thomas, and his female companion Mary Magdalene. Other Gospels, including some of the very earliest, have been lost." (pg. 24)

"Some Christian authors produced prophetic accounts of what would happen at the cataclysmic end of the world as we know it. There were Jewish precedents for this kind of "apocalyptic" literature, for example, in the book of Daniel in the Jewish Bible, or the book of I Enoch in the Jewish Apocrypha. Of the Christian apocalypses, one eventually came to be included in the New Testament: the Apocalypse of John. Others, including the Apocalypse of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas, were also popular reading in a number of Christian communities in the early centuries of the church." (pg. 25)

So, since the apocalypse hasn't happened yet, how do we know that John's is better than Peter's or the Shepherd's? Did they describe it the same, but John's was better written? Because that didn't prevent us from keeping four Gospel accounts. And none of it prevented Left Behind from happening, so. Maybe there is no God.

There's a long passage on page 35 that i won't quote in full here about a bishop named Irenaeus who argued that we needed exactly four Gospels, no more and no less, because there are four corners of the earth, and four winds, so it's only logical to have four Gospels as the four pillars of the church. And that's how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John got into the canon. True story.

On page 36, we learn that the 27 books of the New Testament were not listed as the books of the New Testament until 367 C. E. Almost 300 years after they had been written. Even the people writing them didn't consider them to be on par with the actual Bible (they were mostly Jews, so we're talking about the Torah here). They were mostly just writing letters to clarify things they'd said before.

There's also an interesting point in the last two sections of the chapter about literacy in the ancient world. If the actual real words of the Bible were so important, why didn't God make sure everyone in the world was literate? And if illiteracy was so widespread (it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that people started taking literacy for granted for all social classes, and even now illiteracy is a real problem in the global community), why didn't God figure out some other way to speak to us? Like, through prayer and personal revelation and community? Oh, wait . . .

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