Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Fictional Bible

Photo credit: Left - The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John. Date: 2nd Century CE.

When I was moderating our local “Ask an Atheist” forum recently, one or two of the religious attendees in the audience attempted to underscore their opinions through quotations from the Bible. Many people believe that quotations from their "holy book" represent the definitive authority for their belief. I don’t - I dismiss all these references as the opinions of man, not god.

But to many, the Bible is the inerrant and perfect word of god, to be taken as literally true. Other believers consider the Bible to be more of a manuscript from which interpretative references can be derived to support their vision of “truth”. Or more succinctly, to some Genesis means the world was created literally in six 24-hour days. To others Genesis refers to a more metaphorical creation period – a day being “millions of years” perhaps. The controversy that arises between these two interpretations, however, is that both can’t be right.

As I have studied more about the origins of the Bible it has become extremely clear to me that this is a book of mythology concocted entirely by man. I checked out a couple of books from my local library written by historical scholars regarding the origins of the original text of the Bible. I must admit, they were a little too advanced for my level of academic training.

However I bought an excellent book written for the lay person by a “textual critic”. Titled “Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Bart D. Ehrman, this book clearly lays out how collected manuscripts evolved into the many versions of the Bible that exist today. More specifically through having been copied countless times (by hand) over the centuries, both accidental and intentional changes have radically altered this book that so many wrongly believe is the timeless and inerrant word of god.

If you ask most Christians today who they believe wrote the Bible, they might answer “god”; yet the most honest answer would be "I don't know". For a good portion of my life I had, as well, been under the mistaken assumption that the first books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had been written by those apostles. In actuality, biblical scholars really do not know who the true authors of these texts are.

Actually, the little fragment of Bible pictured above, and most all the known remnants of the early manuscripts, were written in Greek. Yet the principle language of people of ancient Jerusalem during that time was instead Aramaic. In either case, it is most likely that the apostles, allegedly recruited from common laborers, could neither read nor write. Public schools are a very recent modern concept.

One must appreciate that during this time in history, writing and reading was the Information Technology (IT) of its day. Often only the educated slaves or men of substantial wealth and power were literate; keeping tight control over the dissemination of information. The ability to write in Greek was a highly sought after skill of the day. Knowledge was power and those who wielded power were very cautious about into whose hands this technology was entrusted.

The earliest known writings concerning Jesus were the Letters of Paul, dating to approximately 37-40 AD. These epistles focus mainly on the crucifixion and resurrection stories but mention very little of the other familiar legends (virgin birth, magi, miracles, etc.) that later were incorporated into the first four books of the New Testament.

"Textual Critics” such as Bart Ehrman meticulously compare all the known surviving documents to determine if they can trace back, as closely as possible, to the oldest (and therefore supposedly most accurate) versions of the New Testament. They are Biblical CSI scientists. In comparing the accuracy of copies over time, subsequent documents reveal changes, some subtle, others significant, which sometimes completely changed the interpretation of the scripture.

Ehrman’s book is particularly interesting in view of his personal story of how he became a Biblical scholar. As a young man in college, Ehrman became a devout Evangelical Christian. He (as have other Biblical scholars) lost his belief when his study of the texts revealed how men promoting specific self interests have “corrected”, fudged or outright fabricated passages in the Bible that many today ignorantly hold to be the infallible word of god.

Some New Testament passages were added centuries later. For example, one of the more notable stories from the Bible, Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) does not appear in any of the earlier versions until the 4th century. The motivations for someone to concoct tales about the life of Jesus remain can only be speculated.

Christians cite the testimony in the Bible as “evidence” of the divinity of Christ. However it must be noted that none of these testaments is written in the first-person. Mark doesn’t say, for example “… I went to the tomb and saw personally that the stone was rolled away”. The testament reports what someone says that someone told them what they claim to have witnessed. In today’s legal terms, such testimony would be considered hearsay which would be completely inadmissible in a court of law.

Conversely, Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith’s account supposedly is first-person testimony. Smith declares that the angel Maroni appeared in his bedroom, telling him directly where he could view and transcribe the golden plates (written directly by god) which form the content of the Book of Mormon. Is Smith’s testimony more reputable than that of the unknown authors of the Bible? Does that make the Book of Mormon more credible than the Bible? Followers of Mormonism might argue yes.

But if you don’t believe the Book of Mormon is the true word of god, there is even less basis for the divine origins of the Bible. To believe incredible tales which were not committed to writing until decades after their supposed happening about events that defy reason and logic, and most importantly, have been revised and altered over the past 20 centuries, requires a monumental leap of faith.


Gorilla Bananas said...

I am sure that Jesus really did forgive the adulteress - it was very much his style. The story was probably censored by early Christians because they feared it would encourage their women to behave like hoochies.

Penny said...

A nice example of doctrinal differences caused by there being no commas in the Greek of the time, is in Luke. Commas were added later and in her book ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ Lynne Truss draws attention to the importance of the comma. She does this by considering the difference between the following in Luke23:24:
‘verily I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’
‘verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’

"Huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage (Luke 23:43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of purgatory and takes the thief straight to heaven to meet the Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed as it were) and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for Catholics who believe in it."

There is no other reference to a concept of purgatory - a key belief of Catholicism.
The history and shaping of christian theology in the first four centuries CE is fascinating.

Gorilla, have you been drinking fermented coconut milk again? ;)

Jerry said...

I grew up learning and believing that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. Later I stumbled on the notion that the Bible was written by those inspired by what they saw and experienced...a significant change in thought. As I read and figured more stuff out I would now say that the Bible, at least a good part of it, was written by those that could write, of those that that they believe were inspired -- perhaps years, even centuries removed from the fact.

I figure significant stuff must have happened, something significant enough for a devout movement to start and gain hold. Then it was written down generations later based on stories of awe and perhaps myth passed down.

I guess the message is that some really awe inspiring stuff happened and we get the embellished and perhaps fanciful telling of the tale. For some to suggest that the Bible is God's word as we see it today defies logic.

Oops -- I guess one has to mention the fact that some will proclaim that God would have made sure that the 'right and true' words would have been written, therefore we must accept the Bible as true. I simply have no argument with that other than that it is tenuous for one to place their belief on an assumption.

While I am not an atheist, I think it is interesting and informative to understand the true basis from which an organized religion developed. I figure that is the only way to formulate your belief.

Excellent post -- and I will get the book.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Many today hold similar logic; don't inform your daughters about birth control methods or have them inoculated to prevent the papillomavirus virus least you convey tacit approval for engaging in pre-marital sex.

Penny Clearly you are well versed in biblical literature. Yes, some of the Greek manuscripts not only lacked punctuation but spaces between words as well, resulting in long lines of characters that many of the copyists transcribed without even being able to read the text. Imagine a non-English speaker attempting to transcribe someone’s hand written note; is that a "T" or an "I". Your example, and many more, are discussed in this book.

Having been raised Catholic myself I was dubious about many Catholic beliefs that were not in other religions nor in the Bible, "original sin" for one, "limbo" being another. As a pre-teen it appeared to me this stuff was just being made up as they went along.

Jerry As I have read other books about the rise of Christianity clearly to me it seems like a concept whose time had come. Think of the appeal; to go from allowing only priests, rabbis and wealthy patrons to enter the temple to opening worship up to everyone regardless of social class. Or the concept that not just the strong and powerful should have dominion over the weak and poor. Like the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the US, civilization was again compelled to evolve. So then consider planting the seeds of this mental shift within a region where essentially tribal peoples were ruled by an occupying force from Rome and one would wonder how could these very humanistic concepts NOT gain foothold.

Add to that the Talmud (Old Testament) conveyed a vengeful, wrathful god who demanded his worship or suffer horrible fate. Then comes along a different way of thinking; compassion, forgiveness and brotherhood, certainly those ideas are universally appealing and would quickly gain acceptance. I don't believe it required a deity to have such concepts turn the culture toward something better.

KleinsteMotte said...

Globally as we evolve intellectually, scientifically and historically we might consider a more unified approach to spiritual worship by creating a collection of the best and fairest of all into one. The unity might allow for less dispute and debate. But just getting to that point seems to be light years away because the idea of what's best will impede the struggle to get it done. In the meantime there will continue to be inhumane acts that will lead to the hiring of armed forces and security companies for protection. Where's the respect for one another? An issue with faith? Fear is learned. Change is needed. A different way of life that has yet to be envisioned but is inclusive of the universal need for spirituality and companionship.

secret agent woman said...

I grew up understanding that most of the New Testament was written after Jesus' death, much of it lo-o-o-o-ng after his death. And also knowing that the Old Testament is a collection of stories from the oral history tradition of the area. It was always astounding to me that so many people were happy to ignore that, and also the fact that is written by the men of the time, thus reflecting a particular culture and a limited understanding of how the universe worked.

Hmmm - word verification is "sewer."

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent This seems so obvious to me, yet why so many believe the Bible is literally true astounds me. It is not lost on me that when people get sick they seek healing through prayer... but they still also go to the doctor and take prescription medications as well.

Yes, the "word verification" can get spooky sometimes.

Kay Dennison said...


Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte When I read what you say the teachings of the Dalai Lama come to mind. He is the closest I can think of who speaks with anything resembling a world voice for compassion and peace.

Kay Hopefully *smiles*

Anonymous said...

Always find your posts interesting and full of information and ideas that I have considered, but never been able to discuss coherently. Thank you.
The picture of this little speck in this one universe of probably many universes, and all of the timiest life specks on that speck, kneeling and genuflecting, singing, drinking wine and making sacrifices to try to ensure their own life beyond death is fascinatiog to me. If there is an all-knowing one out there somewhere, I think that being is shaking their head with dismay at how foolish we little specks are. We are tiny specks on the little speck, and this possible "father" does not care about the athletic prowess of our favorite professional sports team. A (story) bible written by and for those who want to believe in something does not make it "true"-no matter language or culture of its source. It's amazing it is still a subject of discussion, let alone wars at this point of the universe's history.

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow That is the grand question: is there a Theistic god, one who takes interest in the minutia of the lives of individual on this speck of a planet, or the Deistic god who rolled the cosmic dice and is watching dispassionately as things unfold? They both cannot be true.

More and more to me it seems clear that this god is a concept contrived from our consciousness in recognition that we are mortal, that life is finite, and that prospect is disquieting to us. Naturally we therefore contrive a happier outcome to once again be with a comforting "father" who will care for us for all eternity. I don't recall who said it but: "One believes readily what one hopes for earnestly".

The Mother said...

Recent studies on neurobiology have proven that god originated in the temporal lobe.

I loved Erman's two lecture series for the Teaching Company. They roughly parallel the book, but it's interesting to hear him talk.

His was my first exposure to textual criticism of the NT. Coming from a predominately Jewish background, my knowledge was mostly in Torah. I refer you to "The Book of J" as a good introduction.

(And my lovely spouse, whom I adore but who is still steeped in his upbringing, just cannot give it up.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom Ehrman is wonderful to listen to, engaging and interesting.

I have friends who are drawn to remain Catholic because they like the rituals. But again, I don't see the attraction... on the other hand I enjoy putting up the Christmas Tree so who can judge how we humans choose to behave within our culture. I just don't share the delusion of believing it all pivots upon a deity.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Mythology in all cultures, as I understand from Joseph Campbell, repeats the same stories and themes, all created by humans...I feel our stories help us give order and meaning to our experiences. Once I was free from the gravitational pull of Baptist Sunday school, I have believed the Bible to be part of our mythology.

kara said...

I always chose to believe in Zeus instead 'cause he was hotter. Lightning bolts are the new red.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Taken as mythology, the Bible weaves some interesting tales.

Kara Zeus da top dog, he da man. You be thinking bout Thor, he's da homie what caps dudes wit the da lightening bolts. Youch!

kara said...

thor's a wus!

from wikipedia - the source of all knowledge that is truth:
Then Zeus released the brothers of Cronus, the Gigantes, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, from their dungeon in Tartarus, killing their guard, Campe. As a token of their appreciation, the Cyclopes gave him thunder and the thunderbolt, or lightning, which had previously been hidden by Gaia.

and then he rocks it for an eternity via the conduit of really tacky art.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara Ok ok, so you have a BlackBerry!! So what's the deal with all those Egyptian god(desses), chopped liver?

Murr Brewster said...

I wish I'd thought of it, but I recently ran across an article that (finally!) gives a name to what I am:

An apatheist.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Murr Yeah... whatever..! (wink)

eric said...

Take a listen here. Bob is a local radio guy and teaches at my church... (hope I can say that here.) He does some splainin that you may find interesting about manuscripts of the Bible as well as Socrates, Mormons etc.

They say that a skeptic is a cynic with all the facts. His sermon is full of facts, dates and a little bit of faith. takes about 40 minutes

Robert the Skeptic said...

Eric Thanks, I will check out the link at a time when I can study it without interruption.

Cynicism is a form of dismissal, usually emotionally based. Skepticism however is the absence of blind acceptance on face value; Skeptics are from Missouri, the "Show Me" state. Skeptics have an open mind, but not so open our brains fall out. If the "facts" (not just very strongly held beliefs) were to show probability of a god skeptics would believe.

Anyway, will respond again after listening to your link. Thanks.

eric said...

My skeptic/cynic comment was more for fun. A little adage I picked up a few years ago.

if anything, I meant it as a complement.

Robert the Skeptic said...

eric I've listened to Bob's lecture; he's very engaging, I am familiar with this manner of apologetics. He makes some strong assertions regarding prophecy and archeology which objective study does not quite support. Anyway, too much for me to explain here in the "comments" section.

I don't want to drop an unsolicited e-mail on you, but if you want to get my detailed response you can e-mail me and I will reply.

Snowbrush said...

I've enjoyed browsing your blog. I recently posted three or four pieces I had written that were critical of religion, and was astounded that not one person attempted to counter any of the arguments I made. Yet, several said they would pray for me, presumably so that I too will be content with belief in the absence of evidence.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Snowbrush Thanks for visiting. People have told me they pray for me as well - I just take that as a form of well wishes from them. The ones who detest me, I suggest they pray for something awful to befall me as it is pretty clear to me that a god who isn't there obviously does not answer prayers.