Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Bible. Outside and In

Let's consider the Bible itself. Now, this is, according to many Christians, the inerrant Word, "breathed out by God" (2 Timothy 3:16). There is no wrongness in it; it is absolutely correct, flawless in its form, infallible


Now, some Christians (the Latter Day Saints, for instance) think that the Bible is only inerrant in its original form, which is a convenient excuse. Like Joseph Smith's golden tablets, the original documents don't exist any more. We have fragments of various versions of the Bible, from the Dead Sea Scrolls which date back to between 150 and 70 BCE, various fragments of the Septuagint back to 200 BCE, but the first complete copy is from the 4th century BCE.

Translation errors make up the most obvious problem with any claim that the Bible is completely correct. The Old Testament was originally in Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was probably written in Koine Greek, the language of the earliest manuscripts, even though some authors included translations from Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Some scholars think that some books of the Greek New Testament, like the Gospel of Matthew, are actually translations of a Hebrew or Aramaic original.

And then you get into deep archeo-linguistic struggles, and have people talking about George Lamsa's translation of the Peshitta New Testament, the Old Syriac Texts, the Sinai Palimpest, the Curetonian Gospels, the Diatessaron harmonies, and enough other multisyllabic nonsense to make your stigmata bleed.

And different sects of Christianity may use entirely different books. Do you accept the Septuagint translation, or do you go with the more common Masoretic text? Assuming that you're going with the Masoretic text, do you ignore the Apocryphal or deuterocanonical books?

Depending on what type of Christian you are, you may or may not use Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and Greek additions to Esther and Daniel. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, for instance, also recognize 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh and include Psalm 151 (where the rest of Christendom cuts off at Psalm 150).

You get into the Eastern, Syriac or Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and you run into books like 2 Esdras and Odes, The Apocalypse of Baruch, the Letter of Baruch, Jubilees and Enoch.

The Anglican Church, established by Henry VIII because he was tired of his wife, uses some of the Apocrypha, but doesn't think they're doctrine. (I'm not sure what that makes them, really...) So the Anglican Bible includes the Deuterocanonical books accepted by the Catholic church, plus 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh (which, if you really care, were in the Vulgate appendix).

There's also 4 Maccabees, which is only accepted as part of the Bible if you're a member of the Georgian Church; of course, it was included by St. Jerome in, once again, the Vulgate appendix (and in an appendix to the Greek Orthodox Bible). Are you arguing with Saint Jerome?

But then we have the New Testament. Most Christian sects accept pretty much the same 27 books, but there's little issues. Revelations, for example, is both accepted and disputed, depending on who you ask. (Which makes sense to me: it reads like it was written by some hippie dropping acid in the desert.)

And the New Testament has its own apocrypha. Ever heard of the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement or the Acts of Paul? And some people, like the Armenian Apostolic church, occasionally include the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, but don't always list it with the other 27 books of the Bible. For that matter, they also didn't accept Revelations into their version of the Bible until about 800 years ago.

And this completely ignores the various "infancy gospels," the Jewish Christian gospels (the Gospels of the Hebrews, of the Nazarenes, or the Ebionites, for example), the Gospel of Thomas, the Passion Gospels, or any of the Gnostic texts. (What? You don't know about them? Where have you been?)

But OK. Enough of the structure of the Bible. Let's look inside it.

Remember the Virgin Mary? Yeah, depending on which translation you start from, the word may not be "virgin." Jews have been trying to tell Christians for centuries that the word almah just means "young girl," but does anybody listen to the people who actually speak the language?

Then you have Matthew 2:23:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."
As the Israeli's will cheerfully point out, Nazareth only dates back to the 4th century CE - you know, 400 years after Christ was supposed to have been born there?

Only one archeologist, Yardena Alexandre, claims that she's found ruins dating back to Jesus' times in Nazareth. Of course, the rest of the Israeli Antiquities Authority disagrees with her, so who are you going to believe?

There are plenty of errors in the Bible. It contradicts itself frequently. For example, look at 1 Timothy 1:4 (which starts "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies..."), and Titus 3:9 ("But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies...").

Now go read Matthew, chapter 1; it's the genealogy of Jesus. Of course, Luke 3:23-31 is also the genealogy of Jesus. But interestingly enough, Matthew says it takes 29 generations to get from David to Jesus, while Luke says it takes 43 generations. And except for David and Jesus, the two lists only share three names, and those three aren't even in the same order.

In fact, the inerrant Word of God can't seem to get even simple math straight. 1 Kings 7:23 says
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
If that's the answer that God came up with, then He'd better show His work. Because He just made pi equal to three, and God has just flunked geometry.

But that's OK. God flunked zoology, too. According to Leviticus 11, the bat is a bird; of course, it also says that there are four-legged birds ("All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you") and four-legged insects ("Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you").

There's fascinating medical advice in there, too. Were you aware that leprosy was curable? It's in Leviticus 14. Here's how it works: take two birds. Kill one, and dip the live bird in the blood of the dead one. Sprinkle the blood on the leper seven times, and then let the blood-soaked bird fly away. Now find a lamb and kill it; wipe some of its blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the poor bastard seven times with oil; wipe some of the oil on his right ear, thumb and big toe. Repeat. Finally find another pair of birds. Again, you have to kill one of them and dip the live bird in the dead bird's blood. Wipe some blood on the patient's right ear, thumb, and big toe. Sprinkle the house with blood seven more times.

But don't let that guy from PETA light a match anywhere near you. You've dribbled oil all over everything, remember?

So there you go. The inerrant Word of God. Everything in it is correct.

Unless it isn't.

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