In my previous post, I presented the arguments my friend Ray used to justify the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. I actually left one out. Here is the complete list:
- Folks who believe that the bible is the “Word of God” are happier in general than people who do not.
- These folks are also generally nicer than other folks, although sometimes they can be naughty.
- Thus, the concept of the bible being the “Word of God” has been good for people generally.
- The men who wrote the bible were trying really hard to do the right thing, given the context of their culture at their time in history, in creating the laws and such that they did. Thus, it is possible that the books they wrote are the “Word of God” in some sense. Certainly, they deserve the status of being authors of the “Word of God” more than anyone else does.
Note that last one. It’s really important and I will be talking about it a lot in this blog. Given that it is impossible to actually prove that the bible (or any other work of human culture for that matter) is the “Word of God”, what is required is to assume (some would say invent) an event in which the content of a particular book of the bible is whispered by God into the mind of a man (or possibly a woman!) at some point in history. I call this idea the Divine Conversation, and it is central to the idea of biblical inspiration.
There are many examples I could choose, but I will pick on Paul. I rather like Paul, actually. I understand him fairly well I think. We can be pretty sure that Paul wrote the books of I and II Corinthians. (We are definitely not so sure about some of his other supposed works, as you will see later in this blog. By the way, when I use the term “we” in this blog, I generally mean folks like me who like to study this stuff, and are up on ancient languages and the like. Other than extremely conservative religious communities, there is an emerging consensus about much of this stuff, as you will see if you keep reading this blog.) In addition, we think that we know about when and where Paul wrote the books of I and II Corinthians. Certainly, one can imagine Paul sitting there in the ancient Asia Minor of that time and dictating these letters (it seems likely to many that Paul used a secretary, possibly due to poor eyesight). If we could travel back in time to that moment, we could, possibly, capture at least one side of the Divine Conversation between Paul and God.
Of course, therein lies part of the rub. It is likely that any such conversation (if it occurred at all) would be completely subjective. Thus, not only would we have to be time travelers, we would have to be mind readers as well. But by being time travelers, we could undoubtedly capture at least Paul’s side of that conversation, and thus get to enjoy the original, unadulterated words of Paul.
And that is how we get to the Textual Criticism Problem: The manuscripts of I and II Corinthians that we have access to are very far removed from the time that Paul wrote these books. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are from the middle of the fourth century, and the vast majority of ancient manuscripts are far more recent, and well into the period when all dissent regarding theological matters had been suppressed. (I will discuss the loss of freedom of thought in the early Christian church further in this blog.) Thus, it is likely that the later manuscripts were heavily corrupted by corrections due to theological disagreements. (More on the divergent theological views of the New Testament authors later.)
And remember that there was no mechanical reproduction at that time. All books had to be copied by hand. Early on, prior to the development of the Christian canon, the copying was apparently not so good. (You have to remember that less than 1% of these folks were literate, and much of the copying was by illiterates who were simply copying shapes.) Eventually, once the Christian church evolved, developed a canon, and got organized, the manuscripts became more uniform, resulting in what is referred to as the “Majority Text”, which is the version of the New Testament that is used by Christian bible translators to create the modern bible translations we have today. (Frequently, more liberal bible translators will refer to the divergent, earlier New Testament texts of the New Testament in footnotes.)
Modern Evangelical Christians love to bash what they derisively refer to as “Higher Criticism”. They ignore the obvious issues relating to the New Testament text itself. Instead they (and I was among them) retreat into the Majority Text as representing the authoritative and correct version of the New Testament. The problem is that you are required as a believer to take this on faith, and once you begin to study the issue, any faith in the Majority Text quickly collapses. In the end, the frustrating and rather unsatisfying conclusion that I have drawn after years of study is that it is possible that there was, indeed, a Divine Conversation between Paul and God (certainly, we cannot prove otherwise, barring the invention of both time travel and mind reading). However, there is no reliable and proven way to know with absolute certainty what the actual content of that conversation was. Thus, while I cannot disprove the idea that the books of I and II Corinthians are divinely inspired, at least in the original, uncorrupted version dictated by Paul, that version is irrevocably and irretrievably lost to us. What we have left is only an educated guess, an echo of that Divine Conversation if you will. Depending on the specific verse, this guess can be quite confident, or it can be nothing more than a best guess from several, equally plausible, readings. The bottom line is that the number of textual differences among the New Testament manuscripts is greater than the number of letters in the entire New Testament, and the variances among the texts include some extremely serious discrepancies for which there is no satisfying resolution. (We will be discussing these exact issues further on this blog.)
And therein lies my issue with modern Evangelical Protestant Christianity. I have personally attended many Christian meetings where a preacher holds up a leather bound bible and passionately tells the faithful that this is the “Word of God”. I would submit, based upon the discussion above, that the leather bound book the preacher is holding (which is a translation into a foreign language of a compilation of the original language from numerous ancient manuscripts, with all of the issues I identified) is not the “Word of God” in any reasonable sense, regardless of whether the original Divine Conversation was inspired. That is to say, it actually does not matter whether or not the original version of the books of I and II Corinthians were inspired: We do not have those books. What we have is some evidence of the content of those books. Perhaps if the preacher said: “This book contains an echo of a Divine Conversation! if we read this book, we might be able to guess the content of a book which issued from the mind of God!” But, of course, that does not sell.
Problem is: This preacher has been to seminary, and in order to graduate from any reasonably reputable seminary in the US, this preacher would have to learn everything that I have just said above. Hermeneutics (i.e., the interpretation of ancient texts, including the bible, for which we have only copies of the originals, and in which the copies do not agree) is a required subject in all reputable seminaries. Thus, this preacher is effectively lying, or at best withholding critically important information. You are being mislead if a preacher tells you that your current, modern translation of the bible is the “Word of God”, regardless of whether or not you believe the words of Paul to have been inspired.
In my next post, I will further explore the issues of reliability in the bible, especially with respect to the collection referred to by Christians as the Old Testament.