Saturday, December 18, 2010

History and Theology: A Jumble of Subjective interpretations II

The Scribes: Subjective Copyists

The versions of historical documents we have today are certainly not originals. Through the ages, books have been copied and recopied for the purposes of dissemination, and in order to replace worn out copies. Throughout this process, overseen by humans without any technical aids, changes must inevitably occur, whether through simple human error or according to some influential individual’s own diabolical ends.

Errors, be they simple linguistic or replication errors, have crept into religious and historical works. For example, interpretations of the Bible differ widely, as translations from one language to another always do. A mere glance at the myriad versions of that particular book is sure to confuse and confound any sane man. Which is correct? Is it, as many ultracon fundamentalists from ‘round the hood would have us believe, the King James version that is the undiluted word of God? Does Jesus speak in thees, thines and thous? Does Job 39:9 speak of a unicorn, an ox or a rhinoceros? These are simply ambiguities in the original language, but there are intentional alterations made to back up a certain viewpoint. Take for example 1 Samuel 20:41. Most translations say that David and Jonathan kissed, and linguists back this interpretation of the original, but the New Living Translation says that they shared a buddy hug, the thought of two men playing tongue twisters (okay, maybe that’s a little exaggeration on my part) seemingly abhorrent to its translators.

There is also much evidence of additions and alterations made in the past to the manuscripts themselves during their replication. These seem to have been made to back up a certain viewpoint, with quite a few presenting one in particular that would prove to be the driving force behind some of the greatest atrocities ever committed.

The first of these forgeries: Jesus’ deity and equality with God seems to have been manufactured some time after he supposedly walked the Earth. Take Luke 3:22. Earlier manuscripts say, “You are my son, today have I begotten thee,” implying that Jesus was not God’s son right up until his baptism, which is when he achieved his “apotheosis”. Yet later manuscripts, on which the majority of modern versions are based, say, “You are my son, whom I love.” This alteration seems to have been made to back up the view that Jesus was God, and was so from the moment of his birth, a view that only became popular among Christians much later after his death.

Another set of alterations describe the period after his supposed rise from the dead. The entirety of John 21, in which Jesus appears to some of the disciples while they are fishing, proclaims Peter as head of the church and prophesies how he would die, and the writer of the gospel is identified, is completely absent from earlier manuscripts. Another notable addition is Mark 16:9-20, in which Jesus gives the Great Commission, which is the basis of the entire evangelical movement which has caused so many of us who really don’t give a flying filbert so much grief.

Now for the biggest, and most controversial supposed alteration. This has to do with one of the biggest criticisms of the Bible and Christianity as a whole. Yep, we’re talking about the issue of patriarchy and misogyny as practiced by the Good Fellows of the Pan-Millennial Bible Writers Club. Misogyny in the Old Testament is well known: I mean, the fellows made no attempt whatsoever to hide it (‘tis the woman who tempted the man to eat the forbidden fruit, all sorts of weird rules in Leviticus about being “unclean” that seem to single women out more than men, like how a woman is unclean for longer after giving birth to a girl than she is for a boy, arranged and forced marriages, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on...).

But that’s just the Old Testament, the Christians say. Jesus changed all that stuff, and we make use of the New Testament. But closer inspection shows that the New Testament isn’t all that different. Sure, it’s a little watered down and marginally better than the crazy crap you find in the OT, but it’s still there, and definitely abhorrent by today’s standards. This isn’t an attack on biblical misogyny, though. That’s the subject of a whole different post.

The insertion of passages ostensibly perpetuating misogyny is a recurring thread in the New Testament’s history. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, the infamous 1 Corinthians:34-35, the one which states how women are not allowed to participate in Church discussions, is entirely absent from earlier manuscripts of the epistle.

By far one of the most famous controversies surrounding the bible is the apparent smear campaign on Mary Magdalene, made famous by Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code. Whole swaths of verses connected to her were seemingly added on to the gospel centuries after they were written: they are completely absent from earlier manuscripts! Take John 8:1-11 for example, the parable of the woman found in adultery. It is not even clear whether this woman was even Mary, but the connection seems to have been made by the early church. Well, it is definite that this woman cannot have been whom it is claimed, because this passage was fabricated some time much later. Also of note is Mark 26:9-23, which I have already mentioned. This passage contains an additional smear of Mary, stating that Jesus drove seven demons out of her. These (apparent) forgeries, coupled with the exclusion of gospels presenting Mary as much more than a simple acquaintance of Jesus certainly lend credence to parts of Dan Brown’s theory, though I still have my reservations on certain details.

The presence of forgeries also raises an interesting dilemma for the fundamentalist Christian. If a Liberal or non-Christian raises the example of misogyny as a reason for not basing their morality on the Bible, the fundie cannot say that the given examples are forgeries, for that is a challenge to the Biblical Inerrancy the Fundie holds dear, which is in and of itself another reason for one not to base their entire existence on what the bible says. But this is the topic of another essay entirely.

Now, you may have noticed that I pretty much entirely used the Judeo-Christian scriptures as an example of changes made through the ages. Some may then go on to accuse me of harbouring specifically anti-Christian sentiments, but any such accusations would be misplaced. Yes, the Christian faith does hold a special place in my heart as the one in which I have been so long incarcerated and has forced me to live an emotionally draining double life, but these emotional reasons are not the only ones. The Bible is the only religious text I have read in full (unless The Secret counts) and I simply have no experience of others. I have only read excerpts of the Koran, and snippets of other religious texts that give the gist of what they have to say, hence are not really qualified to offer a full-on exegesis of their flaws and issues. I can only defer to those who have had more experience with them.

I also need to touch on the possibility of small errors creeping into the works over time. The versions of texts we have today are copies of copies of copies to the nth factor. Undoubtedly, in the process of copying these texts, accidental errors have crept in, incrementally adding up to something quite different from the original. But mere error can only alter a work so far, and I don’t believe they are such a large factor in alteration of historical texts.

The bottom line of all this is that most, if not all ancient texts we possess have been unavoidably adulterated in the process of preserving them for future generations, not just for religious texts but pure historical ones as well. This has been for various reasons, some decidedly sinister, some merely political while others may have been well-meaning but ultimately deviated from the facts or at least the original content. I see no problem in people extracting bits of these ancient texts which are compatible with their own morals and today’s more enlightened society, and applying them to their own philosophy, but to insist on calling them inerrant and hinging one’s entire existence upon them is folly indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, glad to see that you haven't in anyway superimposed your views on the inconsistencies surrounding the Bibles historical narrative upon other texts, although I don't entirely agree with your take on the alteration of all 'historical documents' ( what foresight :P ). Would you spare me the time to discuss the Koran's preservation with you?