Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Unknown Unknowns

Bart Ehrman was not the first to point this out: the Bible as we know it has been altered, purposefully. The woman taken in adultery did not always sit at John 7:53. In fact, it is well known that this pericope was not originally in the last gospel. The same applies to the ending of Mark. No one knows what the original ending was, if there was one at all. These issues are not controversial. When approached on this conservative Christian apologists will nod their heads and try to change the subject with an argument like, "No point of teaching is affected by these minor changes." Minor changes? I would not consider adding a guarantee that believers can safely handle poisonous snakes a minor change but maybe that is just me.

So, Biblical Inerrancy (whatever that means these days) is defended by claiming that "minor" changes do not affect the Faith. Then we have this from good ol' Ken Schenck:
The NIV is a wonderful example of the "say one thing, do another" dynamic I see necessary for this hermeneutic to sustain itself.

Say: We are listening to the Bible. Our interpretations come from the plain sense of the text. We are under the authority of the text and not letting the Church have a higher authority.

Do: Let's translate "form of God" as "very nature God" so the full divinity of Christ is not in question (Phil. 2:6)--is "shape" really the same as "very nature"?! Let's translate "firstborn of creation" with "firstborn over creation" (Col. 1:15) so there is no question of whether Jesus is created or not. Let's add a word out of nowhere to "did not give" so it reads "did not just give" (Jer. 7:22), even though there is no such word in the Hebrew--we don't want to leave any question about whether Leviticus was written at the time of the exodus. Let's add another word out of the blue so that "to the dead" reads "to those now dead" so there is no room for the dead being saved (1 Pet. 4:6)--Protestants don't believe such Catholic ideas. Again, let's add another word that isn't there in the original so that "is not concerned" reads "is not just concerned" so we give no room for allegorical interpretation in 1 Cor 9:9-10.

Most of these moves have no clear basis in the text and seems in each case to be motivated overwhelmingly to maintain the perspective of the neo-evangelical tradition, thus deconstructing the fundamental claims of this hermeneutic. When push comes to shove, those of the Chicago Statement approach consistently trump the most obvious meaning of the Bible with evangelical tradition, in my opinion.
Today's translator has taken the place of the ancient copiest. In Ken's example only very "minor" changes are being introduced but with an eye to shore up a specific theological stance to protect readers of the original text. Who, without access to the original manuscripts (here the sources used for the NIV), would notice these "fixes?" Now, if the authors of the NIV made idealogically driven changes to the clear reading of the text that are almost impossible for the uninformed to detect, why assume that similar, lexically small yet significant changes [don't] exist in our extant manuscripts that shut down interpretations that would be plausible in the original manuscript.

That is the essential point of those of us who look at the known alterations and wonder about the ones we can't know. Conservatives are forced to take an odd position: "I acknowledge those little, itsy, bitsy changes over there, put those are the only ones. There can't possibly be any others!"

update: Fixed a spelling error and a missing "don't" in the second to last paragraph...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course "conservatives" cant admit such things, because to do so would bring into question the authenticity of the entire Bible, its origins, and its essentially political purposes.

Political purposes, because the Bible was put together by those who won the "religious" culture wars of their time and place.

They thus constructed and EDITED the Bible to reflect and ENHANCE their worldly power interests, and to minimize or eliminate altogether all other THEN EXISTING forms of Christianity, or interpretations and responses to the life of Saint Jesus of Galilee.

Particularly those of a more "gnostic" or mystical kind--"gnostics" and mystics arent of much use to a power seeking worldly institution. Which is what the church INEVITABLY became once it was coopted by the Roman state.

A "holy" empire being the ultimate oxymoron.