Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Words Matter: Misquoting Gods and Prophets

I have always been interested in the history associated with whatever happened in the Middle East several thousand years ago that led to Judaism and the spin off of Christianity and Islam and culminated in the multifaceted versions of the three religions that we view today. If you believe that one or all these religions are divinely inspired, then this history should be of interest to you. If you do not believe in divine inspiration, then this history should be of even greater interest to you. The notion that a great fraction of people on earth might be living under the sway of such a man-made construct would truly provide the greatest story ever told—the most interesting history of all.

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written a book entitled Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Critical to an understanding of Christianity is being able to trace the path from whatever occurred in Jesus’ life to the beginnings of an organized religion, and then on to the canonization of sacred texts and the development of the complicated face of Christianity that exists today. Ehrman’s book, with its provocative title, offers to shed some light on part of this evolution. The book should be able to provide guidance on the issue of whether or not the texts we have available today can be tied with any certainty to the texts produced by the authors presumed to be divinely inspired.

The author’s main interest is in the area of textual criticism, which he describes as
"...a technical term for the science of restoring the "original" words of a text from the manuscripts that have altered them."If one considers that the four canonical gospels are believed to have been written around the end of the first century CE, while the oldest existing copies of manuscripts of the gospels usually date from a few centuries later in time, one has the insoluble problem of verifying the validity of those copies. The best one can do is hope for consistency with the earliest existing copies, or with what is known from other sources about what was contained in those early versions. Ehrman provides an interesting description of the processes by which changes enter into the manuscripts—some intentional and some accidental. He also describes the approaches used by scholars to assess the validity of the text of a document. Most might find that section a bit more detailed than they needed.

The earliest texts were in Greek. If a copy was to be made, it had to be made laboriously by hand. In the earliest days the copies were made by church members desirous of producing another copy for local consumption. In later years professional scribes were employed and presumably the number of unintended errors decreased. Most troubling, or troublesome, were the intended alterations. It would be very tempting for a scribe to read something to be copied and think "He couldn’t have meant that, it makes no sense." There was a tendency to evolve the copied text with the changing conventional wisdom of the church. It took a while for people to decide that Jesus was God. That conclusion left a trail of alterations aimed at making scriptures more consistent with that notion. When the church decided that Jews were no longer brethren, but enemies, changes had to be made to make statements more unfavorable to Jews. Even the gospel writers themselves felt free to change each other’s stories. Scholars say the gospel attributed to Mark was the first written and was used as a source by the writers of Matthew and Luke, who did not hesitate to put their own spin on events presented in Mark.

If one is expecting startling revelations they will probably be disappointed. The skeptical will find plenty of material to support their skepticism, and the faithful might be a little disconcerted, but not sufficiently to question their basic faith. Those who believe in a literal interpretation where every word of the Bible is divinely inspired will find a way to re-rationalize their beliefs and go on about their life.

Ehrman provided several fascinating details that are worth noting. The first involves Irenaeus, the second century bishop who had so much influence on the early church. In this quote from one of his documents he justifies selecting four of the many available gospels to become the basis for the New Testament.
" is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and the ground of the Church is the is fitting that we should have four pillars...."Here is an example where the sentiment "It’s Greek to me" is taken to new heights.
"One of the problems with ancient Greek texts (which would include all the earliest Christian writings, including those of the New Testament) is that when they were copied, no marks of punctuation were used, no distinction between lowercase and uppercase letters, and, even more bizarre to modern readers, no spaces used to separate words. This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand, a text."Ehrman notes a number of gospel passages that were added or modified making them inconsistent with the original text. The following was added to the Gospel of Mark by an unknown scribe, probably after a night of too much partying. Hallucinogens must have been around for a long time.
"And these are the signs that will accompany those who believe: they will cast out demons in my name; they will speak in new tongues; and they will take up snakes in their hands; and if they drink any poison it will not harm them; they will place their hands upon the sick and heal them."The author also deals a back of the hand to the popular King James Version of the Bible.
"The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’s edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us! It’s no wonder that modern translations often differ from the King James, and no wonder that some Bible-believing Christians prefer to pretend there has never been a problem, since God inspired the King James Bible instead of the original Greek!"Amid all the back and forth about whether or not this or that particular statement should be part of the original manuscript, the author made a number of interesting comments about language, and the difficulties of communicating via language, that almost completely diverted my interest. This one is obvious, but demands some emphasis.
"I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament can be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew)....What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of those words into a language such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?"I have spent some time trying to become fluid in reading the French language. One of my early experiences was to read a French translation of a novel written in English. I soon discovered that this was not the best approach unless you specifically wanted to study the difficulties of translation. The author of the English soon used the word "redneck." It occurred to me that I could not explain the meaning of that word in less than half of a page, and that would only cover some of the contexts in which it might be used. The poor translator decided to use the word reactionnaire which translates into reactionary in English, although it might have other connotations. That is not a bad try, and it may fit in a few instances, but consider the poor Frenchman who might have attempted to understand the meaning of redneck by assuming it was equivalent to reactionnaire. There is no way to make the word redneck, with all of its connotations, understood in French via a simple translation.

Ehrman takes issue with our ability to understand an author’s written words even if we use the same language.
"The only way to make sense of a text is to read it, and the only way to read it is by putting it into other words, and the only way to put it into other words is by having other words to put it into, and the only way to have other words to put it into is that you have a life, and the only way to have a life is by being filled with desires, longings, needs, wants, beliefs, perspectives, worldviews, opinions, likes, dislikes—and all the other things that make human beings human. And so to read a text is, necessarily, to change a text."That may strike one as being a bit convoluted, but merely consider that we have nine highly-educated lawyers who like to wear black dresses and interpret the words of the constitution in ways that are always consistent with their personal biases. The author further points out:
"But interpretations of texts abound....This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways that people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them come to radically different conclusions...."Long ago I read Will Durant’s book, The Reformation. I remembered him saying that John Calvin based his belief in predestination on a saying attributed to Paul.
"God the Father has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love; having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will."I read that then and I read that now and conclude that I have not the vaguest idea what it means. Calvin read it and was ready to consign the majority of mankind to the flames of hell, and, as was the custom of the time, burn as a heretic anyone who disagreed. Since Paul did not compose in English, but rather in Greek, one has to wonder if Calvin based his interpretation on the Greek version, or on the Latin, or the French, or the German, or perhaps on this English version. I would agree with Durant on his summary of Calvin’s contribution to mankind.
"But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense."Now those are words that you will not have any trouble interpreting.

Consideration of these language issues reminded me that Muslims insist that the only true Koran is the Koran written in Arabic. After all these considerations about the complexities of language that sounds like a smart idea.

The Koran also benefits from having been created at a time recent enough that its sources should be on a firmer foundation. Christopher Hitchens begs to differ. In his book, god is not Great, he has this to say.
"No serious attempt has been made to catalogue the discrepancies between its various editions and manuscripts, and even the most tentative efforts to do so have been met with almost Inquisitional rage. A critical case in point is the work of Christopher Luxenburg, The Syriac-Aramaic Version of the Koran, published in Berlin in the year 2000. Luxenburg coolly proposes that, far from being a monoglot screed, the Koran is far better understood once it is conceded that many of its words are Syriac-Aramaic rather than Arabic. (His most celebrated example concerns the rewards of a ‘martyr’ in paradise: when retranslated and redacted the heavenly offering consists of sweet white raisons rather than virgins.)"Seventy sweet white raisons! I don’t know if Hitchens ever cackles, but I choose to picture him hunched over his keyboard and cackling as he writes that paragraph.

Yes, words matter—too bad we can’t agree on what they mean.

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