Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is the Bible the Word of God?

In a recent Gallup poll, nearly a third of all Americans (30 percent) say they believe that the bible is the literal word of God, that is, the bible is word for word what God meant to say. Drilling down into the poll results, though, it is revealed that those who are most likely to believe that the bible is the literal word of God are those who have the least amount of education. That's not surprising, since even a modicum of higher education requires a certain amount of critical thinking, and when one applies critical thinking skills to the bible, it becomes abundantly clear that God could not have written it (or dictated it).

First of all, if you believe the bible is the literal word of God you must answer the question, Which bible? Is it the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version? The list of bibles goes on and on. They all differ in important ways, but they certainly are not word-for-word translations of the original texts. None of them are. So which bible is the literal word of God? If you say it is the original manuscripts, fine. But we don't have any of the originals. The best we can do is translate copies of copies of copies. So if the original manuscripts were God's word, all we have is an approximation of what he said, and that's even before we translate it.

And as far as translations go, it is almost impossible to translate any document word for word and still come away with a coherent sentence. For example, take the French expression, "Tu diras bien des chose chez toi." Translated literally, it becomes "You say well some things at your house." The meaning, however, is closer to, "Give my regards to your family." So a word-for-word translation of any document, including the manuscripts of the bible, would quickly lose all semblance of meaning.

Some will claim that it's not the individual words that matter but the meaning, just like in the French translation above. That's fine for simple, non-doctrinal phrases, but what about the more important matters of doctrine. Who gets to decide what the authors really meant? Once a translator writes down what the original author meant, his own understanding of that original meaning becomes part of the translated meaning. So the information you get is a mixture of the original author's meaning and the translator's interpretation of it.

But it's even worse than that. Even before the translators got their hands on the manuscripts, scribes were charged with making copies of them for publication. Most scribes did a good job. But, in addition to the normal transcriptional errors, some scribes also added words of their own. Most meant no harm by it, but sometimes a manuscript they were copying became so worn or damaged that they couldn't make out what a word, a sentence, or a whole passage said. In those cases, they would make up what they thought it said. Occasionally, the parts they made up were embellished with bits and pieces of their own agendas. Given these problems in copying and translating the manuscripts, even if we assume that the original was God's literal word, we can't even come close to that with our modern English translations. And given the doctrine that God is perfect and omniscient, God would have seen that coming and made allowances for it. Somehow, he would have made it known what his word is today. Any god worth his salt would have the power to do that. Bottom line: The bible is not the literal word of God.

Another 49 percent of Americans believe that the bible is the inspired word of God. The stories, they say, can't be taken literally, but the meaning is there. The bible is a book of spirituality that reflects the meaning of what God intended for us to know. This is what most of the more educated Christians believe. But there are problems with this view of the bible as well. One of those problems is the same one that dogged the literalists' view of the bible, and that is which translation best reflects what God meant?

But just as important, no matter which translation one uses, it becomes clear that even in matters of doctrine the bible doesn't even agree with itself in many places. Taking just one example, look at two accounts of what happened during the Crucifixion, one account from Mark and one from Luke. Mark says that the curtain in the temple was torn right at the moment of Jesus' death. This symbolism is generally taken to show that the author of Mark was bracketing Jesus' ministry between the times of his baptism, when the heavens split open, and the time of his death, when the curtain split open. (For the purposes of this comparison, we can ignore the fact that, in an age when they didn't use clocks and didn't have cell phones how anyone could have known when the curtain was ripped.) It also symbolizes that God is now accessible to the people directly instead of through a Rabbi once a year. (The temple curtain was meant to cordon off a room where God resided once per year in order to send messages to the people through the Rabbi in Chief, so to speak.)

But the Gospel of Luke says that the curtain was torn before Jesus died. This symbolizes that Jesus' ministry is a more powerful testament to God than the whole of Jewish tradition. It's one last attempt to nullify the powers of the Sanhedrin. So the same event is described by two authors and embellished with two different symbolic meanings, both doctrinal. Which one did God actually mean if he inspired the meaning? Of course this is just one of many such inconsistencies in the bible that have significant differences in doctrine. And that is one reason why there are so many different denominations within the Christian religion.

So the bible certainly cannot be the literal word of God, but there are problems in interpreting it as the inspired word of God, too. So what is the bible? The most likely answer is that it is a book of fables and legends. That is the answer given by 17 percent of those polled by Gallup on this question. It is the minority view, to be sure. In a country where Christianity runs rampant, it is no surprise that 80 percent of those polled believe that the bible is in some way the word of God, whether literal or inspired. But when looking at it from a perspective of reason and logic, and not merely devotion, one can see that the bible is most likely just a collection of fiction mixed with a bit of ancient history.

1 comment:

+mf said...

"If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people."