Sunday, September 08, 2013

Before You Can Understand the Bible You Need to Understand its History

Fundamentalist Christians believe, and will tell you, that every word of the bible is true, that it is the Word of God, that it means what it says in the literal sense. Therefore, they believe things like the world was created in six days and that Jonah was eaten by a big fish and spat out three days later. They believe that Noah really did build a big boat and put two (or seven) of every animal species in it. And they, of course, believe that Jesus really did die and was bodily resurrected on the third day.

But which bible, exactly, are they believing? Is it the King James Version? Maybe it's the New Revised Standard Version. Or perhaps it is the New International Version or the American Standard Version. Maybe it's another one of the plethora of other versions, all of which translate things slightly differently. For example, the King James Version clearly has humans being created prior to the creation of animals in Genesis Chapter 2. But in the New International Version, the syntax is changed just slightly to make it seem as though God had already created the animals. It's a slick use of the past participle when the KJV simply uses past tense.

But there are many other questions besides just which modern version of the bible is used. What about the language? Did Jesus speak English? Of course not, and that means the King James Version and all other English versions are translations. Translations almost always present with a bias of the translator. Jesus spoke Aramaic. But the Gospels were all written in Greek. So even the original manuscripts represent translations. The trouble is, we do not have the original transcripts - the ones written sometime in the first century CE but decades after Jesus died. Prior to the written Gospels, all that was known about Jesus was transmitted by word of mouth. How can we abide by the Word of God when we don't even know what it originally was?

So which word of God did the earliest Christians use? There was no bible. Their Scripture consisted of what we now call the Old Testament plus a loose collection of gospels, apocalypses, and letters written by followers of the Christian movement. Some of these early manuscripts were eventually included in the canon; others were not. And there was hot debate among the early bishops as to which ones should be included. Should the Gospel of Thomas be included? What about Revelation? Eventually, the former was not included, the latter was. But there were very many early manuscripts that devoted Christians of the day followed religiously that did not get included in the canon. Most were lost forever, though some have been found within the last hundred years or so.

So the Holy Bible that you find in your bookstore is not the Word of God; it is the translated, transcribed, and highly edited word of humans trying to make the best of what they knew. To live one's life as though every word of the bible were dictated by God is surely to live a delusion. Before anyone tries to understand what the bible is telling them, they first need to understand the history of how the bible was written and canonized. It wouldn't hurt, also, to understand a little bit about Jewish history, especially that of the first centuries BCE and CE. Context is everything.

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