The Words of Man

15 01 2010

Oh what sleeping giants we awake when we poke and prod with innocent intent.

In a previous piece I touched on my thoughts about religion, more specifically my thoughts and distrust for the bible itself.  And though I know that my opinions on this matter offend others, I really didn’t have the intent of rubbing anyone the wrong way when I made my remarks.  I should have realized.

Before I begin my justification of my mindset, let me acknowledge that I understand the belief in religion, faith that is, is done by taking a leap and believing.  I will acknowledge that not always can we prove the existence of what we believe in and that’s okay.  My issue that I will expound on is the idea of using the scriptures as a source to back up your actions or thoughts.

Let’s take a stroll through the history of the good book.  A factual stroll.  I am going to initially focus on the New Testament, as for Christians this is the significant portion of the bible, it is what separates them from the Jews.

The earliest biblical documents are from about 130 CE, the gospel of John.  The next earliest documents are from around 200 CE, the other three apostles’ gospels and Paul’s letters.  We then jump ahead almost 600 years to find other parts of the bible.  And of these earliest documents, we aren’t talking about whole and intact documents.  We’re talking about fragments of scrolls, weathered and aged and written in extinct language strands.  To the right is an actual image of the earliest known document of the gospel of John, known also as the Rylands Papyrus, dated to about 130 CE.

It wasn’t until about 400 CE that other copies of the gospel of John was translated by Sophronius Hieronymus (Saint Jerome) – obviously not from the fragmented manuscripts we know of as the oldest copy.  We know that he used the Vetus Latina as his source for translation work, shown on the left.  Roman history indicates that Jerome learned Greek and Latin in his late teens, early twenties.  In his late thirties, early forties he began learning Hebrew.  And though it is not noted at what point he began studying, we are told he also knew Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.

While his undertakings were noble in intention, scholars have noted several translation errors from the Latin Bible to his translated texts, the Vulgate.  The most well known of his mistakes is his translation of Exodus 34, which in the Hebrew scriptures Moses is described as having rays of light shining from his head as he came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments; Jerome goofed and wrote it as horns coming from Moses head.  And thus, Michaelangelo sculpted Moses with horns almost 1000 years later.

So there’s our proof that mistakes happen and that the scriptures of today are not foolproof replicas of the original text.  Yet if that were the only fallacy I had with the good book, this conversation would not be taking place.

The bigger issues arise with the control of the texts and the control over who was allowed to read them.

After the legalization of Christianity in the largely Roman occupied world of 313 CE, you have to give pause and understand what the map of the world looked like at that time.  Below you can see the third century known world, the areas in red were occupied by Roman rule.With the legalization of Christianity, missionaries set out over the entire known empire to spread the word.  And ultimately what began to occur was variations of the game telephone.  People in Armenia heard a different version of the story of Jesus than did the people of Britannia or Syria.  This problem began to really become an issue as each region began spreading conflicting stories and beliefs and there was a need to sit down and define Christianity, as far as what would be considered acceptable and what was not.

This brings us to the first Nicaean Council.  Under the direction of Emperor Constantine, about 300 missionaries attended to have a sit down in Turkey to decide on what would be official in this new religion.  There is some contradiction as to who was invited and exactly how open this invitation was.  The Roman history states that almost 2000 missionaries were invited and only about 300 showed up; but there were many who felt they were shunned from this historical event by having limited representation, specifically the Arius followers from Alexandria, the students of Sabellius from Libya and the Syrian Gnostics.  Each representative was allowed a vote, but many felt that certain preferred sects had more than sufficient representatives and lesser supported sects had only a few voices in the council.

The objective of the council was to clear up the biggest contradictions of the Christian movement – the definition of the Trinity and relationship between Jesus, Spirit and God; celebration dates of the crucification; and the significance of baptism.  Overall, there were thirty-three objectives to vote on, but the above three were the most important.  This council though is the first historically noted event that allowed for the governing bodies to mandate and validate parts of Christianity.

We do know that in the early 1400s Pope Benedict XIII had specific parts of the bible destroyed from history, specifically the Mar Yesu and Book of Elxai.  There is a lot of speculation as to what these books contained, but a lot of it is rife with conspiracy theories, so I will simply leave it at the head of the Catholic church mandating removal of scriptures from the accepted doctrine of his time.

This is where our walk takes a turn from factual to presumed.

We know that between the time of Jesus’ life and that of the printing for the public consumption of the bible almost 1500 years passed.  During this time we know that the original spoken words of his apostles in Aramaic was translated into Greek and then later to Latin and then to German and later still to English.  That gives a lot of time for editing given that the bible was not allowed into the hands of the masses.  So while obviously there is not on public record a factual diatribe that indicates what leaders had removed or edited in the bible to adhere to their policies and beliefs, we can safely assume that some of this occurred.  We need only look at King Henry VIII’s molestation of religion to suit his marital desires for proof that leaders altered religion to fit their needs.

We do though, have proof of contradictions, eliminations and additions to the scriptures through the finding of archaic scriptures which show a stark contrast between what we have come to accept as our Christian bible.  Some blatant contradictions between the accepted KJV and newly discovered ancient manuscripts include the verse of Mark 1:1 which states in the KJV The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God while the old manuscripts only have The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ for that passage.  Another is 1 John 5:7, which is completely missing from ancient texts but reads as follows in the accepted standard KJV For there are three that bear record in heaven, the father, the word and the holy ghost and these three are one.

In conclusion, perhaps the best source of an accurate version of the bible is the Codex Sinaiticus Project.  The efforts of this project involve using the most complete, yet ancient, copies of the scriptures to be translated individually and presented visually in their original form for transparency’s sake.  Through this project there is obvious proof that the scriptures in the bible on your bookshelf are not a absolute parallel for scrolls archaeologists have stumbled upon that have been buried since only years after the time Christ walked this earth.  And because of this, I am comfortable in saying that I do not look at the scriptures as a factual representation of the word of God but rather the results of man’s attempt to present that word to the people of this world.

Sources:
Perils of a Bible Translator
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume IV, by George Buttrick
Codex Sinaiticus
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6 responses

16 01 2010
William

You’re right. There is no doubt that some early Christian gospels were destroyed and others were altered. I came across an interesting article about this at http://www.gospel-mysteries.net/gospel-john.html. It says that some large sections of the gospel of John are fabrications that were inserted into it by an unknown second author.

16 01 2010
Tia

Just given the fact that non-Christian celebrations were adopted by the Roman rulers and assigned Christian holidays to coincide with the date, I can only imagine that a great deal of the New Testament documents were altered to meet Roman rulers’ needs as well. Since celebrations were such a large part of many of these ancient peoples’ lives, the ‘pagan’ holidays were adopted into Christianity, stripped of their pagan associations and given a Christian justification.
Christmas is a prime example of this. In Babylon, there was celebration held at Winter Solstice for their Sun God; much the same as in Roman lands there was the festival for the god Saturn, Saturnalia, also held near Winter Solstice; of course the celebration of Mithras at the same time of Persian lands; and the Egyptian celebration of Isis and her son Horus, later Christianized to the Virgin Mother and Son.
As Rome overtook leadership of territories, there was a need to make all of the people of those lands become fully under Roman rule. The damnation of their ‘pagan’ beliefs and introduction and later mandate of Christianity allowed them to Romanize all of their conquests better. And it worked, because while it was illegal to still worship the deities of their ancients, at celebratory holidays, they could still practise, albeit to an idol of another name. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (1:8) he even complains of the continued worship of these non-Christian deities under assumed names.
Perhaps we’ll never know what parts of the bible is authentic and what are not, but I think the point is that we cannot quote the bible as a basis for factual reference.

14 03 2010
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16 09 2010
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17 09 2010
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