There are two versions of this blog post, one short, and one long. I’ll put the short version first, so you can skip all the words without losing the overall message. EFFICIENCY!
Today, many people will tout that they know what the Bible means, or how to interpret the stories in it. Some will use that knowledge to preach love, some will use it to preach hate. I hope that statement isn’t overly controversial, the Westboro Baptist Church has the same Bible you do, at the very least.
But really, no matter your confidence, do we know what the people who wrote the Bible down, from Old Testament to New Testament, really wanted us to learn?
Short version answer: Nope.
Long version answer: That is a complicated question, and certainly you require a redefinition of terms at the very least to even begin to unravel the ball of yarn that is historical interpretation, translation, and intent.
To start, before the books of the Bible’s Old Testament were written down (and yea, before they could be written down) they were oral traditions. How long were they oral traditions? Well, to pin that down with any high degree of accuracy, we’d have to rely on either asking them, or having them write it dow… Wait. Nope.
So we don’t know exactly how old some of the stories are (though they do have historical markers in many of them, which help to date them). Then we continue to walk down the road of history as far as oral tradition can take us. Well, how do we know the stories that got written down were anything close to the original orations?
Well, the common rebuttal is that there were professional oral historians whose sole job was the maintain and recite history. We can see Hebrew mnemonics in certain areas of the Old Testament that are evidence of methods in use to improve recall of the stories. Certainly, a person whose sole job is to remember would do better in such an arena than would your average person off the streets… But they would have no error checking, no oversight. What would happen if or when they make a mistake?
And if you are going to tell me that stories survived 800 years orally, without any errors, I have some pieces of the original cross to sell you. Or maybe the Shroud of Turin is more up your alley?
Let me make a few modern examples to show you the flaws in that logic, in any case.
A banker’s primary role is in dealing with money. I would say the bulk of it is counting money, and ensuring accuracy in tallies and counts. They have the money in front of them, concrete, physical, unchanging. They will double and triple count money at the beginning, end, and during the day. And yet bank errors occur, despite the fact that the banker’s sole (and some would say primary) purpose is to ensure money changes hands reliably without change and… Wait, was I describing your orator or a banker? Some of those words got a little aligned there. Weird how that is.
Howe about me, in my current field of information technology. A server is designed, from the ground up, to prevent me from making errors. In order to do anything on a server that runs, say, the heating and cooling for an entire building, I will have to accept one hundred warnings, check one hundred boxes, agree to one hundred confirmations… And there are times when I, or yea, people with many years more experience than me have made errors. My sole purpose is to change these settings, to ensure they are changed properly and correctly and without error, and there are systems whose sole purpose are to stop me from making said error… But errors get made.
How about your grandparent? They will tell stories, and I am sure you have thought at times that it could not have happened like your grandparent recalled, but you’d not say anything, of course. But it is well known that dementia and Alzheimer’s are diseases primarily affecting the elderly in the population. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, I’d be willing to say that your slips would be so minor that they could be attributed to a slight dimming of your recollection, to the point you (and anyone around you) would write them off simply as slips of memo–oh damn, what was the sole purpose of the orators? Memorizing things?
And who was the most revered, respected person who would pass along knowledge? The elders of the tribe? Let’s give that elder a generous age of 60 (if they lived in a nice place, a clean(ish) city, it could have happened even in time before history), and they’d be the elder for… We’ll say 20 years? Hell, give them 30 years, we’ll say for the sake of gentle argument that they were the elder for a full generation. If we assume only 800 years of oral tradition (The earliest parts of the Bible were written down in 800BC, and I know they reference events at times as early as 1600BC, though the accuracy is in question), then that was some 26 or 27 generations of elders. That is a lot of time for one of them to have had some degree of early Alzheimer’s.
But… But they obviously wouldn’t be trusted when they couldn’t recognize the face of their own kin, they wouldn’t be the elder any more! So they wouldn’t have passed on the failed stories!
You have to remember that even if we assume a generous life expectancy, they would never have had an 80 or 90 year old Alzheimer’s sufferer, or Dementia sufferer in the 10th and earlier centuries BC. The person entrusted with oration could have had slight slips of memory and died, and so the story altered over time.
But… But there would have been many orators! Many people who remembered! Several for each village, maybe!
Yes, but then you’d have conflicting versions of the story, and how would you resolve those? Well, I don’t know how they’d have done that, but it wouldn’t be hard to think that they would accede to the eldest and most respected of the elders–the one ironically with the highest chance of misremembering a detail. Even if that wasn’t their method, even if it was democratic (against all logic, since democracy was certainly not widespread at the time), you’d have younger elders who learned the slightly altered version voting for the slightly altered version.
You’d have inaccuracies creeping in over time, even if you had ten thousand safeguards. The modern translations of the Bible attest to that, for even within two years there will be versions with differing translations, errors, typos, mistakes in meaning or scholarship. Think of the monks who made copies of the Bible before the printing press; again, they had concrete copies, and yet if you look at old Bibles, you will see scholars marking “Copyist error” in the margin… And that is when they had an older version to copy-check again.
Or how about some of the earlier mass produced Bibles? There was a copy with the Commandment “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery” that was mass produced in the 17th century, only 30 years before the King James version was officially published.
So tell me again that there were no errors in the oral histories, and again I will find more evidence to show that wishful line of thinking will not hold.
How about even the word “history”? Certainly in the times of the Roman Empire, history was a much more sinuous beast, harder to catch, harder to pin down. People did not write down history as we understand the term, history was an idea, was morals and fables, not so much “writing down an accurate account of what happened.” What we call history today is more often viewed in the tax records of the time, or the census records, birth and death certificates, than it is in things that people wrote down — for what people wrote down and what happened are often at odds, and you can see what happened far more in the number of troops reported dead at some location than you can with some historian writing down about the battle. A historian may have written down that it was a great victory, where the death toll was nearly equal on both sides. This is two knives, not just a double edged sword; at work here is the fact that history was the lessons (in this case, the lesson of “we are so much better than x barbarian tribe), and also the fact that history is, was, and will be often written by the victors. In the global world we live in, it is becoming less so, and underdogs tell their tale to fanfare in these days more than ever before, but the principle still stands.
Reza Aslan wrote about this in greater length and with more gravitas than I can–though if you don’t trust Aslan, you can check with any historian who specializes in the centuries around year 0 and you will find similar messages.
So what was written down in the Bible, even when it was close to the events that happened (and you must remember that the earliest gospels were at the very minimum written in 70AD, 40 years after the death of Christ) likely weren’t written with a mind for exactly what happened. They would have been written with a mind for teaching the lessons of Christ, and if those lessons were of humility and sacrifice, well… The events of his life were certainly a great parallel. Almost a perfect parallel. One might say they were perfect for teaching the lessons of his ministry, and by gosh, we’ve come full circle. Again.
I am not calling into question the lessons they taught, as they are certainly good lessons. I am calling into account the historical veracity of the Bible. The YECs may be the only faction to take the Old Testament as historical fact (or as absolute historical fact, as in a 6000 year old world created in exactly 6 days, and with genealogies that can be traced back to Adam), but most people believe the life of Jesus was reliably written down.
It wasn’t. Depending on the details you are viewing, many traditions were in the Bible that were not present at any other time. The tradition of freeing a single prisoner during passover? Find me another reference to that outside of the Bible. Or, even taking that tradition as fact, what about freeing Barabus instead of Jesus? Were there only two prisoners? When given the choice of a rabble rouser (Jesus) and a serial killer (Barabus), wouldn’t they just vote to release no one at all?
Or what about the trial before Pilate? Pilate is recorded by history as having signed so many death warrants without having even so much as read the name on them that a formal complaint against him was lodged with Rome. The crime for which Jesus was condemned, Sedition, wasn’t even a crime for which you would have been given a trial. If you were said to be guilty of sedition, it was off to the cross with you, no questions asked. And during the Passover, when tensions were already heightened? The idea of Jesus having an audience with Pilate is almost silly.
I think I’ve belabored that point extensively enough. The idea is that the Bible can’t be taken as historical fact, as it had a political fact from over a thousand years before it would even have been recognized as a cohesive book, as the Bible you know.
So the people who decide what was meant by these stories? What allegories and laws and ideas and histories and world views should be taught? That adulterers should be stoned, that it is OK to kill an abortion doctor, that homosexual sex is a sin, that Jesus would support this or that idea… Those are what you have discovered two or three thousand years separated from the person who originally came up with what you are reading. Who is to say you learned the lessons they even wanted to teach?
For those reading between the lines in the Old Testament to come up with meanings that aren’t there in a plain reading of the text, I’d like you to step back and read this story, told colloquially (I can find no reference for it aside from a newspaper clipping, so it is at best anecdotal).
When asked about the themes and morals in his book Hatchet (part of the Life of Brian series), Gary Paulsen said that he was happy that so many people have gotten so much out of his book, but that he didn’t write it with all of these themes and morals in mind. He just wanted to tell a good story.
With that in mind, how can anyone today say that it is they that have the themes of the Bible correct? That they have interpreted them correctly, when billions of Christians who came before them with likely billions of differing interpretations have obviously gotten them wrong? That is it you who knows exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke the parable of the mustard seed, when it is a completely nonsensical parable unless it is explained to you?
Again, I do not want to shake your faith or your morals, but I want you to be careful what you claim you know. You don’t know it any better than I do, and believing that someone is going to hell because they believe differently than you is condemning everyone who isn’t you to hell, because chances are their beliefs differ in some core way from yours, but you haven’t had a conversation with everyone in your congregation, and who knows what is going on in your pastor’s head. He can’t tell you one tenth of what he is thinking in all of his sermon’s combined, so who knows where you differ from him? Where your core beliefs, something you completely disagree on based on some word of Jesus or another, may shake your relationship to the core–if you ever knew.
Just some things to think about.