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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Word of God

What is the bottom line of your faith? If you are Christian, is it accepting the divinity of Jesus? Perhaps it is in the acknowledgment of his sacrifice to take your sins upon his own shoulders, or in tracing his perfect [1]lineage back to the prophets of old. But none of these things, however vital they might be to your faith, are necessarily at the foundation of what makes your faith workable. The keystone upon which all these other things rests is the simple acceptance that scripture is the revealed Word of God: that the texts of the [2]Bible, and every word which appears in them, are the product of Divine Revelation. Because without accepting this premise scripture becomes like any other secular text, and its supernatural elements – all of them – are reduced to an interesting but questionable fiction.

Ascribing authorship to the four gospels and other such texts is a considerably less certain exercise than the editors of my own [3]King James Version admit to. In fact, it’s not certain at all. Centuries before copyright laws existed, it would not have been considered a subterfuge to attach the name of some respected prophet or apostle to a text with the wish to imbue that text with an aura of authority.
That in almost every case we simply do not know who wrote these texts (regardless of the various names to whom these texts are nominally attributed) need not in itself be a reason to preclude them from being divinely inspired, any more than some of the greatest [4]literary works which we have are diminished in their greatness simply because their authors are unknown to us. So we must use other criteria to determine these texts’ divine source. But what are these criteria? By what standards can we possibly determine beyond doubt whether, when we open our Bible, the words that we read are truly those of God speaking through his chosen ones? 

While I was reading through some of the many annotations and footnotes in my copy of the [5]Gnostic Scriptures, a singular thought occurred to me. Here was a volume of texts presented with scrupulous scholarship. Its various translators of the original [6]Coptic and [7]Greek languages into English were happy enough, where appropriate, to provide possible alternative phrases and meanings where the original language had no exact English equivalent or was ambiguous. Little or no attempt had been made to polish the language of the originals for the sake of introducing a poetic turn of phrase. What richness of language there was emerged from the original texts, and not from any over-enthusiastic translation, however well-intentioned.

A portion of the poorly-preserved Gospel of Judas, written in Coptic. Such fragments dramatically illustrate the herculean task faced by scholars to recreate such texts, with reasonable assumptions made upon the basis of the context of the words around them being used to suggest what the words in the missing lacunas might have been.
But that was not all. Any ambiguities were further referenced to the works and examples of other translators beyond this particular edition, making any amount of cross-checking possible. And any lacunas (gaps in the text, usually caused through damage) were acknowledged as missing from the originals. If a word or a phrase used by the translator to fill such a gap was a speculative guess, then it was called just that. Scholastically, it was all impressively honest stuff.

My singular thought was: is there anywhere an equivalent volume published which deals with canonical texts in the same way? I know of individual books which do this for [8]specific texts in scripture, and there are of course individual studies and papers dealing with specific books or parts of books, but not a volume (or a series of volumes) which covers the whole of the Bible. On the face of it, there is no reason why there should not be a canonical (yet scholarly impartial) equivalent of my edition of the Gnostic scriptures. All of these texts, whether canonical or outside the canon, are ancient texts in ancient languages, written on scrolls or in [9]codices in various states of preservation. They are not even the original texts (no, none of them), but were written down by scribes and copyists, sometimes by blindly copying the characters of a [10]language unfamiliar to them, and with the inevitable scribal errors which this involves.

Part of the Dead Sea scroll in Ancient Hebrew known as the Great Isaiah Scroll. Where more than one copy of a text is available we can use these copies to create the complete text. But what if (as has happened) two copies contradict each other? How can we choose which version is the correct one? Perhaps only one copy is more true to the original – or perhaps even neither.
When reading, say, the King James Version, it is the easiest thing in the world to imagine that, yes, this must be the definitive complete version of scripture, simply because that is what it sounds like, and forget that the 17th-century KJV has been superseded in its accuracy both by contemporary scholarship and by new discoveries made since, particularly the Dead Sea scrolls, discovered just two years after the unearthing of the Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.There is no ‘definitive’ version of scripture, simply because we do not have one. Neither can there ever be one, for who knows what texts still lie somewhere undiscovered that would yet demand revisions to what we now have? 

Just as with the Gnostic texts, what we instead have are variant readings with scribal errors, and the grappling with the exact meanings of words which [11]translation inevitably involves. Often-enough, a slight mistranslation can lead to a major error, such as the KJV having the Israelites cross the Red Sea, when the texts specify that they actually crossed the Reed Sea (Yam Suph: Hebrew: יַם-סוּף) – then an area of marshland east of the Nile Delta (at the time of these texts the Red Sea was actually known as the Erythraean Sea), or specifying the resting place of Noah’s ark as Mount Ararat, when the texts say, not ‘Ararat’, but the word ‘RRT’: the vowel-less rendition of the considerably less specific area of the kingdom of Urartu.

The Lord’s Prayer translated into the language of the Native American Choctaw Nation. Such powerfully-expressed sentiments as are found in this prayer perhaps lend themselves more readily to translation than complex episodes which took place within the cultural context of the Middle East of the Late Bronze Age, and which were written down in the Early Iron Age by minds already distant from the original settings of the events which they describe.
If I choose examples which already have been covered on this blog, then events taken as ‘Gospel’ truth shift under scrutiny from being actual historical events (the [12]Exodus, or the bloody Israelite [13]conquest of Canaan under the sword of Joshua) into being revealed either as metaphor or as concocted fiction. This hardly need surprise us, as the narratives relating these and other such Biblical events were only written down centuries (in the case of Joshua, almost a full thousand years) after the events which they describe. In our terms, the Book of Joshua is a historical novel.

How, then, can we reconcile these ancient texts, so full of errors, [14]contradictions and mistranslations, with being the immaculate revealed Word of God? Even Noah and his [15]ark turns out to be a story imported from the Babylonia of Israelite exile. David and Solomon might have existed, but their historical reality in all probability made them mere local warlords, rather than being the mighty father-and-son kings whose deeds resound in the pages of the Old Testament. If our belief accepts scripture as being divinely inspired en bloc, with all its omissions, mistranslations, bloody slaughters in God’s name, and shamelessly invented pedigrees of conquest, how do we reconcile these less-than-perfect (and certainly in places, morally odious) texts with divine perfection? In short: what is, or is not, divinely inspired, and how do we separate the two?

Two pages from a letter written in 1943 by Etty Hillesum in the holding camp of Westerbork in occupied Netherlands, prior to her deportation to Auschwitz. If this remarkable young woman could both find and recover a state of grace in a place that was a waking nightmare of inhumanity, why should we not consider that the Spirit acted through her at least as much as through the words that are written in scripture? How can we know where such a line exists?
The letters and diaries of Etty Hillesum reveal an ongoing dialogue with God through which she was able, even when facing the ultimate horrors of the Nazi death camp in which she died, to draw upon deep wellsprings of solace within herself, and even find compassion for her captors who took her life. Contrastingly, in the second book of [16]Kings we are told that forty-two little children are torn to pieces by bears, apparently for doing what little children do everywhere: for making fun of a bald man. In this case, the bald man in question being the prophet Elisha, the wrath of the Lord seems to have descended upon the children with ruthless [17]finality. Which of these two sources are we to consider more worthy of being divinely inspired: the horrific killing of little children for a triviality, or the profoundly spiritual yet deeply human words of a Holocaust victim?

You might criticize me for choosing such a grotesquely bizarre episode of scripture as my example, but that’s the whole point about scripture: it’s all in, or all out. If you want Psalm 23 and the Sermon on the Mount, then you also get the cruel deaths of those forty-two children and many other such shockingly inhuman episodes along with them. But what about those worthy ancient texts which are nowhere to be found between the covers of the Bible? Where is the magnificent passage from the Book of Enoch describing his ascent through the spheres of heaven, at least as stirring as anything in Ezekiel? Where are the profound spiritual insights offered by the Gospel of Thomas?

The prophet Enoch, who was claimed to be the seventh generation from Adam, and the great-grandfather of Noah. The book which bears his name might not have been written by him, but it does provide us with many of the details which otherwise are frustratingly missing from Genesis, from the nature of the fruit in Eden to the true reason for the Flood, as well as a stirring description to rival that of Ezekiel of Enoch’s ascent through the celestial spheres. We are left to wonder why this remarkable text never actually made it into scripture, but I for one consider scripture to be the poorer for its omission.
And that is what seems to be the problem with scripture as it has come down to us: the gaping flaw in our logic of perceiving it as being the result of Divine Revelation. However divinely inspired it might or might not be, whether a text – any text – is or is not the Word of God is something which is decided by imperfect and very fallible us.

[1] Luke 3: 23-38 meticulously traces the lineage of Jesus from God, then Adam, all through the generations to the carpenter Joseph: a logic which passes me by when doctrine declares that his conception was of divine origin, and so making the tracing of such an earthly lineage redundant.

[2] Clearly this also applies to any texts which other religions deem to be the result of Divine Revelation. However much respect (or the lack of it) we might give the texts of another belief, one religion does not regard the text of another religion as falling within this category, otherwise the world would be of one faith. I have various editions of the Bible in my collection, including three editions in Dutch (right: the Dutch edition of the Bible illustrated with Rembrandt's etchings of Biblical subjects), as well as an authorized English translation of the Quran. Irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat them all with due consideration and respect. 

[3] King James Study Bible. Zondervan, 2002.

[4] The epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, and the 14th-century romance of chivalry Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are three examples which fall into this category.

[5] The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer. Published by Harper One for Harper Collins, 2008.

[6] Coptic is an adaptation of written Egyptian using the Greek language.

[7] Such texts were written in Koine Greek: the common form of the Greek language in the Hellenist Middle East (that is: the areas which were subject to Greek influence following the conquests of Alexander the Great, which would have included Galilee and what is now Syria).

[8] Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters (Trinity Press International, 1975) and Hans-Josef Klauck’s Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis (Baylor University Press, 2006) both provide exhaustive analysis of the letters of Paul.

[9] Codices are manuscripts bound in book form.

[10] From Ancient Hebrew into Greek for the Septuagint, or from Greek into Coptic. It is only to be expected that the more remote from the source, the less certain is the accuracy of the translation. The list, of course, goes on: from Aramaic into Greek, from Greek into Latin, from Latin into Middle English, from Middle English (and German) into the poetically archaic English of the King James Version, and so into all the languages of today. Translation, as anyone knows who has tried it, is not just a matter of transposing words. So many, many words simply have no equivalent in another language. Inflexions of meaning and differences in syntax and idiom can all conspire to force drastic compromise upon the translator, and subtle metaphors can become lost in a plodding literalism to take on new meanings which the original writers never intended. On this title page (left) of the Bible, translated from the Greek and Hebrew into German by Martin Luther in 1524, the artist Lucas Cranach depicts Joshua as an armoured knight very much belonging to his own time. 

[11] Please see my post A Simple Misunderstanding.

[13] Please see my post The Butcher of Canaan.

[14] Please see my post The Words of Jesus.

[15] Please see my post The Lost Ark of Noah.

[16] 2 Kings 2: 23-24. I personally view these two short verses as two of the most callous and brutal which I have come across in all of scripture. This is not to say that I believe this shocking incident actually happened. It is what it says about it being included in scripture, and about what those who wrote it imagined to be God’s suitable justice. The two verses are short enough to include in full here: “23: And he (Elisha) went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. 24: And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” If you think such bloody brutality would make even a Christian Apologist bend a knee, I refer you to this Christian website. Just scroll down to the picture of the bears and read how the ‘little children’ of scripture have mysteriously morphed in this commentary to become ‘young men’ who (according to this writer) get their well-deserved come-uppance. Seriously?

[17] While there appears to be much focus on the incident of the bears tearing the children to pieces as the result of Elisha’s cursing them, the following episode of Elisha raising a child from the dead (2 Kings 4: 8-37) seems to be glossed over in terms of placing it alongside the first incident to create a savage irony (which is why I do so here). Scripture tells us that Elisha had the power of life over death. Why then did he not compassionately use that power earlier – or more to the point: why did Elisha behave so despicably in the first place?

Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries 1941-43, and Letters from Westerbork. Henry Holt and Company Inc. 1996. Other sourced titles are included in the notes above.

Gospel of Judas from National Geographic. Great Isaiah Scroll from Wikimedia Commons. Choctaw translation of the Lord’s Prayer provided by John C. Sacoolidge. Choctaw beaded sash from the 1830’s from the Oklahoma Historical Society. The imagined portrait of the prophet Enoch is painted by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, with a section of the Greek text of the Book of Enoch as a background.

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