Respectful Insolence

The Bible eternally unchanged and unchanging?

…not according to this article:

If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?

The fossil evidence for human evolution is permanently on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Hard evidence that the Bible took its present shape over centuries will be on display for the next 11 weeks, from today through Jan. 7, across the Mall at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

They are rarer than dinosaur bones, these fragments of papyrus and animal skin that tell the Bible’s story. With names such as Codex Sinaiticus, the Macregol Gospels and the Valenciennes Apocalypse, they evoke lost empires and ancient monasteries as surely as archaeopteryx and ceratosaurus conjure up primeval swamps and forests.

The Sackler’s exhibition, “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000,” is one of the broadest assemblages of this material ever brought together in one place. “It has not happened before, and we will not see its like again in our lives,” said guest curator Michelle P. Brown, professor of medieval manuscript studies at the University of London.

For example, we have the Unknown Gospel and the Codex Sinaiticus:

Among the writings that ultimately were not accepted into the Christian canon, the Sackler shows a 2nd-century fragment of the Unknown Gospel, which includes the story of an attempt to stone Jesus, and a 3rd-century papyrus known as the Sayings of Jesus, including this one: “Jesus says: A prophet is not acceptable in his own country, nor does a physician work cures on those who know him.”

As Christians were establishing what was in and what was out, they began compiling the New Testament in a book, or codex. In the physical and ideological heart of the exhibition are two stained parchment pages of meticulous Greek script from one of the most celebrated: Codex Sinaiticus, discovered in 1859 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert.

Ever since it came to light, Sinaiticus has been a pivotal document — and a theological challenge — for scholars like Ehrman. Together with a few other documents, it forms the basis for the most authoritative modern versions of the Old Testament in the original Greek.

Ehrman noted that its version of the Gospel of John is missing the story of the woman taken in adultery, the famous parable in which Jesus says to those who would kill the woman, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” He and many other textual scholars believe the adultery story was not introduced into John until the Middle Ages.

None of this is surprising or disturbing to any but fundamentalists who claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God that has not changed since God inspired the authors to put His Word to paper. After all, the Bible is a collection of texts most of whose authors are unknown, lost in the mists of time. Moreover, the manuscripts were, until the advent of the printing press, copied and recopied by hand.

Comments

  1. #1 tim gueguen
    October 23, 2006

    What’s even more amusing about Biblical literalists in the English speaking world is that many hold the King James Version to be the “true” Bible, assuming that God went to the trouble of making sure those who produced it did it right.

  2. #2 Joan
    October 23, 2006

    […]how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is stupid. The compilation of the Bible is historical fact, and it’s not a question of “acceptance.” It’s a historical fact that the sola scriptura folks ignore, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

    IDers hang on to the shred that evolution is a theory. They’re sad and ridiculous, but they’re right at least in that.

  3. #3 Alison
    October 23, 2006

    Yes, but when IDiots use the word “theory”, they define it as “hunch” or “gut feeling”.

  4. #4 Garrett
    October 23, 2006

    Joan, it’s not stupid. Many christians, including my brother’s wife, do not know this fact, and refuse to believe it when it is pointed out to them.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    October 23, 2006

    Joan wrote:

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is stupid. The compilation of the Bible is historical fact, and it’s not a question of “acceptance.” It’s a historical fact that the sola scriptura folks ignore, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

    I fail to see the distinction here. How do we know that the Bible took form slowly, over many generations with input from many human editors? Observation, deduction and inference. How do we know that species developed and diversified over billions of years, governed by “the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators”? Again: observation, deduction and inference. In some cases, very similar tools are useful in testing both theories — we date fossils using radioisotope decay, just as we can find the age of a scroll by carbon-14 dating. The isotopes differ, but the idea remains the same.

    The “historical method” does not always operate the same way as the “scientific method”. For example, a chemist can repeat an experiment, but a historian cannot replay the conferences which led to the Treaty of Versailles, even though it might be nice to know how many times out of ten the same diplomats could agree on the same wording. Still, just as a chemist or a physicist proposes a new theory and then deduces with that theory what we should see in places where we have not yet looked, so too does the historian.

  6. #6 CCP
    October 23, 2006

    “What’s even more amusing about Biblical literalists in the English speaking world is that many hold the King James Version to be the “true” Bible, assuming that God went to the trouble of making sure those who produced it did it right.”

    Important word here: “those”…the KJV was put together by a committee! We have some of their notes and discarded versions! Jeez!

  7. #7 Scott Belyea
    October 23, 2006

    What’s even more amusing about Biblical literalists in the English speaking world is that many hold the King James Version to be the “true” Bible,

    How many? Certainly some do (and they tend to be noisy), but I have the impression that this is a pretty small fanatical fringe.

    If you have evidence to the contrary, I’d be interested to see it. I suppose that “many of the hard-core literalists” could be true, but even there, I’m not sure.

  8. #8 ArtK
    October 23, 2006

    I strongly recommend Bart Ehrman’s book, “Misquoting Jesus.” I’ve often thought that we could apply to the Bible the same techniques used in biology to develop a phylogenetic tree based on rate-of-change and such.

    http://www.amazon.com/Misquoting-Jesus-Story-Behind-Changed/dp/0060738170

  9. #9 JP
    October 23, 2006

    I strongly recommend Bart Ehrman’s book, “Misquoting Jesus.”

    Seconded. I really enjoyed this book.

    Plus, Ehrman’s own story gives me some hope (he went from a being a biblical literalist and fundamentalist to being an agnostic via New Testament scholarship).

  10. #10 Jud
    October 23, 2006

    Another vote for Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” (he’s written some others along the same general lines). He comes across to me as rather careful and thoughtful, which makes his conclusions seem all the more dramatic when he reaches them.

  11. #11 Joshua
    October 23, 2006

    “he went from a being a biblical literalist and fundamentalist to being an agnostic via New Testament scholarship”

    Interesting. Sounds similar to my own trajectory. And I’ve always been interested in the history of biblical authorship, so I should probably check this book out.

    Too bad the exhibit is at the Smithsonian. I’d love to go and see it.

  12. #12 justawriter
    October 23, 2006

    Indeed. Part of my “revelation” came in a class on the New Testament (required at the religious, but not doctrinaire college I attended) with a professor who used a Greek bible in class translating on the fly. He got to one of the epistles, 2nd Peter IIRC, and stopped in midsentence and said something to the effect, “Man this is horribly written Greek” and was stylistically nothing like any other book in the New Testament. He told us it was probably added much later than the others to bolster a side in one of the early theological debates.

    That was about the time I decided to start doubting special revelation. Or as a tee shirt slogan of the time said, “Only God knows, and he hasn’t talked to anyone sane in years.”

  13. #13 reboho
    October 23, 2006

    First Man evolved, then he intelligently designed god.

  14. #14 Rob Knop
    October 23, 2006

    People who believe in Biblical Authority (who will not accept that the document we have today was put together from many separate documents, and that it has gone through changes) also believe that the Bible is completely consistent.

    One need do no more than read the Bible to see that it’s full of self-contradictions. (Which of course can be part of what’s worth thinking about if you’re into that thinking thing.) Somehow, though, Bible-adherents maintain the idea that it’s completely self-consistent.

    So, obviousness seems not to be good enough anywhere.

    -Rob

  15. #15 wolfwalker
    October 23, 2006

    Tangential rant: the WaPo article said:

    The fossil evidence for human evolution is permanently on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Hard evidence that the Bible took its present shape over centuries will be on display for the next 11 weeks, from today through Jan. 7, across the Mall at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

    This is the second time in the last two weeks I’ve seen this mistake. Will someone please tell the WaPo that the American Museum of Natural History is in New York City, NOT Washington DC?

  16. #16 Dunc
    October 24, 2006

    Sounds like a very interesting exhibition. I wonder if they’ll have any of the really controversial stuff there, such as the Magdalene Gospel? Or any of the writings of the Cainites?

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