Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Goodbye To All of That

I've given up on arguing with religious people about religion, because it's a waste of my time. I made that decision quite a while ago. I didn't figure out all on my own that it was a waste of time. There are many very important things I know because wise people told them to me. In this case it was Nietzsche.

But today it occurs to me that I have been wasting my time on another large group of people: those who attack the Bible on specious grounds having to do with textual transmission, claiming that the King James Version is a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation, or that Roman Emperors had Biblical texts edited to suit their political ends, or that used to be hundreds of Gospels. You know the type, if you've participated in a lot of discussions of how the Bible came down to us and reached its present form. (You may BE one of those people.)

It's usually atheists who raise these and other inaccurate objections to the text of the Bible. But not always: there are those who might be described as Ur-Christians, people who believe that Christianity was impure even before it reached the stage of being written down in the New Testament. They may believe in a Q source for Matthew and Luke, which no-one has ever seen. There are angry Protestants who think that Catholics have greatly altered the Bible. (There are a few angry Catholics who think that the Vulgate is just fine and that the King James Version is a mess.) What these people and others have in common is that they object to the current Bible on the grounds that it is not the original Bible, that the text has been corrupted.

To be sure, they can't SHOW you very many examples of this corruption. If challenged to do so they'll typically take off on a non-sequitur tangent. If pressed, they might assert that the entire Christian concept of the Virgin Birth is a linguistic error, because the term for "young girl" was mistakenly changed to the term for "virgin." Actually, virgin birth is one of many concepts integral to Christianity which are not original to Christianity. The many alleged errors and/or deliberate changes in the Biblical text are typically part of a narrative repeated at second or third hand. A mythology, asserted without evidence just as religious mythology is asserted without evidence.

If you take the trouble to go back to the written sources of early Christianity, you will see the record of the very opposite of the alleged willful alteration of Holy Scripture. You see an immense effort on all sides to identify and faithfully preserve the earliest and purest written records of Christ and of the Church. Immense, and I think actually successful: the "other" Gospels, that of Thomas, of Judas, of Mary Magdalene, all seem to have been written significantly later than the four which were eventually included in the Christian canon, in the late 2nd century AD, when Irenaeus was referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the original accounts of Jesus' life.

And I think they are actually the closest to original accounts of all the known Scripture and would-be Scripture, of all the Bible and all the known apochrypha. Perhaps the atheists and others who constantly cry corruption cannot conceive that Christians as early as Irenaeus could A) honestly want to find the most original documents pertaining to the life and teachings of Jesus, and B) actually succeed in the attempt to identify the most original such documents in existence. All through the history of Christianity, countless scholars have vied with each other to transmit these documents faithfully, and to translate them accurately, and ever more accurately. (I don't mean to diminish the huge contribution made by Jewish scholars in preserving the Old Testament, beginning who knows how many century BC. It's just that this whole meshuggah discussion of Biblical texts being intentionally corrupted seems to center around Christians and ex-Christians and people who are angry specifically at Christianity.) Those who allege intentional corruption have got nothing, it's just as simple as that. They're repeating a political talking point, they are not familiar with the relevant source documents. Just like religious believers, their point of departure is the evidence of things not seen.

And it's futile to argue with people like that. They're not open to arguments, whether they believe in the content of the Holy Scriptures under discussion, or in the currently popular myth of that content having been intentionally altered any time after, say, AD 150. Earlier than that, there's very little historical record to tell us anything about the content of the New Testament or people's attitudes toward it. But there are scraps of papyrus with fragment New Testament texts from around that time -- not the texts themselves, but copies of the texts actually written down in the 2nd century AD. Smoking guns which could prove that someone later altered them extensively. They prove the opposite.

So -- goodbye to all of that nonsense. The search continues for sensible discussion partners to add to the few I already have.

7 comments:

  1. I don't think you really understand what Paul's poetic imagery is getting at, though, when he calls faith the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.

    From a phenomenological point of view, everything available to the senses or to cognition is—precisely—the evidence of things unseen. Even Nietzsche thinks so. That the Object is a representation of the Will (whether it denies itself or not) is also just Schopenhauer’s way of giving Caesar his due for the other side of the coin—the world as representation of the substance of things willed (whether as objects of hope or dread, conscious or unconscious, being quite beside the point).

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  2. Being outside the church can be a difficult path to follow. And greater consciuosness of the long history of religious experience adds further conflicts. But I'd say it is worth the effort. ---- Jay

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  3. I guess my real problem with the way many believers and nonbelievers, alike, approach the canonized biblical material stems from the false dilemma—as I see it—that’s created by insisting these texts represent either an infallible, inerrant, unambiguous and adamantly un-ambivalent injunction and admonition from Almighty God directly to anyone who can manage to place his right hand on the book, let alone read it—or, at the other pole of the dilemma, a garbage heap of mistranslated, deviously edited and redacted propagandistic instruments.

    I would hope those with whom Steven has given up argumentation are in a minority—thinking, if I understand him aright—that the biblical material has lost resolution or fidelity, as it were, by being analogically copied (rather than digitally) repeatedly over the centuries. I agree completely that this is not an issue. But the texts that survive are not by any means texts that exist, as originally composed or set down. What we have is a cobbled-up palimpsest of shards and fragments of disparate documents that went through myriad editorial and redactive manipulations before they were ever “translated” into any language other than that of their composition. And the texts particular to the New Testament have the additional difficulty of having been set down in a form of shorthand that demands an already-fleshed-out doctrinal and dogmatic interpretation before they can even be read—let alone translated.

    No—the problem with the Holy Bible is not that it has been “translated too many times.” The problem is that its very creation—as an accretion of textual exudates from a wide variety of sources and spiritual perspectives—yields an amalgam of poetic imagery whose only psychic value resides in the terrain of myth, as correctly understood by someone like Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung. Considered in this way, the occasional mistranslations—and they are many—only contribute to the psychic capaciousness of the medium’s range.

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  4. Indeed, the poetic qualities of biblical writing gets so little attention, while the religious issues are being stressed. We (in this case, IDF threads) have not yet mentioned the gnostic gospels which also lead to a further expression of numinous experience.

    The library of religious and spiritual literature and exegesis may be the most extensive writing of the past 3000 years. It is rather surprising or perplexing that there can be some otherwise intelligent people who ignore this vast endeavor and what it reveals about human experience. I wonder if these atheists have missed some of the important insights that come with life's difficulties. --- Jay

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  5. Indeed, the poetic qualities of biblical writing gets so little attention, while the religious issues are being stressed. We (in this case, IDF threads) have not yet mentioned the gnostic gospels which also lead to a further expression of numinous experience.

    The library of religious and spiritual literature and exegesis may be the most extensive writing of the past 3000 years. It is rather surprising or perplexing that there can be some otherwise intelligent people who ignore this vast endeavor and what it reveals about human experience. I wonder if these atheists have missed some of the important insights that come with life's difficulties.

    I’m trying to look at the way my way of reading biblical texts—and other religious texts—evidently differs from that of Steven, or any among those who see more through a lens associated with history—rather than with myth, or poesy.

    I think that’s where the apparent discrepancies in our ways of talking springs from. I don’t want to dispute the notion that most of the apocryphal and non-canonized New Testament vintage texts were written later than those canonized. That’s a spat that the Church has been having with the rest of the world for over a millennium, and has everything to do with politics and all but nothing to do with the psyche—or the spirit or the soul or the body, or anything else human one might really care about.

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  6. The fact is: none of the texts we have are earlier than the 3rd ad 4th century C. E. And while most all of these purport to be composed much earlier, there’s no way to know. Steven mentioned the Q manuscript, if only to marginalize or refute its significance. But the fact that we no longer have such a prototype of the synoptic gospels does not refute the clear necessity that one had to exist; the synoptic gospels, intelligently and logically scrutinized insist on it. To suggest otherwise is simply to reveal that one doesn’t understand what the relation between the synoptic gospels is and why their juxtaposition indicates the prior existence of a common source. Those who comprehended the concept of extrapolation knew Pluto was there before it was ever seen. In the case of textual gravitation, sometimes the necessary source of an extrapolated conclusion simply has not survived. That doesn’t make its discovery any the less important or real.

    But the real issue, here, I think, is that sense in which the historical and the fictive were already well alienated from one another by the time the “Christian” texts were first being set down—which was probably almost a century after any actual experiential events that may or may not be referred to in them. The schism between history and the fictive imagination was not equally comprehended or addressed by the Church and that which would eventually appear to have arisen against it, in this dialectic. From the ecclesiastical, scholastic point of view—the first millennium of Christianity was not in the least in contradiction of the philosophical evolution of science. That’s one reason why the Reformation erupted like Pompei by the time it did. The pristine nature of early Christian texts Steven is championing is attributable to the Church fathers, alone. It’s the Eliza Doolittle to their Pygmalion.

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  7. Not that the contemporary generation of Protestant heirs to that Reformation are any different. Philistines have always been Philistines. Dogs asleep in the manger: the cattle can’t get at their food. They lock the door to the kingdom and let no one in; neither do they go in, themselves. If Steven thinks Nietzsche’s essential argument about the antichrist is simply that the Christian Churches of the world and the Christ they worship are that entity—then we agree entirely.

    All of which leads me to the issue of the mythic and/or poetic reading of scriptural texts. In 1975 is seemed as though we were on the eve of a real breakthrough into a mass-appreciation of this way of proceeding without abandoning the very core of our cultural past. But I wonder, now. There are so many Young Turk critics and intellectuals whose perpetual dampness behind the ear promises never to fade. When the has-beens of literary criticism like Harold Bloom have to point to show-boaters like James Wood to find someone to praise, I think we’re in real trouble.

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