14 April 2006

God's own truth

Oh no, another long comment from the Dilbert Blog. This time the topic is the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible, and people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

I didn’t read through all the comments posted over there, but what I did read was more worrying than the original topic. Why would anyone want to argue that the errors in the Bible prove that it’s all a load of rubbish? And why would anyone want to say that any books discussing the same errors are just a liberal (not a dirty word in Europe, btw) attempt to undermine Bush’s voters? None of this has anything to do with the point.

The fact that there are errors in the Bible is, quite frankly, passé. It should be utterly uncontroversial. There are whole sections missing from what most people now consider the definitive versions, namely the Apocrypha. These were once considered as much a part of the text as the current canon, but were edited out at a later date because they seemed inconsistent - in fact, they were included in the earliest versions of the King James Bible. There are entire disciplines of scriptural study looking into the origin, consistency and meaning of the Bible. For example, religious scholars have for centuries concerned themselves with hermeneutics:
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.

So there is nothing new about any of this. After all, The King James Bible is a English translation. And if a text is translated, say, from English into German, and then back again, the new English text will contain countless discrepancies from the original source. It is factually impossible to regard the Bible as the literal word of God when what we mean by ‘The Bible’ is an English-language translation, the standard version of which dates from more than 1,500 years after Christ is supposed to have died.

As far as I know, Muslims do believe that the Koran is the word of God, and accordingly any translation is merely a stepping-stone to the real thing. And again, as far as I know, they have a proof, and a test - the language is supposed to be so beautiful that it could not have been written by humans, and there is a age-old challenge to disbelievers to write something more beautiful. For better or for worse, the Bible has never been like that, and even less so since Martin Luther made the translation of the Bible into the ‘common’ language one of the defining points of Protestantism (and how many of you Catholics have a Latin or Greek Bible at home?).

What I’m getting at is that no-one with any awareness of the study of scripture would find anything here to get fired up about. Pointing out that there are errors and inconsistencies in the Bible should make absolutely no difference to a believer’s faith, any more than a list of clumsy sentences by Shakespeare would undermine the fact that he was the greatest writer of English to have ever lived.

I’m reminded of a song on an embarrassing CD that I own. It has the inspired lyric, “I keep my Bible in a bucket of blood so that I don’t get corrupted by its lies.” It struck me when I first heard it that the only people to get quite so angry about the Bible are fundamentalists and Heavy-Metal singers. They mutually offend each other, the Bible being kicked back and forth like a football, only neither side scores a goal, because both sides miss the point. The Bible is above all this, as a text, as an object of faith, as a means to God. I’m not religious, but it seems clear to me that reducing it to the mere words on the page, for whatever reason - either for their truth or their falsity - is to bend it to someone’s will, rather than letting it speak for itself.

I’ll end with a little thought-experiment, in the form of a quotation from that favourite fundamentalist scapegoat, Marilyn Manson: “Do you love your guns? God? Government?” Look at that list carefully: if you see nothing offensive in the associations being made, and no actual criticism of the Bible itself, then there there’s hope (he says patronisingly). But then, you probably couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the errors in the Bible, either.

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