Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Don't Religious Groups Agree?

A reader emailed me to ask what seems like a simple question: why do pronouncements from religious groups sometimes seem to contradict teachings in holy scriptures?

The answer is a bit complex.

For starters, there is no one scripture.  Every text has an original that has disappeared.  That’s true for the Bible, Qur’an, Avista or any other sacred book you can name.  The originals are gone because they wore out.  They were often on vellum or parchment, which are simply dried animal skins.  The ink gets soaked up; the words fade.  So, new copies are made.

All the texts are old.  No one had a copier.  So, everything was copied by hand, and the previous ones discarded until, at some point, they were deemed too sacred for that.  Of course, by then, the originals were long gone. 

When something is copied, mistakes are inevitable.  There are even mistakes in hieroglyphics painted on Egyptian monuments.  Letters are duplicated and so on.  Sometimes, even words are dropped.   No one deliberately made a change.  It happens.

Moreover, the original texts were written in archaic languages, such as old Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and the like.  Today, we don’t know what some of the terms mean.  What is gopher wood?  That’s what Noah supposedly used to build his ark.  What are urrim and thurrim, which were used to cast lots?  No one knows.

There are lots of educated guesses, but that’s all they are. 

In addition, the texts are translated.  Few of us today can read the old languages, much less translate them.  Only scholars read the Bible in the original language.  In this country, we read English translations.  However, translations are only approximations of what was actually written.  They are limited because the full context cannot be known.  After all, in modern times, a mention of the non-religious term like “Irangate” requires knowledge of why the word “gate” was attached, the circumstances around which the event took place and a myriad of other aspects known only to the people in our time period.

Translations, per force, miss an awful lot of the meaning imbued in any statement in holy books.

That’s why scholars interpret the texts.  Jewish sages wrote down their thoughts in what today is known as the Talmud.  It contains both written discussions and oral ideas that were later recorded.  In Islam, there are three different books containing the interpretations.  Each is an attempt to explain the written word, but all the interpretations naturally are affected by the time period when they were recorded and by the viewpoint of the scholar.

As a result, there are multiple ways to read any concept propounded in a religious text.

Creation from dust
In addition, the texts are broad enough to encompass multiple ideas. After all, the Commandment that demands  “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” sounds simple, but what does “keep it holy” mean?  The answer depends on which group a person belongs to.

In addition, there are conflicting stories.  There are two stories of Noah’s flood, for example.  In one, it rains 7 days; in the other, 40.  In one, animals board 7 by 7; in the other, 2 x 2.  In Genesis 1, man and woman are created simultaneous from a clump of dirt.  In Genesis 2, woman is created from man’s rib.  The list goes on in all sacred texts.  For example, Jesus was a “secret” messiah in a book ascribed to Mark and yet much heralded in Luke. 

As a result, anyone reading sacred literature can find support for almost any viewpoint.  After all, none of the great religious books were written as a unit, but contain multiple books or chapters composed at various times in history.  Parts of Genesis date back to around 3200 years ago; other parts were written 700 to 800 years later.  In the New Testament, John is considered the youngest text, dating from 105 to 120 C.E., while Mark is the oldest and commonly dated to around 70 to 71 C.E.

That explains internal disagreements.

In addition, texts have been edited and augmented.  How much is not clear, but the earliest Mark ever found disagrees considerably from the one currently in use.  The changes, what historian Paul Johnson called “pious editing,” were not done to deceive, but to provide information later authors thought had been overlooked or to match up with new ideas in a particular religion.

Dead Sea scroll
That’s why the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the oldest versions of books now found in the Old Testament, include multiple variations of the current texts, ranging from apparent copying errors to entirely new material. 

The end result is that no one knows what the correct text is.  And, even if we did, we couldn’t really understand it as originally intended.

That opens the door to multiple, even contradictory, interpretations and to various sects who disagree even though they draw their inspiration from same sentences in the same book.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

No comments:

Post a Comment