Saturday, June 3, 2017

Biblical Rewriting Increasingly Evident

A recent book about the Bible made an interesting and telling observation.  The book, coauthored by Moshe Halbertal, Hebrew University professor of Jewish thought and philosophy, and by Stephen Holmes, NYU law professor, examines the political aspects of the biblical Book of Samuel, and how the themes in the book resonate across history.

At the same time, the authors conceded that Samuel 1 & 2 were produced by multiple writers, at least one of whom was an “astute observer.”

Notice that God isn’t credited with picking up a pen.

This book on Samuel continues the gradual undermining of the belief that the Bible is the “word of God.”  Many in this country still believe it, although the percentages continue to decline.  A 2014 Gallup poll found that more than 25 percent of Americans now accept that the Bible is a secular book, almost double the percentage who thought that a few years earlier.

At the same time, the percentage of Americans who think the Bible is God’s handiwork has fallen from 38 to 40 percent in the 1970s to 28 percent less than 50 years later.

Halbertal and Holmes’ tome, titled The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, continues the erosion process.  They agree that the Bible was written by people, not a deity.

To counter, believers insist the Bible was faithfully transmitted generation after generation so that, with minor copying errors, it does reflect the Lord’s exact statements.

That claim is simply, factually, and demonstrably wrong.

Sample of Dead Sea Scrolls
Consider the Old Testament, the first 39 books.  Until the mid-1900s, the oldest complete copy dated from around 1000 C.E.  Scribes continued to copy each letter exactly at least from that point and probably for hundreds of years earlier. 

However, in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in Israel near the deserted city of Qumran.  They date as far back as 200 B.C.E., at least 1200 years prior to the previous complete version.  To the delight of archaeologists and historians, the large ceramic storage jars uncovered in caves there contained almost all books of the Bible.  The book of Esther was not included because it was a later addition to the canon.

Also, the Scrolls included many texts that were no longer considered sacred, such as the writings of 2nd century B.C.E. sage Ben Sura.

To everyone’s surprise, though, there were multiple versions of each book. Some books were longer than our current version; some were shorter.  Many contained alternative paragraphs or other major changes. 
Finding editing

Biblical scholars quickly realized that there was no authentic text.  No one had copied each word carefully.  At one time, the books were obviously not considered sacred or untouchable.

As a result, there is no way to determine the original version of each book now included in the Old Testament.

Von Tischendorf
The same is true with the New Testament.  In 1844, a German scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf found the earliest known version of the book of Mark.  

A devout Christian, von Tischendorf had become upset with academic research then beginning to cast doubts about the historical accuracy of the Gospel.

His solution was to search for the oldest documents he could find in hopes of proving that the texts had been faithfully transmitted.  At Mount Sinai monastery, he found leather rolls containing the gospel texts.  The monks had been burning them to keep warm.

Once apprised of their contents, the monks refused to let von Tischendorf take the scrolls with him, so he faithfully copied them.  He was forced to make numerous changes because the Gospels he had memorized varied from the versions he uncovered. 

Historian Paul Johnson called the handiwork “pious editing” as later writers changed the text to concur with new ideas.  Some of the changes were minor.  Some, however, were significant.  

In Matthew, for example, someone appended “who was thought to be” at the end of Jesus’ genealogy, which leads to naming Joseph as Jesus’ father.  When the Virgin Birth became the accepted teaching, the sentence was altered to cover up the idea that Joseph could have sired Jesus.

In addition, the entire resurrection account in Mark, then part of the Gospel that von Tischendorf knew, was not in the book he found or in a second copy he located in the Vatican.  As a result, that inserted tale was removed from subsequent Bibles, but resurrection stories in Matthew and Luke, which are based on the pseudo-Mark material, were retained.

Historians now know, as with the Old Testament, there is no original version of the New Testament.  At best, hundreds of thousands of changes were made in the sacred texts by editors who did not believe the books came from God.

Pious folks today aren’t likely to pay attention to the research, even when what they believe is merely the revised imaginings of writers with little to no respect for the original material.

Bill Lazarus is a long-time religious historian who has published multiple books on the topic.  His works are available on such sites as Kindle, Amazon and others.  To contact him, write him at wplazarus