Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Misrepresenting the Bible
A brief review of the latest conspiracy theory book for agnostics, "Misquoting Jesus: the story behind who changed the Bible and Why", by Bart Ehrman

This week I permitted myself a rare luxury, a visit to Borders Books & Music during which I actually purchased a few items. These included a CD Recording of The Psalms of David, Vol. 1, by the Choir of King's College Cambridge (for our Parish Library); two copies of C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce (to give to young people in our parish), and Misquoting Jesus: the story behind who changed the Bible and Why (to see why a book about the Bible ended up on the New York Time's Bestseller List).

My original suspiscion was that Misquoting Jesus would turn out to be yet another book on the New Testament manuscript tradition by yet another agnostic contraversialist, yet again in the mold of the Jesus Seminar's Marcus Borg. When will these guys learn?

It turns out I was only partly right. Misquoting Jesus is written by an agnostic controversialist, and it is a survey of the NT manuscript tradition, but the author is not of the same mold as Marcus Borg. Dr. Bart Ehrman writes with poignant honesty about his own loss of faith, and the steps he went through to get where he is today. He places his own personal story front-and-center in the Introduction to the book, and thus shapes the context for the rest of the book as part personal reflection/part survey of the New Testament manuscript tradition. The personal reflection was to me the most interesting part of the book, because the details of the biblical manuscript tradition are pretty well-known. Ehrman presents the issues very clearly, but his often gloomy portrayal is shaped by his own apparent depression over problems in the historical transmission of the New Testament.

In a nutshell, there are a number of small discrepancies and variances (gasp!) among the 5,000+ Greek manuscripts and papyrii of the N.T., from its nearly 2,000 year history, a history which involves dozens of human authors, thousands of very human copyists and a journey of translation encompassing several languages.

Why should this surpise anyone?!

The plot thickens, and we find out why this was surprising to Dr. Ehrman. It turns out that Ehrman was once a hard-core fundamentalist Christian, trained at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. There he was taught to think of the Bible as possessing "plenary verbal inerrancy". Now "verbal inerrancy" can mean different things to different people, but commonly it is taken to mean that the text of the Bible (the words on the page themselves) are fully free of any error or mistake whatsoever, large or small.

As time went on, Ehrman discovered for himself what most of Christendom has known all along - namely that the Bible has a history. The Bible didn't fall out of the sky in the New International Version, with Fundamentalist Study Notes. It was not even written in English, originally. So, if the words are supposed to be inerrant, then we have to ask 'which words': the English, Latin, Greek or Hebrew? Also which manuscript among the many manuscripts with small variations contains the original, inerrant words?

Ehrman's reaction to his discovery was unfortunate, but it was predictable. In essence he was unable to refrain from thrusting out his lower lip, kicking the wall and pouting, "If it's not verbally inerrant down to the crossing of every 't' and the dotting of every 'i', and if every existing manuscript isn't in complete agreement, then WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE ANY OF IT?!" It is difficult to imagine a more clear-cut case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Never mind that the biblical manuscript tradition is still the best and most consistent for any ancient document, even with the variances; never mind that Ehrman himself admits that most of the variances are of little consequence. The few exceptional cases, such as the Johanine Comma, the Markan epilogue, the ending statement of the Lord's Prayer, a sentence in the Beatitudes -which might give some cause for alarm- end up not being faith shattering at all. At least they need not be, unless your religion is based upon the "plenary verbal inerrancy" of Scripture. Every seminarian knows about the important variances, and is interested in them for their own sake, but even with such variances as these the Bible loses nothing essential that can't be read in other places. In fact, as Bruce Metzger would point out, there is no point of Christian belief that would change because of variances amongst the manuscript tradition. This in spite of hundreds of years of textual criticism.

So, was Ehrman's belief in God fatally traumatized by his experience of Christian fundamentalism? Is he unable to recover? Does he still continue to hope that the original, inerrant manuscript exists somewhere, and that his powerful experience as a young man at Moody Bible Institute will turn out to be correct, afterall?

Surprisingly, no. It turns out that Ehrman's study of New Testament manuscripts is not itself the reason for his personal apostasy. There is no big deal there. Nothing faith-shattering. Rather, "I no longer believe in God, because of all the suffering in the world", Ehrman whines, from his very comfortable ivory tower at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Never mind the billion or more devout Christian believers who live with poverty and suffering, yet cheerfully accept and believe in God.

Now I admit that it is unbecoming to be overly scornful of Dr. Ehrman, so let me offer him an apology:

"Dear Dr. Ehrman, I am sorry that you were misinformed by well-meaning people at the Moody Bible Institute in the late 1960's, about the plenary, verbal inerrancy of the Bible."

There ... do you feel better, now? Will you stop blaming God, and get on with Life? Better yet, out of your new-found riches as an agnostic controversialist, kindly make a donation to my Parish Libary to cover the cost of your book - I've heard the same tragic story too many times before.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Thoughts on "This I Believe"
The popular NPR segment on personal values

Tonight I listened to the history of This I Believe on KUOW (one of Seattle's two NPR stations). This I Believe is a series of essays about personal beliefs and values, written by ordinary Americans and read out over the radio. It is part of the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, who created and ran the series in the early 1950's. Famous Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Hellen Keller, Harry Truman and Abert Einstein wrote essays for the program. Fifty years later, in 2001, the program was revived by Jay Allison. Once again it was intended as a public exercise in personal introspection, but this time it was open from the beginning to all Americans, famous and nonfamous. Over 30,000 essays have been submitted thus far. This I Believe is often heard during NPR's Morning Edition or during All Things Considered.

The title of the show is obviously inspired by the first words of the great Christian Creeds (Apostles', and Nicene) which begin with pisteuo (in greek), credo (in latin), or the words "I believe" in English. These creeds set forth a summary of the historic faith of the Church based upon the contents of Holy Scripture. The Nicene Creed orginally began, "We [the bishops] believe..." It was a message to the World from the bishops of the Church, assembled in council. However, it has long been used as the basis of pre-baptismal instruction for converts to the Christian Faith, and when it becomes the creed of each individual believer it begins, "I believe".

There is a big difference between the NPR show This I Believe, and the "I believe" of the Church. NPR's This I Believe is a quasi-philosophical exercise in personal introspection. Contributors to the show are expected to journey inward and then to let us know what keeps them going or what makes them successful in this world. From within their own feelings and subjectivity they bring forth and air their opinions to the NPR audience. Often the essays take the form of platitudes ("I believe in the power of love"); they are often intriguing and humorous ("I believe in the freedom offered by semi-permanent hair dye"), but rarely are they very profound, in fact, many times they sound rather vain and pompous.

The point of this public dialogue about personal values is for everyone to keep listening to other personal points of view - sometimes to feel affirmed by them and other times to feel outraged - but never to stop the listening, and [presumably] never to reach a conclusion. It is described as a "public dialogue", but as a Christian listener I find myself wondering whether or not it is actually a monologue, the parameters of which have been clearly predetermined by agnostic/atheistical radio producers. Edward R. Murrow was determined, for example, that no religious dogma should ever enter the sphere of this dialogue, (as though religious dogma could never be a legitimate part of a person's values).

Now for the "I believe" of each baptized person of Christendom. This is the expression of a living faith that comes from outside of us. It is not based upon our subjectivity or personal opinions, but transcends both our feelings and our times. It is based upon Holy Scripture, which is a record of God's dealings with mankind, a record which has been tested and found to be authoritative and reliable by God's People throughout history. The "I believe" of Christendom brings each of us into fellowship with something beyond ourselves; in accepting the creeds of the Church, we are invited to journey outward to contemplate God and to find ourselves united in Spirit with Christians of every time, every generation, every race and every land.

The Creed's of the Church will likely never be heard on the NPR show This I believe. Thanks to the Internet, however, I can set forth the following, the most basic creed of Christendom, called "The Apostles' Creed". Engage with it and be changed by it: he who has ears to hear, let him hear.

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.