Which Inspired Words?
This post is a part of the “Empowering Unbelief” weekly column in which arguments for naturalism and secular humanism are discussed from a lay perspective.
A large segment of modern Christianity is bent on the idea that the Bible is the direct, inspired, literal word of God. They think it contains no mistakes or inaccuracies, and that they can consult its teachings for answers in all aspects of their life and society. Their political views, moral stances, social life, and education are informed by this view of Christianity, and they act accordingly. For many this leads to views in opposition to women’s rights to abortion, rights to LGBTQs, and even science itself (eg. evolution, global warming). Those stances hinge on the Bible being the inerrant word of God, and were there to be uncertainty in that it would mean reevaluating how they come to ethical prescriptions for behavior.
Unfortunately for these kinds of Christians, there are all kinds of problems with the Bible texts, something that’s been known for centuries. Biblical scholarship has long shown that the Bible, whether originally inspired or not, cannot be trusted to be free of human error and meddling. When consulting the Bible with moral, theological, and historical questions we can never be sure that the words being consulted are the original words that were written.
The first major problem, especially for the New Testament, is one of language. The first century Jewish population in Palestine (the region where Jesus’ ministry is said to have begun) predominantly spoke Aramaic, yet all the gospels (accounts of Jesus’ ministry) are written in Greek — along with the rest of the NT. So already, we’re counting on first century translators. Add to that the fact that most people today read it in another language and that’s 2 language barriers from the actual words of Jesus. Most English translations show obvious signs of theological tweaking, further underscoring that you haven’t read the NT if you haven’t read it in Greek.
The Aramaic-Greek language barrier also tells us that none of the gospels are written by eyewitnesses. The gospels all agree that Jesus and his disciples were all illiterate tradesmen, yet the gospels are all written by highly-educated Greek-speaking people who use complicated literary devices of their time. The earliest, Mark, could have been written no earlier than 70 CE (it contains a reference to the destruction of the Jewish temple that occurred that year), and so we have at least 40 years of oral transmission — with a language barrier. Our confidence in these words being authentic is dashed. There may be some “original” sayings/deeds, but we can never know with certainty which ones. The other gospels are ultimately derivative of Mark (containing multiple copied stories verbatim), so we cannot treat them as independent accounts.
To make matters even worse, we don’t have the original copies of the gospels or epistles. Until 120 CE, 90 years after Jesus’ ministry, there is virtually no textual evidence of Christianity at all. From 120 – 200 CE there are manuscripts for 24 fragmented verses, and the 1st chapter of Revelation. Through 300 CE we have a few whole and partial books, and not until after that do complete New Testaments show up.
These earliest manuscripts also don’t agree with one another. They’re different all over the place, from spelling changes to whole passages missing or added. By analyzing these differences we can see how people changed the texts over the years by accident, preference, or forgery. For instance, the earliest manuscripts of the letters of Paul and other NT writings are absent any punctuation; punctuation was added by later scribes according to their interpretation. The oldest and best manuscripts of Mark end at verse 16:8 with the women fleeing the tomb and telling no one. It’s clear that the additional verses were added later (actually we have 2 different endings from the manuscripts), so either Mark originally ended at verse 8 or it had another ending that has been deleted and lost to us. Similarly, the story of Jesus and the adulteress (“Let he without sin cast the first stone.”) is absent from our oldest and best texts.
So if we know by comparing the texts that some things are not original (because they only appear in later manuscripts) then it stands to reason that there must be additions, edits, subtractions, and spelling errors in the oldest manuscripts and we just don’t have better ones to compare them to. We can find some of these changes by analyzing an author’s vocabulary, style, and doctrine to see what might be out of place. With these methods we have identified loads of scribal interpolations (ie. insertions), even books that are outright forgeries.
It was common during the early years of the church to voice your own theological opinion under the name of an apostle to give it authority, and we see evidence of that throughout the New Testament. For instance we know that Paul’s verses about women keeping silent in church are likely a later addition because earlier in the very same letter Paul gives instruction for when women should speak in church. We also know that several of Paul’s letters are pseudonymous — written by another using Paul’s name to make a point.
If we can find discrepancies like these from textual variations — and a few more from textual analysis — and we know that there’s a hundred or more years between the originals and the copies we have, then it necessarily follows that there must be many more insertions, edits, and deletions that we haven’t the ability to detect. The New Testament’s reliability is shattered. Whatever connections to the original manuscripts — let alone the original events (whatever they may be) — remain, they are almost impossible to know.
That’s not to say that the New Testament books are useless for historical inquiry. Obviously we’d prefer better sources, but you work with what you’ve got. The purpose of bursting this bubble is to open up the literalist doctrine to nuance, shades of gray, and honest critical inquiry. Opinions, morals, and policies should be based on facts and logically valid deductions, not dogmatic adherence to a modern spin on ancient words.