Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Biblical Inerrancy

Before I blog any more on spiritual topics, I feel I must take a few “bytes” to address the topic of biblical “inerrancy”—the completely absurd concept that’s seemingly dominating evangelical and other forms of organized Christianity for many years.

I can be very brief about this topic—biblical inerrancy is an impossibility.

Biblical inerrancy, for those who don’t know, is the idea that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is completely, wholly, and literally true in every word as originally written; that it not only contains no error, but is not even subject to error because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Bible’s author was God (who used humans to transcribe his words) and since God cannot make errors, the Bible is, defacto, error free.

The biblical inerrancy folks used to insist that the bible was wholly true no matter the edition—that the Holy Spirit had guided every writer and translator—but have seemingly backed off that claim in light of recent scholarship. And as for use of the phrase “originally written,” since no one actually knows what was originally written—there being no original edition—this is a convenient escape clause that allows them to insist that whichever version or translation they prefer is the correct one.

The Bible, as a book, is an assortment of texts written over about 1500-1600 years by various and largely unknown authors. That the gospels and epistles of the New Testament have the names of various apostles and disciples attached to them is not proof they were written by these particular individuals. In fact, the earliest Gospels we’ve found were written in Greek, and by writers well schooled in Greek rhetoric and composition. By contrast, the four evangelists were Aramaic speakers; Peter and John were said to be illiterate.

As regards the Old Testament, it becomes apparent to anyone who’s studied Middle Eastern mythology that many Old Testament stories are adaptations of the earlier stories of Sumeria and Babylonia. The story of Noah, for instance, is similar in many details to that of the Babylonian Utnapishtim and the Sumerian Ziasudra—and both Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations predate the concept of the Hebrews as a people, much less the writing of the Hebrew scriptures. Many of the names, titles, and epithets of God given in the Old Testament were names, titles, or epithets of the Babylonian gods.

The Old Testament shows influences from Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, and Egyptian sources. The New Testament shows evidence of Greek schools of thought.

What we today know as the Bible wasn’t even officially assembled as such by the church until the Council of Rome in 382 A.D., by which point in time a theology had developed that required that only texts in agreement with that theology be included in the final product.

It is important to remember that we don’t have the “originals” of the gospels or epistles, only copies made many years later. The New Testament has been translated countless times by countless scribes, as any reputable biblical scholar will tell you, and most will agree that there are differences, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the various translations still extant. At this point in time, the number of texts found number in the thousands and often don’t agree with each other, perhaps due to scribal error, editing, or the fact that there was more than one version of many of the events or stories. In comparing and dating texts, scholars have found versions where it's that clear bits have been added onto earlier versions of the same books, the Gospel of Mark being a case in point: The last 12 verses dealing with the post-resurrection days are not found in the earliest versions.

According to biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, Mark is the oldest gospel, written somewhere around the year 90 A. D.; Matthew and Luke were written 10 to 15 years after that and were most likely based on Mark. John’s gospel was probably written about 10 years after Matthew and Luke.

Another thing to consider with regard to scriptural inerrancy is that until the middle of the 4th century, there were many different approaches to, beliefs about, and interpretations about the life and message of Christ. There was not a single, authorized, monolithic set of beliefs about these things in place until the church set about creating one in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Council of Nicaea, the Council of Rome and several subsequent church councils of that era formulated what we now call Christianity, defining the basic elements of belief and worship—including the divinity of Jesus and papal authority—and sorting through a large collection of various religious texts to put together what we now call the Bible. Shortly thereafter, the destruction of all “non-canonical” texts was ordered. But not all were destroyed. Many were hidden away and have only come to light within the last century and are expanding our view of those early times.

Given the above historical details, how anyone can claim biblical inerrancy is completely beyond me. Please understand that this does not mean that I think there is nothing of spiritual or inspirational value in the bible. There most definitely is. I, for one, greatly value the New Testament message of Jesus and find that if one simply concentrates on that message and doesn’t obsess about about doctrinal details, it is a great guide for living from a place of truth, love, and compassion.

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