Gutenberg Bible, rubricationIt’s a central axiom of Biblical literalism — which is itself a pillar of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity — that the many books of the Bible were written by God, and all of the words contained therein are his own. Humans had nothing to do with the Bible’s content, except to act as automatons, unthinkingly inscribing the letters and words that God himself channeled into their scribes’ brains, and through their nervous systems to their hands and the quills they held. And while most Christians are not Biblical literalists, the rest generally accept that the Bible was inspired by God, or guided by him, or something of that kind … so again, they agree with the same basic premise that the Bible’s content originated with God.

The problem with views like this, is that they haven’t borne up to scrutiny. That there are problems with the Bible texts has long been suspected, even in the Middle Ages, however, this didn’t get much attention, partly because questioning scripture — and by extension, the Church — was not really a good idea, and partly because the manuscript collections and catalogs of scriptural quotations that would have allowed close comparisons and analysis, hadn’t existed then. By the start of the Enlightenment, though, this topic did get some serious study, if only sporadically and quietly. For instance, Sir Isaac Newton wrote the tract An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, published posthumously, which addresses what Newton viewed as changes in the text of 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16.

The field didn’t really become serious, until it was taken up by German scholars during the 19th century. Among the issues these scholars soon discovered, was the synoptic problem, as well as the identification of distinct “streams” of text copying, e.g. what are now known as the Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine text-types. They also noted differences among the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, as well as matters of language that tended to contradict Christian tradition. For instance, the Church Father Papias is said to have reported that the gospel according to Matthew had originally been written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek; but scholars soon realized it bore none of the marks that would have been expected of such a translation.

Ironically, around the same time these German scholars began a serious and methodical analysis of Bible texts, the Great Awakening was getting underway in the US. One of the doctrinal points it acquired, went beyond mere reverence of scripture which, for most of its history, had been a hallmark of Christianity; it took the Five Solas of the Reformation — particularly sola fide and sola scriptura — and turned them into rigid Biblical literalism, described above.

Scholarship in the field of Biblical textual criticism has continued to the present day, but unfortunately, most people know nothing about it … even those who are regular church-goers and who are otherwise interested in religion. Biblical literalists have had a louder voice within the general population of believers (even though most believers are not themselves Biblical literalists), which has created a religious environment which is, overall, sympathetic to them. Even members of denominations which reject the doctrine of Biblical literalism, are still convinced that, at some level, the Bible’s content came from God, making him, not its books’ human authors, responsible for what it says.

Thus, few Christians in the occidental world have any kind of objective understanding about the nature of their own scripture. What they know are the axioms and aphorisms about the sanctity of the Bible which have long permeated their religion; contrary scholarship, no matter how solid it may be, is alien to them, and on its face appears dismissive, if not vicious. That the Bible may still yet contain valid spiritual “truths,” in spite of its demonstrably human authorship, is something they do not comprehend, especially in the US; again, this is because of the fervent and vocal 25% or so of Americans who are Biblical literalists and who will not permit anyone to say anything they disagree with, claiming it’s “persecution” of them. One of the side effects of this environment is that Biblical scholars tend not to be too open about how and why they question Biblical literalism — even if the truth is on their side, and even if nothing they say invalidates Christianity as a religion.

One scholar who hasn’t held back his views, and who wants to let the general public understand what Biblical scholarship actually says about the Christian Bible, is Bart Ehrman. Over the last 12 years or so he’s published a stream of books addressing these matters. He recently released a new book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God, and that in turn has led Huff to publish a short piece by him (WebCite cached article). Among his many valid points:

Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong. If you look at what ancient people actually said about the practice, you’ll see that they invariably called it lying and condemned it as a deceitful practice, even in Christian circles.

There’s more, but you’ll have to read Ehrman yourself. For those who complain that Ehrman doesn’t substantiate any of his claims … well, of course he can’t do that, in the space of a Huff article! Understanding the evidence requires far too much space for him to include it there. He’s written several whole volumes on this matter; it’s unreasonable, if not childish, to demand that he boil it down to 200 words just because that’s all you have time to read.

It’s also easy to conclude that Ehrman is wrong because he appears to be the only scholar saying what he says, however, that also is not true. As I explained, and as Ehrman himself admits, what he says is by no means novel or unique; many scholars have said the same or offered similar ideas. Among them are Burton L. Mack, J.D. Crossan, Robert Funk, and more. And there are scholars with views a bit more extreme than Ehrman, such as Earl Doherty.

It’s time for fundamentalist Christians to grow the hell up and stop assuming their own subjective metaphysical beliefs are theirs to impose upon the world at large and on everyone else, and accusing anyone who dares disagree with them of persecution. It’s time for non-fundamentalist Christians to grow some cojones, quit caving in to the fundamentalists, stop acting as collaborators with and enablers of these militants, and work to prevent them from getting their way all the time, just because they’re as loud, juvenile, and uncompromising as they are. And it’s time for everyone — believers and non-believers alike — to stop affording to religious belief the kind of “untouchable” quality that permits fundamentalists to claim “persecution” every time someone dares point out that they’re wrong.

To any fundamentalists who may be reading this: Yes, I question your beliefs; but no, that isn’t “persecution.” It’s known as “freedom.” If you want to take that freedom away from me, I invite you to do so, by any means you choose. Go right ahead. I dare you!

Hat tip: Mark at Skeptics & Heretics Forum at Delphi Forums.

Photo credit: vlasta2.

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