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How we wrote the Bible

Every one of these Hebrew scriptures is gone forever.
Every one of these Hebrew scriptures is gone forever.

The Bible was not written by God: it was not dictated to some man sitting in a trance in a monastic cell or a cave or a even a scholarly community. The compilation of Scripture was accomplished over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, reaching back into prehistory for oral accounts of traditional morality, creation myths and literature.

In order to understand how this happened, we are going to visualize the Priestly Writers. They are the scholars who put together what we call the Old Testament, and this is how they did it.

Let's say I am going to be a History Writer, comparable to the Old-Testament scholars, in a community of learning. We send out hundreds of information collectors, who travel across the length and breadth of the United States. Their job is to write down and bring back all the stories of America that they can find.

We have to send them out, because we will not have internet or even telephones. The scribes will simply go "out there" to their assigned areas and return when they think they have everything. They will "have everything" either when they have collected all the available material, or when they run out of paper and ink. We don't know which will happen first.

Think about this. What kind of stories would we receive from the North, as opposed to the South? What points of view would we accumulate in those carefully-written accounts? What qualifications or knowledge would we expect our subjects to have?

Finally--after a considerable length of time--all our scribes will return to the community with reams and reams of written accounts. Now, suppose a person from the North was sent to the South, or vice versa. Can we trust their account to be objective? We don't know. Suppose a scribe decided to "improve upon" one or more of his stories. We wouldn't know if he presented it as straight information gathering.

So finally, perhaps after a generation or more, we have all these pieces of information recounting American history by the means of witnesses and local scholars. We might not get an accurate account of a given topic, but we wouldn't know, would we? And anyway, this is the prime directive of the Priestly Writer Committee: we are to leave nothing out. No matter if there are conflicts, no matter if two stories do not agree, we will just have to group the stories or weave the accounts together as best we can, because everything that the scribes bring has to go into the final manuscripts.

This was the situation that the real Priestly Writers faced centuries ago: gather all information about the history of the Hebrew people and put it together into one account, leaving nothing out. That is what you have in your hands when you look into the Old Testament.

This is the real reason why there are two differing accounts of the death of King Saul, first king of the Hebrews. It is because two stories were turned in, and the compilers did not know which was correct, and anyway both had to be included.

Now, here is the bad news: all those documents are gone. They crumbled into dust centuries ago, and all we have today are copies; this is particularly true of the Old Testament. We have nothing but copies of copies of copies, and so forth. The situation isn't quite as bad as it sounds because, as scholars have discovered more and more old manuscripts, it appears that the Jewish scribes have made accurate copies from age to age. Little deliberate alteration, if any, has been detected in Old Testament manuscripts.

But the same cannot be said of the New Testament, unfortunately for Christians. The ongoing comparison of old copies of the books of the New Testament shows changes--changes that were not accidents. Anyone who wants more information about this sad truth needs only to read Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman.

One example can suffice for now. Here is a famous passage from St. Paul's First Letter to Timothy:

"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." [I Timothy:11-15]

Now the bad news: over time, through many comparisons and much analysis, the scholarly community has concluded that the Letters to Timothy were not actually written by Paul! Someone was using Paul's gravitas to lend weight to their opinions. Reflect for a moment how this passage has been used to quash the spiritual aspiration of women ever since the emergence of the early Church. This ought to begin to illustrate how sloppy scholarship and deliberate manipulation of Scripture has affected such things as women's place in the Church, and it is only a hint of what else is there.

But in earlier times, the community of priests and monks who were entrusted with guardianship of Holy Scripture did not have the reverence that we have for them today. They "corrected" and "improved" passages, adding and possibly subtracting things that they thought ought to be there (or ought not to be). And on top of that, the original manuscripts of the books of the New Testament have also crumbled away into nothing and we cannot look any farther back for comparison than the Third Century.

All this is by way of saying that, if we understand how fragile the process of collecting oral history is in the first place, and if we understand that the whole project of the original Priestly Writers is gone, we cannot seriously consider taking the Bible literally. The mental acrobatics that fundamentalists go through in order to explain away the contradictions in such scenarios as how King Saul died are not only erroneous, but the whole undertaking is impossible.

And it is unnecessary. We do not need certainty as people of faith; we need the intellectual freedom to examine Scripture in order to discern the nature of God. Once we have a concept of what we define as the attributes of God, we can place Scripture in a moral context and see clearly where the people of the period were mistaken.

The Hebrew people were mistaken when they considered their every misfortune to be God's punishment. They were mistaken when they claimed that their bloody rampage across the Middle East in search of the Promised Land was pleasing in God's sight. Christians are mistaken when we twist Scripture into support for political positions and Culture Wars. We do not please God when we deprive our needy brothers and sisters in order to shovel money into the accounts of rich people who buy and sell legislators.

The sooner the Christian Church confronts the reality of Scripture and its roots, the sooner we can get on with imitating Christ--and have some hope of being successful in our efforts.

And here is what is most important: when we confront this reality, one Christian at a time, we will know that it is time to say, "Enough!" to the Religious Right and show them the door out of the mainstream Church, and then get on with the Christian life.

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