Was the bible re-re-re-re-rewritten?

You see this kind of thing show up in your Facebook feeds from time to time, as I do:

If you bother to read the whole thing, you may spend the next 3 seconds digesting it, then scroll to the next thing. Ooooo, a puppy video!

I do the some thing, almost always. But this one held my attention for a several reasons. It so happens that the content intersects with my interest and experience, it was propagated by a fellow Christian, and it was shared, not just liked, which presents the opportunity to actually have comments read by the poster and some of our friends rather than being lost in a sea of nonsense that no one will give two hoots about. So I asked some questions as I am apt to do (rather than just spewing comments, asking questions is more my style, at first at least).

I’m not familiar with this gentleman’s brand of humor, but it’s provocative, so I’ll bite. Given that he demonstrates a total lack of understanding about how the bible came into being, especially as compared with every other collection of ancient documents and literary works we know of, and given that he didn’t complete his thought (or, the meme didn’t quote him fully), is there any indication that he has a particular point to make… or that his purpose is simply to get other people who share his ignorance to giggle along with him for some sort of entertainment value?

I know that’s snarky to a degree. You have to know your audience, and this particular person can take snarkiness. Explicit in my question was the assertion that the preservation of the texts that we have now as the bible is quite remarkable. People who don’t know that are ignorant — this meme could be innocently propagated by ignorance; other people may know that — this meme could be propagated nefariously. I wanted to offer some correction either way.

The reply came back:

The general point as I took it was that those who tend to rely on “well the Bible says…” completely discount the vast amount of manipulation, editing, translation errors, deliberate omissions, accidental omissions, additions, etc. I don’t deny the fact that at some point there was divine inspiration. But the simple historical fact is that the Bible we have today is a creation of man. It has value, certainly, but we cannot make a claim that is the complete and accurate word of God.

So the meme-sharer took the quote as I took it, that there wasn’t any particular point except to assert that the bible is vastly corrupted in particular ways. The meme-sharer further contended that some (surely not all) people who proclaim its truthfulness ignore those corruptions (which may actually complete Mr. Cross’ thought). I would agree to some extent with the latter, but have to disagree with the former, because though “manipulations” are obviously present, it doesn’t follow that these are necessarily corruptive. There are of course differences between what was written originally and what we have now — you can’t possibly propagate documents across millennia, continents, and cultures without making changes that adapt, including the media, language, chapter separations, order of assembly, and the like. Those could all be rightly classified as “manipulations”, but to demonstrate that those manipulations introduce some kind of errors is quite a different matter. Certainly, many people ignore the “manipulations”, but many don’t. For those who justify wrong behaviors or beliefs by citing something from the bible, the issue is with those people’s interpretations or applications of what’s written (but that’s a topic for another time), not necessarily with the content itself.

As for content, when Mr. Cross and his meme-propagators say “editing”, what do they mean? Translation itself is editing, as is inserting verse demarcations and chapter divisions, footnotes, section titles, etc. The historical manuscript evidence demonstrates that the modern English translations we have nowadays are remarkably unedited, with remarkably few additions and deletions.

Here’s a fascinating write-up that explains how bible translations are done. The context is the examination of the claim that modern translations like the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible are corrupt as compared to the King James version. But the principle applies to any other version of the text, and you can see why. Reading the last half or so, starting with the section “How Readings Are Determined”, shows you that every modern translation is not an edit of a previous English version, but a complete fresh translation from the best oldest-available manuscripts, the ones closest to the originals. Of course, we don’t have any originals, but here’s an article that explains how we can determine with incredible certainty what the originals said, based on the quantity and origins of the extant manuscripts. In other words, the modern translators are not “editing” or “rewriting” anything – they are just translating what they know with near certainty the originals to have said. As a bonus, we learn that in regard to the quantity and proximity in time to the original writings, the bible manuscripts in existence far outweigh any other ancient historical work, so to doubt the accuracy of the bible on the grounds of manuscript evidence would require us to much more seriously doubt everything else we know about ancient history.

You will also note that honest Christian scholars reveal and catalog the textual differences between manuscript versions; they never discount them. Indeed, for many people, this is one of the things that solidifies the case for the reliability of the bible more than anything else… the fact that there are differences in manuscripts, and that those differences are preserved, just about proves that there’s no corruption in the final result, because the intentional and unintentional corruptions are trapped and dealt with and not allowed to propagate. If the manuscripts that were found in different places from different times were all the same, it would stink of a conspiracy, but the fact that copyist errors and obvious intentional edits do indeed show up as we would expect is pretty convincing evidence of the authenticity of what has come down to us.

Don’t take just my word for all of this. Look into some of the links I shared above, and I found this excellent article in which a normal guy like me (albeit a professional youth worker and maybe with some more formal theological education) shares his insights on the matter of textual criticism in response to this exact meme.

Interestingly, I would say humorously, this meme contains a very fine illustration of exactly the kind of thing bible authenticity deniers don’t take into account. Did Mr. Cross really say
“… then given to the pope for him to approve, then rewritten, then edited again, the re-re-re-re-re-rewritten again…”
or did he say
“… then given to the pope for him to approve, then rewritten, then edited again, then re-re-re-re-re-rewritten again…”
You may have noticed an obvious copyist or transcription error, where the “n” is left off “then”, and we can deduce by knowledge of language that “then” is actually the proper rendering. In my investigation as to what was really said, I came across what I would consider a primary source, a YouTube video clip from what is evidently a TV program. In it, he says
“… and then given to the pope for him to approve and then re-re-translated, then re-rewritten, then re-written, re-redited[sic], re-translated, re-edited again…”
Now I understand that, apparently as a stand-up comic, as he presents the same schtick over and over again, there are bound to be minor differences in various performances. So the meme-writer may have transcribed them from a different presentation of the same material, or may have copied or transcribed a different source like a written quote by Mr. Cross or someone else approximating his spoken words, or something like that. The point is, we can catalog the differences in each variation that we can find of the written and spoken record of the material if we really wanted to. Biblical scholars have done just that. When we “correct” the stuttering (“re-redited” becomes “re-edited”), is that a “manipulation” or “edit” or “rewrite” or “corruption”? When we intentionally or unintentionally omit the leading “and” or the “re-re-translated”, or intentionally add extra instances of “re-“, are we changing the meaning of what’s being communicated? Not in the least.  These kinds of “errors” are exactly what scholars find in the ancient manuscripts, and in almost every case the “error” is an aberration in one set of manuscripts that clearly isn’t in originals – the error is trapped and not allowed to propagate, avoiding the confusion that might result if we gave up and “just didn’t know” what was originally communicated.

Furthermore, I doubt that Mr. Cross would care if he realized this, but let’s all recognize that no king or pope was involved in the selection or approval of any of, for example, Biblica’s end product, the NIV. He was trying to be primarily entertaining, not truthful. Fair enough – I suppose that’s how he makes his money. But when people, especially Christians, begin to propagate fiction like this as fact, we need to put the brakes on.

The meme-sharer said that “the simple historical fact is that the Bible we have today is a creation of man.” No, that’s not a simple historical fact – that’s an assertion. The fact is that the bible we have today can very reasonably be considered a faithful reproduction of what was originally written; the question of whether the original writings are divinely revealed, invented by people, or somewhere in between is debatable and will be surely till the end of the world, and there’s a lot more Facebook posting that can be done to examine that. I’m glad that fellow Christians believe by and large that “at some point there was divine inspiration”. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to then believe that the One who revealed it also has the power and desire to preserve it, nor is it a stretch to recognize that the evidence indicates that’s exactly what’s been happening. I’m fortunate that for the past 15 years plus, the two churches I’ve been involved with have made it a point to teach this stuff about the reliability of the bible. I wish more churches and church-affiliated schools did, and I wish more believers would take hold of it, as was the case in centuries past. It’s tempting to denigrate those who initiate and propagate quotes like these by pointing out that just a few short decades ago they would have been embarrassed by having their ignorance on display, but people don’t know what they don’t know, so I’d rather encourage those who are willing to learn and disseminate the truth.

I shared all of this, and the reply came back, civilly, of course, because the meme-sharer is reasonable and not a troll. It continues outside of the scope of what the meme was trying to communicate, so I won’t quote it all, but there are some insightful things to notice:

Why did some gospels make it into the canon and others [Gospel of Mary Magdalene or the Gospel of Judas] not? Is it divine inspiration, or was it a group of “church leaders” thinking “whoa, we need to lose this idea that Jesus had female apostles, we can’t control women like that”.
Pauline letters made it in just because the early church resonated with the advice for the target congregation (i.e. women be silent in church).
There could have been other letters praising the teaching skills of a group of women, and that letter got “lost” and “left out” because it did not meet the current church agenda.
It’s legitimate to feel just as guided by “believe in Christ and don’t be a jerk to people” as with hours of Bible study and listening to pastors tell us what we should think.

I think we actually get to some of the main concerns about the bible and Christianity here, but they are very different from the content of the meme. The conversation might be boiled down to “yeah, the bible is historically accurate, but the canon was assembled in a suspect way, without proper foresight into 20th and 21st century feminism”. I’m not saying that the meme-sharer’s mind is set this way, but if one’s worldview is colored more by modern feminism than biblical literacy (anyone complaining about spending hours learning about feminism or listening to progressive philosophers telling us what to think?) then this is to be expected. Matching up what modern feminism tells us with what the bible tells us would be quite a valuable exercise, something that could be very beneficial to be mindful of and explore as the years go on — which best explains and enlightens our existence? Moreover, just to “believe in Christ and don’t be a jerk to people” is a fine start, but more is required of believers. We are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, not just “believe”; and we are to make disciples and baptize and teach. All of these are fine and good things to talk about, but they go well beyond the scope of what the meme addressed, so we can leave those for another time.


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