- Albert Einstein
These are just a few examples of "differences" within the Bible text. Now I'm not suggesting that any of the above differences are significant to the overall message of the Bible, but it is impossible to claim that these types of differences don't exist (i.e. the inerrant idea falls apart).
Combine this realization with the fact that we don't have the original texts to determine the exact original wording...oh wait, we don't even have the first copies of the originals...oh wait, we don't even have copies of the copies of the originals...oh wait, we don't have copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. Most of the earliest texts we have were made centuries later than the originals. Take Galatians as an example. The first reasonably complete copy we have dates to about 200 C.E. - some 150 years AFTER Paul wrote the letter. Given the fact that it had been copied for 15 decades to get to that point (more on that later), how accurate was it at that point?
With that as context, it is easy (at least it was for me... surprisingly!) to realize the the Bible is a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied (and changed) the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts. The Bible was written by different authors at different times, in different places to address different needs. Many, no doubt, felt "inspired" by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, beliefs, views, needs, desires, understandings, theologies, etc.
With that, you quickly come to the realization that the Bible doesn't give a foolproof answer to the questions of the modern age - abortion, women's rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, etc. You realize that we need to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own...without setting up the Bible as a false idol - or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with the Almighty.
Let's step back for a second. Let's go back to Judaism. It was unique among the religions of the Roman Empire in that its religious "instructions" were written down in sacred books. It stressed ancestral traditions, customs and laws, and maintained that these had been recorded in sacred books, which had the status of "scripture" for the Jewish people.
Similarly, Christianity was also a "bookish" religion. This importance of written texts, however, does not mean that all Christians could read books...quite the contrary, most early Christians, like most people throughout the empire (including Jews), were illiterate. The texts (many of which were in letter form) were very important to the communities though...they were meant to be read aloud to the community at community gatherings. But most Christians couldn't read them themselves. Interesting isn't it?
Note that the texts weren't one big book...just many individual writings. At what point did the Christian canon of scripture get formed then? In the mid-second century, a philospher-teacher named Marcion (later declared a heretic) was the first Christian that we know of who produced an actual "canon" of scripture - that is, a collection of books that, he argued, constituted the sacred texts of the faith. It is interesting to note that Marcion was completely absorbed by the life and teachings of the apostle Paul, whom he considered to be the one "true" apostle from the early days of the church.
Some 30 years later, the bishop of Lyon in Gaul (modern France), Irenaeus, opposed Marcion and wrote a five volume work against heretics such as Marcion and the Gnostics. He claimed that Marcion and other "heretics" had mistakenly assumed that only one or another of the gospels was to be accepted as scripture (e.g. Marcion had suggested Luke). He claimed, in summary, that because there are four corners of the earth, four winds and four pillars, that there are four gospels. So, near the end of the second century, there were Christians insisting that there were four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) - no more and no less.
Debates on the Christian canon continued for centuries...long, harsh and drawn out debates about which texts were authoritative. The first time we can find a list of the 27 books of our New Testament was in the second half of the fourth century. The powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius (in 367 C.E.) wrote his annual letter to the Egyptian churches and in it, included advice concerning which books should be considered scripture, and excluded all others.
So how did the communities get those books? How were they put into circulation? There was no desktop publishing back then remember! No, the books had to be copied by hand. The copyists, by the way, in the early centuries weren't trained to do this kind of work, but were simply the literate members of the congregation who were able and willing. As a result, the multiple copies of the texts that were produced were not all alike - since the scribes inevitably made alterations (e.g. changing the words by accident or by design). So anyone reading the books in early Christian centuries wasn't completely sure that he was reading what the original author had written.
On top of the copying challenge in general, ancient Greek texts (including all the earliest Christian writings) had no marks of punctuation, no distinction between upper/lowercase letters, and no spaces used to separate words (scriptuo continua). Obviously, this made it difficult to copy and read. "Godisnowhere" could be different things depending if you were an athiest or a theist (work at it...you'll get it). Similarly, how about lastnightatdinnerisawabundanceonthetable ...normal or supernatural event?
To illustrate the challenges this caused, the third century church father Origen, once said "The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please."
This explains why authors would sometimes call curses down on any copyist who modified their texts without permission. With this context, re-consider the often quoted Revelation text "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book; and if anyone removes any of the words of the book of this prophecy, God will remove his share from the tree of life and from the holy city, as described in this book." So this might not be a threat to believe everything in the book (as is often the claim associated with this text in many sermons!), but instead a threat to copyists of the book.
So even if you believe that Biblical texts are the very words of God, the challenge would be to determine what portions of the texts go back to the original authors. Here are 2 examples of texts which many biblical scholars don't think go back to the original authors:
Let's get back to the canon itself. Near the end of the fourth century, Pope Damascus commissioned the greatest scholar of the day (Jerome) to produce an official Latin translation - which came to be known as the Vulgate. It became the Bible for the Western church that Christians read, scholars studied and theologians used for centuries.
In the early 1500s, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus produced and published an edition of the Greek New Testament. For the most part, in doing so, he relied on a mere handful of late medieval manuscripts, which he marked up as if he were copyediting a handwritten copy for the printer. In fact, he relied heavily on just one 12th century manuscript for the Gospels and another 12th century manuscript for Acts and the Epistles. For Revelation, he borrowed a manuscript from a friend, but it was impossible to read in places and had lost its last page...so Erasmus used the Vulgate (remember the Latin version translated by Jerome) to cover that last bit of Revelation. Erasmus' work is important since his New Testament was the primary source for the King James Bible created a century later, and became the standard form of Greek Biblical text to be published by Western European printers for more than 300 years. Hmmm...all that based on texts that were not of the best quality and produced some 1100 years after the originals.
One interesting story about Erasmus' text. It apparently didn't contain the Trinity verse..."There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Spirit...". This caused some outrage but Erasmus claimed it wasn't in his source texts and unless a Greek text could be shown to him with that verse in it, he wouldn't add it. So the story goes that a Greek text was produced (literally PRODUCED for that very reason). So, true to his word, Erasmus added it to the next version of his New Testament.
In the mid-1500s, another scholar (over a 30 year effort) produced a New Testament based on hundreds of texts available to him. The result was over 30,000 variations from the New Testament that was otherwise accepted as being the authoritative version (i.e. essentially the text that Erasmus had produced). Since then, more than 5,700 manuscripts have been discovered and catalogued. With these manuscripts, along with thousands of copies of the Vulgate and other texts discovered, schollars say there are more than 200,000 and maybe up to 400,000 variants known today. In summary, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
There have been so many attempts to point out the true original texts over the years, I won't even attempt to summarize. And there are many very interesting examples of texts from our accepted form of the Bible that scholars question in terms of their authenticity. While Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is just one book on this topic, I found it an interesting read nonetheless. For more on this, I suggest picking up the book yourself.
Given that the Erasmus text (which really is a key source to our modern Bible) was based on poorer quality manuscripts than many we have today, it isn't surprising that many "Bible-believing Christians", when faced with these facts, choose to pretend there is no problem and that God inspired the King James...not the original Greek!
Now don't get me wrong. Even though I now see the human nature of the Biblical texts, I do not deny the wisdom and insight we can get from parts of the Bible. As I noted in my "Fundamentals Framework", I see the Bible as a sacred document for Christians. It is the foundation document for our faith with which we should be in "continuing conversation" and from which we can better understand the character and will of God (see Bible Beliefs for more). Having said that, while I do not deny the concept of inspiration (although I do not see it as direct inspriration of the specific words), I think the Bible's words and thoughts are ultimately human words, not God's.
And, given this view that the Bible is a human product, as Christians, our interaction with it should be both from a critical viewpoint (i.e. deciding and discerning what passages are relevant to our time, or discerning/interpreting meanings of texts) as well as from a more open viewpoint whereby we allow ourselves to learn from and be shaped by the wisdom in the Bible. As such, I believe, for Christians, the Bible is a core document within our religious tradition and we should seek the wisdom and meanings of its texts - not seeing them as God's literal, inerrant words, but as a document that captures the experiences of the ancient Israel community and the early Christian community and their responses to God and Jesus, which is important within the Christian religion.
ColdMolasses note: based on the following, it seems clear to me that Harris has a fairly narrow definition of "religious moderates" - for example, his premise about moderates would not be consistent with the writings of some of the best known Christian moderates/liberals such as Borg and Spong.
Hi Andrew--I think we basically understand one another, and yet we disagree on many points of importance—so we're off to a good start. You are right to say that my view of faith doesn’t really allow for “solid distinctions within faiths,” while yours “depends on such distinctions.” This summarizes our disagreement very well. I recognize, of course, that there are many important differences between religious moderation (your “Christianity as it can be”) and religious fundamentalism. And I agree that these differences have something to do with doubt and the progress of reason on the one hand and a hostility to both doubt and reason on the other. But, as you expect, I don’t view the boundary between moderation and fundamentalism as “solid,” or even principled, and I hold a very different view of many of the topics you raised—Pascal included. (I do think Nietzsche had it right when he wrote, “The most pitiful example: the corruption of Pascal, who believed in the corruption of his reason through original sin when it had in fact been corrupted only by his Christianity.”)