Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Parable of the Scholar

Our controversy here in Montgomery County started when a group formed to oppose a new sex education curriculum in the public schools, and we formed to support it. You would look at that curriculum, and your response would probably be ... so what? It contained some accurate information about sexual orientation, and a video that showed how to select and use a condom. Not much there, really, to get excited about.

But they did.

The reasonable person looked at the ideological tantrum in wonder. How could any intelligent adult believe the things that were being said? Of course this phenomenon was linked to others around the country, not only anti-gay hysteria but anti-evolution, anti-textbooks, anti-literature of various types, lots of stuff. America went to war against an Axis of Evil, killing tens of thousands of people in its eagerness to spread its particular brand of goodness in the Middle East. Government bureaucrats started revising scientific texts, and government spokesmen announced that scientific findings were irrelevant, biased, or wrong.

If you tried to figure it out, tried to understand what tied all these things together, at the bottom of each instance you would probably find somebody claiming that they were obeying some biblical verse or another. A unifying theme in all this is faith in the Bible as the literal word of God.

From this morning's Washington Post:
... Bart Ehrman is a sermon, a parable, but of what? He's a best-selling author, a New Testament expert and perhaps a cautionary tale: the fundamentalist scholar who peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether.

Once he was a seminarian and graduate of the Moody Bible Institute, a pillar of conservative Christianity. Its doctrine states that the Bible "is a divine revelation, the original autographs of which were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit."

But after three decades of research into that divine revelation, Ehrman became an agnostic. What he found in the ancient papyri of the scriptorium was not the greatest story ever told, but the crumbling dust of his own faith.

"Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord," he tells a packed auditorium here at the University of North Carolina, where he chairs the department of religious studies. "But there could be a fourth option -- legend." The Book of Bart

This is a long story, an interesting one. It tell how this professor became a born-again Christian, studied at various Bible schools and seminaries, and eventually got involved in reading the original texts that became the New Testament, in their original languages:
What he found there began to frighten him.

The Bible simply wasn't error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts.

"Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament," Ehrman summarizes.

Most of these are inconsequential errors in grammar or metaphor. But others are profound. The last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark appear to have been added to the text years later -- and these are the only verses in that book that show Christ reappearing after his death.

I think every schoolkid finds some inconsistencies in the Bible. Like, who did Adam and Eve's kids marry? But those are little things, not anything to rock your faith. This guy's been digging, and he found big things.
Another critical passage is in 1 John, which explicitly sets out the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). It is a cornerstone of Christian theology, and this is the only place where it is spelled out in the entire Bible -- but it appears to have been added to the text centuries later, by an unknown scribe.

For a man who believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God, Ehrman sought the true originals to shore up his faith. The problem: There are no original manuscripts of the Gospels, of any of the New Testament.

People could probably accept a couple of mistakes, even if they did claim the Bible is the literal word of God and the final authority on everything. But ...
Doubt about the events in the life of Christ are hardly new. There was never clear agreement in the most ancient texts as to the meaning of Christ's death. But for many Christians, the virgin birth, the passion of Christ, the resurrection on the third day -- these simply have to be facts, or there is no basis for the religion.

"The fundamental truth claims of the biblical record were historical things that were believed to have happened, not 'once upon a time' in a fairy tale or somewhere outside of time and space, but at specific times and places that belonged to the total history of the human race and that could be located on a map," writes Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the field's most respected scholars. "If the history of the resurrection of Christ had not really happened, the message . . . according to the authority of the apostle Paul, had to be 'null and void.' "

Um, that would be bad, right?

Dr. Ehrman's faith is now long gone.
"Bart was, like a lot of people who were converted to fundamental evangelicalism, converted to the certainty of it all, of having all the answers," says Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and a friend of three decades. "When he found out they were lying to him, he just didn't want anything to do with it.

I've got nothing against people taking the Bible literally. Really, I wouldn't want everybody to be like me! We do have a problem, though, when those people want to make our whole society obey their restrictions and rules. When somebody wants to hate a whole group of people based on a line or two in the Bible, and they want our public schools to support their prejudice, for instance, if teachers were forced to teach the lie that people can change their sexual orientation, because of some words in the Bible, well, reasonable people have to put their foot down.


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