by Troy Organ
Dr. Organ is distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, Athens.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 15, 1975, pp. 897-900 . Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
How can one deal firmly yet humanely with those people who feel called to push doorbells? They ask: “Do you believe in the inerrancy of the scriptures.” How can the scriptures be inerrant when it contains so many errors?
I should have known, when two young men appeared at the door with black book in hand, what they had in mind. But these two were different. Their clothes were a bit too sharp for Pentecostals, not somber enough for Mormon missionaries, and they had no Salvation Army caps or buttons. When I learned that they were graduate students at the university and that they were enrolled in the southeast Asia program, of which I am a member by virtue of the Indian philosophy seminar I teach, I felt that I ought to restrain my impulse to close the door.
Did I have a Bible in the house? I assured them that I thought I could locate one. Did they want one in Hebrew, Greek, German, French or Spanish? Or did they prefer an English translation? Anyway, I did not want to buy a Bible. But they were not selling Bibles. They were conducting a religious census. Would I be willing to answer a few questions? I agreed, though I did not relax my policy of never admitting any religious propagandist to my home. The religious census pitch is relatively new among those concerned about the eternal status of immortal souls. I have not yet perfected a set of answers for all the religious census taker’s questions, but my standard response to the query “Brother, are you saved?” is “Brother, are you educated?”’
Did I believe that the Bible is the Word of God? I assured the young men that I’d not deny that any book may in some sense be the Word of God; indeed, anything can be a symbol of God. Did I believe the Bible to be inerrant? I admitted that I could not recall having found a misspelled word, a punctuation error, or an omitted line in any edition of the Bible. Obviously, publishers of Bibles hire good proofreaders. That did not seem to be what my visitors had in mind. Did I believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God revealed for our salvation? I replied that before I could answer that question, I’d have to know whether they had in mind Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus or Bezae. I must say to their credit that they perceived dimly that I was referring to texts from which translations are made. But they felt that I was evading their questions.
The conversation deteriorated from that point on. Finally, one of the two assured me that he loved me despite my uncooperative attitude. I replied that I objected to being propositioned, and I shut the door.
Later, as I reflected upon the incident, I pondered whether it might be possible to have a more satisfactory confrontation with these good people who feel called to push doorbells. How can one deal firmly yet humanely with them?
One might begin by asking them, “What is pi?” After they had asserted that the circumference of a circle is 3.14159 times the diameter, one could point out that according to the Bible, pi is an even three. Hiram made a tank for Solomon’s temple with that amazing ratio: “And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other: it was round all about . . . and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about” (I Kings 7:23). Also, one could note that according to Leviticus 11:6 and Deuteronomy 14:7, rabbits are ruminants — the hare cheweth the cud! In the 19th century, when conflicts between literalists and nonliteralists were popular, someone wrote these lines of doggerel:
The bishops all have sworn to shed their blood
To prove ‘tis true the hare doth chew the cud.
O bishops, doctors and divines, beware —
Weak is the faith that hangs upon a hare.
The early Christians did not think of the Bible as an infallible, inerrant reference book. Writes Paul Lehmann: “Actually, at the beginning Christians do not seem to have regarded the Scriptures as a photoelectric instrument for discerning the mind and will of God” (Ethics in a Christian Context [Harper & Row, 1963], p. 27). Moreover, there was no uniform Bible until the Christian churches, by usage and by vote of councils, determined which writings were and which were not to be included in the Holy Scriptures.
During the first two centuries of the Christian era, each church decided for itself what was biblical. By the end of the second century most of the Christian churches had agreed that there were four Gospels — except for the Alogi Christians, who steadfastly rejected the Gospel of John. By that time, the Acts of the Apostles and the 13 Pauline Epistles were widely accepted. But there was much disagreement on the other writings. Some of the churches and church leaders accepted as scriptural the writings associated with Barnabas, Clement and Hermas.
It was not until the end of the fifth century that all the books of the New Testament were accepted. Five of them got in under false credentials: Hebrews, II Peter, II John, III John, and James were admitted because they were believed to be writings of the Apostles. Grumblings about the New Testament canon continued for more than 1,000 years. Martin Luther expressed his dissatisfaction by relegating Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the appendix of his translation. He called the book of James an “epistle of straw.”
Similar difficulties accompanied the establishment of the Old Testament canon. The Jews accepted any writing that purported to be from the hands of Moses or Solomon; later scholarship established that several books accepted on that basis could not have come from either. The books known as Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ezekiel and Esther had especially doubtful credentials. As late as the second century of the Christian era some Jews were still not reconciled to the canon. Rabbi Akiba (c.135 AD.) declared that the Song of Songs “defiled the hands.” The Christian community for the most part accepted the Jews’ holy book.
The books known as the Apocrypha appealed to the Greek-speaking Jews and the early Christians. Augustine held them to be fully canonical, but Jerome rejected them. At the Council of Trent in 1546 the Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Apocrypha is sacred and canonical. Protestants maintain that these writings have no authority in matters of doctrine, though any honest critic will acknowledge that some of these works possess far more religious worth than some of the accepted books of the Bible.
According to the editors of A New Standard Bible Dictionary, “The Bible did not fall from heaven as a ready-made book. It was written by men; men also have copied it” (M. W. Jacobus and A. C. Zenos [Funk & Wagnalls, 1936], p. 617). They might have added that human beings also decided which of the books were scriptural, and human beings have translated it into more than a thousand languages. Did Paul know that he was writing Scripture when he wrote his letters to the various churches? In one passage he explicitly denies that he has any inside information and insists that he is only expressing an opinion: “Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful” (I Cor. 7:25).
Besides determining which books were to be accepted as scriptural, the early churches also had to decide which of the variations of the same work was authentic and which were spurious. The Christian church came into existence before the Christian Bible. The churches’ first “Bible” was the Old Testament. During the first two centuries congregations claiming to possess a copy of a letter from an Apostle, or a fragment of a Gospel, or a writing of Paul contested the similar claims of other congregations. Sometimes one congregation allowed another to make a copy of its sacred writing. In those pre-Xerox days the manuscript was copied by hand, and inevitably errors were made.
During the Middle Ages the scholars of the church debated text differences with perfect freedom. Various biblical Correctoria were made and used. The demand for a single correct text of the New Testament came not from theologians but from printers. With the invention of the printing press, a method was finally available for making hundreds of identical copies. One of the first printers of Bibles was the Dutch family known as the Elzivers. Their first New Testament text was printed in 1624. The next, brought out in 1633, was so carefully prepared that it was described as the Textus Receptus, and the term is still used. The Received Text, the divinely protected copy of the New Testament — i.e., free from all errors and therefore infallible — was made by selecting the wording which had best support from about 25 manuscripts. These manuscripts were representative of a much larger body of material which has since grown so extensively that today it includes about 70 papyri (portions written on papyrus), about 230 uncials (manuscripts with rounded letters), about 2,500 minuscules (manuscripts with small letters), and about 1,700 lectionaries (portions of Scripture arranged for worship). The oldest of these comes from the first half of the second century.
The notion of a Textus Receptus was shattered as early as 1707, when John Mill listed over 30,000 variants in some 80 of the manuscripts or portions of manuscript of the New Testament available at that time. Today attempts to arrive at the text of the New Testament center on three sorts of materials: ancient Greek manuscripts, ancient versions in languages other than Greek (e.g., Latin, Syriac and Coptic), and early quotations said to come from the New Testament.
Among Greek manuscripts, the most important are Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Bezae. Vaticanus, dating from the fourth century, has been in the Vatican Library since about 1841. There are 1,491 words and clauses missing from Vaticanus, and all material after Hebrews 9:14 is missing. Sinaiticus, discovered in separate sheets in the monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai between 1844 and 1859, is now in the British Museum, having been purchased from Russia in 1933. Sinaiticus was very carelessly copied, probably in the fourth century; gaps of from ten to 40 words appear in many places. Alexandrinus, also in the British Museum, dates from the fifth century, and is missing 40 pages — including Matthew 1:1-25:6, John 6:50-8:52, and II Corinthians 4:13-12:6. Bezae, from the fifth or sixth century, is in the University Library at Cambridge, England. It contains the Gospels and the Acts in both Greek and Latin, but that portion of the Acts from 29:22 on is missing, and there are many omissions from the Gospels.
There always remains the possibility that a still more ancient New Testament manuscript will be discovered. After all, the Dead Sea scrolls were not found until 1947. Meanwhile, scholars continue to study the manuscripts, and their findings influence the translations. For example, the portion of the Fourth Gospel (John 7:53-8:1 1) that records the incident of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery has been affected by textual studies. In the King James Version (1611) the passage appears with no indication that it is less authentic than the rest of the New Testament. In the American Revision of the Standard Edition (1901) it is set apart with brackets, and a marginal note explains: “Most of the ancient authorities omit John 7:53-8:11. Those which contain it vary much from each other.”
In the Revised Standard Version (1946) this passage is set apart in small italic type, and the marginal note reads: “Other ancient authorities add 7:53-8:11 either here or at the end of this gospel or after Luke 21:38, with variations of the text.” The New English Bible (1961) omits the story altogether. It appears as an appendix to the Fourth Gospel, with this footnote: “This passage, which in the most widely received editions of the New Testament is printed in the text of John, 7:53-8:11, has no fixed place in our. ancient witnesses. Some of them do not contain it at all. Some place it after Luke 21:38, others after John 7:36, or 7:52, or 21:24.”
Sometimes translators are faced with a passage in which all the texts are so badly corrupted that they can make no sense of it. The options: to translate it exactly, knowing that it makes no sense, or to mistranslate it so that it does make sense. In I Samuel 13:1, for example, the Hebrew text says literally, “Saul was a year old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years over Israel.” This, of course, is ridiculous, for the rest of the material on Saul does not support the notion that Saul reigned only as an infant and only for two years.
The translators of the version known as King James (1611) made only a slight mistranslation: “Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel . . .” They added a marginal note to explain the first clause: “the son of one year in his reigning.” Those who made the American Revision of the Standard Edition (1901) hazarded a guess unwarranted by the Hebrew: “Saul was [forty] years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel . . .” They admit to their guesswork in a footnote: “The number is lacking in the Hebrew text, and is supplied conjecturally.”
The translators of the Revised Standard Version (1952) refused to guess: “Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.” This, of course, is mistranslation by omission. They offer two footnotes — with reference to the first blank, “The number is lacking in Hebrew,” and referring to the second, “Two is not the entire number. Something has dropped out.” The translators of the New English Bible (1970) guessed boldly: “Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years. Footnotes are offered for both numbers: “fifty years: probable reading; Hebrew a year” and “Probable reading; Hebrew two.”
Sometimes translators deliberately mistranslate to preserve attitudes they prize more than an accurate translation of the Bible. F. C. Grant reports that in a South African translation made by Dutch Christians, Song of Songs 1:5 — which appears in the King James version as “I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem” — was changed to “I am comely, and burnt brown by the sun” because few white persons in the land of apartheid would accept the notion that a black person could be comely (see Ancient Judaism and the New Testament [Macmillan, 1961], p. 134).
A humorous mistranslation is found in Isaiah 6:1 of the King James Version, the American Standard, and the New English Bible. In this passage relating the prophet’s vision of God in the temple, the King James and the American Standard report that Isaiah saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, “and his train filled the temple.” But a more accurate translation of the Hebrew is “his buttocks filled the temple.” One member of the committee that prepared the New English Bible wanted to translate the word correctly, but the majority, feeling that “buttocks” or even “hind parts” would not be well received, settled for the mistranslation “the skirt of his robe filled the temple.”
The chapter divisions that we now take for granted in the Bible were the work of Stephen Langton in the 13th century; the verse divisions originated with the printer Robert Stephanus in 1551. Because of these editorial conventions, people eventually came to regard the Bible as a collection of proverbs, with each verse constituting an independent statement of religious truth. The Bible came to be quoted without regard for context.
Some of the results have been tragic. “He that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16: 16) and “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23) were cited in support of the Inquisition. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exod. 22: 18) justified the hanging of old women in Salem, Massachusetts. “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God” (I Cor. 10:20) has been used by missionaries to argue that the gods of non-Christians are devils. Two verses — “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly things, it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16:18) and “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19) — are used by the snake-cult Christians in Appalachia as support for snake-handling and the drinking of poison as tests of Christian faith.
In 1974 a young graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was denied admission to the Presbyterian ministry because of his conviction that women should not be ordained as elders in the Presbyterian Church. He reasoned that, even though the church allows such ordinations, God does not. The young man cited I Corinthians 14:34-35 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
Such piecemeal use of Scripture rests on the assumption that the Bible is uniformly authoritative. Dean Burgon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, England, expressed this view in a sermon in 1861:
No, sirs, the Bible is the very utterance of the Eternal: as much God’s own word as if high heaven were open and we heard God speaking to us with human voice. Every book is inspired alike, and is inspired entirely. Inspiration is not a difference of degree but of kind. The Bible is filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of God; the books of it and the words of it and the very letters of it [A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew D. White, Vol. II, p. 369].
Would my minilecture on the origin and development of the Bible convince the religious census takers who come to my door? Probably not. My last resort may be to make a sign:
The people in this house are Buddhists.
They speak only a Tibetan dialect.
They have very bad tempers.