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Biblical Truth - Problems in a literal approach to the Bible

Discussion in 'Religious Debates' started by Pah, Jun 19, 2004.

  1. Pah

    Pah Uber all member

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    I am sorry to say the attribution is lost

    In such a marvelous tangle, there is no coherence which is enough to support a theory of biblical truth. After a thousand years or more we ended up with a Bible and a canon but not with a single 'work'. The idea that this canon, as we now have it, must be the starting-point for our understanding is singularly feeble. There are communities, the Churches, who have come to accept canonical books and read them in particular ways: in their tradition, they have authority. But their tradition does not overwhelm every other attempt at reading them: readers are not prisoners of all previous readers. By lumping these texts together, there is quite a high chance that a community will misread them. Those misreadings may be remarkably interesting (the idea, for instance, that Isaiah prophesied Jesus's birth), but they are not therefore true. Lumping texts together and reading one in the light of another does not destroy what the texts previously were or what they meant: it adds another way of reading them which may, quite often, be wrong. At times it may even be a confidence trick.

    Even within individual books, what we now read in the Bible is the result of padding and reinterpretation. This process shows up in much of Hebrew scripture, not just in the books of prophets but in the books of narrative and wisdom. Like the book of Jeremiah, the books of Samuel existed in several early texts, some of which were shorter than others. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes have both been edited and padded, so that neither of them now makes coherent sense: we all think we know more or less what they are about, but they are not completely intelligible, not least because later editors and revisers have stuck in speeches or comments which undercut the original authors' view. It is not that these insertions have given us a new, intelligible Job or [End of page 155] Ecclesiastes: they have made the texts hard to understand.' Literary critics or strict fundamentalists may want to enthuse over the padding, but it is still padding, stuck into earlier books. There is no magic or 'subjective foreunderstanding' or historians' hocus-pocus (as literary critics have sometimes called it) in seeing this material for what it is. Historians are diagnosing what we have, not straining imaginatively for some purer, early condition. Their diagnosis uses method and evidence.

    Its results may be negative in important; ways. In the Old Testament, especially, historians have helped us to realize that we cannot hope to recover the first, the 'original' text: it is in others, especially nonhistorians, that the urge to reconstruct it is still extremely strong. The most recent international committee on the text of the Old Testament defined its task by identifying five thousand important places where a Hebrew word was so puzzling that it might need to be corrected. It is not just that such corrections raise difficult questions of method (can we really compare Hebrew words with other Semitic words, Arabic for instance, and deduce a new, unattested sense?). It is that there is a deeper problem: the starting-point, the late Masoretic Hebrew text, already excludes many earlier alternatives. It is only one arbitrary version, hallowed by use, not history. As for the New Testament, in 1966 the United Bible Societies issued a Greek text for students and translators which they, too, described as standard. Their committee considered that there were two thousand places where alternative readings of any significance survived in good manuscripts and then chose between them. It is not just that by 1975 their Greek text had had to be revised twice because no revision has yet proved free from error and improvement. The very aim, a standard version, is misleading and unrealistic. From the variety which we have, . any standard involves loss: it does not, and cannot, give us exactly what Paul or the Evangelists originally wrote.

    Historians, therefore, are not straining for the flawless original: their unauthorized versions, rather, see a gain, not a loss, in this textual jungle. It affects the status of all the revised or standard versions which are modern translators' aims. It is one thing to change the Lutheran Bible's German or the English of the King James version because we are now certain that a Hebrew or Greek word had a different meaning. It is quite another to change it with the aim of drawing closer to the original scripture. For the original text of the Old Testament is lost to [End of page 156] us, and the Greek texts of the New Testament do not take us beyond small variants and alternatives a hundred years or more after the Gospels' likely date of composition. 'Literary authenticity' is a misplaced ideal for Old Testament translations, and in my view, it is misplaced for the New Testament too. Where the original and the authentic texts are lost to us, the ideal of scriptural authenticity has been attractively proposed in their place. There are scriptures but no exact scripture within the range of our surviving knowledge: each group of readers, then, should be free to use the particular form of scripture which is historically rooted in its own traditions of liturgy, prayer, hymns and surrounding language. In English, the Authorized Version has a special place which ought, even now, to be unshakeable; in Greek, the Septuagint; in the synagogues, the Masoretic Hebrew, which is linked to centuries of recitation and liturgical use. We cannot work back to the original: one consequence is that the best-loved translations have more authority than some of their modern critics realize.

    As for the canon, it is not so much like a padded room as a room with contents of different dates to which we have agreed not to add or take away. Do the contents therefore add up to a new whole, an interior with a style of its own? No doubt they do, but the objects in such a room do not lose their individual natures. Chairs are still chairs, card-tables still card-tables, even if we now use them for writing or for flowers: texts, moreover, have a meaning and are not dumb objects. Original meanings and right and wrong interpretations are not standards by which other arts are widely appreciated nowadays. People like to restage operas in new periods and costumes; attempts to revive the music of Bach or his predecessors as originally performed are dismissed as a vain ideal, as much of an interpretation as any other; paintings are often exhibited in new relationships, as if the placing of one beside another changes the nature of both. Interpretation is part of the arts, so why should we worry if our interpretation is new or personal? As in art or music, why not be free in reading too: are not historians trying, like Samson's Philistines, to tie us down?

    Texts, however, use words for meaning in order to communicate. A biblical text may have had several authors, all of whom are unknown, but these authors still had purposes, even cross-purposes, which guide (but do not exhaust) what they meant. Music has no reference and so it [End of page 157] is more malleable, but paintings, too, can refer to subjects and by them they must be understood. If we place a landscape of poplars and willows by Coot beside the golden distance of a classical landscape by Claude Lorraine, we may indeed change the ways in which we look at each of them. A contrast alters appreciation. But it does not alter meaning: Claude's Castle is still enchanted; Cupid still visits Psyche inside it. So, too, with a text: we may read it beside other much later companions; we may read it in their light or with the faith of a later age. If so, we will probably misunderstand it. Despite its place in the Bible, the Song of Songs is still a collection of erotic poetry. Despite the New Testament! Isaiah's Immanuel is still the child to be born from a young woman in the eighth century B C, not a future virgin birth. [End of page 158]

    Notes:
    p.155 Texts of Job and Ecclesiastes: J. H. Eaton, Job (1989), for survey, and H. H. Rowley, The Book of Job (1983, repr.) 8; I side with G. D. Barton, Ecclesiastes (I.C.C. Commentary, 1908) 43-6, on its editing (R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 1989, 17 ff., agrees, but looks for unity first); John Barton, Reading the Old Testament (1984) 61-76, esp. 74--6, raises the critics' problems clearly.

    p.156 Textual puzzles in O. T.: B. Albrektson, Oudtestamentliche Studien (1981) 5, with J. Barr J. T.S. (1986) 445-50, on the Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (3 vols., to 1977); the Jewish Publication Society of America also completed in 1982 a three-volume translation of 'Holy Scripture According to the Masoretic Text'.

    p. 156 Word comparisons: J. Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (1968).

    p.156 United Bible Societies: The Greek New Testament (1966), eds. K. Aland, M. Black, B. M. Metzger, A. Wikgren.

    p. 157 'Scriptural authenticity': D. Barthelemy, Critique textuelle de I'ancien testament I (1982), Introduction: I owe my knowledge of this to S. P. Brock (see his article in Sourozh 29 (1987) 42).

    p. 157 'Original' music: R. Taruskin, in N. Kenyon, ed., Authenticity and Early Music (1988) 211.
     
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