Modern Religious Questions, Part I: The Bible as Unreliable

Posted July 7, 2010 by Didymus
Categories: Christianity, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Philosophy

Another phrase I hear uttered often by people in casual conversation is “The Bible is unreliable, really. I mean, who knows how many times it has been changed and altered?”

The issue is, of course, much more complicated than this simplified statement. Scholars vary widely on their views in this matter. What irks me about the above statement is that it is usually made by someone who has never researched the Bible or its history.

The following is meant as a quick, very simple review to help people educate themselves and understand better the issues around the reliability of the text of the New Testament. My hope is that it helps the reader get pertinent information quickly and easily and gives you a thirst to study more, if you so desire.

Let’s start with a definition of “reliable.” As with most ancient documents, we do not have the original manuscript of any of the books of the New Testament. But we have copies. “Reliability” is the word used to describe, as far as we can tell, how accurate the copies that we have are to the original which no longer exists. Do the copies differ from the original? If so, can we tell how much they are altered and in which places they are altered?

To get an idea of how this plays out, lets look at what we have in way of New Testament copies.

1) Firstly, the extant copies we have are a) old, b) myriad and c) from various countries.

a) One indication of the reliability of the copy of a document is how close in time it was written down compared to when the original was penned. We have extant copies of the New Testament written within 25-75 years of when the original was to believed to have been written down. By historians standards this is an amazingly small gap for an ancient document. The ancient document that comes closest to the New Testament in this category is Homer’s The Iliad: the earliest copy we have was written 500 years after the original was penned.

b) We have myriad copies. The New Testament was written in Greek. We have more than 5,300 extant ancient copies in Greek– if you add Latin Vulgate copies and other early versions we have more than 24,000 extant manuscript copies of parts of the New Testament. Again, Homer’s The Iliad is closest in this category–number of copies: 643.

The obvious advantage to this is that we can compare them. And guess what– they differ slightly in certain places. In other words, we know the parts of the text of the New Testament that are in question, that vary in the texts. We know what parts are not as reliable as others. No one claims that the Bible does not have alterations– the truth is, however, we know with good accuracy what those alterations are/were.

The parts that vary are small in number. In other words, all the copies are almost exactly the same. Of the 20,000 lines in the New Testament, about 40 lines (400 words) are in question. And most all the questions are minor variations (spelling mistakes, word order mistakes). It is estimated that about 1/1000 of the New Testament has substantial textual variation. And those variations do not challenge any major Christian doctrine.

Moreover, most Bibles do not hide the differences — in fact, they highlight them. Footnotes will indicate where the different manuscripts varied and what the variations are.

c) The numerous copies come from different regions. This verifies that over distances manuscripts were not changed much. Many regions had little contact with other regions so their copies would have been their own for quite some time. If one region had a copy of The Gospel of Luke, for example, and other region far away from the first region also had a copy of Luke, comparing them will give you a good idea of the common Luke document from which the regional copies were made. And as mentioned above, the numerous copies from numerous regions vary from each other very little.

2) Secondly, we have gads of non-biblical writings, written at the same time or very soon after the New Testament was written, that quote the New Testament– and quote it a lot! So many, in fact, that if we didn’t have ancient copies of the New Testament, we could reconstruct almost the entire New Testament just from ancient quotes from other writers.

So, there is a very simplified review of some of the basic issues around “reliability” specifically of the New Testament. Note: This in no way proves or disproves the New Testament as “historically accurate.” That is a different matter. All we’re talking about here is knowing about the text and it’s consistencies and inconsistencies.

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For those readers who are critical thinkers, you’ve probably already thought, “Yeah, but this information doesn’t take into account that before the originals were even written down these stories were probably orally transmitted. So the real corruption of the story occurred in the oral telling!” Good thinking! But again, it is a little more complex than that and I’ll tackle that in the next post– Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission.

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Resources:

Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Volume I by Josh McDowell

Recommended:

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by N.T. Wright & Marcus Borg. Not specifically about the reliability of the New Testament but a great presentation by two world-renowned New Testament scholars who differ in their interpretation of Jesus.

Clarification: All Religions the Same?

Posted July 2, 2010 by Didymus
Categories: Christianity, Cross-Cultural Experiences, Culture, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Philosophy

After some discussions with some honest and educated friends who don’t agree with my position and gave some constructive criticism about my last post, I felt I should clarify some aspects about my thoughts.

There are two points I want to clarify about my assertion that all religions are not basically the same. First, I wanted to make it clear that my goal and desire is also peace and loving coexistence. Second, I want to point out how the idea that all religions are basically the same actually works against bringing us together as it excludes some of us who have chosen one religion over the others.

1) I believe we should work toward living together in peace, no matter our differences.

I just believe that the differences in the world religions are real and deep and to pretend they do not exist is to promote a false peace. True peace comes through truly understanding our differences. Our modern ethos, I believe, often assumes that if someone is pointing out differences, they are trying to pick a fight or are not tolerant of others. We try to promote peace by promoting equality not only of people but of ideas and religions. Equality of the value and dignity of every person is, in my mind, intrinsic to the human condition. However, I do not have to value your ideas or philosophy to value your worth as a fellow human.

So, I do not fear understanding true and deep differences in cultures and religions. As such, I believe that true peace is found in deeply understanding not just the similarities we have but our differences also. One friend, who I highly respect, said, “But to get to where you’re saying it would take a lifetime to read and research all the major religions to understand them fully.”

I have to admit that not everyone is interested in such a search– and that is okay. But, that is a big part of my point. The phrase that “all religions are basically the same” is often uttered by people that have not researched religion and have no desire to research religion. They want peace, which is good. But they are, I believe, wanting peace without the hard work. True peace comes from understanding our differences better, not naively minimizing them in favor only of similarities. Peace that tries to make us all the same and only values congruency is not true peace. It is conformity to a pre-set value system.

If you’re the kind of person who has no desire to learn about religion or doesn’t know much about religions, that’s okay, too. Please, then, don’t go around saying, “Well, all religions are basically the same!” when you know very little about the different religions. Say what you mean, which I think is most likely, “I wish we could all live together in peace despite our differences.”

2) As someone who has researched the world religions and settled on one (for now) that seems to me to present the Truth, when someone says “All religions are basically the same,” it denies and degrades my experience and genuine quest for meaning.

The statement that all religions are basically the same, designed to bring us all together, often just alienates those of us who have chosen our particular religion for what we believe are very good reasons. It feels dismissive of my religious journey– and anyone’s journey that has taken them to a particular religion. It may be a unifying statement for those who are not exclusively committed to one  faith, but for those of us who have purposefully decided on one religion over the others, it pushes us away by insinuating that our decision is ludicrous– after all, who would chose one at the exclusion of others if they really are all the same!

So again, for these reasons, I reject the claim that all religions are basically the same.

If we want true peace we do best to educate ourselves as far as is possible for us individually and understand each other fully– similarities and differences.

Resources:

(Want to know more? Since writing my last post I have found a book that was just published this year by HarperOne. It is written by Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University and the title is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World– and Why Their Differences Matter. Eight of the chapters each explain one of the religions. So, having only skimmed it so far, it seems like a perfect way for those who do not want to spend a lifetime researching to get solid information about eight of the world’s major religions. It also seems like his conclusion is similar to mine: all religions are not the same and true peace is through understanding the differences. I’ll know more once I read it. He also has a book called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know– And Doesn’t. This also looks like it might be really good as a simple primer in religious studies.)

The Death of a Modern Myth: All Religions are Basically the Same

Posted May 19, 2010 by Didymus
Categories: Christianity, Cross-Cultural Experiences, Culture, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Philosophy

“All religions are really basically the same, aren’t they? ”

How many times have you heard that phrase thrown around in casual conversation– as if agreeing with it were the only logical option available? I often feel compelled to nod– because it seems, at that crucial point, that the only other choice I have is to disagree and be branded close-minded and intolerant (and, perhaps worse of all, a Republican!)

The statement “all religions are basically the same,” often parades itself as a very intellectual proclamation that is meant to show a progressive, educated mindset.  We think, “We’re past all those petty differences.  We have to have modern, reasonable views on religion!”  But what do we mean by such a phrase?  Are we saying religions do not have dissimilarities?  Are we saying all religions basically boil down to the same philosophies?  Certainly a belief in one God and belief in many Gods are not the same basic philosophy.  So, why is the belief that all religions are pretty much the same so popular?

Some people may say that all religions are basically the same in that they teach us to treat each others fairly.  This view boils morals down to what is called the “Principle of No Harm.”  In his book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway defines a wrong act as “one that manifestly harms others or their interests, or violates their rights or causes injustice.”

The inadequacy of the “do not harm” view to unify religions is revealed, however, when we see that different religions cannot even agree on what “harm,” “violation of rights” and “injustice” all mean.  Islam has strict punishments for those caught in adultery that the Christian might say are disproportionate to the crime, unjust and harmful. Some Hindus hold to the caste system that both the Muslim and Christian must (according to their religion) reject as immoral and unjust. We cannot say that all religions teach us to “do no harm” when the religions themselves define “harm” and “injustice” differently.

Others say, “All beliefs are equally true.”  Their view is that there are no absolutes so all religions are true if one really believes them.  This, however, is illogical.  Ravi Zacharias, in his book Jesus Among Other Gods, points out, “To deem all beliefs equally true is sheer nonsense.”  His point is that someone who says “all beliefs are equally true” has to admit as equally true the belief that all beliefs are not equally true.  In other words, the statement cancels itself out by allowing its opposite to be true.

Still, some may say that God is big enough to be all things; maybe He is (for example) many and One all at once!  Maybe He is, but to hold this belief we would have to deny the critical Judaic, Christian and Islamic teaching that God is not many, He is only One. This idea creates a false unity by asking some of the religions to be less than fully themselves in order to be “unified”– which of course is a false unity.

Also, one of the first rules of logic is that something cannot be both true and untrue at the same time and in the same manner.  As a simple example of this let us look at religious rules of consuming food.  Which is right: to eat pork or not to eat pork?  It cannot, at the same time, be both right and wrong for everyone to eat pork.

Someone might argue that God gives different rules to different people.  Therefore, it is an offense to Him for the Muslim and Hindu to eat pork, but for the Christian, it is not.  “Certainly, we could all agree on that,” you might say.  However, if God told the Muslim that it is wrong for everyone to eat pork, but then told the Christian that it is not wrong to eat pork, God would be contradicting himself.

In the same way, if God says to the Muslim that He is not many, but says to the Hindu that He is many, He is contradicting himself.  If this is the case, when He says He exists, then He may also not exist.  Our religious devotion is then rendered null and void because it is impossible to know anything about a Being that is self-contradicting.

So why do we hear the phrase “all beliefs are basically the same” if it doesn’t seem to make logical sense?

Sometimes the statement is an attempt to lessen our religious differences to promote understanding and decrease violence and hatred.  Though the objective is honorable, to seek peace by minimizing differences is to ask each religion to be less than fully itself. And, it makes us who are committed to a particular religion feel unaccepted–exactly the opposite of its purpose often. True spiritual understanding comes from knowing each other more completely (similarities and differences), not reciting hollow statements that create bogus unity and strip us of our individuality.

Other motivations may include the following:  1) a statement by someone who is not really committed to any one religion and makes the statement assuming their listeners agree or assuming that any modern, educated person could do nothing but agree. This person can also have the same motivation as above.  2) a statement by someone who wants an easy, intellectual-sounding excuse for not engaging in a spiritual search for truth.  It is a sort of “giving up without a fight” phrase of the spiritually lazy.  This person will eloquently say that Truth cannot be found, all the while not looking for it.  Of course they will never find Truth or believe it is out there, because they are not truly seeking it.

At best it is the statement of a befuddled individual genuinely searching for Truth but confused by all the religious fare available.  To that person I say, do not give up with such an empty phrase.  Keep searching.  Truth wants to be found.

I believe that “All religions are basically the same”  is a philosophy that keeps us from truly knowing each other fully and it encourages us to wallow in a shallow spirituality devoid of logic and truth.

It is a modern myth that should be allowed to die.

Our differences are our differences. We ignore them to our peril. Let us understand them as we search for Truth together and truly listen to each other– not being afraid to disagree.

May we not settle for anything less.

Not Right or Left: The Via Media

Posted May 3, 2010 by Didymus
Categories: American Politics, Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, Philosophy

Political differences in the USA are on my mind this week.

In the past I was fairly conservative, but now I’m more left-leaning. I have seen and embodied the fear and the venomous self-righteousness that comes from both sides of the political spectrum in the States.

Now, however, I reject both worldviews that seem to emanate from the two parties. The following are only some of the reasons why. I speak in generalizations of course, as the topic necessitates.

The Left

The left, generally speaking, sees that any movement away from the past is progress. Hence, the term “Progressives” to describe them. They have mistakenly applied Darwin’s biological Theory of Evolution to social and cultural issues. However, even if we do grant them that their application is valid, they forget that for every case of biological change that is advantageous and moves a species “forward,” there are hundreds maybe thousands of changes that are disadvantageous and get “selected out.” Change and movement is not necessarily progress.

This flippant quickness to disregard something from the past is too shallow for me. In doing so, I feel that many traditions and views have been thrown out, when it was their abuse that was the problem, not the thing itself.

The left, in general, also promotes tolerance. However, I’ve read and heard reactions of those who preach tolerance when they see intolerance– and their venom against it is just as self-righteous as the act they are deriding. Their answer, all too often, to self-righteous, judgmental people is to judge them, call them names and devalue them. And the irony seems lost on them. The other problem I have with tolerance is that it has come to mean that I have to respect all ideas as many sides to truth and reality and believe that it’s all relative and there is no ‘one right’ way– while it promotes tolerance as the ‘one right’ way.

I believe in tolerance. But, tolerance means tolerating (accepting) people. I do not have to tolerate your ideas, but I recognize and honor your value as a person nonetheless. Of course I believe my ideas are right, that’s why they are my ideas! I can believe your ideas stink and still show you love and good will. Your personhood and its intrinsic value is not diminished by the views you hold or the things you do.

The Right

The right, in general, has co-opted Christianity but used it to incite fear and anger. Ideas like “America is a Christian nation” abound– and the consistent logic that follows turns Christianity more in to Americanism than America into Christ-likeness. Christianity, intrinsically, is not a state religion.

This use of Christ to bolster patriotism and nationalism is a gross blasphemy which I cannot abide.

The right, in general, also puts individualism and personal responsibility on a pedestal above all else. This denies, however, the indelible truth that no man is an island. American culture has worshipped at the statue of the Individual for a long time. If a mistake has been made, it is in the direction of taking individualism too far, not the other way around. Humankind is not individuals that make up society, nor are we a society made up of individuals– society and individuals are one in the same.

The right’s unwillingness and refusal to see the need for some social responsibility and action in government confuses me. If the government is to make laws against such things like murder and bribery in order to ensure peace and order, then making laws for things like changing systemic problems in industries and creating organizations that help to alleviate societal issues is also toward peace and order.

All in all, I’m down the middle and it saddens me that the divisiveness and partisanship has reached the levels it has. Lets hope more of us can find the via media (the middle way). There, at least, we can find somewhere to talk with civility about our differences and really hear each other and maybe grow and learn a thing or two.

Who’ll join me?

A Way in the Manger

Posted December 24, 2009 by Didymus
Categories: Christianity, Orthodox Christianity

Does Christmas save you?

I don’t ever remember hearing, during my evangelical days, anyone talk about the saving effects of Christmas.

As Christians, we believe Christ to be co-eternal and consubstantial with God the Father (in other words, fully God). So His birth is the Incarnation, the “taking on of flesh,” of the eternal God.

Usually the Incarnation is seen as a means to an end– that is, Christ must become man in order to die for our sins as our substitute on the Cross. In this view, the entire salvific work is really done in his death–His conception, birth, baptism and ministry are just necessary accoutrement to get Him to the Cross.  

However, from the early days in the Church salvation was understood as participating in the life of Christ, as much as His death and resurrection.

In being born and taking on our human nature, He redeemed our human nature from its fallen state. In the manger, He opened up the way to become what we were always meant to be– the image and likeness of God.

St. Athanasius wrote: “God became man that man might become god.” Communion with God, because of Christ’s Incarnation, can therefore change us truly, more and more, into His image. As Father Stephen likes to put it, salvation is the process of the ontological change of our very nature, not a juridical declaration of our guiltlessness.

Instead of just God taking flesh to acheive His mission later, the accomplishment, glory and mystery of the Nativity of Christ is this: “Christ is born, raising up the image that fell of old!”

Glory to God in the highest!

The Advent of Rain

Posted December 14, 2009 by Didymus
Categories: Christianity, Cross-Cultural Experiences, Culture, Orthodox Christianity

It rained a lot on Friday all over the United Arab Emirates. Saturday was cloudy. On Sunday it rained even more than on Friday.

Classes are canceled today, due to the rain. You read that correctly: due to the rain.

In a land that does not get much rain, two days of rain causes some trouble. The streets are not designed to drain water. The wadis flood with a torrent of rain water coming down from the mountians. It’s the equivalent, I guess, of South Carolina getting a few inches of snow: they’re never fully prepared.

I spent sometime yesterday pushing water off the front porch, making sure it didn’t creep into the house.

Also, it really is beautiful when it is a rarity. It invokes an almost gitty reaction like snow does to me in the States. And, of course, to a desert, rain is life-giving.

I guess that makes sense during Advent. A time where we are meant to be gitty at the anticipation of something coming that is beautiful, rare and life-giving.

The problem is, I am never fully prepared.

The Expatriot (Not Starring Mel Gibson)

Posted December 6, 2009 by Didymus
Categories: Cross-Cultural Experiences, Culture, Psychology

 

The United Arab Emirates National Day celebrations were just a few days ago and the excitement is contagious. The UAE celebrated its 38th birthday on December 2.

I find I get excited when I think of many aspects of this culture and nation. I have a desire to put a UAE flag on my car and celebrate this country as a new home for me.

However, I also hesitate because when I lived in the States, I purposefully did not display American flags on my car or in my house. In many ways I see myself as a pilgrim and stranger on this earth. My allegiance to any nation is not greater than another. I am pro-world before I am pro-America or pro-UAE.

Also, if I champion America and become patriotic it feels like I, as an American citizen, am saying, “American is better than anywhere else!” Indeed, in many ways Oscar Wilde was right when he stated, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” However, if I flaunt the UAE as a non-Emirati, I feel like I am saying, “I embrace this country as equal to all the rest, as a culture and nation that adds to the world’s beauty. It is also my home.”

My American acts of patriotism are also more subtle. I have never complained about paying taxes and consider it an honor to do so. I signed up for the draft–though it is law I also considered it the right thing to do. I vote.

Here in the UAE, I pay no taxes, not even sales tax. I am not “on call” for the military. I do not vote.

So maybe flying a UAE flag or putting a sticker on my car will help me highlight its strenghts, embrace it as a home and show some outward support for the country that is allowing me, a foreign, to live and work within its borders. It doesn’t mean I think the UAE is better than America or anywhere else. It doesn’t mean I think America is worse than the UAE.

It  just means that I am an “expatriot.”