Friday, March 29, 2013

The Easter Story – And Why The Need for Exegesis is Greater Than Ever

As 15 million odd Americans remain glued to their tubes for Mark Burnett’s ‘The Bible’ one wonders if any of them are exercising even rudimentary critical thinking skills. Or, are they apt to buy into everything shown as the absolute truth? Well, especially as we’re now into Easter weekend, it’s a good time to be more critical and maybe parse that narrative of the death and resurrection with a colder, more critical eye!

One of the first passages they might question is Matthew 28:2, which takes up the story after the crucifixion and after two women arrived at the tomb:

"And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it."

The story relates that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived, in their presence. However, Mark's Gospel says it happened before the women arrived:

"And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great."

Meanwhile, Luke writes:

"And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre."

Can't these guys agree on anything? But wait!  Maybe we can arrive at a supermajority for truth! John concurs with Luke: No earthquake, no rolling stone. It is a three-to-one vote: Matthew loses. Else the other three are wrong.  Never mind fundies’ insistence of biblical inerrancy, logic rules! An event cannot happen both before and after the key subjects arrived.

Now, some bible defenders may assert that Matthew 28:2 was intended to be understood in the past perfect, showing what had happened before the women arrived. But the entire passage is in the aorist or past tense, and it reads, in context, like a simple chronological account. Matthew 28:2 begins, "And, behold," not "For, behold."

If tenses of assorted verses can be so easily shuffled around, and believers can be so gullible as to rationalize them all, then what is to keep them from putting the flood before the ark, or the crucifixion before the nativity? Heck, they can do anything they want!

Consider an additional  problem: the fact that in Matthew the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples happened on a mountain in Galilee and not in Jerusalem as most Christians believe. Note the prediction by the angel sitting on the newly moved rock:

"And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him."

Assuming the angel was delivering the message of God this had to have been of supreme importance. Jesus had even predicted this himself sixty hours earlier, during the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:32). Later, according to(Matthew 28:16-17:

"Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted."

Reading this at face value, and in context (something many fundies often avoid, i.e. they insist on "interpreting" a troublesome passage when at other times they demand it be taken literally), it’s clear that Matthew intends this to have been the first appearance. Otherwise, if Jesus had been seen before this time, why did some doubt?

Then also, we find that Mark agrees with Matthew's account of the angel's Galilee message, but delivers a different account of the first appearance. Meanwhile, Luke and John give different angelic messages and then radically contradict Matthew. Luke relates the first appearance is on the road to Emmaus and then in a room in Jerusalem. John, however, says it happened later than evening in a room, minus Thomas. These angel messages, locations, and travels during the day are impossible to reconcile. But who’s looking, or asking? Clearly not most fundies!

Such contradictions don’t prove that the resurrection didn’t happen, but they do throw considerable doubt on the reliability of the supposed witnesses. Some of them were wrong. Maybe they were all wrong. And let us not forget Thomas Paine’s famous words (in The Age of Reason ):

"I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted. First, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true."

All of which points up the need for judicious use of  biblical exegesis to scrutinize ancient words as opposed to blindly accepting them. (Or worse, accepting cartoon TV accounts- especially on how 'Satan' looks!)

An ongoing problem that consistently emerges is that many who purport to have mastered exegesis have often omitted textual analysis as part of it, which also requires familiarity with one or more languages, in particular Latin, and Greek. Thus, a person versed and educated in these languages will be able to at least parse the Latin Vulgate form of early biblical texts, and also make forays into the Greek Septuagint. By using such language skills to examine then compare earlier and earlier texts, one is then in a position to identify errors and obvious mistranslations without having to have the original texts as reference. Hence, one can deduce errors have been made and also have been propagated on the basis of simple deduction, once inconsistencies are exposed.

As an illustrative example: Half the oldest manuscript witness texts, including a Bodmer papyrus, the Vaticanus and Beza’s Codex omit the sentence in Luke 23: 34 which purportedly contains the "last" words of Jesus. This level of uncertainty in the textual tradition means the interpretation of the passage was a subject of serious debate. Put briefly: half the witnesses insisted Jesus begged God’s forgiveness for “them” – the other half pretended to know nothing of the “Eloi, eloi lama sabacthani” prayer. What gives? How can the divergences be reconciled? The conclusion of textual analysts is that the passage is probably bogus and a later addition. Why say so? Because the earliest Greek witness papyrus (called P 75 - which dates back to 200 AD) has no such content. However, the prayer can be found in Codex Sinaiticus and a large range of mss. produced in the Middle Ages. Again, the comparison of earlier mss. with much later ones (in the Middle Ages) shows prima facie evidence for alteration of text in the later epoch. We don't need any Divine Being to inform us of this, we arrive at it using simple logical inference, i.e. deduction!

Another example is the verse from Matthew 25:46:“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal". This verse (which I've commented on before)  is critical because it's the only one in the whole good book that has the two words "everlasting" and "punishment" in the same sentence. Thus, the entire concept or claim of "everlasting punishment" rests on the validity of this single verse. But is it valid? Not when one applies the Greek translation (from the Greek Septuagint), emerging as:"kolasin aionion” or punishment for an aeon. Now as anyone even without Greek language skills knows, an aeon never has been nor will it ever mean "eternal". Thus, one can legitimately conclude that later scribes and copyists deliberately inserted their own version to bend the scriptures to their own agenda

What is the optimum way to take the Bible’s assorted books, and especially the Gospels? Catholic Scriptural Historian, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in his monograph,  A Concise History of the Catholic Church put it thusly (page 17):

"The Gospels were not meant to be a historical or biographical account of Jesus. They were written to convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God.”

In other words, they were intended as a propaganda pressure ploy! Further, what we have from Rev. Bokenkotter is a de facto admission that no historical support exists for any of the accounts in the New Testament. Indeed, if they "were not meant to be historical" (or accurate), then we cannot be sure if any are! Quite possibly, none of the accounts should be taken seriously. This is also a good reason to interject once more that interested readers ought to avail themselves of the easily accesible online course, Introduction to New Testament History and Literature by Prof. Dale B. Martin of Yale University. (Roughly on a par with my 'Introduction to the New Testament' course taken at Loyola in 1964-65. ) The compilation of course sessions, all on video, can be accessed via this link:

And the one I recommend most for those short on time is No.13, dealing with the "Historical Jesus" (link below):

Textual criticism and analysis not only exposes the inadequacies in distinct texts of the NT, but through the whole bible via the propagation of errors concept. Consider: from the earliest OT scribblings (12 th century BC) to the final establishment of the NT corpus at the Council of Trent (16th century) more than 28 centuries elapsed! That is, twenty- eight centuries for copyist errors to propagate through millennia and not be caught and for enormous mistranslations to emerge because of said errors. Even worse, the Trent corpus was not even the final word or revision, the good Book was then bastardized compliments of Henry VIII of England who enjoined the fabrication of the King James Bible which is even less trustworthy than any of the Catholic versions! Trustworthiness itself was often determined by consensus in the earliest writings and codices. Most present day fundamentalists aren’t even remotely aware that the content they are claiming today as “literal or inerrant words” were in fact originally “passed by committee” !

While it is natural for fundamentalist critics to gloss over all this, as they claim some "inerrant original text inspired by God" still exists, the bottom line is that the ball is still in their court, and with it the burden of proof. So far, they've produced or proven no pure original text and have only, for some reason, placed all their faith in the King James version as the authentic descendent of that original. Which is pure poppycock. We know, for example, it was transcribed from an entire corrupted 12th century mistranslated text substituted for the Latin Vulgate (by Erasmus) then reconstructed and issued long after the mismatch could be easily tracked. Subsequent exegetical experts were able to do this by comparing the language in the original mss. but even a novice can ascertain the monumental deficiencies just by ferreting out all the glaring contradictions, many of which are not minor by any means! (Though objecting fundies often claim they are).

As an example, consider just the question (at the core of most orthodox Christian doctrine): 'Will everyone get saved?'  Simple, eh? One would certainly think any extant, "divinely inspired" and "inerrant" Bible would uniformly get its answers right (no contradiction), but the KJV fails on all counts! One finds (on excavating the relevant answers from the gospels and other sources) that a 'YES!' answer is located in: John 12:32; Rom. 5:18, 11:32; 1Col 15:22; Col 1:20; 1Tim 2:4,6; 1John 2:2, but the 'NAY!' also exists and is found in Matt. 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24.

My point here? IF the KJV (or any other version of the Bible) was truly an authentic carryover version of the "original original word of God" there'd be no ambiguity whatever. Nor can the argument be made that faulty "humans" were responsible, since if that happens then the de facto admission is made that the Bible is a human invention. Surely, if the divine word was so critical, then an inspired work ought to have ensured no disparity or deviations in such a critical message! As for the resort to "hermeneutics" to try to explain it away, this is a non-starter.

Recall that hermeneutics asks what the writer (in that vernacular) actually meant in the idiom of his day (NOT our day!) and what losses in meaning that idiom encountered as it was transcribed to other languages in succession. Thus the primary objective of exegesis is interpreting what the passage in the original language meant in terms of its OWN CONTEXT not simply putting it into the new one. THIS is why so many biblical literalists foul up and end up in a ditch.

As I noted in an earlier blog, the process for the literalist is basically 1:1 onto:

[Text x] -> [Text x]

Thus, [text x] undergoes no modification from what their eyes detect or parse in the passage.

In fact, there are three primary phases of the hermeneutics process so that at least three stages have to be covered, so:

[text x] -> [1] ->[2] –[3] -> [Text Z]

Even this is oversimplified, since technically each step also needs to be checked and parsed from one language to the other. For example, what did the author mean in Aramaic? What did he mean when this was transferred to GREEK? What did he mean when this Greek was transferred to Latin? What did he mean when the Latin went to English? Then step [2] – repeating the same sequence. When we did exegesis at Loyola we used columns for the four main languages and parsed each passage for EACH step before arriving at the final meaning. (As anyone who's ever studied foreign languages knows- and I've studied Latin, Russian, German and Spanish- it is essentially impossible to get a perfect translation from one to another!)

What we acknowledge in doing this procedure is the fact that we have NO ORIGINALS of any scriptures, only error-ridden copies (as the evidence I presented earlier shows). But, if we can take the passages through the above sequence, then let the light of the historical research shine upon the effort, we can at least approach the truth. We are not so naïve as to claim or expect we HAVE the truth, since hermeneutics itself – its very use- is a tacit admission one can’t take passages literally.

The many logia in the Gospels would, if they could convincingly be shown derived from a single personality or source, be strong evidence that a historical Jesus existed. But such is not the case. In tandem textual analysis and historical research (see the Yale lecture)discloses we are left with an artifact created or invented by eager followers.

People need to remember this, especially those currently going ga-ga over Burnett’s puerile ‘Bible’ retelling on the (pseudo-) History Channel!

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