Holy Week is arguably the most important period in the Christian calendar, but it is amazing that so few practicing faith adherents have even heard of scriptural analysis. This is important, for example, because scriptural exegesis alone is needed to assess whether a given biblical quote was merely a late insertion by a translator or an actual historical quote.
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 texs, 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, 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 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. In effect, whatever the original original verse said, it was altered, and we don't need possession of it to ascertain that. (Especially since if said verse ever really existed and said what fundies claim, there'd be no reason to alter it!) As for the later scribes' agenda, this has been known since the first oral traditions were transcribed and were noted by the Catholic Scriptural Historian, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in his mongoraph, A Concise History of the Catholic Church. As he put it (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:
Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature
And the one I recommend most for those short on time is No.13, dealing with the "Historical Jesus" (link below):
The Historical Jesus
Moving on, one can also consider the example of the letter of Paul to the Galatians (assuming it was even penned by Paul). What we do know based on the course of Prof. Martin and other historical work, is that Galatia was not a single town with a single church, it was a region in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in which Paul had established churches. When he wrote to the “Galatians” therefore, was Paul writing to ONE single church or to all of them? (Presumably since he doesn’t single out any he intends his missive to go to all of them). If so, given the churches were far apart (on average 150 miles) did that mean he made multiple copies of the same letter – or did he intend one letter to circulate to all the churches of the region? These are important and not facetious questons!
Suppose he made multiple copies, how did he do it given no printing presses were available and the precise copying of merely one letter would have taken over a year. In fact, the evidence of extant texts shows Paul dictated the letter to a scribe. (Paul’s initials, unusually large, diverge from the scale of script used in the actual letters). Problem with the dictation: Did Paul actually dictate it word for word, or did he merely spell out general points and enjoin the scribe to fill in the rest? We don't know but in any case, this makes whatever was in any "original" a moot point! It doesn't matter because the subsequent evidence from history, language and logic discloses alterations had to have been made!
Here’s what we do know: What survives today is not the original copy of the letter, nor one of the first copies that Paul himself made, nor any of the copies that were produced in the towns of Galatia to which the letter was sent – nor any of the copies of those copies.
The first reasonable copy we have of Galatians is a papyrus called P 46 – for the 46th New Testament (NT) papyrus to be catalogued, which dates to 200 CE (200 AD). This is roughly 150 years after Paul putatively wrote the letter. It was in circulation – copied sometimes correctly, sometimes not, for 15 decades BEFORE any copy was made that survived to the present day. Further, we cannot reconstruct the copy from which P 46 was made.
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 (KJV) 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!
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 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 post, 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] ->  -> – -> [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  – repeating the same. 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.
Below, a 1964 test on Biblical Exegesis from a Loyola University 1st year course:
1. Estimate the percentage of the Qumran scrolls that are copies of books of the Bible. Of which proto-canonical books were there copies or fragments? Of which deutero-canonical books? Define each type of book, making clear any unfamiliar terms.
2. WHY are the Qumran scrolls of such great importance? Why would it be erroneous to conclude that these scrolls provide us with the original reading of the New Testament books?
3.What aids did biblical scholars already possess toward reconstructing the original reading of the Old Testament books? How have the discoveries at Qumran enhanced the value of the Septuagint translation as a reliable aid for reconstructing the original reading of the Old Testament that appears in the scrolls?
4. How (not how much) have the Qumran scrolls contributed to our knowledge of the history of Judaism? What caution(s) must we keep in mind when reconstructing Israelite history from these scrolls?
5. Three fourths of the Dead Sea Scrolls are writings composed by the Essenes themselves, treating their religious views and way of life. What have we learned from them about the Essenes' beliefs to do with the "angel of light" and the "angel of darkness"? What have we learned about their beliefs concerning the Messiah?
6. Discuss the moral views and practices of the Qumran sectarians as they might have impacted their texts-scrolls. Give at least two specific examples and expand on them at length, including likely copyist errors.
7. Half the original manuscript witness sources, including a Bodmer papyrus and Beza's Codex, omit the last line (accorded to Jesus) from Luke 23:33-34. What does this omission convey concerning the textual tradition of this sentence? What general caution does this provide concerning exegesis for the synoptic gospels in general?
8. Some Protestant biblical scholars used to hold that St. John's Gospel could not possibly have been written by a Jewish Christian living at the time of Christ. They asserted it was more likely written in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., because of the terminology and ideas in St. John's Gospel reflecting an abstract dualistic theology (e.g. emphasizing the conflict between light and darkness).
Explain how the Qumran documents smashed this theory. Why would Jesus (as reported in his speeches in St. John's Gospel) have used such terminology and ideas?
9. Discuss fully the new insight for interpreting the 'Epistle to the Hebrews' which we get from the Qumran scrolls.
10. The word "mystery" (Greek 'musterion': 'what is known only to the initiated') occurs twenty seven times in the official New Testament and almost all these occurrences demonstrate the "secret infrastructure of a nascent cult". Further, a careful reading of the Pauline Epistles, and Gospels (supplemented by modern documentary discoveries- such as at Qumran) shows Christianity began as a mystery religion, replete with initiations, secrets and multiple levels of indoctrination.
The 'mystagogoue' element is also very evident in passages such as 1 Cor. 2:6 ff.
Explain the nature of a "mystery religion". Do you concur that Christianity - from the scriptural elements, passages noted- qualifies as such? Why or why not? If the negative, provide an alternative exegesis to make sense of 1 Cor. 2:6 ff.