Understanding Context

The Bible: A Very Good Book

From the ages of two to seven, I lived with my grandparents in a small Christian community that was largely made up of farms and farmers. The town itself could be quite easily walked through in a short period of time, in those days. Milk was often still delivered fresh in glass jars to your doorstep by farmers and the church was the main source of gathering and entertainment; it seemed a far different world to what we live in now.

By the age of 5, I could read a newspaper completely and comprehend what it said. I could also read the bible and comprehend its meaning, but that quickly became the problem. I comprehended the words; I understood that it contradicted itself time and time again and that did not sit well with me. I began to ask questions about it. Was it complete? It did seem that parts were missing. Who had edited the bible and why? It stated in print that it was a version, what did that mean? How many versions were there? If it was edited and there were many versions, which version was the correct one and who on earth had thought they could edit the word of God? I had to know, it was important. From my perspective, my soul was on the line. How could I reach heaven without knowing the truth of what God wanted me to do and why would the church not have answers to my questions, beyond “because it is.”? I was infuriated and resolved that if I could not trust the bible or the church, then I would one day discover the answers to my questions on my own. Truly understanding the bible, in context and conceptualization, and how it has changed over time gives us a full understanding of what it is and what it means. We can then make an informed decision on its importance in our lives, our communities, and our choices.

To understand any document or book, you must first understand the context of what you are reading. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines context as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning and the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs : environmentsetting <the historical context of the war>.” (Merriam, par. 1)

What we now call the “bible” is originally based upon a collection of historical manuscripts, documents on rules, order and how to live, and letters written to predominantly Christian communities. These texts were edited, transcribed, translated and eventually compiled into a book. For example, according to Timothy H. Lim, “Peter in the New Testament is a letter of encouragement written to Gentile Christians in the second half of the first century CE.” (Lim 55)

According to The Cambridge History of the Bible, a majority of the original texts were written in the language of Cannan, more commonly referred to in the Old Testament as Jewish. Several chapters of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, with some Persian words, a few Greek words and an Egyptian reference. The New Testament is written in a form of biblical Greek. The author explains that the book of Revelation is composed in the same kind of Greek as the Jewish-Greek apocalypses, such as the Greek Enoch. (Ackroyd, P. R., & C. F. Evans 1975)

The collection of writings, known now as the bible, has been translated many times over the span of thousands of years. The earliest copies and translations date back to archaic (250-150 BCE), Hasmonaean (150-30 BCE) and Herodian (30 BCE -70 BCE) periods. The Dead Sea Scrolls were dated with radiocarbon 14 tests in 1990 and 1991, according to Timothy H. Lim, and were confirmed to be 2000 years old. The manuscripts found were written in different languages, being transcribed and translated from one language to another by multiple scribes. (Lim 50-85)

As documents are translated from one language to another, wording is changed and that can change the meaning of the text itself. An example of this, according to Timothy H. Lim, is the variation of verse from a document named 1QpHab which states, “Drink also you and stagger.” while the same verse in the Masoretic text states, “Drink also you and be uncircumcised.” This reflects not only a change of wording due to translation, but another common issue in transcriptions, the writers’ personal context. Lim explains that “the peshirist also knew the other Masoretic text reading: he condemned the ‘wicked priest’ for not having circumcised ‘the foreskin of his heart’.” However, these are not the only problems that come into play when transcribing or translating a piece of text. Human error also plays its part. For example, according to Timothy H. Lim, there are variants in ancient sources. Peter 1.24-25 quotes Isaiah 40.6-8 from the shorter, Septuagint text but the Masoretic Text holds an additional verse. The difference can be explained by what he calls “scribal error of parablepsis”, when you skip a line of text because one line starts with the same words as another line further down. (Lim 54)

All texts written by humans contain errors and each time a text is edited, translated or transcribed, the number of errors or inconsistencies becomes larger. We have all played a game as children where we tell a person beside us something, they tell someone what you said and it continues down the line until it gets back to you. By the time it reaches you, it has changed drastically and you are often left shocked as the meaning of what you said has been entirely lost. The same is true for literature of any kind.

When we look at a current version of the English bible, we must do so with the understanding that it has been translated, edited and transcribed thousands of times over a span of thousands of years. In fact, the earliest copies of biblical texts, dating back to 100 A.D., were copies of earlier texts. According to The Cambridge History of the Bible, there are no original copies in existence to compare our current texts to, in a search for credibility, as the original or early manuscripts were most likely written on papyrus from Egypt and Syria or clay tablets, which is perishable in nature. (Ackroyd, P. R., & C. F. Evans 50-100) The earliest texts that we have access to are perishable as well, the Dead Sea Scrolls are incomplete, 25,000 tattered fragments that give us glimpses of the original text. The languages in which they are written tell a story of which civilizations were dominant at the time, what ideals and theologies were present from the civilizations speaking those languages, and ultimately give us a “map” of how the literature is changed over time.

It is important to note that no early documents of the New Testament exist, only the Old Testament can be found in ancient texts, the Old Testament is a Christian designation for the Jewish Hebrew Bible. According to James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, there is no evidence of any text pertaining to the New Testament found with the Dead Sea Scrolls. (VanderKam & Flint, 311-314)

While the Dead Sea Scrolls are not written by Christians, but by the Qumran community, they provide direct insight into the Old Testament, which the New Testament is largely based off of. The Messianic Apocalypse, the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment named 4Q521, contains fascinating similarities to the New Testament’s description of Jesus Christ. It presents a “list of characteristics that some Jews expected would take place with the coming of the Messiah.” according to James Vanderkam and Peter Flint. (VanderKam & Flint, 334) It is important to understand that the first Christians were Jews and that Christianity changed in later years, to the extent that it can no longer be seen as the same religion practiced by the Jews long ago, but it was originally based entirely off of the writings and ideas of Jews.

Of course, one of the most important differences between ancient texts and beliefs found in current Christianity is in the belief of a messiah dying for the sins of the world. According to the Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars agree that the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 4Q285-5, speaks of a conquering messiah as opposed to a dying one. It is, in fact, the Messiah that will do the killing instead of the dying. (VanderKam & Flint, 342)

When we do research on a topic and find information from the past, we expect to find clear and definitive answers and a wealth of knowledge, but the further back in time we go, the less information we find. What does this mean? This means that information degrades or is lost and you can only go so far back. What we find in our research of biblical history is a natural progression and development of the Christian religion, as we see in all religions. It’s not exactly what we might expect, in the case of a God that created all of us and spoke directly to and through people over time. We might expect to see a sudden wealth of religion, fully formed and dedicated to the God in question, pure and credible. We might expect that holy documents would be protected from age and decay and that we might be able to bask in their wisdom. That is simply not the case. Instead, what we find are texts that were written by men; documents changed over time and proof of a slow evolution of this religion from 100 A.D. to the bible that we read today.

But, before we can say that we truly understand this book, we must look at the conceptualization of these texts. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines conceptualization as “to form (an idea, picture, etc.) of something in your mind.”  (Merriam 2, par. 1) When I say this, I’m not speaking of imagining or visualizing the stories of the bible or scriptures, as I did when I was a child. I’m speaking of the manner in which the writer conceptualizes what he is writing or transcribing. While this is not something that we tend to take into account, it is actually quite important when analyzing a book like this. Timothy H. Lim provides an example of this with the Targum of Job. He states that “numerous changes were made to the traditional biblical text for religious reasons. In the Qumran scroll, the targumist was troubled by the personification of the morning stars singing together. To avoid this anthropomorphism, he renders the phrase as the morning star that ‘shone all at once’.” He goes on to explain that “sons of God” in verse 7 was changed to “angels” for fear it might “lead to a mistaken polytheism.” (Lim 70) This shows us that as early as CE (Common Era, after the birth of Jesus), these texts were being edited to fall in line with the beliefs and visualizations of the men who transcribed them, and for fear that it might lead in a belief of more than one God.

The book of Acts was written late in the first century, during the Roman Empire. According to James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, the term Pentecost is derived from the Greek name for Festival of Weeks, an event around the time of Passover. When speaking of the last days in Enoch and Second Peter, a common theme for bible teachings, it is stated that “Like Jude, 2 Peter also regards the present time as the last days.” They go on to explain that “the authors shared much with advocates of Judaism, but developed the heritage in new ways dictated by their understanding of Jesus as the messiah and their eagerness to communicate that with all.” (Vanderkam & Flint, 360-361)

When we read the book of Revelations, we are told most often or led to believe that the ends days are yet to come. This makes sense to us as we are still here. I sat in church many Sundays, fearfully listening about the end of the world to come, it’s not exactly a great bedtime story or set of thoughts for any child to hear in detail. According to James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, “the Qumran covenanters were an eschatological movement, they viewed themselves as living in a segment of time called the last days.” (Vanderkam & Flint, 363) They go on to explain that the most detailed description of the final conflict is found in the War Rule. Though it certainly seems apocalyptic, it actually “resembles Greco-Roman tactical manuals on how a war should be conducted.” Revelations and the War Rule do have a couple of differences, with the angels joining the fight in one text and not in the other. In Revelations 14:1-5, there is a holy battle that focuses on Jerusalem. An interesting fact here is that the male warriors are celibate, James Vanderkam and Peter Flint state “sexual abstinence was required of holy warriors.”, they go on to note the “interesting comparison is the lifelong celibacy that was practiced by many Essenes (Quran).” (Vanderkam & Flint, 300-450)

It is clear that throughout time, what we know as the “bible” has been changed and rewritten, evolving into something new. The authors of the time believed that they lived within the last days and that the end times were upon them. Indeed, multiple holy wars did take place, during their times and after. Any of those may have been the apocalypse they envisioned. Certainly, the warriors they envisioned have little in common with the men of our times, I’m not certain we have enough celibate men to form an army in 2015.

It is abundantly clear that these texts were written and rewritten with the ideals and beliefs of the time, and culture and norms in which they were written, firmly in mind. Words and phrases were changed countless times to ensure that the meaning was one that met the visualization of the current editor or transcriptionists. To this end, if these texts were indeed the word of God, the true words and meaning were lost long ago. Perhaps, we can find crumbs amongst the Old Testament and let those spark a personal set of questions but if we are to believe in a God, it will have to be a journey of courage set to take place without any guide.

Although this is admittedly a very brief and sparing overview of the concepts and facts on this issue, I have come to the conclusion that my seven year old self was indeed correct. The bible is in fact incomplete, altered and edited to the point that it became something other than what it was meant to be. This does not make it any more or less than any other religion on this planet, a set of ideals and beliefs that has evolved over time.

Dr. Oliver, a professor of philosophy at M.T.S.U. stated in a personal interview, “The Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has done a terrific job of documenting just how human a document it is, the product of countless scribes who copied earlier renditions and inevitably perpetuated errors and inconsistencies. We need more texts in general, and more critical scrutiny of them all… not sacred or un-challengeable texts. There’s a great un-Bible called The Good Book, a compendium of humanist wisdom through the ages. I wish everyone, especially those who think they need only one book, would ponder it.” (Oliver, 2015) Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines humanist as “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially:  a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” (Merriam 3, par. 1)

I do not believe that my findings have to lead to a question of faith in either one God or many. You can believe in a God and still understand that it was countless fallible men, who put together those pieces of text. You, then, need only to understand that you do not live in the times of the authors, or the same world, by any understanding and as such, cannot define yourself by its standards. If it were rewritten today, within our culture, what further changes might be made?

We are left with the burden and the gift of responsibility, and the moral decisions of right and wrong. Perhaps, that is for the best. Perhaps, as Dr. Oliver has stated, we should seek to read many books and look for the wisdom of those before us in a broader sense, before we come to any serious life changing judgements based solely upon one single book.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, P. R., and C. F. Evans. “The Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1, From the Beginnings to Jerome.” Google Books. Cambridge University Press, 24 July 1975. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Lim, Timothy H. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

VanderKam, James C., and Peter W. Flint. The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. Print.