Reading the comment sections of online news articles can be very disheartening.  As an example of mind-numbing ignorance, I have discovered a surprisingly large number of commenters who believe something along the following lines: “The Bible is a poorly translated transcription of poorly translated oral history and folk legends told by Stone Age goat herders plagiarized from the religious texts of ancient Egypt and Babylon.”



Such a sentiment has about as much connection to reality as someone who believes Elvis is a space alien.

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1.         Where the Bible came from:



 

Setting aside the divine connection and simply focusing on the human dimension, what can be said about the authors of scripture?   So far as we can tell, none them were noted goat herders. Nor were any especially ignorant: they wrote well, making use of rather complex narrative and poetic techniques.  Although a large percentage of the biblical writings are anonymous, of those whose authorship is known, some were kings, some ran fishing businesses, some were musicians, and some were priests, among other things. The range of professions is about what one would expect to see in any pre-industrial, largely agrarian civilization—the sort of civilization that was universal until the industrial revolution began.

No modern scholars believe that the Bible was plagiarized from the religious texts of ancient Egypt and Babylon. Certainly there is a common cultural heritage between some of the Old Testament materials and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, but no direct copying.  And the Egyptian influence is almost non-existent.

2.         Translation and transmission of the texts:

The Bible has better manuscript evidence than any other ancient text, with thousands of copies of its various parts floating around. There was therefore no grand conspiracy to change or suppress parts of the Bible. The books that make up the Hebrew Bible were originally written in either Hebrew or a closely related language, Aramaic. An early translation into Greek was completed around 200 BCE. Until 1946/1947, the oldest complete Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament dated to about 1000 CE. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946/1947, scholars suddenly had at their disposal texts a thousand or more years older than any biblical texts they had up until that point. Guess what? The Dead Sea Scrolls of 200 BCE are virtually identical to the text from 1000 CE. What’s different? Spelling. Here and there. The Dead Sea scrolls are not restricted or suppressed. You can go into most major libraries find copies of them in photographic reproduction or translated. For that matter, you can see them all online at The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library (www.deadseascrolls.org.il/) without even leaving your house.  And as for those so-called “forgotten” or “forbidden” books that didn’t make it into the Bible? You can find copies at any bookstore or library, along with academic and popular commentaries on them.  Suppressed they aren’t.

As to translation, the Bible is not poorly translated. Quite the opposite. There have been numerous translations made over the years into English and most other languages and new translations appear every year.

The Bible is as well translated as any other work of literature. Certainly some things will get lost in translation—like the puns—but that hardly makes them bad translations. Very few would insist that one can read Goethe only in the original German and Tolstoy only in the original Russian and Homer only in the original Greek, and … well, you get the picture. And the various available translations of the Bible differ among themselves in the same way that translations of Homer, Tolstoy, Dante or Gothe differ among themselves. Chances are, if you want to read Dante, you’re better off choosing a recent translation than one from the time of Shakespeare—unless, for some reason, you have a special hankering for Elizabethan English. The same goes for translations of the Bible. The still popular King James Version (first published in 1611) can be a tough slog for a 21st century English speaker. Just saying.

 

3.         The Bible is misogynistic, encourages slavery, and promotes violence and human sacrifice

Because, says our enlightened and well-versed critic who imagines goat herders wrote complex poetry: look at all the biblical stories that have jerks in it doing horrible things.

The science fiction author Larry Niven responded to a critic who condemned him for what one of the characters in one of his novels believed: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.” Those who criticize the Bible as if it advocates murder, rape, female oppression, slavery and the like are the sort of people that fit the technical, literary term Niven so aptly applied to his own critics. Now I suppose, for example, that one could read the story about the Levite who allows his wife to be raped and murdered and then chops her into twelve parts (see Judges 19-20), not as a horrible indictment of the anarchy that existed in pre-monarchical Israel, but instead, contrary to all reasonableness, as an instruction manual on how women wish to be treated. But I suspect most people, your average reader, would get the actual point of the story. Those who don’t—well, Niven already explained their problem.

If you read the Bible like Niven’s idiot, then yeah, you can make it out to be a horrible misogynistic, anti-human book. Otherwise, not so much.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if people misunderstand or subscribe to weird conspiracy theories regarding the Bible. It’s not as if no one ever misread any other book, magazine article, or newspaper story—or ever misinterpreted the clear words of their spouses, children, parents, or friends.


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