On Why No One Can Know Truth of Anything From Written Records

In a word: bias. All written records are biased and that includes the supposed “inerrant” scriptures of all religions. Here is a good discussion about the book Misquoting Jesus over at Emerging Women. This book is a good lesson in not taking biblical written records completely literally. Oh sure some step around this by saying the “original” autographs of the bible are inerrant, but that’s just a cop-out. Since no one has the originals you can assume they say anything. And apparently that’s just what various copyists and scholars have done over the centuries. Which does not in any way take away from the spiritual message of a religion’s scriptures. It simply means that you cannot and must not make hard and fast rules based on questionable texts or passages or on questionable cultural norms and first century mindsets. People are so hungry for absolutes that they can’t live with the uncertainty of never knowing really what or if a God wants of us, and that includes finding out what God wants in the bible. (It’s funny that only Protestants seem to have a problem with this inerrancy business).

My bet is on the absolute uncertainty of God but the full on practice of inclusion and love in Jesus Christ.

Disclaimer: Emerging Women is committed to the scriptures. My take on the scriptures is no reflection on them and is purely my own opinion. I have the highest respect for the scriptures, a written records of many spiritual journeys.

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25 thoughts on “On Why No One Can Know Truth of Anything From Written Records

  1. True observation! There are nuggets of wisdom in the ancient texts, however to read them as the absolute word of God is to take part in a grand illusion.

  2. tobeme,
    Someone knows their Styx lyrics. 🙂

    Written by dennis deyoung
    Lead vocals by dennis deyoung

    Welcome to the grand illusion
    Come on in and see whats happening
    Pay the price, get your tickets for the show
    The stage is set, the band starts playing
    Suddenly your heart is pounding
    Wishing secretly you were a star.

    But dont be fooled by the radio
    The tv or the magazines
    They show you photographs of how your life should be
    But theyre just someone elses fantasy
    So if you think your life is complete confusion
    Because you never win the game
    Just remember that its a grand illusion
    And deep inside were all the same.
    Were all the same…

    So if you think your life is complete confusion
    Because your neighbors got it made
    Just remember that its a grand illusion
    And deep inside were all the same.
    Were all the same…

    America spells competition, join us in our blind ambition
    Get yourself a brand new motor car
    Someday soon well stop to ponder what on earths this spell were under
    We made the grade and still we wonder who the hell we are

  3. Although much could be said here, I would like to respond to the word “bias.” When historians talk about biases, they do not mean it in the same way we mean it today. Today we mean someone claiming to be fair and impartial, when in fact they give an unbalanced perspective.

    However this is not the case when we deal with primary documents. When a historian looks at a primary document, they ask: “What is the bias of this person?” What they are really asking is where is this person coming from? In what time era was this person writing. What nationality (if any) were they? What was their occupation?

    This is why historians can say every document is “biased.” They do not mean it in the same way you or I might call a media “biased.” They mean that different people come to the table with different backgrounds.

    This does not necessarily affect the truthfulness of what is said. In fact, it can truth boost our confidence at times. For example, if an expert in medics writes a medical paper, I can be more confident in its truthfulness than if it were written by a high-school drop out.

  4. Hey thanks for the lesson Josh. I’m well aware of how writers define “bias,” being a graduate of a Master’s Degree program.

    However, just because someone who is doctor writes about medical issues, it does not mean we should automatically assume the truth of what she is writing. There have been and can be instances of payoff from research companies, limited scope, insufficient or corrupt experimental data, social and personal agendas, and other taints upon the writing.

    Pertaining to biblical sources and those who write from that perspective does not make the writers any more plausible. In fact, I’ve found that an unbiased observer of religion is far more accurate and reliable when it comes to religious writing than those immersed in the culture itself. They can come to the topic free of the blindness that is rife when one is personally involved.

  5. “Unbiased observer of religion”

    I thought I had established that no one is “unbiased.” Everyone brings something to the table. Even someone who is trying to be impartial in observing a worldview (as I do when I look into it) will have a certain perspective. Not you, nor I can claim to be unbiased. WE are all immersed in culture of some kind.

  6. I commented on the idea of “bias” because you said it summarized your post “in a word.” However I also wanted to comment on this quote:

    “Since no one has the originals you can assume they say anything”

    Although we do not have “originals” of the New Testament, we also do not have “originals” of Plato’s writings, Homer’s The Liad, or any “original” record of the Peloponnesian War. You are right in saying that we only have copies of copies. However these copies of copies are very reliable. We have more manuscripts of the New Testament than any other ancient writing. Also, even if we were to discount all of these manuscripts, all but 6 verses in the New Testament were quoted by the early church fathers. All of these manuscripts and quotations are almost exactly the same. The few differences are things like- use of an article, or plural instead of a singular…ext.

    Although we do not have the “originals” we can trust the New Testament accurate to the original.

  7. Joshm,
    Perhaps some can trust it. But others cannot be blamed if they do not trust it. I think Ehrman has shown in his book that many hands and copyists on many documents make for some very biased changes and proves my point that we can never know the original intention.

  8. I have to agree with Josh on this. Bart Ehrman’s book leaves an impression with most readers that is not really accurate–that is, the Bible is completely full of holes and unreliable. However, Bart himself admits that “most” of the discrepancies are completeley “insignificant” and “immaterial”–that they mostly reflect spelling errors that do not affect any major doctrine of Scripture.

    The Bible repeats its themes over and over again, so its not like the story of the Bible is lost because of a question over one particular verse. As Josh said, there is more textual evidence for the Bible than any other piece of ancient literature. In fact, one can read the Dead Sea Scrolls–dated from around 200 B.C. and compare it with modern translations of Isaiah and its astonishing how accurate it really is considering the amount of time that has transpired in-between.

    More than that, the Bible shows itself inspired in the way that it has radically transformed many people’s lives by the truth that is in it.

    There is a definite false dichotomy between seeing Scripture as either completely unreliable and only human and the opposite extreme of fundamentalists. The truth is in the middle–the Bible is both human *and* God inspired in some mysterious way. God chose to work within our culture to express his message.

    I really reject the way people throw out terms like “taking the Bible literally” etc. The Bible has several different genres–poetry, metaphor, historical narrative, letters, etc. Some of it is, indeed, quite literal and is proven by archeological records. Also, when the Bible says that God loves the world, I take that literally. When the Bible says it is a good thing to love one’s neighbor I take that quite literally too.

    Certainly there are parts of the Bible particularly in apocalyptic genre that is metaphorical–symbolism must be properly interpreted. But, the fact that the Bible contains symbolism and metaphor does not negate the fact that it also contains literal aspects.

    Overall, I find that many of the people that protest the Bible haven’t really done much serious studying of it for themselves. They are just repeating something they have heard someone else say–like Bart Ehrman etc.

  9. Karen said:

    “There is a definite false dichotomy between seeing Scripture as either completely unreliable and only human and the opposite extreme of fundamentalists. The truth is in the middle–the Bible is both human *and* God inspired in some mysterious way. God chose to work within our culture to express his message.

    I really reject the way people throw out terms like “taking the Bible literally” etc. The Bible has several different genres–poetry, metaphor, historical narrative, letters, etc. Some of it is, indeed, quite literal and is proven by archeological records. Also, when the Bible says that God loves the world, I take that literally. When the Bible says it is a good thing to love one’s neighbor I take that quite literally too.”

    I have tried and failed to say this exact thing in less than 1,000 words. Thank you! Very well said.

    It also brings to mind the “mystery” of scripture and the “mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4-ish). Who would God be without some mystery? Certainly not as beautiful as He is. This principle, I believe, should be extended to His revelations in scripture. As you said, Karen, we cannot be on either extreme and have anything close to an understanding of scripture.

    This is a great conversation. *sigh of contentment*

  10. Brad and Karen,

    Not so great conversation in my book. The implicit accusations in Karen’s post are unfair. Karen wrote: “Overall, I find that many of the people that protest the Bible haven’t really done much serious studying of it for themselves. They are just repeating something they have heard someone else say–like Bart Ehrman etc.”

    If this is addressed to the Emerging Women who are reviewing the book, it’s a grossly unfair accusation. If Karen’s comments are addressed to me… Well, I find it fascinating that people continually assume things about me from reading one post. It’s shortsighted, very unprofessional, and quite uncharitable, but I understand that the temptation to bolster one’s position by castigating another is almost impossible to resist. It’s the easy road to take.

    The assumptions most often made about me are, but not limited to:

    1. I’ve not read the bible thoroughly
    2. I’ve not studied the bible thoroughly
    3. I come by my opinions lightly without much thought or prayer
    3. I am uneducated in the ways of exegesis or eisogesis
    4. That I am not a Christian
    5. That I always believe everything I read (this is the most comical if you know me at all)

    It would seem that since I have to continually address this issue that either something’s wrong with me or something’s wrong with the folks who comment. I’m going with the latter. I’ve made my position amply known previous to this post. My advice is, before commenting, please read the other pages of this blog, especially the explanatory pages under the heading. You will save me and other commenters much time and energy refuting your assumptions, since the state of my soul, my opinions, my 25 year study of the bible, my education, and my views on inerrancy are well documented and not worth rehashing at this point.

    (Joh 7:24) Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

    (Joh 7:51) “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”

    (Joh 8:15) You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.

  11. **Also, even if we were to discount all of these manuscripts, all but 6 verses in the New Testament were quoted by the early church fathers.**

    Does anyone know when these verses were quoted, though? I’ve seen people state this a few times, but was curious as to when the letters of the church fathers started quoting this. Because if we say that Mark was written in 70 AD, Matthew/Luke in 80 and John in 90, the church fathers would still be able to qoute from them.

  12. MOI,

    I found the topic of conversation, in particular what I quoted, to be interesting and exciting. In no way would I affirm that you are any of the things that you listed. Just because of the nature of the blog-world, it is a reality that (very sadly) we open ourselves up to all the time. I agree that the comment you quoted from Kristen was unfair to you personally, but just as you said in a recent post that:

    “Why do most of the nasty accusations come from men?”

    I sincerely doubt you believe that to be true for the male gender as a whole (at least I hope not), yet I do not doubt that this has been the majority of your experience (for which I wish were certainly not the case). Karen is also speaking from her personal experience, which she also probably should have phrased a little less judgmentally.

    I apologize if my interest in the topic of conversation was miscommunicated as anything close to judgment. I have certainly tried to do as John 7:51 says.

  13. MOI– I am a little taken aback by your defensive response. You are making quite an assumption about my statement. I don’t know you well enough to make any kind of determination as to what kind of student of the Bible you are. Nor, am I in any way judging those at Emerging Women. I have Emerging Women on my blog roll and enjoy reading their posts and participating from time to time. Many good women there.

    My statement regarding studying the Bible was meant to be a general statement and not one targeting you or anyone else in particular. It is simply a matter of fact that most of us, including myself, are tempted to make assertions without doing our homework. Human nature. Those who are “devout” Christians are just as guilty of not seriously studying the Bible either. I happen to be a nerd and love the Bible so I will spend hours on end studying it, which is why I went to seminary–just for fun. Not everyone has time or interest to do that.

  14. Well I find the blanket statement “Overall, I find that many of the people that protest the Bible haven’t really done much serious studying of it for themselves” to be a gross inaccuracy, so I said so. I’m sure Bart Ehrman would protest it as well, being that he’s a Princeton graduate.

    You of all people, Brad, know what we over here and over at deConversion have to put up with when it comes to other christians questioning our knowledge of the bible. You don’t see it, because you aren’t continually bombarded with it, but if you’ve been up against it as much as I have you’d understand my response. It’s defensive because it has to be. And yes, generally the worst comments I’ve received are from men by about 20 to 1 also which you see none of because I delete such offensive posts. The ones I let through are TAME in comparison. Step over to Women’s Space/The Margins blog on my blogroll if you think it’s not something we women are fighting continually on the blogosphere.

  15. **Overall, I find that many of the people that protest the Bible haven’t really done much serious studying of it for themselves” to be a gross inaccuracy, so I said so.**

    I would find it inaccurate as well — everyone I’ve met who would fall into this category knows the Bible inside and out, knows its history, knows how it was developed, has studied the archeological evidence or lack thereof and basically knows tons more than Christians.

    I do think Bart Ehrman’s book holds tremendous value, because isn’t there a portion of Americans who hold that the Earth is 6,000 years old, because that’s what the Bible says? That’s the kind of literalism he’s arguing against. Plus, isn’t reading what scholars part of doing a serious study of the Bible?

  16. Excellent point Heather. Good scholarship REQUIRES that we read everything related to the subject, not just the stuff we agree with.

  17. “You of all people, Brad, know what we over here and over at deConversion have to put up with when it comes to other christians questioning our knowledge of the bible.”

    Oh, agreed! I have been personally amazed at my own expectations being blown out of the water in this (particularly with the likes of TA and HIS). I have received the same criticism in regards to science, so I can certainly relate.

    “You don’t see it, because you aren’t continually bombarded with it, but if you’ve been up against it as much as I have you’d understand my response.”

    Again, I understand our response and wholly recognize that this has been your unfortunate experience. I do not say that it is any less true, but simply sought to clarify that our personal experience is not necessarily the norm.

    “It’s defensive because it has to be.”

    And here is where I may disagree (respectfully!). I have also received a ton of criticism for my faith, my beliefs, and my opinion (especially from family). To react defensively without love is just as wrong. Jesus said to love our enemies, for even the “pagans” can love their friends, but to what gain? I do not say this from a place of perfection, as I often talk about “choking,” “maiming,” and otherwise wanting to harm the ridiculously stupid. But as one Christian brother to another Christian sister, I was seeking to both affirm and gently rebuke.

    “And yes, generally the worst comments I’ve received are from men by about 20 to 1 also which you see none of because I delete such offensive posts. The ones I let through are TAME in comparison. Step over to Women’s Space/The Margins blog on my blogroll if you think it’s not something we women are fighting continually on the blogosphere.”

    I have no doubt! Again, I do not discount your experience one iota, but only seek to differentiate between experience and norm. All too often the “vocal minority” ruins it for the rest of us.

  18. Brad,

    Points taken and I apologize to you and Karen for jumping all over the both of you.

    Chalk it up to post-surgery stress.

  19. All right, I concede to overstating my premise about “most people who protest the Bible . . .” Yes, I can overstate as well as the rest. 😉

    That being said, I would be interested in having a group discussion with all these folks you guys know who study the bible so much. I have a hard time finding folks inside or outside the church who really have studied it all that much. I am always looking for more people to engage with and wish more were interested–not just debating about the Bible, but discussing actual passages and content.

    Too bad we couldn’t all sit in my living room and have one these types of discussion groups. At the university I work at, I did find a few co-workers to have such a type of bible study for about a year–among us, a catholic, a Christian-pagan, an omni-faith lesbian, and myself (what do I call myself? Not sure). We all had different views–it was quite educational.

  20. Karen,
    Well you are more than welcome to hang out here. Between Brad, Heather, me, and you and everyone else who usually chimes in, we have quite a dialog going. Over at deConversion blog, thinks get pretty heated as well. I hope there are no ill feelings over my outburst. I haven’t been myself for quite some time. 😦

  21. **Again, I do not discount your experience one iota, but only seek to differentiate between experience and norm. All too often the “vocal minority” ruins it for the rest of us.**

    I agree with the “vocal minority.” We can just look at politics to prove that one.

    I think Brad’s reaction is interesting, in comparison to mine. Maybe because I’m not male? But when MOI asked why the nastiest comments came from men, I didn’t see that as saying all men make the nastiest comments, or even that most do. It was rather restricted to her blog alone, and out of all the unpleasant comments she receives, 95% are from men. So I didn’t think much of the comment, or see it as MOI perceiving that to be the norm of men in general. Brad, I’m not saying you did any of this or were overly sensitive or anything. I just find it fascinating, in terms of the different things we pick up on.

    Karen,

    **I would be interested in having a group discussion with all these folks you guys know who study the bible so much.**

    I know exactly what you mean — it’s precisely why I started blogging, and commenting on other blogs. I couldn’t really find that in-depth discussion from those I know, and my parents are tired of hearing me talk about it. 🙂

  22. Note — when I say I agree with the vocal minority, I don’t mean I agree with what they do, but what Brad said about them.

  23. I might like to chime in at this point and note that nowhere in scripture does it say the earth is 6000 years old. Christians who believe that also probably believe that the Bible was written in English and that Jesus has blond hair and blue eyes. They reach that number by going to the events that we have dates for, and simply tracing the geneologies back. The problem with that method is that the Hebrew word for “son of” also means “grandson of” and “great-grandson of” etc. The geneologies are simply to identify lineage, not direct descent. So any time stamp we might put on the creation of the world from a biblical standpoint needs to come from a different source than the list of geneologies. Kind of a random thought at this point in the discourse, but i thought i would mention it since it was brought up earlier.

  24. Thanks Heather for vocalizing what I meant about the male thing. You’re right, I was pointing out the stats strictly from my corner of the blogosphere and from my own life experience in general. It is interesting what pushes other peoples’ buttons.

    And it’s true, the majority of my nasty commenters are male, so what else am I supposed to think?

  25. Mike,

    Good points, all. There is no mention about 6000 years nor can we take the lineages literally as “son of” et al. I’m always fascinated by man’s attempt to create timelines from the bible, especially the millennialists. You’ve all seen those dispensational charts in church I’m sure! I think John Hagee of Cornerstone Church even has a huge one behind his pulpit if you watch him on the Church Channel. Bizarre.

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