Room Inside a Box

"There is no room inside a box." ~Doug Pinnick

Location: Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, United States

I started this blog as a soundboard for some much needed therapy during my separation with my wife throughout much of 2005. It was truly a blessing to get my thoughts out there through the writing process. Thankfully things have worked out between us. I would have continued to blog, but ever since I started my teaching career, I have found it impossible to do as much blogging as I would like to. So now I hope to periodically post as time and energy allow.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What is a double dog?

If it was anything less than the ultimate double-dog dare--no wait... it was the double-dog dare--I'd be cool. I'd be chilling, probably playing Civ III (alas, I'm too poor for the new Civ IV...) while waiting for Ann to get home, but he (that is, Jason) just had to break out the double-dog--excuse me, the double-dog--and I don't even like dogs!

So since he'll probably get nothing in his comments but people agreeing with him, let me be the lone dissenter--but allow me a few introductory qualifications:

1) I do not believe the bible is completely inerrant, yet at the same time I do believe many--not all, but many--of its supposed errors and contradictions can be quite readily explained through close reading and scholarly research.

2) I do not believe the bible was written by God. It was written by men perhaps inspired by a higher power, but it certainly has the idiosyncratic footprint of a humanity fucked up, albeit with good intentions.

First things first: It is silly to expect the bible to be written in such a precision as today's books are written. First of all, it was written by probably hundreds of different men over a span of probably 5000 years (give or take a couple of hundred or so) and completed just under 2000 years ago. Think about that.

Go ahead. Think.

Think hard. That's a lot to swallow. That's a long, long fucking time ago, in a place and culture that might as well be on an alien planet. Hell, even the historical time period covered in the bible spans many diverse cultures alien to one another. But even the foreignness that these cultures and societies would experience with one another pales in comparison to the foreignness we would experience with any of their respective cultures.

Now think of this. Firstly, books today are primarily written by one person who has a birth certificate, social security number, a paper trail a couple of miles long, etc. In other words, most people today who write books are historically validated because we do that kind of thing nowadays. Secondly, books written today are scrutinized by a small army dedicated to making them errata free--and even then most books lucky enough to be published still contain a handful of errors which sometimes might not even get fixed when they get to paperback. And thirdly, books written today are written and edited by contemporaries who know one another. In other words, the writer is in a relationship with the publicist who knows the editor who hires the lawyers and the proofreaders who knows the compositor who knows the printer so on and so forth. These people all have the benefit of calling one another up on cell phones, doing lunch with one another, e-mailing one another. In other words, they are not only contemporaries but have the advantage of instantaneous feedback on whatever it is that's going on in their lives, which is, in this case, putting together a book that is as well-written and close to error-free as possible.

And now this: the people who compiled these ancient writings are not historically verifiable. They were much more worried about getting enough food for their tribe or warring with a neighboring clan to bother with birth certificates and the like. Hell, up until very recently, people didn't even keep track of something as simple as a birthday, if for no other reason than the infant mortality rate was so high, people just thought they were lucky they lived that first week. (BTW, the only reason we know when Shakespeare was born was because the church recorded when he was baptized, which by custom was three days after one's birth because even then the infant mortality rate was exorbitantly high. So as late in human history as the sixteenth century, people didn't care about birthdays nearly as much as living on after one was born. And Shakespeare had a stable home, town, and country. Imagine a nomadic tribe in the desert 5000 years ago. How stable is that? But I digress). Also, it's not like these people, even as late as Jesus' day, could walk into a Barnes & Noble (NOT FUCKING BARNES & NOBLES!!!!! Sorry, had to get that off my chest) and just buy a couple of books from among thousands. These people had stones and rocks, and later ink and papyrus. And they only had a handful of originals, if they had any copies at all. This is all they had, mind you, for thousands of years while the bible was being recorded by hundreds of men who didn't know each other and could call one another up and say, "Hey, did you get that tablet I sent you regarding your contradiction on tablet 42?" (Forty-two! Ha!) Now, mind you, the Old Testament was written by a solid group of people who handed the tablets (and later scrolls) down very, very carefully from one generation to another, which is why you have a lot less contradiction in the OT than in the NT. Nevertheless, the Jewish priests did not have the benefit of calling up their fellow scribe who wrote whatever down however many hundreds of years ago. It's when you get to the NT that you really see all these supposed errors and contradictions, but we'll get to that soon enough.

Like now. The New Testament is compiled from thousands--yes, thousands!--of various scrolls, some of which have holes, are illegible, ruined beyond repair, etc. And yes, many do contain contradictions. So scholars went with the ones that matched the most, laid aside those that didn't quite fit theologically or that just were obvious forgeries. It's a fascinating undertaking to look at all of this editing, redacting, compiling, and canonizing--but that would go beyond the scope of this post. To get to the point, you pointed out some--what you feel, I'm sure--are blatant contradictions in Paul's conversion experience. You cite three passages: two from Acts and one from Galatians. Let's look at this idea of yours.

It is pretty much agreed upon by most scholars that, of all the NT books, Paul's letters were the first to be written, probably around 40-50 a.c.e. (And BTW, I'm going off of memory here, so I might have some dates wrong or mixed up, but I feel confident enough to write this without looking any of it up, so I'm pretty sure I'm at least close to historical accuracy, but you are more than welcome to fact-check me.) And of those letters, only about half are agreed upon as authentically Pauline. Remember, we're talking about a culture far different than our own, and in those days it was very common to evoke the name of a famous person in order to lend some credence to what was being written. So many in the infant church, seeing that Paul was a rising star, would invoke his name in order to get people to buy into what was being written. So many of the "Pauline" letters preached to the masses on Sunday mornings are just some dude's ideas, and he was using Paul to get his opinion heard. So Paul really isn't the patriarchal misogynist, lay-down-the-law-of-the-church type dude we all make him out to be. But again, that's for another time in another place. However, most scholars do contend that Galatians was in fact written by Paul. So out of all your examples of Paul's conversion, the one in Galatians is probably the most closest to the truth (even though it's not so much an example of his conversion so much as an explanation to the Galatian church of his street cred with respect to the gospel as he knew it).

And this is where we get to the point of people not being contemporaries--or at least not knowing each other. I find it hard to imagine one of your background not knowing that Paul did not write Acts. You say, "from Paul's own mouth" when speaking of what's written in Acts, and I found that quite disconcerting. You did clear some of this mess up at the end when you mentioned that some "claim that Luke wrote the book of Acts," but even that evidences your lack of knowledge when it comes to who wrote what NT book, when it was written, to whom it was written, and why (not that I'm an expert, mind you... like I said, I'm going off of memory from stuff I learned a while back, so I might have some things mixed up, but I'm pretty sure I'm close to what the latest scholarship is in a nutshell). It's pretty much agreed upon that whoever wrote Acts also wrote Luke beause they are the same book that got broken up when the canon was being compiled--in other words, Acts is Luke Part Deux. But no one is clear on who wrote any of the gospels. John probably wrote John, and Mark was probably written first--soon after Paul's epistles--but that's the best scholars can do. And all of these gospels were written after Paul's letters, the one attributed to Luke decades after Paul penned his epistle to the Galatians. (And BTW, Paul was writing these letters to individual people in individual small churches in individual circumstances. He probably would not want these specific letters to be universally applied, and he certainly had no idea that they would be canonized and thus scrutinized to death for thousands of years, else he probably would've been much more careful with what he said and how he said it!)

So, what do we have? We have an authentic (as best we can determine) letter, followed decades later by an anonymous book traditionally attributed to Luke. Which one am I going to give more credence to? I think that's obvious; I'm going to go with the account in Galatians. But to accuse Luke (we'll just call this author Luke for argument's sake) of lying is just silly. These two writers probably never even knew each other, they were writing to different audiences with different agendas for different purposes, and their writings are separated by decades at best. Furthermore, Paul was quite the charismatic young up-and-comer in the infant church. Everyone knew about his past, and his new vocation just stunned people. And, taking into account the idea that telephones, radios, books, newspapers, magazines, television, the Internet--you know, the places we get our information--didn't exist back then, people made up stories, told tall tales, exaggerated. It's always more fun to embellish, miss this fact, gloss over that one, not hear this one but exaggerate that one. So, taking into account that the letter and the book were not written by the same author, they were not written with the same intent or purpose, they both had a different audience with different issues, the two authors probably never even met, they were separated by decades of time, the writer of Luke had no media from which to gather information and instead relied on hearsay, and people back then were storytellers first and fact-checkers later (remember, this is a completely different culture!), the accounts shouldn't be expected to match up except by those who don't really know what they are reading. It's like when my tenth graders tell me that Shakespeare is dumb. They can't understand the Elizabethan language, and because of their lack of understanding and need for immediate gratification, they spout off these crazy notions which only expose their lack of education. That's what reading your last post was like: "Mister [that's what my students call me], Shakespeare is so dumb!" Not that you are uneducated; you are obviously a very intelligent dude (you're a fucking Hughes for crying out loud), but in this area of knowledge I believe you are lacking some information, which I am trying to lay out in the briefest way I can without skimping.

So there it is. Most of your posts I agree with. Fundies suck (most of them, anyway). People should know this about them. But where you do such a good job of investigating and researching and validating and exposing these claims against them like the Pulitzer-seeking muckraking journalist you could be, you do an equally bad job of writing about a book you spent your youth being hit upon the head with but never really examining. I find it continually amazing how many people bad-mouth the bible but probably can't even name ten books it contains (it's like when Stephen Colbert was interviewing a representative who introduced legislation to have the Ten Commandments posted in federal courthouses, and Colbert asked him to name the Ten Commandments, and he couldn't even name four!!!). Not that you are that uneducated about the bible; I'm sure you're more educated than most. But I thought you knew more about it than what you have shown in your most recent post. And like I said, I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination. I might know more than the average person, but I am far from an expert. I just wish you'd put all that investigation and research you put into your fundie diatribes and perhaps incorporate them into your bible diatribes. You really do such a good job with them, exposing their hypocrisies and such. I can tell you put a lot of time and thought into them, and it shows by your consistent readership, the mark of a good writer.

So let me know what you think. I've tried to cover as much as my brain would allow me to recall. I think most of what I wrote is somewhat accurate, but you are more than willing to check up on all this stuff I just glossed off the top of my head. I'd like to know if I'm wrong so I can correct my thinking and ideas. After all, I have more of a stake in this stuff right now, at least for the time being.


Anonymous Ergo said...

After all those things you pointed out as limitations to the Bible, why then do you still consider it of any value to you? What can you glean from it and be certain that it is the truth of "God"? Can you be certain of *anything* at all in it??
Despite all the limitations that you acknowledge the Bible has, you still hold it as the holy book of your religion, and for the most part, follow its prescriptions. Why!?

June 26, 2006 4:29 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

Dude, you have WAY too much free time on your hands.

June 27, 2006 1:01 PM  

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