Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
**https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).

15 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    You wrote: "The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant."

    So the question, as I see it, becomes why is "errancy" in the bible so disturbing to many?

    Answer: The assumption is made that errancy is incompatible with the presence of the divine, which, by definition, is perfection, and perfection overwhelms the possibility of human error and uncertainty in awareness of matters eternal: matters eternal include the purpose of the Bible.

    If I recall correctly, the handbook of the United Methodist Church bypassed the inerrancy issue with regard to particulars and simply said (says) generally that "the Bible contains all the knowledge that is necessary for one's salvation."

    Folks tend to head in the direction that represents best their own need for psychological security.

    I recall a professor in my freshman year of college, saying in world history, "the water of the Red Sea didn't part, the Israelites passed through the 'sea of reeds.'" It took about three days for me to grapple with that, including a couple conversations with the professor, but afterwards I became a free man with a free mind. Those trapped in inerrancy never have that experience. I'm thankful that I was flexible enough in my youth to have that freeing experience, but I'm not going to spend a lot of time engaging in the impossible task of trying to crack the armor of inerrancy worn by indoctrinated adults.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  2. Charlie, Where have you dealt with the healing stories of Jesus? I would like to read what you say about this. Buddy Shurden

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    1. Good afternoon Buddy,
      Thanks for asking. The most academic treatment is in an article: "Miracles in Mark: A Study in Markan Theology and its Implications for Modern Religious Thought," in Perspectives in Religious Studies 34 (2007): 297-313.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  3. There is a fundamentalist feller who comments often in our local newspaper. He rails against the modern world, how “we are in the last days,” and about the rampant “immorality and corruption” in the USA these days. The “odd” feature is that when he quotes from the Bible, it is generally the MSG version. (He sticks that in parentheses.) This apparently doesn’t refer to the salty flavor enhancer (MonoSodium Glutamate) of the same initials, but a Bible which isn’t really a translation but an idiomatic paraphrase, according to what I’ve read about it. I reckon it is easier to navigate than the archaic pronoun and verbal forms and the language of the KJV. Yesterday, he provided a ragtag pruning (in order) of selections from 2 Thess, Amos, Rom 13.1-7, Rev, Ps, Matt, and 1 & 2 Tim. to exhort ministers to do a better job of “shepherding,” because they have “watered down” the scriptures. It seemed ironic.

    While my definition of fundamentalist notes their “fundamentals,” like inerrancy of scripture, I emphasize that it is primarily a reaction against modernism, found in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. When one uses as one’s belief system ancient literature viewed both literally and inerrant, coming from the “mouth” of God, this is probably will always be problematic. Selective pruning can yield any result one desires, mutilating and demoting the literature to a booklet of bias.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Thanks for calling this translation to my attention. I had never heard of it before. It is based on a method of translating (called "functional equivalence") where translators do not translate what the text say but rather what the text means. The American Bible Society followed that technique in their "Good News" Translation and the "Contemporary English version." In this case the translation was apparently done by one man rather than a "team" of translators, and not even having an editor to critique and dialogue with the translator.
      Cordially
      Charlie

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    2. I remember "Good News for Modern Man." It was popular I think around the same time I went to Ridgecrest (Baptist retreat in NC). As I recall, it was the first paperback Bible I had seen, but I didn't have one. I was wondering if those you mentioned were related to the "English Standard Version" (ESV), which I seem to have a copy of, I don't know from where... I tend to accumulate these thing! It is from "Good News Publishing." I haven't looked at it yet.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  4. Hi Charlie,

    Do you have any information about how the inerrantists handle specific differences in viewpoint. For example:

    Temple cleansing early in public activity (John)
    Temple cleansing at beginning of last week (Mark, Matt, Luke)

    Money in trust parable: Luke uses "mina" worth 4 months wages
    Money in trust parable: Matt use "talent" worth 20 yrs wages

    Healings: Jesus heals 1 demoniac 1 one blind man at a time (Mark)
    Healings: Jesus heals 2 demoniacs, 2 blind men at a time (Matt)

    Jesus rides into Jerusalem on one animal (Mark and Luke)
    Jesus rides into Jerusalem on two animals (Matt)

    Jesus is a "carpenter" (Mark)
    Jesus is "the carpenter's son" (Matt)

    Jesus heals a mute and blind person as intro to the Beelzebul debate (Matt)
    Jesus heals a mute person as intro to the Beelzebul debate (Luke)

    And the list goes on and on.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa

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    1. Gene and Charlie, I hope you don’t mind me giving a few thoughts about Gene’s question.

      A couple of “inerrant” explanations for contradictions can be explained this way:
      1. One ideas is that it was assumed that Joseph was also a carpenter, since many times sons went into the same trades. Though Matt probably was qualifying the Markan saying, this argument is also plausible. (The author of “Infancy Thomas” thought as much.)
      2. Eusebius states that John was written about the early days, so Jesus could have cleansed the temple twice, toward the beginning and toward the end.
      3. Matt’s riding into Jerusalem, depending on the translation, doesn’t always follow the Greek (“he sat upon them”). It is more ambiguous in some translations I found lying around in my immediate proximity. KJV & RSV: “they set him thereon.” Phillips: “Jesus took his seat.” NEB: “...and Jesus mounted.” Lamsa: “...Jesus rode on it.” He sits on “them” I found in the NIV, NRSV, the JS versions and Schoenfield’s. It probably has to do with the difference between “formal” and “dynamic” equivalence in translation.
      4. I’ve argued with evangelicals who say discrepant stories are different stories. Others say that “two witnesses see things differently,” so though there might be differences, the stories, since they are considered accurate, are the way they are perceived by different people.
      5. I’ve personally known very few for whom religion was an academic endeavor. Even those very religious profs that I knew growing up (I pretty much lived on campus from birth until I was in my twenties) didn’t mix their fields, whether science, social science or humanities, with their faith.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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    2. Hi Gene,
      I cannot answer your question except to say it would depend on how knowledgeable and open the fundamentalist was. Normally Most fundamentalists have never read the gospels using a Gospel Synopsis, where these differences become evident, and hence would be unfamiliar with the many differences between the gospels. It would also likely depend on how well they felt they could finesse the differences. What they would say in the case of an out and out error (Mark 2:25-26; 1 Sam 21:1-6) is also a puzzlement. Likely they would appeal to the inspiration of the original autograph being inerrant. I once had an extensive email exchange over a long period of time with a fundamentalist and was unable to discourage his confidence in the inerrancy of the Bible.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. Good morning Charlie,

    1) What percentage of Christians are indeed fundamentalists? Is there any data out there of which you are aware?

    2) In order for this "inerrancy" idea to be passed down and perpetuated on the younger generations, there has to be a conspiracy to hide the origins of the writings of the Gospels and the discrepancies therein. Not to mention the fact that they were written in the third person. Most young churchgoers like myself were led to believe that Matthew Mark Luke and John were actually sitting around with pads and pencils taking notes of what Jesus said... How would we have known otherwise? Do you think there is a conspiracy among fundamentalist preachers to hide the truth from their congregants? It seems like there is.

    3) Dennis mentioned Tertullian- are either you or Dennis aware of a scholar named Roger Pearse who goes to great lengths to prove that Mithraism existed after Christianity and that there is no possible way that Jesus's birth and infancy narrative was borrowed from the Mithras narrative? There are some similarities between the two and I've never heard a definitive answer as to which came first- Mithraism or Christianity. What say you?

    Many thanks!! Elizabeth

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    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      (1) I have no idea how many fundamentalists there are in the country (but see Marcia's comment below). For me the key in counting fundamentalists would be to count only those who self-identify as fundamentalists. For example the Baptist Bible Fellowship International with headquarters in Springfield, Missouri identify themselves as Fundamentalists.
      (2) Fundamentalists do not regard what they teach their youth as a conspiracy to hide "facts" from them. They regard what they teach them as "Truth." In their fellowship faith trumps critical thinking.
      (3) Roger Pearse describes himself as having no academic credentials but as a committed Christian who is dedicated to digitizing ancient Christian writings that do not appear in English. He even commissions (meaning he pays)to secure the translations. I read a bit in his blog and diary, which are online. He is an interesting "bloke" (a word he used to describe himself).
      Mithras is a divine figure known in ancient Vedic hymns and from the Avesta. Mithraism is best understood as a Roman religion known as early as the late first century. So far as I can tell there are no texts to study, but we know about them from statuary and artifacts. One scholar (an American who was curator of Manuscripts at the Deutsches Museum in West Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall),Bill Brashear, published a short text that he called "A Mithras Liturgy," Which has been questioned).
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Elizabeth,
      I would say there are several birth narratives that have distinctive disparate features, so I would have to look at those features. (My favorite didn’t make the canon.) Mithras was a Persian deity, from what I have read, from long before the Romans adopted him as “Protector of the Empire” during the time of Caius. (Herodotus mentions “Mitras,” 5th c. bce., mistaking him for a goddess akin to Aphrodite.) I’m not sure the origin of the birth narratives is all that important, except to note that, if Christianity began in the ancient Near East, syncretism did not necessitate Rome. Births of sons of gods ushered in new beginnings.

      It’s probably important to note that, contra Luke’s story, Josephus (Against Apion 2.204) said “... the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children...” I also read that the celebration of Jesus’s birth was first noted by, I think, Clement of A. maybe in Stromata, who said it was celebrated by on different dates by folks (Basilidians and so forth) in Egypt and Origen thought it was bad, I think he said it in a homily about leviticus, since of the only two birthdays celebrated in the religious texts ended in tragedy, one with the Pharaoh’s baker being killed and the other with a famous beheading! I just don’t think it was a big deal until the fourth century, after Mithraism. The Mithraic celebration of Natalis Invicti probably turned into “Christmas,” because they were similar and some need to celebrate the “birth of the sun,” but the last sentence is sheer speculation.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  6. I thought I posted a response a few days ago, but it doesn't show. I hope it's a user error and not because I said something offensive. This evening, after reading Elizabeth's remarks, I was prompted to look at some numbers.

    Today's Evangelical is yesterday's fundamentalist. Only the name has changed, not the beliefs. Google any large Evangelical church and read their statement of faith. According to a Pew survey--sorry, the closest I can come to a year is post-2004--70% of the US population identify as Christian, and 25% of those, as Evangelical. There are others who probably adhere to the "fundamentals of the faith," Mormons (with some additions!) some of the 20% of those who identify as Catholics, among others. The US population in 2010 was 309 million. By my calculations, that translates into almost 55 million evangelicals. Although a minority, this is a large group of people, many of whom are educated, organized and have an enormous influence over public policy.

    I don't think there is any conspiracy to keep the truth from the people. Evangelical beliefs, no matter how strange and wrong they may seem to be, are based on faith and a certain Biblical interpretation which uses the Bible as its own resource for proof. Science, and modern western knowledge in general, is a process based on reason, not a system of beliefs, and knowledge is not static. There is no warmth in reason. Perhaps that's the great appeal of evangelicalism, the comfort and assurance it provides.

    Marcia

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    1. Hi Marcia,
      My blog wizard tells me that she went back several days and could find no record of a post from you that did not get posted. Our practice has been if there is a problem with a post, we do the following: she contacts me and I rule on either posting or going directly to the person who is posting and resolve the problem so that the post can be made.
      We have been rather fortunate since there have been very few problems. The problems have mostly been with length (too long). We resolved that one by taking the post as guest blog (one that directly disagreed with what I had posted). Or they have been someone who wanted to use the blog for self promotion. If you will make that post again that did not appear we will get it posted.
      And thanks for the information in your post on this occasion.
      Cordially.
      Charlie

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  7. Short question which I believe ties in with the idea of inerrancy: Were the various Biblical writings always taken to be literally true?

    Marcia

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