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The End of Biblical Studies.

The End of Biblical Studies

By Hector Avalos

(Prometheus, 2007)

399 pp.; $32.00


SAY WHAT YOU WILL about ivory-tower intellectuals. Yes, they tend to obsess ob·sess  
v. ob·sessed, ob·sess·ing, ob·sess·es
To preoccupy the mind of excessively.

 over esoteric obscurities. Sure, they sometimes lose sight of the practical applications originally envisioned by their supporters. But only a shameless, dyed-in-the-wool academic would have the coconuts to publicly proclaim his own professions irrelevancy ir·rel·e·van·cy  
n. pl. ir·rel·e·van·cies

Noun 1. irrelevancy - the lack of a relation of something to the matter at hand
, thus thumbing his nose at colleagues and benefactors alike. And perhaps only Hector Avalos, associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University Academics
ISU is best known for its degree programs in science, engineering, and agriculture. ISU is also home of the world's first electronic digital computing device, the Atanasoff–Berry Computer.
 and author of Fighting Words fighting words n. words intentionally directed toward another person which are so nasty and full of malice as to cause the hearer to suffer emotional distress or incite him/her to immediately retaliate physically (hit, stab, shoot, etc. : the Origins of Religious Violence (Prometheus, 2005), would dare to assail as·sail  
tr.v. as·sailed, as·sail·ing, as·sails
1. To attack with or as if with violent blows; assault.

2. To attack verbally, as with ridicule or censure. See Synonyms at attack.

 the biblical foundations of Judeo-Christian faith at the same time.

In his latest book, The End of Biblical Studies, Avalos resumes hostilities on two contiguous fronts. First, he argues that biblical scholarship and recent archeological discoveries in the Near East have proven that "the Bible is irrelevant, insofar in·so·far  
To such an extent.

Adv. 1. insofar - to the degree or extent that; "insofar as it can be ascertained, the horse lung is comparable to that of man"; "so far as it is reasonably practical he should practice
 as it is part of a world radically dissimilar to ours in its conception of the cosmos, the supernatural, and the human sense of morality." Even to most modern Christians and Jews, he says, biblical concepts, practices, and ethics (the acceptance of genocide, as one glaring example) have become so obsolete that churches routinely try to hide or at least disguise them from their congregants.

Second, Avalos accuses professional academics of sustaining the illusion of biblical relevance through the philosophically flawed disciplines of translation, textual criticism, history, archeology, and theology, as well as a corrupt infrastructure featuring universities, churches, and both popular and professional media organizations. These academics' motives are completely self-serving, says the author, their primary aims being to either fortify for·ti·fy  
v. for·ti·fied, for·ti·fy·ing, for·ti·fies
To make strong, as:
a. To strengthen and secure (a position) with fortifications.

b. To reinforce by adding material.
 their religious beliefs or salvage their cushy cush·y  
adj. cush·i·er, cush·i·est Informal
Making few demands; comfortable: a cushy job.

[Origin unknown.

Particularly troublesome for Avalos is the fact that, despite their dogged persistence, textual critics will never ascertain the Bible's "autographs," or original books. Although religious followers have clearly been led to believe that various biblical incarnations are few and substantially similar, the evidence reveals that both Old and New Testament authenticity is much in doubt. Presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
, most readers understand that no oral traditions are ever transcribed with complete accuracy, and that, once those traditions are reduced to writing, mistakes and biases are inevitably introduced by countless scribes who, for whatever reasons, desired that their products would prevail over all others. Most of us recognize as well that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic only (and possibly a smattering of Hebrew) and that no Greek translation could possibly be inerrant in·er·rant  
1. Incapable of erring; infallible.

2. Containing no errors.

Adj. 1. inerrant - not liable to error; "the Church was...theoretically inerrant and omnicompetent"-G.G.
. Those facts noted, modern biblical texts arguably suffer from far more debilitating de·bil·i·tat·ing
Causing a loss of strength or energy.

Weakening, or reducing the strength of.

Mentioned in: Stress Reduction

In translating the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, for example, most modern Bibles depend on the highly dubious Masoretic Text, created by scribes who were active from around 780 to 930 CE in modern-day northern Israel. The Masoretes added accents and vocalizations to the consonant-rich pre-Masoretic text that was considered authoritative beginning in the second century CE. One should note that, although the Masoretic Text was standardized by Aaron Ben Asher, a tenth-century Masorete of the Tiberian group, not all Masoretic manuscripts were consistent.

Regardless, when the first set of Dead Sea Scrolls Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient leather and papyrus scrolls first discovered in 1947 in caves on the NW shore of the Dead Sea. Most of the documents were written or copied between the 1st cent. B.C. and the first half of the 1st cent. A.D.  (DSS (1) (Digital Signature Standard) A National Security Administration standard for authenticating an electronic message. See RSA and digital signature.

(2) (Digital Satellite S
) was discovered in Qumran and recognized as such beginning in 1947, biblical scholars should have reassessed their claim that the Masoretic Text could possibly be regarded as "inspired." Significantly, the earliest of these Hebrew Scrolls were some one thousand years older than the Masoretic Text, dating to around the middle of the third century BCE BCE
1. Bachelor of Chemical Engineering

2. Bachelor of Civil Engineering


Abbreviation for before the Common Era.
 (based on paleography paleography (pālēŏg`rəfē) [Gr.,=early writing], term generally meaning all study and interpretation of old ways of recording language.  and confirmed by radiocarbon dating). While certain Christian apologists have emphasized the consistencies between the Masoretic and the DSS's representations of the book of Isaiah Noun 1. Book of Isaiah - an Old Testament book consisting of Isaiah's prophecies

Old Testament - the collection of books comprising the sacred scripture of the Hebrews and recording their history as the chosen people; the first half of the Christian
, for instance, the profound incongruities between other so-called "non-aligned" texts have been conveniently ignored.

The DSS made it exceedingly difficult as well to dismiss Masoretic divergences from the Greek Septuagint, also an older text dating to the third century BCE. The Greek version of Jeremiah, for example, while faithful to its Hebrew counterpart in the DSS, is one-sixth shorter than what is found in most contemporary Bibles. In brief, Avalos surmises, "the DSS reveal that there was no such thing as 'the Bible' (or 'the Old Testament') in pre-Christian times, if that meant a single unified and unchanging text." He observes as well that New Testament writers never quoted the Masoretic or even the pre-Masoretic texts. They did, however, refer frequently to the Septuagint's conflicting renderings, as Jesus was alleged to have done, for instance, in Matthew 5:31.

Modern New Testament translations, by comparison, are based on composite and hypothetical texts. Today's respected Greek editions are simply reconstructions provided by major Bible societies that never intended to represent ancient manuscripts accurately. Likely produced between the tenth and fifteenth centuries and finally printed in 1633 by the brothers Bonaventure and Abraham Elzivir of the Netherlands, the Textus Receptus, which underlies the modern King James version (KJV KJV
King James Version
, 1611), consists of an amalgam of the Byzantine family of texts. Even so, Protestant establishments deemed it heresy when Brooke Foss Wescott and Fenton John Anthony Hort Fenton John Anthony Hort (April 23, 1828–November 30, 1892) was an Irish theologian and editor, with Brooke Westcott of a critical edition of the The New Testament in the Original Greek.  dared to publish The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881.

But by then, other crucial discoveries had already called the Textus Receptus into serious question. Also in the nineteenth century, Count Tichendorf acquired the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript containing the entire New Testament. In 1930 and 1931, Sir Chester Beatty of London located partial New Testament manuscripts from the third century, and, predictably, others followed. Although major printing organizations now agree on a reconstructed New Testament text, Avalos instructs, "there has been little progress beyond what Wescott and Hort did."

Regardless, certain glaring inconsistencies between contemporary texts reveal the logical impossibility of ever finding an "original" New Testament. For example, there are at least four different endings to the Gospel of Mark
    The Gospel of Mark, anonymous[1] but traditionally ascribed to Mark the Evangelist, is a synoptic gospel of the New Testament. It narrates the life of Jesus from John the Baptist to the Ascension (or to the empty tomb in the shorter recension), but it concentrates
    . While the KJV retains the "long-ending," i.e., Mark 16:920, the earliest complete New Testament manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, end after verse 8. Most modern Bibles either omit the extension or note its dubious originality.

    Plainly, Mark's conflict implies no minor crisis for Christian dogma. If the Gospel ends with verse 8, we have no account of anyone actually seeing or speaking to a resurrected Christ, and, according to Avalos, "the door is left open for those who argue that the resurrection was not a part of the earliest recorded Christian tradition." Similar controversies surround the adulteress's section of John 7:538:11 and the Comma Johanneum of John 5:7-8. No longer regarded as authentic, these verses in the KJV are unique in supporting the theory that Jesus would oppose the death penalty and the doctrine of the Trinity, respectively.

    Quoting former evangelist and now well-respected New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, who recently acknowledged that we "don't even know what the original words of the Bible actually were," Avalos concludes that textual criticism cannot survive as a useful scholarly discipline because it centers on the search for an original text that simply doesn't exist.

    Avalos provides an ample series of well-documented arguments demolishing several academic facets of biblical investigation (including an extended and spirited criticism of the distinguished biblical archeologist, William G. Dever Headline text
    William G. Dever is an American archaeologist, specialising in the history of Israel and the Near East in Biblical times, who was Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, from 1975 to 2002.
    ). He then levels a considerably more condensed con·dense  
    v. con·densed, con·dens·ing, con·dens·es
    1. To reduce the volume or compass of.

    2. To make more concise; abridge or shorten.

    3. Physics
     assault against three revered universities, the Society of Biblical Literature The Society of Biblical Literature is a constituent society of the American Council of Learned Societies with the stated mission to "Foster Biblical Scholarship". Membership is open to the public, including 7200 individuals from over 80 countries. , and various "religious" media (from the Biblical Archeology Review to television's Joan of Arcadia Joan of Arcadia is an American television fantasy/family drama, which aired on Fridays, 8-9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS from September 262003 until April 222005. It is currently in syndication with episodes airing in high definition on HDNet.  and The Simpsons). Avalos concludes by offering what he deems to be a practical solution to an insufferable intellectual and moral predicament.

    Rather than eliminate academic biblical analysis altogether, or merely confess to its consistent religious biases, we should retain it "but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world." Biblical studies are irrelevant, the author contends, because the actual texts that people possess are anything but original or reliable in the first place, and, in the second, because even the most committed religionists read and attempt to apply only a negligible portion of those texts.

    But more importantly, Avalos concludes, "the small amount of the Bible still being used remains a significant problem, especially in justifying violence and oppression." In the end, that's where the secular rubber hits the ethical road. Nontheists defy religion not only because its foundations are factually and logically defective. Like Avalos, we argue and publish on reasons behalf primarily because, among ideologies, organized faith is uniquely, ubiquitously, and unrelentingly destructive.

    Kenneth W. Krause is contributing editor for the Humanist and books editor for Secular Nation. He has recently contributed to Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, Skeptic, Truth Seeker, Freethought Today, Wisconsin Lawyer, and Wisconsin Political Scientist. He may be contacted at
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    Author:Krause, Kenneth
    Publication:The Humanist
    Article Type:Book review
    Date:Sep 1, 2008
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