The End of Biblical Studies.
By Hector Avalos
399 pp.; $32.00
SAY WHAT YOU WILL about ivory-tower intellectuals. Yes, they tend to obsess 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, thus thumbing his nose at colleagues and benefactors alike. And perhaps only Hector Avalos, associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University and author of Fighting Words: the Origins of Religious Violence (Prometheus, 2005), would dare to assail 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 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 their religious beliefs or salvage their cushy careers.
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, 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. Those facts noted, modern biblical texts arguably suffer from far more debilitating weaknesses.
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 (DSS) 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 (based on paleography 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, 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, 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 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. 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). He then levels a considerably more condensed assault against three revered universities, the Society of Biblical Literature, and various "religious" media (from the Biblical Archeology Review to television's Joan of Arcadia 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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