Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Quote of the Day: Not the Same as Believing It

(((Bible; Bible is really, really important, whether you believe it or not; does that mean understanding it is important? I don't know . . . is it important that we understand Hitler or Stalin? And yes I actually think there's way more interesting stuff going on in the Bible than in, say, Mein Kampf)))

The problem of not having the originals of the New Testament, though, is a problem for everyone, not simply for those who believe that the Bible is inspired by God. For all of us, I think, the Bible is the most important book in the history of Western civilization. It continues to be cited in public debates over gay rights, abortion, over whether to go to war with foreign countries, over how to organize and run our society. But how do we interpret the New Testament? It's hard to know what the words of the New Testament mean if we don't know what the words were.

This is Bart Ehrman, of UNC-Chapel Hill, in a lecture at Stanford. The part I'm quoting begins at about 7:25.

Briefly, two points from this. First, however much one might detest religion in general, and Christianity in particular, this antipathy is no excuse for ignorance (although many will claim their antipathy arises precisely from being smart and informed); the only ways to beat Bible-thumpers (so to speak) are to fight them on their own ground (the Bible) or to shift the ground in an effective way (which requires, if you ask me, knowing the ground they want). All this requires a reasonably nuanced understanding of what's going on in the Bible. It's why I have more perplexing but also (I suspect) more fruitful conversations with religious opponents than some of my more religio-phobic friends. I know how to talk the talk, and I know the Bible better than many believers I argue with.

Second, Ehrman notes that we don't really know very well what "the Bible" actually says. Which makes it hard to know what it means. This is actually worse news for believers than for the rest of us. I don't believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, or anyway certainly not in the way a Baptist does, or even in the way progressive Catholics might. So, that we can't settle on the text doesn't matter to me. And if your opponent settles on a text, you can bet it's a translation, which is already one step removed from the problem of establishing a text.

Because, you know, if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.

Thanks to my compañero for the pointer to this lecture, which is a great example of accessible religion scholarship.

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