Was it some divine design that it should happen I would be reading biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’sMisquoting Jesus at the very time we were calling at the port of Sharm-el-Sheikh? No likely, at least in my cosmology.
Fate, maybe. But more likely the result so some unconscious snarky predisposition on my part that owes to my on-going philosophical battle with that ole time religion. For here rises the mount from which Moses (or Charleton Heston, if you like) descended with those tablets with the ten “no-nos” of Western faiths. Yup, Sinai.
Sharm-el-Sheikh lies at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, itself geologically driven like a bung between Africa and the Middle East, splitting the top of the Red Sea into the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. This, of course, was all Yaweh’s techtonic set for dramatic biblical doings. Not just the commandments, but the water from the rock, the parting of the Red Sea, and let’s not forget that “burning bush,” more of which later. This is where the Hebrews took leave of their bondage in Egypt and set about their forty-year meandering in the Promised Land (Moses, like most men, wasn’t one much for asking directions).
The pilgrimage advantages of such a location were recognized early. Constantine’s mother, fully taken with her son’s elevation of Christianity to the official faith of the empire, established a monastery at the foot of Sinai in the 4th C that included a Chapel of the Burning Bush. Expanded into St. Catherine’s Monastery in name of an early Egyptian martyr, it is a “must see” for believers and non-believers alike who are passing this way. On the drive there I managed to knock off another chapter of Misquoting Jesus to which put me in an apt skeptical frame of mind.
Wearing shorts against heat that, in warmer seasons, must be like a blast furnace, rather than my favorite pink chiffon prom frock, I was forced to don a lovely robin’s egg blue wrap-around to prevent my gorgeous knees from giving some Greek monk a protruding cassock. (I would love to launch off on the sexual doings in monastic life, but I know you’re here for the religious stuff.)
Along with French and German tourists I entered the castle-like monastery to jostle and curse while trying to get a photo or a peek at some relic or icon. I nearly missed the burning bush (more on it later) when my wrap-around falls scandalously off my slim and sensuous hips. (OK, OK, no more.) Photos were prohibited in the cramped typical Greek Orthodox chapel festooned with hanging censors and candelabras, walls covered with icons, dark and dank with the perspiration of the ages. I gave up quickly on the room of icons, into which too many tourists were jammed in the inadequate light presumably to maximize injury from the subtle changes in floor elevation. You guessed it: I detest this kind of tourism, but this is one of those remote places one has to endure the herd mentality.
So here’s where my reading of Ehrman comes into the story. St. Catherine’s is the repository of a large number of valuable manuscripts related to the Bible. Ehrman is one of those biblical scholars who, rather than being a former roofing and siding salesman who lifted a Gideon Bible from a hotel room and went into the preaching biz, is a legitimate scholar who reads Hebrew, Greek and Latin.Misquoting Jesus takes up the issue of the literal accuracy and reliability of the source documents that were chosen to comprise the Bible.
If you happen to know somebody who believes that the Bible is the “word of God” dictated to some prophets and gospel writers, then this is the book you want to get them for a gift. Did I say that this person you know is also somebody you do not like—because this book will blow their credulous doors off! Almost nothing of the original source material of the Bible is extant; everything comes from copies, and it is these copies, copies that have errors, additions and deletions, mistakes, and much more that discredits the accuracy and reliability of what they recount, that genuine biblical scriptural scholars study. One gets the impression that the Bible is something like what you would get if you took the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” and asked 25 people to re-tell it serially to one another, passing it through Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and English. (You probably end up with Little Red seducing the wolf and they murder grandma for her insurance money and blow it in Vegas.)
Ehrman elucidates numerous examples of scriptural error, focusing, since his title is about misquoting Jesus, the New Testament. I want to single out one particular, and especially interesting example regarding the errors, amendments, and outright bowdlerization by copyists whose works is often “generations” of copy from long-lost “originals.”*
The 1 Timothy Issue
The text I refer to is related to the Book of 1 Timothy, and the passage 1 Timothy 3:16, which has been used to buttress the assertion that the New Testament calls Jesus “God.” Ehrman relates the scholarly work of Johan J. Wettstein (1693-1754) who was given access to a document called the Codex Alexandrinus that resides is a university in England. Ehrman gives us a little lesson in the techniques Greek copyists and how errors can result that significantly change meaning.
Copyists often employed a practice called nomina sacra, where a Greek word that appeared often was abbreviated. ΘΕΟΣ, for example, God, is often abbreviated to ΘΣ, with a line over the top of the two letters to indicate that it was a sacred name, God.
It was that abbreviation that Wettstein found in the text in the Codex. But the scholar noticed something strange: the line over the top of the abbreviation was in a different ink than the letters. It must have been added sometime later. But why?
As he further examined the vellum something else caught his attention: the bar in the middle of the theta, Θ, was not on the same side of the vellum, but had bled through from the other side.
So what? Well that means that the original Greek word was, omicron sigma, not theta sigma, ΟΣ, not ΘΣ. Omicron sigma, the word “who” would not have had a line over the top because it was not a sacred word. So when some copyist way back when saw the bled through line in the omicron he mistook it for a theta, which would make it the abbreviation for “God,” and he added the line over the top. Mystery solved.
But the meaning completely changes. The original reading of the manuscript did not speak of God made manifest in the flesh but of Christ (the anointed one) “who” was made manifest in the flesh. Big difference. Christ is born, just like you and me, who are also made manifest in the flesh.
So biblical literalists who believe the Bible is the inerrant inspired word of God take heed; this is but one, if indeed an important, example of what genuine biblical scholars have long known. If the Bible is the inspired word if God, he chose illiterate scribes, prejudiced editors, self-serving churchmen, clueless copyists, and even un-objective scholars to do his work.
Ehrman goes on to demonstrate the inconsistencies among the gospels, considered the most “original” documents of the New testament, but written by people (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) who did not witness the events they describe, or hear the spoken words of Jesus. Hence they disagree, contract one another, and even have internal inconsistencies. And they, too, have been subject to the copyists.
Now, about that “burning bush”. . . .
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.30.2011)
*It is a great rarity that I get to put to some minor use of the three years I spent studying Classical Greek. As a class, about 20 of us took than amount of time to complete a (probably bad) translation of Homer’s Odyssey (with the assistance of our Odysseus, Fr. White). See DCJ Archives 33.6: It’s Greek to Me.