What Did the Bible Actually Say?

What did the Bible say?

Truth is, no one really knows, but plenty of people base their lives around particular interpretations of it. We know Ken Ham‘s absolute-literal interpretation isn’t based in any sort of reality. But what about progressive Christians who are supportive of things like abortion and LGBT rights? Are they interpreting it correctly or is it wishful thinking?

A group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem is trying to get to the bottom of what the Bible originally said:

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions — differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.

A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to “those who swear falsely.” The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: “those who swear falsely in my name.”

In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God “to you” once read “to us,” a significant change in meaning.

Because their work is so detailed, the project is projected to last another 200 years. How much have they done so far?

… in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books.

What they end up with may very well be the most accurate version of the Bible we have… and most Christians will probably dismiss it as heresy.

The project just shows how crazy it is for anyone to believe the Bible is inerrant. Reader Sarah raises other questions as well:

  • Was the human interference guided by God?
  • Should it be “fixed” by scholars who are going by the oldest manuscripts?
  • Who honors the Bible more — those who seek to understand what it originally said, or those who are attached to it in its current form?

In any case, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Bible-believing Christians.”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/zeroanaphora Abbie Treis

    There is no way they can figure out “what the Bible originally said”. The manuscripts they are comparison are centuries late- most tens of centuries late. (Is there anything between the dead sea scrolls and medieval times?)

    The stuff in the Hebrew Bible was written (rough ballpark) in the 9th-3rd century BCE, and the earliest extant examples we have are among the dead sea scrolls, from 1st century CE.

    They’re splitting hairs about very late alterations. While its telling that the Bible’s content was still in flux so incredibly late, that only makes earlier mutation more probable. The Bible was continually edited and redacted from the get-go, by various people, in various times, and it even branched off into diverging traditions. (The Masoretic text vs the Septuagint is a major example: the apocrypha was added to the later, but absent in the former.)

    There was never one “Bible” that became corrupted. It’s been a slow evolution.

  • JasonS

    Even if we could figure out what the Bible “really” said (a Sisyphusian task, if there ever was one), many (I daresay most) respectable biblical scholars would quickly affirm that the words in the bible aren’t “containers” of meaning. Instead, critical scholars tend to recognize that the meaning of a biblical text is dependent upon a number of the reader’s interpretive assumptions, as well as the reader’s own particular way of viewing the world. This, in addition to the naive attempt to get back to the “original,” shows just how fundamentally flawed biblical inerrantists are, philosophically and hermeneutically speaking. 

    • http://twitter.com/zeroanaphora Abbie Treis

      I wouldn’t go quite so pomo deconstructionist, but there is the fact that ancient hebrew is a bit, er, ancient, and we can often only guess at the exact meanings of words. the hebrew bible contains a *lot* of “obscure” words and phrases. “Obscure” being code for “we have no idea what this says”.

      And of course, the abjad writing didn’t record vowels (which were guessed at and added in medieval times), so that’s another layer of ambiguity.

  • Anonymous

    Another question is to what extent one can say that the origianl books comprise Judaic history and law. There could well be other books lost to time. It’s almost certainly impossible, barring a positively revolutionary archaeological find, to restore them fully. They were written over a long period of time, making the whole idea of restoring to an original “true” version impossible, since they evolved. Then there is the matter of the oral traditions from which many of the stories come and the utter impossibility of finding out if they were faithfully (ejem) rendered on paper.

    Still, from a purely scholarly perspective, it’s a very interesting idea. Getting a decent, if not perfect, approximation is good enough for a scholar. It’s only those who want to argue that you should rule your life by its text that who have a problem.

    Still, I think you’re right that most Christians won’t care. I’m certain the thousands of Catholic teenagers I hear out my window at this moment (the Pope’s in town) will lose no sleep over it.

    • http://twitter.com/zeroanaphora Abbie Treis

      Good point. There surely existed many more texts that are lost; the Biblical tradition went through a post-exilic “bottleneck”, selected and edited by a very small group of people. We have no way of knowing how important, widely known, or widely followed the original law actually was.

      I see no evidence that the stories of Genesis, for instance, were famous foundational texts. They are very rarely referenced in later books of the bible.

      As for the law in the Torah, Jeremiah himself says it was falsified!

  • http://twitter.com/Data_Jack DataJack

    What do you mean “no one really knows” what the bible originally said? I think it is pretty obvious UAJamie does!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Are they interpreting it correctly or is it wishful thinking?

    It’s all wishful thinking.  The idea that there are special books written by a few special people with special knowledge and special powers, having special experiences linking them to special beings, IT’S ALL WISHFUL THINKING. And most people wish so badly for all that specialness to somehow, please, please be true, even though they know they’ll never be among the special few, they’re willing to slavishly subjugate themselves to those who claim to be special or claim to represent the special.

    Want to be special? Be special in the eyes of someone you’re lovingly helping in very mundane, unspecial ways.

  • http://robertaffinis.com/ Robert Affiis

    The fact that individuals are interpreting the definitive
    characteristics of the bible is problematic; to truly interpret Hebrew Scriptures,
    one must excavate the origins behind Hebrew theology; more explicitly, Egyptian
    wisdom. But of course, it will be labeled as heretical; the past usually is. 

    • Guest

      Egyptian?  I thought Hebrew religious origins centered on Canaan and there really wasn’t any indication of Hebrews ever being in Egypt (in massive numbers).  I mean, I though Canaan was under Egyptian control at the time, but didn’t realize the religion was strongly influenced by such.  But I acknowledge, I really don’t know anything about it.  Be an interesting read (I really do like the study of the origins of Abrahamic religions from an academic perspective).  Have any good links to study or forums for such?

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    A group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem 

    Er, no. This is a bunch of academics. Some of them are Orthodox, others are not.

    The project just shows how crazy it is for anyone to believe the Bible is inerrant.

    This isn’t a new problem. There’s some interesting history here. So for example, there are statements in the Talmud (written around the 5th and 6th century) that acknowledge discrepancies in the texts. Curiously, for the Orthodox this was taken for granted until a few centuries ago. In the last two centuries there’s been a move to take a much harder-line stance on this sort of thing. This is part of a general pattern of much stricter opinions about a lot of stuff both in terms of theology and practice, and one sees it most of all in the charedim (ultra-Orthordox) where for example one has some of their Rabbis now asserting that spontaneous generation of small mammals can occur because some ancient texts say so. 

    Note that one way that many people, both Christian and Jewish, handle the theological need for inerrant texts is to assert that the original versions (whatever they were) were inerrant but ours or not.  This sort of thing works better for Christians than it does for Jews since many Jews like to assert that a Torah is not kosher if it has one letter that is wrong. There are all sorts of fascinating contortions to try to deal with that belief while trying to acknowledge the changing nature of the text. Also, the attempt by some Christian groups to be KJV onlyists is an attempt in some ways to avoid many of these issues by asserting that God made sure that the KJV text reflected a perfect translation of the original material. 

    The last few centuries of religious attitudes towards Biblical criticism and scholarship is one long uncontrolled experiment in how humans can avoid acknowledging facts that they are uncomfortable with. 

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    A group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem 

    Er, no. This is a bunch of academics. Some of them are Orthodox, others are not.

    The project just shows how crazy it is for anyone to believe the Bible is inerrant.

    This isn’t a new problem. There’s some interesting history here. So for example, there are statements in the Talmud (written around the 5th and 6th century) that acknowledge discrepancies in the texts. Curiously, for the Orthodox this was taken for granted until a few centuries ago. In the last two centuries there’s been a move to take a much harder-line stance on this sort of thing. This is part of a general pattern of much stricter opinions about a lot of stuff both in terms of theology and practice, and one sees it most of all in the charedim (ultra-Orthordox) where for example one has some of their Rabbis now asserting that spontaneous generation of small mammals can occur because some ancient texts say so. 

    Note that one way that many people, both Christian and Jewish, handle the theological need for inerrant texts is to assert that the original versions (whatever they were) were inerrant but ours or not.  This sort of thing works better for Christians than it does for Jews since many Jews like to assert that a Torah is not kosher if it has one letter that is wrong. There are all sorts of fascinating contortions to try to deal with that belief while trying to acknowledge the changing nature of the text. Also, the attempt by some Christian groups to be KJV onlyists is an attempt in some ways to avoid many of these issues by asserting that God made sure that the KJV text reflected a perfect translation of the original material. 

    The last few centuries of religious attitudes towards Biblical criticism and scholarship is one long uncontrolled experiment in how humans can avoid acknowledging facts that they are uncomfortable with. 

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I find this fascinating from a scholarly point of view.  Even thought it may not be possible to find the “original” Bible, it’s still really interesting to see how it has changed over the years and centuries.

    (Incidentally, I’ve been reading Hector Avalos’ “The End of Biblical Studies”.  So far, I’ve read about 1/3 of it, and it’s really interesting.)

    • http://twitter.com/zeroanaphora Abbie Treis

      I haven’t read Avalos, but if you want a secular archaeologist’s take on the reality of the Israelites, read William Dever. He makes a case against Avalos and other “revisionists”.

      • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

        @twitter-48109491:disqus :Thanks for the recommendation.  Dever is one of the people who Avalos seems to disagree with a lot, so it would be good to read both of their writing and compare their arguments.

  • Corruptingheresies

    Probable Christian response: What would Jews know about our bible in the first place. Face palm.

  • AmandaS

    Today I just watched a documentary on Instant Netflix called “For the Bible tells me so”. It came out in 2007 and here is a link here for more information. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0912583/
    It was on this same topic and actually had religious scholars and clergy talking about the mis-interpretations in the Bible, specifically related to LGBT issues. I recommend checking it out.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    If Yahweh was editing for you to read, how would you ever know if the editing is currently up to date? How would the god treat people  exposed only to inaccurate or out of date copies? How then can any absolute interpretation be valid? That way lies a maze of rationalization.

  • Anonymous

    The “bible” is an abstraction, a sort of platonic ideal concept that does not exist in the real world. It is an incoherent mess of folk tales, myths, legends, just-so stories etc. whose makeup has changed radically over the centuries, with some myths being added and others removed. We can never know what “the” bible said because there never was such a thing as “the” bible.

  • Anonymous

    I hope that when they finish their work most of the world will respond with a collective “Meh! Who cares about religion?”

  • Anonymous

    An interesting project, but it won’t really elucidate much I think. Scholarship has acknowledged for more than a century that there was no such thing as *the* Bible until long after the original texts were written down (often coming from different oral traditions themselves passed down over hundreds of years). That this phrase or that might have been different in one of those versions from what is accepted canon today? Only relevant to academics.* Religionists don’t care about the history of their scripture or its historical context or the history of interpretation & theology. If they did, very few would remain believers. They just don’t know or don’t care how absurd the whole thing is.

    *And unless the non-canonical version indicates something else of interest (e.g. geographical or cultural source for a myth or praxis or memory of a historical event), it won’t prove relevant even to most academics in the field.

  • Charles Black

    There are a few problems here.
    1. Both the Old & New Testament were not written in English at first, The former was written in Hebrew & the latter in Greek. This means that it’s almost certain there are translation errors given the long time spans (1000s of years) from first publication to the Medieval period in Europe.
    2. The earliest manuscripts concerning the gospels of the New Testament don’t date from the formative years of Christianity.
    3. Forgery was rampant back when the bible was being compiled in the circa 1st-2nd century C.E. Most likely the forgeries we can detect now are just the tip of the iceberg concerning the amount of alterations & blackouts of Christian theology.
    4.  There are giant clues that Christianity is not just Jewish in origin but Greek too.
    Logos for example is Greek for Christ which means “The Word”
    So Jesus Christ could be called Jesus Logos or Jesus the Word.
    This is just a few examples that I can cover so far, I suspect if i tried to list them all this comment wouldn’t get through because it would be too long.
    Any more suggestions?

    • Erp

      1. The Bible here refers only to the Tanakh or Old Testament or Hebrew Bible; this is not talking about the New Testament at all.  The Codex they are using and the variants are all in Hebrew (they may possibly be using the Septuagint as that was an early Greek translation [far earlier than any Hebrew manuscripts we still have] so gives indications of what the Hebrew text was at that time but that also has its own textual history).  We are not even talking about English translations though the work may be used as a basis for English translations.

      2. Not relevant since we aren’t talking about the New Testament

      3. Major portions of the Tanakh had been canonicalized several centuries before.  Forgeries btw can also be flat out mistakes in copying or taking what were annotations in the margins and incorporating them into the text (remember both notes and annotations would have been handwritten) or scribes ‘correcting’ what they see as errors.

      4. We aren’t talking about Christianity here at all.   Any modern scholar does see a great deal of Greek influence on Christianity.  However your example is flat out wrong.    The Greek word for Christ is Christ (or to be a bit more exact Christos) and means anointed; the Hebrew equivalent is usually transliterated into English as Messiah.   You are correct that Logos is Greek for word  but the New Testament never uses Jesus Logos (though the Gospel of John and later Christianity does equate Jesus and the Word of God). 


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