Greenish Darth Vader and the Myth of an Unchanging Original Text

Greenish Darth Vader and the Myth of an Unchanging Original Text October 20, 2018

Another illustration that emerged from my interaction with students at McCormick Theological Seminary had to do with the notion of an unchanging “original text” that we seek to get back to, or which we remember with nostalgia while rejecting things that we perceive as unpleasant or inappropriate changes or additions to it.

But that is an illusion, both in religion and in fandom.

The idea that we can get back to a pristine original version of what Jesus said, or of Christianity, or of a Bible, or of what the biblical texts meant, is as misguided as the idea that we can watch the original series of Star Trek, or an unrestored and unremastered version of the first Star Wars movie, and revisit our authentic experience from our younger days, before people tampered with them to issue Blu-Ray special editions. The unimproved special effects on Star Trek will not impact us now, having watched much more advanced techniques for half a century since the shows first aired, the way they did then. And if the celluloid filmstrip is not remastered, Darth Vader has a greenish tint (I mistakenly remembered it being purple when speaking to the class – there’s an illustration in that, too, I am sure!).

In the same way, we imagine the past through white unpainted Greek and Roman statues and excavated ruins, never able to see, experience, or really imagine what these ancient things were like in the time they were made, or the impact they had on people then.

And even though we think we are reading “the Bible” “as it always has been,” there isn’t even a single thing called “the Bible” but constellations of mostly-overlapping lists of tables of contents, encompassing texts in another language that even those of us who’ve studied them cannot read as though one of the languages was our native one.

One of the ways reading science fiction and the Bible in conversation with one another can be helpful to both is through questions raised at the intersection. How does the desire to experience epic science fiction the way the original audience did, or the way we first did, relate to the effort to understand the Bible the way its first readers would have, or in dialogue with the way we did when we were younger? And which is more difficult, to imagine aliens that are genuinely different from us, or to grasp the similarity and difference of ancient humans and the meaning of their literature to them?

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  • David Kralt

    His assessment of ancient texts, as far as I’ m aware, is blatant propaganda. While I’m edified, and subsequently my acrimonious stance towards his assessment is mollified, by his merry approach to the immersion of texts which are a gateway to comprehending an unknown culture, is not a sufficient amount of conjuring to appease anguish. His is comments regarding the validity of the Bible is depressing, disgusting, confused, and ultimately filled with hate because he knows it is not genuine. Even if the text has been tampered in the past by twisted self righteous minds, it is entirely separated with reality.

  • David Kralt

    His assessment of ancient texts, as far as I’ m aware, is blatant propaganda. While I’m edified, and subsequently my acrimonious stance towards his assessment is mollified, by his merry approach to the immersion of texts as being a gateway to comprehending an unknown culture, is not a sufficient amount of conjuring to appease the anguish stemming from an affront to objective truth.

    His comments regarding the validity of the Bible is depressing, disgusting, confused, and ultimately filled with hate because he knows it is not genuine. Not that his opinion is bad, but that he is lieing regarding what is real. He is essentially telling the public that blue is not blue, that Lenin is a Swiss state mouth piece etc. Even if the text has been tampered in the past by twisted self righteous minds, it is NOT entirely separated with reality.

    • I’m not sure who or what you are responding to here.

      • David Kralt

        two points to summarize:
        (1) I agree with your suggestion to attempt to immerse oneself in cultural origins to grasp a text better. (2) This paragraph appears to be subliminal “anti-sacred text” rhetoric to dismantle an over-arching narrative of the Bible. The texts are all randomly selected and there is no difference between the Bible and science fiction. It is a gateway drug to replace the hand on the Bible in judicial courts with “Star Wars”. Which, to me, is putrid, childish, and ultimately a massive sacrifice of cultural good for your own good. Only mill-right is your self-RIGHT-eousness.

        My interpretation, not necessarily in accordance with the Truth. Use the mind to dodge offence and use your cross heirs, like the Swiss flag, to direct it towards the truth. Don’t chop off the bottom of the cross, like the Swis flag, to appease your own monetary effluence.

        And even though we think we are reading “the Bible” “as it always has been,” there isn’t even a single thing called “the Bible” but constellations of mostly-overlapping lists of tables of contents, encompassing texts in another language that even those of us who’ve studied them cannot read as though one of the languages was our native one.

        • You sound like you are arguing against things that I haven’t said, and perhaps no one has said…

          • David Kralt

            I quoted you, the last paragraph. If that is not what you said, please correct my errors.

          • You reproduced my words, without quotation marks indicating that you are quoting, and prefaced those words with words of your own that seem to badly misunderstand what I wrote.

          • David Kralt

            Okay, fair Enoch. This is not a formal discussion format, therefore, I presumed quotations were not necessary.
            If misunderstanding is embedded inside the preface, then, as I requested earlier, purge me of my litterairy sins.

          • In no format is it appropriate not to give others credit for their words.

            “Fair Enoch”?

          • David Kralt

            I didn’t anticipate that credit was dependent upon the insertion of quotations. I knew it was you, you knew it was you, where was the credit lost?

            Sorry, lol, typo, fair enough.

  • John MacDonald

    One of my favorite concepts that I learned from Derrida is Différance: Saussure attempted to keep speech and writing apart, also suggesting that writing is an almost unnecessary addition to speech. Derrida countered that speech gives the illusion of easy/direct access to meaning, even though the real state of affairs with making meaning is more like the way we make meaning in interpreting writing (eg., When you are reading someone’s writing you engage in underlining, coding marginalia, connecting themes on page 23 and page 237, clarifying concepts with other concepts from other books by the author, etc.). This intricate and complex process in making meaning with writing is naturally going to result in polysemia when you compare the interpretations of different interpreters due to the different experiences different people will this complex process, and even the different experiences an individual will have with the same text when re-reading on different occasions.

    • John MacDonald

      Sorry for the typos when I originally posted that.

  • I used Wikipedia’s table of NT manuscripts to tally up the time gap from original to our oldest manuscript, chapter by chapter. The average gap in Matthew is 200 years (see chart below, and go to the my post at the link for more).

    That is a enormous gap. We can do our best to imagine the originals, but it’ll be just a guess. We must expect many mistakes.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2016/08/how-long-from-original-new-testament-books-to-oldest-copies-bible-reliability/
    http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/files/2016/08/Chart-1.jpg

    • It depends on what one considers “enormous.” It is a shorter period of time than in the case of most other copies of ancient literature that we have. And I am not at all persuaded that being less than 100% certain means we are “just guessing.” That is the logic of conservative fundamentalism, not historical inquiry.

      • If the time gap from original to our best copy is centuries, no one much cares if the topic is just history. We have doubts about how Alexander died, but if new data gave new strength to one argument or another, who cares? (Sorry, historians.)

        That’s not the case with Christian claims that are grounded in the Bible. No one lives their lives built on the idea that Alexander was poisoned rather than dying of an infection. But whether the miracles attributed to Jesus are history or legend matters to hundreds of millions. (Obviously, it doesn’t matter to many Christian for whom Christianity is more a lifestyle.)

        • As I said, you’re interested in approaching this as a matter of religious/anti-religious polemics, and that is fine if that’s what you’re interested in. But what I’m interested in are historical questions, the sorts of things academics (and well-informed religious and non-religious people) spend their time thinking about, seeking to appropriately nuance their views in accordance with the evidence.

          • Yes, perhaps our approaches are different. Let me take the opportunity to respond to one point in your earlier comment, “It is a shorter period of time than in the case of most other copies of ancient literature that we have.” Yes, I agree. As simply a record of ancient literature, what we have for the Bible is remarkable.

          • Thanks for this comment! I will add for the sake of clarity that this remarkably close time frame between likely time of writing and earliest copy gives us confidence that the text has not changed dramatically in the intervening period. It doesn’t make it the case that what is described in the text is any more or any less likely to describe actual historical events. That requires yet another different set of methods to textual criticism. 🙂

          • You’re focused on one aspect, how much better a record we have for the New Testament than other ancient books. We agree here. But the more important aspect is to look at just the New Testament situation and ask ourselves what its weaknesses are and where it’s untrustworthy.

            200 years (a per-chapter average) separates our best copies of Matthew from the original. Who knows what was changed during that time? Today, few would dream of “improving” the NT by changing it, but during early decades of the church, a different attitude was in force. Think of all the noncanonical gospels written during that time. Clearly, there wasn’t much holding people back from taking pen to paper and giving their version of events.

            How can we be sure that didn’t happen to the canonical books? Said another way, given that it is inevitable that these “improvements” happened during this time and that we’re unaware of some of them, shouldn’t we be a little cautious when arguing for the reliability of the NT (obviously, I’m focused only on the accuracy compared to the originals)?

          • We can say “who knows” about lots of things. Some creationists use uncertainty about what preceded the earliest evidence for life on our planet to insert miraculous divine intervention. After all, “who knows”? I prefer to see secular historical and scientific matters applied to questions. If religious and anti-religious apologists want to speculate about things for which we do not have evidence, I can’t stop you or them, but whenever someone suggests “maybe during this period for which we don’t have evidence,things happened that were very different than what happened during the periods for which we do have evidence,” I have certain qualms, as I hope you can understand.

          • Right—I can’t say “who knows?” and then fill in the gap by saying, “I do know! There are 48 major doctrinal changes since the originals!” And I also agree that Creationists play that (annoying) trick.

            It may simply be that we agree on the data but our reactions differ—my reaction being caution while your is delight that the record is as good as it is. My speculation may be pessimism (“Who knows how many differences between originals and copies there are?!”) while yours is optimism (“We’ve done an excellent job at rooting out the errors that we can!”)

            whenever someone suggests “maybe during this period for which we don’t have evidence,things happened that were very different than what happened during the periods for which we do have evidence,” I have certain qualms, as I hope you can understand.

            I do understand those concerns. Let’s play with the same set of rules, instead of making ad hoc or agenda-driven variations, right? But we do know that things were different. There was a period where pseudepigraphy and made-up gospels were a thing. And the idea of 27 canonical books of untouchable scripture was in the distant future during the second century.

            My position is that we should be cautious about our confidence in the authenticity of our version of the New Testament, that’s all. Our disagreement may just be a matter of focus.

          • Matthew and Luke, in their use of Mark, give some indication of the degree of willingness to change what was inherited during this early period. Others besides them may have been more or less so, of course.

            It does indeed sound like the main difference between us is one of focus. I often react the same way to some of Bart Ehrman’s popular works, and I understand why he writes as he does and why you write as you do. If and when I am addressing claims to scriptural inerrancy, I will focus on contradictions, uncertainties, and other such things. My main concern is that too much focus on those things leads to an overall messaging that comes across as “this is a worthless mess” when a balanced message would be “this is no more and no less full of contradictions, not significantly more or less uncertain as to its original form, than any other collection of human literature, and as worthy of your time and interest as any other – whether it is more or less so depending almost entirely on what you are interested in.”

  • Brandon Roberts

    cool.