Textual Analysts, I’ve Got the Conservapedia on Line 2

There’s a little news story bouncing around the blogs I read regularly. You’ve no doubt heard about the story by now from the blogs you read regularly in an a post titled something like “OMFG!!! Conservatives Declare War on the Bible!!!!!”

Now, there is some truth to my effusively-punctuated mock headline. Some conservatives* (or professional internet trolls from 4chan posing as conservatives) who write for founded the Conservapedia** have proposed creating a wiki-translation of the Bible that eliminates the “liberal bias” that has crept into the document over the years. And by over the years, they mean a lot of years. Like, hundreds of years.

Ostensibly, the Conservapedia’s editors seem to think that they mean a little less than four-hundred years, or the years since 1611, as the entry on the Conservative Bible Project (AKA the Bible Retranslation Project) repeatedly praises the King James translation as a model for the proposed new conservatively constructed Bible. But if we take their project’s stated guidelines at face value, it becomes distressingly apparent that they actually want to take down the “liberal bias” that’s crept into the Bible since–well, since just after the Nicene Creed. You can read all ten guidelines for yourself if you’d like; I’m only going to focus on one. Oh, and if you’re wondering what all this has to do with medieval studies, just bear with me. Ready? Here we go:

8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story.

The person responsible for adding this criterion is, not surprisingly, the author of the Conservapedia’s essay on said offending Adulteress Story, linked in the quote above and in the CBP’s entry. And actually, as it turns out, this user, Aschlafly, AKA Andrew Schlafly, is the founder of the Conservapedia. He also holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Princeton and a J.D. from Harvard Law School and works as an adjunct law instructor and a homeschooling specialist. I mention this not to engage in any sort of academic shoe size comparisons, just to note that Aschlafly’s educational background seems fairly unlikely to have given him much exposure to the discipline of textual analysis. And before you can start a Biblical translation and revision project that anyone else should take seriously, you need to know a bit about textual analysis.

In short, textual analysis is the process by which you go about reconstructing an original document from imperfect copies. Like, say some bloke named Geoff writes a poem about his vacation and hands it off to his servant Adam to copy for him so he can distribute it to his friends. Adam botches the job, because he doesn’t quite understand what Geoff is describing because he’s never been there himself, and besides Geoff is the sort of genius who sometimes just makes words up willy-nilly. Yet even with Adam’s bungling, the little vacation story turns out to be popular, and other people want to read it, so they get their people to make them a copy of Adam’s copy, and because years have passed and both Adam and Geoff are deceased and spoke a slightly different dialect than these new people (and from each other), and some of the copies are missing pages, and other copies are hard to read, further errors creep in. But the story’s still popular, even with all the errors, and it stays popular for hundreds of years, and thus through many iterations of copying.

Eventually, parts of the vacation poem end up being meaningless, and lots of the words don’t seem to rhyme right, or they rhyme too well, and parts of it seem like they might have actually been written by someone else, and there’s not just one but a dozen different versions floating around, so someone says enough is enough and calls in the textual analysts. They sit down with all the copies of What Geoff Did on His Holiday that they can get their hands on and try to figure out what the original poem looked like when Geoff handed it to Adam so many years ago.***

Thus, if the editors at the Conservapedia want to revise the Bible back to its original authorial state, they’re essentially going to be doing what we medievalists do when we make new editions of medieval books that exist in more than one manuscript. But before you can go rescuing a text from its imperfect copiers, you have to have a consistent system of principles to explain why you choose one divergent reading over another. And with a text like the Bible, you’ve got an extra problem to contend with, because the original author whose work you’re trying to recover is not just some random fourteenth-century bureaucrat named Geoff, but the infallible Almighty God Himself. And to make matters worse, you’re not recreating some funny story about pilgrims bumbling around on the road to Canterbury, but rather a document meant to guide the lives of the faithful to their eternal reward. A principle that might work for deciding what Geoff’s friend from Bath said or didn’t say might not apply to what the omnipotent creator meant to say about stoning adulteresses.

The adulteress in question appears in John 7:53-8:11. You’ve heard of her by reputation even if you’ve never read the Bible. She was going to be stoned to death, what with the adultery and all, but the scheming Pharisees saw the chance to kill two birds with one stone and put Jesus on the spot. Would he defy the old law and declare himself a heretic by not stoning her, or would he be a hypocrite and submit to the old law, which the Pharisees just so happened to be in charge of interpreting? But Jesus is wily and says instead, “Hey, sure, stone her, but let the person here who’s never done something they knew was wrong throw the first stone. It’s only fair.” And the crowd breaks up, because, well, awkward!

According to Andrew Schlafly, this moment of mercy and rejection of the letter of the law is a later liberal addition to the Bible and should be removed. People even use it to oppose the death penalty, of all things! To back his claim up, Schlafly cites Bruce Metzger as an authority on Biblical textual analysis. Metzger writes (and Schlafly quotes):

The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming. It is absent from such early and diverse manuscripts as Papyrus66.75 Aleph B L N T W X Y D Q Y 0141 0211 22 33 124 157 209 788 828 1230 1241 1242 1253 2193 al. Codices A and C are defective in this part of John, but it is highly probable that neither contained the pericope, for careful measurement discloses that there would not have been space enough on the missing leaves to include the section along with the rest of the text. In the East the passage is absent from the oldest form of the Syriac version (syrc.s. and the best manuscripts of syrp), as well as from the Sahidic and the sub-Achmimic versions and the older Bohairic manuscripts. Some Armenian manuscripts and the old Georgian version omit it. In the West the passage is absent from the Gothic version and from several Old Latin manuscripts (ita.l*.q). No Greek Church Father prior to Euthymius Zigabenus (twelfth century) comments on the passage, and Euthymius declares that the accurate copies of the Gospels do not contain it.

Metzger’s academic credentials are sterling. Unimpeachable. He knew at least as much as anybody else about the transmission and content of the earliest Greek versions of the Bible, and anybody doing rigorous Biblical textual analysis is going to take his opinion seriously. It’s possible that Schlafly even knew Metzger personally, since they were both in Princeton at the same time. So, case closed, right? Out with the adulteress! But hold on, there are two problems with that.

First, and more mundanely, take a look at some of those manuscript names: syrc.s, ital.l*.q, syrp. Huh? He should write that as syrc.s., ita.l*.q, and syrp. Schlafly would know that the superscript is what makes those names legible if he knew much about Biblical textual studies. (And it’s not like the wiki software doesn’t know how to make superscripts.) Likely, Schlafly just cut and pasted something he read elsewhere online. Cut and paste is hell on text formatting. Now, this might seem like a minor quibble–the sort I’m always saying I’m above–but to me this particular moment of sloppiness says a lot. Schlafly is trying to impress his readers with a bunch of impenetrable technical jargon, but the jargon is impenetrable to him, too. He’s just counting on you not to follow the footnote back to the internet source he’s using.

The second problem is a bit bigger. Schlafly is quoting Metzger selectively, and the rest of Metzger’s discussion of the adulteress seems to me to be at least somewhat relevant. Just a sentence later, he writes:

At the same time the account [of the adulteress] has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.

Addition? Yes. Added by liberals to distort Jesus’s true message? Well, Metzger, Schlafly’s textual expert, says no. But Metzger’s obviously biased by having a consistent theory of what the original Bible that Schlafly hopes to recreate might have originally looked like.

Metzger’s work was predicated on the well-established belief that the Bible did not begin as a single unified uncorrupted correspondence from the divine that has since slowly accumulated errors that need correcting. Rather, because of the overwhelming preponderance of textual evidence, Metzger takes as a given that the early church was awash with many different competing accounts of the life and deeds of Jesus and of his followers which they had to sort through, making careful decisions about which of these documents ought to go into the Bible and what oughtn’t. The majority of their work collecting texts together happened several hundred years after this Jesus was supposed to have lived.

One irony that Metzger is well aware of is that these men who put the Bible together in the third and fourth centuries do seem to favor texts that appeared to have been written by eye-witnesses to Jesus’s life.**** But as every serious textual scholar of the Bible will also tell you, none of the gospels are actually eye-witness accounts. The book of John is certainly not; it was likely the last of the gospels written, probably within a decade of the year 100. So, while those church fathers did have a consistent principle for what they included or excluded, they were likely deluded as to the actual history of the documents they were dealing with.*****

Yet even operating under this preference for texts that appeared to be eye-witness accounts, and even though they thought that John was indeed such an account, and even though they could tell that this adulteress story wasn’t original to John, the early church fathers still decided that the adulteress story was likely true and chose to include it when they decided what was canon. Metzger’s explanation for this is perfectly reasonable. The church fathers thought that even though this story about the adulteress hadn’t been written down by John, there was good reason to believe it was a historical account that had been transmitted through other means. Because it fit with what they knew about Jesus and his life.

Obviously, the real rub for Schlafly is that he does not believe that the story of the adulteress fits with what he knows to be true about Jesus and his life. It’s too liberal to really be what God intended Christians to emulate, because he knows a priori that God is ultimately a card-carrying Republican. In order for the rest of us to take him seriously, though, Schlafly should provide some other compelling reason why we should take his Republican Jesus over the Jesus preferred by the original church fathers. To return to my original point about textual analysis, Schlafly needs to be able to give some account of what “the original Bible” he wants to recreate is and how he is able to distinguish it from the imperfect copies we’re today left with, imperfect copies which include texts used and accepted as canonical since the fourth century. And he can’t call on Metzger to bail him out, because Metzger actually believes the exact opposite of him.

The medievals, as it turns out, did not believe that the Bible was literally true, as Schlafly does. (Weird, I know, that someone who wants to edit the Bible down to a purer state can simultaneously believe it’s literally true.) How could they? There were lots of bits that seemed to contradict what they knew to be true about their faith. The Song of Solomon appears to be a long love poem to a dusky naked chick, for Chrissake! You’d be a fool to read that literally, because everyone knows, God has very specific views about dusky naked chicks, and they’re not exactly positive. Indeed, the medievals had elaborate jokes they told about the sort of morons who might read the Bible literally. (See Geoff’s vacation story about his friend the Miller, for at least a partial example. Or, for a non-moron getting up to no good with literal meanings, talk to that certain lady from Bath.)

The medievals also didn’t believe that God left the translation of the Bible up to chance, either. They chose mostly to gloss over the early church father’s fights over which books were in and out, but they did remember the story of the Septuagint told by the Christians of late antiquity. Thus, they believed that seventy-two different translators had been locked in different rooms and told to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Greek and that when they compared their work, miraculously, it was exactly identical. The hand of God had moved their pens. Even after Jerome’s revised Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible became the de facto text of Western Christianity, replacing the work that had went into the Septuagint, they still told the story of the seventy-two translators, because they knew that if it had been left in the hands of scribblers like Geoffrey’s employee Adam, or even Jerome, there’d be no way the Bible was legit.

It strikes me that a wikified Bible is the exact opposite of the Septuagint beloved by the medievals. Instead of seventy-two people miraculously reduced to one agreement, you’re going to have seventy-two hundred people all trying to change the one Bible to reflect their own personal tastes.

*Emphasis on the some. Calling this a “conservative effort” to rewrite the Bible is a little unfair to intelligent conservatives. The people at the Conservapedia are a subset of a subset of a subset, not the central figures of the conservative movement. Granted, I don’t know who those central figures are these days, but I know these ain’t them. And even if they were legitimate conservative figures, you wouldn’t say that SETI is a “liberal boondogle” just because Jimmy Carter and Dennis Kucinich say they saw some weird lights in the sky once.
**Wikipedia + Stephen Colbert – Irony = Conservapedia.
***Obviously, I’m oversimplifying and completely ignoring problems like this.
****In this they’re in good company. Paul insists that one good reason for believing that Jesus was the son of God is all the trustworthy people who say that they saw him after his crucifixion.
*****The ultimate irony, of course, is that if they had had all the facts when they used their principle, they’d have struck most of the texts that they decided were canonical and might even have accepted some that they tossed out.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Clemens Radl

    Great article! Just one minor note: The Septuagint was not the translation from Greek into Latin, but the translation of the Hebrew bible (mostly the Torah, but later including the whole Old Testament) into Greek. Prior to Jerome, Latin versions of the OT were based on the Septuagint, whereas Jerome turned to the Hebrew original for his translations.

  • Got Medieval

    Yeah… I was sleepy when I finished that one up. She is corrected now.

  • Wacky Hermit

    Geez. I'm a conservative and a Christian and I believe in liberal bias, but they lost me at "conservative version of the Bible." The Bible should be above our petty politics, since we are all children of God.

    Wackjobs, all of 'em.

  • Dr. Rural

    Hilarious! Loved your analysis.

    This whole thing reminds me of Thomas Jefferson's Bible — the "I know what Jesus was *really* like, so I'll edit out the parts I don't agree with" is pretty much the same.

  • Tim of Angle

    Don't make the mistake of believing that something is "conservative" because it labels itself so. (Much like "progressive" in that regard.) There is already a "conservative version of the Bible", and it can be found at http://www.goarch.org/chapel/biblegreek.

    The New Testament (and that appears to be what we're talking about here) is not an historical work, but a theological work. Whether or not it is literally true is irrelevant; whether it correctly relates the *teachings* of Christ is the issue. The whole business about the literal truth of the Bible only arose with the Protestant rebellion in the 16th century, and only arose because the rebels wanted something to use as a lever against the existing Church structure. This was about as silly as a group of rebellious Boy Scouts holding up a Boy Scout Manual and hurling imprecations against the national Scouting organization because there were inconsistencies between what the manual said and what the national organization was doing. It's all an episode of Short Attention Span Theater.

    The translation process has throughout history been used to grind axes on every possible side of a question, so anybody who is serious about the subject will read the Bible in Greek and in the version accepted by the organization that the Apostles founded, the Orthodox Church. The rest is all handwaving on the part of people who ought to know better.

  • ncm

    Thank you (again) for "had went".

    Perhaps the most popular abridgement of the NT is to get a "red letter" edition and read just the red bits. The story and tone come out markedly different then, leading to an official Heresy (what Jesuits prefer to call an Error). I've been trying for some time to find out the official name for this Error, and have thus far failed. Help, anyone?

  • Judy

    @ncm: Crossing the Rubricon, maybe?

  • ncm

    Judy: Are the Jesuits punsters, then? Anyway, why are only punsters inveterate these days?

  • LauraJ

    This explanation of textual criticism is so nicely expressed. You get a gold star and an encouragement to use it the next time they demand a prose sample from you.

  • Gabriel Mckee

    Well said.

    The question that came into my mind on this issue was– if they're throwing out things that weren't in the oldest manuscripts, does that mean they're getting rid of the resurrection story in Mark?

  • Eeva-Maija

    It always fascinates me how people simply pick what they want from the Bible without feeling even a tad guilty for ignoring the other bits which clearly contradict the passages they then proceed to preach.

    There should be an unbiased version/translation (another matter of debate – what would be unbiased?) of the Bible around, a contribution of various fields perhaps? Yes, it's practically impossible to get people to agree on absolutely everything, but even an attempt at putting together a reasonably reliable translation would do a lot of good.

  • LauraJ

    The NRSV is pretty good. The fundamentalists distrust it.

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