I didn’t do any work in photography today. Being retired has its advantages. I am still learning to accept them and not get disappointed with myself when I don’t do production tasks of which I have a long, LONG list!
Instead I read New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman’s 2005 book, Misquoting Jesus. The short book, 242 pages with a short index, summarizes the 30 years he spent studying New Testament manuscripts and learning textual analysis seeking to find what the original text of the gospels, epistles, and other works in the New Testament may have said. It is engrossing reading for someone like me who is curious about religions and the bases of religions.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Bible study is not emphasized as it is in the Protestant churches with their doctrine of sola scriptura, faith based on scripture alone. In the Catholic churches ( there are Catholic churches other than the Roman Catholic headquartered in Rome), tradition supplements the book, biblio. Christians like Jews and Muslims are “people of the book.” Their religions are anchored on written sources adherents call scriptures but modern believers often do not realize that these books were written down long after the events they describe; they were first handed down orally.
But even after they were written down errors entered because they were laboriously copied by hand, one copy at a time. And most grievously Christian texts were not written in Latin or English or Tagalog. The New Testament, including all the gospels were originally written in koine Greek and the first translations into Latin (e.g. the Roman Catholic Vulgate of St. Jerome) were made on copies of the originals centuries after the originals were written and lost. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that the Bible was translated into other languages and that was when interest in the “original” Greek manuscripts really grew.
Ehrman starts his book describing the impact of his studies on his personal life. His family went to an Episcopal church in Lawrence, Kansas (an hour’s drive from where Merma lives today). At 16 he was turned on by a Protestant movement and experienced a profound experience when he “took Jesus as his personal savior.” He became evangelical. He attended Moody Bible College, the premier bible study college for “born again” Christians where he learned about New Testament manuscripts and began his study of Greek. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College, a distinguished college for evangelicals (Billy Graham graduated from Wheaton). By then his academic interest was awakened. He had been studying Greek, Hebrew and modern European languages in which scholarly papers on textual analysis and biblical commentaries are written. He wanted to know more. Against the advice of evangelical friends he enrolled at the theological seminary at Princeton because the then leading NT scholar, Metzger, was teaching there.
Knowledge is dangerous. If we are earnest about pursuing the closest we can get to truth we run the risk of losing our faith. Faith is a function of heart and the “heart knows no reason.” In an increasingly secular world governed by science e.g. antihistamines for allergies, NSAIDs for pain control, arguments of the heart are losing out except for those who insist their heart knows better. When push comes to shove, when their life is in the balance, even they resort to scientific treatment as offering a better chance for success than simple faith.
Faith has its uses. Where science fails (and it is ridden with limitations all around), faith provides people with hope. And sometimes (not often but often enough for people to keep the faith), despite what science predicts, a cure or remission occurs. Because science unlike faith bases its approach on statistical probability, not absolute truth
As Erhman says it, realizing that scriptures may have been inspired by God but they were written by humans so liable to error, “we have to figure out how to live and what to believe on our own, without setting up the Bible as a false idol – or an oracle that gives us a direct line of communication with Almighty.”
This is not such a radical statement. Most of us already live by this but just don’t acknowledge it. We prefer to live in a fantasy world. So much of what the Bible or even the New Testament says Jesus exhorted his disciples to follow modern-day Christian no longer follow e.g. just looking at a woman with lust Jesus considered adultery, he did not recognize divorce as following Mosaic law, and, of course, we no longer believe the sun and all the universe revolves around the earth!
But many people today continue to insist on what the Bible says as true and binding for all instead of looking to it and to other wisdom traditions for what makes sense in light of modern-day discoveries and insights. Knowledge marches on and those who don’t keep up are left in the dust.
Digital (what the French more aptly call “numerique”) technology is an example. Kindergarten pupils often know more about computers than their parents or grandparents. And teens and twenty-somethings are more knowledgeable about computers and mobile computing. I have read somewhere that someone with an iPhone has access to more information than the whole of NASA did at the time they sent the first human to the moon. Of course, most people are not interested in accessing information on their computers and on the Internet. Most people are interested in the communication capability of smart phones – which makes the smart part of phones dumb!
Then again it takes all kinds of people. As the Tao Te Ching has it, to paraphrase:
Those who don’t know know; those who know don’t know. And this is as it should be: there are wise people because there are the stupid ones.
In other words, there is “true” only because there is “untrue.” Without darkness there is no light. Each exists because of the other. We propose one thing by excluding its opposite. Without its opposite nothing exists because it cannot be recognized as a “thing,” as something distinctly itself.
So thinking is hazardous to your mental health. When we begin to look at so-called facts they are mostly opinions unless they are raw sensory experiences unmediated by thought. Light does not lie but sight is unfortunately mediated so we don’t “see” light; we “perceive.” And perception is individual. Each one sees what he is primed to see.
Does this make the search for “truth” doomed for failure? Yes, it does. We are after all finite beings. As soon as we finally begin to see we die! And then we don’t really see as much as factor in that we really don’t see so correct our ineptness by several factors. Truth remains a relative commodity.
In the final analysis (as final as today’s clouds and yesterday’s storms), the Chinese were right after all. Wisdom is in knowing we don’t know and the humility leavens thought, heart and intuition that we don’t go overboard with absolute beliefs. We learn to tread lightly, tentatively; we learn to dance.