Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Faithful accounts of Jefferson and Jesus?

I have covered in the past the problems concerning the New Testament. It is a document written by numerous individuals over a period of about a century and the authors are often not the ones to whom the books are ascribed. They recount events which they did not witness and then the original manuscripts vanished. All we have are copies of copies. They were written in one language then translated into another and the translations were transcribed by various individuals not entirely reluctant to do some editing of their own.

I mention this to put into context the remarks by one these fundamentalists who spend all their time “defending the faith”. Something which is no doubt more than a full time job as nasty facts keep getting in the way. This defender of the Gospels writes: “The New Testament has far better textual support than do the works of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, or Tacitus, whose contents no one seriously questions. In addition, the New Testament documents have always been both public, and widely-disseminated. Thus it would be impossible for any party to have materially changed their contents, just as the Declaration of Independence, for example, as a public document, could not have been privately altered without raising notice and creating public furor."

None of the Gospels date from the time of Christ nor were any written by Christ. In fact we aren’t sure who wrote what or when. This is very different than the works of Plato. We know Plato wrote the works of Plato which is why they are called “Plato’s works”. Elementary. Now imagine if the works of Plato were actually not written by Plato but by someone a century later claiming to tell us what Plato said. Their reliability would be shot at that point. We may not know if the wording we have is precise but we have a good idea that Plato wrote it. But we don’t know who wrote the Gospels.

Now let us assume that the version of the Gospels we use today are 99% similar to the first versions written. What does that tell us? Only that they would be similar to the versions that were manufactured decades after the death of Christ. That gives us no indication whatsoever that they are reliable accounts of the life, works and teachings of someone named Jesus. Even if they are 100%, spot on duplications of the first Gospels ever written it doesn’t change the fact the Gospels were written long after the events they purport to describe. We still have a very long gap between the events and the texts. And we know how fallible human memory can be over the short term let alone over decades. Worse yet we know how people like to exaggerate and tell tall tales.

There is no such gap between Plato’s words and the text being recorded since Plato recorded the original text himself. Jesus did not. So what we start out with when it comes to Plato are his words and we only need to have some assurance that the texts that survived were relatively similar to what he wrote. With Jesus we start out with text written decades later by other people.

Another important difference is that no one goes around preaching in the name of Plato and demanding that America become “a Platonic nation as God intended” in the way they wish to foist Christianity by the force of law on others. No one was burned at the stake for disbelieving in Plato. No one was imprisoned for doubting the worlds of Plato. Platonists are not running around trying to push censorship, ban abortion and make gays second class citizens. No one thinks they are doomed to eternal hell fire because of something Plato wrote.

Let us also look at the silly comparison of the Declaration of Independence versus the New Testament. Now if I weren’t an atheist I would say the Declaration was inspired by God. I am an atheist. It was not inspired by God but by Jefferson and that is close enough for me. It was written in 1776, the drafts of it exist and so does the original. It was written in English and published in English without a process of centuries of human transcription. It was immediately and widely published. And it was done at a time, when, contrary to popular misconception, most people could read and printed books and newspapers were widely available.

Now I have heard the Declaration misquoted frequently. But it is easily verified. And if you really have doubts make your way off to look at the original. Imagine if the Declaration were like the New Testament instead. Let us say that Jefferson got up in a room and spoke his immortal words. But no one present wrote them down and neither did Jefferson. Now imagine that about 80 to 100 years later some unknown individuals wrote four accounts of that day and what Jefferson said. They agree on some details and disagree on others. They sometimes even contradict one another.
All four of them write out the words but they differ as well. And there is good reason to believe that they are quoting another manuscript which we don’t even have.

Now those four accounts are written down and for another few hundred years get copied by hand. And we end up with versions that are similar but have different endings or other comments added in. We couldn’t go check the original since there is no original. We couldn’t be sure of very much.

We are sure about the Declaration, not because it is a public document since people still misquote it rather regularly, but because we have the original. We have Jefferson’s notes from when he wrote it. We have first hand records from eye witnesses describing what happened that day. And these original, first hand accounts still exist and are the final arbitrator in any dispute. We have no such luxury with the New Testament. Instead we have most of the books written by a man who never met Jesus -- Paul. He never read any of the four Gospels, never witnessed Jesus in life, never heard him preach or even speak. And then we have four different accounts of the same story written by people unknown but unlikely to have been witnesses themselves. I certainly have no difficulty in believing we have good copies of the Declaration of Independence. But the New Testament has none of the recorded provenance that the Declaration has.

As for it being public record remember the Declaration came out at a time when most people were literate. The Gospels were written at a time when most people could not read. The Declaration was immediately widely disseminated. The Gospels were not even written till decades after the events they purport to report. The Declaration was not transcribed but was printed in the newspapers. Each paper had the same text. The Gospels were hand copied. The Declaration had wide circulation in cheap formats. The Gospels had a small circulation and were very expensive to produce. Remember the average person didn’t own any book until after the invention of the printing press. If some scribe changed a verse of two in the Gospels it is very unlikely that very many people, if any, would have noticed. And if they did notice they had no original with which to compare it. Not only could such changes be made without public furor but the public wouldn’t know. And considering that for hundreds of years most the public were not Christian they wouldn’t care if they did know. The very idea that a pagan public would scale the ramparts in indignation if the words of Jesus were altered is simply absurd.

We have a faithful replica of Jefferson’s own words. We have no assurance regarding the worlds of Jesus. And by the way, if you don't believe me I'm post a picture of the original version of the Declaration of Independence. I anxiously await for someone to do that with even book sentence of the New Testament. I'll wait but I won't hold my breath.


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