Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Biblical Scholarship and the Founders

I'm leaving my Puritan comfort zone to actually address the Founding generation (though my readings in the field of scriptural translation spring from my study of those Bible-reading people). Trying to identify the religious beliefs of the Founders provokes nearly unending debate; what I'd like to investigate here is the religious scholarship the Founders may have read that may have formed some of their religious education.

In 1707, John Mill of Queens College, Oxford published an edition of the Greek New Testament that took the 1550 edition written by Stephanus and then listed all the variant readings of that text in a critical Apparatus. Mill found 30,000 differences between the translations, places where different manuscripts of the New Testament over the centuries provided different readings from the "received text" of the scripture.

This was, of course, controversial in England and Europe, where Protestants found the validity of their religion on its basis in scripture. If there was no final scriptural word to be had, no text that really had the exact word of God in it, but only many human variations on a theme, then the Catholic insistence that scripture could only ever be one part of religion was validated. The Catholic church had always averred that church custom and practice was more important than scripture, and this unreliability of scripture seemed to prove it.

Mill's work put in motion critical examinations of scripture that made the 18th century a century of exegesis. Notably, Johann Albrecht Bengel and Johann J. Wettstein both explored scriptural variants further, and Wettstein published a new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1751-2, showing even more Greek, Roman, Jewish, and catholic variants in meaning.

Each of these publications provoked a firestorm of critical responses. The 18th century was the age of the pamphleteer, and because the religious stakes were still high in England in the first part of the 1700s, each new publication was capable of arousing great public praise or indignation.

Laying out the differences between translations of the Bible, some of which crucially changed the message of the scriptures, clearly led many people at the time to lose faith in the Bible as the received word of God, and even their faith in God. If two of the gospels had originally made no claims that Jesus was God, if those claims were added in by later second- and third-century scribes who wanted the Bible to say Jesus was God, what was the basis for faith in Jesus? If God did want humans to know God's word, why were our versions of the Scriptures so clearly humanly rather than God-generated?

The work of uncovering more and more early translations of the New Testament would go on in the 19th century. Our Founders, who were well-read English-educated and oriented men and women, must have been aware of these debates and findings in their own time. They must have read and pondered Mill and his many critics and followers, and perhaps even read his Apparatus, or the scriptures of Wettstein. It would have fit their Enlightenment bent to question and even reject scripture as a useful religious guide. And it might have led some of them to deny the divinity of Jesus.

I would love to hear from those readers who have more in-depth knowledge of the Founders' religious reading to see if my theory is correct.

19 comments:

Brad Hart said...

Great points, Lori. In addition to Mill, I know that Wycliffe (though he came before the Reformation) also made the same observations about the Bible in his translations, as did one William Tyndale, who was actually put to death for it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson used Greek and Latin Bibles in composing the "Jefferson Bible."

http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Faith-Tools/The-Founding-Faith-Archive/Separating-Diamonds-From-The-Dunghill.aspx

Interesting article. As always, I point out that Jefferson kept the existence of his edited Gospels secret from the general public. That he felt the need to do so is probative.

Our Founding Truth said...

In 1707, John Mill of Queens College, Oxford published an edition of the Greek New Testament that took the 1550 edition written by Stephanus and then listed all the variant readings of that text in a critical Apparatus. Mill found 30,000 differences between the translations, places where different manuscripts of the New Testament over the centuries provided different readings from the "received text" of the scripture.>

Nice job Lori. You pointed out the alexandrian text is corrupt. I agree.

Brian Tubbs said...

Very interesting article, Lori.

Pinky said...

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What a great post, Lori.

I have the book, American Puritanism, by Darret B. Rutman. Are you familiar with his work?
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I will check it out.

Our Founding Truth said...

If two of the gospels had originally made no claims that Jesus was God,>

Which didn't happen, and could not happen.

Lori Stokes said...

Hello! I don't know that book, Pinky, but I too will check it out.

OFT, you're probably familiar with Bart Ehrman's books describing the changes to the Greek originals that scribes made. The Johannine Comma, the changes to I Timothy 3:16, and other anti-adoptionist changes were made to make the case that Jesus was God long after the Greek originals were written (anti-adoptionist is the term for later scribes and Christian theologians who considered Jesus to be God, not a man adopted by God).

We're not a religion or exegesis blog, so I won't bog down in discussion of this point, but it's worth pointing out that the earliest versions of the books of the New Testament don't make claims for Jesus' divinity, but were later changed to do so.

The point here is, were these arguments being read by the Founders, too?

Pinky said...

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I am finding Rutman's book to be very engrossing.
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It is giving me food for comments.
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You'll be reading some here.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It would have fit their Enlightenment bent to question and even reject scripture as a useful religious guide. And it might have led some of them to deny the divinity of Jesus.


Ehrman:

http://books.google.com/books?id=kXdXKaJWs2UC&pg=PA157&lpg=PA157&dq=anti-adoptionist&source=bl&ots=a0mTcPki-1&sig=oqCQ9GuTo6tHqlwmOKA70cOliQ0&hl=en&ei=H_XLSe2kLonOtQOIvoCeCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA189,M1


I recall seeing some of these arguments in a Jefferson letter, en exegesis of the Greek. No doubt these arguments were used by the non-Trinitarians/unitarians in the debates of that time.

However, Lori, I'm unaware of much evidence that the Trinity question was a springboard for the Founders, as you put it, "reject[ing] scripture as a useful religious guide." That seems a bridge way too far and indeed the evidence from the Founding era weighs heavily against that conjecture.

Of course, that's just my opinion. ;-)

Perhaps there's a boatload of evidence I'm unaware of. If so, I'd like to see it.

Pinky said...

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Amazing.
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Our Founding Truth said...

We're not a religion or exegesis blog, so I won't bog down in discussion of this point, but it's worth pointing out that the earliest versions of the books of the New Testament don't make claims for Jesus' divinity, but were later changed to do so.>


Looking at the name comma ? it must be the alexandrian text, which is catholic. The first Christians according to the Book of Acts was at Antioch; the versions those Christians started and protected with their lives were copied, etc. and are the syrian text. That text is what the framers used at the seminaries; the kjv, received text, etc.

Brad Hart said...

To be honest, my knowledge of the origins of the various bibles of the world is elementary at best, but I would sincerely appreciate someone giving us a "crash course" on this topic. It's worth exploring.

OFT:

If I understand you right, are you saying that the KJV came from the first Christians at Antioch? Because if memory serves me right I think that isn't completely true. Maybe I am misreading what you are saying. I would appreciate some clarification.

Our Founding Truth said...

If I understand you right, are you saying that the KJV came from the first Christians at Antioch? Because if memory serves me right I think that isn't completely true. Maybe I am misreading what you are saying. I would appreciate some clarification.>

Yes, it is based on the syrian manuscripts. Peter said the first Christians were called that in Antioch. Antioch is in Syria.

Pinky said...

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I am coming to the conclusion that the situation that seems to be given the greatest ignorance in this blog is the extreme level of religiosity that existed in Western Civilization leading up to the Founding of our American society. This gives deep meaning to Novus ordo seclorum .
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It was NOT so much that Christianity had an effect on the Founding as it was that religiosity had such an effect on Christianity.
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Why do we study history, anyway? Is it not so we don't make the same mistakes over and over or is it to prove one person knows more than someone else?

Pinky said...

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The professor Jon Fea is quoted as saying, "A People's History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda".

Presentist, noun: a theologian who believes that the Scripture prophecies of the Apocalypse (as in the Book of Revelations) are being fulfilled at the present time.
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Brad Hart writes, "Personally, I couldn't agree more with Dr. Fea's summation of the "historical" works of Howard Zinn."
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???

Brad Hart said...

Pinky:

I'm not understanding your confusion. Perhaps you could clarify?

Also, wouldn't this be a more appropriate comment for the post you are quoting?

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

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I was trying to walk and chew gum at the same time and put that post in the wrong thread.

I'm sorry about that. I will try to clean it up.
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It should have been in your thread about Howard Zinn.
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Do you think old age is creeping up on me or it just jumping on me?

Pinky said...

A Culture of Religiosity
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Let's think about Religiosity in Colonial America.
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Why did that group of Pilgrims make that original voyage on the Mayflower? How far back in time must we go to get our hands on the facts of the matter of that Culture of Ingrained Religiosity under which every cobbler, merchant, milk main, and field gleaner was inundated? Society was awash in religiosity. Christianity--as well as every other societal institution--was the object of that driving force..
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We seem to be repeating the same thing today.
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But, this site is about America's Founding Era. Colonial America was defined by a Culture of Religiosity, If the articular direction of this site shows anything, it shows nothing more. It wasn't the year, 1788, it was the "Year of Our Lord Christ, 1788". Every moment of life was lived out in religion's terms. Seminaries were instituted to carry out the ministry of religious truth. And there were two very definite ways in which that was being spread. Puritanism and Obedience to the Crown.
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The question of our struggle focuses us on Christianity and Secularism. How was it that these two venues were influence by the Culture of Religiosity that that washed the mind of every single person--of every Founding Father?
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Or, as the Christian Nationaiist would have you believe, did something known as PURE Christianity inform Colonial religiosity? It seems, to me at least, that something other than Christianity influence the secular mind as it even did the tenants of Christianity in that day. I say it was the Culture of Religiosity that Drove the American Founders and, thereby, the Founding.
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