Sunday, July 31, 2011

Burnt Scriptures

by Luis Granados

This time last year, we were just about to embark on the Terry Jones saga. You remember him: the pastor who found his 15 minutes of fame by threatening to burn the Koran, backing down when the United States government called him “un-American” for expressing politically incorrect ideas, then pulling off a sneak incineration a few months later when no one was looking. If you followed the story closely, you will also remember the people who were killed when Muslims rioted about the mere thought-crime of prospective scripture burning, and the somewhat more rational response of the Pakistani Muslim who retaliated by destroying a Christian Bible.

Now another Bible has been burned, or at least parts of one. In a man-bites-dog twist, this one was torched by a Christian minister, Rev. Geraint ap Iorwerth of St Peter ad Vincula Church in Pennal, Wales. It seems Rev. ap Iorwerth is a true expert on what God really said, and thus decided to burn “all the nasty bits” that misrepresented what he knows God is really like. Presumably, he’s referring to the parts of the Old Testament where God endorses genocide and slavery. Or maybe he burnt the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus insists that every “jot and tittle” of the Jewish law shall remain in force until the end of time, specifically including animal sacrifice at the Temple, while declaring it a sin for anyone to marry a divorced woman. I can’t tell you exactly what he burnt, because the article doesn’t say. Besides, he’s the one who can read God’s mind, not me.

I play a game with my dog of holding out both hands and making her guess which one holds the treat I just showed her. (At least I used to, until I got tired of the mournful looks when she guessed the wrong hand.) If the dog could read my mind, she’d know which hand to go for – but she’s not on my level. If Rev. ap Iorwerth knows which hand God is holding the treat in, and which parts of the Bible are phony, then he must be on (or above) God’s level.

But not, though, above the level of thousands of God experts who preceded him, who were all at least equally adept at picking and choosing which parts of holy texts were the real deal and which were the fakes. We can tell, for example, that the Old Testament itself was pasted together from older texts. That’s why it has two different creation stories, two different stories of the flood, two different stories of Hagar, two different stories of the calling of Moses – even two different versions of the Ten Commandments. So what happened to the parts of each text that weren’t used? They were probably burnt.

The same thing happened with the assembly of the New Testament. There were dozens of different gospels to choose from, but the decision was made 150 years after Jesus to include only four of them. Why four? Bishop Irenaeus, the principal selector, employed impeccable logic:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars.

We know that many of the non-chosen Gospels were then destroyed, presumably by burning, because they constituted heresy.

The same thing happened with the assembly of the Koran. Umar, one of the four “rightly guided” Caliphs who knew and followed Muhammad, is reported to have said: “Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Koran, for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost.” Aisha, one of Muhammad’s widows, complained that one chapter had been reduced from 200 verses to only 73 in the final edition. She also stated (I am not making this up) that some verses were lost when, during preparations for Muhammad’s funeral, a domestic animal got in the house and ate them.

Picking and choosing what God did and didn’t mean to say continued long after an “official” version of scripture became popular. When Martin Luther published the Bible in German, he decided that the Epistle of James wasn’t really God’s word because it didn’t fit with Luther’s theology. So, he left it out. James was only Jesus’ brother – what did he know?

Mormons have made a fine art of changing their God-given scriptures to their liking. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have identified nearly 4,000 changes in the Book of Mormon itself since its first publication. Most of them relate to God’s failures as a grammarian, e.g. “They did not fight against God no more.” More changes and cuts have been made to the other principal Mormon scripture, Doctrines and Covenants, whose original words were given directly by God to Joseph Smith. The 1835 version contained a flat prohibition against polygamy, which was reprinted in every edition published until 1876. By that point, the church had come out of the closet to be officially in favor of polygamy, so God’s mistake was snipped out.

The closest physical analogy to Rev. ap Iorwerth’s word surgery is the work of Thomas Jefferson, who produced his own version of the gospels. “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” He later expanded what became known as the Jefferson Bible, but did not allow it to be published. It did not surface until 70 years after his death.

The night-and-day difference between Jefferson and ap Iorwerth is that Jefferson did not profess that any part of the Bible was God’s word, nor did he believe that Jesus was God. He just thought that Jesus was an interesting guy who had some good ideas, as most humanists today would agree. But there are lots of people like that – Confucius, Tindal, Voltaire – and Jefferson read them avidly as well. In fact, the parts of the Bible that Jefferson cut out were the parts that made Jesus appear superhuman, like the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. He also felt free to disagree with Jesus on various matters: “It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it, etc, etc.”

By contrast, Rev. ap Iorwerth has spent a long career being paid to tell his congregation exactly what the Big Guy In The Sky commands them to do. Now he’s taken on the personal responsibility of fine-tuning those instructions, so that he can no longer pretend that he’s simply passing on the corporate line. Either Rev. ap Iorwerth is in direct communication with the spirit world, or he’s a colossal fraud. And if he had any sense of honor, he’d stop taking paychecks from a church organization whose manifesto and reason for being he has publicly condemned and burnt, and find himself an honest job instead.

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