I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue. In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition. Of the Bible. As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible. No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text. In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect. Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action. I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.
Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.). Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have. Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood. I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things. There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom. Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.
Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred. Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there. It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity. There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original. The point is we don’t have the original. There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning). Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise. That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it. Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text. Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.