Which Version of a Delusional Fantasy is the Most Authentic?

I belive in fairy stories, and I vote!

(Image from The Naked Truth)

We all know of the problems of the authenticity of the Bible. It was originally a loose conglomeration of fables by desert dwellers, passed down by oral tradition. These stories were a mishmash of original ideas, imported legends, fanciful embellishments, and gross exaggerations. Eventually, they started to get written down, by widely-scattered people. That left us with a lot of stories, many duplicates and variants, and even more contradictions. Eventually, somebody had to sit down and figure out which books belonged, which version of those books belonged, which didn’t, and what to do about all of those contradictions.

This process happened at least twice. The first time was by the Jews, to compile the Hebrew Bible (later called the “Old Testament” by the holier-than-thou Christians). The second time was by those snooty Christians, around 325 C.E., because Constantine ordered 50 copies of the Bible. At that time, there wasn’t one unified set of stories. Kind of hard to deliver to the emperor 50 copies of something that you don’t even have one copy of. The priests had to quickly get together and figure out what to include and what to throw away. Both scholarship and politics figured heavily in this process. Thus, the Bible is a book of tall tales written by committee. Divinely inspired, my ass.

It would be bad enough if the Bible had stopped mutating like a bad sci-fi movie monster by the time it was originally canonized in 325 C.E. But no. These were the days before the printing press, so every time you needed a Bible, you had to find some monk to hand-copy another one for you. Many errors, omissions, and deliberate insertions crept into the book as it progressed through the centuries, giving us today thousands of variants.

Along the way, various influential people with one particular ax or another to grind decided they wanted a different version, so they commissioned their own committees to create their own new versions.

Quite a mess.

Finding a Less-Error-Filled Version

If you’re going to read the Bible—either because you believe this crap, or because you just want to see what crap the credulous actually believe—you’re going to want to find a Bible that is as close as we can get to the original stories. You don’t want to be reading fantastic, incredible stories that were put in later. No. You want your fantastic, incredible stories to be pure, unadulterated fiction!

Paul Tobin has an extensive web site called The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager. He has dozens of pages about the Bible and its history. It’s all very heavily footnoted, so you can check up on his claims. The writing sometimes gets a little dense, so it’s not always a breezy read.

Among his many pages is one titled “Not All Versions Are Created Equal”. He starts by telling us that there are two major problems with Bible translations:

The source documents. As there is not a single extant original (or autograph) copy of any of the books in the Bible, the reliability of the translation is affected directly by the quality of the source documents. For instance, the King James Version…, which was first published in 1611, is no longer considered reliable since it was not based on ancient texts. Modern versions are based on newly discovered, more ancient texts [as] well as scientific textual studies. So in general, more modern versions are more reliable than older ones.

As fundamentalism grows, the second issue, that of theological preconception becomes very important.This is what we will be looking at in depth on this page.

So here’s Tobin’s list of techniques that fundie translators use to produce a Bible that says what they want:

  • Removing Contradictions by Quoting or Using Less Authoritative Texts
  • Removing Difficulties by Translating in “Soft Focus”
  • Removing Reprehensible Passages by Mistranslation
  • Leaving Errors in Translation Unchanged
  • Adding Words into the Bible Text

He gives some strong examples of each of these on his site. Go check it out.

Examples of bad Bibles, with particular fundie agendas, are The Book, The Living Bible, and The New International Version (NIV). I know I’ve encountered the NIV.

If you want to get yourself a better Bible, Tobin says that the best version available today is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). It has the best scholarship behind it, and they tried to translate as bias-free as they could.

Of course, the NRSV is still a Bible. As the saying goes, that’s like putting lipstick on a pig. (No disrespect to pigs is intended!)


13 Responses to “Which Version of a Delusional Fantasy is the Most Authentic?”

  1. Troy Says:

    This is an interesting post in that, at least with other mythologies, I do prefer translations that try to preserve as much of the original syntax and word cadence as possible. So translations do matter and they do get you back to the original authors. As fundamentalists are obsessed with words and less so with meanings and context translations are often thought to be considered heresy and indeed from my non-religious perspective I’d have to say bias is certainly introduced from a translator with an agenda.
    Cute piggy too.

  2. neil h Says:

    I have a cultural preference for the King James version, simply because the poetry of the language is so familiar. As Richard Dawkins has said, things like the Bible should be part of our shared culture but it doesn’t mean we have to believe them. Also, it always rattles the fundies when you can quote chapter and verse at them … 🙂

  3. James McGrath Says:

    As a religion professor specialized in New Testament, I would like to emphasize that much of what you said (and in most cases far worse) could be said about pretty much all ancient literature. It is not the copying process or even the issues of translation that are the big problems – it is the fact that there are fundamentalists and various sorts of poorly-informed individuals claiming to believe and base their lives on something when they have not even understood what it is!

  4. The Watcher Says:

    James: You’re correct in that every work of ancient literature suffers from adaptation decay. I can’t understand why the fundies don’t see what’s right in front of their faces. Nobody today believes The Iliad or The Song of Roland is 100% perfect and divinely inspired. Why should the Bible be any different?

    Or maybe Homer just forgot to include the part that says “This story is 100% true.” That might have made all the difference.

  5. Chuck Says:

    Thanks for that resource! *bookmarked*

  6. Ron Britton Says:

    James and the Watcher:

    Your points are well founded. In fact, elsewhere on his site, Tobin compares the Bible to Homer’s Iliad to give us some perspective on how well or poorly the Bible survived the ravages of antiquity. It gets complicated, because of the different types of manuscripts and how complete they are, but, generally speaking, the Bible is roughly equivalent to the Iliad in terms of surviving copies, completeness, contradictory versions, etc. Tobin explains it all in detail.

    So yes, all texts of this antiquity are going to have multiple incomplete copies, with contradictory versions among those that survive. Serious scholarship is required to try to put Humpty back together again.

  7. James M. Martin Says:

    Weren’t the canonicals written in Aramaic? If not, in any case, this was the language spoken in Jebus’ time. (OK, Reb Yeshua.) Written Aramaic, as Robert Anton Wilson once observed, had no punctuation, such that the words, “God is Now Here” could just as easily be “God is No Where.” These problems haunt all holy books, as witness the controversy Sam Harris aroused when he pointed out that suicidal jihadists may be blowing themselves up with promise of a more accurately translated “thirteen white grapes.” Not exactly anyone’s idea of Paradise.

  8. Sue Blue Says:

    My fundie relatives were recently bent out of shape (a frequent ocurrence) when I poked holes in some biblical woo one of them was trying to convince me was worthy of complete and unquestioning belief. When backed into a logical or factual corner, their fallback position is that the KJV Bible is “so beautifully written” that it has inspired millions, and therefore must be the real Word of God. I told them that, based on this logic, I would be perfectly justified in believing that Tolkein’s “The Silmarillion” is a true and factual account of Earth’s creation and the creator’s plans for us because it is beautifully written. J.R.R. Tolkein – praised be Aluvatar’s Prophet!

    The reaction was priceless.

  9. Sharley Says:

    The idea of taking the Bible (or any religious text) completely literally just boggles me. None of the Christians I know do; yeah, they believe in God and Jesus, but they say that the Bible itself outlines guides to live by, not actual “gospel truth”.

    Take the creation myth in Genesis. I don’t know any Christian who thinks it took literally a week for God to create the Earth. They’re not dumb enough or blind enough to ignore the evidence of science; as my mother-in-law says, who knows how long a “day” is in Heaven. (I like talking religion with her, because she’s very reasonable about it, and if she’s at all judgmental she’s never let on.) Ditto Noah; many, many cultures have a flood myth, and her theory is that there was a fairly sudden climate-shift that devastated a lot of the world. The Noah myth is logically impossible to take literally, because if there was only one pair of everything, it all would have died out in a few generations due to inbreeding. (What were Noah’s sons supposed to do, bugger their mother to have babies?)

    Personally, I agree with the movie “Dogma”: faith is better than religion, and it doesn’t matter what you have faith in so long as you have it. Even atheism is a type of faith; it’s believing that there is no higher power. I don’t personally know any atheists, but I do know many agnostics, and people like my mother-in-law, who take the Bible for what it is: a story. It’s possible to have strong spirituality without being a freak about it, and unfortunately these fundies don’t seem to understand that at all.

    Also, Sue, I love your Tolkien story. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised nobody’s built a major religion around The Silmarillion; after all, Mormonism and Scientology got off the ground, and they’re far more ridiculously implausible.

    Also, interesting fact: Australia recognizes “Jedi” as an official religion. Their censuses (censi? I don’t know) have a space for religion, and if a certain percentage of the population claim the same one, they add it to the registry. If I lived there, I would definitely either put that or Tolkienism, just because. 🙂

  10. Sue Blue Says:

    Thanks, Sharley. I really do love Tolkein. If I hadn’t already gone public with my atheism, I’d be tempted to put down “Tolkeinian” on any form that asked for religious affiliation! As far as inspirational fantasy, I’ve yet to find any better.

    Strangely, though, I’ve had a hard time getting fundies to see the parallels between their fantasy and any other. They really can’t seem to see that it isn’t any more ridiculous to believe in hobbits and elves than it is to believe that Noah’s Flood really happened or that donkeys can talk or that unicorns exist. It’s like trying to talk a schizophrenic out of believing that his dog is talking to him through the shower head.

    They just glare at you with that humorless “thous shalt be damned” look.

  11. Brian Says:


    I’d like to address one thing you said: “Even atheism is a type of faith; it’s believing that there is no higher power.” Ummm, no.

    Atheism is a lack of faith, not just some less popular variety of it. I lack a belief in a god. I do not assert that there is no god, at least in a technical sense. Of course, when I get on a rhetorical roll, I might say something of the sort, but I always reserve the right to be corrected. You might think I’m splitting existential hairs here, but I think there is an important distinction, which is often lost on most believers.

    I cannot prove that something does not exist, not even the Flying Spaghetti Monster (all hail his noodly goodness. RAmen). However, I can easily recognize when there is no evidence to support the claim of a given thing’s existence, in this case, God. Despite several thousand years of theological thought, no one has yet to produce an irrefutable proof of a god’s existence. I therefore carry on with my life as if there is no god. And while I’m 99.99% confident there is no god, I cannot rule it out completely. Maybe there is a god after all, and one day before I die, for some inexplicable reason it might deign to reveal itself to everyone in some unmistakable fashion. But I’m not about to hold my breath waiting.

  12. Monado Says:

    So, Sharley, how much faith are you expending not to believe in Vishnu, Kali, and Brahma? How about Saint Che Guevera? Do you have “faith” that Thor doesn’t exist? Does doubting the tooth fairy take energy? There are hundreds of gods: Thoth, Ma’at, Freya, Allah, Quan Yin. For each one you must exert a positive act of faith in their non-existence. Does it take faith to believe that the landscape outside your window won’t change every night? Does it take faith to believe that it’s not going to rain on a sunny day? Or is there just lack of evidence, in your experience, for those things?

    Last year I did a few posts on known alterations to the New Testament. The whole story about Christ’s ascent into heaven is not in the earliest manuscripts (Mark 16, 9-20). Therefore, we know that it is an invention.

  13. Sharley Says:

    You might think I’m splitting existential hairs here, but I think there is an important distinction, which is often lost on most believers.

    I’m not actually an atheist, and I’m sorry if I’ve been wrong on that point. I’ve just got a lack of personal experience and thus (clearly) a lack of understanding, but I didn’t mean to offend anyone. As for Mark 16 being an invention…the whole Bible is an invention, I’m sure, just like every other holy book out there. When I was a child, that was the first objection I had to the idea of Christianity; I sat there and went, “Wait, how do I even know who really wrote this? The whole thing was written by men, and men lie.” The Noah myth and pretty much all of Genesis couldn’t stand up to even my eight-year-old examination, and from there on out it was just, “Okay, if this and this are false, the rest of it probably isn’t true, either.” What I couldn’t understand was how none of the Christians I knew could see this, since I was just a kid and most of them were adults.