Bible Study, Hippo Style

I would beg to differ.
The Bible is, if I may use this word, an evolving text. Discoveries have been made that have forced scholars and lay people alike to reconsider what it all means. If we ignore the many politicized revisions of the King James Bible we have a pretty good starting point to base any discoveries on. The same holds true for the Talmud, which was edited and revised to become the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. The Holy Qu’Ran is a different animal. It was, according to Islamic tradition, dictated directly to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel in western cultures) and was formalized by Caliph Uthman barely twenty years after Muhammad ascended into heaven. Also, unlike the Talmud or the Bible, Caliph Uthman had thousands of copies made at the same time so there would be no historical discrepancies. But the other two books have constantly been challenged by one finding or another through the years. Some, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, enhanced our view of the history of the two earliest western religions but didn’t challenge much in the way of beliefs. Others, such as Nag Hammadi Library challenge the most closely held beliefs and seem to fly in the face of historical record.

What gets lost in the tumult is that all three books are historical records as well as religious texts. Kings, which underpins all three western religions, tells the story of how Israel became a reality and how the Jews finally found a home. The fact that it depicts some incredibly violent moments and some of the most duplicitous behavior in history doesn’t make it any less valid. Quite honestly, if you were to modernize the characters in Kings and keep the plot it would read more like the Godfather than any spiritual journey. But you have to keep in mind the times when it occurred. If everyone wants you dead you either kill them first or fade from view.

However, as I noted, these are historical texts. So, when evidence comes along that says history might have missed something it needs to be addressed. The Gospel of Mark in the New Testament is one example of scholarly dispute. According to a letter, which may or may not have been a forgery, there is a Secret Gospel of Mark.

The “Secret” gospel depicts a moment wherein Jesus befriends a young man and teaches him the wonders and secrets of his ministry. A marvel he shared with only a select few. Many scholars believe that young man was Mark himself. That would make sense since we know that Mark didn’t write his gospel until he was commanded to do so so that Romans could understand the teachings of Peter. Since Mark was barely 30 when he did that one can easily assume that he was around 9 or 10 when he was a disciple of Jesus’. Certainly he refers to himself as a boy, which would mean he had not attained 13 years of age and become a man in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Of course the yahoo brigade read this new text and immediately claimed Jesus was a homosexual. Having never belonged to a club they would be woefully ignorant about the rites of initiation. If their claim had any validity then everyone from Rotarions to Boy Scouts would be involved in homosexual rituals.

In other words, feel free to dismiss them and move on with your life.

But the one book that has had scholars and anyone else who’s read it completely baffled is the Book of Revelations. According to Catholic tradition it was written by St. John the Divine. Most likely while he was in prison. The problem with Revelations, besides it’s use of epic allegory, is the fact that it makes the teachings of Jesus insanely violent. Far from “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” it’s more akin to “do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.” Almost all the violent Christian sects cite it as proof of their beliefs.

But – and you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? – the document used in the Bible has long been known to be a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy and so on. Archaeologists have recently unearthed a much older version of Revelations and realized quickly that there may have been some tiny errors in the multiple translations.

Take the Number of the Beast, they now know it to be 616 and not 666. It has prompted some interesting articles, such as this one from Religion News.

Satanists, apocalypse watchers and heavy metal guitarists may have to adjust their demonic numerology after a recently deciphered ancient biblical text revealed that 666 is not the fabled Number of the Beast after all.

A fragment from the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament, dating to the Third century, gives the more mundane 616 as the mark of the Antichrist.

Ellen Aitken, a professor of early Christian history at McGill University, said the discovery appears to spell the end of 666 as the devil’s prime number.

“This is a very nice piece to find,” Dr. Aitken said. “Scholars have argued for a long time over this, and it now seems that 616 was the original number of the beast.”

The tiny fragment of 1,500-year-old papyrus is written in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, and contains a key passage from the Book of Revelation.

Where more conventional versions of the Bible give 666 as the “number of the beast,” or the sign of the anti-Christ whose coming is predicted in the book’s apocalyptic verses, the older version uses the Greek letters signifying 616.

“This is very early confirmation of that number, earlier than any other text we’ve found of that passage,” Dr. Aitken said. “It’s probably about 100 years before any other version.”

The fragment was part of a hoard of previously illegible manuscripts discovered in an ancient garbage dump outside the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Although the papyrus was first excavated in 1895, it was badly discoloured and damaged. Classics scholars at Oxford University were only recently able to read it using new advanced imaging techniques.

Elijah Dann, a professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Toronto, said the new number is unlikely to make a dent in the popularity of 666.

“Otherwise, a lot of sermons would have to be changed and a lot of movies rewritten,” he said with a laugh. “There’s always someone with an active imagination who can put another interpretation on it.

“It just shows you that when you study something as cryptic and mystic as the Book of Revelation there’s an almost unlimited number of interpretations.”

The book is thought to have been written by the disciple John and according to the King James Bible, the traditional translation of the passage reads: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

But Dr. Aitken said that translation was drawn from much later versions of the New Testament than the fragment found in Oxyrhynchus. “When we’re talking about the early biblical texts, we’re always talking about copies and they are copies made, at best, 150 to 200 years after [the original] was written,” she said.

“They can have mistakes in the copying, changes for political or theological reasons … it’s like a detective story piecing it all together.”

Dr. Aitken said, however, that scholars now believe the number in question has very little to do the devil. It was actually a complicated numerical riddle in Greek, meant to represent someone’s name, she said.

“It’s a number puzzle — the majority opinion seems to be that it refers to [the Roman emperor] Nero.”

Revelation was actually a thinly disguised political tract, with the names of those being criticized changed to numbers to protect the authors and early Christians from reprisals. “It’s a very political document,” Dr. Aitken said. “It’s a critique of the politics and society of the Roman empire, but it’s written in coded language and riddles.”

Of course that last little tid bit also means that Revelations is no more prophecy than I am a ballet dancer.

Ooops.

Nevertheless, I’m sure, as time progresses, other documents will surface to help us understand more fully what everyone was thinking at the time.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrSiIqCpxB8&w=480&h=360]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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