Friday, January 10, 2014


Last term during a break in my historical theory and methods course a student hit me with a question that set me back on my heels a bit. It was a doozy: “Professor Broad, do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?”

I was slightly irritated by the imprecision of the question, like that time a pollster on the phone asked me if I believed that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. Yes. I believe that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. So there I am in a poll somewhere, recorded as one of the weirdos who think that Bush planned the whole thing, when in fact I doubt very much that the former President had the intellectual acuity to plan a BBQ.

“Do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?” My response was that I believed that one Yeshua of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, executed by the Romans, whose immediate followers established a rather significant sect within Judaism, certainly existed. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. “But as a historian do you believe He was God?”  My initial inclination was to throw myself out the window. But I considered that, actually, it was a perfectly fair question and deserving of a fair answer. I said that I considered the evidence insufficient to establish the validity of that hypothesis, but observed that this wasn’t necessarily my belief “as an historian”, because I know better historians, more accomplished and smarter than me, who think otherwise. I did, however, observe that modern history is an empirical discipline: we deal in what’s probable, and that miracles are highly improbable by definition: if people went around resurrecting all the time there wouldn’t be any particular reason to get all excited about it. And so I felt that history, as a profession, might be mute where such things are concerned, for the same reason that the field of geography doesn’t have much to say about musical appreciation.

I had the feeling that the student felt this was a cop-out, but it really wasn’t intended to be. In the historio-critical tradition that is the dominant mode of investigating and understanding scripture in academe, and indeed in most mainline protestant and Catholic seminaries these days, scripture is understood as a testament of faith and theology, never intended – not even by its anonymous authors – to be understood as “history” in the way we understand history today.

But there’s a problem. There are indeed some denominations that regard scripture as a literal and inerrant account of the past. And polls show that, in the United States in particular, such people aren’t a small minority. There are tens of millions who think like that, although polls also show that such people usually know very little about what’s actually in scripture. But to such people, let me pose a question of my own, in the form of an extended observation.

For Christians, the Ascension is an important milestone in the life of Jesus, the moment when He, in the presence of His apostles, was taken up into Heaven.

I’ll leave aside the fact that I remain mute on whether or not this actually occurred as an historical event (i.e.: an historical event in the way that, say, Lincoln delivered a speech at Gettysburg) because I don’t understand what “Ascension” means. I literally have no idea what is meant by “taken up into Heaven” so I can hardly be expected to decide whether or not it actually happened. But I do want to point out something interesting.

The Ascension is described in the Acts of the Apostles and in two of the four canonical Gospels. It’s in Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:50-53.

Well, sort of.  Today there is a virtual consensus of scholars in the field of exegesis that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were later additions to the original and rather dark ending of Mark in verse 8, where the “Three Marys” open Jesus’ tomb, find it empty, and run away afraid. Some scholars therefore regard 9-20, with its accounts of the resurrected Jesus and His Ascension to be “inauthentic”, and you can find Bibles where it is relegated to a footnote. As for Luke 24:50-53, have a look at the photo, top left. What don’t you notice? Ascension. I own three Bibles, which is pretty good for a guy like me. And my Revised Standard Version King James doesn’t mention the Ascension in 50-53, although it includes the following footnote: “Other ancient authorities add and was carried up into Heaven” after verse 51. By contrast, my Oxford Annotated RSV includes the phrase but with an opposite footnote: “Other ancient authorities omit and was carried up into Heaven.”

Now, look. There are some atheists out there who make great sport out of this sort of thing, but I have little patience for those kinds of narrow strawman attacks. But I do have a question for those of you who regard the Bible as literally true and inerrant: which Bible?


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a small miracle.

Kara said...

In response to the question, "which bible?, people who believe the bible is literally true and inerrant rely on the King James Version. Why, you ask? In what promises to be the longest comment ever, here goes.

Until the 16th century, the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated into Latin. Then, following the Reformation, Protestant scholars got to work translating the Bible into English. Although he was not the first to do so, in 1525, William Tyndale led a massive translation effort, which resulted in his version of the Great Bible being published in 1539, and was embraced by the Church of England.

When Queen Mary forcibly converted England back to Catholicism, English reformers fled the country for Geneva, where Calvin was leading the new Protestant intellectual movement. The theologians made various revisions to Tyndale's earlier work, and published a new Bible, known as the Geneva Bible. BUT THEN, in 1558, Elizabeth I converted England back to Protestantism, and the resulting existential crisis prompted Protestant intellectuals to revisit both the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible, and the original Hebrew and Greek source texts.

In 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland of course, being deeply influenced by Protestant reformers like John Calvin. It was here that Protestants put forth their proposals for a new translation of the Bible.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and commissioned the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, where 47 scholars translated the Bible again, primarily using the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible as references. It was published in 1611. The KJV became the standard in Anglican churches. Although, for a time, it was still popular with the general public, the Geneva Bible began to be viewed politically subversive, since it reminded English Protestants of their Puritan past, and publishers, keen to get their hands on the KJV, stopped publishing the Geneva Bible. The question of who had the rights to publish and profit off of the KGV led to various grammatical and language inconsistencies, meaning that there were at one point several "knock-offs" of the same basic texts. This continued for over a hundred years, throughout which, the English language, and rules of grammar changed considerably.

So in 1760, the University of Cambridge published an updated standard text. In 1769, under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Oxford published their updated standard text, and it was this one that is most often cited as as"the Bible" by people who regard the Bible as literal and inerrant, because it reflects Tyndale's Great Bible, as well as the Geneva Bible, and has been agreed upon by 47 Protestant scholars. Thus, any updates for language, while accepted, and even encouraged, in the English-speaking Protestant "Bible Believing" community will be cross referenced with, and trumped by the KJV every time.