A recent article in National Geographic speaks to the fraught world of identifying and collecting ancient texts. For me, and many others, it is a fascinating subject in its own right even leaving aside and issues of faith.
But the article does bring faith into the question, as it must. When this sort of thing comes up I always get asked some variant of the following question:
“How do I, as a lay person, understand all of this business about variant texts?”
- Realize that textual variants are not likely to alter your faith. Most are easily recognizable as copying errors, variant spellings, and obvious omissions of words or phrases. Less than 1% of the texts have an impact on any matter of faith.
- Be willing to struggle with those places that do matter. Simply because there is a difference does not mean everything has to be thrown out. Rather examine something that is called into question against the whole of the Scripture and what you know about God. It is OK to say “this doesn’t belong here” although some people will tell you that it is not. I can look at 1 Corinthians 14: 34 and say it is not consistent with the rest of the book or Paul’s writings. Rejecting it might effect how I treat women in church, but it does nothing to my relationship to Jesus. Do not fall into the trap of trying to force things to fit.
- Actually work on knowing what the Bible says. For the average Christian a textual variant is meaningless because they do not know what he Bible says in the first place. Yes I hear you sputtering and getting angry. Nevertheless it is true. Reading scripture alone is insufficient. Memorizing along is insufficient. Knowing the stories is insufficient. If you are to claim the Bible matters to you then you need to grapple with it and understand it and work with it. “How does it apply to my life?” is not our first question. Our first questions is “What does it actually say in context?”
- Get help and ask questions. Believe it or not there are plenty of resources for the lay person to study scripture seriously. This article is going to try to sell you software, but the advice it gives is good nevertheless. I recommend How to Study the Bible For All Its Worth as a good guide on these matters.
- Do not support people who would horde, steal, or take the literary, historical, and spiritual heritage of the world by putting things in private collections. >cough<hobbylobbystevegreen>cough<. To quote one of my favorite movies “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!”
I love the Bible and have spent most of my life trying to understand it. It takes effort. One approach is not enough. We must look at the Bible as historians, as antiquarians, as mystics, as believers, and as skeptics if we are going to get everything we can out of it.
If you don’t read it and study it scripture can be just as stolen as if it was looted by thieves in the 500s or by rich men in the 2000s.