17 October 2009

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound,)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
John Newton

My bones hurt and I'm alternately shaking and burning up—it's possible I have a disease of some kind. Could be the end of the world, I suppose; the voices in my head were saying something about that, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Mostly they keep singing this horrible Christian hymn.

The news arriving through various portals is beyond bizarre. Conservatives are supposedly rewriting the Bible again (I thought that was the point of the Living Bible?), though I'm inclined to suspect somebody is having a little fun at our expense with this one. There are very sound textual reasons, by the way, for leaving out the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery, at least as part of the Fourth Gospel, liberal conspiracies aside. And it's by no means certain that Jesus' "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" is really an original part of Luke. I personally think that textual evidence and not ideology should be the basis for making these sorts of decisions, but separating the two is not always as simple as it seems like it should be.

You know, textual evidence is important. People who simply accept the text of a piece as a more-or-less one-dimensional given have always baffled me. I really want to know what I have in front of me, where the text came from, how it got to where it was, and what its basis is. I like critical editions; I want sources, analogs, revisions, notes, second thoughts—the whole package. It's the difference between color and black-and-white, between 3D and 2D, between high definition and youtube.

Back in high school I thought it was ridiculous that neither literature nor history classes covered even the basics of text criticism. When we did Melville's Billy Budd in American lit my teacher thought an important key to Melville's point of view lay in his naming of the British ship the Indomitable. Okay, fair enough, but MS analysis shows that Melville changed his mind; at some point he decided to call the ship the Bellipotent instead. Does this make a difference to the analysis? Maybe not, but still, Bellipotent and Indomitable are not quite the same thing.

Billy Budd was quite an interesting puzzle to me at the time; the edition we read in school (Weaver's) differed in numerous ways from the copy we had at home (Freeman's). I had no idea why, but I ended up basing my paper on Freeman's edition rather than Weaver's, largely because I liked it better. Similarly, when we listened to a recording of a portion of Shakespeare's Othello while reading along in our books I was amazed at the differences between them; at the time I ignorantly blamed it on the liberties taken by our textbook editors, but in fact one was based on the Q1 text and the other based of the First Folio. Go figure. And when it comes to Murder in the Cathedral—well, maybe the less said, the better. There weren't enough copies to go around, you see, so those of us who could brought copies from home or the library and, well, confusion resulted when we attempted to read the thing aloud. Thank you T. S. Eliot for an entertaining and very confusing couple of afternoons.

Yeah, anyway, the point is—it's important to know your text. What exactly is it that you've got in front of you?

When I was working on a piece about the Modoc War I had occasion to refer to the wire dispatches sent out by the Associated Press (not the modern assocation; this one was connected with the Western Union telegraph system) from Ashland and Yreka. In a March 1873 dispatch describing the aftermath of a tumultuous meeting with the Modoc leaders it is said that Captain Jack (the principal Modoc leader) met with the Peace Commissioners in the morning wearing a woman's hat. At least that's what the Portland Oregonian version of the dispatch said. Most of the other papers I looked at (the San Francisco Call, various New York papers, etc.) however said it was a warrior's hat. Same dispatch, different reading. Which is correct?

Most people that I've thrown this out at over the years have responded that I should go with what the majority of the newspapers had, that is, warrior's hat. As one person observed, didn't it make more sense to suppose that he wore a warrior's hat rather than a woman's hat? Maybe so, but that wasn't the way I looked at it. I did what you're supposed to do in the textual world; I constructed a tree. It was easy to show that all versions of the wire stories from Yreka (not just this one) fell into three different groups. One of these was found in the Oregon papers, one in the Sacramento papers, and one in all the other papers. (This could actually be broken down still further; the Salem papers received their text from one of the Portland papers, for example, and the text that went out to New York was derived secondarily from the San Francisco text, but that gets beyond what is necessary for solving this particular puzzle.) The thing is there were three more or less independent branches to this particular textual tree. If two of them agree against the third, there is a strong probability that those two represent the correct text. And in this particular case the Sacramento and Oregon branches agreed against the Majority Text, making it clear that Captain Jack wore a woman's hat on this occasion, not a warrior's hat. (And in fact I later confirmed this through examination of independent accounts of the meeting, but that doesn't alter the significance of the textual analysis.)

The thing is that texts, whether they're being recopied or reprinted or whatever through the course of time, tend to become increasingly corrupt. Errors accumulate, and even when they're corrected, there is no guarantee that the corrections are in fact, well, correct. All that annoying apparatus that accompanies a decent edition of Melville or Shakespeare exists in the main to guarantee the purity of the text. It keeps the editors honest, and informs the reader of exactly what has happened over the course of time. Is what you're reading what appeared in the second quarto of Romeo and Juliet. or is it some editor's fix for an apparent misprint? Without the apparatus you don't know.

One of the most extraordinary textual feats of antiquity was the freezing of the Hebrew text of what Christians call the Old Testament. A group of seventh-century scribes, called the Masoretes, made an extremely interesting decision. They'd inherited a corrupt text, but rather than trying to fix it, they decided to quick-freeze it instead. Instead of correcting ungrammatical constructions, they called attention to them in commentaries running alongside the text. They made notes on how many words there should be in a section, where the center should be, stuff like that. The point of these notes, which some people have called arid and fruitless, was to provide a check on the text. They were in a way the medieval equivalent (though crude and superstitious) of a modern textual apparatus, and the result of this work was that they preserved an ancient text-type largely intact, as modern MS discoveries have shown.

By contrast the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which goes back to an independent text-type from the Hebrew, is a mess. Sad to say, some of this is the result of the efforts of a pioneering textual scholar, Origen of Alexandria. As part of his attempt to clarify the exact wording and sense of the Old Testament he set the various Greek translations side by side in parallel columns, something that would be of enormous use to us today, if only substantial portions of it had survived intact. What it actually did was make it easy to muddy the textual waters with eclectic texts, as readings could easily be transferred from one version to another.

The New Testament provides an even greater contrast. No textual care whatsoever was taken of the text by ancient and medieval scribes, and errors simply accumulated over time. Local text-types were eventually swamped by a single type, known as the Byzantine text, and a version of it, much later called the Textus Receptus (TR), became the basis for the first printed New Testament. A guy named Desiderius Erasmus created the text early in the sixteenth century on the basis of a handful of late manuscripts; for sections of the Apocalypse of John his basis was so defective that he had to use the Latin version, retranslating it into Greek. Many of the famous national translations, including the terminally ugly King James Version (KJV), are based on the TR.

Now as the years went by new manuscript discoveries, including the two oldest Bibles extant (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), as well as the work of many scholars, changed the picture considerably. Whole verses fell by the wayside as better manuscripts became available. 1 John 5:7b-8a (the Comma Johanneum) was one casualty, and John 7:53-8:11 (the Pericope Adulterae) was another. Readings changed. Scholars like Brook F. Westcott, Fenton J. A. Hort, and Bruce Metzger engaged in the Herculean task of evaluating thousands of pieces of evidence to establish the best and purest text possible with the material available.

But not everybody has been happy with the results of their patient conservative efforts. Some people actually resent it. One of my fellow house-denizens, for example, burst out in a tirade the other month about how textual criticism was anti-christian—this in response to a comment I'd made about textual criticism and Mark Twain. There is in fact a not-inconsiderable movement against text-criticism, at least as far as it applies to Sacred Writ.

Actually, that's not quite the case. They may call it the "curse of textual criticism", but they can't get out of it that easily. There's no text available that didn't involve some sort of textual criticism—the only real issue is over whether it's done poorly, or done well. If you go with the TR you're using a text thrown together out of a half-dozen late manuscripts. If you go with say Nestle-Aland 27, you're using a text based on literally thousands of manuscripts, versions, patristic citations, and that is entirely transparent, since it tells you exactly where a particular reading comes from and what the alternative readings are.

So from this perspective, at least, these guys aren't so much anti-textual-criticism as pro-bad-textual-criticism. The reasoning behind this is convoluted, or rather, there is no reason behind it at all, just pure emotion. And for the most part it comes from attachment to a particular translation.

I've expressed elsewhere (though apparently not on the internet) my dislike, contempt even, for the King James Version. It is a poorly-written committee-driven hack job, devoid of style or class, except where expressions have been stolen from earlier translations (Tyndale in particular). To borrow an expression from one of William the Bloody's friends, listening to it is like having a railroad spike driven through your head. Still, some people like it. Hunter S. Thompson, the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century, for one. And Brother David Phillips of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Wedowee, Alabama, for another.

Brother David was kind enough to supply us with his five reasons for preferring it to more accurate translations: it is (he writes) a (1) pure, (2) preserved, (3) powerful, (4) plain, and (5) perfect book. Now Brother David seems to be using the words in a sort of Humpty-Dumpty sense, so we'll have to kind of figure out what he means as he goes along.

The purity of the text is guaranteed (he claims) because it is a translation from the TR, which he (wrongly) asserts is in agreement with 95% of all Scripture-related manuscripts. He claims (again wrongly) that modern translations are based on a text derived from only two manuscripts. "What does all this mean?" he asks rhetorically. "Simply this, the King James Bible is derived from a more accurate Greek text, not from 2 suspect texts of suspect origin. Therefore, the King James Bible is a pure Book!" He then goes on to extol the scholarship of the KJV translators—and in all fairness, it was pretty decent, for 1611. Of course their knowledge of Hebrew was extremely limited, and their knowledge of the koine dialect of Greek—in which the NT was written—nonexistent, but what can you expect? We've learned a lot in the four centuries since then. Still, apparently Brother David is impressed.

Okay, point 2—preservation. What on earth does he mean by that? The text of the NT, whether TR, Byzantine Majority, or Nestle-Aland, is derived from preserved manuscripts. The length of the preservation might be relevant; the TR and BMT are based primarily on very late texts, while the Nestle-Aland is based primarily on early, but no—it seems that Brother David has something else in mind. "God has promised to preserve His Word," he writes. But "Preservation is not present in any modern version!" Certain late additions to the text (Brother David explicitly cites Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7) that were mistakenly printed in the TR on the basis of a few late Greek MSS are no longer included in modern translations. But Brother David likes them. On the basis of this personal preference of his he claims "These are 2 pretty important verses and they belong exactly where the Lord put them!" Yeah, okay, whatever. He goes on to add a bunch of jibber-jabber about how the TR (which actually didn't even exist until Erasmus created it) was "Written on tanned animal skins" and "1 mistake on a page, destroyed. 3 in a book, whole book destroyed!" This is absolutely baseless, as he'd know if he'd ever actually looked at a Greek manuscript.

His third point—power. The King James Bible is a powerful book, he says. I assume by powerful he means it's a committee-written piece of Jacobean crap. But no, apparently he knows "the King James Bible has power because I have felt it and seen it at work in my life and in the lives of others. It is a powerful Book!!" So yeah, Brother David, you like it. I got that. Well, I like Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother." There's a powerful work, if you like. But I don't worship it, and I sure as hell don't confuse emotional appeal with textual authenticity or accuracy in translation.

Okay, number four—plainness. The only thing I get out of his gibberish here is that he thinks the King James Bible is written at a fifth grade level. Since I don't see how that's either a virtue or a fault, I really don't get his point. It certainly isn't that difficult to grasp for anyone with a working knowledge of Jacobean English; I don't know how many fifth graders are included in that group.

And finally, perfection. Again, he is using this word in some strange manner of his own. He picks several passages where he prefers the KJV translation—Isaiah 7:14, for example, where he prefers the KJV's "virgin" to the original Hebrew word meaning "young woman". I don't know what this has to do with perfection. Determining which translation you like best on the basis of personal feelings is all very well and good, but it doesn't really add up to much. It's just really not that persuasive, especially when the evidence is against you.

I probably shouldn't try writing this stuff when I'm running a high fever and "Amazing Grace" keeps playing in my head; I've somehow wandered way off the topic. And my hands are shaking so much I'm having trouble typing. Still, it beats lying down and feeling miserable, and I don't actually have to post the damn thing.

The point is, I just like knowing where my text comes from. If you want a translation based on the accumulated crap and errors of centuries, by all means use the King James Version or the World English Bible. I'm not going to join you, but I don't quarrel with your choice, if it makes you happy. Enjoy! The world is large. There's room for all kinds at the table.

But when it comes to hosting a good old-fashioned anti-American Halloween sacred book-burning and barbecue, my mind begins to reel. Is this actual news, or are fever-induced hallucinations kicking in? Apparently a certain pastor Marc Grizzard of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, is in such desperate need of publicity, that he's hosting his own holy holocaust, and all translations not based on the TR (as well as at least one that is) are going to be ceremonially burned, along with works by Metzger, Westcott, and Hort. And there's going to be music as well, a delightful variety of "country, rap, rock, pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, southern gospel, contempory [sic] Christian". No, they're not going to play it, they're going to burn it. Really, these are delightful people. And there will be words from the likes of Billy and Franklin Graham, Chuck Colson, and Mother Teresa—yes, you guessed it, also burned. It sounds like a lot of fun. If all fourteen members of his congregation show up, they can do a reenactment of the Last Supper, with a couple of spares.

And people wonder why Christianity has fallen to such low repute. Seriously, with people like Marc Grizzard, Fred Phelps, Jimmy Swaggart, Tammy Faye Baker, and Jim Jones as its representatives, it's not really surprising.

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