Thursday, August 03, 2006

Armageddon: Bible literalists got it wrong

The recent events in Israel, Lebanon, and the Mideast have stimulated media coverage on the subject of eschatology--the End Times, Armageddon, the Rapture, and the Second Coming. Media Matters reported:

On July 31, Paula Zahn Now featured a segment on "whether the crisis in the Middle East is actually a prelude to the end of the world," marking the third time in nine days that CNN has devoted airtime to those claiming that the ongoing Mideast violence signals the coming of the Apocalypse.

MM has more on the ravings of Tucker Carlson on the subject.

For an enlightened take on the Apocalypse, in What's the Matter with Jesusland?, Rev. Irene Monroe illuminates:

I agree with my neighbor that America is at an End Time, but for different reasons. The nation has not been so polarized since the Civil War. Bush's win has politically realigned the Old Confederate South. We are at a nadir with respect to religious plurality and tolerance. We have confused prejudice for moral values, and we have hearkened back to an era of anti-intellectualism, pre-Enlightenment, where the theories of creationism are played in oppositional discourse with those of evolutionism.

And while America tramples into foreign lands to obliterate the terrorism fueled by the religious rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists like al-Qaeda and Sunni hardliners, America fails to look into its own backyard to see the deleterious effects of its tyranny of Christian fundamentalism.

End Timers say the Real ID Act sets up the mechanism for the "mark of the beast" mentioned in Revelation 13. The Book of Revelation! Oh, for God's sake. Here we go again with the Biblical literalists' error in promoting an interpretation of a translation based on faulty ancient manuscripts that in no way offers us the truth about God or the teachings of Jesus. Why do Christians still rely on a book littered with mistakes when they have access to God directly for instruction and inspiration moment-by-moment in their lives? Do they think God is dead, deaf, or mute? I believe that God is a Living Presence that still speaks to us if we but listen.

Johann Albrecht Bengel, a German Lutheran minister and professor, acted as the Hal Lindsey and the Tim LaHaye of the 1700s. He believed that the end of world would occur in 1836. He was wrong! It's now 2006 and we're still here on the planet nearly 200 years later. Numerous people have erroneously prophesied the End Times and they were wrong too. Televangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson foretold that "the world would end in the fall of 1982." See! What did he know? Amazingly, the Armageddon myth persists.

Citing MM on "a CNN Harris interactive poll back in 2002, almost 60 percent of Americans think that the end of the world, as predicted in the Bible's Book of Revelation, will happen, and 17 percent believe it will happen during their lifetimes." Such poppycock has stubbornly endured for centuries and indeed has caused some dangerous implications for the future of American democracy, the impact of global warming on the environment, U.S. foreign policy, the economy, and our stability as a nation. Like extremist Muslims who terrorize and murder in the name of Allah, radical forms of wacky doodle Christianity may inadvertently kill hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands (or worse!) of our most vulnerable by deferring responsibility for the health and well-being of our citizenry to an imaginary Rapture that never happens; by abandoning sound ecological, social, and fiscal programs deemed unnecessary due to the presumption of an impending Armageddon. If we don't take action to minimize these virulent, destructive forms of Christian theocon influence in American politics before it's too late, we may not avert the nightmarish results of an aggressively zealous and extreme aberration of Christ's teachings that GOP strategist Kevin Phillips outlined in his book, American Theocracy. You think I'm joking? So far, this summer's heat wave has killed more than 160 Californians--"greater than other, better-known natural disasters, including the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes"--and 12 Missourians. Between the unresolved energy crisis, the dismantling of government, the erosion of Medicaid/Medicare funding, VA cuts, the uninsured, the decline of a living wage, the aversion to science, and the effects of global warming, to name a few, it's irresponsible to think that more won't die in denial of the crises we face in being hamstrung by theocon fundamentalists looking for Jesus to return at any minute. Using the Bible as justification, particularly the Book of Revelation, leads into temptation to look the other way when so much is at stake. But worse, the Armageddon concept has been based on fallacious interpretations of the literalist's view of the Bible.

Bart Ehrman, who I earlier quoted on the textual changes altered to subvert the role of women in the church, writes (page 109) in Misquoting Jesus that 18th century apocalyptic Johann Albrecht Bengel (with emphasis):

. . .became disturbed by the presence of of such a large array of textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, and was particularly thrown off as a twenty-year-old by the publication of Mill's [1707 Greek New Testament] edition and its thirty thousand places of variation. These were seen as a major challenge to Bengel's faith, rooted as it was in the very words of the scriptures.

So Bengel set about to correct a multitude of errors. Only one problem, which needs repeating ad nauseum until people who rely on the literal words of the Bible finally understand--and that issue is there is NO original manuscript of the New Testament! Nada. Zilch. It does not exist! What we have are reconstructions developed over the centuries--not in Jesus' days or even in the decades that followed him--from thousands of manuscript copies, none of which match word for word. As textual scholar Ehrman explained (page 7, with emphasis):

I became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism, which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the original words of the New Testament were. I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes––sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don't have the originals! We have error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.

The New Testament apocalyptic prophesies and pervasive thinking that evangelical eschatalogists proselytize are based on errors!

I'll give you a few examples specifically from the Book of Revelation. Sometimes the scribal copyists made mistakes because words sounded alike and in Revelations 1:5, we have such a discrepancy where (page 93, Misquoting Jesus):

. . .the author prays to "the one who released us from our sins." The word for "released" (LUSANTI) sounds exactly like the word for "washed" (LOUSANTI), and so it is no surprise that in a number of medieval manuscripts the author prays to the one "who washed us from our sins."

OK, a quibble, "released" versus "washed," but the greater implication, which is true throughout the Gospels, is that you cannot take the Bible's words literally. Another more serious example from Revelation hails from Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who published an edition of the Greek New Testament in the 1500s (page 78-79 Misquoting Jesus):

For the book [sic] of Revelation he had to borrow a manuscript from his friend the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin; unfortunately, the manuscript was almost impossible to read in places, and it had lost its last page, which contained the final six verses of the book. In his haste to have the job done, in those places Erasmus simply took the Latin Vulgate and translated its texts back into Greek, thereby creating some textual readings found today in no surviving Greek manuscript. And this, as we will see, is the edition of the Greek New Testament that for all practical purposes was used by the translators of the King James Bible nearly a century later.

It is important to recognize that Erasmus' edition was the editio princeps [first published edition] of the Greek New Testament... ....became the standard form of the Greek text to be published by Western European printers for more than three hundred years. Numerous Greek editions followed... ...all those go back to the text of Erasmus, with all its faults, based on just a handful of manuscripts (sometimes just two or even one––or in parts of Revelation, none!) that had been produced relatively late in the medieval period.

Ha! The Book of Revelation in the KJV was based on faulty texts and yet we have Christian evangelicals hanging on its every word as it it was the absolute truth. Bleh! What a farce! The folly of Biblical literalism goes a step further in the Book of Revelation considering this historical anecdote. Because scribes and copyists did alter the texts, sometimes authors added warnings (page 54 Misquoting Jesus):

. . .authors would sometimes call curses down on any copyists who modified their texts without permission. We find this kind of imprecation already in one early Christian writing that made it into the New Testament, the book [sic] of Revelation, whose author, near the end of the text, utters a dire warning:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book; and if anyone removes any of the words of the book of this prophecy, God will remove his share from the tree of life and from the holy city, as described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)

This is not a threat that the reader has to accept or believe everything written in [Revelation], as it is sometimes interpreted; rather, it is a typical threat to copyists of the book, that they are not to add to or remove any of its words.

I remember hearing this scriptural admonition in church from preachers who cautioned that to ignore the words of the Book of Revelation would invite a trip to Hell and eternal damnation in the lake of fire. Did they know it was essentially a footnote? They didn't say. Check your Bible but I bet you won't find a reference that explains this particular text. At the Bible Gateway, the New International Version (NIV) carries the Revelation author's warning to copyists (as if readers should heed it as the word of God) as does the King James Version (KJV):

18For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

19And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Well, now. Since the KJV warns men not to add or subtract from Revelation, the irony of literalism exempts women, (praise, God!) from their adherence to the story of Armageddon, the Tribulation, and all the foretold plagues and destruction...I mean if we are to take the Bible precisely at its word, wouldn't you say? Ha! Celebrate, women of the world. We have been excused from the End Times and can delete the entire prophecy. Whew! What a relief! Such a terrible idea of God's atonement and judgment for the human species!

UPDATE: Hat tip to Jacqueline Keeler for her comments and link to this scary news: Lobbying for Armageddon by Sarah Posner.