There Were No Stenographers

A page from an ancient Greek New Testament manuscript sits next to a page from a modern New Testament, with a question comparing them: "How did we get from this, to this?"
How’s your oral history hygiene?


Those who believe that their New Testament is an accurate translation are fooling themselves, even if they are able to read it in the “original” Greek. Every gospel is paraphrased. Neither Jesus nor any eyewitness to his life sat down in his generation and put pen to paper. Believers are trusting the memories of illiterate fishermen (they would never tell tall tales, eh?). Jesus died around 30 AD; between 70 and 90 AD the gospels were written as compilations of oral histories. Christian doctrine is based on the illusion that believers have an accurate version of an anciently written document. But that is only an illusion.

Traditions about Jesus, who died circa 33 AD, spread by word of mouth (i.e. as oral history) in Aramaic for four decades until Greek scribes began writing it in 70 AD. Literacy in the ancient world was a vastly different situation than today. Most people of that time had no need for the literacy skills we take for granted, such as the ability to read and write and the possession of tools for doing so. Even when writing was mastered, it took a very different form than our modern written languages.

Narratives have always been with us, but there was no precision possible in recording them. Important events remained in cultural memory over generations but without the kind of modern accuracy claimed by Christians for their bible doctrines. Until the printing press and mass distribution of literature those narratives were molded by the bias and faulty memories of oral historians. Even after printed pages captured narratives, the accuracy of history always suffers from the creative imaginations of history writers.

The “sacred history” known as The Gospels are the only source of direct information about Jesus, and they are not direct sources, not firsthand, not eyewitness, not recorded real time, as in court reporters and sketch artists. The sources were second and third-hand stories subject to the fallible memories and biased opinions of believers. And to fill in the blanks between those stories, the gospel writers used motivated reasoning and educated guesswork.

Modern justice systems strive to obtain accurate evidence; they have determined that eyewitness testimony and human memory are not to be trusted. An accurate record of a person’s actions requires a literal video recording. Even then, we rightly wonder whether the video or audio was altered. Courtrooms record official proceedings in many ways, including professional stenographers, who are able to read back any portion of testimony at the judge’s request.

Ostensibly, the life and teachings of Jesus are much more important than any court records. Believers claim that Jesus literally determines the fate of every human being’s eternal soul. They claim their gospels contain “Truth.” And yet, their God seems to be unworried about inaccuracies, forgeries, biased imagination, or people just creating stories about him out of whole cloth. Remember, if your God is omniscient then he had to know that he was initiating the written portion of his message during a part of history before accuracy became possible.

So, two thousand years later, there are no original manuscripts written by anyone who created the anthology which is the New Testament. What we have are a telephone-game-like collection of copies of copies of copies of copies, handed down through hundreds of generations. The bias of copyists is well documented, and the examples of additions and subtractions from the manuscripts are legion.

Ancient Christians copying the Greek manuscripts had mixed motivations, the same as everyone. They strove for the accuracy to which they were pledged, but they were heavily biased to use their personal beliefs to inform their definition of ‘accuracy.’ In that very human process of hand-copying old stories, changes were made.

The claim Christians make today is that all these inevitable errors and biases were miraculously prevented by the Holy Spirit. This is their only way to claim biblical accuracy. They enlist the Holy Spirit like the Wizard of Oz with his misdirection (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”), but such hand waving cannot pass modern tests for accuracy. There is no accurate way to know the literal words used by Jesus or his disciples. The idea that there is a way to do that is the Wizard of the Holy Spirit.

If your faith is in any way based on getting accurate interpretations of the ancient biographies of prophets, priests, kings, and messiahs, you are deluded by Christian misdirection. There were no stenographers monitoring Bible characters’ lives, speeches, or events. The stories that made their way into the gospels did so through the imperfect memories of biased believers motivated to speak well of their Savior in word-of-mouth hand-me-down narratives.

When I accepted Christian writings and traditions at face value, I could believe that a divine power guided the memories and hands that recorded them, infusing them with an otherwise unattainable accuracy and truth. This is what I understood when I called scripture ‘sacred’. The Bible was ‘holy’ because it had been miraculously preserved down from the original writings through copy-making, translation, and finally into the printed word. This, I understood, was divine ‘inspiration,’ and it put God’s message to his human children into written form with accuracy.

I did not believe these miracles of inspiration because of any proof or evidence, for none was ever given; I was simply told that it happened that way, and Christians should believe it.

My faith in this teaching faltered when I stopped accepting what I’d been taught at face value, and gave attention to the problems in the writings themselves apart from claims of their divine origin. When you give ‘divinely inspired’ scripture a plain, common sense critique, you commit what Christians call heresy. It’s the worst crime against God, because it leads you to reject your belief in him. That’s what happened to many ex-Christians like me.

We looked behind the curtain of the Omnipotent Wizard and found a fallible man.


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