Friday, 21 February 2014

Evolving Bible! It All Adds Up!

I found this cartoon by Ruben Bolling on PZ Myers' Phayingula blog the other day. Apart from wickedly satirising the absurdity of Bible literalism, it illustrates another neat little point that hopefully also embarrasses Bible literalists. It shows us how the current version of the Bible came about by an evolutionary process.

The particular piece of Bible nonsense I'm referring to here is from Ezra 1:5-11.

Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.

Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods; Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives, Thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.

All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.

I wonder just how many people will read that passage and not actually add the numbers together to see if there really were 5,400 vessels? Let's be generous and exclude the twenty-nine knives and assume we really are counting the vessels, in this case the chargers and the basons.

This gives us 30 + 1000 + 30 + 410 + 1000 = 2,470 vessels, not the 5,400 claimed.

So what's gone wrong here.

To understand that it helps to remind ourselves how the Bible got copied before there were printing presses and mass production. You couldn't just go down to the book-shop and buy a perfectly reproduced one, identical to tens of thousands of others produced in that print run.

Each Bible had to be hand copied from an earlier copy. This was done by scribes - in later times normally by specially trained monks working in scriptora attached to monasteries which specialised in this work, each laboriously copying from an earlier copy which was itself a copy of an earlier copy. The monks did not even need to be able to read what they were copying; they just needed to be able to copy what they saw, and in many cases, the ornamentation of the page was almost more important than the accuracy of the text. Monks were chosen to work in scriptora for their artistic ability and their skill at producing an illuminated manuscript, not for their ability to read and write Latin written in a Medieval script.

In addition, before the Bible was translated into local languages - which was done around the time of the printing press when it became worthwhile making lots of copies for a local mass market - it was either written in Latin in the West or Greek in the East. The Latin version was itself a translation of Greek and the Greek versions of the Old Testament were translations from Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Which brings us to the Book of Ezra, originally written in Hebrew.

So, during this long process, spread over hundreds of years, it's not surprising that the odd error crept in. In fact, it would be astonishing it they hadn't. A monk only needed to write 5 instead of 2, or to write 1,000 instead of 2,000, 30 instead of 300, etc, and quite quickly you have monks making careful, laborious copies of the wrong numbers. Errors could also have come in during translation.

Any error-checking would be even more tedious and error-prone than the original copying and it would have been error-checking against an earlier copy, complete with its earlier errors.

One of my hobbies, as I mentioned here some time ago, is transcribing old birth, marriage an death indexes for the web-based FreeBMD charity. I copy as faithfully as I can exactly what I see, even though some of it sometimes looks like an error (though I add a note to those). I then error-check my transcription, almost always finding a few errors which I correct before submitting it to my syndicate where software checks for, and occasionally finds, a few more common errors before it goes into the FreeBMD database. Yet I still get requests for corrections when a user finds my transcription doesn't match another transcriber's copy, no doubt produced with the same attention to detail as mine was.

Can you see where this is leading?

What we have here is:

  • Inheritance - books are copies of earlier books.
  • Imperfect replication giving variation - mistakes of translation and/or copying and an imperfect error-checking process.

What we don't have is differential favouring of those varieties by a selective environment, otherwise we would have a perfect system for Darwinian evolution by natural selection to happen, although we could well have had that in earlier times, especially when the documents were being selected for inclusion in the Bible, or earlier were being selected to support the prevailing dogma of whatever sect was selecting them. Documents were selected based on how well they matched existing dogma, not on how accurately they had been copied or translated.

What we do have, however, is a perfect system for evolution by random drift. Which copies the copyists chose to make their next copies from would have been a random process. A new monastery would have taken a few Bibles from it's parent monastery, complete with their accumulated small errors made over the centuries, and made almost perfect copies of them, complete with their accumulated errors plus a few more they had added as time went on.

Then, when it came to making, say, the official King James Version, the books the translators translated would have contained a random selection of copying errors accumulated over time. Even if they had managed to see much earlier copies, they could not have seen the originals since they had long-since disappeared. This is why there are so many differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and modern Bibles.

And so the modern Bibles have evolved by a natural evolutionary process, as we can see in Ezra 1:5-11.

I wonder if anyone would like to work out the minimum number of replication errors it would take to get from an original document which didn't have those obvious errors to the one which now does. Remember, you can change the values as well as the total.

Of course, if any Bible literalist wants to tell me there are no errors in the Bible because every copy ever made has been perfect, exactly how God inspired/wrote it and written by a divinely-guided hand, then I'll need an explanation of why God appears not to be able to do simple sums.

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  1. Rosa, I'm a big fan of you and your blog.
    Being curious, I checked the Hebrew version of Ezra and its commentaries.Guess what, the bug was already there. Probably this is why all Jewish scholars who wrote commentaries on this part, explain it means 'all the vessels including golden and silver ones'.

  2. The meaning of "All the vessels of gold and of silver" looks fairly clear to me. I don't think anyone doubts that, if you change the words in the Bible you can make the errors go away.

    How many copies of Ezra were made before the one you saw was written, do you think?

  3. Nobody knows :)

    However, there's one undoubted difference: the Hebrew version only mentions one additional sort of vessels, 'replacement', counting 29.
    According to that, the Hebrew version totals for 2499 parts.

    1. That's probably the 29 'knives' I excluded because they're clearly not vessels.

  4. Right, I see some scholars explain those as knives.
    Anyway, as for "All the vessels of gold and of silver", the consensus b/w them is "all aforementioned and others not aforementioned".
    They obviously had to introduce some twist to excuse the addition bug.


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