Open Bible

Scripture And Cultural Evolution

I often wonder how much the intended meaning of the texts regarded as sacred scriptures has been lost or distorted through the process of translation.

Let’s face it, none of the books of the Bible, for example, were written in English. The English language didn’t exist at the time they were written. In fact, none of the scriptures of the world’s major religions were written in English. We’re all reading translations, and as someone who is bilingual, I’m acutely aware of the pitfalls of translating ideas expressed in the words of one language into the words of another. Word choice is everything when it comes to conveying what the translator understands as the meaning of the words being translated.

And, how many of those ancient texts have lost their significance through the evolution of ideas since they were written? To be honest, I suspect we need to be open to the possibility that all of them have suffered some loss of significance, and some of them more than others.

From my perspective, it’s arrogant to regard scripture as the inerrant word of God. That’s a claim. Not a fact. All scriptures, not only the books of the Bible, were written by mere mortals – whether we believe they were inspired or not. 

Scripture can be said to be the word of God only in the sense that it was authored by people imbued with the divine essence of being – people like you and me, and every body else on the planet. From that perspective, you could rightly claim that every written text is the word of God, including this article. But that’s not what those making the claim about scripture being the word of God intend. Their intention is to justify their beliefs and behaviour. Their intention is to make them right and you in need of conversion.

If you care to read the English translation of your scriptures, it’s not difficult to appreciate that their authors, and subsequent translators, were influenced by the cultural norms and knowledge of their times – and we’re talking about authors writing under the influence of world views from several thousand years ago.

But, in case you haven’t noticed, there have been a few changes here on the planet since Adam was thrown out of the Garden, Moses was wandering around in the desert, and Paul was penning his letters to the Corinthians. Quite a few changes, in fact, as any student of history can attest.

Cultural evolution is an on-going process. In the last century alone, we have witnessed tremendous cultural change and an explosion of knowledge in all fields of study, and that’s on top of the advances made in the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Talk to your grandparents about how things have changed over their lifetime if you need a little more insight into what I mean. The scope of the change has been breathtaking for those of us who have lived through it.

Scholars assign the writing of the most recent books of the Bible to the first century CE or the first century AD for those still using the old terminology. That means they are two thousand years old, and they’re the most recent books in the collection. Think about that for a moment. What do you think those authors would make of our world? I’m guessing they’d be somewhat confused and more than a little surprised that we’re still reading their words.

Now think about the advances in medical science in your lifetime. If you suffered a heart attack, would you want to be treated by a doctor trained in one of today’s medical schools or by one relying on the medical knowledge written down by his colleagues in the time of Augustus Caesar? I’m guessing you’d choose the doctor who washes his hands and uses sterile equipment, modern anaesthetic, and antibiotics – the doctor using the latest medical science.

We could work through examples from every field of knowledge but I’ll spare you the tedium. I’m sure most of us would prefer to work with practitioners employing the current best practices of their field and not with those relying on the practices their predecessors used in the Middle Ages or before.

Okay, I acknowledge there are some exceptions in the fields of several manual arts, like calligraphy, for example, but even modern calligraphers, who employ the same skills as their predecessors, use metal nibs and acrylic inks, and modern scripts. But, in the main, our world is very different to the world of our scripture writers.

So, why do some of us insist on claiming the truth can only be found in their translation of scriptures written thousands of years ago? From my perspective, there’s a level of arrogance in making that claim, and perhaps a little insanity. We’ve stopped relying on the ideas and knowledge of the ancients in many fields, yet some of us still insist on the reliability and accuracy of the knowledge of the writers of ancient scriptures.

We do not look at the world in the same way that the authors of the books of the Bible and other ancient sacred texts looked at the world in their time. We have different perspectives. We know, for example, more about our place in the universe, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and our obsession with space travel. The writers of the Old Testament thought God lived in the sky above the clouds – up where the International Space Station orbits.

There is truth in scripture, but it’s not literal truth. Scriptures are teaching stories. They were written by people of faith or by people wanting to codify beliefs and behavioural norms. They are products of their time and they are not the last word on anything. They’re out of date and often make little sense to modern readers.

It’s arrogant to think any scripture contains the inerrant word of God or that God stopped speaking to or inspiring people some time in the first century CE. 

Only those who want to limit what you believe make that claim, and you are not obliged to listen to them. You don’t need their permission to question their assertions. You only need a little courage and the willingness to discover new answers to age old questions.

God speaks through many voices and in many languages. As someone who makes space for the divine and asks questions, I’ve come to realize that God speaks to all of us – and not only through the words of scripture.

Peter Mulraney is author of Mystical Journey and My Life is My Responsibility

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash