Biblical minutiae warning! Run away if you don’t want it!
CNN published a somewhat crazy article on the digitizing of the Codex Sinaiticus, and I couldn’t let it go because, as much as I love having ANY aspect of Biblical scholarship get mainstream attention, the article strongly implied that this was some kind of WILD AND NEW AND CONTROVERSIAL version of the Bible that was going to SPLIT THE CHRISTIAN WORLD ASUNDER or some such nonsense.
Here’s the deal: It is genuinely cool that we get one of the earliest Syriac versions of the text in a digital format; it’s always best for scholars to get as close to the original source as possible. It’s also a triumph of cooperation, because the original parchments are owned by multiple museums and institutions and yay that we got it all put back together.
However, THIS IS NOT NEW. Biblical scholars have been able to work from the Codex Sinaiticus for at least 100 years. It’s in very wide publication and has been used in textual criticism for a heck of a lot of versions of the Bible. Having it in digital form will be useful for scholars like the ones that fill my parents’ table at holidays, because they’ll be able to look at the parchment and make sure that the word that’s been translated “bench” isn’t actually the word “fort” with an unfortunate erasure mark through it. So there will be some fist-bumping going on in a few professorial offices as somebody says “Dang it, I KNEW that had to be ‘fort’; that makes so much more sense considering that the wall is mentioned three verses down!” And who knows, publishing an article on how “fort” is clearly the right translation in that verse may get somebody tenure somewhere, and I’m all for that.
But is it controversial? Absolutely not. Is it going to change the way we look at the Bible? Except for some very isolated verses, almost certainly not. And, honestly, I can pretty much guarantee you that if someone DOES replace “bench” with “fort” in some future translation, it will almost certainly be put back to “bench” by the editorial board (editorial boards HATE surprises) and if you don’t read the 900-pg commentary that the translator wrote at the same time, you’d never know about the fist-bumping.
So there you go. The world goes on, despite having scanned copies of some Syriac parchments.
(By the way, if you want an example of words being changed by editorial boards, here’s a good one, which was told to me just yesterday while waiting for hot dogs to grill: Exodus 4:24-25 actually describes an angel of the Lord coming to kill Gershom, not Moses. The angel comes because Gershom has not been circumcised despite the fact that both Moses and Zipporah know well and good that he’s supposed to be. Zipporah admits their huge error, and quickly arranges a ceremonial circumcision. She cuts off Gershom’s foreskin and then touches it back to his (Gershom’s) genitals, and says words that are actually a formulaic prayer or blessing that is something like “You are part of my family by blood,” (she identifies him as a Hebrew and as part of a family that are Yahweh-worshippers), which is exactly the right thing to do. Thus Gershom is redeemed and the mistake is forgiven.
So it’s actually a story about a belated circumcision ceremony, specifically 1) How Moses is always reluctant to obey God, elements of which are present in most of the stories in Exodus – Moses is always telling God “OK, but later” or “OK, but are you sure?”, and 2) the fact that the Hebrews who have faith in God are going to be protected from the angel of the Lord. So these two little verses become a foreshadowing of the Passover AND it’s actually a beautiful little lesson of how God is merciful even if you screw up.
The way the passage gets translated in virtually all the versions is that the Lord is coming to kill Moses for some unknown reason, and to appease him Zipporah yells something creepy about him being her bloody bridegroom and throws their son’s just-cut-off foreskin at his feet. Which would indeed be VERY bizarre behavior.
The whole difficulty is in just a few words – “The Angel of the Lord” being translated as “Lord,” the fact that the Hebrew uses “him” and doesn’t use Gershom’s name and so a bunch of translators have substituted Moses’ name into the English translation, “feet” being translated instead of “genitals,” and in the “bloody husband” being confused with “family by blood.”
Translated correctly, sent off to the Holman Christian Standard Bible editorial board correctly, and the editorial board objected and the text was published with the same old “bloody bridegroom” line. Thus making my dad, who translated the whole of Exodus for them, ticked off. His commentary (buy it and my dad gets something like eighty-five cents! Woo!) has it correct (it’s around p. 150, for those who are interested).
So the Gershom circumcision is a story that has a TON of textual criticism. Some of it is made possible by comparing different codices and fragments but a whole bunch of it just careful, slow reading of the Masoritic Text, which was almost certainly originally brought back to Jerusalem (from Babylon) by Ezra in 458 BC.)
Even though I just spent 30 minutes writing that all down, I would bet you five dollars that if you aren’t a Biblical scholar you didn’t even know that story existed, much less that it had two slightly variant translations, and if you DID read it you’d probably just say “Huh, weird,” and skip on to the exciting stuff about let my people go, which starts in the next chapter. Your faith was not formed by the three or four words that are translated incorrectly, and it’s not rocked by the fact that now you have the more original wording. And that’s the way the entire Bible is, honestly; you can get a rich and fully formed and accurate education by reading the King James, even though it’s based on much newer/less original materials than the NIV, which is in turn a little less good than something like the HCSB, which will itself be eclipsed in twenty or thirty years when somebody knocks over a trashcan in the Vatican and a fragment of old scroll falls out. The stuff that changes when older texts or fragments are uncovered is the lace around the edges; the fabric of the story and of the truly vital parts has been incredibly faithfully communicated and the amount that is genuinely disputed is TINY.
So yay for the pictures of the Syriac, but please don’t think that any of the scholarly community, from Benedict (who is actually a very, very good scholar) to the Baptists, is actually startled by it.