Diverse Bibles, God’s Unforgiveness, Bad and Good Waters

1. Martin Jan Mulder, “The Transmission of the Biblical Text,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 101.

Kahle was moved to his criticism by studying the finds of biblical fragments in a geniza (=storage room) of a synagogue in Cairo, which had been built in 882 C.E., and was rebuilt in 1890. This led to the discovery of the ‘hidden treasures’. From the geniza appeared numerous manuscripts of the Bible, and also of other religious and liturgical books. Some of the biblical manuscripts, which can be dated in or even before the ninth century, occasionally show considerable divergencies from our present MT. In rabbinic literature, too, deviations from the MT occur in biblical quotations, just as in the Ancient Versions. According to Kahle, there was not at first a single text of the Hebrew Bible, but there existed several Vulgartexte. Kahle modelled his hypothesis on the (Aramaic) targumim, which had also circulated in different forms. He claims that during the first centuries of the Common Era, one of the said Vulgartexte was rewritten in such a way that an official text could grow out of it.”

There are several manuscripts and quotations of the Hebrew Bible in antiquity. They have a lot of similarities, but they also have differences. Conservatives do well to point out that the biblical manuscripts at Qumran match the Masoretic Text to a great extent. But there are also differences between certain Qumran manuscripts and the MT, particularly concerning the Book of Jeremiah.

Conservatives and others like to use textual criticism to discover what the text originally said. But is this even possible, when the transmission of the biblical text may have been rather fluid up to a certain time?

What effect do different versions have on the Christian faith? There were biblical authors who obviously had a problem with variance in texts, for the authors of Deuteronomy and Revelation command people not to add or subtract from their books (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:8). At the same time, if memory serves me correctly, Jerome asserted that both the Septuagint and the Hebrew text were inspired, even though he was aware of their differences.

Bart Ehrman is a liberal scholar who makes a big deal about differences among New Testament manuscripts. Conservatives usually retort that the differences are mostly orthographic (spelling) and do not demonstrate significant discrepancies on the important stuff, such as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Personally, I don’t think that the existence of different manuscripts compromises the big-picture stuff, such as the character of God, which includes his love, justice, righteousness, etc. The Bible itself presents variety in terms of laws. Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel have differences in the precise details of their legal stipulations, but all of them acknowledge God’s holiness and goodness. So I guess I’m a big-picture man.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 426.

Tertullian held all mortal sins (of which he numbers seven), committed after baptism, to be unpardonable, at least in this world, and a church, which showed such lenity towards gross offenders, as the Roman church at that time did, according to the corroborating testimony of Hippolytus, he called worse than a ‘den of thieves’…”

The NRSV of I John 5:16 states: “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one–to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.” The NRSV calls a sin unto death a “mortal sin.” I wonder if Roman Catholic Church believes that its conception of mortal sin is the topic of I John 5:16. Most Protestants apply that passage to the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will not be forgiven (Mark 3:28-29 et al).

From what I can see in its catechism, the Catholic Church holds that mortal sins–sins “whose object is grave matter and is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent”–can be forgiven (1856).

For my daily quiet time, I’ve been reading the Koran (Do I hear gasps?). Here are some quotes about God’s forgiveness, from Ahmed Ali’s translation:

“God does accept repentance, but only of those who are guilty of an evil out of ignorance yet quickly repent…But he does not accept the repentance of those who continue indulging in evil until death draws near and they say: ‘We now repent’…” (The Women 17-18).

“God does not forgive that compeers [=equals] be ascribed to him, though he may forgive aught else if he please” (The Woman 48).

In these quotes, God doesn’t forgive intentional sin, nor does he care much for death-bed repentance. And God’s also not too eager to bury the hatchet when people say other beings or things are equal to him.

I don’t know what the full ramifications of this are. After all, many of the first converts to Islam were formerly idolaters. Would Muhammad say that God forgave them because they acted in ignorance?

On some level, the Koran is getting its idea about God’s forgiveness (or lack thereof) from the Bible. Numbers 15:22-31 says that those who sin unintentionally can offer a sacrifice and receive forgiveness, whereas the people who sin high-handedly get the death penalty. Such an attitude carries over into the New Testament, which refers to God’s mercy on the ignorant. This includes people who killed Jesus (Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17; I Corinthians 2:8), persecuted the church (I Timothy 1:13), worshipped idols (Acts 17:30), and committed a host of other sins (Ephesians 4:18; I Peter 1:14). But Hebrews is clear that God does not forgive those who fall away or “sin willfully” after knowing the truth (Hebrews 6:4ff; 10:26; 12:17). Even in the New Testament, there’s a view that says God forgives unintentional sins, but not intentional ones.

Where that leaves me, I have no idea. I find that I do sin with the knowledge that the Bible disapproves of my act. Lust is a big example. But do I know the full ramifications of what I’m doing? How ignorant am I when I sin–of the inherent goodness and rationality of God’s standard, for example?

This last week, I encountered a woman on the bus who was worried that she had blasphemed the Holy Spirit. She seemed pretty composed for a person who believed she was going to hell, but her story was this: she asked God for a billion dollars, God said no, and she cursed him and “prostituted herself.” Now, according to her, she’s ugly, and her significant other has left her. In her mind, the curse of God is upon her.

I told her that, if what she did (e.g., cursing) was unforgivable, then everyone is going to hell. She nodded her head and proceeded to confess Bible verses silently to God. I thought I was a failure because I didn’t give her the usual evangelical spiel on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which I have problems with (see Matthew 12:22-37: Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit). But maybe I wasn’t a failure after all. Even if she thought I was from the devil and trying to deceive her, I got her praying, and that’s a good thing!

I wondered why Jesus even uttered his statements about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, since they have led to the emotional and spiritual abysses of many Christians. But I think that Jesus gave them as a warning, not to kick people when they’re down. I’m not sure if he was saying that the Pharisees had placed themselves beyond the realm of God’s mercy, since he later asks God to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing. But when the Pharisees attributed Jesus’ works to the devil, Jesus may have been saying, “You’d better watch what you say! You don’t want to put yourself beyond the realm of God’s forgiveness. And you are on the verge of doing so right now!”

I’m not sure if the passages about God not forgiving people are meant to discourage us from repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness, whatever we have done or however knowingly we did it. God forgives his prodigal children, after all! But they may be designed to make us watch ourselves–to make sure that we’re not in a position where God cannot reach us. If we are so rebellious that nothing God does will bring us to him, then we may very well be on dangerous ground.

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 191.

“From the beginning of creating the world, God foresaw Moses, who was called ‘for he was good’ {Ex. 2:2), and [God foresaw that] Moses would receive his punishment on account of [water, smiting the rock for water, rather than merely speaking to it], ‘For it was not good.’…Along these same lines, the Holy One, blessed be he, said, ‘Since the water will punish the generation of Enosh, the generation of the flood, and the generation of division, therefore let the words ‘for it was good’ not be written with regard to water.”

Neusner is quoting Genesis Rabbah. In Genesis 1, God calls most of his creation “good” after each day of creation (except Day 2), but he does not explicitly say that about water. I remember Professor Jon Levenson pointing that out in a class that I took at Harvard. At the time, I assumed this was because water in Scripture and the ancient Near East is often an enemy of God. It represents chaos, which God has to subdue to restore the natural order. Jon Levenson discussed this in Creation and the Persistence of Evil, and Bernard Batto (a professor of mine at DePauw) did so in Slaying the Dragon.

In Genesis 1, God calls everything he had made “very good,” after he has created all the heavens and the earth, of course. But did God create the waters? In Genesis 1:2, they are around before God says “Let there be light.” God mostly arranges the elements that already exist: darkness, the water, etc. So were these things co-eternal with God? Some scholars think so. Armstrongites, of course, would posit that there was another creation before the one in Genesis 1, explaining why there was water before God commanded light to appear.

What’s interesting is that the rabbis point out that Scripture praises water on a few occasions. Psalm 93:4 says that water praises God, and there are passages in which God commands and restrains the waters. For the rabbis, Neusner argues, nature is obedient to God, whereas human beings usually are not. This resembles sentiments of Islam and Clement, who say that nature is naturally subservient to God, whereas humans have to yield to him from their own free will.

Maybe. And yet, we all know there’s a lot of brutality in the animal kingdom! Christians usually attribute this to the Fall, which disrupted the goodness of God’s natural order. But God points out to Job that his creation can be pretty strange, so maybe the bizarre things in nature are all part of the plan!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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