It is said that ‘the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. One is painfully aware of this when reading Dickens or Austen — as characters have to worry about plague or propriety in a completely different way from us. But if the past is a foreign country, what about documents from past foreign countries? They can be doubly difficult to decipher.
The Bible is clearly in this latter category, as it was written long ago over the course of 1,000 years, with stories about plagues in Egypt, captivity in Babylon and battles in Palestine. Approaching the original text is something that most of us rarely do. We pack our would-be ministers off to college to learn Greek and Hebrew so that we don’t have to. But it’s worth having a look at the original Greek and Hebrew text (to say nothing of the Aramaic bit in Daniel). And, thanks to the glories of the web, you can see the first complete Greek manuscript at the http://www.codexsinaiticus.com which dates from around 350AD.
Reading the parchment
When reading the original text on the parchment, the distance between the inspired author and ourselves seems vaster than ever. We know that the stories are timeless and have resounded with billions of people throughout history, but critics and sceptics of the Bible like to enlarge the distances between ourselves and the author and sow as much doubt as possible. After all, they say, these are the writings of primitive people who did dreadful things to each other in the name of their god, and so basing your life on these texts is a very foolish thing to do.
One thing they like to jump on is the lack of vowels in Greek and Hebrew scripts, giving rise to all kinds of ambiguities, they say, even though one wonders exactly hw mny vwls r rlly ncssry. I don’t know why vowels were deemed optional in ancient far off places (come to think of it, Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up with vowels and could use a few more). But they omitted vowels for reasons that seemed perfectly obvious to themselves at least.
Other ancient civilisations were more literal and drew pictures — hieroglyphics and the like. It seems so distant from our remote way of communicating with each. We use letters and words, vowels and consonants. We’re not primitive thugs who go round drawing pictures for each other and pointing (pointing and underlining being well established as techniques in Pictionary). We’re sophisticated 21st-century folk with laptops, 3G mobile broadband. We blog, we surf, we post, we link, we click, we comment, we tweet, we text, we update our statuses (stati?) and occasionally talk to each other on the phone.
But, as we do these activities, we gawp at videos, link to funny pictures and make faces our of punctuation. Hieroglyphics could never have bargained on such a comeback! I can convey joy 🙂 or cheekiness 😉 or gasping surprise 😮 with these little pictures. I can also save time and space by texting or tweeting v shrt mssgs with dozens of missing vowels and using all kinds of abbreviations. Almost enough to make you LOL. Broadband and 3G give us more bandwidth than we know what to do with, and yet we still compress everything (BTW, 3G= Third Generation Mobile, FYI).
Not so strange
Suddenly the Codex Sinaiticus isn’t looking quite so strange. IMHO, we are still primitive people who continue to do dreadful things to each other. We need to be rescued from ourselves and in the Codex are the very words of God himself, who wants to be known. Ignoring the Codex, then, really is a very foolish thing to do.