What did it say? Does it matter?

What did it say? Does it matter?

Inerrancy is a high standard for anyone to claim. Without error. One single slip in the smallest detail and the adjective is revoked. Most of us struggle to write an inerrant tweet, but I was trained up to believe that the entire Bible we read is perfect… free of human corruption and reliable in every word, adequate to hang doctrine and all decisions of life.

In the Answers in Genesis statement of faith, they attest that the Bible’s “assertions are factually true in all the original autographs”, which is a newly-common phrasing among believers. By “original autograph”, they mean the very first copy… the papyrus pages that the authors composed their work upon. This caveat allows for errors or problems to be blamed on corruption of the original text by centuries of scribes making copies of copies of copies.

This week I was listening to Bart Ehrman debate Craig Evans on the question “Are the gospels reliable?”. While by no means the most pointed or significant evidence presented in the talk, a particular section dealing exactly with manuscript variations caught my ear.

I wanted to dig in deeper to the Biblical scholar’s argument, so I’m taking you along for my ride. Here is what was said by Dr. Ehrman, along with my own interjections.

The following view is the view of skeptics — that we don’t have the originals, we have only copies, and that thousands of copies have thousands and tens-of-thousands of mistakes.

And this is also the view of non-skeptics. It’s the view of every scholar who works in this field.

Everybody agrees we don’t have the originals, we have thousands of copies, and the thousand copies have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of differences among them.

Are any of these differences important?

An excellent question.

Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her”? It’s a wonderful and familiar saying of Jesus, but it’s based on a scribal variation that is an error. It was not originally in the New Testament gospels.

Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more?” Well, does it matter whether Jesus said it or not? Turns out, it’s only in a textual variant. It was not in the original New Testament.

Page NB (52) of Papyrus 66, a codex of John’s Gospel from about AD 200, illustrates the omission of the Story of the Adulteress from early manuscripts.

Both of these quotations are from the tale of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, though the problem section begins at 7:53.

I memorized this book in seventh grade in the NIV version which bears the disclaimer, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” This bothered me even then, but I was merely a lad and my leaders were unfazed by this problem, so I went along.

The first manuscript to contain the story is from around 400 C.E., nearly 300 years after the believed date of John’s authorship. In the codex shown here, the end of the second line is verse 7:52 and “again Jesus spoke to them” is the third line, which is now 8:11. The apocryphal story became wedged in-between these lines in subsequent manuscripts of the ninth century.

The 7th chapter is not the only place this tale has shown up uninvited. In 4% of the Greek manuscripts where the story is included, it is located in completely different chapters or even in different gospels. Perhaps anywhere the papyrus had blank space, like a doodle a savior might allegedly sketch in the dirt.

It seems clear the continued inclusion is due to tradition, the warm narrative and catchy Jesus sound-bytes, rather than textual confidence. It is not material penned by the writer of John. See more here and here and here.

Did Jesus say, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes in me and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not will be condemned”? It’s found only in a textual variant.

Ehrman is referencing Mark 16:9-20. The professed ending to that gospel is considered by most scholars to be a later addition because it is a) omitted in the earliest complete copies of the Bible (around 350 AD); b) also missing from groups of later copies; c) has stylistic changes from the rest of the book, and d) there is a second completely-different, alternate, forged ending on other manuscripts.

It seems some scribes didn’t think verse 8 was a suitable ending, so they appended their own fan fiction. See here and here and the NIV footnotes in the link above.

“These are the signs that will accompany those who believe. In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them. They will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Does it matter if Jesus said it? It certainly matters to the Christian groups in the Appalachian Mountains who practice snake handling as part of their worship services.

This quotation is from the same added-ending portion of Mark 16, so see the above.

If you’re not familiar with snake handling, it is a practice where modern church-goers literally reach into a swarm of venomous snakes during a worship service and gratuitously handle the reptiles to prove their faith. If the handler is bitten and dies, then they fail the faith test.

The primary supporting scripture is a forgery, which doesn’t seem to be the most crazy aspect of the risky animal interaction.

Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer or just half of it, as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read.

I assume Ehrman is comparing the Matthew and Luke accounts of the most quotable of all passages, the Lord’s Prayer. The Luke version is indeed significantly shorter, relative to the length of the passage. This difference is obvious to any reader in any translation… though he is right that both accounts cannot be inerrant transcripts. (The fact that the prayer would have been spoken in Aramaic, not as written in Greek, aside.)

In the context of a textual variant, the only notable one I could find is related to the doxology at the end of the Matthew version. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” is not found in the oldest Matthew manuscripts nor in any Luke manuscripts, so was likely added by a scribe in the 4th century. See here and here and here.

Some hypothesize this phrase was borrowed from 1 Chronicles 29:11-13. This would keep the addition from being heresy, but lend evidence to skeptics who notice that the New Testament is largely a loose retelling of Old Testament tales… in the spirit of The Force Awakens refreshing A New Hope.

Or do other textual variants matter? Does it matter whether the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes close to teaching it directly is 1 John 5:7 and 8, “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one.” Does it matter if that’s in the New Testament?

Perhaps it would be surprising to the average pew-sitter how little scriptural evidence there is for the idea of a father, son and holy spirit as one being. It is certainly never taught directly, as is done confidently from modern pulpits. However, the audience of a debate such as this would probably be aware of the monotheistic machinations made to reconcile the disparate and vague ideas in the Scriptures.

But in the context of doctrines resting on manuscript variants, I assume he is referring to the fact that most modern translations of 1 John 5:8 say “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” rather than “the father, the Word and the Spirit”. This obviously weakens the best Trinity evidence.

Does it matter whether the Gospel of Luke teaches a doctrine of atonement or not? The view that Jesus died for the sake of others. It depends on a textual variant.

For those who don’t speak Christianese, the doctrine of atonement is the teaching that the specific purpose of Jesus’ death was to pay for the sins of mankind. This is a core tenet of the modern Christian faith.

However, the book of Luke is silent on this sacrificial suicide mission, save two verses Luke 22:19-20. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'” If you’ve been in a protestant church for communion, you’ve heard them.

Unfortunately, as the NIV footnote tells us, “some manuscripts do not have given for you … poured out for you.” Without those phrases, the reason for Jesus’ life and death is a mystery. Paul’s letters let us know that this idea was very much in dispute in the early church. No wonder a well-meaning someone might want to put clarifying words into the messiah’s mouth to advance a particular theology.

Does it matter if Jesus was in such agony before his arrest that he sweat blood? It’s found in only a single textual variant the Gospel of Luke.

When I was a kid, clergy and family members would trot out Jesus’ physiological response in Luke 22:44 as a point of science proving Biblical claims. A condition called hematidrosis was documented in the 1960s as a very rare condition in which a human sweats blood. This discovery seemed very affirming.

However, one need look no further than the NIV footnotes for scholarly consensus that “many early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44.” The condition may be based on reality, but this spectacular Jesus claim likely is not.

Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs and pages were left out by some scribes?

Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text said?

Does it matter that there are some places where we will never know what the original author said? Does that matter, or not?

These claims are a little broad for analysis here, but I trust that the above examples are evidence of what is meant. From his decades of scholarly work, Erhman famously attests in his book “Misquoting Jesus” and numerous lectures that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

That’s a lot.

Many evangelical scholars claim that it doesn’t matter, but I don’t believe them because these scholars devote their lives to studying the Greek manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter?

Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter?

It does matter.

Is the Bible a trustworthy reliable guide? If so, what if we don’t know what it originally said?

For some people, these facts don’t matter. And if you’re one of them, well and good. But if you’re someone for whom this does matter, then I would urge you to start reading and start thinking about the gospels of the New Testament as critical scholars have described them.

When I was a fundamentalist believer, accepting the reality that portions of the modern Bible are little more than “best guess” would have been beyond devastating. How many sermons did I sit through micro-analyzing the subtleties of specific wording? What was the point when the wording the sermon rests upon is interpolation, not inspired original?

And it gets worse.

The earlier you go to look at the manuscripts, the more differences you find. The earliest copies have the most mistakes. What would happen if we found copies that were still earlier? The only evidence we have is the evidence that survives, which suggests that in the early periods of copying there was the most mistakes made. How many were made the first month? Or the first year? Or the first decade? How many mistakes were made in the copy of the copy the copy which served as a copy of all the copies that we now have? We have no way of knowing.

None of this is likely to change anyone’s mind, as it takes no evidence to assert that God was looking after His word during those early centuries, even if for some reason He wasn’t taking the same care later on when we could watch.

For me, this is just more fuel to the fire that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of writings imagined by men, edited by men over centuries and falsely propped-up by men who collectively know better. There is no mark of the divine.

Do these facts matter to you? Or is having the basic general gist of the instructions for your eternal destiny good enough? Let me know in the comments.

Prophecy or Easter Eggs? Jesus’ Secret Origins.

Prophecy or Easter Eggs? Jesus’ Secret Origins.

Since starting this blog, a number of people have pointed me toward fulfilled prophecy as evidence of a divine element to the Bible. A link to 353 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ here, a pamphlet on 100 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus there, and here and there and there. It is the implied assertion that such levels of foresight can be best explained by supernatural intervention.

In my senior year of high school, I memorized the book (yes, the whole thing) of Matthew. I recognized that this particular gospel was clearly written with the express purpose of convincing a Jewish audience that Jesus was the messiah they were waiting for. It is littered with sentence fragments quotations from the Old Testament that mirror or parallel some aspect of the story. Even though I devoutly believed all of it, I remember  looking up some of the passages in the footnotes and thinking “that’s quite a stretch”. It was one thing to squint skeptically at the Bible Code folks, but who was I to question the connections made by authors of the scripture?

Evaluating Prophecy

Last fall, I had the chance to hear and meet Matt Dillahunty, who recently laid out criteria by which prophecy could be objectively evaluated. To be considered a falsifiable prediction, Dillahunty suggests it must be…

  • made clearly and demonstrably prior to the events predicted
  • intended to be a prediction
  • an extraordinary, non-mundane, claim
  • answerable by a single clear occurrence
  • not open to interpretation
  • not something people are actively working to fulfill

This is a good place to start when considering the relevancy of the entries in the left-hand column of any prophecy-fulfillment table.


As I intend to stay primarily within the confines of the claims of prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, I’m willing to concede that all of the proposed predictions found in the Old Testament were made before the time of the New Testament.

However, if we were talking about the prophecies of the book of Daniel, as but one example, we would need to look at the scholarly evidence that the book was produced after-the-fact or ex eventu. Perhaps another entry for another time.


When my high school self would raise an eyebrow to the legitimacy of a prophecy, it was generally on the grounds that the original context seemed like anything but a prediction.

For example, John 19:24 claims that the casting lots for Jesus’ garments “happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, ‘They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.'” The author quotes Psalm 22:18, and that chapter is David’s lament about his own personal circumstances, with no future-looking language. Verse 17, immediately prior, says “all my bones are on display”. Is the lack of Jesus’ skeleton presentation a failed prophecy?

It gets even more dubious when one looks at the longer lists that have been compiled. One claims that routine instruction about body disposal is a crucifixion prophecy, that a Passover meal recipe indicates that Jesus would suffer no broken bones, and that a prediction of Jesus being killed outside of a city comes from sacrifice regulations that insist “hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up” in the very same sentence. Was Jesus set on fire?

Non-Mundane Claim

Just this morning, I saw an article predicting that Apple would come out with an iPhone 7 in 2016 with improved hardware and unspecified new features. But as Apple has followed this pattern for years, should we by surprised by this analyst’s insight?

I could (and do) proclaim that the Unites States will one day elect a woman as president. This has never happened before, so it must be extraordinary, right? But as my prediction is open-ended, it does not require success for Hillary. It seems inevitable that such a thing will eventually happen in the remaining few decades of the U.S.A.’s existence. (Now there’s an ominous and more specific prophecy.)

Christians like to point to “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) as evidence that end times are nigh. But in what year, day or hour of history has there been an absence of war and rumors of war? (Though, research suggests “we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence“, which doesn’t help those looking over their shoulder for an imminent second coming.)

Similarly, famines and earthquakes in various places, setting foot in a temple, being hated without reason, and being thirsty don’t seem to be guesses with supernatural insight.

Single Fulfillment and Interpretation

In order to be clear and compelling, a prophecy would need to be uniquely fulfilled by one-and-only-one person or event, and without being subject to interpretation.

Most of the fulfilled Jesus prophecy lists I investigated actually included “born of a woman“. That applies to literally every human in history, so is the most egregious example. But other claims like being Jewish and having sibling rivalry don’t narrow things down much either.

Other passages require significant interpretation by the reader to evaluate, as the claims are obfuscated. For example, Isaiah 8:14 predicts “for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.” Did Jesus actually fulfill this? How? Can anyone say for sure as a compelling proof?

It’s interesting to me that the best literature about why Jesus is not a fulfillment of these Jewish prophecies comes from devout Jews. Interpretation is everything.

But Were They Actually Even Fulfilled?

While my devout younger self was concerned only about the legitimacy of the alleged predictions, the more recent version of me is much more interested in the claims of fulfillment.

Few Christians I know would attempt to make a case for prophecy fulfillment on the strength of any one prediction or another. Rather, it is the convergence of so many fulfillments that is meant to be compelling as evidence of the supernatural. There’s a reason these lists are so long and reserve a spot for “born of a woman”.

Allow me, for a moment, to reminisce about one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future (BTTF). If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall the dramatic ending when all is shown to be well with the now-rich-and-happy McFly family, but the celebration is cut short when the DeLorean pulls into the driveway and a yellow-clad Doc jumps out. He insists that Jennifer and Marty must help him intercede in lives of their future children. Written in 1983, how could the first BTTF have possibly predicted that 1989’s BTTF2 would show exactly that?? Marty had to travel to 2015 where his son was about to get in big trouble with the law. But the predictions didn’t stop there as BTTF2 showed how a second Marty was actually at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance all along, dipping and hiding in a way exactly consistent with the first film. There are simply too many connections to call it a coincidence. Either the writers of BTTF1 had help from a divine power, or perhaps they actually had a working time machine to see the future movies.

Or remember in The Empire Strikes Back when Lando told Luke that they would rendezvous on Tatooine, and then they DID in Return of the Jedi? And Boba Fett was already there, having delivered Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt just like he said he would. And there was another hope, Princess Leia, just like Obi-Wan said in the previous movie. How could the writers of Empire possibly have made such accurate predictions about movies that hadn’t been created yet?

But wait, you say… the writers of Return of the Jedi had seen The Empire Strikes Back when they wrote it, and would have wanted to answer any questions posed in the earlier work in their sequel. And the creators of BTTF2 could watch and rewatch every minute detail of BTTF1 to orchestrate the events of the follow-up movie to make it joyously seamless. They were even famously begrudging that the first movie ending forced them to visit the future, but keeping the established continuity gave them no choice.

And so it was with the writers of the gospels, creating sequels to the incredibly popular Old Testament. Some forty years after the death of Jesus, the writer of Mark sat down to write the first gospel. He wasn’t overly concerned with prophecy. He didn’t include a single word about Jesus’ prophecy-fulfilling birth, rather starting the story with the Savior’s baptism as an adult. (The author of the original Mark manuscript didn’t mention a resurrected Jesus either. Oopsie.)

When, decades later, the writer of Matthew wanted to punch-up Mark for a Jewish audience, he knew he’d need to address the established messiah canon. Matthew’s Jesus would need to be from the line of David, born in Bethlehem, called out of Egypt as a child and yet be from Nazareth.

The writer of Matthew solved the lineage by opening with a selective genealogy weaving from Abraham through David to Jesus’ step-dad, Joseph. (Full disclosure… I didn’t memorize that part.) Then in the next scene, Jesus’ parents were somehow just living their lives in Bethlehem for the prophetical birth. In order to check off the Egypt box, the writer created a massacre of infants by Herod (such a horrific event is not hinted at in any other secular or Biblical record) to send the protagonists into hiding in the land of grain-silo pyramids. After some time there, the family could be sent to Nazareth to line up with Mark’s account. And just like that, the author wired in prophecies fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the writer of Luke was also independently trying to connect some prophetical dots with his rewrite of Mark. After an all-new scene introducing baby John the Baptist, the writer fabricated a census (see my previous post) as an excuse to maneuver Joseph’s family from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But then the three simply go back to Nazareth when the census ends. I guess Luke didn’t remember that Egypt prophecy. Lucasfilm has continuity editors for this kind of thing.

As the gospel writers spoke Greek and the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, it is actually a Greek translation — called the Septuagint — that they referenced and quoted, not the original. Quirks in the translation can reveal places the gospel writers were changing events to match prophecy as they misunderstood it.

In Matthew 21, the writer had Jesus precociously and ridiculously riding in to Jerusalem straddling two donkeys in order to fulfill the prophecy, “your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” from Zechariah 9:9. But the original Hebrew version doesn’t say “and on a colt” to reference two beasts, it uses just “on a colt” to further describe the single donkey. John 12 corrected this error.

More controversially, the doctrine of virgin birth may well have been fabricated whole cloth after mistranslating Isaiah 7:14 to read “the virgin will conceive and give birth” when the Hebrew is more naturally “the young woman will conceive and give birth”. (Compare all the English translations for yourself, for degrees of honesty in deference to tradition.)

In each call-back instance, one has to ask… is it more likely that the Old Testament divinely predicted the New, or that the New is a human-contrived sequel to the Old?

Enough for Now

For all of the reasons above, and more, I do not find the argument that Jesus was the fulfillment of dozens or hundreds of prophecies to be compelling. But even if I am fully wrong on this point, it would do little to prove the supernatural claims of the Bible.

Do you disagree? Do you find the prophetical claims to be convincing? What am I missing? Please let me know why in the comments.

Post-Op – Part One

Post-Op – Part One

The day before any travel plays out much the same for me, driven by multi-column lists. Things to buy, things to pack, media to load, devices to charge, email to send and colleagues to prepare for my absence. If it is air travel, there is the added dynamic of an off-typical mandatory wake up time that takes my body into some kind of high-alert mode that prevents anything but the shallowest of sleep.

And so it was on January 5 as I prepared for my 5-7 day trip, a mere 20 minutes away to Foothills Medical Center. I had been told to expect a 7:30 a.m. arrival time, so when the promised confirmation call requested I check in at 5:15 a.m., I couldn’t help but think of many airport-opening flights I’d taken to places I didn’t want to go to do things I didn’t want to do. My impending cancer surgery was on par with a logistics meeting in Michigan.

My parents came to town to assist me through the process. We made great time and found plenty of parking, as one can do at 5 a.m. I felt naked leaving home without keys, wallet, glasses, laptop or phone, but soon enough they had me literally so… swimming in a “gown” that I knew would be tossed aside the second I wasn’t able to object.

The nurse who settled me in expressed her pleasure that some of the 7:30 surgery patients had been called in early so that they could stagger our processing. Um, 7:30? I had been summoned two hours early to accommodate paperwork. Lost sleep so that I might sit in a row of beds and stew for hours about what my body was about to endure. They allowed only one visitor to this point, so my father knowingly distracted my tension with points of interest about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I attempted to align this with Lincoln’s role in The Hateful Eight, a historical drama I had seen just a few days prior.

After visits from my oncologist (who marked my cancer-filled hand with a Sharpie), plastic surgeon, reconstruction surgeon, and anesthesiologist, I was walked in to the operating room. It seemed massive to my eyes, maybe 1000 square feet fully adorned in stainless steal. In the center was a metal-slab bed, illuminated with a rock-show of spotlights. If this were a spaceship, it would definitely be the probing room. At least a dozen people were working feverishly, and a few were introduced to me for reasons I couldn’t understand — like having the restaurant patrons chat with their steak-providing cow before dinner in Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The minutes staring at the sun-like bright light above me (undoubtedly designed to facilitate near-death experiences) seemed endless as I listened to buzz and chatter, a mix of the mundane and medically relevant. But that was a mere instant compared to the eternity the oxygen mask was held forcefully over my face while I was to remain calm. It took everything I had to not wrestle it away and…

I woke. My eyes darted right. My arm was there. My hand was there, though I could not see it through straps and dressing. My mind sent the instruction to strum. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 fingers… at least phantom ones. Tears of relief. I wanted water.

I woke. “Mr. Ens, can you slide over to that bed?” I saw a bed to the right and understood what was being asked. I attempted to put my weight on my right arm. “He can’t slide over!” another voice scolded. “It’s ok,” I assured the bodiless voices, “I can do this.” I slid over.

I woke. Pain. Holy %#$@ &#@%@ %#@%. What is this pain? “Mr. Ens, we have you on morphine. On a scale of 1 to 10, what number is your pain?” I started to say ten, but then the voice of comedian Brian Regan played in my otherwise empty consciousness. “I had heard that the worst pain a human can endure is getting the femur cracked in half. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, they have exclusive rights to ten.” Nine, I corrected. “Then I thought no… childbirth. Can’t compete with that.” Eight, I settled.

I woke. My parents were there. They explained that they had been called half-way through my surgery with the news that they were confident that all of the cancer had been cut out of my armpit site and hand site. Tests were run while I was open to ensure that the outer edges of the removed portions were cancer-free. The tendon to my longest finger had to be removed, but I was fortunate enough to have an extra tendon going to my index finger, so the vestigial one was moved over and stitched in. Plan B had been to transplant an extra from my right leg. (I would notice the next day that they had shaved my leg and marked my foot.) The total surgery time had been longer than expected… six hours.

I was aware that my brain was not formulating coherent thoughts, but I was clear on the time and the morphine schedule. I could get a new bag for my IV every three hours, if I asked for it. Between my noisy roommate (Hank, who I believe may have introduced himself to me earlier) and the staff parade, I had reason to check the time pretty often and morphine math came easily.

At some point that first night, I was alert enough to assess my situation. There was a tube coming out of my side with outgoing fluids. The receiving container was pinned down, limiting my shoulder movement. My right arm was wrapped abundantly from fingertip to elbow and was perched upon a tower of three blue hospital pillows. Any attempt to move that shot a sharp sting of pain to my back, like a whip. My left arm was slightly more free, but there was an IV line taped down to the back of my hand. This was connected with a short hose to my morphine machine. Lifting my head revealed that an oxygen tube was wrapped around my face and anchored in my nostrils. My left leg was wrapped in a tight brace that contracted and released at regular intervals — I would learn that this is to prevent clotting from immobility. Last, but not least, a bit of a hip wiggle was enough to confirm that I had another tube in me to handle outgoing fluids. I did not investigate further.

My reconstruction and plastic surgeon team showed up for rounds at 7 a.m. and I saw a bit of my hand for the first time. They cut a hole in the dressing, and puffing out like a Seinfeldian muffin top was a bit of flesh that I did not know as well as the back of my hand. Each doctor and resident took turns touching the exposed balloon of skin, and each nodded and made approving noises. I couldn’t feel any of it, but they were very pleased with the temperature. I tried touching the area and it felt cold to me. They assured me it was great.

IMG_3665blurThey reviewed what had happened to me for the second half of my surgery. After migrating a tendon and hooking up my finger, they took a hand-size circle of flesh from my forearm — still attached, blood vessels and all — and moved it to cover the area of my hand that had been removed for cancer. A graft of skin from my thigh had been taken to cover my forearm site.

A few hours later, I had my first confinement freak-out. No one was around to see it and I got myself under control without tearing out any tubes, but the checklist of obstacles to freedom became my new mission. Over the course of the morning, I got my fluid collector pinned to me instead of my bed, got the oxygen requirement lifted and convinced a nurse to pull the catheter (easier out than in) with the sworn promise that I would take four walks before day’s end. Just 22 hours after surgery, I was standing on my own, peeing into a screw-on-lid collection vessel. (I’m told this was for measurement purposes, not posterity.)

It was at that time that my nurse freaked-out at the site of the empty venti Starbucks cup sitting beside me. During pre-surgery chemotherapy, my parents brought me Starbucks coffee each morning, and the tradition had continued. My vigilant caregiver was scrambling to notify a doctor. “You can’t do that!” she kept repeating, and finally, “Caffeine restricts the vessels and can cause transplant rejection.” I quietly told her it was decaf. Instantly she went from code-red to all-is-calm and let me be. I never ask for decaf, but I did that morning, hoping to spend as much of the next few days sleeping as possible. Good thing.

The rest of the day passed with visitors and morphine. As much as I wanted to be free of the rolling IV poll, the pain was still too much to leave it yet. But by 3 a.m., I figured out that the cause of the most intense pressure was the swelling in my hand. A call-out to my doctor team got me switched to an anti-inflammatory pain med mix and by morning, I was ready to ditch my IV.

I must have been quite out of it the first day, because several caregivers introduced themselves with, “We met yesterday, but you probably don’t remember.” Each of the four rounds of doctors seemed impressed with my status and started talking about sending me home. Having been warned that I would need to be in the hospital for 3 to 5 days for infection watch, this was an welcome possibility and I pursued it.

The only obstacle was my need for a custom splint that would immobilize my fingers and wrist while avoiding the graft site on my arm. This was early Friday morning and the heavily-booked occupational therapy team that performs this task doesn’t work weekends… it was today or wait until Monday. My team of doctors and nurses were excellent advocates and got the reluctant craftspeople (and their entourage of bulky equipment) squeezed into my tiny room within a few hours, and I gladly sacrificed time with visitors and the emptying of my bladder to get it done.

While my mind was on the complicated logistics and precision sequencing that would be needed to don clothing, my nurses were bombarding my parents and I with instructions on wound care, pain medication, drain management and follow-up bookings with various teams. A stack of papers and bags of home care supplies at the ready, I wove a shirt onto my body with contortions matching a catburgler dodging laser security. Pants were less an intellectual exercise and more one of balance and pain tolerance. And a father willing to do up that final button.

Ready or not, I was in a vehicle headed home.

(Without exception, every doctor, nurse and staff-member at Tom Baker Cancer Center and Foothills Medical were talented, articulate, caring, concerned, helpful and accommodating. I owe them much thanks. As I do to my mom and dad, but more on that next time.)

The Greatest Retcon Ever Told

The Greatest Retcon Ever Told

It is common fodder to tease the brother-sister kiss of Luke and Leia in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, but at least part of that embarrassment is owed to the fact that the episode was written before George Lucas decided upon their sibling lineage. This plot point was added in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, restoring some connection to early drafts where Luke and Leia were one-and-the-same character. Years later, the births of twins Luke and Leia would be depicted in Revenge of the Sith, adding to the narrative. Flash forward to this winter, and the world is abuzz wondering if either Luke or Leia may be the parent of Rey, who is in possession of a lightsaber lost in ESB (spoilers, not sorry).

Star Wars is a great example of a story that has taken shape over many years, with multiple contributing authors, and liberal revision to existing chapters to smooth consistency. Watched anew today, the seven episode saga would appear to tell a smooth, well-planned tale of the Skywalker clan, even though it was anything but during the process of creating it.

Moses – Great Writer, Bad at Directions

When I was a lad, my parents schemed to force me to pay attention during church by sitting in the front rows where Pastor Carl Ens could call on me from the pulpit when my attention wandered. He was a tall, gentle, intellectual man whose confidence and soothing voice was quite authoritative to my formative self. So, when he assured me without hesitation that Moses was the author of the start of the Bible and that God used the time together on Mount Sinai to personally relay pre-historical event details, I believed it.

As an eager Bible college freshman, I earned my way into the then-upper-year Pentateuch course. An entire semester covering the first five books of the Bible — those historically credited to Moses’ hand — and Dr. Ken Schamuhn spent mere minutes on the first day on the topic of authorship. I was too enamored by his style and credentials to notice.

I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for accepting Mosaic authorship on authority. It took until around 1200 A.D. for historians to seriously question how Moses could have written about his own death, or brag that none like himself arose in the years after his passing.

It was during my quest to find scientific evidence for a literal reading of Genesis that I stumbled upon JEDP — the Documentary Hypothesis.

A Patchwork Quilt, Not a Solid Duvet

I would encourage you to research for yourself, but the basic hypothesis is that the current Five Books of Moses (also known at the Pentateuch or Torah) were created by an editor(s) combining four separate source documents — each unique in geography, vocabulary and theology.

Even a casual reading of the Torah shows doublets in the text — duplicated stories that are too similar to be separate events, but each version with detail variations and a different thematic take. (Think of all the Batman origin variations you’ve seen from dozens of comics, to Tim Burton’s Michael Keaton Batman, to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, to TV’s Gotham.) Examples include the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, two instances of Abraham telling a king that Sarah is his sister, two tales of Moses getting water from a rock, and more.

Within the doublets, it was observed that in many cases one version uses the divine name Yahweh while the other uses Elohim. After dividing the stories based on deity designation, a significant consistency of vocabulary, emphasis and style was found in the individual parallel versions.

Alphabetic symbols were attached to each proposed source. “J” for the document using Yahweh / Jehovah, “E” for the document using Elohim / God. Additional documents “P” (concerning priestly matters) and “D” (Deuteronomy) were identified.

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Dissecting chapters, sections and sometimes side-by-side verses (and a few stitches here-and-there from the unknown consolidating editor), these JEPD documents can be reconstructed with little controversy. Each source is coherent and internally consistent as separate entities.

So What?

The modern protestant Biblical canon already consists of 66 books written by dozens of anonymous authors over the course of centuries. Taken alone, it should make little difference to anyone’s faith to learn that some chapters were order-shuffled, reorganized from four books into five and written by a committee.

But for me, fresh from having scientific evidence collapse my long-held belief in the literal truth of the Genesis creation and flood, my apologetic defenses were down.

How many revisions could a book go through and still be divinely inspired? What role did this “R” editor play? Was it really just copy-and-paste, or was there editorial manipulation? Were the edits divine?


J and E – The God of Regional Rivalries

One advantage to the church espousing Mosaic authorship is that it makes the writer a witness and contemporary to the events described. If Moses died around 1400 BCE (there is no consensus date range for this, a topic for another post), the J and E sources were written centuries later and with seemingly less authority.

In the detailed and scripturally-reverent Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Elliott Friedman explores the consensus view that J and E were written during the time when the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were split and before reunification. “This would put the author of J between 848 and 722. The author of E composed in Israel, which stood from 922 to 722 B.C.”

More disturbing to me than the time gaps were the human agendas that emerged. In J and E, the political causes, viewpoints and prejudices of their particular half of the split kingdom are more than subtext. Each account takes up opposing sides in north / south regional feuds — molten vs plate metallurgy, Levitical culpability in creating idols, team Joshua vs team Aaron, heroic cameos for Judah-mascot cherubs, to name a few.

Friedman reflects, “The ark does not appear in E. The Tabernacle does not appear in J. This is no coincidence. The stories in the sources treat the religious symbols of the respective communities from which they came.”

A devout Bible-believer has no problem forgiving subtle human bias as part of the inevitable flavor consequence of a God-man joint project. But to a skeptic, this sounds more like ancient propaganda than inspired literature. So far, this is a very human product indistinguishable from secular writing.

Origin Story – Polytheism

Despite the differences, J and E are obviously too similar to not come from a common tradition. For that, we must jump back around 500 years to the clay tablets alphabetic cuneiform describing the Canaanite religion, found in Ugarit, Syria and dating back to before 1200 BCE.

Among the many gods worshipped in Canaan were El Elyon (whose name means “God Most High”, father of the other gods), Asherah (El Elyon’s wife), and Baal (god of storms and fertility).

In Genesis, Abraham is said to interact with El Shaddai — one of the names for the Canaanite god, El Elyon. After physically wrestling with El Elyon, Jacob makes him his “elohim” — the Canaanite term for one’s “primary god”. This makes sense only in the context where Jacob believes in multiple gods, and is choosing El Elyon as his primary.

You may recognize Elohim as divine name used by the author of E.

J establishes his primary deity, Yahweh, a great warrior. J’s polytheistic language survives into modern translations. He asks “Who is like you among gods, Yahweh?” and “Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all other gods!”

Modern translations show Israelites turning their back on “God” to worship of Baal and Asherah, almost immediately after God’s great display of power in freeing them from Egypt. This makes much more sense when one imagines a polytheistic culture where war is over (thank Yahweh), and it’s time to get to the business of making babies with the fertility gods. Different gods for different seasons, not rejection.

All Hail the God of War

When Assyria sieged the northern state of Israel around 750 BCE and put the nation in upheaval, three prophets arose — Isaiah, Amos and Hosea — who pleaded with the Israelites in their texts to return to devotion to war-god Yahweh above the other gods, that they may be saved. (Spoiler: Israel fell anyway, but J and E were combined for the first time under this Yahwist influence.)

Enter King Josiah around 622 BCE, who also held that the Hebrews’ problems stemmed from a lack of Yahweh devotion. It was during Josiah’s temple renovation that the book of Deuteronomy (D source) was “found” under conveniently dubious circumstance and declared a lost book of Moses. In it, a strict adherence to Yahweh is established, while rejecting worship of other gods.

Much like Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as Rome’s official religion catapulted that faith, sweeping reforms were made when Josiah declared Yahweh the official deity of Israel and all other gods were abolished.

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In response to Deuteronomy, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were revised according to the new Yahweh-exclusive theology. The tales of the exodus from Egypt in J and E were added to, and revised, to make them Yahweh-centric.

Josiah and his scribes were not yet monotheistic. They believed in other gods, as they wrote passages like “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Welcome to Babylon

In 604 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II rose to power in Babylon, and he was bent on destroying Israel. Interest in the protection from Yahweh, god of war, was renewed. The author of the priestly P source emerged, adding a second half to the book of Isaiah and finally completing the long evolution to Hebrew monotheism with This is what the Lord says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.”

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In the world’s ultimate retcon, the El Shaddai worshipped by Abraham and the Yahweh worshipped by Moses were merged to be the same god with multiple names.

Almost as significantly, the conquering Babylonian creation story — as found in the 1750 BCE Enuma Elish — is somewhat scrubbed for monotheism and appended as a brand-new first chapter of the Torah. The creation of the world from something formless and void was kept from the Enuma Elish tradition, as was the specific creation ordering of light, firmament, dry land, the sun and moon and ultimately mankind.

Until this time, Genesis 2 was Israel’s only recorded creation story. The culture had been relatively free of Babylonian influence. Suddenly, ancient Babylonian origin myths were adopted by the conquered and were canonized.

The P source was thorough in crafting a coherent monotheistic narrative from the four sources. It was 600 BCE, and no earlier, that Old Testament monotheism was born.

Yahweh Shot First

The holy book I believed in wasn’t revealed. It wasn’t written. It was manufactured. Edited. Borrowed. Cherry picked. Periodically updated like a piece of software with bug fixes requiring new terms and conditions to accept.

The details of these hypotheses, particularly specific textual alterations, cannot be conclusively proven, only pointed to with evidence. However, all claims would be easily falsifiable by archeology… even tiny scraps of the disputed texts dated to before the years presented above would do it.

For me, it was enough to see that the only evidence I had of an unchanging god was an unquestionably often-changing book. Rather than taking it at face value, going forward I would require positive evidence to regard the Bible as anything more than a collection of bronze age propaganda… at best, legends that grew over time.

Despite my decades of Bible training, this information was new to me. Perhaps it is to you? Or perhaps you already knew all of this and have reconciled it as theologically unimportant trivia? Let me know in the comments.

Perhaps you doubt it all and are skeptical of these claims? Perfect! You should be. I am but a layman barely scratching the surface. I would strongly encourage you to investigate for yourself, and let me know in the comments what evidence you find. (Much of the information above came from “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong and “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Richard Elliott Friedman, with graphics from Atheism: A History of God by evid3nc3.)

Or perhaps you think J.J. Abrams’ time travel device in Star Trek was a bigger retcon? Or erasing the events of the bad X-Men films with X-Men Days of Future Past? Or perhaps the establishing / deestablishing / reestablishing Joe Chill as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents? Let me know.

I’m just sad we now have that pan flute instead of the 1983 “yub nub” Ewok song at the end of Return of the Jedi. (Celebrate the love.)