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Conservative Edit of Bible Follows Time Honored Precedents

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I don't know if it's real," my friend Laura said, "but some conservatives have decided to edit the Bible. I sent you the link." She started laughing, and I laughed too. Over the next few days more friends sent articles about the Conservative Bible Project. All asked the same question: Is this a spoof or is it legit? Andrew Sullivan, who linked the project subtitled his post: "Not an Onion Headline."

On the face of it, editing the Bible to remove liberal bits is ludicrous. It's makes liberals want to gloat and jeer and to point out all of the ridiculous ways the religious right works to rewrite history. It makes a lot of Christians cringe. Wrong reaction, from both. When conservatives squawk about the Bible having been twisted along the way by political bias, our first response should be -- they're right. My own guess is that they don't know how right they are -- or they might not have opened this particular can of spaghetti.

The Conservapedia team thinks that the bible was corrupted by political processes. What they don't seem to realize is that it was created by political processes. Bart Ehrman's book, Misquoting Jesus: Who Changed the Bible and Why, is about how the Bible got altered after it was assembled. That's the corruption part, and it is fascinating. But the Bible didn't take its current form until a series of Fourth Century committee meetings. It couldn't get corrupted until somebody negotiated what was in and what was out. These meetings had winners and losers, and some of their decisions were argued about for centuries. Even before the meetings, before a "Bible" existed, it was shaped by politics because the community that created the Bible was shaped by politics.

In the early centuries of Jesus worship, there wasn't one Christianity; there were several -- all competing with each other in a marketplace of religious ideas. Some Christianities believed that to be a true follower of Jesus one had to convert to Judaism and keep the law. Some believed Jesus was so divine that he wasn't human, but simply a deity assuming human form. Some believed that he was an eon, a being from another order sent to rescue human-shaped beings with a hidden spark. These Christianities are now called heresies by the winners, but at the beginning each perceived all others as heretical.

It is no accident that the winning Christianity was the form of belief in Rome, the seat of the empire. The church is Rome had access to money and trade routes and eventually the emperors. Hence Roman Christianity became orthodoxy -- "right belief." It became "catholic," meaning universal. It became the parent of literally hundreds of Protestant Christianities and grandparent to American variants like Pentecostalism, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Evangelicalism. (Tangent: If you like Rush, check out this trippy video of religions including Christianities splitting off from each other.)

One political factor at play was that for Christianity to claim the empire it needed to assume a form that was compatible with empire. It needed to be hierarchical, able to accommodate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and willing to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. No hair shirts in the wilderness and vegetarianism. No getting the tip of your willie nipped and foregoing pork and seafood. No pacifism or generalized abstinence. No giving away that second shirt or practicing communalism. All of these are forms that Christianity has taken, and they just never managed to capture the mainstream. When in Rome, do as the Romans.

So come back to the Conservapedia guys. At first pass, they seem tremendously naive. They appear to know little about how ancient texts get analyzed and authenticated by modern scholars. (See lower criticism, higher criticism.)* But in their unsophisticated and brazenly ideological approach, I think they hit gold. They struck to the heart of what a sacred text has been ever since humans began writing down their ideas about gods: a living document, shaped by competition among cultures, ideas and power structures. I say they should run with it.

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*Biblical scholars these days rely on linguistics, chemistry, and a host of minutia to make best guesses about when and where a text was written and the number of authors. For example, the kinds of idioms used give hints about the native language of the writers. Cadence can tell us whether the words were originally handed down via oral tradition. Ink and paper qualities can help to date a manuscript or identify a forgery. We now know, for example that most of the New Testament books weren't written by their assigned authors, and that they actually reflect the competition among First Century Christianities.