Thursday, March 11, 2021
But what if it is actually real? What if, in spite the skeptics’ scorn, it actually is the honest-to-goodness, authentic item? What if it is the real McCoy? The implications are simply staggering. It could overturn everything we were previously taught, everything we have ever assumed. To say that it is an absolute bombshell might be an understatement, in fact.
So, what is the “it” to which I refer? I thought you might ask that.
Actually, I have more than one “it” in mind. The first it is something I read about yesterday while scrolling through the news.
The first it is a long-lost document — fifteen lost scraps of an ancient biblical text, to be more precise. The long-lost documentary scraps have even been given a helpful nick-name. The scraps are collectively known as V.
The New York Times ran an article yesterday about the potential rehabilitation of V, this long-lost biblical manuscript. V is (or was) a portion of the Book of Deuteronomy; but V was deemed a forgery by the British Museum back in 1883 and thus rejected as a part of their collection. After that, V was auctioned off. No one currently knows where V ended up. It has probably been lost to history. Nonetheless, while we regrettably no longer have the original V, we do still have helpful records about it. And very significantly, those records from the 1880s reveal that V was substantially different than the Deuteronomy available to you in your nearest copy of the Bible. “Bombshell” might be a total understatement. One likely implication is that the Bible we received might have been quite different, if only V had been recognized as authentic. Cue three dramatic notes here.
But the stodgy British Museum once dismissed it as a forgery. And since then, V has been largely forgotten. Until yesterday’s news drop, that is.
So interested news readers now have some questions to process, given the re-discovery and potential rehabilitation of V. What if V is or was actually real? What if, in spite of the skeptics’ scorn and the repudiation of the experts, it actually was the honest-to-goodness, authentic item?
From a theological standpoint, V amounts an interesting footnote, even if it can be proven to be authentic (which is next to impossible, given that it is lost). Even if V is authentic, it does not tell us anything more than what biblical scholars have long suspected: It tells us that our current version of Deuteronomy was once redacted. What does redacted mean?
A redaction is a literary work that has been subjected to a degree of revision by a later editor. Redaction is actually evident in many books of the Bible. That should neither surprise nor bother anyone. If you read the Bible closely, it is readily evident that redaction must have happened.
The truly important question is whether the redaction was inspired, or not. Let me rephrase that a bit: The thing that really matters is whether God actively superintended a redactor’s decision-making. A number of Biblical authors claim divine inspiration. The same could be said about latter redactors. We assert that the revisions they made were in fact divinely inspired. So if we were to discover an authentic copy of a pre-redacted text, that would be a very interesting find. But it would not necessarily mean that the pre-redacted text is more authoritative than the recognized redacted text.
But how then do we ascribe divinely-inspired authority to one ancient text and not another?
The shortest and most simple answer is tradition. Belief in the inspiration of Scripture requires a measure of confidence in God’s ability to transmit his Word through the tumultuous events of history. On the assumption that God must be a capable historical actor, God Himself ensured that the Scriptures were conveyed in the form He wanted through time and by means of tradition. And that is an assertion that cannot be proven. It is simply accepted or rejected.
We have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years. We know that for certain. We know it from two divergent and yet complementary sources: The Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls. Because we have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years, it stands to (theological) reason that God wanted us to have it that way. Therefore, if something comes along throwing into question whether the Deuteronomy we have is actually the “right” Deuteronomy, the underlying question is whether we really believe God inspired what have inherited from tradition or not. My answer is yes, I really do believe that God inspired what have inherited from tradition. The potential rehabilitation of V does not shake my faith in that. V is merely a historical curiosity. At most, it is a pre-redacted version of Deuteronomy, which, while interesting, does not make it authoritative Scripture.
As for the other potentially-authentic “its,” they will have to wait for another time.