From American atheist (http://www.atheists.org)
Evangelist: Brother, you're in trouble if you put your faith in science. Science can never give you absolute truth. Science is always having to correct its mistakes. Science can't save!
Heathen: You're probably right that science cannot give us absolute knowledge. But as long as it gives us information that is solid enough to stake our lives on, what more do we need? Anyhow, there doesn't seem to be any other source of information that's any more reliable - and lots that are much less reliable man science. As for saving, penicillin's record isn't too bad.
Evangelist: Friend, there is something more certain than science. There is a source of absolute, unfailing truth. You don't have to go with the guesses of science any more. You can go directly to the source of all knowledge.
Heathen: Really? What is it?
Evangelist: The Holy Bible, brother, the Book of Books!
Heathen: Which Bible is "the Holy Bible"? I mean, mere are lots of different Bibles floating around. There's the Koran -
Evangelist: Sinner, I'm talking about the Christian Bible, not the false Bibles of the superstitious heathens.
Heathen: Well, even if I admit that Christian Bibles are better than Muslim or Mormon Bibles, how do you know which Christian Bible is the correct one? The Catholic Bibles contain seventy-three books, the Protestant Bibles have only sixty-six.
Evangelist: The Catholics are in thrall to the Devil, brother. They have some false books along with the true ones. The true Bible is the King James Version - translated without error from the original tongues into God's own English. You don't think God would let the transmission of his own word to us fall into error, do you? The King James Version has been preserved inerrant to bring the message of salvation to sinners like us.
Heathen: No kidding? How do you account for the fact that some of "us" are Catholics? Why has god allowed the transmission of his word to Catholics to become corrupted? Why did god allow Protestants to be sold the first editions of the King James Version, which still contained all the seventy-three books found in the Catholic Bible?
True believers who wish to put all their faith in the Bible are faced with three problems: (1) How can one know which books are "inspired" and should be part of the scriptural canon? (2) How can one know which one - if any - of the existing contradictory manuscripts (MSS) of a given book preserves the "true" wording? (3) Assuming that one has the correct manuscript (MS) of a given book, how can one know what the particular Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic words mean? As we shall see, there is no way these questions can be answered with absolute certainty. At best, believers must trust to the probabilities - not certainties - that arise from a scientific investigation of the facts surrounding the biblical texts and traditions. Believers will have to face the fact that there is no way at all to know which Bible to believe - let alone what to believe in it. Believers still have to put their "faith" in other human beings.
As just mentioned, the first problem believers have to face is the problem of which books belong in the Bible, which ones don't, and how to decide. Actually, it is extremely rare for individuals to decide these questions on their own. Usually they inherit a set of "holy books" from the families they are born into. Catholic children inherit a somewhat ampler number than do Protestant children, and Jewish children get still fewer - thirty-four less than the Catholic kids do. Shortest-changed of all are Samaritan kids. They only get Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and - if they eat their lentils - Joshua. If to be "saved" one needs to have information found, say, in Revelation, 2 Paralipomenon, or Baruch, isn't it odd of god to let so many people be born into environments deficient in books needed for salvation?
How comes it then, that there is such diversity of opinion as to which books are "canonical," i.e., should be part of the official collection of "inspired" scripture? What divine principle has left the Samaritans with Bibles containing only five or six books, the Jews with thirty-nine, the Protestants with sixty-six, and the Catholics with seventy-three? Why did ancient Christians have even more books in their Bibles?
In the case of the Samaritans, the small number of books in their Bible reflects nothing more significant than the fact that the Samaritans, living in the northern part of Palestine, became split off from the main center of Jewish cultural evolution - the southern kingdom of Judah - before the prophets and other writings had come to be considered "scripture" by anyone.
To this day the pitiful remnant of believers calling themselves Samaritans claims all books outside the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, the so-called Five Books of Moses) are uninspired and, therefore, uncanonical. A possible exception is the sixth book of the Bible, the Book of Joshua, which seems to be given quasi-scriptural status. Not only are the later books of the Jewish canon "unscriptural," in the Samaritan view even the Hebrew version of the Pentateuch (the "Masoretic Text," the so-called Textus Receptus or "received text" from which our King James (KJ) and later Bibles have been translated) is no good either. It differs from the Samaritan text in more than six thousand variant readings! But alas for the beliefs of the Samaritans and the Jews, the small size of the Samaritan Bible and the six thousand variant readings of the Masoretic Text are due to no discernibly divine principle of selection: They are merely accidents of political history - and warfare.
Throughout Jewish history up to the Council of Jamnia (held near the present-day city of Joppa, near the end of me first century A.D.), the list of books thought to "defile the hands" (i.e., were inspired) differed as a function of geography and political affiliation. By the time the Christian Church was formed, Greek-speaking Jews had accumulated quite a few more hand-defiling books than had their stay-at-home, Aramaic- or Hebrew-speaking cousins. When the Christians adopted the Greek "Old Testament" for their own (including the newfangled books that went with it), Palestinian Jews had to circle their wagons. At the Council of Jamnia, the Jews threw out such books as Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, and both Books of Maccabees. By a slender vote, they narrowly avoided throwing out Ezekiel, Proverbs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. In the case of the Book of Daniel, the Jews threw out the last two chapters, settling for an even dozen. (The Catholic Book of Daniel still contains fourteen chapters.)
Figure 1. A page from E Kaine Diatheke, a Greek New Testament published by The British and Foreign Bible Society (© 1958), showing the "preferred text" and "critical apparatus" for Matthew 1:11, 16, 18.
A. The traditional text of verse 16 reads: "And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, the [one] called Christ."
B. The beginning of the variant readings for verse 16, with symbols for the various manuscripts followed by their different readings.
C. The symbol for the Syriac (sy) Sinaiticus (s) manuscript, a third to fourth century document reflecting the state of the biblical text in the second century, before believers in the virgin birth myth had succeeded in altering all the gospel texts.
D. The greatly abbreviated Greek reads: "And Joseph begat Jesus, the one called Christ."
Just as the list of holy books differed from Jewish community to Jewish community, so the list of books considered holy among the early Christians differed from church to church, although Christians generally preferred the larger Greek Old Testament to the smaller Hebrew one. In addition to the Jewish scriptures, each Christian community developed its own "New Testament" scriptures, creating more than a dozen different gospels and an uncertain number of epistles and apocalypses.
It comes as no surprise to learn that no "Church Father" is known, who drew the line of canonicity in the same way as does the Fire-Baptized Full-Gospel Pentecostal Holiness Church of God in Christ of today.
The illustrious Irenaeus (b. ca. A.D. 130), for example, considered the Shepherd of Hennas to be inspired, but rejected Hebrews, Jude, James, 2 Peter, and 3 John. Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 150-213) included the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas in his Bible. Tertullian (b. ca. A.D. 160) - best remembered for his dictum, Certum est, quia impossibile est ("I believe it because it's impossible") - threw out all the New Testament books except the four gospels, Acts, thirteen "Pauline" epistles, Revelation, and 1 John.
As certain churches (such as those at Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople) gained in political power, each made strenuous efforts to stamp out "heresy," and church councils were convened (often by the Roman Emperor rather than by popes or patriarchs) to vote on which books were canonical - and to anathematize those who could not buy enough votes to be on the winning side.
The history of these councils is both bewildering and abominable. The Council of Laodicea (A.D. 363) included Baruch in the Old Testament, but barred Revelation from the New. The Council of Carthage (ca. A.D. 397) included Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The most recent infallible enumeration of the Catholic canon took place at the Council of Trent (A.D. 1563), in the midst of the German Reformation. The Greek Orthodox Church closed its canon sometime in the tenth century, when it finally admitted the Book of Revelation (although it still does not use quotations from this book in its lectionaries). The Syrian Orthodox Church grudgingly adopted Revelation a century later still.
Although not every church council debated which books belonged in the Bible, it is nevertheless true that issues decided by previous councils helped to shape the decisions that defined the canon. Contrary to the naive opinion that the deliberations of church councils were infused by the power of divine guidance, most of the councils - and their aftermaths - were pretty ghastly affairs.
The council of Nicaea, for example, was convened in A.D. 325 by the Roman emperor Constantine - the first Christian emperor. After being converted to Christianity, Constantine put to death his wife, his son, a nephew and his wife, and had Licinius (his coemperor) and his son strangled after promising them their lives. These chores out of the way, he convened the bishops and patriarchs of the realm to define the nature of the Trinity and decide which of the squabbling factions of believers should be given the royal patent for orthodoxy.
The burning question of the council was the argument between Arius and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Arius claimed Jesus was essentially distinct from the Father, having been created ex nihilo by the latter. Alexander, however, claimed "as God is eternal, so is his Son - when the Father, then the Son - the Son is present in God without birth, ever-begotten, an unbegotten-begotten." By a packed vote, Arius was condemned as a heretic, excommunicated, and exiled. Three years later, however, Constantine went soft on heresy (or changed his mind as to who were the heretics) and recalled Arius to Constantinople. On the very day Arius was to reenter the Cathedral in triumph, his bowels suddenly burst out in a privy, obviating any need to redefine orthodoxy. The orthodox considered it a miracle; the Arians knew it was murder.
Figure 2. No virgin birth here! Part of the genealogy of Jesus in the Syriacus Sinaiticus manuscripts referred to in Fig. 1-C. (Printed text © 1894 by Agnes Smith Lewis, The Four Gospels in Syriac, Transcribed from the Sinaitic Palimpsest, Cambridge University Press).
Syriac reads from right to left. Asterisks mark the Syriac word 'wld, "begat." Underlines show names repeating in the formula: A begat B, B begat C, C begat D, etc. Verses fifteen to sixteen read: "Eliud begat Eleazar, Eleazar begat Matthan, Matthan begat Jacob, Jacob begat Joseph; Joseph, to whom was betrothed a young woman, Mary, begat Jesus [(l)yshw', the last name underlined] who is called Messiah."
Poison was not the only way to decide questions of theology. At the "Ecumenical" Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431), St. Cyril, the Pope of Alexandria, bribed enough bishops to be able to convene the Council before the arrival of the Patriarch of Antioch, whose opposition he feared. Without opposition from the delegation from Antioch it was a simple matter to condemn one Nestorius as a heretic, and to proclaim the Virgin Mary to be theotokos, or "mother of god."
At the Second Synod of Ephesus (A.D. 449), Dioscoros, the Pope of Alexandria (Cyril's successor), condemned Flavian, the Pope of Constantinople, and then kicked his rival in Christ so severely that he died three days later. Summoning a mob of monks and soldiers wielding staves, swords, and chains, Dioscoros convinced the bishops who had planned to vote for Flavian to vote "correctly."
Such were the means by which truth was determined in the orthodox Catholic Church. Among the Protestants it was every sinner for himself when it came to deciding which books belonged in the Bible.
Among the Protestant "reformers," opinions differing greatly from those held by Protestants today were common. Luther didn't think Esther belonged in the Bible, but he thought highly of 1 Maccabees and Sirach. He had a low opinion of Hebrews, and Revelation he thought to be of little value, being neither apostolic nor prophetic. The Epistle of James he termed "an epistle of straw."
The Swiss reformer Zwingli pronounced Revelation unbiblical. John Calvin denounced that book of ravings as unintelligible, and he forbade the pastors of Geneva to attempt to interpret it.
Even if we pretended that we could somehow know for certain that the Gospel of Matthew, say, is truly inspired and, thus, a legitimate book to be included in the canon, how could we tell if any one of the many extant MSS of Matthew contains the correct, inspired wording? Most true believers know nothing at all about this problem, because it is a well kept secret among Bible scholars that no two MSS of Matthew - or any other biblical book - are exactly alike.
Worse yet, for each book there exist different families of MS types, often of approximately equal antiquity, but differing from each other in characteristic ways. To try to keep track of all the different wordings in Matthew and other books of the Bible, scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament contain a so-called apparatus criticus, a complicated system of footnotes indicating the major variant readings for each passage in the "preferred text" [see Figs. 1 and 3].
Concerning the preferred text of the Greek Bible, readers may wonder just who decides - and how - what the preferred readings should be? Space does not permit a discussion of the scientific (and sometimes very un-scientific) principles involved. We can only observe that it is both laughable and sad to see the more intelligent fundamentalists diligently learning Greek in order to "read God's word in the original tongue." Little do they suspect, while staring at the nearly footnote-free pages of their Westcott-Hort Greek testaments, the thousands of scientific and not-so-scientific decisions underlying what they see - or don't see - on each page.
Bible apologists try to wave away the hundreds of thousands of variant readings in the extant MSS by saying that the differences are trivial and do not affect passages essential for Christian doctrine. "Merely spelling differences," they say. The falseness of this assertion can be seen not only in the examples given in Figs. 1-3 (variations affecting the doctrine of the virgin birth, as well as the doctrine that true disciples can drink poison and caress cobras), but also in passages striking at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.
When Erasmus of Rotterdam published Europe's first Greek New Testament in 1516 he omitted the Trinitarian proof-text, 1 John 5:7:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
Needless to say, Erasmus was stoutly criticized for the omission. He defended himself by declaring that he would have included the verse (well-known in the Latin Bible) had he been able to find a single Greek MS that contained it. Soon thereafter Erasmus was presented a Greek Bible containing the verse!
Suspecting a fraud, but unable to prove it, Erasmus added the verse, to later editions of his Bible, the book destined to become the Textus Receptus - the book from which the King James translators would derive the "authorized" English version of 1611. Tough luck for the Trinity, Erasmus' intuition was correct. To this day no Greek MS older than the fifteenth to sixteenth century has ever been found to contain the passage. It is now known that the verse was a fourth-century Spanish invention, finally appearing in MSS of the Latin Vulgate (the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church) around the year 800.
The discovery that the oldest Bibles omit 1 John 5:7 leaves Christians without biblical "proof of the Trinity". While there are still other verses that are compatible with trinitarian doctrine, none are proof of it. Unless Christian apologists consider the Trinity trivial, they must admit that the differences in MSS are important!
The magnitude of the differences between different MSS of the same book can be astonishing. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jeremiah scroll 4QJer-b is one-eighth shorter than the Masoretic text of Jeremiah! Even in ancient times wild differences in MSS of individual books existed. The Church Father Irenaeus tells us that the MSS of Matthew's gospel used ca. A.D. 185 by the Ebionites (the original Jewish Christians of Jerusalem) lacked the first two chapters - the chapters containing the imaginary genealogy of Jesus, the - virgin birth story, the wise men, and Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Small wonder that the earliest Christians did not believe the story about Mary and the angel!
Figure 3. The end of the Gospel of Mark, from the Greek Bible used in Fig. 1, showing the state of total confusion in which the Gospel ends.
A. Latin text of a fourth to fifth century African Old Latin version manuscript, the Codex Bobbiensis (k) which adds to verse 3 of Mk. 16 the verses: "Suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole earth, and angels descended from heaven and stood up with the living god, [and] ascended [to heaven] along with him, and immediately there was light. Then they [women] approached the tomb."
B. Note saying that verse 8, as well as verses 9-20, are omitted by an early Egyptian Fayyumic (fa) manuscript.
C. Note saying that verse 8 is the concluding verse of the oldest and best manuscripts, including the famous Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and the Syriacus Sinaiticus shown in Fig. 2. This means that all the post-Resurrection tales of the traditional "long ending" are absent, along with Mk. 16:18 - the passage so beloved of snake-handling, poison-drinking true believers in the South. The oldest manuscripts end their story with the women fleeing from the sepulchre, "for they were afraid."
Actually, the footnotes relating to the end of Mark continue for two more pages after the one shown. One of the later notes tells us that some manuscripts contain an alternative "short" ending to Mk. 16: 9-20 that reads: "But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."
Another footnote tells us that there are several manuscripts that include both endings!
We may note one other oddity concerning the "received text" used to produce the King James Bible: Because the Book of Revelation was never popular in the Greek Orthodox Church, it was hard for Erasmus to find Greek MSS of the book. Indeed, he could not find a single MS that contained the last six verses. Consequently, he had to make up his own Greek - translating the last six verses into Greek from the Latin Vulgate! To this day no Greek text has ever been found that reproduces Erasmus' version of the last six verses of me Bible, yet it is the source of the King James rendering.
While we are discussing the Book of Revelation - the book beloved of President Reagan and the gematriasts (biblical numerologists; the word rhymes with "pederasts") who advise him - we should note that "the number of the name of the beast" [Rev. 13: 18] may not be 666 after all. In some very ancient sources the number is 616! Doubtless to the dismay of the gematriasts, who seek to guide American nuclear foreign policy on the basis of biblical clues, neither singly nor in combination do the names "Madalyn," "Murray," or "O'Hair" total to 616 or 666 when written in the Greek alphabet. At 651, "Murray" comes closest to 666: close, but no cigar!
We shall end this discussion of variant MSS by considering the problem of translated versions of the Bible. The problem of knowing what meanings to give to words in foreign languages will be considered in the next section of this essay. What concerns us here is a problem of even greater concern to those who want to know what the "original text" of the Bible once said.
Between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D., Greek-speaking Jewish scholars in Alexandria and elsewhere translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, producing a series of editions of the Greek Old Testament known collectively as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). A comparison of the LXX with the Hebrew Masoretic Text shows fundamental differences in content - differences that cannot be waived as translation errors, but can be seen as evidence that the Hebrew text used by the translators differed profoundly from the Hebrew text known today. Among the many differences between the LXX and the Masoretic Text are the numerical discrepancies. Enoch was sixty-five years old when he begot Methuselah in Hebrew, but he was 165 when he did it in Greek. After the birth of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years in Hebrew, but 802 in Greek. Not only are there numerical differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts, verses and paragraphs are added or deleted and, in the case of Jeremiah, the individual prophesies are scattered around so differently in the two versions that it is very difficult to compare the two at at all.
The problem for true believers is this: The Greek version reflects a Hebrew text more than a thousand years older than the Hebrew text used as the standard for the King James. Shouldn't we follow the Greek - even if it is a translation - instead of the Hebrew? It should be noted that the authors of the New Testament, when citing the Old Testament, cited it in Greek resembling the LXX far more often than the Masoretic Textus Receptus. If the LXX was good enough for Jesus, shouldn't it be good enough for Presbyterians?
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has further confused the issue. These Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls date to a time almost as far back as the time at which the LXX translating began, and temporally overlap the period in which translation was completed. Do these scrolls settle the issue of which is better, LXX or Masoretic Text? Not on your life!
Some of the scrolls, such as the Great Isaiah Scroll, are extremely close to the Masoretic Text. This is why fundamentalists never seem to tire of telling us about this scroll and how it vindicates their Bible (they won't tell you about the Short Jeremiah Scroll, mentioned above, which resembles the LXX). In the case of Jeremiah, scrolls similar to both the LXX and Masoretic texts have been found. MSS of Exodus have been found that resemble not only LXX, but the Samaritan version also! Just for good measure, some scrolls reflect still other, hitherto unknown textual traditions.
Which is the correct MS? The question itself has become meaningless at this stage in the scientific understanding of the biblical texts. Different oral traditions gradually were reduced to writing at different times and in different places. Differing from each other at the moment they were committed to writing, the various written forms of a given story continued to diverge further as the individual texts were copied and recopied, and errors and "corrections" were made by the scribes. Periodically scribes discovered contradictory MSS dealing with the same story. Then the process of "harmonization" came into play - the scribe combining the contradictory texts into one "harmonious" narrative. An extreme example of this is seen in certain late MSS of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the two genealogies of Jesus - in the Textus Receptus they differ from each other almost totally - have been "harmonized" into one hundred percent identity!
After all their study, Bible scholars have come to a simple conclusion: Trying to find the "correct reading" of most biblical MSS is as hopeless - and as meaningless - as trying to find the "average voter"!
One of the most perplexing problems facing a believer is one almost never recognized even to exist: How can one know what a given word in an ancient MS means? It is not enough to have a good Greek or Hebrew dictionary. The most brilliant of dictionary writers cannot be certain of the meaning of every word as it is used in every culture and subculture, at every period in history. If we find the Hebrew word zabach, "sacrifice," for example, in an ancient sentence reading "King Ishkibibbel sacrificed much and Jahweh protected him and his chamber pots," does it mean the same thing as it does in a modern Jerusalem newspaper sentence reading, "Shmuel sacrificed a lot and got his kids through college"?
One need not go to ancient texts to see the magnitude of this problem. The plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) date from almost modem times - and they are in English. Yet it is often quite impossible to know for certain what Shakespeare intended certain lines to mean. In the third act of Hamlet, just after the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet says to Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery."
It was quite a shock, thirty years ago, when I learned that the Elizabethan slang term for brothel was nunnery! In all the years since I have been unable to decide whether Hamlet wanted Ophelia to go to a convent or to a bordello. Either meaning fits the context. Hamlet could be worried that Ophelia was likely to become "a breeder of sinners" and should remove herself from the temptations of the world by withdrawing into religion. Or - considering the presence of words such as harlot, and bawd in the immediate context, and considering that Hamlet decries Ophelia's "wantonness" - it is plausible that Hamlet, in disgust, was telling Ophelia to join the world's oldest profession.
While the ambiguity of this passage is merely amusing or annoying, depending on how much one wishes to understand Shakespeare, the situation would be deadly serious if Hamlet were a book of scripture instead of a work of art. What if a true believer tried to imitate "St. Ophelia" and went to the wrong place? She could spend eternity in "the wrong place," indeed, if she went to a convent, say, instead of a cat-house!
Although it is often difficult to discern the meaning of words in Shakespeare's English writings, it can be quite literally impossible to know the meaning of certain words in ancient biblical MSS - In the New English Bible (NEB), a modem translation produced by an all-star panel of Oxford-Cambridge scholars, it is not at all rare to find pages with footnotes saying "Probable reading" or "Hebrew unintelligible," or with passages wildly different from those of the King James. In the King James translation of Job 39:13-14, for example, we read:
Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? Or wings and feathers unto the ostrich? Which leaveth her eggs in the earth and warmeth them in dust...
In the New English Bible we read:
The wings of the ostrich are stunted;* her pinions and plumage are so scanty** that she abandons her eggs to the ground, letting them be kept warm by the sand.
The two associated footnotes read:
* are stunted: probable reading; Hebrew unintelligible. **Probable reading; Hebrew [means] godly or stork.
Although neither Oxford nor Cambridge was up to the problem of Job 39:13-14, the New International Version (NIV), a fundamentalist production, somehow decided to render our verse:
The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, but they cannot compare with the pinions and feathers of the stork....
While the lack of footnotes might lead us to suppose that the fundamentalists are never in doubt as to what "the word of god" means, in the introduction to the New International Version we find the. admission,
As in other ancient documents, the precise meaning of the biblical texts is sometimes uncertain. This is more often the case with the Hebrew and Aramaic texts than with the Greek text. Although archaeological and linguistic discoveries in this century aid in understanding difficult passages, some uncertainties remain.... [Oxford New International Version Scofield Study Bible, E. Schuyler English, Chairman, Editorial Revision Committee, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. xix]
How can this be? Part of the problem derives from the fact that Hebrew and Aramaic arc written with a defective alphabet, i.e., an alphabet in which most vowels are not written. It was only very late in the history of Hebrew Bible-making (late fifth to ninth centuries) that vowel points (the so-called "jots and tittles") came to be added to the consonantal texts. Unfortunately, there is no way to know that the correct vowels were supplied. As a matter of fact, during the ninth and tenth centuries, there was a long-lived feud between two families of Jewish scholars, the ben Ashers and the ben Naphtalis, over the vocalization of the scriptures. Unfortunately, the ben Ashers beat out the ben Naphtalis so completely that almost all history of them has been expunged, and we are left with a false sense of security concerning the apparent uniformity of vowel points in the Hebrew text today.
It is easy to see what a mess we would have in English if we did not indicate vowels in writing. If we came across the two-letter word by, for example, how would we know if the word intended was "by," "bay," "boy," "buoy," "buy," or "obey"? Of course the context - if there were one - would help in figuring out vocalizations and meanings. But what if in the case of by, the real word intended were a rare word such as "bey"?
The difficulties caused by the lack of vowel letters in Hebrew are compounded by the unbelievable number of hapax legomena, words that occur only once in the entire Bible. A quick sampling of the Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary of the Old Testament reveals that there are more than 1,500 words (approximately twenty percent of the entire Old Testament vocabulary!) used only once. These include the word dibyonim, rendered as "dove's dung" in the King James, but that Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible assures us means "roasted chick pea" - even though the New English Bible translates it as "locust-beans," and the New International Version renders it "seed pods"!
Imagine the perplexity of a Bible scholar - to say nothing of a true believer - coming across a sentence such as "Unless thou puttest the shnurq upon the altar before thou givest up the shew-bread, thou shalt surely die." Assuming that the word shnurq appears in no other context, we can conclude only that a shnurq is probably something smaller than a hippopotamus. The frightful uncertainty resulting from not knowing what to put on the altar could force a true believer to give up giving up shew-bread altogether!
Although we have only been able to discuss a few of the problems faced by persons wanting to believe in the Bible, it should be obvious that the problems are insurmountable. When the ballots were cast at the great ecclesiastical councils which settled the canon, what assurance do we have that Jahweh wasn't off somewhere counting fallen sparrows instead of counting ballots before they were cast - and seeing to it that the right bishops got the poison? What assurance do we have that the forger who slipped the Trinity into Erasmus' third edition did his forging under the inspiration of a triune contradiction in arithmetic? What assurance do we have that the people who write the dictionaries of biblical Greek and Hebrew know what definitions to put into them? How will we know if we are reading about chick-peas or dove's dung?
It is clearly futile to try to find the Bible in which to believe, and from which to obtain "truth." So why bother to try? The quest for absolute truth is childish, a holdover from a prescientific period of cultural evolution. Although the "truths" of science are not absolute, they do nicely in a pinch. And as for salvation, the track record of penicillin isn't too bad - even if it can cause hives!