Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Errors in the Literal Sense of the Bible

One of the essential doctrines of Christianity - and Judaism - is that the Bible is Divinely Inspired, that it contains the Word of God. But how is this so? Is it not just like any other book written by men? Is it not more "simple" than modern novels? And does it not contain some oddball stories, and obsolete laws, that should not belong in holy scripture? While under the Catholic Church the Bible remained a closed book, so that the laity were more dependent on the priesthood, the advent of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation changed all that. Translations of the Bible appeared in the vernacular, and as more manuscripts were gathered the translation was improved further. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bible was examined more closely by scholars in a field known as "textual criticism". Examining the literal sense of the Bible, there were apparent errors in the literal sense. While many of them can be explained, there are still certain minor textual errors in the literal sense of scripture.

So, the logic goes, as there are errors in the literal sense of the Bible, the Bible must not be Divinely inspired. There are numerous critics of the Bible which have publicized these errors they have found in scripture on multiple web sites. They are all minor, none of them effecting essential doctrines of the church. But that is not the point: the point is, since there are these minor textual errors, then the Bible must not be Divinely inspired. Some take it further, and use it as a launching point to attack the essentials of Christianity. Some go over the deep end, going against the evidence of history, and state that Jesus never even existed. I think most will agree that is going too far, and shows just how far one's own intelligence can lead one in the wrong direction. But the fact remains there are these minor textual errors in the Bible. Islam and Muslims then take this, and say look! The Koran is right, the Bible is completely corrupt, and thus should be ignored. One should only read the Koran. Well unbeknown to them, there are blatant errors in the Koran as well.

So what to make of this? Well long before this controversy happened, the entire controversy over the literal meaning of the Bible was anticipated by Divine providence. In the 18th century, the internal spiritual meaning of the Word - the inner mystical meaning that Jews knew was there but could not find it - was revealed in visions to Emanuel Swedenborg over a period of about 25 years. To show that the Bible was Divinely inspired, Swedenborg then proceeded to interpret scripture word by word, revealing how there was an internal spiritual meaning hidden behind the literal sense. And that is how the Bible is Divinely inspired. He wrote this massive multi-volume work Heavenly Arcana (also known as Arcana Coelestia, or "Heavenly Secrets") to prove it. It is so massive, that it will take a lifetime of study just to comprehend it all...and there are some things revealed there that cannot be known unless one directly experiences it.

So from what was shown to Swedenborg, there are some main points to cover concerning sacred scripture:
1. The literal sense of the Bible is the "lowest" sense, and contains within it higher levels of meaning that are more spiritual.
2. The literal sense contains these higher levels of meaning through symbolic correspondence with the literal words.
3. The literal sense contains "apparent" truths. These appearances disappear as the level of meaning becomes more abstract in the spiritual sense. At times, what is an apparent error in itself contains an inner spiritual meaning.
4. There are different degrees of Divine inspiration in the literal sense, with different styles of writing. The more Divinely inspired the writing, the more symbolic the literal sense becomes, and more unintelligible it becomes to those who do not understand the symbolism.
5. Some of the books of the Bible are not Divinely inspired and do not contain this inner spiritual meaning. Yet the inclusion of these works was still due to Divine providence. (see the previous blog entry, What books of the Bible are Divinely Inspired?
6. The outward literal sense not only contains an inner spiritual or mystical meaning, but is also designed to protect and hide it. This inner meaning can only be opened through enlightenment, but it is closed to those who would seek to profane what is holy.
7. In ancient times, there was no Divinely inspired scripture. This is because there was no need for it, as there were direct revelations and communion with heaven through visions and dreams.
As nowadays people tend to not have visions, and tend to ignore or forget their dreams, a connection can still be opened to heaven to one who is reading scripture. This link with heaven in the mind is opened through the symbolic correspondence contained in the words of scripture. But for those who do not approach the Lord directly, this meaning is closed. There is a reason why this is kept hidden, so that evil people would not be able to profane what is holy:
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. (Matt. 18:9)
An "eye" is symbolic of how one understands things. So this is why the Bible is not always explicit in what it is saying. It is up to the reader to find the inner spiritual meaning, but it will be closed to one who continues to live a life of sin or who holds onto their false ideas. Thus Jesus spoke in parables:
And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?"He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive;For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.'But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear;for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:10-17)
So why is the internal spiritual meaning closed to those who are in evil and justify their life with their false thinking? The reason is, there is the danger they would profane the holy spiritual sense. That is, they would understand it and then reject it. The other danger is that some have a tendency to read scripture with the intent of "proving" what they already know, and will distort it to fit their bias. Thus the internal spiritual meaning should be kept hidden:
Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. (Matt. 7:6)
So this is the reason why spiritual matters are not always explicitly stated in the Bible. There is an eternal danger to profaning holy things; this is understood well in eastern cultures, more so in the West where free speech allows anything. And this is why there are apparent errors in the literal sense: for the first reaction of those who look at the literal sense would see the error, and in their mind would not move beyond it, keeping the internal spiritual meaning hidden and protected. Swedenborg compared this to the angels that protected the garden of Eden with the flaming sword, and the cloud that hid the presence of God in His temple. While on the outside things look rough and imperfect, it contained within it an internal beauty:
How the Word of the Lord appears before the angels cannot be described, but some idea can be formed by those who have seen the optical cylinders [called kaleidoscopes] in which beautiful images are represented from the things which are rudely tossed about. Although the things which are round about in the experiment appear to have no form, series, or order, but to be only confused heaps, still when they are arranged around a common centre in the cylinder they there present a lovely image. So it is with the Word of the Lord, especially the prophecies of the Old Testament. In the literal sense there is scarcely any thing that does not appear destitute of order, but when it is read by a man, and especially by a little boy or girl, it becomes more beautiful and delightful by degrees as it ascends, and at last it is presented before the Lord as the image of a human being, in which and by which heaven is represented in its whole compass; not as it is, but as the Lord wishes it to be, namely, as a likeness of Himself. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1871)
This image of the kaleidoscope - where rough disordered objects become a beautiful image - is a perfect comparison of how the literal sense corresponds to the inner spiritual sense.  Although most when reading the Bible may not see this, the angels who are closely associated with the person do see this correspondence. About the imperfections in the literal sense, there are many appearances of truth that are adapted to the understanding of men: the Word many things, even more than one can believe, are said according to appearances and according to the fallacies of the senses, as that Jehovah is in anger, wrath, and fury against the wicked; that He takes pleasure in bringing them to ruin and destruction; yea, that He kills them. Yet these things were said for the purpose that persuasions and cupidities might not be broken, but that they might be bent; for to speak otherwise than as man apprehends — and his apprehension is from appearances, fallacies, and persuasions — would have been to scatter the seed into the waters, and to say what would be at once rejected. But such things may still serve for common vessels to contain spiritual and celestial things; for into them it may be insinuated that all things are from the Lord, and then that the Lord permits, but that evil is all from diabolical spirits; and afterwards that the Lord provides and disposes that evils should be turned into good; and at last that nothing but good is from the Lord. Thus the sense of the letter perishes as it ascends and becomes spiritual, then celestial, and at last Divine. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1874)
When Swedenborg says that "the sense of the letter perishes as it ascends and becomes spiritual", he means the literal sense disappears as instead of the literal words one comes to the idea of the abstract things each word represents. For in the spiritual realm, all thought is abstracted from time and space. Swedenborg describes a scene that in the spiritual realm, when the angels looked on the Word and read the story of Abraham, the person Abraham did not come to mind at all, but rather what the person Abraham represents.


I decided to take a look at an error in the literal sense of scripture, and analyze its spiritual meaning. In this case, the error appears in Luke's genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). Its not a doctrinal error, but I decided to pick this one as it has caused a lot of problems for those who claim the Bible is "inerrant" in its literal sense. Its also a problem because the Orthodox church uses this (among other New Testament quotes) to state that the Septuagint version of the Old Testament is more valid than the Masoretic text of the Jews. The problem is shown in bold in the quote below:
...the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah,the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech... (Luke 3:35-36)
The problem here is that Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, does not appear in the geneaology in the Masoretic Hebrew text. Nor does he appear in the Samaritan Pentateuch, nor does he appear in the book of Jasher which closely follows the Masoretic text. But Cainan does appear in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was a translation of scripture from Hebrew into Greek done ca. 200 B.C. So how to explain this away? Well, those claiming "inerrancy" state it was a copyist error. Not only that, some go as far as stating that this copyist error was then copied into the Septuagint. This clearly ignores the book of Jubilees, a book written around the same time the Septuagint was being composed, which also adds a Cainan as the son of Arphaxad. Jubilees may be in fact the source of the Septuagint addition. The Septuagint contains many deviations from the Masoretic, and in Genesis there was this concerted effort to lengthen the geneaologies to make it appear that the race of the Jews from Adam...was more ancient than the chronologies of the Egyptians and the Greeks.

So the evidence is quite clear here: Luke quoted from the Septuagint, and thus the error made its way into the gospel. And its not a copyist error: except for one manuscript, it appears in all manuscripts of Luke's gospel. So how is it Divinely inspired?  The geneaologies, while containing historical information, are symbolic. So in Matthew's geneaology of Jesus, we see some of this numerical symbolism:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)
Fourteen is a multiple of seven, a holy number. It is possible that generations were skipped in order to come up with this symbolism. If one examines Luke's geneaology, from Jesus to Adam, to God is 77 generations, or 7 x 11. Seven represents a complete cycle, one which ends in perfection: and Jesus perfected His human body until it was made one with the Divine. Seven is also a complete state, and Jesus came in the fullness of time - the prophecy of Daniel 9 marks out a period of 490 years (70 x 7) before the coming of the Lord. In the spiritual sense, scripture is abstracted from time and space, so in these deeper levels, the names of the persons do not appear at all.

The other point here is that scripture is adapted to the understanding of the men who read it, and in this case, the gospels were directed at the Greek speaking world, during which time the Septuagint was the version that was read. Also the degrees of Divine inspiration varies from book to book in the Bible, and indications from Swedenborg show that it was stronger in the Old Testament, as he saw that the Hebrew language was a heavenly one. In certain cases, the Divine inspiration into the literal sense extended even to the letters themselves. And what did he see as the two most important portions of scripture that were Divinely inspired? Two small portions of text: the 10 commandments and the Lord's prayer.

Some wonder why the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are different - and state that is also an error. This is incorrect - Matthew gives the genealogy through Mary, while Luke gives the genealogy through Joseph. For those who are stuck in the words of the letter, they will never get beyond the literal meaning, which often contains appearances and even falsehoods. Scripture can even be warped to confirm one's own heresy. Thus at one point, Swedenborg saw in a vision how the Word was seen as a young woman clothed in a black dress - the black dress was the literal sense of scripture:
There appeared to me a beautiful girl with a radiant face, passing quickly upwards towards the right, and making some haste. In age she seemed to be in the first bloom — not a child nor yet a young woman — becomingly clothed with a dress of shining black; so she was hastening on with gladness from light to light. It was said that the interiors of the Word are such in their first ascent; the black dress was the Word in the letter. Afterwards the youthful girl flew to my right cheek, but was perceivable only by the interior sight. It was said that such are the things from the internal sense of the Word which do not come to the comprehension. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1872)
For those who are still thinking about Cainan being the son of Arphaxad in Luke's geneaology, Swedenborg has this to say on personal names:
The names of men, of kingdoms, and of cities that occur in the Word, like the words of human speech, perish at the very threshold when they are ascending; for these are earthly, corporeal, and material; the souls that come into the other life gradually put these things off, and those who come into heaven do so altogether. The angels retain not even the least of an idea of any person, nor consequently of the name. What Abram is, what Isaac, and Jacob, they no longer know. They form an idea for themselves from the things which are represented and signified by them in the Word. Names and words are to them like dust, or like scales, which fall off when they enter heaven. Hence it may be evident that by the names in the Word nothing is signified but real things. I have spoken with angels about these things many times, and have been fully instructed by them in the truth. The speech of spirits with one another is not a speech of words but of ideas, such as are those of human thought without words; on which account it is the universal of all languages. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1876)
So how does the literal sense of the word ascend into higher levels? Here is one good example:
Spirits spoke respecting the internal sense of the Word; and in order that the nature of it might be presented to the understanding, it was illustrated by the example, What is the fruit of faith? And it was said that good works are the fruit of faith in the external sense or that of the letter, but that those good works have no life unless they proceed from charity; and that thus the fruit of faith in the proximate interior sense is charity. But as charity or love toward the neighbor ought to proceed from love to the Lord, this love is the fruit of faith in the internal sense; and as all love is from the Lord, it is the Lord Himself. For thus in the good work is charity; in charity is love to the Lord; and in love to the Lord is the Lord Himself. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 1873)
Protestants, who hold onto the false doctrine of justification by faith (belief) alone, will never understand any scripture which mentions the fruits of faith. The above example demonstrates how when the internal sense of scripture is elevated into it spiritual sense, it will eventually describe some aspect of the Lord in its highest level of meaning. Many more examples are given in Swedenborg's work, Heavenly Arcana - and when abstracted from the literal sense, scripture becomes immediately applicable to one's own life. This revelation of the internal spiritual sense of scripture - is the Second Coming of the Word.

1 comment:

  1. This problem in Luke's genealogy may be an age old problem. Consider this quote from 1 Timothy:

    "As I urged you when I went into Macedonia --- remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith." (1 Tim. 1:3-4)

    What genealogy is Paul talking about? Could it be that Luke's genealogy created a problem with those who preferred the Masoretic Hebrew text? It is possible, because later in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul directly quotes Luke 10:7, the only time he quotes a gospel directly. Luke was Paul's physician.

    That the literal sense of scripture contains minor errors, is true. But the literal sense is designed to contain an inner spiritual sense, and that is what is important here. And the other point is the literal sense is adapted to the understanding of men. Luke was writing for the Greeks who used the Septuagint, which would have caused a dispute with the Jews who held to the Masoretic text.

    "Adaptation" of the Word so that man can receive it is what is important here, for one can see multiple appearances of the truth throughout scripture, which get rejected when one sees the inner truth.


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