I just finished Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It’s all about how the Bible has been changed over the years by the various scribes whose job it was to copy the thing in the days before Xerox machines. Ehrman was once an evangelical Born Again Christian who believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But when he started studying the scriptures and their history he discovered that the Bible had gone through countless revisions between the time the various books were written and today. It was a major shock that led to him seriously questioning his faith.
This book details many of those changes and looks into who made them and why. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. But what’s more interesting to me is that while Biblical scholars have been writing about and cataloging these revisions since the 18th or 19th century it has taken until the 21st century for a popular book to be written about the subject. I’ve never been a Bible scholar of any sort, so a lot of this stuff was really surprising. I didn’t know, for example, that the Gospels were among the last things to be written for the New Testament and not the early first hand accounts they appear to be. I also didn’t know that Mary Magdelene is only mentioned a few times in the Bible and never identified as a prostitute, or that she is not the famed “woman taken in adultery” who the crowd wants to stone, or that that entire scene was not originally even in the gospels, or even that she was not the composer of the hit single “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”* I don’t think most people who’ve grown up in Christian societies know this kind of stuff.
One of the interesting differences between Buddhism and most other religions is the fact that Buddhism lacks any kind of Holy Scripture equivalent to the Bible, the Koran or even the Bhagavad Gita. People sometimes talk about a Buddhist canon, but, really, not much Buddhist wrting was ever canonized as such. The closest you get is the Tripitika, which contains the written record of the earlier Buddhist oral tradition of teachings of Gautama Buddha. See, for the first 200 or so years after Gautama died, no one ever bothered to write down what he had said. Instead, they committed it to memory. Monks learned to recite his most famous speeches. Since no one could memorize them all, sometimes certain monks in a temple were assigned certain parts to memorize, while others memorized different sections. Of course, over two centuries a lot of variations in the tradition emerged and these had to be ironed out when it came time to write it all down.
The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said, “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ When you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” When the founder of the religion himself says “don’t trust scriptures” it makes it hard to develop a set of scriptures that claim to embody his teachings.
Buddhism has always been essentially an oral tradition. This is why sometimes even Buddhist teachers get their scriptures wrong. You’ll often hear some Buddhist teacher say in a lecture, “Buddha said this” or “Dogen said that” and when you try and search out that quote, you never find it. They’re prone to paraphrase and not much care whether they’ve gotten the quotation just right or not. They might not even know exactly where it came from. While in some religions this would be seen as unforgivable sloppiness, in Buddhism it’s just part of the way things are done. My own teacher takes this even further than most, often mentioning quotations from people who aren’t Buddhists and often have never even heard of Buddhism and saying, “This is just Buddhism.”
Ehrman’s book is fascinating to me because it makes a very good case for the Buddhist approach to scripture without even trying to do so. At the end of the book (spoiler alert, for those of you who may not want to know how it ends!) he says that at first he felt a deep resentment towards those who had changed the texts of the Christian scriptures. But upon later reflection he realized that, even in the very act of reading a text we, the readers, revise the texts in our minds. Just as you are revising what I’ve written right now. There is no such thing as a written teaching that means exactly the same thing to whoever reads it no matter how hard you try to preserve the words. People are different, societies change, what a certain set of words meant to Israelites 20 centuries ago cannot be the same as what it means to people in Omaha in 2006. And you’ll even have a hard time getting two guys from Omaha to agree on what it means.
I’ve found that in this blog I’m trying to follow the basically orally transmitted face-to-face tradition I studied in a new realm. I’m not sure how well I’m doing. Probably not very well. And I can see a lot of misunderstandings arise because of trying to adapt to this form of communication.
But that’s the way things go, I suppose…
* Kids, go ask someone who lived thru the 70’s to explain this joke.