Interpretation of religious texts inaccurate


  • Letters
  • Saturday, 21 Feb 2004

BUNN Nagara’s call for tolerance in interpretation of religious texts in his article, “Regarding text, belief and piety”, (Sunday Star, Feb 15) is laudable. 

Unfortunately, his case is seriously compromised given the inaccuracies and misinterpretations in his handling of the Bible and other historical texts. 

Bunn should have gone back to primary sources rather than rely on tentative discussions at the General Synod of the Church of England. 

A quick perusal of Herodotus’ History would indicate that the Magi were regarded as wise men, to be relied on in matters of dream interpretation and priestly service. 

Herodotus narrated how on one occasion Darius plotted to kill a Persian ruler who came from the Magi caste. In short, there was historical support to view the Magi as wise men.  

To be sure, even Herodotus, the Father of Greek history, should be read critically. However, awareness of Greek historical sources would help Bunn to be more circumspect.  

Bunn is also plainly wrong when he wrote, “Jesus taught in Aramaic ... only three centuries later was the first Bible drafted ... Since then, the Bible was translated into Greek ... “  

Bunn’s statement is confusing. If he is referring to the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament, then he should know that it was already translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in Alexandria in 200BC. 

On the other hand, if Bunn is referring to the New Testament, it is a mistake for him to talk about translation into Greek, since the Synoptic Gospels and the Pauline Epistles were originally written in Greek between 45-70 AD. 

Bunn is at least two centuries off the mark in pinpointing the dates of the biblical documents. 

Such technical details are easily available in any standard scholarly reference. It is also surprising that Bunn went further and claimed that certain non-Christian texts acknowledge Christ had visited India.  

I only need to note that such “texts” (assuming their textual authenticity and that Bunn studied them) are historically unreliable since they were written centuries after Christ. 

Furthermore, writers promoting these views rely on dubious etymological speculation and uncritical reliance on local legends. 

Bunn offered Erich von Daniken’s theories to argue his case. 

Unfortunately, von Daniken’s historical fantasies were totally debunked by archaeologists in the 1970s. Von Daniken resorted to conjectures about aliens visiting Earth to explain certain significant historical monuments at a time when archaeologists already had perfectly plausible earthly explanations for them. 

For example, his suggestion that building and moving the megaliths at Easter Island required alien technology was an unnecessary speculation since Thor Heyerdhal and subsequent researchers demonstrated that local natives were palpably capable of such achievements. 

In addition, his eisegesis of Mayan carvings leaves one wondering what the snake was doing with the astronaut in the space capsule! 

Any writer who cares about his reputation would do well to distance himself from a discredited amateur from the 1970s. 

Bunn’s rejection of simplistic scholars who favour neat classifications and isolation of religious traditions is well taken. 

However, Bunn’s own juxtaposition of the Magi, von Daniken and folklore from Mali lacks a nuanced judgment which would have saved him from committing an opposite methodological fallacy, which historians call “parallelomania”. 

Bunn’s understanding of Christianity is obviously inadequate. He expresses condescension towards Christians who protest against the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1969) since to him the musical was something “relatively tame and innocent.” 

To be sure, the music was entertaining, but can he seriously expect Christians to accept a Jesus portrayed as confused and indecisive, in contrast to a heroic Judas? 

Bunn missed the musical’s attempt to subvert the central message of Christianity, given its total disregard of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  

Bunn’s comments trivialise Christianity, and regard it as resting on mythological foundations that need to be discarded as a mark of maturity. 

Apparently, Bunn approves the claim concerning the unreliability of the historicity of the Christian tradition and the Bible since, as his article puts it, “there might have been omission, additions, misinterpretations or errors along the way, particularly since every stage has been executed by imperfect human action.” 

Bunn noticeably fails to back up his assertion with sufficient evidence and logical arguments.  

Obviously, he was either unfair or ill informed in his interpretation of Christianity. 

The call for open discourse on religion deserves wholehearted support. But surely openness should not be licence for misrepresentation based on inadequate research. 

 

NG KAM WENG, 

Kairos Research Centre. 

(via e-mail)  

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