Wikipedia and the Word of God

A review of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman says that in “many respects, the Bible was the world’s first Wikipedia article. So many hands have altered and edited the now lost originals that we will never know for sure what those originals said.” I don’t think that’s a very useful analogy, because it breaks down on so many levels, but it does bring up the question of authority, which librarians and scholars like, and which doesn’t seem to matter to most people, at least not in the same way. In terms of authority, how do Wikipedia and the Bible compare?

The review points out out that the Bible we have in English is a translation based on nonexistent original documents written by we know not whom, copied and recopied over several centuries in numerous manuscripts that may neither be complete nor agree with each other. This is hardly news to anyone who knows much about textual criticism of the Bible, but it seems to be unwelcome news to people who believe the Bible (and especially the KJV) is the unerring Word of God even in its details, so unwelcome that they probably wouldn’t read Ehrman’s book anyway and if they did they wouldn’t believe it or wouldn’t care, despite the fact that the reason people consider the Bible as authoritative is precisely because of its author, or at least who they think is the author — God. The Bible is an authority because it was written by God.

This is much the way some librarians would approach scholarly or reference sources. These sources have authority because of the authors.

The Wikipedia, however, is different. It can’t be judged adequately by the “authority” standard, because we don’t know who the authors are. For many people, this is enough to dismiss it as a useful reference source. The Wikipedia is often judged to be unreliable because anyone can edit it and we don’t know who really writes the entries. Because anyone can edit at any time, it can be changed for the worse, and the entries might be written by crazy people! Everyone has a favorite Wikipedia entry scandal to trot out in these discussions, even though I suspect the mini-scandals are in fact exceptions. If we apply the standard criterion to the Wikipedia (and similar wiki products), then they have to be dismissed out of hand. Is this a problem with the Wikipedia, or with our limited criteria of quality?

Librarians like to judge reference or scholarly sources by their authority. We know this book is good because the Outstanding University Press published it, or because some respected scholar at a respectable university wrote it. Professor Smith of Ivy U wrote this Encyclopedia Mundi entry, so it must be better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry in some way.

Authority is one of the tools of academic collection development and reference, a necessary tool because we don’t have the time or expertise to read and evaluate everything before we buy it, but we should be wary of using it too indiscriminately. After all, it’s not like authorities are necessarily right or true, and most renowned scholarly publications have other scholarly publications criticizing their shortcomings.

(To be fair, it’s not just librarians who have this sometimes irrelevant and medieval respect for “authority.” A lot of students of the humanities seems to have the same view of authority, and will use Derrida, for example, as an argumentative trump the way medieval scholastics might have used “the Philosopher.” I can’t count how many times in an earlier life I heard someone say “Well, Foucault says,” as if that somehow settled an argument.)

Perhaps the Wikipedia should be judged by a different standard, though, since authority isn’t relevant. Perhaps Wikipedia should be judged by some criterion of truth or usefulness. Because whatever librarians think of Wikipedia, it’s clear that people love it, and we’d be better off remembering that and figuring out how to exploit the Wikipedia than in dismissing it out of hand.

8 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Word of God

  1. Interesting.
    Do you think being able to view the discussions surrounding various changes that may have occurred in a Wikipedia article add to its authority? David Weinberger, in Everything is Miscellaneous, seems to think it does. He implies that with a recognized “authority” such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, the reader is not privy to background information relating to a particular entry. We have to take it on “faith” that that entry is unbiased and has been through some sort of rigorous review, but we never get to “see” any of that.
    With Wikipedia, we can view the discussions and change history related to an article and can, therefore, see how much scrutiny, review, etc., an article has undergone, which adds to that article’s “authority.”
    (Or, at least that’s what I think Weinberger meant…)

  2. I’m not sure about that. I’d have to read more of the argument, but I think a case could be made. I was pleased to see in Cass Sunstein’s book Infotopia a discussion of the Wikipedia that noted it could be considered a way to take advantage of dispersed information the way F.A. Hayek considered prices a way of taking advantage of dispersed information in an economy.
    Hayek’s criticism of socialist economic planning is that no person or small group can possibly know enough to make decisions, and that for an economy to operate there must be room for the decisions of millions of people. In a similar way, the vast scale of the Wikipedia (probably dwarfing Brittanica at this point) allows for widely dispersed knowledge to come together in one place, and that even without economic incentives people still tend to produce good articles.

  3. “…hardly news to anyone who knows much about textual criticism of the Bible, but it seems to be unwelcome news to people who believe the Bible (and especially the KJV) is the unerring Word of God even in its details, so unwelcome that they probably wouldn’t read Ehrman’s book anyway and if they did they wouldn’t believe it or wouldn’t care, despite the fact that the reason people consider the Bible as authoritative is precisely because of its author, or at least who they think is the author — God”
    If you are interested in an intelligent and informed discussion of what more sophisticated Christians know and believe about the Bible, Google the following article for laypersons:
    “The Revelation and Inspiration of the New Testament”, Lutheran Witness
    (Jeffrey Kloha, “The Revelation and Inspiration of the New Testament”, Lutheran Witness, Septmeber, 2006).
    I’m pretty sure this man in the article above is writing a book sometime soon. Bart D. Ehrman certainly does not have a monopoloy on intelligent and informed discussion on the issues. Of course faith is involved here – but when is trust not involved in anything that we do?
    All of the points Ehrman makes in his book have been known about by Bible scholars for years and there are convincing answers to his questions and objections – if one cares to look. And if one believes the whole crazy thing might be possible.
    (go to the ProQuest database and see the editorial written by John Robson of the Ottawa Citizen from Sep. 13, 2000: “Why taking history seriously can make you very cross”)
    Most accomplished academics may only talk to 5 or 6 people that they respect when it comes to their area of expertise, but they are content to have a grade school education when it comes to Christianity.

  4. I’ll have to check that out. I was thinking not that Ehrman had a monopoly, but more of the difference between someone like myself (a more or less educated Catholic who has studied some Greek, theology, and biblical criticism) and someone like my fundamentalist grandmother, for example, who would consider it beyond dispute that identifiable people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the gospels on their own and that what we have now is what they wrote. The authority of the Bible has to be separated from specific details, and I know there are various more or less sophisticated arguments that acknowledge modern textual scholarship.
    Your point about the grade school education of many academics about Christianity is well taken. In fact, I’m always surprised when books like Ehrman’s are reviewed in the popular press as if they’re saying anything that hasn’t been said for years and is available in many accessible books.
    I was also thinking about such phenomena as the King James Only Movement, which you can read about here. Of course this article might be mistaken, because as the Wikipedia explicitly warns us, its neutrality is disputed.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful response Wayne. Keep up the interesting blogging.

  6. Wikipedia has many people who edit and go through the articles searching for truth and errors. I have had several of my edits deleted because someone else thought they knew better than I did on cases of actual truth which I had posted. So Wikipedia is not perfect, nor entirely “accurate”, but it a helpful reference work to find information which can then be further researched to seek the truth.

  7. An innocent says that God wrote the Bible. To say that it is the Word of God is quite a different matter. We are fairly certain that Paul wrote some of the letters with his name, but after that it is wide open to discussion who the human hands are that put together the different books over all of those centuries. Of equal interest are the committees and communities who agreed to the final texts as we have them today. That’s where the fun begins for readers interested in authorial intentions. The Bible is a collection of writings, all different, that seek out the purposes of God. Job, many of the Psalms, and other works are full-on arguments with God. For those who have a problem with God, then a good way into the Bible is to treat it as a search after Wisdom.

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