Monday, 24 March 2014


Supplementary material

The Bible, the first book to come out of Gutenberg's moveable-type printing press, is an anthology of texts that were written over the course of several centuries. As Christianity developed in the mediterranean basin, many texts were shared and read by the early adopters of the new faith: the traditional sacred texts of the Tanakh, naturally, but also descriptions of the life of Jesus, tales of the early apostles, letters from disciples, and prophecies regarding the second coming of the messiah. Some of these new texts were not written in Hebrew but in Aramaic and even in Greek.

When it comes to religions based on scripture, many texts are supposed to have been given, dictated or at least inspired by a divine being. Naturally, in practical terms, there must be a time when someone must decide what, in the midst of all the available material, has been divinely inspired and what has just been written by inspired and enthusiastic mortals without official divine guidance. In the case of Mormonism, for example, the task is a relatively easy one since the Book of Mormon was first published 1830 by Joseph Smith and was not collected from disparate and perhaps conflicting sources. For other religions it is a little more complicated. Some of them simply do not have one single sacred reference; as for the Abrahamic religions, the composition and compilation of their sacred books (which overlap somewhat, either in actual chapters or at least subject matter) are the subject of many, many scholarly works.

In the case of the Qur'an, the revelation to Muhammad is said to have occurred all through his life; whether the compilation of the revelations was performed during his lifetime or was begun right after his death under the first caliph Abu Bakr (632-634) is under dispute. Ali, The prophet's son-in-law, is for example said to have been charged by the prophet himself to write down the text of the Qur'an, which he would probably have done in 631-632. What is generally agreed on is that the canonical version of the book was adopted under caliph Uthman (653-656); at that time, all personal copies (potentially tainted with errors or containing parts that disagreed with the canonical version, I imagine) were ordered burned.

With the Christian Bible, emerging as it did from the Jewish world, it was a given that the Tanakh would still be regarded as "official". The book Christians use today is divided in two parts: the Old Testament that describes events prior to the birth of Jesus, and the New Testament that start with his birth and continue with the deeds of his apostles. The Old testament includes classical chapters that are not found in the Jewish Bible, such as the books of Judith, Tobit, Maccabees and a few others, known as the deuterocanonical books.

With the New Testament, compilers had to deal with more recent texts; roughly 200 years of discussions were required among ecclesiastical authorities to determine what should be seen as canon and what should be rejected. (Fittingly enough, the apocalypse was the last book to be accepted by everyone!) Different synods convened to discuss these matters, and although the current catholic canon may have already been defined in Hippo Regius in 393, the acts of that particular council have been lost. The council of Carthage, in 397, did however read and accept a summary of these acts; we can assume that by that time, the bible as a single book had pretty much taken the form we know today.

The biblical canon would however still see a few changes over the centuries; even today, different branches of Christianity do not always agree on the status of certain books seen as canonical by some and apocryphal by others.

As for the reviewers mentioned in the cartoon above, they are the people tasked with reading and (severely!) criticizing scientific reports submitted to journals that use peer-review as a way to determine quality. Their job is to find any fault in the work, either in experimental design, control, analysis or interpretation. They act anonymously, and are expected to be fair-minded but as thorough and critical as possible. Sometimes there will be two, sometimes there will be three; not infrequently, they will not agree 100% in their analysis (in which case the editor can decide what to do, although all reviewers must generally be happy with a paper for it to be published). Peer review has been criticized as not being a perfect system, a criticism with which I agree (but what system is perfect?) However one thing is sure: it sure puts a lot of pressure on scientists when it comes to the soundness of their work. That's why "real" science is found in peer-reviewed journals and nonsensical pseudo-science can be found everywhere else.

Because out of the three reviewers there is often one who will be really, really critical of a submitted paper and prevent it from being published, "reviewer #3" has become something of a cultural icon in scientific circles.

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