Scribes in every religion may be learned, but if they are not fair-minded, their religious bias could serve the ends of a religious regime. Scriptures are lost or suppressed, editorial abridgements and glosses can further confuse instead of clear up an original story. In the case of translators I have noticed that, for instance, Bibles translated after J. Calvin's campaign for his views of salvation translate words connected with his predestination/election doctrine do not reflect the freer more open interpretation of the verses. And to make matters worse, commentaries sit upon those words and further impose a stamp of judgement. All of these things show me that it is possible to "fix" a religious viewpoint in the minds of people so firmly that ---they believe this is the word of God! ..... In your scholarship in matters surrounding the handling of scripture, how likely is it that religious powers have subverted, dictated and distorted of our present understanding of original texts?
not a captive....The process you describe of course is well-attested; a holy text, if it is not standardized and controlled (as it was with the Uthmanic recension of the Quran), is liable to drift and proliterate into a variety of readings, accumulating variants, and accretions, and omissions. Most of these are accidental or mechanical, some are theologically driven. And those that are not theologically driven may become later exaptated as grist for the doctrinal mill. And later interpretations easily may supplant the views originally expressed in a text. But I do take exception with your emphasis on a particular sector (scribes and the religiously powerful) and your linkage of bias and non-fair-mindedness with that group. Meaning is unfixed because it is contextual and as the social and historical context changes, and as new communities arise and/or old communities face new circumstances, the text will usually be read differently, which will push religious thought into new directions. A classic example is how the Babylonian exile forced the Jewish scribes to rethink the meaning of the covenantal promises and the moral culpability of the people sent to exile. But this process affects everyone who reads a text. We all have our perspectives and contexts, including the baggage of interpretative traditions we inherit from earlier generations, or from sharing a different knowledge of the world and society. The interest of many theologians and people of faith is to develop a coherent system of doctrine that explains scripture and which addresses religious questions of concern to the community. This promotes a harmonistic approach to interpretation and draws on pre-existing discourses and interpretive frames. This was done by the early church fathers in developing trinitarian theology, this was done by John Calvin and others before him in developing covenant theology, this was done by John Nelson Darby, Dwight Moody, Cyrus Schofield and others in developing the dispensationalist framework, this was done by Joseph Rutherford, Fred Franz, and others in developing JW eschatology or the JW "divine sovereignty" theodicy doctrine. There are many factors that bias a person in departing from earlier understandings of a text, which of course may change via translation and redactional activity. The approach taken in biblical criticism is rather to uncover what most likely was the intention of the author, and/or what was most likely the (range of) readings that a text would have had in its original socio-historical and intellectual context. This approach is not constrained by harmonistic concerns, and follows exegetical methods aimed at uncovering the author's intentions and conceptual framework. While the endeavor is quite different from that of systematic theology, bias still lurks because it is an attempt at historical reconstruction that can never approach precisely how the text was originally understood in its original community (or communities in the case of redacted texts); our knowledge will always be incomplete. And the researcher's own interests and views may intrude, as we can see in the case of historical Jesus research in which the various portraits of the "historical Jesus" seem more like each scholar looking into a deep well and seeing his/her own reflection (I forgot who said that). But biblical problems are not always as sorely beset by ambiguity and exegetical problems as the question of the historical Jesus. There are many areas in which the evidence is quite unambiguous on an issue, where one could draw conclusions on whether a reading more likely or less likely reflects how the text would have been originally understood (indeed, whether a given reading is unsupported or contrary to the literary or external context). And even if we lack the ability to arrive at definitive conclusions, we can certainly explore the pattern of connections between texts and the language and concepts expressed therein.
I find it interesting how much of the Bible is like a back-and-forth argument between different writers at different times. It's like a "greatest hits" compilation of ancient writings, some of which have been reworked many times over the centuries. To carry the metaphor a bit further, if you enjoy the "music" you might not look too deeply at the lyrics themselves. Some authors of texts found within the Bible intentionally contradicted others. The lack of "harmony" provides interest. It gives apologists (who enjoy the "music") reasons to play their own interpretations. It gives Scholars (who look for meaning in the "lyrics") a fascinating puzzle to figure out, not so much in search of divine meaning but to learn more about the composers themselves.
PrimateDave....A rather nice analogy. One could examine a mixtape of '60s rock songs and find some common themes and musical styles, and even a progression of change through time, while realizing that this is only a selection of what was released at the time and we no longer live in the zeitgeist of the time, with some references and ideas becoming obscure or difficult to understand without a knowledge of the culture and society of the time. Now, someone could construct elaborate eisegetical interpretations of the meanings of the songs; Charles Manson did exactly this thing with Beatles' songs to serve his own interests in his criminally-inclined community. There are websites devoted to exploring the possible meanings of songs, which are proposed in a rather fluid way (ckeck out www.songmeanings.net). Or one could research the context and history of composition and realize that, for instance, "A Day in the Life" makes reference to contemporary newspaper articles, or "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is literarily dependent on a circus poster from the 1840s.
I would also say that if texts are not reinterpreted, they are dead fossils of the past. A text gains new life when it makes itself relevant to a changing society. That will inevitably involve departures from whatever the text "originally" meant. If you look at Jewish midrash, you can see the unbridled creativity in taking old texts in new directions, spawning new stories and legends in the process. In music, we can appreciate this when a new artist covers an old song and sometimes reveals something new about it. Now, certainly this process can be used for dogmatic and restrictive ends, but it happens regardless of the motives of the interpreters.