Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bible Irony

As a fundamentalist Christian, I was absolutely certain that the Bible was the inspired word of God, the only reliable source of truth.  I believed that the Old Testament existed to point ahead to Jesus, and that the New Testament revealed salvation through Jesus' sacrifice.  Obviously, with such an important message, the New Testament must have had a beautiful, miraculous, clear, and quick creation.....right?  

I imagined it something like this: soon after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, some people who had followed Jesus felt compelled to write his biography (the four gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John).  They didn't consult with each other, so they each show a slightly different perspective of Jesus.  From consulting all four of them, we get a complete picture of Jesus.  Not very long after, I imagined, as Jesus' followers formed churches in various cities, they got letters of instruction of Paul and the other apostles.  Those letters were to teach them correct theology and holy living.  All of those writings were immediately and widely recognized as inspired by God, and the first church leaders saved them and put them together into a collection--the New Testament.  That collection of New Testament writings was carefully copied through the years to help preserve it, and eventually translated into English.  Sometimes people argue about the best translation, but at least we can go back to the words of God in their original language if there is any dispute in English.

It's a beautiful imagination, isn't it?  Unfortunately, it's very far from the truth according to scholars who study the history of the Bible. 

 I had my first glimpse of this when I was still a teen.  I was in the middle of writing a homeschool high school essay called "Why I Believe What I Believe," and one of my points was that the Bible was inspired.  I wrote down something like this: "Written over ____ years by ___ authors in different countries and in several languages, the Bible amazingly has no contradictions."  Then, I grabbed our family encyclopedia to check exactly how many years and how many authors.  True horror suddenly gripped me as I saw words on the page like "disputed author", "written in the second century," and "not settled until the fourth century...".   My vision blurred; I slammed the encyclopedia shut.  Eventually, I calmed down enough to continue writing, having mentally explained away the data as yet one more humanistic attack on God's obvious truth.   But I never managed to feel really confident in my finished essay, especially that one vague sentence in particular that read, "Written over approximately 1500 years by many authors...."  

Years later, I was forced to encounter that information again.  It was in my New Testament survey class at my evangelical Christian college, which was taught by a leading Christian expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This time, the horror happened in slow motion--class after class of unknown authors, late writing dates, and uncertain place in the canon until the fourth century.

It's a great irony in fundamentalist Christianity: putting so much faith in a book but willfully remaining ignorant of how the book got into your hands.  It doesn't do any credit to a person's beliefs if those beliefs are too weak to encounter reality.  

What is the reality? 

The reality is that we don't have any original manuscripts of any books of the Bible.  The oldest ones that we have are from hundreds of years after Jesus.  Additionally, the oldest manuscripts are extremely fragmentary and sometimes vary from each other significantly on important points.

The reality is that in the first three centuries of Christianity, there were many other Gospels, Acts, and Epistles that various groups of Christians believed had been written by the apostles.  Based on those other writings, there was a lot of variety of beliefs among early Christians, and many of those beliefs would be considered extremely heretical today.  Eventually one group of early Christians became more powerful and influential than the others, but this was merely because they were connected to Rome and thus connected to the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the fourth century.

The reality is that there was no consensus on what books should be included in the collection of the New Testament until over three hundred years after Jesus.  In the end, a council of people commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325 decided what beliefs were correct or "orthodox".  AFTER THAT, the writings that most matched their "orthodox" views were unofficially chosen to be part of the New Testament canon.  

The reality is that now, based on the past 300 years of study, we know that some of those writings included in the New Testament have false attributions of authorship or false claims of authorship.  The Gospels, for example, were not written by the uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking first disciples of Jesus, but were written down many decades later by more educated Greek-speaking Christians, based on oral tradition.  For instance, the first Gospel, Mark, was written in AD 70 or later, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, sometimes even quoting it word for word.  (Have you ever noticed that Paul's letters never reference the Gospel writings?  It's because they were written after his time.)

The reality is that almost all secular and Christian Biblical scholars know that some of the Pauline epistles in the Bible were in fact later forged in Paul's name.  In particular 1&2 Timothy and Titus were certainly not written by Paul; Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.are heavily contested.  Even the letters that were certainly written by Paul have been tampered with in places, and these alternations are part of our modern English versions.  For example, the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 ("The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.  If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church") were added in later manuscripts, and are not part of the oldest and best manuscripts!

The reality is that there is not uniformity of message in the Bible.  If you let each author speak for himself--let each book stand alone as the author intended--then you get very different messages and not simply the traditional Christian message.  The "good news" that Jesus preached in the Gospels is different from the "good news" that the apostles preached in Acts, which in turn is different than the "good news" that Paul wrote about.

It's a harsh reality for people like me who grew up viewing the world through the lens of the Bible, being taught to ignore my thoughts and feelings based on the "clear" teachings the Bible contained.  But although it is shocking and unsettling at first, it can become very beautiful and so freeing.  You can see the world and maybe even see God more clearly when you stop wandering through life with your face buried in a book.  Look up--the world is in color; it's not all black and white!

If you are interested in further reading, I recommend perusing Wikipedia to start.  If you are ready to hear directly from the Biblical scholars, I recommend two books: "Jesus, Interrupted", written by an ex-fundamentalist agnostic Biblical scholar, and "The Canon of the New Testament", written by a leading Christian Biblical scholar.  If you discover other worthwhile books or articles on the topic, please let me know about them as well!


  1. Latebloomer, thank you for this excellent essay. Rarely have I seen it written as well and as clearly from someone who obviously WANTED to believe.

  2. Lovely essay that was forwarded to me by a friend. Thanks!

    A lot of this helps explain why I enjoy the history of early Christianity so much. :-)

  3. I relatively recently enjoyed the book "The Rise and Fall of the Bible" by Beal. It made me think about a lot of the process of creating the Bible that I'd never considered, and it extends into the modern Bibles that are sold.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation....definitely looks worthwhile!

  4. The Reality Thing.

    At fourteen, I did what my Southern Baptist church kept saying they wanted us to do; read the Bible, cover to cover. And once I'd done that, it was impossible not to think of it as the collection of myths, history, poetry, parables, wishful thinking, and propaganda that it actually is.

    The only thing that survived intact was the "red words," the words of Jesus the Teacher, and his evident love of humanity. I kept that.

    1. Exactly. My faith started falling apart when I finally sat down to read the bible in it's entirety. I wasn't looking elsewhere. I was reading THE BIBLE! What are we supposed to do with that? I'm still trying to decide if I want to call myself a Christian or not, because I do SO love the "red words". What do you call yourself? Do you still go to church?

    2. Yes, there is so much in the bible that people skip over because it is uncomfortable, and not in an "edifying" way. People do a LOT of mental gymnastics to try to explain away things that are obviously horribly wrong, all the while claiming that God's truth is obvious and people have no excuse for unbelief.

      In my case, I call myself an extremely liberal Christian, but I don't go to church anymore and almost all Christianese (church-speak) drives me crazy. I feel absolutely no need or desire for other people to become Christians because I see that life's not simple or black and white.

  5. Love this! My faith, rather than falling apart, is enriched and revitalized by the truth! It's not what any traditional American evangelical or fundamentalist would accept as orthodox, but my connection to God is still a huge factor in my joy at being alive.

    I think one label for us (did you know red-letter Christian is considered an insult?) is progressive Christian. I don't know if that one is considered an insult or not. Lolz

    I don't go to church either, and I wish I wanted to go! I think the affirming accepting welcoming denominations need supporting, but I am just done with the tithe/attend/build your life around the church scenario. I would love to take communion, open communion, as a celebration of the love of God and the interconnectedness of all He loves, but I can't find any place to do that.

    I went to an affirming church with open communion, but the elder handing out the elements added exclusionary language instead of just saying, "the body of Christ, broken for all". I tried an ELCA congregation, but it was so formal and in my mind I could see all the hoops people would have to jump through to get invited to read scripture, offer the elements, etc.

    *sigh* So, I'm going to yoga class instead. Everyone's welcome! There's no litmus test of belief or dedication, no demand for continued loyalty or attendance, and it's just $5 a class rather than 10% of my income. Sweet.

    1. have you tried UU?

      please note: I am not, myself, a Unitarian. i was raised, and continued to be, pagan ["All Gods are one God; Religion is the lens through which one sees God"] but i have been to several, many times, and they are always open and supportive... and while collection happens, people don't pay attention to who and how much. i don't know that i agree with a tithe in he traditional sense - most UU-ers i know would rather give to charity and do. it's what i do; and time is often better than cash, so us poor people can still give :)

      babbling. sorry.

  6. I am an atheist and I find this absolutely fascinating, I knew very little about Bible history. Thank you!

  7. this might interest you~