Archive for November, 2013

Chronological View of the New Testament

Chrono-NT-Chart

Chronological-NT-Chart

A number of points may be made about this topic.  One, which I’ll only briefly mention, is the effort to edit and publish a “chronological” bible, or alternately to offer a chronological study plan.  Closely associated with these ideas is an approach to biblical study which some scholars call a “horizontal” reading of the bible.

To understand what it means to read the bible horizontally, first consider how one might read the bible vertically.  In fact, this is what most of us do all the time.  We pick up a book, start at the beginning and read through to the conclusion.  This is top-down, or vertical, reading.

Should we decide to read the gospels, most of us will read them in the order in which they are found in the bible, and start reading each book from chapter one.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and then John:  top-to-bottom, sequential, vertical reading.

While this makes a great deal of sense when reading a novel, it may or may not be the most practical way of reading an anthology such as the bible, or of trying to make sense of reports filed by witnesses.  When multiple persons are presenting their testimony of an event, it often makes more sense to compare testimony at each important development during the event in question.

We seem to intuit this when speaking of a court case, but for some reason many of us have a blind spot when considering the testimony surrounding the events of the life of Jesus.  I suspect this is because many of us do not take the time to make a careful study of the gospel accounts.  Among those who do, many find a “horizontal” reading of the gospels provides new insights.

I personally find a horizontal reading of the bible offers valuable perspective.  But we should be aware there are both advantages as well as potential disadvantages in reading the bible horizontally.

I find one of the largest advantages in a horizontal reading of the bible is that we are able to contrast and compare specific commentary concerning the same event.  Consider for example, the birth narratives of Jesus.  Why do they differ?

(Or, at the very beginning of this investigation, one discovers the gospels *do* differ on this point.  This can be quite a surprise!)

Perhaps one of the most simple observations is found by examining the two (yes, different) genealogies of Jesus.  (This is an irreparable break in the inerrant argument, by the way.)  In one case, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back to Abraham (see Matthew chapter 1), and in the other all the way back to Adam and then to God the Creator (see Luke chapter 3).

But why the difference?

I fall into the camp which suggests that in one case Jesus’ ancestry was traced back to Abraham to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish roots, and in the other case to emphasize Jesus’ ancestry as common to all humankind, and related in such a way as to make sense to a pagan of the 1st century.  The author of Matthew largely directs his account to those sharing a Jewish-centric view of the world, and is the most closely tied of the gospels to the Jewish bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  The author of Luke-Acts, on the other hand,  seems to be addressing a pagan or Roman audience, and wishes Jesus to be understood as closely related to all of humanity.

  •   One point which I hope everyone takes from the above observations, is that each book and letter in the bible is written to make a point.  And, most importantly, these points differ one from the other.  This understanding is really important to grasp.

Returning to the birth narrative, reflect upon our traditional Christmas stories.  We typically find a manger scene, three kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and shepherds in attendance.  Yet it never happened;  it is a conflation of the various stories found in the bible.

Conflation becomes a problem when we no longer appreciate the differences in each account;  it becomes a problem when we fail to understand there were a number of ways of struggling with the meaning of the life of Jesus, and instead we just blend all the stories of Jesus -or the entire New Testament, let alone both the Jewish and Christian bibles!- into one averaged-out, homogenized account.

A single story, the bible is not!

To fall into this misunderstanding, is to misapprehend the unique messages each author of the bible is attempting to relate.  However, once one is aware of this potential downfall, there is much to be offered by horizontal readings of the bible.  Below are two resources one might consider if investigating this manner of reading/studying the bible;  I am certain there are many others:

  •   NIV Integrated Study Bible: A New Chronological Approach for Exploring Scripture by John R. Kohlenberger III
  •   Reader’s Guide to the Bible: A Chronological Reading Plan by George H. Guthrie

A Chronological Ordering of the New Testament

Next I’d like to offer a simple listing of the books and letters of the New Testament, in chronological order.  Note that I said “a” chronological ordering, and not “the” chronological ordering.  There is always debate about when to date each of these texts.  I have offered a rough approximation which I find useful.

Be advised, that for my own use and concern, I care less whether 3rd John pre-dated 2nd John, or whether 2nd Thessalonians pre-dated Hebrews.  To my mind these are more scholarly debates, and of less practical importance to most persons.  Myself included.

However, I find it very important to know that a number of the letters attributed to Paul may very well have been written long after his death!  And I find it important to know that Mark was the earliest gospel, that Mark was followed by Matthew and Luke-Acts, and that all of these were followed much later, a generation or two later in fact, by the Gospel of John.

Furthermore, I find it very useful to know that Luke-Acts is in fact, Luke-Acts:  as in Part 1 and Part 2.  I also find it very important to know that Paul’s (authentic) letters are the earliest Christian writings we have (although perhaps some of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas may be even earlier), and that these pre-date the gospels.

For that matter, it is useful to understand that Paul does not seem to be aware of the gospels, nor the gospel writers of Paul’s letters.  And we certainly should know that some scholars date the Pastoral Letters well after Revelation (written around 90-95 c.e. by most estimates), and that the Pastoral Letters may be the oldest texts found in the New Testament.

At the other extreme are the earliest letters of Paul, written in the 50’s, approximately 20-years after Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Paul was himself executed about 67 c.e. so any letter written by “Paul” after this date must be a forgery (a point we will soften by identifying them as pseudepigraphical – more on that below).

This is all helpful in developing our understanding of the bible’s contents.  We should know that when we read Paul’s uncontested letters, there was no church structure in place.  And we should know that by the time the letters of John, the Pastoral Letters, and Revelation were written, there was an established, structured church, at least in a number of cities.

And beyond this scope, we should realize all of the writings found in the bible represent proto-church structure.  The formation of what we today think of as The Church came about in the 4th century, along with an accepted canon of which books and letters would be included in the New Testament.  This is one reason why New Testament authors cannot refer to one another’s texts to determine what belongs in the New Testament:  the New Testament did not exist until some 300 years after they were individually, and frequently independently, written.

This means nearly 400 years of practising Christianity took place before there was wide adoption of the same New Testament canon!  As late as 180 c.e. (aka A.D.) even which books were to be considered as the only gospels was still being debated.  The Church Father Irenaeus offers the earliest surviving assertion that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are the only legitimate gospels.  As Bart Ehrman observes, I’m not certain we would all agree with Irenaeus’ reasoning today (“Against the Heresies”):

  •   It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.

And it is not until the 367 c.e. Easter letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, that we find the same list of books that are in our New Testament authoritatively presented as having been “canonized.”  Several ecclesiastical councils were later held between the years 393-419 c.e. which seem to affirm this canon selection.  But these councils did not settle the matter.  Up to the 16th century debate continued in some circles regarding the letters of James, Jude, Hebrews, and the book of Revelation.

These are some of the reasons I find an objective, historical-critical study of the bible is important in helping us form a more clear and effective understanding of the bible.  I don’t take the critical view so liberally as to say there is nothing definitive in the study of the bible, but I cannot take such a conservative view as to say it is all unbiased, factual information;  and certainly it is not the Word of God, to be taken literally, as if the New Testament dropped out of heaven as Jesus ascended into the heavens.  The truth is far more complicated, and is to be found somewhere between these extremes.

As I indicated earlier, one can find other datings for all of these books and letters.  Do not assume the list I am presenting is “gospel.”  Some alternate arrangements offer logical arguments to support their view, and one should consider their opinions, and weigh them against others as you become familiar with the arguments.  After all, no one really knows with certainty who is right.

But there are some general guidelines that one comes across so commonly that these raise red flags when you see them lightly ignored.  Some of the “things that everyone knows” (everyone who has attended a modern seminary, in any event) would include:

  •   Dating Mark as the earliest of the gospels.
  •   Dating the authentic letters of Paul earlier than the gospels.
  •   Recognizing there *are* authentic letters of Paul!
  •   Recognizing the Pastoral Letters were not written by Paul.
  •   Recognizing those letters which presume a structured church hierarchy are very late.
  •   Being aware the differences between the gospels offer valuable insights.
  •   Knowing the assumption the gospels all say the same thing, obscures their message.

These are just a few of the important topics one might assume any one serious about their study of the New Testament must be able to answer thoughtfully.  I am not saying they have to agree with me.  I am just saying they ought to have considered questions such as these, and come to some logical conclusion regarding how they organize the structure of the bible.  After all, the New Testament must have a structure.  What is it?  Why?

And I strongly recommend developing your own set of guide posts, by which you may be able to gauge the level of basic knowledge others have about the New Testament.  The point of this is to help you assign some measure of reliability to those who are asking you to accept their understanding of the bible.  If they think the same guy wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation, you might want to take note of that.  If they think Paul wrote everything with his name assigned to it, you might want to bear this in mind when they offer their theological opinion.  (Especially, when they are telling women they cannot speak in church, or women must be subservient to men!)

So with these words of caution, I offer what I find to be one of the useful chronological arrangements of the books and letters of the New Testament.  I first list the title of the text, in parenthesis note the range of years in which most scholars date the text, and end each line with an average of this range.  All dates are Common Era (C.E. aka A.D.):

  •   1 Thessalonians…. ( 50.9 to 51.5 ) 51.2 c.e.
  •   Galatians…………… ( 50.9 to 52.3 ) 51.4
  •   1 Corinthians…….. ( 55.0 to 55.5 ) 55.2
  •   2 Corinthians…….. ( 55.8 to 56.2 ) 56.0
  •   Romans…………….. ( 56.7 to 57.2 ) 56.9
  •   Philippians………… ( 60.1 to 61.1 ) 60.6
  •   Philemon…………… ( 59.9 to 61.2 ) 60.6
  •   Ephesians………….. ( 60.8 to 62.2 ) 61.5
  •   Gospel of Mark…. ( 59.0 to 64.3 ) 61.7
  •   James………………… ( 52.1 to 69.3 ) 60.7
  •   Gospel of Matthew ( 62.1 to 69.0 ) 65.5
  •   1 Peter……………….. ( 63.2 to 65.9 ) 64.6
  •   Gospel of Luke…… ( 64.1 to 68.4 ) 66.3
  •   Hebrews……………. ( 64.6 to 70.4 ) 67.5
  •   Acts………………….. ( 66.7 to 68.1 ) 67.4
  •   2 Peter……………….. ( 67.2 to 69.6 ) 68.4
  •   2 Thessalonians….. ( 51.2 to 90.0 ) 70.6
  •   Colossians…………. ( 60.2 to 90.0 ) 75.1
  •   Jude………………….. ( 68.1 to 90.0 ) 79.1
  •   Gospel of John…… ( 83.5 to 100.0) 91.8
  •   1 John……………….. ( 85.8 to 98.0 ) 91.9
  •   2 John……………….. ( 86.0 to 98.0 ) 92.0
  •   3 John……………….. ( 86.5 to 98.0 ) 92.3
  •   Revelation…………. ( 90.0 to 97.0 ) 93.5
  •   1 Timothy………….. ( 62.9 to 150.0) 106.5
  •   Titus…………………. ( 63.2 to 150.0) 106.6
  •   2 Timothy………….. ( 65.1 to 150.0) 107.6

(While the Pastoral Letters are possibly dated later than Revelation, I suspect 150 c.e. is too late.  A more likely dating is no later than 130 c.e. and still within roughly 100-years of the death of Jesus.  Then again, perhaps I am biased toward dating all of the New Testament with this 100-year range, as it has a nice ring to it.)

There is a small point which some may find of interest.  There are four styles of literature found in the New Testament:  Gospel accounts;  Letters (Epistles);  one Historical account (Acts);  and one Apocalyptic account (Revelation).

It is important to remember that when describing Acts as a “historical” account, we do not understand history in the same way as in the ancient world.  For one thing, they did not have audio and video recorders so quoting people exactly was not possible.

What I find to be a useful parallel is the change in the reporting of television news in the United States.  News agencies used to pride themselves on presenting unbiased and balanced reports (whether or not they met this standard is a separate question);  whereas, newscasts are now first and foremost entertainment, and their main objective is obtaining viewer ratings (for the advertising income).

We might think of our apprehension of history as the former, and the ancients as the later.  Not that they meant it as entertainment, but meaning there is a very different standard of accuracy and objectivity in the last 100 years as opposed to the 1st century, when writing historic accounts.

The question of forgery.

We really do not like hearing that any of the writings found in the New Testament are forgeries.  Scholars too are sensitive to this point, for the most part, so there is a $20 word that essentially means the same thing:

  •   Pseudepigraphical

Meaning in the Greek, falsely inscribed, or bearing a false title (pseud- false, pretending, or unauthentic; epi- upon, on, over, near, at, before, after;  and -graphos (something) drawn or written).  In our context this means that an author of an ancient book or letter claimed to be a person they were not, someone famous, in the hopes their work would be read and afforded serious attention on the strength of the claimed authorship.

Some make the argument pseudepigraphy (forgery) was common place and accepted in the ancient world.  There are certainly many ancient claims to the contrary.  The ancient Roman physician Galen found the practice objectionable enough he wrote a book on how to tell if a book claiming to have been written by Galen actually was written by Galen.

My opinion is that forgeries were not widely accepted as harmless, desirable, or a means of attributing affection.  This last case is sometimes an exception.  There are students of famous philosophers who are known to have written in their teacher’s names, claiming their ideas really were born of their teacher rather than themselves.  Perhaps.  But outside this small circle, forgeries would seem to be undesirable.

In an entirely different category are anonymous works.  In such writings the author never makes a claim to be any specific person.  All four of our canonical gospels fall in this category.  A hundred years or more later these writings were assigned by Church tradition to have been authored by the famous persons whom we now commonly associate with them (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John).

The book of Hebrews is also an anonymous work;  it is our earliest surviving example of a Christian sermon.  There was a lot of debate about whether or not to accept Hebrews into the canon, but since it was thought to have been written by Paul, it eventually made it into the New Testament.  Almost all scholars now accept Paul is clearly not the author.  But it is not a forgery (pseudepigraphical) because the author never claims to be Paul.

Then there is the case of John, the author of Revelation.  He claims to be John, and there is no reason to think otherwise.  However -and this is a big however- there is no reason to think he is John the Apostle either.  Modern scholarship now assigns the authorship of this apocalyptic text to a man named John of Patmos.

(Apocalypticism is another fascinating subject we may visit in a future article.  This is a style of writing popular in the centuries immediately before and after Jesus, and they are intended as messages of hope.  No matter how bad thing get -and they are pretty bad!- things will get better, so just hold on a little longer!  In Revelation, it is pretty clear the whore of Babylon is Rome, and the beast is the emperor Nero.  Perhaps the most important point to remember about apocalyptic texts, is they have nothing to do with predicting the future;  they are messages of hope for those suffering right now!)

With these cautions in mind, I present the following list.  I first list the book or letter, followed [in square brackets] by the authorship as assigned by Church tradition, and finally the authorship as determined by the majority of modern scholars:

  •   1 Thessalonians..[Paul]………………………………………… Paul the Apostle
  •   Galatians………… [Paul]………………………………………… Paul the Apostle
  •   1 Corinthians…… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   2 Corinthians…… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Romans…………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Philippians………. [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Philemon…………. [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Ephesians………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Pauline Community
  •   Gospel of Mark.. [Mark the Evangelist (John Mark)]… Petrine Community
  •   James……………… [James the Just (Jesus’ Brother)]…. Disputed
  •   Gospel Matthew… [Matthew (Disciple)]………………… Author Unknown
  •   1 Peter………………. [Peter (Disciple; Simon Peter)]….  Petrine Community
  •   Gospel of Luke….. [Luke the Evangelist]………………… Unknown
  •   Hebrews…………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Unknown
  •   Acts…………………. [Luke the Evangelist]………………… Unknown
  •   2 Peter………………. [Peter (Disciple; Simon Peter)]…. Petrine Community
  •   2 Thessalonians…. [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community
  •   Colossians………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Pauline Community
  •   Jude………………….. [Jude (Brother, James & Jesus)]… Disputed
  •   Gospel of John….. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   1 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   2 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   3 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   Revelation………… [John the Apostle]……………………. John of Patmos
  •   1 Timothy…………. [Paul]……………………………………… Pauline Community
  •   Titus………………… [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community
  •   2 Timothy…………. [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community

There are a few observations I would like to make regarding the authorship as assigned by modern scholars.  The first point is a reminder these assignments are debated.  Some more so than others, but one must understand nothing is 100% certain in this area of study.  Unlike the study of physics, we cannot run empirical experiments to determine who wrote which books, and have these results repeated and verified by other researchers.  This is why physics is a “hard” science and the study of religion is a “soft” science, like philosophy and psychology.

Paul the Apostle

Paul wrote seven (7) undisputed letters.  Three more are disputed, while almost no credible scholar believes Paul wrote the remaining “pastoral” letters.  Personally, I only consider Paul to have written the uncontested letters, as I find the arguments against his authorship of the disputed letters to be convincing (vocabulary, structure, etc).  And, as mentioned previously, very few scholars believe Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.

Uncontested Letters of Paul:

  •   1 Thessalonians
  •   Galatians
  •   1 Corinthians
  •   2 Corinthians
  •   Romans
  •   Philippians
  •   Philemon

Contested Letters of Paul:

  •   Ephesians
  •   2 Thessalonians
  •   Colossians

Pastoral Letters of Paul (Pseudepigraphical):

  •   1 Timothy
  •   Titus
  •   2 Timothy

Paul is obviously a very important influence in the early Christian church.  He certainly wrote 7 of the 27 books of the New Testament (fully one quarter of our New Testament).  And his “school” of thinking clearly influenced another three books, and possibly three more in the Pastoral Letters.  However, I would discount the Pastoral Letters because I believe the argument may be made these are of such different character they are better understood to be authored by a different school of thought.  At best it is a much later development in the Pauline school.

But no matter how one divides the authorship and rates the relative importance of this collection of writings, it remains one of the largest contributing influence upon the New Testament anthology.

Johannine Community

I view the collection of writings attributed to the school of thought surrounding John to be of two sources:  the Gospel of John, and the letters of John (1st, 2nd, and 3rd).  The Gospel of John was written anonymously, although attributed to the “most beloved” disciple;  most scholars offer John as the most likely candidate.

Modern scholarship finds it highly unlikely that John, or any of the other disciples, wrote any books or letters in the New Testament.  While it is theoretically possible John lived long enough, and became rich enough, to afford a classical education and learned to write Greek, and to write it poetically, it remains extremely doubtful this is the case.  However, many scholars do believe there is a person around whom the writings attributed to John relate.  So in this sense, the Gospel of John and the letters of John, are assigned to the Johannine Community or the School of John.

The Gospel of John offers some of the most beautiful poetry in the New Testament.  It also presents the highest Christology – Jesus Christ as Divine before the foundation of the earth itself.  This is the source of Jesus’ “I Am” statements.  I personally find this gospel to carry a flavour which reminds me of the Hindu Upanishads, and I find these to be some of the most appealing and spiritually moving passages of the New Testament.

However, there are also darker passages.  I am speaking of those occasions when “the Jews” are spoken of in a negative, accusing manner, giving the reader the impression the “Jews” were against Jesus.  I have two main difficulties with this presentation:  Jesus was himself Jewish!;  and clearly, a number of “the Jews” sided with Jesus!

One theme seen in the Johannine collection is that of separation.  I find the best way of understanding this collection, is as a reflection of the times (of the late 1st century).  I see the polemic speech in the Gospel of John as indicative of a change in the population of the Jesus Movement, away from the Jewish population, to the gentile population.  In the letters of John, we see a break within the Johannine community itself, where certain persons form their own church, because they hold a different understanding of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus.

But holding different understandings of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus has always been present in the New Testament.  In the authentic letters of Paul we see an early separation from the Jewish Jesus Movement, toward the gentile population.  A decade or two later, and independently, we find differing understandings of Jesus are struggled with in the early gospel accounts.  A few decades later, the letters of John, and the (pseudepigraphical) Pastoral Letters of Paul, are representative of the continuing proto-church development in late 1st century.

As I read this progression, we see the earliest shift in the authentic letters of Paul, and the latest shift in some of the Johannine collection and the Pastoral Letters.  I personally find these late letters as more informative of these changes in perceptions of self-image of the developing proto-church, and less critical from a theological perspective.  But I am biased, of course.  I find it difficult to take theological instruction from authors who denigrate women and label those who disagree with them as antichrists.

John of Patmos

As mentioned earlier, the book of Revelation was in fact written by “a” John, but this is now understood to be John of Patmos, and not the John who is the author of the Gospel of John (and neither of these authors is John the Apostle).  This is a reminder that Revelation is best thought of as in its own category of writing, and not group in with the writings of the Johannine school.

Synoptic Gospels

The synoptic gospels are collectively one of the most important collection of books in the New Testament.  For obvious reasons – they offer the earliest testimony of the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus.  They are called the synoptic gospels because they relate very similar stories about Jesus and his ministry.  Synoptic means seen or viewed together:  from the Greek, syn “together” and opsis “view.”  They share a great deal in common with one another, and are quite different than the Gospel of John.

According to the best modern scholarship, none of the gospels are thought to have been written by the person to whom they are attributed.  As is normal, some people disagree, of course.  But for the most part, such persons either have not attended seminary, or attended a seminary which does not teach the biblical discoveries of the 150-years or so.

Most scholars place Mark as the earliest surviving gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke-Acts.  Whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts;  as observed previously, these may be thought of as Parts 1 and 2 of the same account.  Most scholars also believe that Mark was a primary source for Matthew and Luke-Acts, in addition to a lost text named Q (short for Quelle, which is German for “source”).  The authors of Matthew and Luke-Acts added their own material to their respective text, but they also heavily borrowed from earlier writings.

There are other theories, but the Q-theory and the derivative nature of Matthew and Luke-Acts is the most widely accepted.  All of these, in turn, later impacted the writing of the Gospel of John, but to a lesser degree.

Because Mark, Matthew, and Luke are so closely related to one another, they receive most of the attention of those reading the bible horizontally.  However, there are similar comparisons which are made between the authentic letters of Paul and Acts.  Acts, as compared to Paul’s authentic writings, would seem to sometimes attempt to smooth over the image of Paul and how closely he worked under the authority of the disciples, such as Peter.  In cases of discrepancies, I tend to side with Paul’s account.
How might one make use of the chronological view of the New Testament?

The very first thing I would suggest is to just sit with it for a while.  Print the chronological list, and stick a copy in your bible.  Reflect upon the story of Jesus, and specifically what each book and letter considers most important.  Note what changes take place over the 100-years or so following the execution of Jesus.  There is an underlying progression, and distinct changes, both in geography (Paul and the author of the synoptic gospels did not know of one another’s writings;  the Jewish Jesus Movement was more important near Jerusalem, and Gentile Jesus Movement more important elsewhere) and in their understanding of how Jews and Christians relate to one another, and of the ontology (essential nature) of Jesus’ Christology.

  •   The term “Christology” refers to the study of Christ.  (The word Christ, derives from the Greek, christos, meaning “anointed one.”)  This area of study investigates questions of theology surrounding the Christ-hood of Jesus:  preexistence;  eternality of Christ;  Hebrew prophecies about the messiah (which in Hebrew, also means “anointed”);  the ontology of Christ’s humanity & deity;  incarnation;  temptation;  sinlessness;  death;  resurrection;  ascension;  ontology of the Trinity;  and more.  “Low” Christology relates to Jesus as primarily or entirely human;  “High” Christology relates to Jesus as primarily or entirely Divine.

Such are the highlights of my thoughts regarding the chronological study and reading of the New Testament.  I feel we must be careful when doing so -so as not to conflate what should otherwise stand on its own- but for the most part, I do find this to be a valuable approach.  In many ways it is part and parcel of adopting a modern historical-critical review of the biblical texts.  And for my part, I find this clearly adds to my understanding of the texts;  and I like to believe it also adds to my apprehension of the meaning underlying the texts.

As the famous saying goes:

  •   Where you read black, I read white.

But first one must discern the black from the white.

Offered with blessings,
Erik+

Advertisements

Q&A: (1) Discerning True Scripture, and (2) Evolution

A reader of my blog recently sent me an email asking me the following questions:

  •   [Q1]  Are you certain that all other scriptures are wrong and bible is the only true scripture?
  •   [Q2]  Do you believe in evolution?

The first question I find puzzling, as I do not believe I have expressed the point of view assumed in the framing of the question.  The second question, that of evolution, I am not certain I have previously addressed.

The first question, regarding the discernment of “truth” in sacred scripture, is a compound question.  I will address each part separately.  These are also very loaded questions which appear to have some built-in assumptions.  I must begin by directing some discussion to these background considerations, which shall in turn allow me to more clearly present my opinion.

  [Q1-A]  Are you certain that all other scriptures [other than the bible] are wrong?  

I do not believe I have ever said this.  My personal belief is quite the opposite.  Sacred texts and scriptures from any number of cultures, religious and spiritual traditions, may offer a great deal of value.  But exactly as found in the bible, some of these texts are of poor quality, and some are even damaging, attempting to provoke readers to violence and hatred of those different than themselves.

There are a number of things we must bear in mind when we read a text, regardless of its authorship.  We must begin not by reading the text, but rather by evaluating the source of the text and several contexts from which we may gain insight to the providence of the text.

We must remember all sacred texts are written by human beings.  And all human beings have their positive and negative attributes;  all of us have skills in which we excel and skills in which we perform poorly.  This is as true of the authors of ancient sacred texts as it is of people today.

This is why it is important we make an effort to understand the context in which a given text was written.  What were the historical-cultural influences?  Who was writing the text?  To whom was it intended?  Toward what goal?  These are all important pieces of information which help inform our understanding of a text.  The better we understand these concerns and how they interact with one another, the better chance we have of understanding the text.  These concerns boil down to questions of context, context, context, and context.

When evaluating a text, I also attempt to estimate the “stage of faith” the author appears to be representing.  There are a variety of models which one may use in making such estimations (see my past blogs of March, June and July of 2013 for more information).

The late Prof. Ron Miller offers a four-floor model in which the lowest level is populated by those “living in the basement.”  Such persons represent tribal thinking.  Their common attributes include preferring to solve problems through violence, and in having a tribal god that hates everyone they hate;  since they are their god’s chosen people, by extension, everyone else is *not* god’s chosen people.  This makes killing other people much easier, because they are not seen as fully human.

On the other extreme of Ron Miller’s four-floors of consciousness, is the rooftop garden.  This represents Unity Consciousness, and one of the attributes of those living here is they have no enemies, because they see everyone as connected -One- at a very radical level of being.

Another point to remember is that a given document is just a collection of words, and as strange as it sounds the first time one hears it, words do *not* carry inherent meaning;  *meaning* is given to a text by the person reading it.  While it is true that a good author will attempt to clearly convey their meaning in their writing, once completed, the future interpretation of their book or letter is entirely in the eyes of the beholder.

  [Q1-B]  Are you certain that the bible is the only true scripture?

I will make a number of points in response to this question.  First, is the assumption is that we are referring to the Christian Holy Bible.  However, this presents an immediate difficulty, because this question is phrased so as to represent the “bible” as a single text.  This is clearly not an accurate representation, for a variety of reasons, including:

  •   The Christian Holy Bible is an anthology of ancient books and letters.  It is therefore a collection of books, and *not* a single monolithic document.
  •   This collection of books is derived from two separate primary cultural sources:  One is the Jewish bible, and the second is the Christian New Testament.  The Jewish bible reaches far back in time; in fact, some of it may reach all the way back into pre-literate history.  Much of the Jewish bible is far older than the Christian scriptures collected in the New Testament.  The scriptures which form the Christian canon generally date from the 50’s to perhaps as late as 120-130 ce.  (Jesus was crucified in approximately 30 ce, so the New Testament was written roughly between 20 and 100 years after the execution of Jesus.)
  •   It is important to understand that in many important ways, the Jewish bible and the Christian bible are quite different anthologies.  Their differences should be respected.
  •   In my opinion, many Christians seem to have very little respect for the Jewish bible.  This begins by the renaming the Hebrew scriptures the “Old” Testament.  This belittles the Jewish bible, and by default places it on a secondary status as compared to the Christian New Testament.  And to my experience, very few Christians attempt to understand the Jewish bible from a Jewish perspective, and instead assume they can read it from a Christian perspective, as if it were a collection of Christian scriptures.  I believe this is a mistake.
  •   Furthermore, the books and letters of the Hebrew bible were primarily written in Hebrew.  The books and letters of the New Testament were primarily written in Greek.  Anyone who does not read ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek, is *not* reading the original scriptures;  and even those few who do read these ancient languages, are still *not* reading the *original* texts;  the original texts have long ago turned to dust.  All we have to study are copies, of copies, of copies of the original texts;  and some copies are better than others.
  •   Another concern I have in representing the “bible” as a single monolithic text, is this question ignores there are a variety of translations available of the original languages, and these translations do very from one another.  Do we wish to have as literal a translation as possible, retaining somewhat awkward phrasing as needed to be as literal as possible;  or do we instead translate with a preference to conveying the most accurate meaning of the original text in our modern language?
  •   Consideration of these points may well lead us to ask of the nature of Infallibility and Inerrancy.  These are words which are typically thrown around carelessly, and in my opinion with a great deal of imprecision (this is a topic I addressed in my blog during October 2013).  If the reader currently believes that scripture is either of these, they may wish to read my blog “Infallibility & Inerrancy.”

Most of the above points are typically overlooked, but I think they are very important for us to consider if we are going to discuss the meaning of ancient scripture.  And it is imperative we consider them if we are going to dare to ask if the bible we are holding in our hands is “true” or not!

Let us now briefly turn to the question of Truth, and to what degree we may or may not be able to discern it.  Because if Truth does not exist as an objective standard, there is no point in asking if the bible -or any other scripture- is “true.”  In my opinion “Truth” is very tricky to nail down in any specific, unchanging way.  Consider the many ways of expressing Truth:  there is the Truth of metaphor and analogy;  there is the Truth of poetry.  And neither of these should be mistaken for the Truth expressed in an engineering manual, or a monograph evaluating the astronomy of stars.  It is a gross mistake to assume these are all the same “kinds” of Truth.

The late Prof. Ron Miller offered what I find to be one of the best, witty means of describing the Truth as contained in the bible (both Hebrew and Christian):

  •   Everything in the bible is true;  and some of it actually happened.  

Miller may have been quoting someone else, but if so, I have forgotten whom.  But in any event, the “truth” of this observation is apparent.

I hope it is now obvious that, no, I do *not* believe the bible is the only true scripture;  and why the question itself carries a host of difficulties in even being able to approach the question meaningfully.

On the other hand, I do not wish to be mistaken, as to be saying the bible is free of Truth.  I *do* believe the bible (both Hebrew and Christian) offers a great deal of Truth;  as do a great many other sacred scriptures from other religious and spiritual traditions.

I however, do tend to restrict my commentary and observations to the Jewish bible and Christian New Testament.  But it is *not* because I believe these are the only paths to Truth or offer the only paths to God and/or spiritual enlightenment.  I speak predominately of the Hebrew and Christian bibles because these are the sacred texts with which I am most familiar, and which form the foundation of my Christian tradition.

To say something is a better fit for me personally, is not to say that something else is therefore objectively deficient.  It is only to say that which forms a best fit to me, forms a best fit for me.

  [Q2]  Do you believe in evolution?

Honestly, I don’t think about the theory of evolution a great deal, as I don’t see how it directly pertains to my spiritual concerns.  But if I were to give a simple answer, I suppose I would come down on the side of evolution.  It makes the most sense given our understanding of science.  And it also fits in well with my apprehension of our spiritual evolution, which I most certainly do believe is taking place.

But I certainly do *not* believe the world was created 6,000 years ago, that cave men were running around with dinosaurs, or that the earth was created in 6 solar days.  Never mind that Genesis describes two different creation stories, or that the sun itself was not the first thing created, so how do we measure “days” anyway?

Such questions mistake the point of our creation stories;  they are not meant to be understood literally.  But I do see the effort of trying to force ancient sacred scripture to fit modern scientific discovery as a practical concern, because this poor practice gets in the way of learning how to read the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

Our ancient sacred scriptures were written by people with a very different understanding of the universe:  it was a three-tier universe, composed of heaven above, and Sheol below (not really “hell” but a only vaguely understood underworld), and between these, the earth on which we reside.  In the ancient world, there *was* no universe as we now understand it!  To pretend otherwise and to then try to shovel our modern precepts into our ancient sacred texts is an error of great magnitude.

So do I believe the theory of physical evolution of species over millennia on planet earth?  Sure.  Why not?  At least until a better theory comes along.  This is one of the strengths of the scientific method, you develop a theory, and run with it until something better comes along.  Over time, we finesse our knowledge and technical skills.

But these are questions of Fact, and not of Truth.

And these ought not be confused, one for the other.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I never address to my own satisfaction.  Fortunately, the late Prof. Ron Miller does so much better than I could ever hope to!  I believe Miller addresses these concerns in his talk entitled, “The New Atheists” which is one of the eight brilliant presentations he gave to the Theosophical Society:

But the long and short of it from a biblical apologetics point of view, is this:  Employ empiric, scientific methods as a means of answering one set of answers, to which a factual answer is meaningful;  Employ theological methods as a means of answering another set of answers, which pertain to metaphysical and spiritual concerns.  And, importantly, do not confuse one for the other.

I hope this answers your questions.  If not, just email me you follow up questions.

With blessings,

Erik+

Is God an Outside Job or an Inside Job?

Whether God is an Outside Job or an Inside Job, is a fundamental question which strongly effects how -or even whether- one might seek a mystical experience with the Divine.  It requires us to question how we anticipate God acting in the world.  Answering, requires that we reflect upon our understanding of the ontology of God.

(Merriam-Webster.com defines ontology as:  1. A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being;  2. A particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.)

  •   What is God’s nature?
  •   What is our relationship to God, in terms of relative classification or “kind” of being?

I believe Theologian Paul Tillich is correct in observing that the Western perception of God is most commonly described in one of two ways:

  1.   An outside force, divorced from humanity (this is the “invading” God of which bishop Spong speaks).
  2.   A living force, which flows up from our depths of being (an aspect of Tillich’s “ground of being”).

The Outside God is always alien to us;  a God from which we are forever separated due to our nature;  God is radically Other.  For those seeking a mystical apprehension of the Divine, perhaps the most important point to note is that -due to our very nature- we can *never* attain Unity with the Divine.  The separation between God and Humanity is devastatingly, categorically absolute.

The Inside God, in stark contrast to the Outside God, is of the same nature as are we;  we share an essence of the Divine;  we have access to the vitality of the Divine;  some even observe the Divine *is* the very life we carry.  In this view, each of us contains an “inner spark of the Divine.”  Some view this spark as innate, others as potential.  (Is it a flame or a seed?)  We may be removed from God by various degrees, but because we and God are of the same root nature, ultimately of the same Source -because ultimately there is only One- we are always potentially able to attain (or return to) Unity with the Divine.

Among the major contrasting themes are:

  •   Separation vs. Unity;
  •   Alien vs. Intimate;
  •   Exterior Force vs. Interior Force;
  •   Acting Upon Us vs. Acting From Within Us;
  •   Transcendence vs. Immanence.

And there is a direct corollary to how this effects our understanding of the bible (or any other sacred text).  These two very different perspectives from which to view God, the bible, and humankind may be illustrated by asking ourselves two questions:

  1.   Did God write the bible?
  2.   Or are the texts of the bible representative of the human effort to apprehend God?

These are very different things!  If God wrote the bible we must struggle with why God hates some people and loves others.  Why does God demand genocide?  (Bishop Spong answers this quite simply and effectively:  the god of hate represents a tribal god;  tribal gods always hate who we hate.)

Once we recognize that sacred scripture is written as a human attempt to explore our apprehension of the Divine, we are able to see instances of tribal god worship contrasted against worship of a Universal God of Love.  Which expression of the Divine is nearer our human heart largely is a question of which stage of faith we predominately occupy spiritually.  (For a discussion of stages of faith, see earlier blogs of March, June and July of 2013.)

Are we derivative of the Divine?

I suspect we are.  I suspect we flow from the Divine Source.  I certainly do not think the Divine flows from us:  through us, yes;  but not from us, as if we are the Source.

At least, in so far as we presently exist.  But I also suspect the question is more complex.  Our views are constrained by concepts such as Time.  If one is able to imagine a view which does not include Time, one might find questions such as who is derivative of whom to be without meaning.

For reasons such as this, I believe we are well served by maintaining a certain “looseness” in our thoughts and apprehensions.  I have long suspected that after our physical deaths we may very well discover that a great many of the questions with which we are so concerned, will not be found to be right or wrong, but rather so thoroughly misapprehended, as to be without meaning.

Yet we must begin where we find ourselves, and work with what tools we have.

I call this Practical Mysticism.  The subject of mysticism and of seeking union with the Divine is so broad and deep that I suspect we will never take its measure in one lifetime.  Severely complicating matters is our inability to express the experience through language.  This inability to share the subtle nature of the experience of the Divine limits our ability to learn from the experience of those who travelled before us.

Great mystics have left us clues.  Impressions, however vague, of their apprehension of the Divine.  But such works are nothing like engineering texts describing how to build a bridge or rocket.

Thus, to a large degree we each must plot our own course into the Unknown.  And it is all too easy to loose our bearings.  It is my opinion we should attempt to fix, as best we may, certain points to serve as light houses, or constellations, by which we may sail into the Cloud of Unknowing, which surrounds and obscures the Divine.  Yet we must always remain aware these are relative bearings only;  they do not, and are not meant to, literally limit the Divine to the confines of our puny intellect.

As I now apprehend the Divine, It is both Transcendent and Immanent.  And ultimately, Ineffable.   Merriam-Webster.com defines these terms as:

Transcendence

  •   The quality or state of being transcendent.

Transcendent

  •   Extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience;
  •   In Kantian philosophy:  being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;
  •   Being beyond comprehension.

Immanence

  •   The quality or state of being immanent.

Immanent

  •   Indwelling, inherent;
  •   Being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge — compare transcendent.

Ineffable

  •   Incapable of being expressed in words — indescribable.

There is an aspect of the Divine which will always remain to the human mind and heart utterly Transcendent.  We forget this when we squish God into a box and define who God loves and hates, and are so arrogant as to explain why.  This aspect of the Divine is incomprehensibly alien to us.  This apprehension of the Divine informs us that we know so little of the Divine, as to know nothing.  We should be incredibly humble in face of this profound state of ignorance, which we all share.

Yet, simultaneously there is an immanent aspect of the Divine, one which bubbles forth from our own depths!  (And from all life, for that matter.)  This is the aspect of the Divine which we may come to know as a part of ourselves, intimately.  This is the inner-divinity of which all mystics speak, yet are unable to fully express.

We might consider the implications of the ineffable nature of the experience which mystics seek.  Having had an experience of “Mystical Union with the Divine” it is consistently related as being an experience which is incapable of being expressed in words.  Imagine “seeing the face of God” and being unable to relate that experience to others, except in the most impoverished terms.

Many find this frustrating.  However, I believe we should consider reframing our perspective.  While we may not be able to share in the experience others have had, we are able to draw inspiration from the event itself:

  •   we too may aspire to share a similar sense of Union with the Divine!
  •   if they can do it, so may we!

 

With blessings,

Erik+

Biblical Words That Have Changed Meaning: VANITY

 

Biblical Words That Have Changed Meaning:  VANITY

I am re-posting my remarks I made in early November 2013 which were triggered by a very interesting blog post made by Chris Armstrong PhD.  I just couldn’t stand the poor formatting!  UG!  

Below is the text of my original remarks:

I enjoyed this blog by Chris Armstrong (Ph.D., Duke University;  professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN).  He shares some of the many words used in the King Jame’s Version of the bible which have come to carry very different meanings – in some cases the opposite of what we assume when reading them from our modern frame of reference!  This seems like a reasonable point of which to be aware.  I hope you enjoy his blog, as have I.

The modern misinterpretation which always jumps immediately to my mind is vanity as in “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

The relevant definitions of VANITY are (Merriam-Webster online):

1:  something that is vain, empty, or valueless
2:  the quality or fact of being vain
3:  inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance :  conceit

Seems clear enough, right?  However, the original Hebrew word is hebel (Strong’s #1891: vapor; breath).  We inherited, habel = vanity, because when it was first translated into Latin, we were given habel = vanitas;  the nearest translation into English being, vanity.  Related meanings in English then extend from this assignment, such as ‘meaningless’ or ‘futile.’

But if we look to the Hebrew roots of the Hebrew word hebel, we find the related meanings to be:

  •   fog
  •   steam
  •   breeze
  •   breath

The flash of an image that comes to my mind is that of being on a small boat, watching the shoreline in the early pre-dawn hours, trying to make out something of interest, but it is being obscured by banks of fog.  These shift and thicken, seemingly causing the object of my curiosity to recede from view.

Another more abstract idea that comes to mind, is to realize the substance of our physical world is as this fog…  banks of shifting and undulating steam or breath (elemental particles adrift in the quantum uncertainty from which our apparently-solid world quickens).  And behind this shifting fog of elemental particles?  Yet another realm, equally fogged by the steamy breath of God!  This is yet another aspect of the Cloud of Unknowing, somewhere hidden within is to be found the Divine Center, to which we aspire.

And what new insight does this bring to the book of Ecclesiastes?

Is life meaningless?  Futile?  This would be the modern interpretation one might very easily glean.  But I feel this is the *wrong* apprehension of this book.  On one hand, yes, leading a life dedicated *only* to physical concerns may very well be meaningless, leading only to disappointment – to this extent I will agree.

But there is a more refined view of reality to which we may cleave.  This is something along the lines of Practical Spirituality.  I believe this is related to us in the Hebrew word chased:  loving-kindness.  When we choose to live our lives from this perspective – “loving wastefully” as bishop Spong says – we discover we are living our life to its fullest potential, and this is the nearest we may approach eternal peace whilst within flesh.

Perhaps the trick is to see the physical world as the ephemeral, and what love and joy we may be able to bring into the world as our vehicle for celebrating the Breath of Life granted us by God, to be the substantial.  Then, after we fade as so much fog against the morning sun, we will take up the next leg of our journey, carried on the breeze of the Divine Breath.

This apprehension offers a quality to our life, far greater than futility and nihilism.  Our earthly lives may be ephemeral, but they are far from meaningless or futile.  So, yes, words do matter;  how we define them matters greatly;  understanding that the meanings of words change over the centuries is a critical aspect of biblical inquiry, and one which may grant us much better clarity and acuity.

Erik+

Words in the King James Version that now mean something else: Have you ever run across these and wondered what they meant?

I enjoyed this blog by Chris Armstrong (Ph.D., Duke University;  professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN).  He shares some of the many words used in the King Jame’s Version of the bible which have come to carry very different meanings – in some cases the opposite of what we assume when reading them from our modern frame of reference!  This seems like a reasonable point of which to be aware.  I hope you enjoy his blog, as have I.

 

The modern misinterpretation which always jumps immediately to my mind is vanity as in “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

 

The relevant definitions of VANITY are (Merriam-Webster online):

1:  something that is vain, empty, or valueless
2:  the quality or fact of being vain
3:  inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance :  conceit

 

Seems clear enough, right?  However, the original Hebrew word is hebel (Strong’s #1891: vapor; breath).  We inherited, habel = vanity, because when it was first translated into Latin, we were given habel = vanitas;  the nearest translation into English being, vanity.  Related meanings in English then extend from this assignment, such as ‘meaningless’ or ‘futile.’

 

But if we look to the Hebrew roots of the Hebrew word hebel, we find the related meanings to be:

  • fog
  • steam
  • breeze
  • breath

 

The flash of an image that comes to my mind is that of being on a small boat, watching the shoreline in the early pre-dawn hours, trying to make out something of interest, but it is being obscured by banks of fog.  These shift and thicken, seemingly causing the object of my curiosity to recede from view.

 

Another more abstract idea that comes to mind, is to realize the substance of our physical world is as this fog…  banks of shifting and undulating steam or breath (elemental particles adrift in the quantum uncertainty from which our apparently-solid world quickens).  And behind this shifting fog of elemental particles?  Yet another realm, equally fogged by the steamy breath of God!  This is yet another aspect of the Cloud of Unknowing, somewhere hidden within is to be found the Divine Center, to which we aspire.

 

And what new insight does this bring to the book of Ecclesiastes?

 

Is life meaningless?  Futile?  This would be the modern interpretation one might very easily glean.  But I feel this is the *wrong* apprehension of this book.  On one hand, yes, leading a life dedicated *only* to physical concerns may very well be meaningless, leading only to disappointment – to this extent I will agree.

 

But there is a more refined view of reality to which we may cleave.  This is something along the lines of Practical Spirituality.  I believe this is related to us in the Hebrew word chased:  loving-kindness.  When we choose to live our lives from this perspective – “loving wastefully” as bishop Spong says – we discover we are living our life to its fullest potential, and this is the nearest we may approach eternal peace whilst within flesh.

 

Perhaps the trick is to see the physical world as the ephemeral, and what love and joy we may be able to bring into the world as our vehicle for celebrating the Breath of Life granted us by God, to be the substantial.  Then, after we fade as so much fog against the morning sun, we will take up the next leg of our journey, carried on the breeze of the Divine Breath.

 

This apprehension offers a quality to our life, far greater than futility and nihilism.  Our earthly lives may be ephemeral, but they are far from meaningless or futile.  So, yes, words do matter;  how we define them matters greatly;  understanding that the meanings of words change over the centuries is a critical aspect of biblical inquiry, and one which may grant us much better clarity and acuity.

 

Erik+

Grateful to the dead

Well, work on issue #100 of Christian Historymagazine, on the King James Bible, is almost completed. By March we expect to have it out to many previous subscribers, plus those of you who have signed up for a free copy here. Meanwhile, what with allotting pages to articles and moving things around, the following nifty “Did You Know” piece will likely be pushed out (it was squeezed out when I realized that one page was not enough space to do justice to the KJV’s fascinating chief translator, Lancelot Andrewes). So what better place to share it than here on Grateful to the Dead?

The following are just a few of the more than 500 words that could trip up modern readers of the King James Version, because they now mean something different—often very different!—than they did in the early 1600s when the KJV was being translated.

accursed

View original post 745 more words