Archive for the 'Seminarian Perspective' Category

Belief & Faith

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

When speaking of belief and faith, I find our common understanding of these words has become impoverished, lacking vitality as compared to their older meanings found in the Christian New Testament. The words belief and faith carry an importance we ought to appreciate as Christians, if we are to come to a deeper understanding of our own sacred texts, so that we may taste the richness of scriptural language.

What do you imagine most people now mean when they speak of belief? Of faith?

In the vernacular of contemporary American English, belief and faith are closely related. Their primary difference is one of color, taste, or degree. In my experience belief holds wider use in secular (nonreligious) language and faith is more common to religious language. Also, so far as I am concerned, faith runs deeper than belief.

In its secular use, belief may identify a difference in degree of certainty: to say I believe the capital of Alaska is Juneau, means I am not 100% certain that is factual; if I tell someone I believe them, I am assuring them I assume they are telling me the truth (as they perceive it, of course). As Marcus Borg observes, “…knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.” [1]

In the religious context, belief carries a different connotation: affirming as true, that which one would otherwise not hold to be true, e.g. virgin birth (based upon a mistranslation and misreading of Isaiah 7:14 [2]), or that the earth was literally created in six days.

The assertion of a literal six-day creation also demonstrates a logical fallacy, in that one must willfully ignore that within the cosmogany [3] of Genesis itself, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day [4], and our measure of a day is dependent upon the earth’s rotation relative to the sun; thus, even within it’s own logical construct, Genesis cannot be understood literally. As with all mythology, it’s meaning runs far deeper than assertions concerning empirically demonstrable facts. Failing to appreciate the vitality of mythology is another impoverishment many (most?) in the modern age suffer.

Saying, “I believe you” does not carry the same conviction as saying, “I have faith in you.” Belief is directed toward an estimate of accuracy in data ―the known vs. the unknown― whereas faith is an estimation of a person’s intrinsic character or qualities.

Faith may also be understood as choosing to believe something as being true, which cannot be demonstrated to be true; or even choosing to believe a thing as being true, despite empirical evidence it is not true. One may choose to believe life has meaning beyond the physical; one may choose to believe there is a God; one may choose to believe Jesus was the son of God; one may choose to believe one is saved or redeemed. But none of these assertions may be empirically proved or disproved. This is why believing them requires a demonstration of faith.

Significant error creeps into our thinking when one confuses empirically demonstrable facts with claims of truth and perceptions of what one deems to be true. Simply put, facts and truth are not always the same things; many truths are imbued with an ineffable quality, or display a quality richer than that which may be measured.

For those interested in the topic of the meaning of Christian words, and how they have changed over the centuries, I commend to you Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” I find Borg to be both an intelligent and caring person, able to convey refined details of theology from a scholars perspective, without losing touch with the heart of Christianity, which is love.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using faith

Faith, carries several simultaneous connotations: assensus, fidelitas, fiducia (Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament). [5]

Assensus, we may translate as assent; however, until we appreciate the depth of meaning in the remaining terms, we miss the mark if assuming this simply means to believe things that a rational person cannot. But let us first visit fidelitas and fiducia, then return to assensus.

Fidelitas, means faith as faithfulness; fidelity. To help us better understand this kind of faith, Borg uses the example of fidelity in marriage, as one being faithful to the relationship with one’s spouse; not faithful to a set of logical statements concerning one’s spouse.

In the same way, fidelity to God is not about believing dogma or church traditions or even scripture; fidelity to God is being faithful to one’s relationship with God; intentionally and mindfully enriching our sense of relationship with that transcendent More, which Christians identify as God or Father.

One aspect of this, is deliberately, consciously living in the presence of the divine throughout our daily life, as best we are able. How do we do this? We start by being aware of each moment as it passes. We open ourselves to the possibility of feeling a Presence at any time. We look for opportunities to relate to others directly, with compassion, and to help them when we are able.

Why? Because “God” is not up in heaven somewhere, and “God” is not “out there” somewhere. Quite the opposite: it is we who are “in God” because we are immersed in the sacred More all the time, as is a fish in water. Sometimes we are aware of this; other times we forget or become distracted.

Fiducia, is faith as trust. Radical –as in fundamental, foundational– trust in one’s relationship with God; this is not trust in statements, or affirmations, or assertions about God. The root lies not in logical constructs, but in experiential relationship. Thus, the heart of faith as fiducia, is rooted in personal experience of the divine.

Sensing our personal experience of the divine, by the way, is one way to define mysticism. Fiducia is related to fidelitas (fidelity), because fidelity is expressed through our concern for others, daily moving through our life mindful of the possibility of encountering the divine, and specifically of encountering the divine in those we meet. Thus, faith as fidelity is rooted in experiencing life, as is fiducia, faith as trust in relationship.

And let us remember, our daily life is where we must “meet God” because that is where we find ourselves. It is like the old joke, everywhere you go, there you are. But so too, “God” the transcendent and immanent More in which we swim, and have our very be-ing-ness, is there with us.

Returning to assensus –“faith as believing something is true” [6]– I agree with Borg, that first and foremost, we are (as William James defined the Sacred) affirming there is a mysterious More which permeates the cosmos. And for me as a Christian, Jesus is the “decisive disclosure of the More,” [7] that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as Christians we seek theosis [8] of the Christ living in, and through, us.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using belief

Belief, one may best read as beloved [9]. As used in the New Testament, the heart of its meaning is love; not assertion, nor affirmation, and certainly not as acknowledging empirically derived facts. Once one shifts one’s understanding of the word belief, to beloved, many passages in the New Testament take on a new life and vitality.

This brings to mind what for me is the most central aspect of the teaching of Jesus ― the Greatest Commandment:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Speaking practically, what might one do to help encourage some experience of the divine, of “God” in one’s life?

Mindful, intentional, loving, engagement is the path many mystics cite when asked how one might draw oneself nearer an experience of the divine in one’s life. There are a number of ways one might begin one’s journey along this path. Among them are regularly praying and/or meditating, studying and/or contemplating scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Why pray? Why study scripture? Why attend Mass?

Each of these embeds one in the Mind of Christ, to some degree; to what depth changes with each person. Some respond more to prayer, some by immersing themselves in scripture, and others by partaking of Holy Communion. But in each case, the objective is to find a means of immersing oneself in maturing spiritual thought and maturing spiritual emotion.

I would make the point that both thought and emotion play important roles in acquiring the skill leading to one’s spiritual maturity. Each provides a measure of balance to the other. Without emotion one may become dry, empty husks merely spouting facts and figures which have been memorized. Where is the Spirit in this? Without thought, one is lost, awash in emotional turmoil, seething and reacting, but without guidance, lacking long-term goals and unable to direct one’s spiritual development. Where is the Spirit in this?

One prays, studies scripture, and partakes of Holy Communion because the more one does so, the more one embeds oneself in the process of forming in oneself the Mind of Christ. As one dwells more frequently in this mode of thought and experience, one more frequently views one’s view daily interactions and internal dialogue through this spiritual lens. One becomes more mindful of one’s presence, that of others, and ultimately of the More, to which we all aspire.

All of these are means of transforming oneself into the type of person one wishes to become. As one increasingly finds one dwells in this state of mind, one increasingly has an effect upon others. Thus transformation of self, overflows into transformation of community, which over time creates a feedback, in which one is more spiritually nourished by one’s community; and as one better nourishes other members of one’s community, the cycle of spiritual generation continues. Where the Heart and Mind leads, the body will follow.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world…

With all the above in mind, I wish to offer two translations of John 3:16 for your consideration. The first is the King Jame’s Version, and the second a translation done by Marcus Borg. I invite you to compare these versions of John 3:16 and ask yourself which version better promotes the mature psychological and spiritual thinking of Unity Consciousness; that of putting on the Mind of Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
[John 3:16 KJV]

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God
that whosoever beloves him shall not perish
but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.
[John 3:16 translation by Marcus Borg][10]

As you come to the end of this essay, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s short sermon, “What is Faith?” upon which this essay is based. I find his thoughts on this topic insightful, and I believe you will as well:

Marcus Borg’s Lenten Homily http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

May the Lord bless and keep you,
Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] Marcus J. Borg, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored” (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 116.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 is typically taken out of context when quoted by Christians in the defense of Jesus’ virgin birth; few who read it are aware the Hebrew word used is Almah, which carries a range of meanings: girl; maid; maiden; young woman, and virgin. Almah is indeed translated as virgin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (from which the author of Matthew drew their reference). However, this is obviously a mistaken interpretation when read in context; read Isaiah 7:10-17 for yourself: “Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel”… 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman [Greek, the virgin] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (NRSV) Basically, this passage is a prophecy that the current siege shall be lifted after the young woman gives birth, and that king Ahaz will not be defeated by these two kings, as he fears. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ virgin birth (although in the ancient literature of many cultures, accounts of virgin births are mythic/legendary elements often employed to raise the status of those to whom they are directed: Krishna (India); Horus (Egypt); Lao-Tsze (China); even Plato (Athens); as well as, Dionysus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and of course Jesus). This is not to imply that virgin births are not important, but they are not to be understood literally either.

[3]Cosmogany: a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Cosmogony).

[4] Genesis 1:14-19. The fourth day.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: Lenten Homily, 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

[6] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[7] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[8] “Theosis literally means to become gods by Grace. The Biblical words that are synonymous and descriptive of Theosis are: adoption, redemption, inheritance, glorification, holiness and perfection. Theosis is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, whereby through Grace one becomes a participant in the Kingdom of God. Theosis is an act of the uncreated and infinite love of God. It begins here in time and space, but it is not static or complete, and is an open-ended progression uninterrupted through all eternity.” Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) page 86.

[9] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[10] Borg, “What is Faith?”

Resources:

Books:

Borg, Marcus J.:

“The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored”

Ehrman, Bart D.: “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”

James, William : “Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature”

Online:

Borg, Marcus J.: Lenten Homily, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis.aspx (http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis-english.pdf)

Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?

Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?  

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

In this essay we will explore this question by examining the passage which includes I Corinthians 14:34b-35, which reads,

  …women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now, one response to this question is to simply say, of course Paul said women are to be subordinate to men;  it is obviously, clearly stated in the New Testament a number of times, including the above.  What more does one need to know?  As it turns out, one may wish to know quite a bit more!  While we will ask if these verses stand or fall on their own merit, I find a more thoughtful response begins by observing that we must first address an unstated question:

          Did Paul write all the letters attributed to Paul?  

Pauline Authorship

I addressed the question of Pauline authorship as part of my January 2014 essay (“Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”).  In this essay I will simply say that for a variety of reasons, I am convinced there were at least four different categories of author writing in Paul’s name.  Most New Testament scholars identify these categories as:

Authentic Paul
Disputed Paul
Forgeries written in Paul’s name
Paul as described in the book of Acts

The authentic Paul was of course, only one human being.  But when we speak of the other categories of author writing in Paul’s name, we do not know for certain if these were individuals or groups of people representing a given school of thought.  I suspect reasonable cases made be made for both types of authorship.

I should note that some scholars who argue that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him, qualify that assertion by stating the authentic Paul wrote by committee, and that accounts for the variation in vocabulary and grammar when comparing these categories of Pauline authorship.  But within the scope of this essay whether or not any of these letters was written by committee is not an important question.

For the sake of completeness, the following are the letters most commonly associated with each of the categories of author writing in Paul’s name:

Authentic Paul

1st Thessalonians
Philippians
Philemon
1st Corinthians
Galatians
2nd Corinthians
Romans

SIDEBAR:  The above letters are presented in chronological order.  It has been suggested that studying their content carefully allows one to track Paul’s developing theology over time.  One should bear in mind however, that if Paul ever wrote a systematic theology, it has not survived;  there are almost certainly beliefs he held for which we have no record.  With the exception of his letter to the Romans, his writings are occasional letters (meaning they were written to address specific problems/occasions;  typically addressing difficulties people were experiencing in churches Paul had previously established).  Romans is somewhat different in several ways.  Paul had never been to Rome, and this letter was written primarily as a letter of introduction, to dispel concerns over his teachings, and to raise funds for a new ministry reaching into the west (Gaul/Spain).

Disputed Paul

Colossians
2nd Thessalonians
Ephesians (a “circular” letter, either considered disputed or a forgery)

Forgeries in Paul’s name

1st Timothy
2nd Timothy
Titus
Ephesians (unless one considers it as disputed)

Acts is not included in the above list, because no thinks Paul wrote Acts.  The author of Acts is also the author of the Gospel of Luke, and these are part one and part two of a two-volume work, Luke/Acts.  Where Paul is described or made to speak in Acts, it is the author of Luke/Acts describing the action or speaking for Paul;  it is not Paul.  I have included Acts in this list, as the fourth category of authorship, because many people rely upon it for biographical information relating to Paul.  However, this must be done critically.  The author of Acts and Paul at numerous points disagree about Paul’s history and movements;  who are we to believe when the same story is told differently?

Was Paul a Misogynist?

One of the stronger arguments for a misogynistic Paul is found in 1st Corinthians, chapter 14.  Because 1st Corinthians numbers among the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul -therefore, the argument goes- if Paul therein states that women are to be subordinate to men, Paul is in fact a misogynist (one who hates or denigrates women).  On the surface, I would agree that assertion seems logical, however, as is often the case in biblical studies, many important variables are not that simple and clear cut.

In much the same way that Paul did not write all the letters to which his name is attributed, the authentic Paul did not write every sentence passed down to us through history, even in those letters which we otherwise consider to be undisputedly written by Paul.

     I disagree that Paul wrote the misogynistic passages attributed to him. 

     Even those found in the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul.  

This may be where some cry “Foul!”  Am I not saying that I simply refuse to allow Paul to have said things with which I personally disagree?  Is this not simply, and only, a matter of personal opinion?  These are valid questions and concerns.  I am going to try to illustrate there is more to this assertion than personal opinion.  There is logical reasoning behind such a claim, and in this case, we can each read the text and see it for ourselves.

Such a strong degree of “obviousness” is not always the case.  Sometimes the reasons scholars cite for their positions requires that one is able to read the text in the original language.  The passage we are looking at is not one of these more complex cases.

While I will introduce a view which is based upon translation issues, that is not the argument I personally find to be the most important, nor most convincing.  However, for a number of reasons, I think understanding the logic behind the construction of the translation argument may be instructive;  not only as it pertains to getting at the “real” Paul, but as a broader example of the process of applying critical biblical analysis.

The critical verses we are examining are found within the longer passage of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40…

1 Corinthians 14:26-40 (NRSV)

Orderly Worship

26 What should be done then, my friends?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

   (As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
   35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church [some ancient authorities put verses 34–35 after verse 40].
   36 Or did the word of God originate with you?  Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

A Different Author Inserted the Text into Paul’s Original Material

This is a well known conjecture.  Some study bibles note there is scholarly debate as to whether or not verses 33b-36 were written by Paul, or were later additions created by a redactor (editor) of the text;  the Harper-Collins Study Bible is one such example.

The primary argument seems obvious to my eye.  Simply read the above passage, but skip verses 33b-36 which appear as a parenthetical statement.  Is it not abundantly clear the flow of the writing is better without including verses 33b-36?

We may also ask ourselves if the key ideas expressed in verses 33b-36 follow the logic of the rest of the passage.  Where else does Paul say that women are to remain silent in church, and are to be subordinate to men (or in some manuscripts to their husbands)?

The answer is, Paul does not say women are to remain silent in church, nor does Paul say women are to be subordinate to men (husbands or otherwise).  The ideas about women remaining silent and obedient are *only* found in the text which I am arguing has been inserted at a later date.

Remaining silent is mentioned in the original text, but it is not associated with women remaining silent.  There are two reasons given to remain silent, regardless of one’s gender:  (1) there is to be no speaking in tongues unless an interpreter is present;  and (2) in order to control the number or persons responding to revelations that have been given.  Both are efforts to reduce chaos in worship, which is the primary message Paul is trying to convey in this passage.

As to women being subordinate to men, this idea appears no where else in this passage.  It is just thrown in, completely out of the blue.  We may also observe, it bears no relation to the orderly conduct of the worship.

Participation of All is Welcomed  

Read this passage again, skipping verses 33b-36, and note how many times Paul speaks to participation in worship by everyone present.  Compare this with the number of times Paul says women are forbidden participation.  The count is overwhelming, because Paul never says that women are forbidden participation in worship, yet he exhorts participation, without regard to gender, numerous times.

The strongest argument against such inclusive language turns on the word translated as “friends.”  The Greek word used here is adelphos which can simply mean brothers or men;  but it can also mean persons of the same nationality, or a fellow believer in Christ, as we can infer from the definition given below:

G#0080 ἀδελφός adelphos {ad-el-fos’} (http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html)

1) a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the
same father or mother
2) having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same
people, or countryman
3) any fellow or man
4) a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection
5) an associate in employment or office
6) brethren in Christ
6a) his brothers by blood
6b) all men
6c) apostles
6d) Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

In the translation I quote, adelphos is rendered as “friends.”  I think this is reasonable.  But is “brothers” more accurate, and if so, would that imply Paul is not addressing women?  I find this a very weak argument.  As a modern example, consider the phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “All men are created equal.”  Does this include women?  If you agree it does -as do I- then you cannot argue friends (adelphos) does not.  In both cases the language is being used inclusive of gender.

What If the Offensive Verses are Just Out of Order?  

Some ancient manuscripts place verses 33b-36 at the end of this passage, following verse 40.  The disruption of the train of thought is less obvious in such cases.  But their content still bears no relation to the topics being addressed in the rest of the passage.

Furthermore, when we find various manuscripts locating a set of verses in different locations within the text, that itself is often taken as evidence those verses may not be original to the text.  One of the reasons for this is because margin notes were sometimes added to manuscripts.  (This is another way the offensive verses 33b-36 may have found their way into I Corinthians chapter 14.)

Later scribes are then left to interpret why the margin note was made.  Is it a clarifying remark?  Is it the addition of a similar thought existing in the oral tradition at the time the note was made?  Is the scribe simply expressing an opinion?  Is the earlier scribe adding words that he thought the original author ought to have written, but did not?  Is it a correction to the text?  If it is an attempted correction to the text, is the correction itself correct, or does it introduce an error?  All of these reasons are possible, and all are known to have taken place in surviving manuscripts.

How Has Ancient Scripture Reached Us?  

To put it crassly, when Jesus floated up into the sky at his ascension, the completed King James Version of the Holy Bible did not fall out of his back pocket!  No, these texts were written over a period of many hundreds of years (perhaps a little over 100 years for the New Testament books) and were then copied, the copies copied, and recopied many times, over many generations.  And none of the original texts survive;  nor do any of the earliest copies survive.

Additionally, there are issues of translation to be considered.  The vast majority of the original Hebrew bible was written in Hebrew.  Some 200 years before the time of Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek.  All of the original New Testament was written in Greek.  Centuries later, both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament were translated into Latin.  Many centuries later it was translated into European languages, including the King James Version in 1611.

Today we have many modern translations available from which to choose.  Generally speaking, most translations of the last 50 to 100 years are going to be pretty good.  These typically reflect modern scholarship, in footnotes if not in the body of the text itself.  But the early hand-written manuscripts are rife with errors and omissions;  most are easily detected;  some are still debated.

One of the more important points to take from this, is there is no single irrefutable, inerrant source for either the Hebrew bible or New Testament.  All that we have inherited has been culled first from oral traditions, then written down, copied, edited, recopied, reedited, and translated, many times over, in its transmission to us today.

Modern scholars have done a good job of getting us close to what is thought to be the original text;  but they cannot do so perfectly, nor with complete certainty.  A degree of interpretation is always required.  And we too, must read the bible with a degree of interpretation.  If we are to best understand what may have been the original intention and meaning of those who wrote these texts, we have to approach the text openly, mindfully, and critically.

Ron Miller’s Interpretation

In his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” on page 128, Ron Miller offers the following annotation to I Corinthians 14:34-35…

   “Here we have yet another interpolation, a passage that clearly interrupts the flow of the text.  Paul was certainly no feminist by today’s standards, nor did he demonstrate much insight into the complementary role of the sexes in marriage.  But in the context of his time, he clearly supported an active role for women in his communities.  In this same letter (16:19), he wrote: ‘…Aquila and Prisca, together with the community that meets in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord.’
   “In Acts 18:2, we read about Paul meeting this couple, and in Romans 16:3, they are discussed in the most laudatory terms.  When the community met in their house, are we to imagine that, even though Paul called both his coworkers, only the husband Aquila spoke while Prisca was silent?  This contradicts all the evidence for the house churches Paul established, assemblies where Jewish and Gentile Christians, male and female Christians, slave and free Christians, were all called to share their gifts in a spirit of fellowship and peace.”  

Cultural Nuances

The world of the 1st century was very different from our world of the 21st century.  Scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures help us better understand the context in which biblical authors were writing.  In the 1st century women were typically not educated and many were kept isolated within their homes.  So while Paul was telling his communities to no longer see social and cultural divisions between persons, many such divisions did in fact exist in his world.

Another point to understand about Paul, is that while he was accepting of persons across social barriers -women, slaves, etc.- he expressed little desire to change social roles.  Compare the following:

Galatians 3

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female;  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I Corinthians 7

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.
9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

I Corinthians 7

21 Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
26 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

What is going on?  Taken out of the context of Paul’s broader understanding and teaching these can be confusing passages.  Are we all the same in Christ, or not?  Should a slave remain a slave, or not?  Should we marry, or not?

   Apocalypticism (Merriam-Webster):
         a doctrine concerning an imminent end of the world and an ensuing general resurrection and final judgement

One key to properly interpreting these kinds of passages in Paul is to remember he was part of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, and carried these eschatological (ending of the world) views into his interpretation of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Paul experienced Jesus as having been raised after his crucifixion.  Thus, Jesus was for Paul the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, which was to take place at the end of the world.  Paul speaks of this throughout the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians.  And it is critical to understand that since Jesus was seen by Paul as the first fruits of the general resurrection, therefore, the end of the world and the general resurrection, were to happen very soon.  And by “very soon” I mean that Paul fully expected both to occur while he was alive.  Note the use of “we”:

   I Cor. 15:51, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed…”  

This is why Paul is not concerned with the long-term social status of people.  In Paul’s view, there simply was not going to be a long-term existence with which to be concerned!  If the end of the world is coming any day, it doesn’t really matter if you remain a slave, or whether you get married, or whether you have children.

In light of his expectation of the impending end of the world, I find it very interesting that Paul does expand the roles of women in his communities.  This would seem to indicate that even in the face of the immanent end of the temporal world, elevating women to equal status with men was important to Paul.

It may simply be that because many of Paul’s communities began as house churches, and some women did have some authority within their own home, that women were important to the founding of Paul’s communities.  I am not certain we are able to read into Paul’s writings clearly enough to discover why women were considered so important to Paul;  but we are able to see that women are important to Paul, and to his ministry.

Translation Difficulties

I wish to close this essay by taking a brief look at some difficulties and challenges that face us when dealing with translated texts.  Paul, I would hope it is obvious, did not write in English.  Paul wrote in Greek.  And Greek can be a very subtle language, offering many shades of meaning.

In some cases, Greek is much more subtle and nuanced than is English.  For example, there are at least eight different words for “love” in Greek:

mania:  lustful, obsessive love
eros:  sexual, emotional passion
ludus:  playful love, affection
philia:  deep friendship, kinship for fellow humans, brothers-in-arms (combat)
philautia:  love of the self (both healthy and unhealthy varieties)
storgy:  family, motherly love
pragma:  longstanding love, as between aged spouses
agape:  unconditional, universal love

In his book “What Paul Really Said About Women” John Temple Bristow states there are 30 Greek words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  He addresses some of these in his discussion surrounding 1st Corinthians 15:34-35, on pages 60-64.

In approaching this passage, Bristow asks that we consider the context.  Paul is speaking to concerns regarding public worship;  specifically, how to conduct orderly public worship.  At this point, Bristow begins to discuss the specific Greek words from which our translations derive.

I Cor. 14:33a, “…for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.”  (NRSV)  

Akatastasia is the Greek word translated above as “disorder,” and it is sometimes translated as “confusion” in this passage.  Elsewhere, when Paul is being confronted by angry mobs, enduring beatings, and other hardships, the same Greek word is translated as “tumult.”

Thus, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself faced by an “unruly mob,” you may describe the chaos much as did Paul, who “described their noisy confusion and disorder as akatastasia” (Bristow, page 61).  And we can well imagine this is decidedly *not* what one would wish to be taking place during worship!  Yet, this is the impression Paul offers us of the chaos that had befallen the Corinthians.

And this is the context in which Paul offers advice as to how their worship services ought to be managed.  In I Corinthians, chapter 14, we find:

Verses 27-28:  No more than three persons are to speak in tongues;  and only then if interpreters are present.

Verses 29-32:  No more than three persons may prophecy;  they must take turns and consider the message of those who have spoken before them.

Verse 34:  Women are to remain silent during the service.

Verse 34 creates a difficulty.  In chapter 11, Paul states that women are permitted to pray and prophecy during worship.  Now the same Paul says women must remain silent?

Somehow, one must reconcile these apparently opposing statements.  I have already indicated, I find the best answer is that Paul never said that women should remain silent.  And I do not find Bristow’s argument changes my opinion.  But it is instructive to follow his argument for at least two reasons:

First, for those who cannot accept that some of Paul’s letters were forgeries, this offers a means of mitigating the foulness of Paul’s speech, while retaining Paul as the sole author of all the letters written in his name.  For some, retaining Paul as sole author is vital, and Bristow’s approach at least allows one to soften the mistreatment of women.

I wish to be perfectly clear:  the proper course, is to eliminate the misunderstanding.  It is far better to see that Paul never said this of women, and that women are to be treated as wholly equal human beings, than to begin treating women with a lesser degree of hostility.

Second, Bristow’s analysis allows us to peer into the subtle nature of the Greek language.  This offers us insights which we may apply to a great many difficult passages in the bible.  It is important for us to remember we are reading a translation.  And there are occasions when words and meanings do not translate exactly from one language to another.  And those making the translation must choose between offering a literal translation of the words, or the best translation of the meaning expressed in the original text.  The two are not always the same.

With these cautions, I’ll offer a sample of what Bristow has to say about I Cor. 14:34-35.

Silence in the Greek (Bristow, pg. 62-63)

Phimoo means “‘tie shut'” or to “‘muzzle.'”  This is the word that might best be translated from our English phrase “shut up.”  “Phimoo means forcing someone to be silent.”

Hesuchia is used to denote “quietness and stillness.”  Bristow observes that this is the Greek word used in 1st Timothy, but in that context it was not discussing worship, but while one is studying.  And one could make the argument that hesuchia (quietness and stillness) is a very practical attitude for all of us to adopt when studying.

Sigao is a voluntary silence.”  And this is the Greek word Paul used when he (or the person writing in his name) wrote, “‘Let the women in the churches be silent.'”  Furthermore, sigao can also be a request that one remain silent.  And, “[s]igao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.  And Paul asked women of the Church to keep that kind of silence.”

This is a very different shade of meaning than telling someone to sit down and shut up!  We may now appreciate that the English translation misses a lot of the subtlety in the original Greek.  Where it is rude and offensive to demand that someone sit down and shut up, it is perfectly understandable that one may request that persons engaging in a worship service conduct themselves orderly, and without creating chaos.

Bristow makes another interesting point with regard to words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  In this case the Greek word chosen by Paul is laleo which of all the 30 options in Greek, is the only one which may simply mean to “‘talk'” or engage in frivolous conversation.

To illustrate the importance Bristow reads into this use of laleo in the Greek, he offers a story related by Kari Torjesen Malcolm, in her 1982 book “Women at the Crossroads”:

    “‘My mother used to compare the situation in Corinth to the one she and my father faced in northern China.  Back in the 1920s when they were first to bring God’s message to that forgotten area, they found women with bound feet who seldom left their homes and who, unlike the men, had never in their whole lives attended a public meeting or a class.  They had never been told as little girls, ‘Now you must sit still and listen to the teacher.’  Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once.
    ‘When these women came to my parents’ church and gathered on the women’s side of the sanctuary, they thought this was a chance to catch up on the news with their neighbors and to ask questions about the story of Jesus they were hearing.  Needless to say, along with babies crying and toddlers running about, the women’s section got rather noisy!  Add to that the temptation for the women to shout questions to their husbands across the aisle, and you can imagine the chaos.  As my mother patiently tried to tell the women that they should listen first and chitchat or ask questions later, she would mutter under her breath, ‘Just like Corinth;  it just couldn’t be more like Corinth.'”

Please note, this is not to imply the above is characteristic behavior of all women.  It really has nothing to do with women at all, other than it was women who were deliberately kept isolated and uneducated.  I submit that anyone who was treated as were these women, would behave in much the same manner.  By extension, we may imagine that similar behavior may have been engaged in by the women in Corinth, some 2,000 years ago, and perhaps for very similar reasons, given there may have been similar cultural influence;  both were situated in male dominated cultures.

Thus, Paul was not telling women to sit down and shut up, and he was not saying that women were prohibited from taking an active role in worship.  He was saying that the worship ought to be conducted in an orderly manner.  And that is all he was trying to convey in I Cor. 14:34-35.

I Find This is a Very Clear Passage to Interpret  

First, verses 34-35 read as if they have been inserted into the original text by a later editor.

Second, elsewhere in authentic Paul material, we read where Paul supports women taking leading roles in the communities Paul has founded.  (Romans 16:1, serves as one example:  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or minister] of the church at Cenchreae.”)

Third, for those of us who read the Pauline letters as having multiple authors, it is easy to see that those writing after Paul’s death (circa 67 ce) modified some of his views:  forcing male dominance over women;  harsh curtailing of women’s roles (1 Timothy 2:11-15, serves as an example).

Peeling Back the Layers of Paul

I hope this essay offers several insights into how we might read Paul, and better understand some of his more difficult -offensive!- passages.  Paul is an important figure in the history of the Christian church;  he wrote one third of the New Testament, and he wrote first;  his writing must have influenced many of the remaining authors of the New Testament.

Paul was well educated and wrote well in Greek.  We may assume he chose the specific words he did, with reason.  While I do not agree with a number of Bristow’s presuppositions, I very much enjoy his treatment of the Greek language, and do recommend his short book, “What Paul Really Said About Women.”

Ron Miller not only annotated his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” he also translated Paul’s writings from the original Greek.  The phrasing he chose in his translation is at times very interesting.  His annotations offer great insight to Paul’s writings, showing that Paul was a complex and multi-layered person, caught in a changing world.  I highly recommend reading Miller’s book.  He brings a great depth of understanding to Paul, as he does any subject he addressed.

I hope this brief examination of just one short passage, sheds a little light on how we might go about organizing our thoughts when getting ready to interpret scripture, and when trying to separate one layer of the text from another;  often, within the very same passage.

Erik+

Resources:

Bristow, John Temple:  “What Paul Really Said About Women:  An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love.”

Greece Index:  http://www.greeceindex.com/various/greek_love_words.html

Harper-Collins Study Bible

Krznaric, Roman:  Yes Magazine, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 words for Love” http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life

Legg, Chris:  “5 Greek Words for Love” http://chrismlegg.com/2009/10/01/5-greek-words-for-love-agape/

Lexicon-Concordance:  http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html

Miller, Ron:  “The Sacred Writings of Paul:  Selections Annotated & Explained.”

Should Women be Permitted to Serve as Bishops?

 

Should women be permitted to serve as bishops?  

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

In July of 2014 the General Synod of the Church of England meets to discuss and vote upon whether women will be permitted to be consecrated as bishops of the Church of England.  A similar vote failed by six votes in 2013.  This issue is discussed in an article published by the Religious News Service.  When reading this article, it was the final statement that really caught my eye:

  •      “Passage of legislation allowing women bishops will end a 20-year dispute.  Women were first allowed to be ordained as priests in 1994.”

How is it possible, I asked myself, that women were allowed entry into the priesthood, yet denied offering service as bishops?  I guess I am naive (I do have this tendency).  I would have expected any arguments against accepting women as priests, would simultaneously serve as arguments against accepting women serving as bishops.  And logically, once one accepts the service of women as priests, one simultaneously accepts their service as bishops.

 

I see only two ways of arguing this question:  

The first argument reaches back to Paul.  We have extremely clear evidence that Paul understood women as being able to serve at all levels of the early church.  Paul periodically speaks of this in his letters.  The strongest case is found in Romans 16:7 where Paul speaks of Junia as a woman who served the same role as himself:  that of an apostle.

  •      Sidebar:  Junia is a female name.  In some manuscripts this has been changed to Junias, which is a male name.  This point is debated by some, but most scholars agree this was originally a woman’s name (including the late Ron Miller).  So if your New Testament reads Junias, be aware this is a later revision of the original Greek text, as most scholars understand it.

Now, when I speak of Paul, I am speaking only of the authentic Paul.  I am not speaking of those authors who later forged their letters in his name, such as the letters supposedly written to Timothy and Titus, which contain the most misogynistic views within the entire New Testament.  Most scholars (but not all) are convinced these letters reflect a much later view than when Paul was alive.

In Paul’s day, an apostle was one who assumed the duty of spreading the gospel (good news) about Jesus.  I think we get a better feel for what their mission meant to them, if we use the late Ron Miller’s translation of “ambassador” in place of apostle.  To be recognized as an ambassador (apostle) was to be given a very high status in the early Christian community;  it is clearly a position of authority within the community.  But for me this is not the strongest argument in favor of allowing women to serve as deacons, priests and bishops.

To examine the strongest argument in favor of women serving as bishops, we need only ask…

Are we God?

If we answer in the negative, then the obvious conclusion is that being human is of a different nature than that of being God.  That the nature of any truly transcendent Supreme Being -or Ground of Being- must be categorically different than that of being human seems obvious to me.  (One may argue no such category of the transcendent exists;  but if we posit such categories of existence, then we must also accept the radical differences between the human and transcendent.)

Equally obvious is the corollary that there is no difference between being male or female, in terms of how this relates to the nature of the Supreme Being/Ground of Being.  Which is to say, neither men nor women are more like God than the other.  One’s sex and gender has nothing to do with such a question.  This is a question of one’s spirit, not one’s body.

  •      As one of my bishops is fond of observing, God does not have X or Y chromosomes.

Thus, I feel the only defense one may adopt in the attempt to restrict women from being ordained, and later consecrated as a bishop, is to admit one is sexist.  This is to admit one wishes to denigrate another based merely upon the disposition of their chromosomes.

This is an extremely weak defense, and one I would hope would be seen for what it is:  bigotry.

I certainly do hope the Church of England votes to join the rest of us, here in the 21st century!  May the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and all other churches, soon join those of us who accept all humans as equals in our humanity!

End of rant.

Erik+

References:

http://www.religionnews.com/2014/07/10/church-england-set-vote-women-bishops/

“My weight is my love”: Sin, Free Will, and Universal Salvation

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

 

My weight is my love.  Wherever I am carried my love is carrying me.
Augustine, Confessions 13.9.10

 
The above is a well known quote of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 ce).  The image Augustine is painting for us, is that we are attracted to what we love;  much as the earth’s gravity pulls us toward it.

Thus, in whatever we place our love, to that we are drawn.  If we place our love in Godly things, we will be drawn toward Godly things.  If we place our love in earthly things, we are drawn toward earthly things.

 

Consider the nature of Godly things, verses earthly things.

Specifically, consider the nature of existing within time, verses existing outside of time.  Earthly things exist within time;  they always fall apart, fail, and if living, eventually die.  Augustine calls this corruption.  Everything in time becomes corrupt.  Not so, however, for that which is outside of time.  That which is outside of time is eternal;  incorruptible.  Thus, Godly things are incorruptible;  eternal.

Augustine’s suggestion is that if we choose to place our love in earthly things, we are placing our love in things which must fail, corrupt, die.  And we will never find ultimate happiness loving things subject to corruption.  This is one reason why Augustine counsels us to place our love in eternal things;  Godly things.

  • (There is a Buddhist corollary:  attaching ourselves to things of this world always results in suffering, because such things are illusionary;  whereas attaching ourselves to that which is eternal frees us from suffering.)

 

Free Will is our ability to choose.

Do we choose to place our love in that which is eternal, or that which becomes corrupt?  The choice is ours.  However, even if we steadfastly choose corruption, Augustine offers us the hope that unlike a rock which once fallen to earth remains at rest, we are always subject to the attractive force of God’s love for us.

Love flows in both directions:  from us to God, and from God to us;  from the temporal (in time) to the eternal, and from the eternal to the temporal.  Thus, we may hope that the Grace of God will draw us to Him, no matter how strongly we resist this attraction.  If God’s Love for us is eternal, we are eternally carried upon that Love, toward the Divine Center/God.  I find this offers a beautiful, hopeful image.

 

What about sin?  

Augustine teaches that God is Good.  And all that God creates is also Good.  Thus, the world and all that has been created, is also Good.

Does this mean that sin is also Good?  Augustine does not go that far.  He teaches that sin actually lacks essence, being, or being-ness.  God has be-ing (more than this, God *is* the *source* of all be-ing).

We too have be-ing.  And my shirt has be-ing.

However -and this is the key point- the *hole* in my shirt does *not* have essence or being-ness.  The hole in my shirt is a lack or deprivation or privation.  This is easy to see in the case of a shirt:  the shirt is made from some material;  should a hole be torn in the shirt, in some sense we can say the hole “exists” because we can see it after all.

But in another important sense, the hole lacks being, because the totality of its apparent existence is comprised by the material no longer being there;  thus, that which comprises the hole, is without essence.

 

  •   The shirt has positive existence:  it exists because it has essence;  the material of the cloth.
  •   The hole has negative existence:  it does *not* have essence;  it is defined by the missing material.

 
So too, sin has negative existence.  Sin lacks essence or being-ness.  Augustine teaches that sin is the absence of God’s Goodness.

And this is related to our Free Will, because we choose into what we invest our love.  As we choose eternal, Godly things, we are attracted toward God;  and as we choose temporal, earthly things, we are attracted toward corruption;  and one manner in which corruption manifests is as sin (depriving ourselves of God’s Goodness).

We should, however, *not* take the next logical jump and say there must be Good and Evil.  Remember, Augustine teaches that *all* is Good.  There are different degrees of Good, to be sure!  But in the created world everything that has existence has some measure of God’s Goodness, be that measure great or small.

Thus, even Satan retains some degree and measure of God’s Goodness!  Try as he might to fight against this and deny it, Satan was created as an angel, and was created Good.  A long series of Free Will choices (placing his love in that which is ungodly, or anti-God) has been drawing Satan farther and farther away from God.

And yet, we may hope that God loves all of his creation eternally.  If this is so, God’s Love, even for Satan, will inevitably, ineluctably, eternally be drawing Satan back to God.

 

  • (Sidebar:  To my mind the personification of Evil in the person of Satan is an allegory.  At times it is convenient to use this language, of Satan vs. God, but I do *not* take it literally, because I find to do so leads one down the path of strong dualism, and the battle of Good God vs. Evil God, which I believe we inherited from Zoroastrianism, c. 500 bce.  I find this to be a destructive line of thought – especially when literalized.  For those interested in this subject, I recommend reading Elaine Pagels book: “The Origins of Satan.”)

 

Universal Salvation

God’s eternal Love for all of his creation is one way to frame the concept of Universal Salvation.  Augustine was a Latin-speaking Roman, and while this concept of Universal Salvation exists in the original Greek (see “Universalism” by Dr. J. W. Hanson), it had been almost entirely lost in the West by the time of Augustine.

Augustine was able to provide us the tools to arrive at the logical conclusion of his argument:

 

  •   Everything God creates is Good.
  •   God’s Love is eternal.
  •   Therefore, God eternally draws all of His creation back to Himself.

 

But Augustine did not officially take this position.  (Obviously, we cannot know what Augustine thought, but did not write or teach.)

Yet this teaching of Universal Salvation has never completely disappeared.  While it has never become an official Church doctrine (teaching) a variety of theologians have said we may still hope it is true, including the recent Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

 

Offered with blessings,
Erik+

Radical Theology: How BIG is Your God?

This is the first instalment of a series of essays I have in mind which discuss what I am organizing under the category of Radical Theology.  By radical I mean “root” or “foundational.”  The first two meanings of radical, as defined by Merriam-Wester on-line are:

RADICAL

  1. of, relating to, or proceeding from a root:
  2. of or relating to the origin :  fundamental

Thus, this series of essays is an attempt to examine our most fundamental, radical apprehensions of our study of Theos (which is what Theology means).  So we should also define Theos.  The short answer is Theos means God or gods.  But there is more to it than this:

THEOS

  1. a transliteration of the Greek θεός (Strong’s 2316).
  2. God or gods.
  3. divinely, God’s, God-fearing, godly, and Lord.
  4. While the origin of the word is unknown, according to HELPS(TM) Word-studies, it is thought to have meant “the Creator and owner of all things,” conveying the concept of “the supreme being who owns and sustains all things” (see John 1:3; Genesis 1 – 3).

As we may imagine, the translation of Theos from the Greek is not always obvious.  In a future essay we may address the various ways of interpreting the word Theos, but for now, I want to direct our thought in another direction.

I would like you to think about our universe.  Our understanding of science is not that of the 1st century.  The universe of the 1st century was a three-tiered universe, comprised of earth, the heavens above, and the underworld below.  Our understanding of the nature of the universe is far more complex.  Our universe is also much larger.  Mind-numbingly vast, in fact.

The distance from New York City, NY to Los Angeles, CA is 2,775 miles.  For those interested in biblical comparisons, the distance between Jerusalem and Babylon is about 500 miles as the crow flies, and perhaps twice as far travelling by caravan;  the distance between Jerusalem and Cairo, Egypt is about 265 miles by air, and 330 miles by land.

The moon is nearly 240,000 miles from the earth (roughly the same distance as travelling back and forth between NYC and LA 86 times;  or walking around the entire planet ten times).  The sun is nearly 93,000,000 miles from the earth (more than 33,000 trips between NYC and LA;  or walking around the equator 3,735 times).

And these are small distances, in terms of the universe.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per *second* and takes 8.3-minutes to travel from our sun to the earth;  light requires 100,000 *years* to cross from one side of our galaxy to the other.  The universe is unimaginably vast!  The scale, scope, and dimensions of this are really beyond our ability to hold in our mind.  This is the thought I would ask you to sit with for a time.

Now I ask:  How BIG is your God?  

For me, this is one of our most important Big Questions to ponder.  I also believe this is one aspect of Radical Theological which a great many people fail to fully appreciate.  Another way of thinking about this question is to ask what are the limits of your God?  Is your God limited to this earth?  To this solar system?  To this galaxy?  What about to this universe?

My personal concept of “God” is panentheistic.  A pantheist believes their God is everywhere in the universe.  This sometimes gets a bad name when people diminish the idea as simple animism (each tree, river, and rock having it’s own spirit);  but pantheism is not the same thing as animism, although pantheism may include animism.  So too, panentheism to pantheism.  Panentheism holds the position that God is not only present everywhere within our universe, but simultaneously beyond our universe (basically, that is what the “en” in panentheism means).

Now I would ask you to sit with that thought for a time.

This thought drives me toward the concept of transcendence.  When I speak of transcendence, I mean this as expressed in Kantian philosophy:  that which is “beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;  beyond comprehension” (Merriam-Webster).  Given our access to sensory input is limited to that which resides within this universe, if there is anything beyond this universe, it must by definition transcend our sensory perception.

  • (The argument for non-sensory perception is more subtle, but to my mind in comparison to the scope of a Transcendent Theos, of the same magnitude of limitation.  That which we are able to apprehend of the Transcendent through non-sensory means I will address in a future discussion of Immanence, which lies at the opposite end of the Transcendent-Immanent continuum.)  

Therefore, if we posit a Theos of sufficient significance, there must be aspects of that Theos, which are transcendent to the human condition, and beyond the reach of our perception.  I would go further.  I would argue there are aspects of Theos which are beyond our intellectual capacity, and even beyond the reach of our imagination.

I strongly feel if more persons clearly grasped this meaning of Theos, and felt it in their guts to convey a valid truth, we would easily avoid a great many arguments over specific interpretations of religion and spirituality.  That is why this concept is so important to me.

To have a God this BIG means we admit we cannot know all there is to be known about God/Theos.  This in turn suggests to me the important roles humility, and willingness to be open to how other persons understand Theos, play in our lives, in our spirituality, in our interactions with others, and in our religious observation and traditions.

If our Theos is BIG enough, none of us has full access to Theos.  

We all are limited to partial perceptions of Theos.  We all are limited to partial understandings of Theos.  Therefore, it seems logical that we must be tolerant of what others perceive of Theos.  But I suggest we should go further.  We should strive to learn from others, and inform our own understanding of Theos through what alternate apprehensions of Theos may reveal to us.

It seems so simple to me.  Simple, yet profound.  Which is why I call this Radical Theology.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

La_conversion_de_Saint_Paul_Giordano_Nancy_640px
O God, who taught the whole world
through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,
draw us, we pray, nearer to you
through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,
and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.
    (Roman Missal)

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.  It is also the first anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  So I thought it appropriate to say a few words about Paul.  I find Paul to be a very complex and interesting person.  His writings are sometimes confusing, sometimes polemic, sometimes mystical.  Paul can both challenge one’s mind and inspire one’s heart.

By happen stance, in recent months I have revisited my studies of Paul, and found a deeper appreciation for his writings than I had previous felt.  If one accepts that Paul wrote all of the books and letters of the bible once attributed to him, he wrote half the New Testament.  If one accepts only those letters which the vast majority of biblical scholars consider Paul to have written (the “authentic” or “uncontested” letters of Paul), then he still authored about one quarter of the New Testament!  So whether we believe Paul wrote 7, 13, or 14 books of the New Testament, we can certainly agree his influence upon the early development of what was to become the Christian Church was quite large.

A rather indirect way of reading Paul, is as a means of better understanding some of the changes that took place within the early church.  Although, calling this the early “church” is somewhat problematic, as this presumes a Christian perspective was in place at that early date.  (This is doubtful at best, and it certainly would not be anything we would recognize as today’s orthodox Christianity.)  Jesus, was of course Jewish, as was Paul.  In fact, it seems safe to say that the vast majority of persons following Jesus would have been Jewish.  In this sense, it is very correct to observe that this “Jesus Movement” took place within Judaism, and was another means of understanding and expressing Judaism.  I am reasonably convinced that Paul must have died thinking of himself as Jewish.  And more specifically as a Jewish Christ Mystic (more about that shortly).

I do not wish to become bogged down in details, but a few chronological markers may be useful.  Jesus was executed by the Romans circa 30 ce.  Paul’s earliest surviving letters were written between 50-67 ce.  Paul was martyred circa 67 ce.  The first gospel (Mark) was written circa 60-75 ce;  Matthew and Luke/Acts circa 75-85 ce;  and John circa 90-95 ce, about the same time frame as Revelation (although written by a different John).  The late letters in the New Testament are usually dated by biblical scholars to between 75-125 ce.

A closer examination of the questions of dating the texts of the New Testament, and proposing a chronological ordering of them, took place in a pair of my previous posts:

There are a few primary touch points to pull out of that string of dates:

  •   Paul is our earliest author of the New Testament.
  •   Paul’s authentic letters pre-date the four gospels.
  •   Among the last texts of the New Testament to be written are the Gospel of John and Revelation.
  •   Also among the last texts to be written are many of the letters found in the New Testament.

We may also observe there is an apparent difference of character of texts written in the 50’s vs those written in the 90’s.  This allow us to read parts of the New Testament against others, to obtain a sense of how the early church was changing, and how its understanding of itself evolved during the first 100 years following the execution of Jesus.  We may most clearly see this in the various letters of the Pauline school.  We may see some of this influence in the Johannine school as well, although they are all later understandings of the church, by which time I believe we may properly speak of a Christian Church.

Which underscores another set of touch stones for better understanding the organization of the New Testament:

  •   The “proto-church” prior to the 50’s is best understood as a Jesus Movement, taking place within Judaism.
  •   The “proto-church” of the 50’s and 60’s may be understood as developing into a schism between the Jewish and Gentile Movements.
  •   Both of the above are best understood as separate movements, stemming from a common Jewish Jesus Movement.
  •   The church of the 90’s is best understood as having by that date developed a distinctive Christian Church self-identity.
  •   It is often useful to think of the proto-church of the 50’s and Christian Church of the 90’s as distinctly different from one another.  To use round numbers, I sometimes speak of these as the proto-church of the 50’s and the early Christian Church of the 100’s.

So what has this to do with Paul?

The collection of Pauline writings are understood by the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians as ranging chronologically from the early 50’s to the 90’s, and in some cases even later.  Clearly, if this is true and Paul died in about 67 ce, he cannot be the author of all the letters written in his name.

It is fair to point out this is hotly debated in some circles.  One may find opinions ranging from Paul wrote all of Paul’s letters, to Paul only wrote the seven uncontested/authentic letters.  I number among the second group.  Therefore, I see several “Paul’s” as contributing to the collection of Pauline texts.  In fact, there are at least three or four different Paul’s.  And given Paul’s character plays such a large role in Acts, I think it is appropriate to count that as the fourth Paul.

The first is the “authentic” Paul who wrote in the 50’s and 60’s.

  •   First Thessalonians     (c. 51 ce/AD)
  •   Philippians                   (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   Philemon                      (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   First Corinthians         (c. 53-54 ce)
  •   Galatians                      (c. 55 ce)
  •   Second Corinthians     (c. 55-56 ce)
  •   Romans                        (c. 55-58 ce)

The second Paul is the author (or authors) of the “disputed” or “contested” letters of Paul.  Scholarship is roughly evenly divided on these letter, as to who wrote them.  It is possible that by this time there was a “school of Paul” which produced these texts, either with the authentic Paul as a contributor, or after his death, but still close enough to feel a close kinship with most of Paul’s central teachings.

  •   Colossians
  •   Second Thessalonians
  •   (Ephesians, which is a “circular” letter, is sometimes placed here.)

The third and last group is the Pseudepigraphic (forgeries) Paul.  Almost no one thinks Paul wrote these letters.

  •   Pastoral epistles (letters) of 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus
  •   Ephesians (unless one places it in the second grouping)

The fourth Paul is the character represented in Acts.  This is clearly not actually Paul, in the sense that when “Paul” is speaking in Acts, the author is writing as all ancient historians did, placing on Paul’s lips those words which the author thought Paul would have spoken in those or similar circumstances.  Acts is a secondary source, and we should bear this in mind when Acts is at odds with Paul’s own letters.

These are the various Paul’s.  I find this to be highly instructive as Paul is a complex figure, and often misunderstood and even, I feel, sometimes misrepresented.  This is one of the reasons “Paul” presents such a divisive bone of contention among some Christians.  How are we to read Paul?  Did Paul teach we are all one in Christ, or was Paul a misogynist?  Are we to seek freedom in this life, or remain slaves?  Engage in an active sexual life (within marriage) or should we remain celibate?  Do we love Paul or revile him?

Each of these competing views of Paul have an answer.

In some cases the apparent dichotomy is illuminated by understanding Paul better.  Paul was an apocalyptic Jew.  Among other things, this means he believed in a future bodily resurrection.  Not only this, he believed Jesus’ resurrection was best understood as the First Fruits of the wider general resurrection, and that the general resurrection was soon to come.  Therefore, it is best to remain celibate and concentrate upon the dawning Kingdom.  And for those unable to remain celibate, to marry.  Therefore, if a slave it is best to remain a slave.  If already married, remain married.  What these views have in common is that the end is soon to come (Paul fully expected to be alive for the general resurrection), so there is no point in changing your mundane life;  one should instead focus upon the sacred.

I believe we can be certain had Paul known that “soon” meant 2,000-years or more, in some ways his teaching would have been quite different.  This is a valid point to my mind, and one of which we should be cognisant.

But all of the above, as interesting and instructional as I personally find it, is not really the most vital and important aspects of what I feel Paul was trying to teach us.  I feel the most vibrant and deeply meaningful way of reading Paul is as a Jewish Christ Mystic.

Jewish. Christ. Mystic.

Each of these words is important, and draws us into a closer understanding of Paul.  He was Jewish.  In fact, he was a pharisee.  Pharisee’s have gotten a bad reputation over the centuries.  But most basically they were extremely concerned with keeping the laws of the Torah.  So much so, for fear of breaking these laws, they developed an even more strict interpretation!  But Paul was also an apocalyptic Jew.  This meant the end of the present era was to come to an end, and God would bring about a new world.

And what of Christ?  Paul himself states he initially prosecuted Christians!  (Although that specific term may be anachronistic.)  Why?  I think the most reasonable explanation is the claim that Jesus had been resurrected, and was therefore the Jewish messiah.  This would have been categorically unbelievable to Paul, a skilled Jewish pharisee.  Jesus was crucified, and that alone would preclude him from ever being any kind of Jewish messiah.  Jesus would have been cursed by God, not raised into glory by God!

But then Paul had his conversion experience on the road from Damascus.

Paul either saw and/or heard the raised Jesus, and this experience totally and completely changed him for the rest of his life!  This is when Paul came to understand that Jesus *had* been raised, and this understanding was framed by his apocalyptic world view.  Thus, Jesus becomes the risen Christ and is the First Fruits of the impending general resurrection.

And this is where Paul begins to develop his mystical understanding of what role the Christ plays in our lives.  I would say this is one of the central tenets of Paul’s mission, as he saw it.  This is also my favorite aspect of Paul’s teachings.  Central to Paul’s teaching is experiencing the risen Christ in our lives.  This may happen in a variety of ways, some identified by Paul and some not.

As a mystic Paul was all about the *experience* of being in the Presence of the Divine.  Paul himself had a number of such experiences.  This is what I find so appealing about Paul.  Whatever we may make of his letters, we can appreciate that he had a number of experiences of Divine Communion.  And this is something to which we may all aspire!

Within Paul’s mystical teachings there are two themes which run hand in hand.

The first is of personal transformation.  We must put on the mind of Christ, and allow the Christ to live in us, through us, for us to become one in the same with the Christ.  The second point is in having this experience of personal connection to the Divine, and experiencing the personal transformation that comes from such an experience, to effect transformation of the world!

*Both* points are very critical to Paul.  And I think it is fair to read Paul as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, yet it is each of *us* who must do what we are able to bring this Kingdom into our world.  It is a participatory event, in which we are integral members, not inactive hanger-ons!

Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”  (1 Cor. 13:13).

This is the light by which I read Paul.  When I find a passage which conflicts with these aspirations, and which conflict with his two central teachings of personal transformation and transformation of the world, then I feel confident either Paul did not write that, or we misunderstand Paul’s meaning.

Recommendations for further study of Paul.

I wish to leave this feast day message with two recommendations for the further study of Paul.  One is a lecture series about the apostle Paul given by Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk, and offered through The Great Courses web site.  The second is a book written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, entitled “The First Paul.”

Prof. Johnson holds a very different view of Paul than do I, as he reads all of the Pauline material as being directly or indirectly authored by the apostle Paul.  He offers a wonderful and stimulating lecture series which I highly recommend.  One of the points I find most interesting turns on a widespread misinterpretation of the original Greek in one of Paul’s letters.  He explains this much more fully in his lecture, but the issue concerns faith *in* Jesus or the faith *of* Jesus.  As many Christians will recognize, one of these views forms a cornerstone of Christian Faith for a great many Christians!  Yet it is based in a misinterpretation of the original Greek.

This is a subtle and to my way of thinking very important distinction.  Having faith *in* Jesus really removes us from the process.  We cast our “faith” upon Jesus, and therefore we are saved.  Simple to understand.  But for many, not such an easy thing to accomplish!  I think it is fair to say Martin Luther struggled with this greatly in his life!  Marcus Borg says he did too.  And so have I.  (I’m in good company at least!)

Having faith *of* Jesus may be read a number of different ways.  In part I believe this is because it is born of a mystic interpretation, and such interpretations are always at least a little misty, if not down right foggy!  First, we recognize that Jesus had a tremendous and deep faith in God.  In this light, the path to God is not through faith *in* Jesus, but in having the same quality of faith *of* Jesus *in* God!  See the difference?  *We* are active participants in this process.  As I think we must be, if personal transformation is one of the vital keys (as I do).

I relate this to the theme of theosis which is so important to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but which has been largely lost here in the West since the Great Schism in the 11th century.  And I also relate this to putting on the mind of Christ, as Paul spoke of so often.

The book authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offers a wonderful collection of insights to Paul!  I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both refreshing and instructive.  One of the main themes they paint is that of Paul the Jewish Christ Mystic.  I really do think this grabs a hold of something vital in Paul.  And I do not think we can really understand Paul without seeing him in this light.

This book is a mixture of solid scholarly historical research, and of developing a sincere appreciation for the Mystical Paul.  And we need both.  We need to understand as well as we may the world of the 1st century, and we need to read Paul as a mystic, trying to reveal to us what he may of his experience of the Divine, and how we might take part in the spiritual transformation of the world.

“The greatest of these is love.”

If we don’t get that -until that hits us on a gut level- we are missing the whole point of the New Testament!

Offered with blessings,
On my first anniversary as priest,
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

May the Lord Bless you and Keep you,
Father Erik

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts

This is a follow-up to an earlier blog, “Chronological View of the New Testament.”  Once I begin thinking about the New Testament chronologically, one of the next questions which comes to my mind, is what are the dates of the surviving New Testament manuscripts?

NT-Frag-1
NT-Frag-2

Download PDF,  Table & Chart:  Earliest Fragments of the New Testament

 

We may think of this in the form of a two-part question:

  1.   When were the books and letters of the New Testament originally written?
  2.   What are the dates of the surviving documents?

As it turns out, these are in fact two very different questions.  The first question I dealt with in the earlier blog, along with the question of *who* wrote these books and letters (in most cases we simply do not know).  I also presented a chart of this information, which I suggest may be useful in one’s study.

This blog will open the examination of the second question, that of dating what early Christian texts survive.  To begin with, there are no known surviving *original* texts (or even fragments) of the books and letters of the New Testament.  Those long ago wore out, were destroyed, lost, or turned to dust.

In fact, even the first several generations of copies are thought by most scholars to be lost to us.  These were “working” documents, by which I mean they were used as communication devices.  As such they would have been read out loud to gatherings of people on an on-going basis.  They were *not* holy books and letters carefully hidden away and cared for;  they were hand-written documents used to conduct the “normal business” of worship, liturgy, and instruction.

This means the first copies, and copies of those copies, and likely copies of those copies, simply wore out from use.  As a copy became too worn to be used, it was copied again.  When another group wished to have a copy of one of your letters, or you of theirs, a copy was written out by hand.

I think it is useful for us to understand this point.  These books and letters only became “holy scripture” at a later date.  At first, they were just normal tools of communication.

How do we date the early Christian texts which do survive?

Answering the questions surrounding the dating of these texts quickly becomes quite complex.  Scholars differ in their opinions.  Prof. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace have had a number of debates on this topics.  I find their discussion quite interesting, and perhaps you may as well.  If you are not familiar with Dr. Wallace I would suggest first watching his solo presentation, and then the debate between Ehrman and Wallace (both were offered on YouTube when I published this blog):

  •   Wallace, 45-min. presentation http://youtu.be/b-RMdX0zi-Q
  •   Ehrman-Wallace Debate, 2-hours http://youtu.be/kg-dJA3SnTA
  •   (In the event these links are no longer valid, I suggest simply doing an Internet search of their names, Ehrman Wallace, and and you should find links to their debates as well as supporting information for both their positions.)

In discussing this information, a few points should be made.  The obvious point is this subject is still debated by recognized scholars who are expects in this field.  We must expect differences in opinion.

Another point is there are several ways of categorizing these documents and fragments.  We should begin by understanding that when the word papyrus is used, so far as I have been able to determine, this always means a relatively small piece of ancient “paper” (made from reeds).  Often these are only small fragments the size of a postage stamp, credit card, or index card.  When we speak of manuscripts these are larger documents, the average length of which is 450-pages according to Dr. Wallace.  (There are several subcategories of these, but we need not address such points in this blog.)

Scholars seem to be in wide agreement that a small credit card sized fragment, called P52 (P for papyrus;  52 for the 52nd officially catalogued papyri), is the earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament and dates to 100-150 ce.  The earliest complete copies of individual books and letters of the New Testament date to about 200 ce.  And the earliest complete New Testament bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (a codex is a “book” as we understand it, leaves of paper sewn together on one edge) dates to circa 350 ce.

  •   (In the debate, Dr. Wallace states new discoveries will advance the earliest fragments into the 1st century ce, but until the evidence survives peer review, it seems too early to speak to this question.)

Thus, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament dates to about 100-years after the death of Jesus, and our earliest surviving complete edition of the New Testament dates to about 300-years after the death of Jesus.

It is also worth recalling the canon was not yet agreed upon even in 350 ce.  In 367 ce Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, authoritatively published the first known list of the same 27 books found in our modern canon.  However, we should recognize he published his list specifically so that churches under his control would cease using other books and letters in their liturgy.  It stands to reason he felt he had to do so exactly because other books and letters were being so used.

Authorities differ in their opinions, as they always do, but it may have taken another 50 or 100 years for a wider consensus to be reached.  Even so, debate among the church leadership regarding the proper canon continued into the 1500’s, and even into the 1600’s.

  •   Canon of Trent (1546, Roman Catholicism)
  •   Gallic Confession of Faith (1559, Calvinism)
  •   Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, Church of England)
  •   Synod of Jerusalem (1672, Greek Orthodox)

New Manuscripts Are Still Being Discovered

Dr. Wallace offers an interesting slide during his solo presentation.  He shows us how many manuscripts were available to those who compiled the King James Version of the bible (1611 ce), and how many are now available (as of 2012, the year of his presentation).  The change is very large!  Also note the year of the earliest available manuscript.  This too is interesting.

YEAR      Number of MSS      EARLIEST MSS
1611                    7                       11th Century
2012             5,800+                      2nd Century

As one can see, we are approaching 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  (Dr. Wallace’s count is about 5,900 and slowly increasing as new discoveries are catalogued.)  And some of the earliest are dating to within 100-200 years of the death of Jesus.

While there are differences between each one of them, even those most closely related to one another, the vast majority of these differences make no difference at all.  Some are spelling errors, some use an unnecessary word (such as “the Mary and the Joseph”);  other differences are so small as to only be apparent in the original Greek, and are not even translatable into English.

Dr. Wallace offers the opinion that less than 1% of the differences are significant, and may also alter the reading of the verse in which they take place.  On the other hand, he is of the opinion none of these alterations are significant enough to be considered primary challenges to core theological concepts.  Interestingly, Prof. Ehrman agreed.

I find this interesting because elsewhere I have understood Ehrman to hold the opinion some of these alterations could be considered significant to one’s theology.  However, I will have to do more research investigating this question before writing about it.

“Differences that make a difference” (Ehrman)

So what then, are the “differences that make a difference” which these two experts discussed?  And how is it that a difference may make a difference, but not a theologically significant difference?  Especially when, according to Ehrman, such differences include questioning the nature of the the following theological points:

  •   Trinity
  •   Full divinity of Jesus
  •   Full humanity of Jesus
  •   Atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death

Ehrman and Wallace did not answer these questions in their debate.  I will point out for whomever may be interested, that one may wish to examine the Nicene Creed.  By carefully examining this Creed one is able to determine that various church leaders were in heated debate with one another over the proper interpretation of scripture and church tradition.

However, close examination of the Creed is not the purpose of this blog.  One may conduct an Internet search on this topic, should one find it of interest.  The history of its formation is quite involved, and it ultimately forced the split of the Eastern and Western Church – called the Great Schism.  (Ultimately, the Great Schism took place over the splitting of a single letter, in a single word of the Creed.  But many decades of argument led up to this final straw of dispute.)

Read from a certain point of view, the Creed is an exclusionary vehicle.  The words were chosen with great care both to affirm a certain understanding of Christianity, but arguably even more importantly, to specifically exclude other understandings of Christianity.

I am one who reads the Creed as an exclusionary vehicle.  I am also personally much more motivated by a unifying form of Christianity, than by a divisive form.  This is why I prefer the inclusionary Act of Faith.  Jesus is reported to have considered all of the Law and Prophets to have stood on Love:  Love of God, and Love of all others.  With this thought in mind, I offer for your consideration, the text of the Nicene Creed and the Act of Faith:

The 1979 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Act of Faith

We believe that God, is Love, the Power, the Truth, and the Light.
That all, shall one day become, One with the Divine.
We hold, the Grace of God, is the Unity of humanity.
We know, we do serve the Lord best, as we best serve, our brothers and sisters.
So shall Christ’s blessing rest upon us, and peace for evermore. Amen.

Sweating Blood

Ehrman cites Luke chapter 22 as an example of differences which make a difference.  He refers to the story of Jesus sweating blood prior to his being betrayed and turned over to the Romans for execution on the cross.

Ehrman makes the point this sweating blood is *not* found in the earliest and best manuscripts of Luke.  So we know there has been a change made by the scribes who copied this text.  The question is in which direction:  was the sweating blood added or removed?  when?  why?

The argument which Ehrman offers (and to which I agree) is that the Gospel of Luke was seen as being too passionless.  It is sometimes called the “passionless Passion of Christ.”  It is also sometimes pointed to in order to argue that Jesus was so fully Divine as not to be human (and thus had no fear of his “Passion”).  This idea did not sit well with later scribes, so they changed the text so that it included Jesus’ sweating blood, demonstrating both a human condition and a man very much concerned with his coming Passion.

This is a difference that makes a difference, to be sure.  But how theologically significant is it, really?  I’d suggest this depends if one reads Luke to be portraying a non-human Jesus or not.  If one reads Luke’s Jesus as already being human and Divine, it is not a theologically significant difference.  However, if this scene is the pivotal scene which changes one’s understanding of Jesus to include being very much human, and of suffering his Passion, it makes a very, very significant theological difference.

How might these insights change how one reads the New Testament?  

It is not my place to try to tell you how to interpret this scene, or any other, in the New Testament.  But I would ask you to consider the ramifications of scribes altering the text of the New Testament, and doing so intentionally.  Erroneous mistakes are a given, easily forgiven and usually quite easy to detect:  no harm, no foul.  But making intentional changes are of an entirely different category.

What I take from this line of enquiry is that the New Testament is a very human work, and demonstrates a series of attempts to understand the life of Jesus, and what he reveals to us of the Divine.  Something profound took place 2,000-years ago, and it took persons decades, hundreds of years, to work through what happened.  And 2,000-years later you and I are still working through what that life of Jesus means to us.

No doubt, the initial stories of Jesus were carried forth in an oral tradition.  As time passed, these stories began to be written down.  But first, a mystic experienced a life-changing conversion, in which he was confronted by the risen Christ.  He began travelling city to city, forming small house churches where he could.  When these churches experienced internal difficulties, he preferred to re-visit them personally to clarify their understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.  When he was unable to re-visit them personally, he sent his representative to sort out these difficulties.  And when this was not possible, he wrote letters addressing the specific concerns of churches he formed.  That person was Paul, and a number of his letters survive.

As these various texts were held in increasing regard, they were copied and spread from one group of Christians to another.  And the only way to copy a text in the ancient world was for someone to sit down and copy the book or letter one single character at a time, word by word, line by line;  hopefully making as few errors as possible.  And as these cherished texts were worn out they were copied;  and copied again;  and again.

This is how the early manuscripts, which were ultimately to become scripture, came to us.  They were deemed to be important documents, to be sure.  But initially they were not understood to be “scripture,” although in time they were seen in this light.  So am I certain many scribes took great care in copying the texts which they encountered.  And I am equally certain some scribes were some combination of tired, careless, or less skilled, and as a result, errors creep into the texts.  (And, sadly, some just did not like what had been written before them, and changed the text to better fit their own theological understanding.)

Making errors in this environment is unavoidable.  Anyone who doubts this can test it for themselves.  Open you bible to the Gospel of Mark and copy it out in its entirely onto sheets of paper.  If you can find a willing partner, have them produce their own copy from your copy.  If you want a more accurate test, you need to find five or ten willing partners, and each copy a letter or book of the bible and re-copy them amongst yourselves.  Then compare these copies one to the other, and then to the bibles from which each of you started.  I fully expect you will find errors.  And the odds are you are better educated than most scribes were 2,000-years ago.

I for one, do not see an obvious answer.  

Errors did take place.  We have the ancient manuscripts which document this took place.  Some scholars claim the differences are really more or less insignificant.  Other scholars think there are at least some significant differences.

By and large, I suspect we do have something pretty close to the “original” texts (although, we can never be certain this is true).  On the other hand, I also know no two ancient texts were identical, and I know in some cases intentional changes were made.  Therefore, I know I am dealing with altered documents.

I also know that I do not fluently read Greek, therefore I am likely to miss shades of meaning at times.  And most of us cannot read any Greek, so we are at the mercy of those who interpret from Greek into English.  There must be times meaning is lost or changed, because that is the nature of translating across languages.  Some words and ideas do not translate perfectly.  And is the translator to make his translation as literal as possible, or to fit the meaning of the source text as closely as possible?  (Frequently, it is impossible to do both;  all translations are a series of such compromises.)

So I know I am not dealing with a pristine text, and I know I am dealing with a human text.  I am not reading the Hand of God.  I am reading copied and translated thoughts another human being had of their impression of the Divine;  or farther removed from the source, of an impression of another person’s experience of the Divine.

This is far from simple to sort out.  It requires subtlety.  It certainly requires subtlety if one is inclined to mine into the space between the written words.  But I also believe there is an underlying Truth which is still conveyed to us through the text, despite all the difficulties.

There are levels of understanding and personal revelation at work.  

There is the initial revelation which one might be struck by as a new Christian.  I view these as more basic and broadly stated concerns which impact our lives.  But by “basic” I do not lacking vitality, these often strike a person with profound life-changing strength.  By “basic” I mean one may be able to organize one thoughts around them sufficiently to write them down on a piece of paper.

Other apprehensions are more subtle, more abstract, and frankly, more confusing insights that one must puzzle through to one’s own spiritual satisfaction.  Some of these are even paradoxical, and we cannot presume to ever discover an answer.

But perhaps we are not supposed to feel *that* certain in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ?  perhaps we are supposed to leave an opening for Divine Mystery in our lives, and in our interactions with others?

My heart-felt suggestions for you are:

  •   Do not simply believe everything you are told.
  •   Read the New Testament prayerfully, mindfully, with discernment.
  •   Read the New Testament with both an open mind and open spirit.
  •   Embrace holding your mind open, and strive to see from alternate points of view.
  •   Open your spirit to intuition.
  •   Truth speaks to those with ears to hear.

Offered with blessings, on Christmas Eve 2013, when our thoughts turn to the meaning of Jesus, the Christ, and how our lives are impacted by his life, some 2,000-years later.

Erik+

The following are a collection of additional links of interest for those who enjoy getting lost in library stacks!

General:

Papyri:

Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Vaticanus:

Codex Alexandrinus:

Which Version of the Holy Bible is Best?

Anyone who knows me, knows this is a rhetorical question;  if you have been reading much of my blog, you may well have come to the same conclusion.  There is of course a point to the question.  At least three points, in fact!

  •   Which bible?
  •   Which version?
  •   “Best” for what?

Which bible?  

“Bible” derives from the Greek, βιβλίο, or biblio, and it just means “book.”  Any book.  Of course, in the United States most think of the Christian bible if you just say “the bible.”  But we still might wish to know if we are speaking of a Protestant bible or a Catholic bible, as there are some differences between the two.  And some Eastern Orthodox bibles include a few books not found in Western bibles.  Beyond these considerations, we might also ask about the differences between the Hebrew bible and the Christian Old Testament.

As we quickly see, even this simple question can become somewhat complex.

The first point I think important to appreciate is that the Christian bible is comprised of two parts.  The first part is the Hebrew bible;  the second part is the New Testament.  Both of these are anthologies, a collection of ancient books and letters written by a variety of persons.  The Hebrew bible was written across many hundreds of years, while the New Testament was written in roughly a 100-year span, beginning about 30-years or so after Jesus was executed by the Romans.

It is always dangerous to make simplified statements in this area of study, but *essentially* the Christian Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew bible, although arranged differently.  The Hebrew bible was revised in the first century of the Common Era, removing those books for which Jewish tradition says there could be found no copies written in Hebrew.  The assumption was if they could not find any copies written in Hebrew, these books did not belong in the Hebrew bible.  Christians too have historically held some differences in opinion as to which books should be included in their Old Testament (and still do).  Martin Luther felt a number of books should be removed, and most Protestant bibles observe this form to this day.  From this stems the differences between the Protestant and Catholic bibles.

This is only a very rough sketch of the long and complex (and on certain points, still debated) process of determining the canon of Hebrew and Christian bibles.  A great deal more research may be done on the subject, and for those who find this of interest, it is quite an intriguing area of study.

The main point I wish to make for this blog, is simply to alert the reader there are several different authorized versions of the “bible” with which you may wish to be familiar:  the Hebrew bible;  the Christian Protestant bible;  the Christian Catholic bible;  and the Eastern Orthodox bibles.  All hold equal claim to being “the bible.”

The next question is:  Which version?  

At this point I will drop the Hebrew bible from the conversation and refer to only the New Testament.  More specifically still, I will only refer to either the Protestant and Catholic bibles.  Even with these limitations we have a dizzying array of choices before us!  The Biblical Archaeology web site (www.biblicalarchaeology.org) currently offers a very useful PDF guide, highlighting the major differences between 33 versions of the Christian bible.  I found it quite interesting and helpful in determining which bible one may prefer:

Beyond this, I would also like to point out there are a number of “study” bibles one may purchase.  Many of these are quite good, and provide useful introductions to every book within the bible.  Reading these summaries are a wonderful way to begin reading a given book of the bible, and is a very good place to start when looking up a particular verse.  It really adds a lot of depth and dimension to one’s studies.  Critical understanding of the bible is strongly effected by context:  context of that particular book or letter to the rest of the bible;  context of the author to his audience;  and the context within history.  As these considerations are better understood, we may turn to the context of a given passage to the text in which it is embedded.  Among my favourite study bibles are:

  •   “Harper-Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version” (with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books)
  •   “The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation” (edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane)

What about interlinear bibles?

A useful study tool is an interlinear bible.  These bibles provide several languages, one written above the other, line by line, so you may make direct comparisons in your bible study.  These tend to be more expensive bibles, and they are offered by fewer publishers, however there are online versions, one of which is:

If you take a look at the page for Genesis chapter one, you’ll get an idea how an interlinear bible is arranged.  Note that Hebrew reads from the right to the left, so when reading Genesis 1:1, for example, you must start reading at the right edge of the screen, and work your way to the left.  Below the Hebrew, the English translation is displayed.  Sometimes Hebrew words have no corresponding word in English, and sometimes several.

The numerals above the Hebrew typically correspond to Strong’s lexicon, which allows you to look up words by their assigned number.  Why would one wish to do that?  You will discover that the number for a given word always is assigned to the same word in the original language, however, it may be assigned to several words in the language into which it is being translated.  This allows us to see that the original word carries multiple meanings, and this helps us understand which may be the better translation for a given passage, yet be better understood differently in another passage.  And, importantly, this allows us to work with the source language and verify the translation appear to be accurate;  or perhaps we will discover some subtle shades of meaning which would otherwise remain hidden to us:

Which leaves us to answer which is the “best” version of the bible?  

This is impossible to answer, because it depends upon one’s needs and preferences.  For myself, there are some passages which simply only “sound right” to my ear when spoken in the King James version.  On the other hand, I know there are hundreds of words used in that version of the bible which no longer mean what they did when it was written, some of which are now extremely misleading.  Furthermore, I know it was originally sourced from what are now known to have been inferior copies of the manuscripts (this was unintentional;  at the time they made use of the best, or only, copies to which they had access).  So for these reasons, I do not use the King James version when I am critically reading the bible.  But when I want beautiful, poetic prose, I do tend to prefer the King James version.

Of the modern translations, my favorite is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  I also enjoy the New American Bible (NAB) translation.  But realistically, all modern translations are on par with one another, and for the most part make good use of modern biblical scholarship.  Personally, I like to have several translations at hand.

A very useful online study tool is the Bible Gateway web site (www.biblegateway.com) which offers a large number of translations, and the ability to compare them side by side.  This is usually where I begin my bible study, because it is so fast and easy to cross compare multiple translations:

If one is really wishing to get into the thick of working out a translation, one should explore the source language.  In most cases, that is going to be Hebrew for the Hebrew bible, and Greek for the New Testament.  One of the areas I especially enjoy this line of enquiry is when names of God appear in the Christian Old Testament.  This is one case where we who do not speak Hebrew lose a lot in translation.  And I suspect those of us who are not Jewish usually fail to appreciate the depth of tradition in how the various names of G-d are used.

(When speaking from a Christian perspective, I’ll type out “God” but I feel this inappropriate when speaking from a Jewish perspective because they consider this blasphemous;  hence the use of “G-d.”)

It is all really quite interesting!  Words may mean different things in the same language, change in meaning across time, and we even debate the proper definition of certain words to this day!  Surely, this has always been the case.  Add to this the difficulty in translating from one language to another, and dealing with the many decisions in so doing, such as whether one should be translating as literally as possible, or for as similar a meaning as possible, and we can see a great deal of work goes into making a given translation of “the bible.”

And I hope you also see why it is not possible for there to be any “one” or “best” translation of the bible.

Offered with blessings,
Erik+

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+

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+