Posts Tagged 'WPLongform'



Transformational Christianity & Liturgical Address of Sept. 2014

Expansion by Paige Bradley (New York)

Expansion by Paige Bradley (New York)

What do I mean by Transformational Christianity?

I view Transformational Christianity as a deliberate, mindful, and active process of spiritual formation.  Spiritual formation itself presents a large stage, upon which there are many players, not all of whom are Christian.  All enduring religions speak to matters of spiritual formation, and in each case there are usually at least two key areas of work in which this formation takes place:

  1. Spiritual changes internal to oneself.
  2. Changes which take place within the community one lives.

One might note there are examples of persons retreating from society, seeking isolation, when undertaking deep spiritual formation.  In many cases, such individuals do later provide feedback to their society, or form communities in general isolation from the larger population.  The Desert Fathers and the formation of monasteries serve as Christian examples (there are parallels to be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, among others).

In some cases, we might observe a third key designation, which applies to those living outside of one’s community.  When seen from within young spiritual paradigms those who live outside one’s own community are seen as “Other” and in cases of extreme spiritual immaturity, even as sub-human.  (The late Ron Miller identifies this as living in the basement of consciousness.)

In contrast, when seen from within spiritually mature paradigms, the category of *Other* dissolves, and all persons are understood to share their humanity with one another.  The most highly refined spiritual paradigms see that all life is an expression of the One ―however that may be understood― in which, and from which, we are all rooted.  (The late Ron Miller identifies this as living in the rooftop garden of consciousness;  same talk as linked to in the previous paragraph.)

Thus, Transformational Christianity is a subset of the larger category of spiritual formation.

Proponents of Transformational Christianity employ the lens of Christianity to inform their spiritual formation.  And Jesus is the primary example of how we may best live our lives, serving as guide to both our interactions with others, and as the model for how we are to conduct our internal spiritual life.

By using the word “transformation” we are identifying our spiritual formation as an active process through which we seek to transform, or change, from one state to another.  This implies the transformation (changing) of oneself from one state, to another state, which we identify as being more spiritually refined.

Proponents of Transformational Christianity also recognise the need to sponsor transformation within our community.  This process simultaneously takes place within oneself and within the community in which one lives.  To a degree this happens automatically, because we each produce an effect upon the environment and community in which we live.  As we change, we also affect others.

There is also a degree of positive feedback, through which we are affected by the environment and community in which we live.  By means of this mutual feedback, both the individual and the community are influenced, and influence one another.  Thus, Transformational Christianity forms a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the community in which they live.  To the degree we are mindful of this dual process, we may better direct these influences favourably.

Several key points follow from these observations:

  •      Transformational Christianity is a process-driven model of spirituality.  This means there is more to it than simply affirming one’s belief.  It requires action.  Some may read this as the dirty word “works” which they read in stark contrast to “believing” in Jesus.  In my view this stems from a mis-reading of what constitutes “faith.”  In its older meanings, faith is active, and it was assumed to convey action within its very nature.  This is why faith without works is dead (James 2:14ff).  I would suggest one consider “belief” and “faith” from this perspective.  One is what one does, not what one only believes.  (One may also wish to watch Ron Miller’s presentation on James, “A Very Different Christian Story.”)
  •      Transformational Christianity is a “team sport.”  It does require community.  In its ultimate expression, in fact, it requires that the entire world become one’s community.  This however, is overwhelming, so it is important to focus one’s attention and energies upon a community with which one can directly interact.  In my opinion, this transformational understanding of community is best affected in those persons in whose eyes you can look.
  •      Think Globally, Act Locally is how the once-popular bumper sticker phrased this concept.  It is important to guide our choices with a mind toward our global impact.  We are all one.  We certainly all live on a single planet, and it is about time we lived our lives with this in mind.  At the same time, our actions are similar to other forms of energy.  Like heat, light, or radio waves, our action’s energy dissipates with distance.  This is why our ability to affect those persons in whose eyes we can look is greater than those persons living on the other side of the planet.
  •      When feeling stymied, just do something!  By yourself you are not going to change the world overnight.  But you can immediately begin your own internal transformation of thought.  Changing one’s thoughts promotes changes in behaviour.  And once you start looking for the opportunity, you can very quickly find some meaningful way to help another person.  When we all pull together, helping others in our individually small ways, the overall results are quite large.  And perhaps more importantly, the individual you help will be positively affected.

 

Liturgical Addresses

In September 2014, I offered several short liturgical addresses.  I intended some of these remarks to direct one’s thoughts toward what I think of as Transformational Christianity, because I believe the process of spiritual formation is one of the practical goals of Christianity.  I also appreciate that Transformational Christianity plainly acknowledges the importance of personal spiritual transformation, in parallel with transformation of community.

The service took place at the Community Christian Church, which is a progressive non-denominational Protestant church located in Springfield, Missouri (http://www.spfccc.org/).  I have retained the original section titles used during the worship service.  I have however, expanded upon the liturgical addresses.  If all goes well, those remarks actually delivered during the service should display in bold letters.

 

Wisdom Reading

(The purpose of the Wisdom Reading is to introduce the subject of the main sermon.  Thus, if commentary is offered, it should foreshadow the subject matter of the sermon to follow.)  

Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the Christians living in Rome.  A few of the more salient points to keep in the back of one’s mind when reading Paul’s letter to the Romans are:

Paul did not establish this church.  In fact, Paul had never even been to Rome.
Therefore, Paul is writing his own letter of introduction.
Paul is attempting to defuse negative impressions of his ministry in the East.
Paul wishes to secure funds for future ministry missions as far West as Gaul (Spain).
While Paul can display a very sharp tongue, in this letter he intends his best behaviour.

An additional point that should be remarked upon is the claim that Paul’s letter to the Romans is his attempt to fully lay out his thoughts on God, Jesus, his understanding of Christ, and how these relate to the church (which is often an anachronistic reading).  Attempting to do this is called systematic theology.  But this is not what Paul attempts to do in his letter to Rome.  If Paul ever wrote such a document, it has not survived.

I personally consider Romans to be another “letter of occasion.”  This simply means Paul wrote all his letters in response to a specific occasion.  Topics which would not be pertinent to the topic (occasion) being addressed, ought not be expected to be addressed by Paul.  And we certainly have no reason to think he told us everything he considered important.

What is different about Paul’s letter to Rome, is that he did not establish this community.  In all the other authentic letters of Paul, he is writing to communities which he founded, and as such, he assumed the role of “father” to that community.  And in the ancient world, a degree of authority ―in some cases a great deal of authority― was granted to the “father” of a given community.  And there are letters in which Paul does play to this role of “father” to the community.  But this is not the case in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars believe there are several authors of Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  In addition to the authentic Paul, there is the author of the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy & Titus), and possibly the author(s) of the the contested letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2nd Thessalonians).  And no credible scholar any longer believes Paul write Hebrews.

The primary reason this is important to me, is that the hurtful things “Paul” is supposed to have said of women are forgeries!  If you are a woman, or there are women in your life you care deeply about, this is a very important discovery!

Once this barrier was out of the way, I was open to discovering Paul, the Jewish Mystic.  And that is the Paul I find so inspirational.  In the 14th chapter of Romans we catch only a glimpse of the mystical Paul.  In verses 7-9, Paul essentially reminds us that “as we are born from God, we also die into God.”

This, by the way, is the response I remember Marcus Borg offering during an interview, when asked how one might respond to someone on their death bed, should they ask of God and the afterlife.  To date, this remains the single best piece of advice I have yet heard on that question.  I find Borg’s observation beautifully eloquent.  It reminds us that we are born from a realm beyond this world, and assures us that into that realm or state of existence we shall return upon our death.  And it allows one to understand what this means in one’s own terms.  In the context of a hospital or hospice visitation, I find it to be a brilliant, caring, hopeful response.

The other person being interviewed ―a former hospital chaplain― held the opinion that the only proper response is to attempt to force a dying person to accept his (the chaplain’s) theology.  Namely, the person dying had to acknowledge belief in Jesus Christ, and a very literal interpretation of the resurrection account, or burn in hell.

The differences in these views, are similar to what I imagine may have been taking place in Rome, some 2,000 years ago.  One point of view is taking a very hard line on what is the proper and improper understanding of Christianity, and they are belittling or brow-beating those who do not agree with them.

We may ascertain that some Jewish-Christian members of the community were having difficulty in laying aside concerns over ritual purity;  I suspect the reference to meat carries a similar concern as addressed in the 8th chapter of 1 Corinthians;  we may further presume, that other Christians were demeaning these Jewish-Christians for their “weak faith” or “weak conviction” (in this passage the Greek word *pistei* may be translated as “faith” or “conviction;”  possible alternates would include “trust” or “confidence”).

I am given the impression some were mocking these Jewish-Christians, as being in some way lesser Christians for not being able to give up what Paul considered to be superstitions, or to transcend the cultural mythology in which they had been raised.  We find these same judgements being made today.

In the face of such abuse, Paul suggests that we must refrain from judging one another.  This is in fact, the main point of the first half the 14th chapter of Romans.  Learning to effectively, and meaningfully, relate to persons who occupy a stage of faith development which is much younger than our own presents a real challenge.  Yet, we must find a way to speak with persons occupying other stages of faith, without judging them.

Paul suggests that we sincerely follow our beliefs, and extend grace to those who are following their own sincere beliefs.  The small details of our behaviour ―do we eat meat?  which days are holy?― in the final analysis, these are really of very little importance.

What is of critical importance, however, is that we sincerely honour God, in whatever way we understand that observance.  And, that we allow others the same freedom!

Implicit to Paul’s argument is that we honour and respect others, even when their religious practice is not our own.  Paul, of course, meant this only in the context of the developing forms of early Christianity;  I would argue, this is better understood and practised as a general rule governing our behaviour and interactions with persons of all faiths.

     Today’s Wisdom Reading is from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
 
     Paul has become one of my favourite authors.  Once, that is, I learned there are several Paul’s, and that the hurtful things said of women were forgeries.
 
     This opened me to Paul the Jewish Mystic, and Paul who so passionately speaks of putting on the mind of Christ, and of learning to live our lives in imitation of Christ.
 
     This is the Paul I find inspirational.
 
     There is a hint of this mystical Paul in today’s reading, when we are reminded in so many words…
 
               …as we are born from God, we also die into God.
 
     But Paul also has a very practical, down-to-earth side.  Throughout this passage, Paul speaks to the very practical matter of NOT judging one another.  Some Jewish-Christians were having difficulty in laying aside concerns over ritual purity.
 
     Other Christians were demeaning them for their “weak faith” or conviction…  as if they were somehow lesser Christians for not being able to give up superstitions, or to transcend the cultural mythology in which they had been raised.
 
     But Paul tells us NOT to judge others.
 
     We are to sincerely follow our beliefs, and we are to be gracious, to those who are following their own sincere beliefs.
 
     The small details of how we act out
     – whether we eat meat, or which days we consider holy –
     these are of little, real importance.
 
     What is of critical importance, is that we sincerely honour God,
     in whatever way we understand that observance,
     and allow others the same freedom.

 

Romans 14:1-10(a)

Do Not Judge Another

1 Welcome those who are weak in faith [or “conviction”], but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.  2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  4 Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord [other ancient authorities read “for God”] is able to make them stand.

5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.  Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord.  Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God;  while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;  so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?

(This is the YouTube presentation of the main sermon, given by Rev. Dr. Roger Ray.)

 

 

Offertory Sentence

(The Offertory Sentence is a brief affirmative statement one makes with regard to one’s attraction to the church and/or faith community.)

This small church helps feed persons every week at a local food kitchen, bringing food for that meal and providing volunteers to serve those who are hungry.  Volunteers also perform a variety of chores at a local food warehouse which distributes food directly to needy families.  Helping one’s neighbour does not get much more basic than this!

Members also solicit, collect, and then send shoes to needy children in Nicaragua.  I had not been aware children needed shoes in Nicaragua, but if kids run around barefoot, they naturally cut their feet, and these cuts easily become infected in their jungle environment.  Given there is little access to basic health care, these cuts may become so badly infected that amputations are required to save the child’s life.

These are the primary ways this church seeks to serve needy persons in their local community, and in a specific community in another country.  And, I must say, I find these efforts quite heart-warming.

The point of departure I chose for my Offertory Sentence is once again based upon a remark I once heard Marcus Borg make.  He offered the opinion that Christianity is transformational, and that this effect may be further divided into two different areas of our lives:

Transformation of Self
Transformation of Community

I find there is a lot of value in this perspective.  Transformation of self and of community are certainly related, but they are also different in many ways.  Transformation of self, is primarily an inward-looking practice.  Transformation of community requires becoming involve with other persons, and can only be accomplished through interaction with others.

     For me, Christianity is about Transformation.
     Transformation of Self.
     Transformation of Community.
     I believe these to be symbiotic relationships.
     
     Transformation of Self can be very inward-looking.
     Introspective. Mysterious. Elusive.
     
     In a great many ways, I feel it is beyond words.
     So how do we talk about it?
     
     With awkward, stumbling attempts, I suspect.
     But talk about it we should.
     Regularly.
     
     But Transformation of Self, is also found in experiences.
     And Transformation of Community, must be a result of shared experiences.
     Transformation of Community, we “talk about” by doing.
     
     My attraction to this church, is your Commitment to Community.
     I see this in the sharing of food at Bill’s Place and at Crosslines.
     I see this in the collection of shoes for needy children.
     
     What has attracted me to this church?
     It’s the opportunity, to do something, for someone else.

 

 

Invitation to Communion

(Communion, is also known as Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist.  The observance of Communion dates to the earliest churches of the 1st century.  This is the formal reception of bread and wine which symbolize the body and blood of Jesus.  While this is a central practice of many Christians, specifically how it is understood and enacted varies widely.)

     I think most of us stand at one margin of society or another.  
     I suspect most people here are “recovering Catholics” or “recovering Protestants.”  
     Or “recovering something-elses.”
     
     I suspect many of us are the “church people” no church wanted!  
     Trouble makers.  Broken toys, exiled to the “Island of Misfit Toys.”  
     Or maybe… just thrown away.  
     
     I suspect many of us, come here by way of pain, neglect, or abuse.
     But I hope we also come here to mend, and to heal.
     And I hope, we come here to offer mending and healing to others.  
     
     This Open Communion is symbolic of this desire for healing.
     In ourselves. In our loved ones. In strangers.
     In those who may become friends.
     
     This Communion is also an open invitation to share in our community.
     Even if this is your first visit.
     Even, if this is your only visit.
     
     And I hope, those we meet at Bill’s Place or Crosslines also feel part of this community.
     
     Sharing Communion always turns my thoughts toward Jesus.
     
     Jesus asked, that we love God with all that we are.
     Jesus asked, that we love others, as we wish to be loved.
     
     Jesus shows us, how to help those living at the margins of society.
     Shows us, that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
     Shows, in fact, that how we treat others, reveals the Kingdom within ourselves.
     
     This is what I hear in the Transformational words of Jesus…
     
     “Do this, in remembrance of me.”

 

May the Lord bless and keep you.
Erik+

 

References:

 

Marcus J. Borg

http://www.marcusjborg.com/

 

Community Christian Church

http://www.spfccc.org/

 

Community Christian Church YouTube Home Page

https://www.youtube.com/user/CCCSpringfield

 

Community Christian Church, Sermon for Sept. 14, 2014

http://youtu.be/0BF8YhqnHWA?list=UUeF1t9dro_UwXa5qO_FH7bg

 

Bill’s Place

http://www.thekitcheninc.org/bills_place.php

 

Crosslines Food Pantry

http://crosslines.org/

 

Overview of Holy Communion / Lord’s Supper / Eucharist

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucharist

 

Putting on the Mind of Christ

http://thepracticingcatholic.com/2011/09/22/putting-on-the-mind-of-christ/

 

The Mind of Christ

http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-corinthians/the-mind-of-christ

 

Ron Miller’s Presentations to the Theosophical Society

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

 

Ron Miller on Pluralism:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/guess-whos-coming-to-dinner-the-new-pluralism/

 

Ron Miller on the Letter of James

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/a-very-different-christian-story/

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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.”

Seeking Consonance with the Transcendent

William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder”

Do you see an apparent contradiction in the following statement?  In my previous essay, I wrote:

  •      “I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.”

 

If the Transcendent is truly transcendent, then by definition it is beyond our ability to experience.  How then, is it possible to bring oneself into consonance with something one posits must exist outside our universe and experience?  

 

This is the point I will address in this essay.  But first, let’s refresh our memory of certain terms, and provide a frame of reference for this discussion.  The following are the best definitions of “transcendent” when I use terms like “Uncreated/Divine/God” and “Transcendent-Ineffable”:

  Transcendent

  •     Being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge;  being beyond comprehension (Merriam-Webster);
  •     Beyond consciousness or direct apprehension;  beyond or before experience (a priori);  having continuous existence outside the created world (Collins English);
  •     Being above and independent of the material universe (American Heritage);
  •     Not realizable in human experience;  referred to, but beyond, direct apprehension; outside consciousness (Kernerman Webster’s College);

 

The view that “God” (the Uncreated-Divine-Transcendent-Ineffable) is to an indeterminate degree Unknowable, is one of my radical (meaning, foundational) theological tenets.  (I addressed this point in a previous essay).  I find it to be the most certain positive statement I may make concerning the Divine;  more than this, everything else one wishes to say of “God” must reside within the shadow of this observation.  (We forget this at our peril, and the peril of others, as history is replete with examples.)

 

Negative theology (also known as Via Negativa, “Negative Way”) seeks to clarify this point by stating we are unable to make *positive* assertions as to the nature of the Uncreated/Divine/God.  This is because the divine realm is completely unavailable to our human senses.

When using negative theology, we limit our statements to observing what the Uncreated/Divine/God is *not*.  The intention is to specifically limit our statements to that of which we *do* have experience, namely:  objects, events, and persons of this world.  Simultaneously, we assert the Divine always exceeds that which is limited to human experience.

Thus:

  • Our experience is limited to the world in which we live
  • We assert there is a divine world, which transcends our world
  • As human beings, we are unable to directly experience the divine world *
  • Therefore, we are insufficient to the task of describing and defining the divine world
  • But we are able to describe experiences we have as human beings
  • And we may acknowledge human experience is insufficient to fully describe & define the Divine
  • This leads some to the adoption of the Negative Way:  limiting ourselves to stating what the Uncreated/Divine/God is not **

*  This is not to say that the Divine is unable to enter our world;  I believe it may.  But it is to say, that in so doing, what the Divine reveals of itself to us is limited by our ability to perceive it.
**  I am not aware of anyone who thinks the Negative Way adequately reveals the Divine to us.  Primarily it is an exercise designed to make us mindfully aware of our limitations in attempting to describe that which is outside the meaning of time and space, or any other categories of understanding we have access to as human beings.

 

But God Can Do Anything!

I frequently hear the argument that God can do anything, including reveal the entirety of the divine to the mortal.  I disagree.  The problem is this:  we remain mortal;  human.  Anything revealed to us must *still* be filtered through our perception and then cognitively processed by us.  We have bodies, sense organs, and a brain;  and these present limitations.  And so long as we remain human, we will always face limitation.

 

  •      The limitation in receiving divine revelation is not God (the Source), but ourselves (the Receptor)

 

If we use the metaphor of radio waves, the Uncreated sends forth a vast array of radio waves -we may even posit an infinite range of frequencies- but we as the radio receiver are only able to perceive those frequencies which our antenna and filters allow us to receive.  Psychologically, we may also consider more human corollaries.  There have been cases of persons born blind, who later gain vision;  but they cannot make any sense of what they are seeing, because their brains never developed the ability to make sense of the photons hitting their retina.

 

  •      As with one born physically blind, we are all born spiritually blind, in terms of directly seeing the divine realm.

 

The Claims of Mystics

Mystics, however, report experiencing something which they interpret as an aspect of the Divine.  But they have difficulty relating their experience to someone who has not had a similar experience.  Invariably, such experiences lose a great deal when transmitted by the spoken or written word.  A great deal of mysticism struggles with exactly this problem.

Mystics tell us they are able to push their perception to some degree beyond those most persons experience.  For those wishing to explore this more deeply I believe it is helpful to distinguish between perception, comprehension, and apprehension.

Perception is both physical and psychological;  it requires the ability to receive raw input, and it requires the ability to be aware of the input.  Comprehension is a cognitive process;  this is making sense of the raw data we are receiving as input to our perceptions.  Comprehension is a conscious endeavour.

Apprehension is more subtle.  Apprehension is linked to instincts and intuition.  I suspect it is also linked to the human collective unconscious;  which may in turn be linked to the what we might call the divine collective unconscious.  (I believe there is an interesting Jungian argument here, which I will not explore in this essay.)

Thus, through apprehension, we are able to exceed our purely physical (sensory) and psychological (cognitive) limitations.  Through apprehension, the mystic seeks connection with the Divine, pushing back portions of the veil which separates the mortal and divine realms.  And I suspect many mystics would agree that the Divine may simultaneously pull back this veil.

So I do believe the Divine is both willing and able to assist us.  (Which leads to a future discussion regarding the immanent nature of the Divine.)  And I do believe that given sufficient desire, trial, and effort, we may gain greater access to what may be a “shadow” of the divine realm.  Yet there remains a radical, fundamental difference between the divine and human which cannot be fully bridged.

Not even God can fully bridge the gap between the divine and human.  Because to do so, we could no longer remain human.  And we are not capable of being fully human and fully divine.

 

  •      This also opens the door to a discussion about “Christology” -the study of Christ- and theological debate surrounding the questions of Jesus being fully human while simultaneously fully divine.  It took several hundred years for the Church to address these and related questions.  These are extensive discussions and are beyond the scope of this essay.  Christology may be the topic of future essays.

 

Healthy Humility

Developing a healthy sense of humility is very important.  In fact, I believe this to be critical for our spiritual maturity.  This is my starting point when contemplating the Divine.  It may sound strange at first, but I believe having severely limited access to the Divine may actually be beneficial to our spiritual growth.

 

  •      Knowing that the ultimate nature of the Divine is unavailable to human experience, is a very healthy and peace-affirming theological position to assume.

 

After all, if everyone were to admit the greatest depths of the Divine are totally unavailable to our comprehension (that the Divine is in fact “transcendent”), each of us would be *unable* to assume the position that *I* understand the Mind of God –and most importantly– therefore, *you* *lack* this understanding.

 

  •      To believe and accept there are depths of the Divine beyond our ken, is a significant step toward eliminating the religious persecution and victimization of others.

 

It is a sad indictment of humanity to observe this would be a giant step forward.  It would be the end of religious war, and the end of murdering in the name of God!  (The greatest of sins, in my opinion.)  If for no other reason, this makes it an extremely worthwhile theological tenet to adopt (even if only provisionally).

 

Are We Then Bereft of God?

If we can never have any experience of, and are unable to have any contact with, the transcendent elements of “God” does this mean we have no access to any part of the Divine?  Does this mean we are utterly alone and alienated from that which we believe is the Source of existence itself?

Not at all.  We do have the ability to access those parts of the Divine which are manifest in this world.  But we should be mindful that this is only a partial understanding, and affords us an incomplete view of the Divine.  But there are steps we may take to mitigate these difficulties.

Religious Education

In the outer, exoteric sense, this is the role of religion in the public sphere.  This is a beginning point.  We attend public worship, meetings, and study sessions.  Largely, I see this as an effort to educate ourselves.  In this “exoteric” category I would also include private bible study and seminary studies.  We are trying to better understand our own religious tradition, the roles persons play within that tradition, and where we fit into our religious tradition.  (We may further benefit by including the study of other religious traditions;  how they both differ and are similar to our own.)

Public Mysticism

There are also more mystical encounters which take place in the public sphere, which are not about educating ourselves, but are instead focused upon *experiencing* the Presence of the Divine.  In my opinion, facilitating our connection (with what we may experience of) the Divine is the role of the Holy Spirit  (which I equate with the Shakinah in the Jewish tradition).

Several very different examples which immediately come to mind include:  Catholic Eucharist;  Whirling Dervish;  and very active forms of worship, such as Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Appalachian Snake Handling services.  Of these, the Catholic Eucharist is the most introverted expression of public mysticism.

Private Mysticism

For me, this is the deeper experience.  But I may simply feel this way because I am strongly introverted, therefore I have a natural inclination to this path, and a natural disinclination toward being part of a “public spectacle.”  I will point out that each of us should endeavour to be aware that what *we* find natural, may or may not be what another person finds to be a “natural” means of entering an experience of the Holy Presence.

Judge not.  Whether one sits quietly, mumbles under their breath, chants, drums, dances, or whirles in dizzying circles, it is the state of entering a sense of rapport with the Divine which is important, not how one achieves this state.  And this is an internal state, which only the person entering it may judge to be effective or ineffective.  Therefore, use whatever approach works for you.  And feel free to experiment with different means of entering this state.

Inner Mysticism

Inner mysticism may also be called esoteric mysticism, because at its core it is an internal event and experience.  One may enter this state through a public event (Eucharist, Pentecost, etc) or one may enter this state through a private event (contemplation, meditation, drumming, chanting, etc).

The point is that the encounter itself is internal to the person experiencing it.  Whether this encounter takes place in a public space or within a private space is secondary.  Another way of saying this, is that our body just happens to be wherever it is occupying physical space;  however, it is our spirit, that is engaging the mystical experience.

For this reason, I believe the inner-esoteric experience is properly called “spirituality.”  Here we seek to bridge the gap between our (lower case) spirit and the (upper case) Divine Spirit.  In this essay, I will suggest we may think of this process as trying to attain “resonance” with the Divine.  This is an intermediate step (it was preceded by the educational process, and as we shall see, may eventually may lead to a state of “consonance” with the Divine).

Attaining resonance with the Divine, repeated over time, leads to an even deeper connection.  Terms which I find useful in describing this state are establishing a “rapport” with the Divine, or of attaining “consonance” with the Divine.  Both terms are useful.  Rapport is very useful when speaking of the neural-linguistic processes taking place within our body, brain, and mind.  Consonance offers a beautiful musical metaphor for the experience, which also lends itself to the concept of participation in the “Field Theory” of the Divine.  By whatever name one wishes to use as a label for the encounter, the active attempt to bring oneself into a state of rapport/consonance with the Divine is the primary objective of mysticism.

Each of these processes builds upon and refines that which precedes.  First an outer-exoteric religious experience, followed by a spiritual attempt to bring oneself into “resonance” with the Divine, followed by a deepening “consonance” with the Divine.  While the terms used to describe these processes vary, all great religions acknowledge them.

 

Achieving a State of Consonance

It is understanding the role of mysticism as a means of establishing rapport with the Divine which I wish to discuss in this essay.  I propose this may be thought of as a two-step process.  First we determine how to enter a state of resonance with the Divine.  Once we have learned to enter a state of resonance, we refine the process over time, through repetition and exploration.  Ultimately repetitive states of resonance results in achieving a state of consonance.

Resonance & Consonance

The following are the Merriam-Webster definitions of resonance and consonance:

Resonance

  • The quality or state of being resonant
  • A vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system caused by a relatively small periodic stimulus of the same or nearly the same period as the natural vibration period of the system

Consonance

  • Harmony or agreement among components

 

Tightly stretched wires which share the same fundamental frequency will vibrate in sympathetic response with one another.  If you have access to a piano or two tuning forks of the same frequency (or a harmonic thereof) you may easily test this for yourself.

If you strike a C-note on a piano, every other wire in that piano tuned to a C will vibrate in resonance with the one you struck.  In fact, the same effect will take place with other musical instruments in the vicinity.  This is an example of sympathetic harmonic resonance.  Sound waves are transmitted by air molecules between the strings, tuning forks, or other musical instruments.

Related effects are well known in modern physics.  Gravitational waves are a form of field effect, electromagnetic field effects are integral to many mechanical and electromagnetic systems, and at the subatomic level, field effect semi-transistors control the flow of electrons in the computer you are using to read this essay.  Thus, we see examples of resonance throughout nature, at all scales.

Consonance is a particularly useful term as it is used when describing musical relationships, because it speaks to an artful impression of which we become aware when listening to a beautiful piece of music (there is also dissonance, which describes the opposite effect).  Personally, I find resonance to be a more abstract, sterile term than consonance.  Consonance conveys a sense of beauty and heart-felt appreciation.  Thus, we seek “consonance of the heart” when seeking union with the Divine.

 

  •      One may measure resonance with a frequency meter.  But one experiences consonance in one’s heart.

 

Is there a “consonant field effect” connecting us to the Uncreated/Divine/God?

I am asking whether the above examples of field effects in the physical realm -gravity, sympathetic harmonic resonance, electrical and magnetic fields- may serve as analogies for a similar “field effect” existing between the human spirit and the Divine Spirit.

 

  •      Might a “spiritual field effect” comprise a subtle connection between the physical and divine realms?

 

I suggest that such a connection does exists.  Further, I am suggesting that understanding our connection between the human and Divine realms as a form of spiritual “consonance” is instructive for a number of practical reasons.

 

First and foremost, it affirms we have access to some aspects of the Divine Spirit while we exist in the physical-human realm.

People who have not felt any indication of such a connection are often doubtful of this assertion, but those who have felt it, no longer question that it exists.  They may question a great deal more, about its nature and meaning, and what to do with/about it;  but this connection itself, has become a part of their personal experience;  thus, it is not a theory, or an article of faith, it is something they know/feel to be as true as the wind upon their face.

It is important to emphasize, this does not mean they also understand or comprehend it.  Being certain a thing exists, is not the same as knowing all there is to know about it, or even assurance one knows anything about it, beyond its existence.

 

Secondly, it suggests we may gain access to the Divine Spirit by conforming ourselves to become first “resonate” and then “consonant” with the Divine Spirit.

This point is critical.  This is what spiritual practices are all about.  Whether one is a whirling dervish, speaking in tongues, or practicing kataphatic and/or apophatic contemplation, all are means of placing oneself in greater resonance with what one perceives as the Uncreated/Divine/God.

And as one deepens one’s spiritual practices, from this preliminary state of *resonance*, one is increasingly likely to develop a resulting sense of *consonance* with the Uncreated/Divine/God.  And mystics indicate this in turn promotes a deepening sense of peace within, which is reflected upon the outer world through the experiences of richer, more peaceful relations with others.

 

  •      Divine Light is engendered in our heart, fills it and cascades, shining forth into the world as the ray of Love

 

How might we engender this sense of consonance within our experience?

We must first discover which of the many ways of experiencing a sense of the Uncreated/Divine/God in our personal lives is effective for us.  This will likely differ from one person to the next.  I suspect our individual psychology, and cultural influences are major contributing factors for such differences.

The uniqueness of our individual psychological and behaviour development influences whether we respond well to active dancing and chanting, or prefer quiet, solitary contemplation/meditation to enter an open spiritual state.  This is a case where the “how” is subjective, and completely secondary, to being able to achieve the state of connectedness with the Divine.

Once we discover one or more ways which promote -for us- this state of connectedness to the Divine, we must determine specifically under what circumstances this effect is experienced.  Equally important is learning what discourages this sense of connection.  Both are effected by our development as individuals:  culturally, socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  We should also be aware that we may discover certain methods are more appropriate given different circumstances.  We each may cultivate multiple means of connecting with the Divine.

 

Participating in the Kingdom of God

Over time, we should anticipate changes within ourselves.  These internal changes lead to behaviour modification, leading to changes in how we interact with other persons.  These mental, emotional, and behaviour changes which take root and blossom within our hearts is the “personal transformation” I speak of as one of the two major goals of leading a spiritual life.  The second major goal of leading a spiritual life takes place when our personal transformation is transferred to our interactions with others.  This is integral to the “transformation of society.”  In fact, I believe it is the only means of transforming the community in which we live.

It is my belief these transformations -personal and communal- are vital elements of what Jesus referred to as the coming Kingdom of God.  It is already present:  in potential.  But it requires our personal, individual, mindful participation to initiate the process.  And we do so by living appropriately spiritual lives;  spiritual lives which over time bring us into closer consonance with the Divine.

 

And how are we to judge whether we are living appropriately spiritual lives?

I believe we find this guidance in the ideals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness.  These become our daily measures of success.  All great religions speak of these ideals.

We should also acknowledge we will trip and fall at times.  To err is human, after all.  The key is to get back up and recommit ourselves to the principals of selfless love, compassion, and loving-kindness, to whatever extent we are able.  It is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day continuing process.  It is a process of spiritual cultivation which we will practice for the rest of our lives.

I believe this is the process of “becoming more fully human” which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”  And if we can remember only a single thing, if we may hold onto only a single thought throughout our daily lives, this is certainly a wonderful, transforming thought:

love wastefully!

 

Selected References:

Art of the Religious Experience

earthrise-NASA
Modern science is a predominately progressive endeavour.  Those of us living in the developed nations, not only anticipate new discoveries, we normally embrace such change as beneficial.

We have become accustomed to the idea that pretty much everything is subject to revision and refinement.  This is among the identifying features of living in a technology-based society.  Everything changes, and over the course of time, generally for the better.

In contrast, true art reaches something deep within us, something which is timeless.  In Jungian terms, one might say true art resonates with a counterpart in our deep unconscious;  this may reach even deeper, into the depths of our collective -shared- unconscious.

Art awakens within us a desire for -and facilitates a connection to- that which is timeless.  Likewise, profound religious-spiritual experiences bring us into an awareness of this timeless dimension of reality.

In thinking about the religious experience as a form of art, I am suggesting there are unchanging elements of human nature, which activate archetypal resonances.  One may even argue whatever these elements are, they reach across species.  After all, why did Neanderthals bury their dead, with apparent concern for their continuing care, even in death?

But how might we identify what in our religious experience is timeless?  And how might such experiences differ from secular (non-religious) experiences?  I would begin by suggesting we consider two broad categories of experience:

  •   External (Exoteric)
  •   Internal (Esoteric)

External / Exoteric

In this view, external experiences govern our interactions with others.  The application of morals and ethics within our society serve as examples.  These concerns may be both secular and religious.  While it is possible to live to a high moral and ethical standard without holding a religious conviction, both the secular and religious norms seek to instruct us how we are to live with one another.

The central difference between the two are found in the “whys” of doing so.

Secularly, such reasons may range from, these are the regulations handed down to us from our rulers, to these are the means of finding personal happiness;  if we are more ethically mature, to allowing others to also find their happiness;  and for those embracing very mature ethics, to actively assisting others find their happiness.

What of the religious dimension?

I believe the shift from the secular experience to the religious experience is revealed in the transformational qualities of that which we seek.  The call of the secular is of a more limited nature to my ear.  At its best, it calls for us to live in peace, and live our life so as to be happy, and helping others do likewise.  But where is the terminus, the end?  For the secular, that ending point is here, on planet earth.

If we care only about ourselves, it ends with us, here and now.  If we care about our children, it ends with them, and their children.  If we care about the children of strangers, we extend our concern greatly.  But all these concerns are limited to the continuation of life on this planet.

It is not that seeking to live a life filled with happiness is a bad goal.  It is not that seeking out ways of helping others to do the same is a bad thing.  These are objectively beneficial goals to hold throughout one’s life.  But they are goals limited to our worldly realm.  Thus, their nature is secular.

Positive transformation of society is a good thing, but by itself it falls short of being a religious experience because it limits itself to the “horizontal” axis of our lives.  Time is the horizontal axis in which we all live in this world.  We are by our physical nature creatures subject to time;  we are captured within its boundaries.

Vertical Axis of the Eternal

But there is also a “vertical axis” which the religious experience affirms:  the eternal;  that which is outside of time;  that which is unconstrained by time;  that which transcends time, and by extension, everything found in our vast universe.

This contrast and interaction between the horizontal and vertical aspects of our existence is part of what is symbolized in the cross.  The horizontal arm symbolizes our physical, material, time-constrained presence in the mortal world;  the vertical arm symbolizes our connection to the eternal.

I believe we may think of our desire for the eternal as what Joseph Campbell called “finding our bliss.”  And I believe Bishop Spong invites us to “love wastefully” because we are best in alignment with the vertical component of our nature when we live in a state of love.  And I believe this is what St. Augustine was aware of when observing that our weight is our love (in whatever we place our love, that acts like gravity, drawing us ever-nearer to it).

What have these views in common?  They are transformative experiences, because they encourage us to live for more than merely the horizontal dimension of our lives;  they point us toward the timeless, vertical-spiritual axis of our being, which transcends our mortal experience.

Internal / Esoteric

Internally -esoterically- the religious experience is about living in the vertical axis.  Here we meet what we may of that which transcends our human condition.  This experience is as limited or profound as is our state of consciousness.  The timeless-transcendent is always available to us;  *we* limit how much of this we may drink.

The objective of this encounter is to experience the numinous in our life.

  Numinous  (Merriam-Webster)

  •     Having a mysterious, holy, or spiritual quality
  •     Supernatural, mysterious
  •     Filled with a sense of the presence of divinity :  holy
  •     Appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense :  spiritual

The numinous encounter is what I see as the primary goal of mysticism.  And I see the numinous as a unifying force across many -perhaps all- religions.  This is what draws their mystics of differing religions closer to one another, even as they are sometimes distanced from non-mystics within their own religious tradition.

  •      There is a tension between persons within each religion, of the mystic/esoteric and the non-mystic/exoteric, persuasion.  This may be symbolized by a circle with a dot in the middle of it:  persons experiencing the exoteric nature of their religion, traverse along the outer perimeter of the circle, and quite accurately, note differences among the various religious traditions;  meanwhile, mystics experience the esoteric nature of their religion, and move ever-nearer to the central dot, which represents the Transcendent, and in so doing, note their experience is becoming increasingly similar to other esoterics, regardless of their exoteric religious tradition.

I understand the inner (esoteric) religious experience to be concerned with personal transformation, so as to bring ourselves into increasing consonance with that which transcends our human experience.

In Christian and Jewish terms, these transformational experiences are conveyed in the teaching of the Greatest Commandment, which St. Augustine presented as:  loving God with all that you are, and loving others in such as manner as to best foster their ability to love God with all that they are.  This is why Augustine said our love is our weight, meaning:

  •   …as gravity draws a rock to the ground, so too, that in which we place our love, to that we are drawn.

The Art of the Religious Experience  

I believe the Art of the Religious Experience is about Transformation:  of ourselves;  of our communities.  We are to transform first ourselves and then our community in such a manner as to bring us into consonance with what we identify as our Ultimate Concern (God, Oneness, or Love, for the religious;  perhaps Happiness or Love, for the secular).

I further believe all great religions may be understood as using the ideal of selfless love (or compassion, or loving-kindness) as our daily measure of success in striving toward this understanding of Ultimate Concern.  I would further observe this is the process of becoming more fully human which bishop Spong speaks of in concert with his appeal for us to “love wastefully.”

The opposite of this is also true.  Should our Ultimate Concern become Hate, we transform our communities into machines of war and destruction.  We turn from mystical unity with all, toward isolation, rejection of all that is not “us” (tribal thinking), and we project (transform) our hatred upon others to alienate them, so as to more easily cause them harm.  This is the corruption of the religious experience, and the rejection of the numinous.

Yet we may hope to learn from the great mystics of all religions, who seek to reveal to us the light they have encountered in presence of the timeless, eternal.

  •    It is up to each of us to choose that which shall become our Weight, our Gravity.

We each carry the dichotomies of Love-and-Hate, Eternal-and-Worldly, in our hearts.  The choice between Love and Hate is present in our interactions with others;  in each thought we harbour;  in each feeling we allow to linger within us;  in each look we cast upon another;  and carried in each word we speak.

We cannot be perfect, and we would drive ourselves mad were we to set such an impossible standard.  But we each may strive toward more frequently nourishing loving thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others.  This is a critical first- and continual-step in our spiritual maturity.  And I believe this is common to all true religions, when lived in their deepest, most spiritually transformative expression.

We should give ourselves permission to be gracious to ourselves when we fall short of this ideal.  And we should be gracious with others when they too fall short of “loving wastefully.”  Forgiveness, as with all things human, begins within us.  It is OK to be human.  It is OK to fall short of our ideals.

What is important is that we get up again;  that we start anew.

  •   It is never too late to recognize the vertical axis in our lives.
  •   It is never too late to embrace this spiritually transformative process.
  •   It is never too late to promote compassion for others.
  •   It is never too late to pick ourselves up after a fall.
  •   It is never too late to recommit our lives to transforming ourselves, and our community.
  •   It is never too late to be happy.
  •   It is never too late to love.

These are all important aspects of the Art of Living the Authentic Religious Experience.

“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+


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