Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Spiritual Quest

I have decided to start a spiritual quest of sorts.

I just finished reading The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, and in that very well-known self-help book, he ends the book with a discussion about what he believes is evidence of God's immanence in human life. Far from supporting any institutional religion over another, Peck's philosophy is rooted (as might be imagined) in psychiatric phenomena such as serendipity, synchronicity, ESP, and the like. He argues that God's "grace" is enacted through the unconscious, which works beyond our conscious control to assist our spiritual growth. I found a lot of what he said to make sense on a certain level, and at the very least his arguments were interesting and unique.

I read this book, obviously, as a means to help me along the path of my own spiritual and emotional growth, and it has inspired me to continue along that "less traveled" path. In doing so, one of the issues that I want to reconcile within myself is my concept of God. In Peck's book, he talks about the idea that many people must first reject God (that is, the God of dogmatic institutional religion) before they can find the authentic God. This definitely resonates with me, as I have experienced a similar situation. However, I don't, yet, feel like I have found that authentic God. I have come across a lot of ideas that really makes sense to me, but none that I have been able to fully and completely grasp.

What is interesting is that I just finished a novel by James Michener called The Source, which fictionalized the history of Judaism, and had, as one of its primary themes, the evolving nature of the God concept. Without even realizing it, this was actually the start of my quest, because it definitely got me thinking a lot about my concept of God, where it comes from, why I believe it, and what it means for me. Bearing this in mind, while reading The Road Less Traveled (which I was reading at the same time as The Source), it was rather serendipitious (to use one of Peck's arguments for God's grace) that this book, too, began an in depth discussion of the very same topic: the concept of God. While I had known that The Source -- a novel fictionalizing the history of Judaism -- was going to deal a lot with the changing concepts of God, I had not known that The Road Less Traveled had any "God" discussion in it.

As such, I am going to run with this moment of serendipity and begin an intentional quest for God. This, of course, is nothing really new -- I've been searching for God my entire life. A few years back, when I first began to reject the concepts of God that my church had taught me, I read a very enlightening book by Marcus Borg called The God We Never Knew. So this "quest" isn't really anything new for me. However, it's more "intentional" now, I suppose.

What I intend to do on this quest involves a mixture of prayer, meditation, and reading. The prayer and meditation is self-explanatory, but I intend to buttress those things by reading three books.

The first is a book that I've had on my shelf for well over a year (maybe even two years), but have never read. Again, the serendipity involved in the fact that I have chosen not to read this book yet, so that it is now there available for me when the issue of God has come to the forefront of my consciousness, simply makes my dedication to this "quest" all the stronger. The book is by British scholar and academic, Karen Armstrong. It is called A History of God. In it, Armstrong discusses and illustrates the long history of the God concept, how it has evolved through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and how people's interactions with God have evolved through the centuries. I believe this will be a great starting point for my quest, one which will ground me in the history of God and in humanity's concepts of God. Where The Source was a fictionalization using the evolving God concept as a theme, A History of God is an in-depth, scholarly look at humanity's changing concepts of God.

After this book, I intend to start a book called There is a God. This is written by philosopher Anthony Flew, and I came across it quite by accident (again, that serendipity thing) the other day while browsing the bookstore. I've never heard of Flew before, but evidently he has been regarded by many as one of the "Fathers" of modern atheism. In the 1950's he wrote a scholarly paper on the depravity of religious belief, and it has been hailed as the pentultimate thesis on atheism ever since (I think I read that it has been distrubuted more widely than any other scholarly paper in the 20th century).

Despite this, Flew has now embraced a sort of philosophical theism. He's now an old man, of course, and his change of heart might be chalked up to the fear of approaching annihilation, but either way, he has written a book detailing why he has rejected atheism, after a lifetime as one of the foremost champions of atheism, in favor of philsophical theism. He hasn't, apparently, accepted any dogamatic institutional form of religion (which, of course, is one thing in his favor), but instead has accepted more of a Martin Gardner type of belief -- a creator God who is involved in human life and is interested in the spiritual growth and fulfillment of human beings. Since this is not at all unlike the God concept Peck paints in The Road Less Traveled, I'm very interested in hearing what Flew has to say, particularly since he comes from a background of militant atheism.

After I finish Flew's book, I will finish up by reading the extremely popular and controversial book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. As a sort of "counterpoint" to There is a God, I want to see what all the fuss is about regarding this book, and see what I really think of the modern atheist position.

By reading these three books -- a scholarly history of God, a story of a former atheist turned philosophical theist, and a militant treatise on the harmfulness of religious belief -- I hope to come away with a more informed and well-rounded view of God. This, coupled with a lot of prayer and meditation will, I hope, allow me to settle on a concept of God that resonates with me -- or perhaps, no concept at all. I am willing to risk the descent (or ascent, as some would say) into atheism in order to find God. If I never return from that journey into atheism, then so be it -- at least I will have found an answer that works for me. Of course, my intention is not to turn atheist, but to buttress my sense of spirituality and universal mystery by coming to a deeper understanding of God.

I want to end by extending an offer to all my readers to join me in this quest. I realize, right from the start, that this probably will not be taken up by anyone else. It's a lot of work, and as Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, most people are not equal to the work required for spiritual and personal growth. In that same vein, Mark Twain once said "Be good, and you will be lonesome." This became the basis of a wonderful Jimmy Buffett song in 1987. For certain, the road to spiritual enlightenment is a lonely one.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that if you choose not to take this particular quest with me it means you aren't dedicated to personal and spiritual growth. Maybe this just isn't the way you want to go about it. And that, of course, is a highly personal decision, not one I can make for anyone but myself.

But if anyone is up to the task, I would encourage you to read these books, in this order, along with me, and buttress it with prayer and meditation. I think it would strengthen my quest, as well as yours, to be able to discuss it with someone else.

Finally, I want to add that I will not be blogging between now and the end of my quest. Not because I'm going to be holed up in the woods muttering Buddhist mantras -- I still have to work, go to school, and be a father, after all -- but simply because I want to focus my spiritual and intellectual attention right now on this quest. Theology, the meaning of Jesus' life, Church history, and all the other things I love to write about are not germaine to this particular quest. This is a quest to find God, and that's what I want to focus on. So unless I change my mind later, I won't blog again until I have completed this journey. Naturally, if any of you do want to come along with me on this quest, please let me know.

Until then, shalom, and I'll see you on the flip side.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Trinity Doctrine: Bad Math

The Trinity Doctrine is a theological Christian concept that says God has three manifestations or extensions – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of God’s manifestations is an independent extension of God, but the three together make up the whole. The idea is that God is composed of “three persons,” but only “one substance,” as the official doctrine states.

In this day and age, the Trinity Doctrine is so entrenched in mainstream Christian consciousness that most Christians hardly give it much thought or critical examination. Certainly no mainstream Christian would consider herself a polytheist. Yet early in Christian history, before Christianity was the force in western society that it is today, it was commonly recognized among non-Christians that the Christians had three gods. Even as late as the 19th century, when the British were busy colonizing and converting the native tribes of Africa, it was understood by the African tribesmen that the British had come from the Great White Queen across the water (Victoria) who worshipped a three-headed god. To people not familiar with this deeply entrenched doctrine, it fairly screams of polytheism at best, and Dissociative Identity Disorder at worst. Maybe Sybil wasn’t so crazy after all.

Read the New Testament, and you won’t find a single instance of the word “trinity.” It is a concept that was developed not by Jesus, not by his followers, not by the writers of the New Testament, but by the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries – in other words, groups of old, rich, powerful men who met in lavish palaces, all expenses paid, and were plied with gifts and food and wine while being tended to by servants, all while doing the so-called work of God to formalize and systematize Christianity so it could be sold to the masses. As Rabbi Joel Blau once said: “Theology: that madness gone systematic which tries to crowd God’s fullness into a formula and a system!” And nothing represents this idea better than the doctrine of the Trinity, which was birthed as a result of the group copulation of those aforementioned old white men at the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.

Of course, I’m speaking a little tongue-in-cheek here, and to be fair, the Trinity concept was first discussed as early as the 200’s in the writings of Tertullian, but it became a central issue of the first ecumenical councils, and it was at those councils, in the 300’s and 400’s C.E., that the concept was finally cemented into a nice, beribboned theological package – a perfect way to describe how God and Jesus could be one, with the Holy Spirit (whatever that is) thrown in for good measure. The ironic thing is that Tertullian, despite beginning his days as a great defender of Orthodoxy, later moved away from the Catholic Church, referring to it as “the church of a lot of bishops,” and began following a form of Christianity called Montanism, which the Church (of course, since it wasn’t their own) considered heretical. For this reason, Tertullian, despite being a leading theologian, prolific writer, and prominent Christian apologist of the early Christian era, has never been canonized. So the person who, 200 years after Jesus’ life, first gave us the Trinity concept, is also someone who the Church – which adopted that Trinity concept and put it into a nice package – deemed a heretic.

It has long been debated – literally since the doctrine was established – whether there is any biblical veracity for the Trinity idea. I’ve already mentioned that no New Testament text uses the word “trinity,” and the idea itself wasn’t conceived of until at least the 200’s, and wasn’t formalized until the 300’s. But can one go to the words of Jesus, or to the words of other New Testament figures, to find evidence that the Trinity exists?

For those who abide by the Trinity Doctrine, their strongest textual argument comes from the last passage of the book of Matthew. There, Matthew describes the resurrected Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Prior to flying off into the great blue yonder (where, presumably, he donned a space suit and oxygen tank so he could breath in low earth orbit), Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here, then, is the only instance in the entire Bible where all three of God’s distinct yet unified personalities are mentioned together in one breath.

The problem, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t know for certain whether these were the words of Jesus, or the words of Matthew. Skeptics might immediately reject the words as coming from Jesus, since they are purported to have been spoken after his resurrection. But it’s always possible, of course, that Matthew accurately recorded something that Jesus said, but simply stuck it into a post-resurrection narrative. A scholarly look at the texts of Jesus’ life would imply that he probably did send his followers out to teach in his name (Mark gives a detailed summary of Jesus doing just this during his ministry – sending his followers out two by two to heal and teach). But would Jesus have talked about a Father and a Son and a Holy Spirit? Since messianic prophecies weren’t applied to Jesus’ life until after his death, it seems rather unlikely. Of course, even if they were only the words of Matthew, and not Jesus, they are still words written early in Christian history, in the Bible itself, which might help support a Trinitarian doctrine. This, however, leads to the second problem.

Whether Jesus said these words, or Matthew simply put them into Jesus’ mouth, there is no indication or even implication that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all of one substance, as the Trinity doctrine states. Because the Trinity doctrine is so entrenched in our Christian mindset, we read this passage through the lens of that later doctrine. Yet, if you strip the doctrinal blinkers away and read the passage as it was written, you can see that Jesus is simply instructing his followers to baptize people into the names of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. He says nothing, and implies nothing, about these three entities being one and the same and equal. It would be no different than telling someone to go teach the principles of American democracy to foreigners, “baptizing” them into the names of Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress. That doesn’t mean Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress are all of the same substance.

On the flip side of the coin, there is another passage, this time in Mark, where it seems quite clear that Jesus is, in fact, saying plainly that God is “one” (as opposed to “three” as the Trinity doctrine suggests). This “one vs. three” dichotomy has long been the central issue between Christianity and Judaism. I read a rabbi/priest joke just today that centered on the idea of God as one and God as three. Jews, of course, believe that God is one, relying on that oft-repeated mantra from the Torah: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Christians, because of the Trinity concept, believe God is three.

The writer of Mark – the earliest of the Gospel writers – gives us a very detailed picture of Jesus’ last week on earth. According to Mark, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, and spent the week before his death teaching and fending off attacks from the Pharisees. In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus is approached by one of the “teachers of the law” and is asked to tell which commandment of God’s is the greatest. I’ll let you read the rest of the passage for yourself:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared asked him any more questions.


As you can see, this is a rather eye-opening passage, in light of our understanding of God as three. Jesus – who, of course, was a practicing Jew living in a pre-Christian Jewish world that knew nothing of 4th century Trinity doctrines – said that the greatest commandment, the one that stood out above all the others, is the very one that Jews still use to this day to ritualize their belief in the basic oneness of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The “teacher of the law,” the Orthodox Jew, says that Jesus was “right in saying that God is one,” and Jesus then recognizes that the man “had answered wisely.” As with the passage in Matthew, whether you attribute these words and thoughts to Jesus himself, or simply to the writer of Mark, the fact remains that this New Testament passage is clearly describing God’s nature as one, not three. For a traditionally-believing Christian who accepts that the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible are accurate, this passage should be quite eye-opening, as the Son himself is unmistakably saying that God is one.

As you can imagine, I don’t personally find any absolution in the idea that God has three distinct personalities. I believe Jesus was a man who was uniquely in touch with the essence of God, and who taught a message of love, peace, acceptance, and servitude. Regarding God, I suppose I conceive of God more like a Jew than a Christian – that is, I conceive of God as unknowable, unnamed, and formless. For me, God is love, and love is God. As for the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure I could even define what Christians believe the Holy Spirit is. Clearly it is born from that feeling of religious ecstasy that people experience from time to time. But how this emotional feeling could relate to a being that exists as a personality of God is beyond me. It would be like suggesting that the feeling of anger is a divine aspect of God. I think most Christians probably don’t understand the concept of the Holy Spirit either.

Most Christians will freely pray to God and Jesus, individually, but I’ve never heard anyone address the Holy Spirit, as an entity, in prayer. Yet, by the doctrine of the Trinity, that would be perfectly sensible and reasonable. Unfortunately, from my perspective, that’s about the only way that “sensible and reasonable” could occur in the same breath with “doctrine of the Trinity.” For me, the Trinity doctrine is bad math; three just doesn’t add up, either biblically or spiritually.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Significance of Jesus' Death

Those of you who read my blog a lot may notice that this is the second essay I've written on this subject in the last month or so. I'm writing another one simply because I felt that I hadn't really "gotten it out" the first time. I suppose you could call this a reworking of the ideas presented in the first essay. Anyway, here it is:

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Anyone who has studied the life of Jesus must ultimately decide on one of four scenarios regarding his death:

1. That his execution was a senseless, unjustified act by a group of people who saw him as a threat to religious stability;
2. That his execution was a reasonable and justified act that put to rest someone who was stirring up rebellion;
3. That his execution was part of God’s ultimate plan to atone for human sinfulness; or
4. That his execution was and is an opportunity for humans to ask forgiveness from God for sinfulness.

The first two scenarios presuppose that Jesus’ death had no divine significance, while the last two are attempts at understanding Jesus’ death against the backdrop of some grand divine plan. In the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’ execution, those who knew of Jesus had to choose between options one and two. Most chose option two, but those who followed Jesus and believed in the lifestyle he taught clearly chose option one. For the option two crowd, that was where it ended. However, those who believed Jesus’ death was a senseless tragedy began, in the years and decades after his death, to see his death in light of options three and four. They accepted his death as seemingly senseless, and, because of this, sought ways to define his death as something that perhaps wasn’t so senseless and final after all. In this essay, I want to primarily focus on these last two options, as those are the two that have most impacted Christian theology.

It’s important to define the difference between atonement and forgiveness. Because Christian theology has for so long confused these terms, we tend to use them interchangeably, or at least as two parts of one whole. Atonement is a method of “making up” for a wrongdoing. If I cut down a tree in my neighbor’s front yard that had been planted by her grandfather and was sentimental for her and irreplaceable, I may atone for this act by paying her a thousand dollars or washing her car every day for a year. In that scenario, forgiveness is not an issue, because I am paying the debt for my mistake by doing something else in return. I don’t need forgiveness. Another example might be a bank robber doing 15 years in prison – he pays his debt for the crime he committed. He atones for the crime – that is, he makes up for the crime – by doing the time.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, involves one person absolving another from a mistake or shortcoming. In the scenarios above, the woman whose tree I cut down could simply forgive me and I wouldn’t have to do anything to make it up to her – pay her money or wash her car. For the bank robber, if his crime was forgiven, he would not have to do time in jail. The crime would be absolved through forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very definition, does not require atonement. On the flip side, if something is atoned for, forgiveness is not necessary or relevant.

Yet, Christian theology, as I said above, has confused these two terms in a convoluted effort to understand Jesus’ death as something other than a senseless tragedy. Most Christians understand that the blood of Jesus functioned as an atoning sacrifice for human sinfulness (option three above). But most Christians also understand that they must ask God for forgiveness for their sins, and if they do so, God will be “faithful and just” to forgive them their sins (option four above). Yet, as I already illustrated, it can’t be both ways. If Jesus’ death atoned for human sinfulness, then no forgiveness is necessary. If, by Jesus’ death, my sins are atoned for, then why do I, if I am a Protestant, feel the need to daily or weekly ask God to forgive my sins? If I am a Catholic, why do I feel the need to go to confession? And, on the flip side, if forgiveness is required, then what significance did Jesus’ death really have? If I still have to ask forgiveness for my sins, then why did Jesus have to die?

This, of course, was the central question that plagued early Christians.

Our earliest Christian documents are the letters of Paul. In these letters, Paul consistently portrays Jesus’ death in light of atonement – option three. For Paul, human beings are hopelessly and irreversibly sinful. Because of this, God chose Jesus – an especially upright and moral teacher – to die for the sins of the world. Since average men and women are incapable, because of sin, of ever being right with God, God used Jesus’ death as an atonement; that is, the blood Jesus shed functioned as the ultimate sacrifice to put humanity right with God. No longer would God require the blood of animals – Jesus’ sacrifice was the end. And this was proven, for Paul, by the fact that God raised Jesus spiritually into heaven with him. In all of Paul’s authentic writings, there is never a discussion about forgiveness of sins being part of the equation. For Paul, sins are already washed away, because Jesus paid the ultimate price.

In the decades after Paul, as Christian theology continued to develop, an obvious problem was encountered with Paul’s atonement theology. If Jesus’ death, instead of being a senseless tragedy, was actually part of God’s master plan for atonement, then this must mean that all sin, past, present, and future, was automatically washed away at the moment of Jesus’ death. My sins, your sins, George Washington’s sins, and King Tut’s sins were all absolved and atoned for when Jesus’ blood was shed. Clearly this posed a problem because it meant that no religion was really necessary. Everyone is already saved! Thus, you have later New Testament writers changing this theology from one of atonement to one of forgiveness. Jesus’ execution became an opportunity for forgiveness – sinful humanity put Jesus on the cross, but if we ask God to forgive our sins, he will do it. The requirement for getting right with God is repentance.

An example of this changing theology is the book of Acts, where Paul is depicted preaching on his missionary journeys about the forgiveness of sin, and never once uttering a word about atonement – even though in Paul’s own letters, it is exactly the opposite. Which is more likely to be representative of the real Paul’s theology – Paul’s own writings, or Paul’s biographer, writing several generations later? Forgiveness theology permeates most of the remainder of the New Testament books and letters.

The Church, of course, once it had created the New Testament and once it had begun to centralize its power, had to face the problem I mentioned above – if we have to ask forgiveness for sins, then how was Jesus’ death really an atonement? And if it wasn’t really an atonement, then what purpose did it actually serve? Couldn’t God have forgiven our sins, at our request, without having Jesus put to death first? He’s making the rules, after all. So Church doctrine, and especially Church liturgy, began to be formulated in such a way as to mix Paul’s atonement theology with later New Testament forgiveness theology. Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb, his blood served as the ultimate atonement between humanity and God, but one still must ask God for forgiveness in order to make the atonement “kick in” (for lack of a better phrase). In other words, the atonement doesn’t count for you if you don’t ask forgiveness.

Well, you can see the problem here. I’ve already explained how atonement doesn’t require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t require atonement. But the Church, in an effort to make divine sense out of a senseless tragedy, and in an effort to mesh early Christian theologies (some of which were already quite convoluted to start with) into one, pretty package and thereby centralize its power, came up with this complicated mixture of forgiveness and atonement to explain Jesus’ death. They couldn’t throw the atonement idea out the window, because then Jesus’ death would have been pointless – God could forgive us with or without Jesus’ death. But they couldn’t throw forgiveness out the window either, because then they couldn’t lord our sinfulness over us as a means of wielding power, and they would also have to admit that everyone was automatically forgiven upon Jesus’ death, thereby rendering their own institution irrelevant. I suppose they could have come up with an entirely new theological reason for Jesus’ death, but it was too late for that.

So modern Christians are left with a confusing, contradictory, and complex theology in order to understand why Jesus had to die. This elaborate and intellectually irreconcilable theology is one of the reasons so many Christians leave the Church and leave the faith. I saw a comic strip just today that had God sitting in heaven on a throne with a newly arrived human being standing before him, pleading his case for entry into heaven. “But I’m forgiven!” the man says. “You died on the cross for the world’s sins! Jesus saves!” God’s response is: “That’s absurd. Why would I sacrifice Myself to Myself to allow me to change a rule I made Myself?”

For me, when understood without divine overtones, and when understood against the backdrop of his life, Jesus’ death has a lot more significance. His message was so powerful and revolutionary that the religious power base he threatened killed him over it. He, apparently, was willing to go to his death for his message. And his message lived on even beyond the bounds of death, because of its transcendence and relevance to life. For me, Christianity is not about atonement and blood sacrifice or forgiveness of sins, and it’s certainly not about a convoluted and irreconcilable mixture of the two; instead, it is about abundant life in the here and now, a life lived to the fullest, and a life over which the boundaries of death can hold no sway.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why I Reinterpret the Bible

Atheists and skeptics frequently accuse me of simply reinventing Jesus, and reinterpreting his life and message, in an effort to maintain a belief system that I need emotionally. Recently, for instance, an atheist friend of mine on the Rush message board stated the following:

…it just seems that Scott has had to reinvent [Christianity] for it to maintain relevance in his life. Don’t like what the Bible says? That’s OK, it’s all about the interpretation, not the actual written words in the book that describes him…

On the flip side of the coin, traditionally-believing theists frequently accuse me of twisting the Word of God, engaging in heretical activities, and basing my ideas on shaky and absurd interpretations. A theist friend of mine on the Rush message board recently said, in response to some assertions I made:

All scholars can do is hypothesize and then start throwing out the stuff they don’t like (like [the Gospel of] John), and change the interpretations that have been accepted for centuries upon centuries.

This constant barrage from both sides has caused me to frequently joke that I am derided by theists and atheists alike. I even had that phrase as a caption for my profile for a while.

While the theists and atheists have (obviously) stringently opposing views of God, Jesus, and Christianity, both groups seem to approach the issue of interpretation from a standpoint of black and white. Both atheists and theists seem to agree that Christianity is what it is, and the Church’s interpretation of the life of Jesus is correct. All we are left with, then, is to either accept that interpretation – and the dogmas and doctrines that go with it – as valid and legitimate, or reject it all as nonsense. Traditionalists do the former, atheists the latter.

Neither seems to recognize or acknowledge that perhaps the interpretations and understandings that have served institutional Christianity for centuries are fundamentally wrong. Even the atheist, while rejecting the doctrines and dogmas of faith, will still basically agree that the Church’s interpretation is the most appropriate interpretation of the available texts.

And yet, a very simple, brief study of the biblical texts, keeping the texts in chronological, historical, and cultural context, will reveal very quickly just how bankrupt much of the Church’s interpretation is. Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan states: “Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now.”

Despite insistence by many theists and atheists that there is only one way to interpret the Bible, even the Church itself has frequently and consistently altered and amended its interpretations over the centuries. What were the various ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries, if not efforts at reinterpreting and unification? The Great Schism of the Catholic Church, which split the Orthodox Catholic Church from the Roman Catholic Church, was over an issue of theological interpretation of the nature of the Holy Spirit. A little later, the Protestant Reformation functioned as one of the biggest reinventions and reinterpretations in religious history, and yet today I have Protestants tell me that I’m a heretic for reinterpreting!

“But even the Protestant Reformation didn’t change the basic tenets of Christian faith – that is, the belief in Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection.”

Well, that’s true. But they were still called heretics and blasphemers by the Catholic Church.

But here, in a nutshell, is why I believe reinterpretation of the Bible is not only okay, but vitally necessary and important:

For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity was basically an underground movement, with widely diverging interpretations and beliefs, and little to no unity. Most Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death were Gnostics, with philosophies and theologies that would seem alien and cultish to most modern Christians (see my blog post on this topic from a few weeks ago here).

But all that changed on October 28, 312 C.E.

It was on that day that Emperor Constantine, convinced that the Christian God, through Jesus, had helped him win a decisive battle against a potential usurper to his throne, decided to convert to Christianity. Considering the influence Constantine would come to have on Christianity, the very event that led to his conversion speaks volumes – what reasonable Christian today would assert that Jesus helps countries win wars? Of course, there are plenty of people like that, but I think most mainstream, modern Christians recognize that Jesus doesn’t intervene on the battlefield to make “the good guys” win.

After becoming convinced that General Jesus had helped him defeat Maxentius, and recognizing the inherent disunity among the many competing versions of Christianity, Constantine ordered the Christian leaders – that is, the bishops – to meet and come up with a cohesive form of Christianity that could become the official religion of the empire. He wanted them to get past their disagreements and come up with a unified theology, and to decide on just who Jesus was and how he related to God. Constantine agreed to fund this meeting of the minds, and arranged to have this meeting take place in the plush resort-like area of Nicea, which was to ancient Constantinople what Cape Cod is to modern Boston. In his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” John Dominic Crossan states that Constantine “…ordered the Christians bishops to meet…in lakeside Nicea…and there erase any major theological disagreements between them.” Over 300 Christian bishops attended, and their travel and lodging was paid for by the emperor.

In case you’re keeping track, here’s what we have so far:

1. Constantine’s impetus for converting to Christianity was based on a belief that Jesus had intervened to help him win a military victory, not because the message of Jesus had changed his life.
2. The bishops met at the imperial decree of Constantine (as opposed to meeting because of any overwhelming religious or spiritual calling), all expenses paid, in a luxurious resort area, with Constantine and his imperial retinue present, to come up with a unified interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, to dress it up and make it more tenable as a state religion.

If those two things aren’t enough to make anyone cringe or question the validity of the theological interpretations that meeting produced, read this description of the meeting from the Church historian Eusebius (who was personally present at the Council of Nicea):

Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…

So, we have:

1. General Jesus.
2. A meeting at a Cape Cod-like resort, all expenses paid, to come up with a unified theology that would make Christianity an easy sell for a state religion.
3. A bunch of powerful old men (not a woman among them, to be sure), reclining in luxury with the emperor himself, being served food and drink by others, while armed soldiers stand guard at the doors.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of dinner party Jesus would have been attending, or even invited to. A picture of Christ’s kingdom? More like a picture of man’s kingdom.

As Crossan says, this scene is “…an example of…[the] peasant Jesus grasped now by imperial faith.”

I’ll end my argument on why it is not only okay, but vitally important, to reinterpret the bible, by quoting, one last time, from Crossan:

…is it unfair to regret a process [the formation of unified Christian doctrine] that happened so fast and moved so swiftly, that was accepted so readily and criticized so lightly? Is it time now, or is it already too late, to conduct, religiously and theologically, ethically and morally, some basic cost accounting with Constantine?

I think so. And it may mean I’ll continue to be derided by theists and atheists alike, but I don’t have a problem taking the road less traveled. That is, after all, exactly what Jesus did.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Open Commensality in Practice

John Dominic Crossan is one of the world’s premier Jesus scholars. He has devoted the majority of his academic career to the study of Jesus, in order to develop a more historically sound image of just who Jesus was.

In the prologue to his book “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”, Crossan states the following:

This book gives my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus derived from twenty-five years of scholarly research on what actually happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the early first century of the common era.
He goes on to say:

…my endeavor was to reconstruct the historical Jesus as accurately and honestly as possible. It was not my purpose to find a Jesus whom I liked or disliked, a Jesus with whom I agreed or disagreed.
Crossan defines Jesus as a peasant Jewish Cynic – meaning he followed in the footsteps of the Greek Cynics, but with his own unique Jewish twist, and his message was for the poor, the oppressed, and those who lived on the fringes of society. Crossan states that Jesus’ Cynicism:

…involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set…a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, patronage and clientage…[Jesus and his followers] were hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.
He describes Jesus’ strategy as one of “free healing and common eating.” He suggests that one of Jesus’ primary methods for teaching his vision of the Kingdom of God was through what Crossan calls “open commensality” – that is, through sharing egalitarian meals with his listeners. In the first century, the banquet table was an apt symbol of society in miniature. First century Jewish society was structured with an unassailable hierarchy, and this hierarchy could be seen during meals when women served men at the table and never vice versa, lower classes and slaves never shared a meal with the powerful, and sinners never ate with the pious. The banquet table, then, contained all the same oppressive barriers as society at large. Crossan suggests that Jesus symbolized his message of radical egalitarianism through eating with slave and free, male and female, sinner and pious, sick and healthy. He brought every class of person to his table. Crossan states: “…healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and…one another.”

Although I think Crossan sometimes makes tenuous assertions based on, at best, historical speculation, I think his overall argument is sound, and I believe he is right on the mark with his suggestion that eating meals was a tool Jesus used in living out the substance of his message. I think a scholarly and historical look at the available evidence points strongly in this direction.

As such, I believe that anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus would recognize the value of sharing meals with one another as a means to tear down barriers, engender openness, symbolize equality, and even to display unconditional love and acceptance for one another. More on that in a bit.

But, like any idea, it is bankrupt unless it is put into practice. In the prologue to his book, Crossan relates a fictionalized discussion that he has with Jesus, looking back on his life’s work:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good…”
“…I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, it is not.”
Although he puts this exchange in the introduction, it really hits home more forcefully after reading the book. It’s fine and good to discuss and debate, but unless you put your words into practice – put your money where your mouth is – it is not enough.

Over the past couple of years or so, as I have begun to study the historical Jesus more and more, and to mix Buddhist philosophy with my Christian faith, I have felt my focus growing increasingly more on others, and increasingly less on myself. Yet, because of my very busy schedule – school, work, children, money, and a slew of other excuses – I have managed to do very little other than simply talk about how I believe people should live. I’ve done a lot of philosophizing, but I’ve otherwise done very little to actually put my philosophy into practice.

No, Scott, it’s not enough.

Well, tonight I took a step toward changing that. I volunteered with an organization that helps homeless men get back on their feet, provides them clothes, food, a place to sleep, and other basic amenities, and aims to get them back into mainstream society. Various churches around town work with this organization, and my church plays host on Sunday nights.

We arrived around 4:30 to begin setting up, and by 6:30 we had cleared out the fellowship hall and set up air mattresses, complete with sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels, and we also had a table where they could get things like soap, shampoo, deodorant, and the like. I was tired and wanted to go on home at that point, like several other people had done, but I knew the most important part of the work was after the men showed up, and it would have seemed like bailing out to leave before they even got there.

Nine men showed up for the evening – white, black, and Latino, old and young – and we sat down around 7:00 to eat dinner with them.

Being an introvert by nature, I was anxious about getting my food and actually going over to one of the tables and sitting down with the people there. The thought certainly ran through my mind that it would be a lot more comfortable to just sit down at a table with a bunch of the people I know from church, and feel content knowing I had at least taken part in setting up the place and contributing to the food that was served.

But I pushed my anxieties aside and sat down at a table with three of the homeless men.

It’s frequently difficult to tell the age of a homeless person, because people who live those sorts of lives, even for a short period of time, age much more quickly than those of us with comfortable beds to sleep in every night. But as a rough estimate, I’d say that two of the men were probably in their forties, and the other was probably around fifty. The older man, Herman, was a large black man who, in nicer clothes, could probably have passed for your average middle-aged suburbanite. The second black man, Cedric, was bearded and looked much more like the typical image of a homeless person, with very bad teeth, some curious scars on his arms (one looked like a healed bullet wound), tattoos, and clothes that were clearly second or third hand. The white man, Alan, also looked pretty bad, with work-roughened hands, missing teeth, and uncombed hair.

As I started eating, I wracked my brain trying to think of how to break the ice. What do you say to a homeless person to strike up a conversation and overcome that awkward silence? “So tell me about yourself.” Well, I’m a homeless recovering alcoholic. How about you? “So, what do you do for a living?” Well, I was in construction, until I got laid off and the bank foreclosed on my house and I lost everything. Thanks for bringing up that very painful memory. “Did you catch that game the other day?” Yeah, on the big screen TV in the den. Right. “Some weather we’re having, eh?” Yeah, it’s awful – you should try sleeping in it.

I couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. Fortunately, there was another guy from the church sitting there, and he made a few remarks, and that helped to get the conversation rolling. There were no trumpets from heaven, no astounding insights given or learned, but we just had a nice meal and discussed everything from barbecue to city planning to college sports. Alan, it turns out, is a painter by trade who has presumably fallen on hard times. He told us about the buildings around town he has worked on in the past, and about how tough the job market is for construction painters. He mentioned a wife and children, although he talked about them as if they were no longer in his life.

I didn’t get much background on Cedric or Herman – other than Herman’s love of barbecue – but all three of them seemed really appreciative to just have someone to talk to who would actually listen, be interested, and interact with them. It seemed to me that they really enjoyed being able to simply sit down, eat a nice meal, shoot the bull, and experience that satisfied comfort that most of us take for granted – that is, a stomach full on good food, a warm place to sit and relax, and someone to talk to.

And as I sat there with them (I ended up staying a lot longer than I had planned), John Dominic Crossan’s ideas of Jesus’ open commensality kept running through my mind. This is what Crossan was talking about. This was the key strategy to Jesus’ entire philosophy – camaraderie, openness, absence of judgment and societal barriers, unconditional acceptance, genuine togetherness, companionable discourse. And what better way to achieve these things than to sit down and eat a good meal together? It’s so simple it’s silly, and yet it’s highly profound. The only time we even discussed anything remotely religious was when we laughed about a mega-church in town that I referred to as Six Flags Over Jesus, and yet I felt, as I sat there eating and talking and listening and interacting, that I was finally putting all my years of discussing, debating, and philosophizing into practice. I was finally putting my money where my mouth was. I was finally doing the work of Jesus, and not just proclaiming pretty ideas.

A lot of people warm a seat in the pew every week inside expensive, ornamental buildings, listening to grandiloquent words, and singing hymns of faith and devotion, but it’s all blithering and meaningless without genuine outreach. For a church, success should not measured by how many rear-ends are warming the pews on Sunday morning, how much cash is dropped piously into the plate, or how many souls have been won to Christ. Instead, success should be measured by how many mouths have been fed, how many souls have been nurtured with love and genuine attentiveness, and how many lives have been enriched with the abundance of compassion, self-worth, empathy, and unconditional acceptance. And the way to start, the way to put this philosophy into practice, is the same way that Jesus himself did it – through open commensality. Sharing a meal, sharing your time, sharing your attention. This is salvation. This is the Kingdom of God.

Instead of a church that posts its Sunday School attendance in the bulletin every week, I want a church that posts how many people volunteered to house the homeless, tend the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want to know who strived to spread love, tolerance, and compassion; I want to know who worked for peace and equality; I want to know who fought injustice, judgmental attitudes, and oppression; I want to know who shared the gift of abundant life through living life to the fullest, being all that they could be, and loving wastefully.

Those are the only numbers that matter to me. Anything else is a smokescreen.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Christian Images of Heaven

Recently on the Rush message board, there was a thread posted by a very traditionally-leaning, evangelical Christian discussing his image of what heaven will be like. It basically consisted of a winter mansion scene with pristine snow, ski slopes, and the like.

I responded to his initial post by pointing out that this sort of common image of heaven -- that is, one of pure bliss and material comforts -- developed in part as a result of the fact that most early Christians came from the poor and outcasts of society. Jesus, the one who said blessed are the poor and the meek, brought them hope of better things to come.

The poster responded to this comment with the following:

i do not think Jesus would lie and i am not implying that that is what you are talking about Schmoo but " if it were not so, i would not have told you" "In my house are many mansions". not "everything" is a contradiction.

and Paul, paraphrasing "if we only have hope in "this" life, we are of all men most miserable"


Before getting to the first part of his response, I want to address his second comment -- the one about Paul.

Paul was an apocalypticist, living in a time when his homeland was under imperial rule by foreigners (the Romans). He believed Jesus's resurrection was the start of the end of the world. He believed that not only was the general resurrection of the dead coming soon, he believed it had already started with Jesus -- thus his description in 1 Corinthians of Jesus's resurrection being the "first fruits" of the general resurrection to come.

Considering the time period that he lived, when the Jews were under deep oppression, it's little wonder he looked to the end of the world as a hope, rather than to place hope in "this life," which was otherwise so utterly hopeless. And, of course, he was right on one count -- it was hopeless for the Jews. Just 5 or so years after Paul's death, Rome took control of all of the Jewish homeland and the Temple was destroyed. And, of course, the Jews didn't get their homeland back until the 20th century. Where Paul was wrong, obviously, was in believing that the end of the world had started with Jesus.

Now, for the poster's comments about his image of heaven and mansions. A bit of background first, before I make my point:

Psalm 49:13-15a -- This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave...

Isaiah 5:8-9 -- Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: "Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants."

Amos 3:15 -- I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished, declares the Lord.

As is evidenced by these three passages, it would seem that Old Testament writers -- those who documented the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with God -- viewed the mansions of the rich as being symbolic of abused power, oppression, and sin.

With that in mind, is it likely that Jesus -- a practicing Jew who was well-versed and highly familiar with Jewish theology -- would have suggested that heaven contained mansions, those very symbols of treachery, sin, and oppression in the Jewish mindset?

This is an example of the familiar verses of the King James Version coming back to haunt concepts of what Jesus actually said.

The passage the poster quoted is John 14:2, which the KJV translates as "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you."

In my research, there is only one version that translates the original Greek word used in this passage as "mansions." That version is the King James. Every single other translation uses either "dwelling places" or "rooms." "Mansions," it would appear, is a misleading word, because it implies that Jesus was talking about enormous, palatial houses in which the faithful will live in heaven. In fact, he was just saying that there are a lot of places to live in his father's house. What this means is that God has a place for all people; there's a spot for everyone. That's what John's Jesus meant in this passage. He wasn't suggesting that heaven is lined with 5,000-square foot suburban homes.

Furthermore, what was Jesus actually referring to when he said, "In my Father's house"? Was he talking about heaven? In fact, a reference to God's house was a reference to the Temple, not heaven. He was using the Jewish Temple as a symbol of what the Kingdom of God would be like. And just as there were a lot of rooms, and a lot of space, inside the Temple -- enough to hold all the Jews who came to the Temple to worship -- so the Kingdom of God will have plenty of space to contain all those who wish to come.

This is what John's Jesus meant when he said those words. He was not promising that every Christian will live in the heavenly equivalent of the Biltmore House or Buckingham Palace.

According to John's Gospel, Jesus said these words right after he revealed to his disciples that he was leaving them, and that he would be betrayed, and that Peter would deny him. These were dark, difficult things to discuss. So after discussing these things, John's Gospel has Jesus attempt to comfort his disciples by assuring them that, despite all the bad that was to come, there was still a place for everyone, because, after all, the Kingdom of God has plenty of room.

It's funny, because I actually grew up with the same concept of heaven that this person implied -- that is, that heaven would be full of mansions where we would all live in pure bliss and comfort. And my concept of a heaven like this came directly from this very passage that he quoted in response to my first remarks. I can remember meditating on this as a kid, and trying to imagine what heaven would look like, with all the golden streets lined with enormous mansions, and everyone living in a kind of Utopian bliss.

But I believe that is a surface-level interpretation, based on misleading translations, and does not get anywhere near the heart of what Jesus is actually saying in that passage.

The Kingdom of God is not about mansions and earthly creature comforts. It's about love, peace, kindness, and abundant life. And there is room for everyone. That was the message of Jesus.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy

Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists frequently assert that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God. All that humanity needs to understand the meaning of life is contained in this book, handed down by God through people chosen specifically by him for this purpose. Aside from the obvious problem of free will that such a claim implies, it is also an assertion that is completely unsupported by a critical look at the biblical texts themselves. In this essay, I intend to illustrate one example that I believe justifiably tears down any arguments of biblical inerrancy.

The book of 1 Corinthians is a New Testament letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church he had founded in Corinth. In this letter, Paul reminds his congregation of the central claim of his theology, the event that “started it all,” as it were, for Paul’s own conversion and his life’s work as a Christian missionary to non-Jews. This event, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul states the following:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.”

Now, at first look, many people may wonder just what it is about this passage that could offer proof of the Bible’s fallibility. It is, after all, simply asserting the central claim of Christianity – that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and later appeared to his followers. But it’s the very last phrase of the passage that serves to tear down inerrancy arguments: “and then to the twelve.”

The Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all independently attest to the fact that Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, betrayed Jesus to Roman authorities. Following the betrayal, Judas disappears from two of the Gospels, but Matthew’s Gospels asserts that Judas was so torn with guilt that he committed suicide. Additionally, the book of Acts – which was written as a second volume to the Gospel of Luke – states that Judas later died after an accidental fall (which, of course, is yet another example of biblical fallibility, but that’s for a different essay).

Following Judas’s departure from the story, three of the Gospels describe appearances that the resurrected Jesus made to the eleven remaining disciples (Mark’s Gospel ends after Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty – no resurrection appearances are described).

Considering these things, the discrepancy in Paul’s statement about Jesus appearing “to the twelve” should be apparent: the Gospel stories – written several decades or more after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – agree that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were to the eleven; Paul, on the other hand, says Jesus appeared to “the twelve.”

Two assumptions must arise from this problem: either Paul had never heard of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and knew nothing about Judas’ alienation from the rest of the group, or Paul simply made a mistake.

Regarding the former, it seems highly unlikely that Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles, could have been ignorant of Judas’ betrayal. This leads one to question whether the Judas story was a legend that developed later in Christian history, after Paul’s death. Of course, this one innocuous piece of evidence is not enough to legitimately suggest that the Judas story is mythological, but it does cast a shadow of doubt on the story’s authenticity.

If you reject the idea that the Judas story was mythological – which, if you are a Bible literalist, you would have to do by definition – then you must either make the unlikely assumption that Paul had never heard the story, or you must accept that Paul made an error.

Either way, this otherwise insignificant comment by Paul stands as evidence of an irreconcilable error. If Paul had never heard of the betrayal story, then clearly God was lax in imparting the necessary knowledge to his chosen apostle to the Gentiles, such that he allowed Paul to make an erroneous statement. If Paul did know about the betrayal story, but simply had the 1st century equivalent of a brain fart, then it stands as evidence that the writers of the New Testament – including, no less, the most important writer of the New Testament – were, in fact, human, with human frailties, failures, and fallibilities.

One argument that literalists put forth, when faced with this question, is that Paul’s “twelve” included the “replacement” disciple, Matthias. In the opening chapter of Acts, the writer explains that the eleven remaining disciples elected a replacement for Judas, an otherwise unknown man named Matthias. The problem with this assumption is that the writer of Acts makes it clear that Matthias was not elected by the eleven until after they had witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The writer tells us that, following Jesus’ final appearance and his ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and Peter suggested electing a replacement disciple. So Paul’s assertion that the resurrected Jesus appeared “to the twelve” could not include the replacement disciple.

No matter how you slice it, Paul’s assertion that Jesus appeared “to the twelve” is an irreconcilable error. Whether it was Paul or later New Testament writers, somebody messed up somewhere. It cannot be both ways; Judas cannot have been present and not present at the same time. Either he was there or he was not there.

Of course, in the whole scheme of Paul’s writings, and in the whole scheme of Christian theology, this issue is rather insignificant – indeed, it doesn’t really matter at all; that is, it doesn’t really matter if you are not a Bible literalist or one who claims that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. But if you do make such claims, as so many fundamentalists and evangelicals do, then you have a real problem on your hands when you confront this passage.

In my experience, anyone who claims that the Bible is infallible has simply never read the Bible, at least not critically.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Strange and Mystical Religions

Most believers of any persuasion view their own religious beliefs as normal, reasonable, and sensible, while looking at any other religious belief – whether modern or ancient – as strange, alien, and outrageous. Rarely are people able or willing to detach themselves long enough from their own religious beliefs to view their beliefs through an unbiased lens. In religious discussions, I have frequently heard non-believers and skeptics point this out to believers. It usually goes something like this:

Christian: How can you atheists not understand that there is something greater out there, something bigger than yourself? How can you not see that Jesus was the way God redeemed humanity?

Skeptic: I am an atheist and you are a Christian, yet despite the countless religions in the world, we both agree on the silliness of 99% of them. I view Christianity the same way you view Hinduism, Scientology, or Paganism – as mystical mumbo-jumbo. You aren’t able to see that Christianity is the same as all the rest.

Recently, I have been studying scholarly accounts of the early days of Christianity, looking at the texts of the New Testament, as well as non-biblical Christian texts from the first few centuries after Jesus’ death – texts that, for the most part, have a fundamentally different interpretation of the meaning of the life of Jesus. Most of the theology in these non-biblical texts falls under the general category of “Gnosticism,” but like Christianity in the modern world – which has dozens and dozens of various incarnations (Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.) – Gnosticism had many different faces as well. However, like all the various mainstream Christian denominations, which generally agree on the basic tenets of the faith, the various ancient Gnostic groups generally agreed on basic Christian principles as well – principles that differ quite starkly from those held by most Christians in the modern world.

If I described the basic tenets of Christian Gnosticism to a traditional believer, he or she would probably think it sounded absolutely silly. And yet, when you look at the basic theology of Orthodox (that is, traditional) Christianity, and the basic theology of Gnostic Christianity, they differ greatly, but they are both equally abstract and, frankly, outrageous to post-modern sensibilities.

In an effort to demonstrate this, I will attempt to illustrate both views in their barest forms, stripped of familiar language and images, so that the average reader and believer can see exactly what I’m talking about.

Christian Gnostic theology, as I understand it, goes something like this:

The world is depraved. The world has always been depraved. The world’s very nature is depravity. The world was created by God. When God created the world, he believed he was the supreme God of the universe. But he was mistaken. He is a lesser God, so his world and his creation is depraved and completely detached from the ideals of the true God of the universe. Human beings, as part of the material world of the lesser God, are depraved. Human souls – the divine sparks – come from the true God of the universe, and are trapped in human bodies on this depraved world, alienated from God. Every time a new human is born, the process begins again. Women, whose function is to procreate, must become like men and destroy the procreative process. Human beings must not procreate.

When a person comes to understand all this, and to realize that the soul’s true place is in the abode of the true God of the universe, and to recognize that enlightenment lies in knowing one’s self and understanding one’s true nature, then a person can start on the path of salvation. This path includes rejecting all aspects of the material world, and not yielding to desires of the flesh. Eternal life is not a material existence but a nonmaterial existence. Sin does not exist, as the world’s very nature is depravity. Redemption of the material world is impossible. Instead, the dissolution of the material world and restoration of the soul to the abode of the true God of the universe is the ultimate goal.

Jesus was a human being who was in touch with his own true nature. He imparted what he knew through secret knowledge to his followers so that they could understand the true path to salvation and restoration of their souls to God.


Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, goes like this:

The world is fallen and depraved. The one true God of the universe created the world, and it was perfect and paradisal, but sin came into the world as disobedience to God, embodied by Satan, and everything changed.

Human beings are now slaves to sin, at the mercy of sin’s power, unable to redeem themselves. Salvation comes through admitting one’s powerlessness to sin. Eternal life is a material existence. God will redeem the world and return it to its paradisal origins. Sin will be eliminated, and humans will be able to live in the material world as God originally intended, enjoying all the material benefits of life in God’s paradisal kingdom.

Jesus was God’s divine son, sent to earth in order to die and be resurrected, and through his resurrection to offer redemption for human beings enslaved to sin, so that they might take part in God’s coming kingdom.


When you look at them in this stripped down, bare bones way, they both seem rather fanciful, strange, and mystical. Both are simply attempts by human beings to explain and understand humanity’s place in the universe, humanity’s relationship to God, and to explain the meaning of the life and death of Jesus.

Yet one of these strange and mystical philosophies is now the basis of the faith of two billion people in the modern world, and the other strange and mystical philosophy was systematically destroyed and wiped out 1700 years ago.

Are either one of them accurate? Maybe. Maybe not. But apart from the insistence of the human institution of the Church, do we have any logical reason to give credence to either of them as the ultimate explanation for the meaning of life?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When Did Jesus Become God's Son?

If you read my blog religiously – and I know you ALL do – then you may remember me talking in the past about how John Shelby Spong breaks down the change in theology within the Bible about when Jesus became God’s son.

To briefly explain it, Spong takes the four Gospels and the letters of Paul, and puts them in chronological order – with Paul’s letters coming first, followed by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

In Paul’s letters, Spong argues, it seems clear that Jesus was a human being, who was made into the Messiah – and thereby became God’s son – at the time of his death and resurrection. God chose Jesus, presumably because of his upstanding life and message, to be his son, and to usher in the coming of his kingdom.

By the time of Mark, about a decade later, this moment of Messiah-ship is moved up to Jesus’s baptism. Mark tells the well-known story of Jesus being baptized and a voice coming from the sky (God, of course, is an astronaut), proclaiming Jesus as his son, with whom he is well-pleased. For Mark, this is when Jesus became God’s chosen Messiah.

Matthew and Luke, writing still another decade or so later, move the magical moment up to Jesus’s conception. God decides to father a son, he chooses an upstanding virgin of good stock who is engaged to a descendent of King David, and Jesus is born, a Messiah in the making.

Finally, the book of John – written about 100 C.E. – moves Jesus’s divinity up to the beginning of time itself: Jesus was with God from the very beginning, and, in fact, is God’s creative force.

Being familiar with most of these stories, but having never viewed them in this sort of light, Spong’s argument really struck me as reasonable, poignant, and well thought out.

I haven’t changed my mind at all about this, but reading today from the book of Romans, I was simply struck anew by this concept. As I’ve argued so often in the past, one of the biggest problems facing Christianity today is the tendency to read all the books of the New Testament through the lenses of all the others. In my wife’s “Life Application” Bible, which has so-called scholarly commentaries at the beginning of and throughout each book, it states at the beginning of Genesis: “As the book of beginnings, Genesis sets the stage for the entire Bible.” As if the Bible is a chronological account of literal history, told from start to finish, in order, by a person or people working together toward the same literary goal, each telling their own little part. (This Bible also provides dates for each book of the Bible, and it dates Luke at 60 C.E, while setting Mark at 55 to 65 C.E., implying that Luke might have predated Mark – despite the fact that there is not a reputable scholar on the planet who believes Luke was earlier than Mark. I don’t personally know of any scholar who dates Luke prior to 80 C.E. This Bible also dates 2 Peter at 67 C.E., despite the fact that most scholars believe it was written in the SECOND CENTURY.)

Anyway, this linear, “coherent whole” way of reading the Bible is, of course, precisely how most Christian approach the Bible. Each book is one little cog, and they all function together to make a working machine.

This is not, however, how the Bible was written. Each book of the Bible is an individual text, written by individuals who did not know each other and frequently weren’t living at the same time, telling stories most often about people they didn’t know personally, writing accounts for specific and unrelated reasons, and inserting their own personal ideas, theologies, interpretations, and doctrines into the texts.

As I continue to study biblical scholarship more and more, I am better able to approach the Bible as a collection of individual texts, written for individual purposes, rather than a coherent whole. So when I opened my Bible this evening to read from Romans, I was struck by the first four verses of the very first chapter. So struck, in fact, that I didn’t read beyond those four verses, but got right online, instead, to write about it.

The NIV translation records these verses as follows:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Now, without reading this passage through the lens of what we know from other New Testament texts and traditional Church doctrine, what does this opening paragraph actually say?

It says, quite clearly and unequivocally, that Jesus was a human descendant of David (which would seem an odd thing to say if Joseph wasn’t Jesus’s biological father), and, more starkly, that Jesus was “appointed to be the Son of God” through his resurrection from the dead. It does not say that Jesus was with God from the beginning, or was literally fathered by God through the virgin Mary, or even that he was named at his baptism, but rather, it says that Jesus was “appointed” – chosen, selected, named – as the Son of God at the time of, and through, his death and resurrection.

None of this is really new to me, of course – as I stated above, I’ve read commentaries on this subject by scholars and theologians before. But reading it for myself, on my own, and seeing it with my own two eyes in a way that I would have been unable to see it before, really just struck a chord with me. Jesus, for Paul, was chosen to be the Messiah at his death. Prior to that, he was just a regular old guy, who must have impressed God enough with his upstanding life to single him out for glory.

This flies directly and completely in the face of basic Christian theology about the nature of Jesus, and it comes from the most prominent, prolific, and influential writer in the New Testament – the Apostle Paul himself.

If you’re a Christian, and this doesn’t make you feel as stunned as it makes me feel, then I would question whether you are really open to being intellectually honest about the doctrines you believe in. I don’t say that as an antagonistic remark – I simply say it out of an overwhelming feeling that this is important and needs to be considered seriously by Christians who may otherwise assume that their doctrines and theologies are a nice, consistent little package, sealed with a kiss, and sent down from heaven by God.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Purpose of Jesus's Death: Opposing Biblical Views

Most people believe that the bible teaches that Jesus’s death functioned as an ultimate sacrifice – that Jesus took on the sins of the world and died so that we might have eternal life. Tied up in this basic belief is the idea of atonement and forgiveness of sins. Like most Christians, I have generally thought of these two things – that is, atonement and forgiveness of sins – as being more or less the same thing. Frankly, I had never given it much thought. We are forgiven because Jesus atoned for our sins, period.

Through recent readings on this subject, however, I have come to discover that a real conundrum exists, even within the bible itself, between just what Jesus’s death signified.

Paul, whose letters are the earliest Christian texts in the New Testament, abides by the theological idea that Jesus’s death was an atonement for all humans sins. However, in the book of Acts – which was written some 20 to 30 years after Paul’s death – Paul’s biographer has Paul (and Peter) preaching that Jesus’s death functions as an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. The idea of atonement is never discussed.

And this presents a problem, because, in fact, atonement and forgiveness are fundamentally different ideas.

Microsoft Bookshelf defines the word “forgive” like this:

1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
2. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).

It defines “atonement” like this:

1. Amends or reparation for an injury or wrong.

If something must be atoned for, it means that a wrongdoing must be made right through some other means. In other words, if I borrow a thousand dollars from someone and am unable to pay it back, my father might atone for my debt by paying it on my behalf. Or, if I crash my brother’s car, I might atone for that by giving him my own car.

That’s not the same as forgiveness. In the examples above, if I borrow money and can’t pay it, the debtor could choose to forgive the debt and not make me (or anyone else) come up with the money. Or, if I crash my brother’s car, he could choose to forgive it and simply buy a new one himself. Forgiveness means that you absolve someone for something they have done; atonement, on the other hand, means that a debt is satisfied some other way.

For Paul, in his own writings, Jesus’s death functioned as an atonement. When people sin, it breaks God’s commandments. God demands satisfaction for breaking his divine law, so Jesus died to pay for our sins. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes, “It was a sacrifice made for the sake of others so that they would not have to pay for their sins themselves.” In his own writings, this is how Paul interpreted the meaning of Jesus’s death. For Paul, there is no reason for repentance – our sins are already atoned for; the debt was satisfied when Jesus died.

Yet, in Acts, all the sermons of Paul and Peter focus on the forgiveness of sin. God doesn’t require a sacrifice – instead he requires repentance. Jesus didn’t die in order to atone for sins – instead, his death was a “gross miscarriage of justice” (quoting again from Bart Ehrman). Jesus should not have been put to death in the first place (in Paul’s atonement theology, on the other hand, the implication is that Jesus’s death was part of God’s plan, not a gross miscarriage of justice). But human beings unjustly killed Jesus, according to Acts, and we are all to blame, so we must all repent. If we do so, then God will forgive us.

You can see that these are two substantially different concepts. Yet, Christians tend to use them interchangeably. We think of Jesus’s death as “the Atonement,” but we also know that we are required to repent of our sins and acknowledge our guilt. If, in fact, Jesus’s death functioned as an atonement for sin – as Paul outlines – then there is no reason for repentance. Our sins are already forgiven. But if, instead, Jesus’s death was a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by sinful humans, thus requiring repentance by all, then there should be no talk of Jesus being the great sacrificial lamb, dying in order to atone for our sinfulness.

If you look deeply at this issue, you can see why Luke and other later Christian writers began changing Paul’s teachings about atonement into teachings about repentance. If Jesus’s death was an atonement, then we literally don’t have to do anything. Our sins are already forgiven, purchased and made right with God through Jesus’s death on the cross. One could extrapolate this concept further to assert that everyone is automatically saved by the very fact that Jesus died on the cross. This, of course, is theologically untenable: if you don’t have to do anything and you are already saved the moment you are born, then there would be no need for religion, religious dogma, or anything else.

This may have been the reason why Christians, studying Paul’s theology a generation or so after his death, began reinterpreting and amending Paul’s words and philosophies, ditching the idea of atonement in favor of repentance. This is evident not only in Luke’s writings, but also in the pseudo-Pauline letters – those New Testament books written in Paul’s name, but which were almost certainly not written by Paul, but rather by other Christians writing some decades later.

In the centuries since that time, the very concepts of atonement and repentance, as they relate to Christianity, have become blended such that we don’t tend to even see a difference.

It’s an interesting problem. Are we saved automatically by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, pre-planned and set into motion by God, or does salvation come through repentance, acknowledging that Jesus’s death was a miscarriage of justice, and depending on God to forgive us? If you follow the writings of Paul, you must accept the former; if you follow Luke’s theology in the book of Acts, you must abide by the latter.

The institution of the Church, I think, deserves some credit for deftly blending these two concepts so that most people don’t even recognize that there is a theological conflict at all. We read Paul’s letters through the lens of Acts, and vice versa, and we don’t see that they are actually saying different things.

Of course, reading one New Testament book through the lens of all the others is probably the biggest theological problem facing the Christian church today, because it skews our perspective of what is really being said, and all the other problems with modern theology just snowball from that starting point. For instance, how many Christians know that among the seven New Testament books that are more or less indisputably authored by Paul (Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians), not a single one of them ever talks about the forgiveness of sin as part of salvation? (In fact, the only time Paul ever uses the word “forgive” at all is when he is asking his readers to forgive one another.)

Until we can learn to read each book of the New Testament as a theologically and philosophically independent text, each with its own nuances, ideas, and timeline, we will continue to blend and mix ideas and, in my opinion, continue to abide by misguided and misinformed theologies.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Prison Radiography

Well, I'm about to start my third week of clinicals. Things are going really well, I believe. I'm enjoying what I'm doing (which is a good thing, since I'm spending so much money and time), and I think I'm doing as well as could reasonably be expected of a student X-ray tech.

I did my first official X-ray on a real patient on September 25. The patient was a middle-aged white male, and I did a chest X-ray on him, and it turned out fine. I've done dozens of X-rays now, but I still can't help but be a bit apprehensive when I wait for the films to come out of the processor, fearing they will be bad. I've only had to repeat a couple so far, and one of those was not one I should have repeated, but my head tech made me do it.

For those who don't know, I'm doing this rotation at a local prison. It's got a fully-staffed medical center, complete with doctors and nurses. I really like it, and my head tech/supervisor is really good. It's also interesting seeing what it's like "on the inside." It also puts things in perspective a little bit. We generally take our freedom for granted (and when I say "freedom" I mean our physical freedom to come and go as we please...not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), but when you work in a prison, you suddenly realize how precious that freedom is. Every day when I leave that place, I think about how glad I am that I can drive away. Sometimes, I'll be sitting at home, or at a restaurant, or on the boat down at the lake, and I'll think, "I'm sitting here right now, free as a bird, and so-and-so, who I X-rayed two days ago, is still sitting inside that prison, and hasn't left, and will still be there next week, and the next week, and next year." It really puts things in perspective and makes you understand the gravity of having to live your life in prison. Believe me, it's not something you want to do.

But while I enjoy where I am at, and I like the fact that I get to do a large quantity of exams and a wide range of exams, there are some drawbacks to it as well. I feel like I am being limited a little bit in terms of being able to practice "real world" X-rays. Since all the patients are prison inmates, you treat them differently than you would treat patients in the outside world. They specifically warn us against chatting with or being friendly with the patients. The inmates are not allowed to call us by our first names. So the bedside manner is different. You tend to be more detached and less friendly. You don't ask about the weather or about how someone's family is doing. You basically tell them what they need to do, and that's the extent of it. I usually don't even introduce myself.

Also, since the prison is 85% male, we do very few X-rays on females. In fact, in my first two weeks, I haven't seen one female get X-rayed. There are also, obviously, no children or young people. It's basically all adult males. So I am not getting to have experience with different genders and ages. We do get old people, but no young people. And that's important because technique is different with youths, and you also have to worry more about movement and instructions, etc. Additionally, being a male tech, I would like to have some practice with female patients, as the bedside manner is different. You have to be more careful how you touch and position a female patient, you have to get used to asking female patients to remove their shirts and bras, etc., if you are doing a chest X-ray on a large breasted woman, she has to move her boobs to the side, you have to ask if a woman is or could be pregnant, etc., etc., etc. So there's just a lot of stuff there that I am not getting to experience or practice because of where I am located.

The important thing, however, is that I am enjoying what I'm doing, and I feel like I have made, and am making, the right career choice. When you've decided to go into a field like this, there is always that fear that you'll get out into clinical rotations and decide you hate it. It doesn't appear that this is going to be the case with me. I'm looking forward to continuing on with classes and rotations, and getting finished with the degree so that I can work in hospitals and do fluoro and maybe MRI or CT, and give something back to the community. Not to mention make a decent salary for the first time in my life.

Friday, September 21, 2007

An Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is a fascinating work of early non-canonical Christian writing. It was most likely not composed by Thomas himself (in fact, it does not even directly make that claim), but – like the Gospels of Matthew and John – it was most likely composed by a group of his followers. It may or may not have been based on an earlier, authentic Thomas work.

Despite its name, the text is not a “gospel” in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a collection of teachings attributed to Jesus, in random order, without any sense of chronology. But, as such, it gives an intriguing insight into the collective memory of the wisdom teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, much as a book today written about the teachings of an early 20th century rabbi might give modern Jews.

The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is a difficult one, although most every scholar agrees that it is one of the earliest non-canonical sources. There are generally two camps on the dating issue. One camp argues for an early date – as early as 40 or 50 C.E., making it contemporary with the Pauline letters and potentially the earliest Christian writing in existence – but certainly written before 100 C.E. and the Gospel of John. The second camp argues for a later date, placing it sometime in the early to mid-2nd century.

The later camp puts forth some strong arguments, though I think, in general, their position is not as strongly supported by the evidence. Among the evidence they point to is the fact that Thomas’s gospel seems to abide by a concept that the coming of the kingdom of God is not imminent, and, in fact, comes from within one’s own self, rather than being an event to look forward to. If you’ve read several of my more recent blogs, you’ll know this was an idea that was not common in early Christianity. Indeed, during the time of Paul and Mark – the earliest New Testament writers – most Christians believed Jesus was returning in their own lifetimes to usher in the kingdom of God. It is not until you get into later Christian texts, such as 2 Peter and the pseudo-Pauline epistles (that is, New Testament letters written in Paul’s name, but written by other people long after Paul’s death), that you begin to see a shift from assuming Jesus is coming soon, to grudgingly facing the fact that you’ll probably grow old and die before Jesus ever returns. Many notable scholars believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic wisdom teacher, making him one of countless dozens in Palestine in his era. These teachers preached that God’s kingdom was coming soon and that they had special knowledge from God that would ensure that their followers were part of that kingdom. This idea about Jesus seems to be attested by many early sources. Since Thomas does not portray Jesus this way, the late camp argues that Thomas must be a 2nd century text.

Late camp proponents also point to what they believe is evidence that Thomas’s writer used Matthew and Luke as a source. Since Matthew and Luke are widely believed to have been written in the 80’s and 90’s C.E., this would mean Thomas had to be later. The reason they believe Thomas used Matthew and Luke is because Matthew and Luke both used Mark, but sometimes they changed Mark’s stories slightly. The changes Matthew and Luke made are sometimes found in similar form in Thomas. This is a highly precarious position, however, as it is difficult to know whether these Thomas similarities were original or were added by later scribes, or whether, in fact, Matthew and Luke were using Thomas or a related source, not the other way around. More on that later.

The early camp, I believe, provides stronger evidence to support their case. Among the compelling factors put forth by this camp is the idea that Thomas’s gospel must certainly have been written before John’s gospel, because there are theologies and stories in John’s gospel that seem orchestrated specifically in response to ideas set forth in Thomas’s gospel. Elaine Pagels – a Harvard biblical scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on non-canonical Christian writing – argues that John’s famous story of “Doubting Thomas” was created specifically to discredit the Christian communities who used the Gospel of Thomas and followed the teachings of Thomas. In this Johannine story, Jesus appears in the flesh after his resurrection to a gathering of the disciples, but Thomas is absent, for whatever reason. Later, when the disciples tell Thomas that Jesus is resurrected and they have seen him, Thomas doubts, making his infamous declaration that until he sees the nail holes in Jesus’s hands and touches the wound in his side, he won’t believe. Jesus then appears, and Thomas sees and subsequently believes. The writer of John then has Jesus make the famous statement that has damned Thomas in the eyes of mainline Christianity for the last 2,000 years: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have believed but have not seen.”

I think Pagels’ argument is a solid one – because the story has, in fact, done exactly what she proposes it was designed to do – discredit Thomas and, thereby, his teachings. The story doesn’t appear in any other Christian writings, canonical or non-canonical, and, as such, it stands out as highly suspicious in terms of its historical reliability (in fact, this is true for a large portion of John’s gospel – but again, more on this later). Pagels makes several other compelling arguments as well, showing how a good portion of John’s gospel is actually a refutation of Thomas’s gospel and teachings. Indeed, she argues that John and Thomas, and, more specifically, their followers, had competing views on just what Jesus’s life was all about, and thus John’s followers wrote John’s gospel as a response to the Thomas view.

All this, of course, leads to the conclusion that the Gospel of Thomas is a 1st century work, written prior to the canonical Gospel of John, which most scholars date around 100 C.E.

Other strong arguments abound for placing Thomas in the 1st century. First is the fact that Thomas appears to be based on oral traditions, as it is not a gospel in the true sense of the word, but rather a collection of sayings. Christian oral traditions died out in the decades after Jesus’s death, because things started getting written down, and oral traditions were no longer considered reliable by initiates into the Christian religion. It is unlikely, then, that a text based on oral traditions would have been composed, or given any credence by Christians, in the 2nd century.

Additionally, despite differing on the issue of the imminence of Jesus’s return, Thomas and the authentic letters of Paul have a lot in common. It is believed by most scholars that Paul drew information on Jesus’s life primarily from oral tradition (as there were very few Christian writings during his life), and many of the oral traditions that Paul draws on are paralleled quite accurately in the Gospel of Thomas, implying that both were written from the same early oral sources.

In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not have a lot of the elements and language usage found in authentic 2nd century Gnostic texts. I won’t bore you with a discussion of Gnostic semantics, but there are a number of common words and images used in Gnostic texts which are not present in the Gospel of Thomas. For instance, there is no concept of a “higher” and “lower” level godhead in Thomas, as is almost universal in Gnostic writings. Additionally, Thomas does not parallel any of the Gnostic-style language found in the New Testament. John’s gospel, for instance, has a distinctly Gnostic tone throughout much of it, particularly the well-known “I AM” statements that Jesus makes: “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” etc. The early camp argues that if Thomas was written in the 2nd century, it would have used language similar to the Gnostic ideas found in earlier works – and yet, those ideas are conspicuously absent from Thomas.

The only weakness in the early camp’s argument, in my opinion, is the issue of apocryphal teachings. As stated above, many scholars categorize Jesus along with the countless apocalyptic wisdom teachers in 1st century Palestine – teaching that God’s kingdom was imminent, and that he had special insight into how to gain God’s favor. However, Thomas, as alluded to earlier, does not have much in the way of apocryphal language. If Thomas were a very early work, one would expect to see a lot of apocalyptic teachings from Jesus – but that isn’t the case. This could mean that Thomas was a later document after all, or it could be the result of 2nd century edits to the original text by scribes and/or followers, editing the document to fit the changing mindset of the times.

The final factor that must be considered when dating this text is that the Gospel of Thomas has an interesting resemblance to the “missing” text used by both Matthew and Luke in composing their gospels. As I said earlier, it is widely understood and accepted that Matthew and Luke used the earlier Gospel of Mark as a source. Both Matthew and Luke repeat many of Mark’s stories, sometimes verbatim, other times adding or taking away details as they saw fit. As much as 91% of Mark’s material is found in Matthew, and over 50% is found in Luke. However, Matthew and Luke also share a certain amount of their material in common that is not from Mark. This has led most scholars to assume that Matthew and Luke had a second, unknown, source in common. (It has lead to a lot of other theories too; for instance, the Farrer Hypothesis claims that Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew, thus dispensing with the idea of a second common source – but this hypothesis, as well as several others, are not supported by even remotely as much evidence as the “second source” hypothesis).

Interestingly, Matthew and Luke’s non-Marcan common material consists entirely of sayings and teachings of Jesus. For this reason, some Jesus scholars have put forth a theory that Matthew and Luke’s second source was a text made up of sayings of Jesus, perhaps earlier than any other New Testament text. They call this source “Q,” for the German word quelle, which simply means “source.” This idea is as much as 200 years old, first postulated by biblical scholars in the first decade of the 19th century. It came into much wider use in the 1830’s when a prominent scholar and theologian named Frederich Schleiermacher latched onto it and connected it with an enigmatic statement by an early Christian leader and Catholic saint named Papias. Around 125 C.E., Papias – who was a bishop in Turkey – wrote that “Matthew compiled the words of the Lord [that is, Jesus] in a Hebrew manner of speech.” This was long thought to simply imply that Matthew had written his gospel in Hebrew. Of course, we know now that this was not the case – Matthew, like all the texts of the New Testament, was written in Greek. Matthew, however, is definitely a gospel that was written for a Jewish audience. Either way, Schleiermacher, arguing for a second source for Matthew and Luke, pointed out that this statement by Papias in the early 2nd century implied that Matthew wrote his gospel based on an oral tradition of Jesus, which would have been written down in a source that was known to Papias and his contemporaries.

Since the time of Schleiermacher, the idea of a second source for Matthew and Luke, made up of sayings of Jesus, has been a popular one, and is the most widely accepted solution by scholars to the issue of Matthew and Luke’s common, non-Marcan material.

Another interesting fact is that of this common, non-Marcan material, none of it includes anything that would support a view that Jesus ever discussed demons, Satan, the second coming, his resurrection, or ever made any claims to divinity. The material consists entirely of wisdom teachings of Jesus. This, as well as the fact that it no longer exists, leads many scholars to assume that Q was a very early source, written before layers and layers of mythology had built up around Jesus – and, therefore, very reliable.

From this, you can probably already see where I am going. The theory of the Q document draws an intriguing parallel to the Gospel of Thomas, because that is precisely what the Gospel of Thomas consists of – wisdom teachings of Jesus, without the later layers of miraculous and divine language. When the Gospel of Thomas was first discovered and translated in the 1940’s and 50’s, it made quite a few ripples in the scholarly world, because it provided evidence that, in fact, early Christianity had texts that consisted of teachings and sayings of Jesus – just as the Q Hypothesis had theorized for over 100 years.

Most scholars do not believe that the Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, the missing source Q, but it is interesting to speculate about whether, perhaps, our Gospel of Thomas was drawn from this earlier collection of Jesus’s teachings and sayings, or if it might even have been a contemporary of the Q source. If this were true, of course, it would imply that the material in the Gospel of Thomas is very early and highly reliable.

Nevertheless, as we all know, the Gospel of Thomas was not included in the New Testament canon. Apparently, it was not even seriously considered by the ecumenical councils of the 4th century. This poses some interesting questions – primarily, “Why not?” Early orthodox Christian leaders like Iranaeus and Hippolytus – the former writing in the 2nd century and the latter writing in the early 3rd century – both denounced Thomas’s gospel as heretical, primarily because of its lack of divine language, it’s lack of a resurrection account, and its implication that salvation is found inside of one’s self, through Jesus’s teachings, and not through the atonement of Jesus’s death on the cross. It would appear that by the time the official canon was being set in place, Thomas was either forgotten, or was widely thought to be Gnostic and, therefore, heretical.

The early Church’s canonical decision aside, Thomas’s gospel, as alluded to above, is believed by most experts to contain early and reliable oral traditions of Jesus’s sayings and teachings. It starts off by claiming to be a collection of “secret teachings” given by the “living Jesus” and which were written down by Didymus Judas Thomas. The very name here presents an intriguing conundrum. “Didymus” is a Greek word, and “Thomas” is a Hebrew word, but they both mean “twin.” The apostle Thomas was actually named Judas, but is nicknamed Thomas in the New Testament to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot – it has long been assumed that “Thomas” was used because this apostle must have been one of a pair of twins. But why did the writer of this text use both the Greek and Hebrew forms of Thomas’s nickname? Some scholars suggest this was a literary device used simply to ensure that Greek readers didn’t assume the Hebrew “Thomas” was a surname. Others have suggested, instead, that Thomas was being addressed as Jesus’s actual twin. This could be a spiritual connection – in the text, Jesus tells Thomas that he (Jesus) is no longer Thomas’s teacher because Thomas has “drunk from the very same spring from which I draw” – or it could be a physical connection, although only fringe scholars and novelists would ever draw the conclusion that Jesus and Thomas were literally twin brothers. It could also, however, be a reference to Jesus himself. The name “Judas” is derived from the name of the Jewish Nation – Judah. It would be like naming a child “Americus,” “Britannia,” or “Germanicus.” Thus, the “twin” of the Jewish Nation could be the earthly Jesus himself, communicating universal truths as the Christ (or, the “anointed one”).

The content of the Gospel of Thomas is very mystical and spiritual. Jesus teaches that salvation is found within – “The Kingdom of God is within you,” and “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.”

Some of Thomas is downright beautiful and poetic:

“I am the light that shines over all things. I am everywhere. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”

But, as noted in a different context earlier, there is also quite a bit in Thomas’s gospel that parallels stories and teachings from the New Testament, specifically Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul. These overlapping stories account for “multiple attestations,” which is one of the primary factors scholars look toward when evaluating the historical reliability of a text or a teaching. This is one of the reasons why so many scholars believe much of Thomas’s material is early and reliable.

Compare Thomas’s reliability and multiple attestations to the canonical Gospel of John, which is made up of material that has almost no multiple attestations – in fact, the majority of this widely-read and widely-accepted gospel cannot be attested by any other source. Ironic, then, that John, and not Thomas, was included in the New Testament canon, and even more ironic, and perhaps even a bit tragic, that John, with its unattested and therefore unreliable narratives, has had such a profound impact on Christian theology – more so than any other gospel.

That’s not to say that no spiritual relevance can be found for a Christian in the Gospel of John (one of my favorite quotes of Jesus is found in this text), but it is certainly cause for pause the next time you open your bible to read from this very popular gospel.

Given a choice between the two, I would pick Thomas over John for reliability and spiritual Christian relevance. If you haven’t ever read Thomas, I highly encourage you to do so. It has been a vital component of my growth as a Christian and my continued spiritual walk.

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