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.