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Identifying Extremes – Examining Everything (An Example)

Identifying Extremes – Examining Everything (An Example)

book cross-hatchThis morning Dave Black posted some things about reading Hebrews from the Good News Bible (TEV) and also on authorship and canonicity. I’m not posting to enter into a debate on this point, but rather to note an attitude.

Dave says:

The undeniable reality is that questions of canon and authorship matter. Of course, both sides demonize the other. Proponents of Pauline authorship are dismissed as obscurantists, while proponents of Hebrews’ non-Paulinity are accused of succumbing to the spirit of the age. But why should we tolerate this kind of judgmental divisiveness? Maybe we need another conference on campus to discuss the issue!

Good points! I am deeply concerned when people who are treated with intolerance by one group, move to another, and then treat their former group with intolerance. Is there justification for some reaction? I know many people personally who have been treated badly and many of them have been deeply hurt. There’s some justification here for anger. I publish books by authors who have lost their jobs over theological positions.

But is the justification enough? I don’t think so. Our response to intolerance needs to be greater tolerance. That doesn’t mean we have to accept and approve behavior. What it means is that we need to look for a freer exchange of ideas and better treatment of people.

There are those who wonder why I publish a book like Dave’s The Authorship of Hebrews. Not only do I publish that book, but I requested it. Dave didn’t push it on me. I don’t accept Pauline authorship of Hebrews. I don’t believe we can know the author’s name with any confidence. Yet Dave’s work on this topic shifted my position from one that excluded Paul from the list of possible authors to accepting that his authorship is a possibility. More importantly, Dave demonstrates how to challenge an academic consensus—with detailed, careful scholarship.

Now let me provide a contrast and a comparison. In the lower right of my little graphic today we have the cover for the forthcoming book from Dr. Herold Weiss, Meditations on the Letters of Paul, which I’m currently editing. First, the contrast. Contrary to Dave Black’s acceptance of Pauline authorship of Hebrews, not to mention the pastorals, Dr. Weiss accepts a minimal Pauline corpus. He even rejects Colossians. So his meditations are on a substantially smaller set of writings that Dr. Black’s would be. Now for the similarity: Besides the fact that I enjoy and have learned much from both writers and both books, neither of these men has ever asked me to accept something because it’s in their tradition, or just because they said so. They are both willing to debate and discuss.

I can give you numerous reasons why I publish books from a variety of perspectives, and I’ve done so before. But there’s a personal reason. I like them and I benefit from them. I have published some books that I really wish had been better. I do not claim any sort of editorial infallibility. In fact, I would claim feet of clay. But I have learned from and benefitted by reading each and every book I have published.

Let me suggest a response to Dave’s little book. How about looking at some of the vocabulary comparisons excluding the pastorals, or even working from a minimal Pauline corpus? I’d like to play with that. I don’t know if it would be meaningful, but somebody could look at it.

Just a thought …

The Authority of the Longer Ending of Mark

The Authority of the Longer Ending of Mark

Here’s an interesting post on the longer ending of Mark and snake handling. (HT: Dave Black Online, Why Four Gospels?)

There’s obviously a serious question about hermeneutics lurking in the discussion, but what I would like to see discussed is just what text of Mark is authoritative. We tend to assume that what we want is the most original text. What did Mark write?

But we count as scripture what was recognized by the church councils as scripture. (I ignore here whatever reasons they may have had for their choice.) The Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Peter are not authoritative, but Mark is. What text of Mark were the church fathers looking at when they made it canonical? Does that matter?

I think it would relate (in a distant way) to the question of whether a gospel retains its authority if one thinks it was authored by someone other than the traditional one. If the church fathers canonized a gospel they believe to have been written by Mark, and then it turns out he didn’t write it, should their decision be reviewed?

I ask these questions because we often try to dodge doctrinal difficulties through textual criticism. I think that is not always (or often) the right approach. It has its value, but creates its own difficulties.

Worth thinking on, I think.

A Static and Authentic Christianity?

A Static and Authentic Christianity?

In a previous post, I promoted some comments in which Barry Jones of The Village Atheist web site questioned whether my version of Christianity was authentic. In particular, he believes that Christianity should be based on the Bible and should be singular.

This post is not in direct response, but I will say a number of things here that are fundamental to my view on this issue. There is no way that I can deal with all elements of this debate in a single post, and the main reason I have decided to carry on the discussion is that it will be such a fruitful place for me to post on my own view of Christianity. Some terms simply beg for further definition, such as just what “Bible based” actually means. Since the Bible contains no constitution for a church congregation, but rather stories about and letters to various churches, just what singular church administrative structure should be used? This, along with many other things, has come about by tradition–often by a scripturally informed tradition, but tradition nonetheless.

But the issue I want to begin to address today is this. What validity would there be to a Christianity which is singular both now and through time? Would such a Christianity be possible, and would it be authentic?

What I have a hard time seeing as authentic is a static Christianity. The fact is that Jesus came in and spent his time doing anything but trying to conform to a common definition of Judaism. In fact, he proposed some rather challenging ideas. Now one might claim that he was going back to an earlier time historically, but I think one would be hard pressed to find the time that Jesus was pointing back to.

This type of approach to religious ideas is actually very common. People frequently assume that the oldest source is the most reliable in terms of theology. If we can get back to the authentic words of _____, we will just have the truth once and for all. In most discussions of authentic Christianity, there will be a common acceptance of the view that we should get as close to the apostolic church as we can. The debate is simply about just what it was, and how close we can get to it under our circumstances. The person who challenges this assumption is often the odd man out.

But the challenger will have the historical advantage. There was no singular, unquestioned apostolic church that passed on a singular tradition. That was why debates had to take place in the early church. If one could pick up a unified theology simply by reading the Bible, we would not have needed church councils to define doctrinal positions. But the fact is that without such church councils there wouldn’t even be a “Bible” from which to derive those doctrines. Those councils had to define what would be regarded as authoritative and what would not.

The interesting thing about this apostolic church is that it grew out of the ministry of a man who challenged much of his surrounding culture (though he remained Jewish throughout), who was definitely pushing for something new and different. The Sermon on the Mount with it’s “you have heard that it has been said . . . but I say unto you” statements is not one that would be preached by someone intent on maintaining tradition and the status quo.

But once that ministry was complete this apostolic church moved forward with wrinkles and debates, with agreements and disagreements, in other words, it wasn’t static either. So why is it that we can see a modern church as credibly apostolic if it does not itself have a lively theological dialog going on?

Now my area of expertise is not church history, though obviously I have to spend some time there. I studied the ancient near east. My approach to Biblical studies was from ancient near eastern languages and literature. From that approach I would maintain that Judaism was no more static than Christianity was, and indeed changed greatly over time. We tend to miss this because we have in scripture a collection made over a fairly short period of time. We don’t have much documentation on the losers. What we have is documentation of the stream of tradition that became dominant.

Now there was no absolute suppression involved. There are plenty of tracks left in Hebrew scripture by which we can tell that there was development in the thought of Israel. If we add the deutero-canonicals into the mix, we see an even more diverse mix of thinking. (Which relates to another question I ask about “Bible-based Christianity.” Which Bible?) Thus we have a new movement (Christianity) growing out of an existing diverse movement, and developing immediate diversity of its own.

The question is this: Where is the static point in the past that should be preserved by all modern, authentic Christians? I don’t see it. I can see the drive to get at the pure words of Jesus, but even though I believe fully in the incarnation, I cannot see how Jesus would or could define a static point for all history. Whatever divinity was there still had to communicate with finite humanity, and thus those statements also are conditioned by time, place, and culture. They are extremely important, indeed foundational, to my own thinking about Christianity, but there are far from complete in answering questions.

So what is that point? Let’s have a time slice in history that should define what a singular Christianity should be, and then consider why that point/period should be accepted as definitive.

Response to Misquoting Jesus – Summary and Conclusion

Response to Misquoting Jesus – Summary and Conclusion

This is the conclusion of my multi-part series responding to Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus. Here are links to the earlier portions of this series:

In chapter 7, The Social Worlds of the Text, Ehrman discusses how the social situation in the early church shaped changes that were made to the text. In particular he discusses the status of women, and mentions several instances of textual change that relate to it. Amongst these are Junia/Junias in Romans 16:7, and the prohibition for women teaching in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36.

Next he discusses the relationship of Christians and Jews. Some alterations in the text make the Jews look bad. By the 2nd century, Christians were a separate religion, and often engaged in polemic against Judaism.

Finally he discusses paganism and apologetic alterations to the text. He provides numerous illustrations in each case.

One of his major points in this section is to show how the scribes were human beings whose world shaped the way in which they transmitted the text, and thus to some extent the text itself. When you hold a Bible in your hands, you hold the complex product of numerous people, each of whom have had a small part in shaping the text you will read.


It is in the conclusion that a differ significantly from Ehrman’s view. In technical terms, he is certainly expert, and he displays that expertise throughout the book. As a popularizer, he is clearly one of the best. I have not seen a clearer explanation of the basics of New Testament textual criticism for the non-scholar.

The fundamental difference in our conclusions results not from the content, but from our starting points. I begin with the view that inspiration is something that happens to people, and that people express that inspiration in various forms, including text. While a person experiences God, individually or in community, the expression of that experience is distinctly human.

Ehrman seems to accept the standard evangelical view of Biblical inspiration that assumes that God’s breathing of scripture is essentially the impartation of data to be expressed in words.

How radical are the changes?

If you see inspiration as involving the impartation of data to be accurately expressed in words, and expect those words themselves to be divine, then the alteration of such words must come as a shock. This is the experience expressed by Bart Ehrman in his conclusion. He sees the changes as radical and important because they alter the words, and to him the words are the vehicle of inspiration, or in the end of the lack of it.

For me these changes are not nearly so radical, because I assume that the writers chose their own words, and in most cases their own facts. Thus alterations are interesting, but neither shocking nor dismaying. If one studies a broad enough basis of the text, one can get to who Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul really were, and to me that is the key to inspiration. God spoke to the community through these people in a special way and I want to get to know them.

One quotation will illustrate this point:

In particular, as I said at the outset, I began seeing the New Testament as a very human book. The New Testament as we actually have it, I knew, was the product of human hands, the hands of the scribes who transmitted it. Then I began to see that not just the scribal text but the original text itself was a very human book. This stood very much at odds with how I had regarded the text in my late teens as a newly minted “born-again” Christian, convinced that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God and that the biblical words themselves had come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As I realized already in graduate school, even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words. So the doctrine of inspiration was in a sense irrelevant to the Bible as we have it, since the words God reputedly inspired had been changed and, in some cases, lost. . . . (p. 211)

I would like to point out one other thing, however, and that is that those who argue Biblical inerrancy, with or without verbal plenary inspiration, as it applies to the autographs do need to respond to the issue of the relevance of such inspiration. What is the importance of the inerrancy of a document we do not possess? If we can deal with 98% accuracy in the Bibles we actually have, why would the discovery that the autographs were also only 98% accurate suddenly be a devastating blow to the authority of the Bible?

This is why it seems to me that the doctrine of inerrancy of the autographs is more a doctrine about God than about the accuracy or authority of God’s communication. What the doctrine says is that God is perfect. Certainly, I can agree with that. But that still seems irrelevant, because the issue is how well did human authors comprehend what God revealed to them?

Dependence on Scholars

On one last issue I think that Ehrman makes a particularly good point. I have heard many people express either the desire to be completely independent of Biblical scholarship or even the feeling that they are independent. Sometimes these are people who do not even read the source languages, much less work with the manuscripts to determine the text. When we consider context, the history and culture that stands behind the text, many more specialized fields come into play, and nobody is able to be proficient in all of those areas. All of us are dependent at some point on the scholarship of others.

Response to Misquoting Jesus – II

Response to Misquoting Jesus – II

I found the second chapter of Misquoting Jesus generally very helpful. I can summarize my response to the chapter by saying that there is nothing very radical about its contents, and that it contains material everyone should consider.

Ehrman has to go light on some things simply because of the size of the topic as opposed to the reasonable size of a popular book on the subject. For a little more background on critical methodologies and the process of composition, let me refer to my pamphlets What is Biblical Criticism? and Understanding the Search for the Historical Jesus.

Canonization is another topic that is often viewed in extremes. On the one hand we have those who picture the folks who put together the orthodox canon sitting around in back rooms cynically decided what would be scripture and what would not, and often arranging the death of those who disagreed. On the other hand we have those who assume that there was a list of criteria, and that every piece of literature that fit got into the canon, while all those that did not were left out.

The truth is somewhere between. There were plenty of shameful episodes in which one Christian leader was involved in the death of another. There were also criteria, at least in principle. But in fact there were certain books that had become standard in Christian worship, and these were going to be “in” no matter what the evidence. So to some extent canonization was a popularity contest with a number of serious twists and turns. Ehrman gives a pretty good summary.

Ehrman does make one comment that sets me to thinking, and I hope to find some time to do reading on this. On page 18 he says:

For modern people intimately familiar with any of the major contemporary Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it may be hard to imagine, but books played virtually no role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Western world. These religions were almost exclusively concerned with nonoring the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice. There were no doctrines to be learned, as explained in books, and almost no ethical principles to be followed, as laid out in books. . . .

I’m not precisely certain what he includes under “Western world” in this case, but my feel for the ancient near east suggests that certainly Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian religion depended to a great extent on texts. Israelite religion made the texts much more the province of the people as opposed to just the priests, but that was an incremental change. I’m wondering if there was such a substantial break between Greek and Roman religion and the eastern portions of the empire, even after a great deal of syncretism. I haven’t done any adequate study on this, so this is just a question this chapter raised for me.