Sunday, July 07, 2013

Rethinking Sacred Texts

This is a 7 minute  speech I'm giving to my Toastmasters group next week. It's pracitce for a part of a larger talk I'm giving to a United Church of Christ congregation in Bethlehem, PA on August 4th.

Thank you for inviting me to speak. I want to take you on a journey today. As you are familiar with my book, you know I came to a crossroads in my Christian experience,  where I began to question some long-held traditional beliefs, did some research, and began to change many of my viewpoints. Today, I’ll share an important leg of my spiritual evolution—how I came to rethink what sacred texts are.
First, what do I mean by sacred texts? Well, the Bible of course, but also other documents less familiar to most of us. Has anyone heard of the Gospel of Mattathias, Gospel of the Egyptians, I Letter of Clement, Letter of Barnabas, The Shepard of Hermes, or the Wisdom of Solomon? Most people haven’t. But these are all books that either a prominent church father or the early church accepted as part of the Bible!

When I was in the evangelical tradition, I was taught there were only two ways to look at the Bible.
1 – The [conservative] “correct” way - a uniform, infallible, authoritative, clear set of rules for humankind. An instruction manual. Submit to scripture. Obey the Word of God.

2 – The liberal way - contains many historically inaccurate accounts and is largely unreliable and irrelevant for the modern world. Yes, read the Bible as great literature. But it doesn’t hold real answers to the questions of life.  
One of my main discoveries is history teaches us both of these views are wrong. There’s a middle way that is more true to the evidence. The first place that points us to this middle way is the historical record of where the Bible came from. Let’s examine some facts. Imagine that I’m tacking these facts on a board and later we’ll tie them together.

·        The NT was not dropped from the sky in its entirety – it is a collection of books that took years to compile and there was substantial disagreement about it.

·        The first complete, uniform, recognized listing of the NT wasn’t until 363 AD and it didn't include Revelation, which wasn’t accepted until 397 AD.

·        The four gospels were written 30-60 years after Jesus. Paul’s letters were written 15-33 years after Jesus. The first followers relied on oral tradition, not scripture, for the Jesus story. For decades, even centuries, there was no NT in its modern form.

·       The Bible of the early church was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT which included the Apocrypha, 11 books that Protestants don’t accept. 

·        There were many gospels besides the four – e.g. Hebrews, Egyptians, Peter, Thomas; some thought to be forgeries, some not.

·        The respected church father Clement of Alexandria had a 2nd century NT that included many books that never made it into the NT.

·        Revelation was never fully accepted by the Eastern Church (today, it's not used in liturgy); it was rejected by many church fathers.

·        Luther advocated that the NT should be graded, some books more inspired than others. He thought Hebrews, James, and Revelation should be secondary.

·        The Bible we have was copied over and over. There’s strong evidence that some NT passages were inserted by copyists to reinforce a theological bias.

·        Scholars and historians have found errors in the NT (and the NT never claims it is inerrant); but most of them are immaterial; however, a few aren’t.

·        There are good reasons why some of the other sacred texts were not included in our Bibles; e.g. bizarre teachings and forgeries; but the Bible itself has bizarre teachings, e.g. women can’t speak in church and the Jesus-like-he's-on-acid book of Revelation. Also, a consensus of scholars say I & II Timothy and Titus are inauthentic.  

·        There are good reasons many books were included, e.g. Jesus’ and Paul’s sound, timeless, egalitarian, teaching on love, forgiveness, and community that revolutionized Jewish and Roman society.

Conclusion: Now, let’s tie these facts together. What can we conclude? Perhaps you’ll agree with me, that these facts show it's better to hold the Bible more loosely in terms of it being a universally applicable, uniform message from God. Don’t grip it so tightly. Come to respect it more, not less, as we see both the wisdom of God within its pages and the human element in its formation… and that the early church, although they generally agreed on some of the books, often accepted books that are not in it and questioned books that are. The New Testament is not always internally consistent and wasn't considered infallible.

This "lighter" approach is taking the Bible and other sacred texts more seriously, in historical context, albeit not always literally. When we do that, we can look past the dross and find the gems of the Bible—the principles that teach us about what God is like and how to live our lives; but not in a legalistic way, but a way that is consistent with how the Bible was compiled and copied and what it teaches in its historical/cultural context.
In summary, these list of facts I shared influenced me to rethink how one should view sacred texts and come to a new conclusion: that there is a middle way, between a conservative and liberal position, to view the Bible, that is more true to history.   


Todd said...


Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken there are some scholars, perhaps even a majority (?), who think there is strong evidence that Paul did not write Ephesians but Marcion (later condemned as a gnostic heretic) wrote it... or significantly modified it. So the rabbit hole goes father than just 1st and 2nd Timothy.

Just found your site and I like it very much!!

Michael Camp said...

According to progressive Catholic and historian Garry Wills, a consensus of modern scholarship attributes 7 letters as "certainly" written by Paul: I Thes., Gal., Philippians, Philemon, I Cor., II Cor. (minus one short passage), and Romans.

Colossians and Ephesians "seem" to be written by followers of Paul who had a "profound understanding" of his teaching. So, I don't think there's a case for Marcion, but not sure.

The rabbit hole goes further when you think of the passage in I Cor. about women (not speaking in church) that even some conservatives agree was added by copyists.

To me, this reveals that things aren't black and white. Neither black (the NT is a myth), or white (the NT is inerrant). Makes the whole thing more exciting to me.

Michael Creel said...

Hi Michael! I enjoyed this post.
Question: What online sources are there on what scholars/theologians consider current up to date views on scripture as far as accuracy, "primary" (Highly verified as to original content/author) and "secondary" (not so verified and/or altered, added to, etc)?

Michael Camp said...

Michael Creed, Thanks for weighing in! I have lots of sources in the chapter of my book on Bible Abuse:

Offhand, I'm not sure where to direct you for online resources, except see the books, "What Paul Meant" by Garry Wills (progressive who lays out reasons only 7 letters of Paul are probably the authentic ones), and "Misquoting Jesus" and "Jesus Interrupted" by Bart Ehrman (liberal). Despite not coming to the same conclusions as Ehrman, I find his honest scholarship refreshing.

Also, Gordon Fee's (noteworthy conservative) commentary on I Corinthians makes the case for improved translations and that I Cor. 14:33b-35 was added by a copyist.

Additionally, a real gem, is "Which Came First: The Church of the New Testament?" by Conciliar Press (Eastern Orthodox), that you can find here (search 'Which Came First'):

These are just a few examples. I gain much of my research from a conglomeration of scholars across the theological board from those above and also including Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan (liberals) and N.T. Wright (conservative-to-moderate). You have to uncover all the rocks to get at the most likely conclusions. All these authors cite other scholarship that backs up their case.

Also, I find with the "up-to-date" scholarship, sometimes people are just discovering things that were common knowledge centuries ago.

Have fun in your research!