The Letter and the Spirit

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The contemporary American Church has forgotten itself, both the letter and the Spirit.

There are three contending voices in the modern Church concerning the letter, concerning the role of Scripture in the Church.  First, the letter has been lost among modern megachurches who forego exegesis to such a degree that it is not clear how, if at all, the Bible undergirds the proclamation of the church.  The text is at most a theme upon which the pastor riffs, a pastor whose voice trumps that of Scripture.  His tone and content need not reflect those of the letter; the Bible is there only as a source of material among the many anecdotes from the pastor’s family life, his sporting loves, and illustrations clearly mined from some website.  Were one to only learn the Bible from these pastors, one might reasonably assume the book is a practical guide to successful work and marriage, a therapeutic relief to stress and anxiety, and a promise of material rewards that are just around the corner.

I listened to a great big pastor in a great big church not long ago who said he “had enough people in the cheap seats.” It was time for serious discipleship, he insisted.  His only text for the next 45 minutes was John 3:16, which he read and then never mentioned to again.  I came to realize that the reference to the cost of the seats was meant to point out that many people attended but didn’t tithe.

These churches have largely surpassed and replaced the second voice, the dying stream of liberal Protestantism which practiced a sleight-of-hand exegesis, using the Bible, but only so as to give the educated the clergy the opportunity to cleverly reveal that it didn’t mean what it seemed to say.  Mainline Protestantism is now settling into a well-deserved retirement.

Third, the last refuge of the Bible is American fundamentalism.  Unfortunately, what we find here tends to be the people who know the words but not the meaning.  They want to debate how long were the days of creation and whether or not life could have evolved, just as their predecessors were energized against the heliocentric universe.  Here, conversation is consumed by creed.  They read the Bible, but only so they can weaponize it.

We’ve forgotten that the Bible is God’s word, and thus it’s worth learning.  We’ve forgotten that it’s living and active, rather than static and dogmatic.

Likewise, the Church has forgotten the Spirit.  The early church spread for one reason – Jesus was a wonder-worker.  People weren’t traveling for miles to hear a good speaker; they were coming to see paralytics walk.  People weren’t praying to make themselves feel better; they were praying because someone was answering back.  They were sufficiently convinced that God was present that they gave away their money with reckless abandon.  Honestly, what might it take for you to do something like that?  It takes a miracle.

I envision a church of the letter and the Spirit, where we embrace the Scriptures enough to care about what they say to us, and the way they say it.  I envision a church where miracles come to be as natural as they are super.  And I don’t think any of this is unreasonable or far-fetched.  I think this is what Jesus meant from the very beginning.

Eye-to-eye

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Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity.  For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife.  People would talk; assumptions would be made.

Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle.  Men looked 45˙ down to women.  This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world.  If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like.  Eye-to-eye.

I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him.  They were surprised but surrendered.  He’s just going to do it this way.  We’ll probably just have to do it this way too.  Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.

Maybe.

Bibliophilology (or, What Kind of Book is the Bible?)

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The Tianjin Bahai Library in Tianjin, China

I’ve listened to arguments about the Bible all of my life.  I’ve heard it mocked by literature professors and defended by fundamentalists like King Kong cradling Ann Darrow at the top of the Empire State Building (I suspect, if it had a personality, that’s about how much the Bible would want to be protected).  Usually attackers and defenders talk past each other.  Often, I’m not sure that either have read it.

In part, the confusion arises from the lack of clarity about what kind of book the Bible is.  There are different approaches.

A Math Book

Some people think of the Bible like a math textbook.  It is a book of brute facts reducible to logical certainty, and if any one of them is wrong, the whole thing is suspect.  If there is an error in the math book, we’re going to have to scrutinize every problem to make sure the authors didn’t do it more than once.  Aggressors like to point out discrepancies in the biblical texts (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4), and say that they’ve found a fatal flaw.  Defenders foolishly agree to the argument and concoct desperate explanations about how Once Upon A Time there was a perfect Bible, but then there was a copying error.  This would be like claiming this blog was written by Tinkerbell, and then when someone presents a video of me typing it myself, I reply, “She’s very tricky, isn’t she?”

The mistake is giving in on the idea that the Bible is like a math book to begin with.  The authors had no intention of communicating ideas that work like mathematics.  The statement “The Bible is true” makes as much sense as saying “The tree is true.” That’s not a valid way to evaluate it.

A Novel

Some then say the Bible is like a novel.  It’s a fascinating collection of stories that might have moral points, but they are not grounded in history.  Here, there is immediately a problem – all the history.  The authors of the Bible at a number of points clearly think they are reporting historical events, unabashedly with their own opinions about the events – who was the greatest warrior, who was a liar, and why God did what he did.  The historical character of the Bible is inescapable.  Bart Ehrman, who is not a religious believer and who is deeply skeptical about religion, said of Jesus, “He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees.”

A defender of the novel thesis might argue then that it is historical fiction – a novel created out of historical events, but truly fiction.  However, from the earliest recorded events to the present, a growing and countless population have believed that some cross-section of the historical events recorded in the Bible actually happened as the Bible said they did.  The authors meant for much of it to be historical, even if inescapably biased, and most readers take that fact at face value.  That reduces the sorting out of the historical from the non largely to an act of bias.  It’s unsurprising that holders of this thesis usually say the supernatural elements are the fiction, regardless of what else might be historical, and that viewpoint comes from a predisposition to a certain ideology, not to a study of history.

A Compilation

Both of these approaches spring from a kind of fundamentalism that the Bible doesn’t encourage.  A better way to think about the Bible is as a compilation of various forms of literature.  There are within it long lists of names that were created specifically to be kept in a file cabinet.  They were not meant to be devotional material – they were meant to keep a paper trail of land owners.  There are poems which have no more truth value than a flower, which is still an infinite kind of value.  There are historical narratives that are brute facts – events that happened and which are recorded by eye-witnesses.  There are fabricated parables, stories created to make a point that don’t even attempt to pose as history, prophetic and apocalyptic predictions of the future, collections of practical advice, records of military conquests, virtue and vice lists, and more.

No two types of literature are the same.  They serve different functions, communicate in their own styles, and must be evaluated according to the norms of that style.  That, for any serious reader and serious believer is not a threat to faith.  It’s a challenging and thought-provoking invitation to a deep study of God.

Resolving to Read the Bible

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It’s January 2nd, and I really don’t want to go to the gym this morning, because there will be lines of well-intended people who I’ve never seen before.  New Year’s resolutions do that.  I figure I’ve got until Valentine’s Day before I can use the place undisturbed again.

Many people set out every January with the resolution that they are going to read the whole Bible this year, which is a great goal.  I have a few thoughts that may get you past February.

  1.  Don’t read it left to right.  That’s not how it was written – the books don’t appear in chronological order – and that’s not the best way to understand it.  We’re used to reading books from left to right, because that’s the way English texts are written.  Hebrew goes right to left.  Chinese sometimes reads top down.  But the Bible is a book that reads from the middle outwards.  The best place to start reading the Bible is with the story of Jesus’ life, the gospel, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Everything before that is pointing towards Jesus’ life; everything afterwards is reflecting back on Jesus’ life.  Read the gospel first.
  2. Save the file cabinet material for the end.  I meet so many well intentioned people who tell me, “I’m going to read the whole Bible this year!” And I say, “Good job!”, because I’m a pastor, and I guess I’m supposed to encourage this sort of thing.  They read Genesis, and then they come back to me saying, “It’s great!  There’s so much adventure!  I love it!”  I say hesitantly, “Uh-huh.  They come back a couple of weeks later and they say, “I’ve read Exodus!  It’s amazing!  I love this book.” I say, “Yup.” And then I never hear from them again.  Because then they come to Leviticus, and they aren’t all that enthralled with the specificities of how to sacrifice your goat.  They come to something which, even for the original authors, was file cabinet material, and they get bored.  You know, it’s a really important document, so you need to keep it, so you put it in your file cabinet.  It’s not pleasure reading.  And all those resolutions die in Leviticus like so many sacrificial lambs.  We’re going to read that stuff too – just not yet.
  3. Ask someone who has read the Bible what you should read next.  After reading a gospel, ask someone who knows it, and even better, who also knows you, what you should read next.  Generally I recommend a shorter book that gives you a taste of a bigger genre of literature.  Read the book of James next.  It’s quick, easy, and practical.  It contains a lot of moral advice that’s sometime pithy and the kind of thing a lot of people go to the Bible for.  Then read Ephesians.  It will give you a little taste of Paul’s 13 letters in the New Testament, a sense for his theology, and a sense for those letters trying to teach the church to get along.  Read Micah so you know who the prophets are.
  4. Read each book by itself.  Some guides to reading the Bible recommend a section of biblethis book and a section of that book at the same time.  That can be an ok way to go at it.  To have a true grasp of the context, you want to read any one of the 66 books by itself.  In other words, when you sit down to read Romans, read the whole book from beginning to end, even if it takes a few days.  Don’t read a little of Romans and then come back to it six months later.
  5. Use study aids.  There are commentaries that are a great help to understanding parts of the Bible.  You can read a single-volume commentary, which has notes on every single book of the Bible.  I like the ones with pictures.  When you get further along, you might want to read an entire commentary on one book of the Bible, like Romans.  N.T. Wright has a readable series of commentaries called “The Bible for Everyone.” And of course, you can always listen to sermon series by preachers who like to go through books of the Bible.  Some people find that it helps to take notes, keep a journal, or illustrate the pages of their Bibles as they go.

Hope this helps!  May God bless the reading of His Word!

 

How old is the Bible?

Did you ever wonder whether the Bible was written close to the events it describes or much later?  I’ve heard people dismiss the Bible as a later, legendary account composed many generations after the life of Jesus.  The manuscript evidence gives us a hint.

The oldest piece of a manuscript that we have is a tiny little piece of paper that’s only about 3″ long and 2″ wide, which is now in a museum in England.  It has text from John’s gospel on the front and on the back, and scholars who study ancient manuscripts say that the handwriting dates to between 100 and 150 AD.  This piece was found in Egypt, which suggests an earlier original, allowing time for the story to have travelled over 400 miles.200px-P52_verso

However, Ignatius Theophorus of Antioch, who lived from around 35AD – 117AD, wrote seven letters in which he quotes from at least 17 of the 27 New Testament letters, suggesting that they were in circulation even earlier, in the first century.  Clement of Rome, who died in 99AD, left behind a letter which quotes or refers to at least 9 letters of the New Testament, making their first century authorship undeniable.  These include a quote from Jesus, making the gospel stories unquestionably first century.  An early Christian document called the Didache, which scholars date to the end of the first century or beginning of the second, refers to Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, particularly Matthew.

Credible scholars now date the New Testament entirely to the first century.  Since the date of Jesus’ death falls in the 30s, that means the whole of the New Testament was written within 60 years of his death, which means during the lifetime of his contemporaries.

Those who try to push the dates later must do so by controverting the obvious historical testimonies of both the biblical accounts and non-biblical witnesses.  Their agenda-laden activism does little to confuse the open-minded and clear-sighted, but it tends to empower those who are looking for loopholes and who don’t want to do real research.  The story of Jesus cannot be discredited as a later legend scripted by people of another generation.  It was written in his day by people who knew him and his disciples.

Jesus Definitely Wasn’t Married

WifeAn ancient fragment was first publicized to the modern world in September of 2012 which features the words, “Jesus said to them my wife….” This created a frenzy of speculation about the possibility that Jesus was married.  I am absolutely sure he was not.  I can also say that, as an evangelical Protestant, it really doesn’t matter to me theologically whether or not he was.  (For my celibate brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church’s leadership, I could see how there would be more concern.)  But though his marital status doesn’t matter, it’s absolutely critical that everyone know he was single.  Here’s why.

Time magazine reports this week that the document is not a forgery, but actually dates back to the “ancient” world (whenever that began and ended).  The Harvard Theological Review reports (vol. 107, issue 2) that the document may date from somewhere around 741AD, some 700 years after Jesus’ life, give or take.  This seems to be making the news despite the fact that his marital status has no theological bearing.  What matters is the critical thinking skills of a modern society which swallows feeble ideas whole.  It makes a sad statement about our gullibility, and it leads to implications that shouldn’t be drawn.  Specifically:

1.  700 years later is a stretch in terms of reliability.  This would be roughly the equivalent of us finding a document dating from 1983 claiming that St. Francis was married.  It’s a little hard to be convinced.

2.  There is not multiple attestation, and no subsequent confirmation.  One fragment, and a late one at that, shouldn’t merit serious consideration.

3.  Marriage was the norm for Jewish men in Jesus’ day.  It would not have been scandalous for him to have been married, and thus there would have been no need to keep it secret if it were in fact the case.  It also isn’t odd that he was single, as even the Apostle Paul encouraged singleness, using himself as an example (1 Cor. 7).

4.  The gospel writers include some really embarrassing stories about Jesus’ life (baptized though sinless, fighting with the religious leaders who should have endorsed him, rejected by eye witnesses, mocked, cursed to hang on a tree – Deut. 21:23, strange post-resurrection sightings that weren’t immediately recognizable).  They really don’t hold back on provocative and incriminating details.  The idea that there was a wife-hiding conspiracy doesn’t jibe with the nature of the gospels.

5.  Luke claims to be doing research on Jesus’ life in the first generation, and a marriage would have been an impossible oversight.

Here’s why the fragment matters.  It opens up the implication to casual modern listeners that the history of Jesus has always been mistaken, and that there are secrets about him left untold, making the biblical story appear to be an official front masking the true story.  And this is the real damage done by the publicity of this document and by the gnostic writings generally.  The Bible is the real thing.  Its story is so scandalous and conspiratorial that it doesn’t need a scandal to make it juicy.  There was no great cover-up in its writing or compilation that changed the meaning of Jesus’ life.  There aren’t parts of it that are waiting to be discovered in order to complete our picture of Jesus.  We know of him what we need to know to believe in him and to live faithfully in his name.  Whatever else the Bible is, it’s good enough.  No new discovery is going to change the power it still has call people from death to life.

So for the record, he wasn’t married, and if we are clear-headed thinkers, it ought to take more than a never before heard of scrap of paper written 700 years later to make us think the biblical authors just forgot that detail.

Do Archaeological Discoveries Discredit Genesis?

CamelNews agencies throughout the world burst into Biblical deconstruction this week with the announcement of a new archaeological find about camels.  The discovery, published in Tel Aviv Journalout of Tel Aviv University, was that domesticated camels didn’t appear on the scene in Israel until around the 9th century BCE.  If this is the case, it means that the Genesis account of Abraham using 10 camels to transport goods (Genesis 24:10) a highly unlikely story.  

 

Read more here.