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Let’s talk about the Bible. Previously I’ve spent the majority of my time discussing God and his role in my life – but lately I’ve taken a step back and began analyzing the Bible and thinking about its origins and the claims that Christians make regarding it. I hope to be able to express my thoughts on it well, but I think ultimately people won’t like what I’ve been thinking about.
I listen to NPR everyday. Recently they’ve had a guest author come on and talk about a book he wrote on Scientology. First, a little history lesson: L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology. He was previously a science fiction writer who also dabbled in some basic psychoanalytics which led him to create a process he called dianetics – a machine thats supposed to help clear your mind and stablize your life…or something along those lines. Well anyways this guy, L. Ron, practiced his dianetics in the clincal realm for quite some time but was shut down by the government for “practicing medicine without a license.” After this happened, he took his practice and formulated a religion in which dianetics became a central foundation. He then began to write “scripture” about things like the origin of the universe and right religious practice and other such things. He gathered quite a following but also became a fugitive at some point along the road too, living mostly secluded and hidden away from the public eye. The secret scripture of Scientology, that only the most committed members of scientology are allowed to read, give the history of a guy named “Lord Xenu” who was overlord of the universe and it talks about how Xenu froze a bunch of people and then killed them because overpopulation was threatening the universe. And this is the foundation of their belief system in a giant nutshell. I’m sure if a Scientologist were to read this, they would say I’ve done a terrible job of representing their religion. For that I apologize.
If you’re a Christian or frankly any religion other than Scientology – you probably would look at that and think to yourself that it’s so obvious that their religion is a hoax. I mean, this American author who used to write science fiction basically turned his story writing into a religion and got people to believe him. We think that’s silly – especially because L. Ron Hubbard lived in our day and age…like, he died in 1986. How could an American guy from the 80’s be expected to have divine insight into the history of the world…especially a guy known to have been kind of shady in the way he dealt with things?
It’s easy to look at a religion that was formed 50 years ago and poke holes in it. It’s easy to find flaws in the character of the individual responsible for starting said religion because we document so much these days too. We can bash Scientology or Mormonism or whatever all we want and talk about how untrue they are without ever looking at our own Bible and the formation of Christianity with the same lens. But I’m about to do that.
So what do we know about the Bible? There are a LOT of factors that went into the formation and creation of the Bible over the course of thousands of years. It’s comprised of both the Old and New Testaments – essentially two radically different perceptions of who God is. You might disagree with that, and that’s ok – but I think a basic reading of the entire Bible will show that the God of the OT is full of wrath and judgement and the God of the NT is full of mercy and grace. But that’s not the kind of thing I want to focus on. I’d like to look more into the authors behind the books.
If I were to ask MOST Christians (maybe not all) what they believed about WHO wrote the Torah (the first five books of the OT) they would say…Moses. Was that who you thought of when you read the question? I bet it was. But I’ve been doing some research into this question and according to scholars, though Moses is often credited with writing the Torah, he in fact did not. The reasons behind this are simple things like the mentioning of people who would have come after Moses had died and the difference in writing style such as the uses of different terms for God such as (english translation) Jehovah vs Elohim. Scholars believe that there were as many as 4 different sources to have contributed to the writing of the Torah, with one editor who combined the 4 sources.
That’s fine. No big deal. For Christians it doesn’t mean that the Torah is wrong or no longer divinely inspired by God just because maybe Moses didn’t write it. God is perfectly capable of inspiring 4 separate authors and one editor to create the message he is trying to get accross to the universe for all time, right? But is it possible to see that these 4 authors coming from 4 different places and periods in time may or may not have had agendas that they were trying to bring to light that they wrote what they did? I mean, when I write I usually write for a reason – not because I’ve been divinely inspired to shed God’s new insight into the world, but because I’m trying to communicate something to a broader group of people. And most of the time it’s with some kind of agenda in mind. Persuasion or challenge or whatever…it’s usually not just some objective truth that I write about. Even with history books – these supposedly objective stories about history only ever are written from the very subjective point of view of the historian and therefore usually paint history in a certain light.
The authors of the Old Testament were very much not immune to this in my opinion. When I look at the stories of the OT, specifically ones about the nation of Israel overcoming enormous obstacles and conquering huge armies I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it, but I often wonder how much is embellished to communicate a point. If you think about it, Israel’s history is an unfortunate one. They occupied a stretch of land that was often used as a pathway between world powers constantly at war, whether it was Egypt or Persian or Assyria or Rome, Israel was constantly being crushed by these powers around them. They write stories of great successes in battle and tell stories about how God gave them victory over there enemies and what not because the authors are usually writing from a place and time of captivity and persecution to a people group who are worn out and battered, tired of worshipping a God who keeps failing them in these times of hardship. They recount stories where God came through and helped them win and prophesy of a time when God will do it all again.
I find it ironic that the OT tells stories of a God who will avenge his people, a God who will smite the wicked for their misdeeds, a God who instructs his people to enter into a city and kill and destroy and pillage – not sparing even women or children. And then you look to the NT where God has mercy on sinners, he eats and dines with them, he has grace on those who least deserve it, and he tells his followers not to lift a hand against those who oppose them, but rather to turn the other cheek and humble yourself before others.
At the same time that the Old Testament was being written, a book full of stories where God tells Israel to totally wipe out entire groups of people from the face of the earth in epic battles and wars, The Buddha is telling his followers to love others unconditionally, to make peace with your enemies, and to empathize with the needy. Literally it’s like the same time period – the Buddha lived and taught around 800 BC – the same time as many of the OT stories.
I say those things to argue the fact that maybe, just maybe, the authors of the stories in the OT were writing with an agenda. That they were using God to bring a people group together. That they made God who they wanted him to be – a bloodthirsty, vengeful, angry God, because that’s who they needed God to be for them. It wouldn’t be the first time that people took liberties with their theology to make God into someone they needed him to be. It has happened throughout the history of the world. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth to be learned about who God is in the OT – but to say that the stories of the OT are all true and objective at face value I think may be a fallacy.
Moving on to the NT.
I’ll just jump right in. When we look at the teachings of Jesus, we often see the things he said written in red letters, because it signifies something that Jesus said. I’d like to argue a point regarding that very thing. We often look at these words as the exact words that came out of Jesus’ mouth – but we also know that Jesus never actually wrote any of his own teachings down. The 4 gospels we have were all written well after the death of Jesus. Mark’s gospel came over 20 years after the death of Jesus, and John’s gospel well over 60 years after his death. The authors are writing the teachings of Jesus but they are having to recall it from memory years and years later. Now don’t get me wrong – I think they are more than capable of writing dialogue that captures the essence of what Jesus said, but to claim that what they wrote were the exact words of Jesus as he spoke them I think is a hard sell. That being said – it was not unusual to have pupils of a renown teacher write down their teacher’s teaching through dialogue. Look at Plato for instance – he wrote 4 books on the teachings of Socrates, a philosopher who never wrote any of his own teachings down. Plato was able to write down the teachings of Socrates and all of his writings are dialogue between Socrates and someone else. It was a style of writing and I don’t think that people believe that Plato remembered every word from every conversation that Socrates had, but that he was able to capture the essence of the teaching and relay that through a rough outline of the dialogue being had. The same thing I believe happened with the gospels. There is no evidence showing us that the disciples had written the teachings of Jesus down as he spoke them word for word, but they studied under him for 3 years and came to understand the essence of his teaching. They remembered conversations to a point and attempted to recreate the message Jesus taught.
I don’t have a problem with this at all. I think it’s reasonable to think that men who spent 3 years devoting themselves to a man and his teaching would have authority to communicate the essence of that man’s teaching. But so often we look at Scripture and point out that it’s infallible and without contradiction. I feel like that’s just not true. When you have human authors recounting stories or teachings or driving agendas or whatever, you are bound to have human error.
People always argue that Scripture is divinely inspired. And we say that about books that were written thousands of years ago because we have a harder time poking holes in the theology or analyzing the character of the author because we don’t have information like we do today. But I find it hard to think that when these authors wrote what they wrote they were being whispered to by the Holy Spirit exactly what to write. Or however you want to say it. I think that they were trying to communicate to each other – to build doctrine around fundamental truths that they believed and to encourage each other in a new faith. Epistles written by men to other men that are full of truth and good things have been elevated to divine status somehow…but someone made that decision. Someone said – this book here is divinely inspired, and that book there is not. So what do we know about that?
In 325 the Council of Nicea was formed. Constantine was the emporer of the Roman Empire and had recently taken a liking to the Christian faith, which had up to that point suffered severe persecution under Roman law. Because of his new found liking for the church, Constantine saw fit to unify this faith. Leading up to this council there were house churches all over the place, small groups communicating with each other and formulating doctrines and practices. There came a debate between two theologies, one from Arius and another from Athanasius, in which the two disagreed over the origin of Christ. Arius believe Jesus was created by God and then elevated to divine status along with God – while Athanasius believed that creation was ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and therefore Christ could not have been created but must have been present with God for all of eternity, because to have been created alongside of the rest of existence would challenge the divinity of Christ and his connection to God. So these two men taught their theologies to their respective followers but it created a schism in the church that threatened to break the already scattered church up even more. So Constantine calls in all of these church leaders (1800 bishops were invited to this council, a reported 318 bishops actually came to participate) and they decide together what the correct theology should be for this religion. Obviously the argument was won by Athanasius and a doctrinal statement was created, what we now know as the Nicean Creed. Also at this council a book was formed – what we now know as the Bible. 66 books were included into it, both Old Testament books and New Testament books. It was at this council that these epistles were analyzed and then cannonized to form a cohesive book, and then the book was declared divinely inspired and infallible.
All of this was in an effort to unify the church, and the efforts to unify the church were made by Constantine so that he might declare this religion an official religion of Rome. And you can’t have multiple teachers teaching multiple things to multiple people about a range of different things and call it a religion. So to stick the tag of divine inspiration onto this book and call it infallible basically shuts down any opposing view to the one created by a group of 318 bishops in 325 AD. So for what it’s worth, it appears to me like the writing of the Bible, the formation of the canon, and the doctrine we all ascribe to as Christians was essentially the work of men who basically realized if Christianity was going to grow up, they needed cohesive and uniform beliefs.
So what is my point in all of this? I guess it’s that I don’t think that the Bible is the end-all-be-all of truth for this world. I think it has some contradictions and some skewed thoughts about who God is. I think it’s a book written by human authors with human intentions and human agendas.
But all of that being said – none of those conclusions are deal breakers for me. I think there is truth about God in the Bible. I think the teachings of Jesus are spot on in capturing the essence of who God is. I think that the stories told in the Bible do communicate fundamental truths about how we should live and how we should treat others. I don’t need the Bible to be perfect or flawless to believe in God or to know that my life has meaning and value. The Bible is a tool, a history of insight given by men and women who devoted their lives to knowing and understanding God and/or the teachings of Jesus. But I think there are other tools out there that give me insight into the love and beauty of who God is. I think God has shown up in more places than what we give him credit for – so I refuse to put God into a Bible-sized box.
I think it’s time we take a step back from our own biases, as best we can, and try to see the world the way I think God sees it. To bring Christianity to the religious round-table and open up a dialogue with others to discover what God is doing in and through other people, other cultures, and yes – maybe even other religions. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m far off my rocker…but it’s worth some thought if you ask me.