The scholastic approach to study of the Bible is called Biblical criticism. The term “criticism” should not be mistaken for criticizing. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines literary criticism as: “The practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works.” Biblical criticism, then, studies biblical writings as historical and literary documents rather than as divinely inspired revelations of God. The goal is to make discerning judgments about who wrote them, the times they lived in, and the sources they used in the composition of their writings.
The critical approach to biblical study began when the same tools of investigation applied to the natural sciences were applied to the study of the humanities. A major shift occurred with the development of Renaissance humanism in the fifteenth century, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to study, rather than simply read. This included history, literature, and ancient and modern languages.
Scholars attempted to apply scientific inquiry to these fields. Whereas the natural sciences rely on empirical methods, the humanities could only use critical tools. Information about the past had to be systematically collected. The languages of the texts had to be studied.
These new critical approaches to the ancient texts attempted to reconstruct the times in which they were written. The point was to understand ”the world behind the text.”
Biblical criticism arose as these historical critical methods were applied to the Bible. It approached the Bible in the same manner as any other ancient text: as historical and natural documents, rather than divinely inspired revelations of God. By studying them as historical and literary documents it was hoped to gain a better understanding of 1st Century Christianity. To get as close as possible to the 1st century world out of which these the books and their authors lived.
The three most significant fields of study are textual, historical, and source criticism.
As more manuscripts were discovered, it became apparent that errors had crept into the texts as generations of scribes reproduced each other’s manuscripts. In most instances, this was little more than the addition, misspelling, or dropping of a word. Scribes may have had trouble seeing the document they were copying, and copied a word incorrectly, or dropped one altogether. Sometimes a scribe reached the end of a line, and accidentally skipped the next one, leaving out an entire sentence.
Other changes were intentional, though not malicious. Some scribes fancied themselves as editors. They corrected events that were historically inaccurate and made sure places were named accurately. They also corrected spelling and grammar as they saw fit.
In some extreme cases scribes made overt attempts to change the text for doctrinal purposes which impacted the meaning of the verses involved for generations after them. A scribe added commentary to 1John 5:7-8 to make the doctrine of the trinity more explicit. And somewhere along the way, an additional ending was added to Mark’s gospel, probably for the purpose of completing what originally seemed an unsatisfactory ending.
Textual criticism developed as a method to trace the history of these errors as they had been introduced into the Bible and attempt to determine the original writing. By meticulous comparison of the manuscripts, researchers could determine words, sentences, and stories that were either redacted or added to what eventually became the official canon.
Textual criticism is also known as lower criticism.
Historical criticism focuses on finding the place of each book in its original historical context. The historical critic tries to determine who wrote the book, when it was written, and where. This is done by comparing biblical texts with ancient history, contemporary books, and current findings in archaeological studies.
For example, we know the second temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Because this was such a cataclysmic event, we can approximate the dates some books were written by whether the book shows evidence the author knew about its destruction. Mark’s gospel and the early letters of Paul do not show evidence of experiencing the destruction, while Matthew and Luke’s gospel do. This, along with other evidence, allows us to date Mark’s gospel at around 65-70AD and Paul’s letters to around 50AD. Matthew and Luke’s gospels were likely written around 80-90AD
The historical critic also tries to flesh out the original meaning of texts in their historical context. To ascertain the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original context. We have learned much more about the Bible and its times as we have discovered more and more documents from the 1st-3rd century, especially those of a similar genre. The gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 helps us understand the gospel genre. And the study of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature gives insight to the language and context of the book of Revelation.
Historical criticism is also known as higher criticism.
The final type of scholastic study is Source criticism which tries to determine the original sources of a biblical book.
The similarities between Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels are well known. In the fifth century, St. Augustine claimed the gospels were written chronologically, by order of their listing in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke, with each author thoughtfully elaborating, or supplementing the work of his predecessors.
This view prevailed until the late eighteenth century, when Johann Jakob Griesbach published a synopsis of the Bible, laying the gospel stories side by side. It was noticed that Matthew and Luke relied heavily on Mark, as opposed to Augustine’s belief that Matthew was the earliest source.
By comparing these gospels with each other, scholars noticed that both Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel, and used it as a source in their writing. They also contributed their own material: stories and sayings not found in the other gospels. But scholars also found a substantial amount of stories and sayings that Matthew and Luke shared in common, but didn’t get from Mark. Scholars have hypothesized a source document existed which they call the “Q” gospel that both Matthew and Luke drew upon, but was foreign to Mark.
To learn more,
Peter Enns’ interview of Dr. Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, University of Oxford,) author of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism
Also, the rather unique Quartz Hill School of Theology has an excellent series of articles.
This is the introduction to a series of articles I’m working on to help people understand the intersection of science and faith.
On September 24th, 2012, Newsweek Magazine ran the headline: “Let there be wife, Jesus’s wife.” The story involved the discovery of a papyprus fragment dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s wife,” which included the words: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…'” Newsweek and other newsmagazines sensationalized the story and reinforced the fanciful notion, popularized in the book “The Davinci Code,” that perhaps Jesus of Nazareth took Mary Magdalene as a wife.
Two years prior, new discoveries in genomic research challenged another Biblical teaching: that humankind originated from an original pair, the biblical Adam and Eve. Christianity Today reported:
According to a consensus drawn from three independent avenues of research, the history of human ancestry involved a population “bottleneck” around 150,000 years ago—and from this tiny group of hominids came everyone living today. …the size of the group was far larger than a lonely couple: it consisted of several thousand individuals at minimum – The Search for the Historical Adam | Christianity Today 1/16/15
While some could dismiss this as a secular attack on faith, many Christian scientists concede that the research is valid. A BioLogos paper co-authored by Dennis Venema, biology chairman at Trinity Western University, and Point Loma Nazarene University biologist Darrel Falk declare flatly: The human population, “was definitely never as small as two … The data are absolutely clear on that.”
These two stories highlight a huge problem for Christianity. What should we make of scientific discoveries that create complications for the Bible?
The historic Christian position on the Bible holds that the book originated from the hand of God himself and could be trusted as a perfect, without historical or scientific flaw. Since the 1500’s, the Bible’s impeccable pedigree has needed constant adjustment to accomodate new scientific discoveries. At first this happened in astronomy, threatening the earth’s status as the center of the heavenlies. Then biology asserted that humankind originated from the slow and steady progress of evolution, rather than a single moment of creation. Today, the traditional approach to the Bible is challenged by scientific advances in DNA research, and cosmology, and historically by archeaology, linguistic and textual studies.
These discoveries threaten many people’s biblically informed Christian beliefs. Skeptics use research as ammunition to dismiss Christianity. And the media misuse new discoveries, such as the Jesus’ wife fragment, to cynically grab headlines that lend legitamacy to conjecture.
The kneejerk reaction has always been to reject anything that contradicts the traditional understanding of the Bible. Research is blamed as a godless attack on true faith. And individuals who wrestle with these problems are accused of lacking faith.
Unfortunately, this unwillinginess to engage modern science has resulted in an exodus from Christianity. Many people now believe that to be a Christian, you need to check your head at the door, or at least keep it down to avoid detection. And others simply walk away.
What’s a Christian to do in the face of this?
I believe we need a new literacy. Rather than be afraid of the sciences, we need to learn how to understand and engage them. This doesn’t require a degree in biology or astronomy. It requires a scientific literacy that can put new research in context. We also need tools to tell fact from fiction. So we aren’t misled by claims made in the media. Above all, we need to explore how the interaction between the sciences and the Bible impact how we live faithfully in the modern world.
This series is written for Christians wrestling with these modern issues. Each article will explore one topic and explain how it relates to our understanding of the Bible. It will then propose questions and possibilities about how these new realities inform our faith and how to live faithfully. It is my hope that we can not only learn how to engage our faith in the modern world, but also discover how to build bridges between believers and people who have been disenfranchised from Christianity as a result of these conflicts.
The Christian Bible is made up of two volumes, The New Testament and Old Testament.
The New Testament, considered the first volume of the Christian Bible, though it follows chronologically the Old Testament, is the collection of 1st century books and letters collected about Jesus and the early church.
It is made up of:
- Four gospels which outline the life, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah,
- The Acts of the Apostles, a history of the 1st century church,
- Twenty-one letters, known as epistles, of the 1st century leaders,
- Revelation, a 1st century Apocalypse.
The New Testament was not written by a single author at a specific time. Consequently, it is a tapestry of leaders, writers and editors spanning the millenia.
Christianity before the Bible
These books are believed to have been written in the 1st century, no later than 150AD. In its infancy, Christianity existed without authoritative texts. The books that arose from that movement and eventually came to be our Bible did not themselves claim to be revelation. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He didn’t dictate his sayings to an author. Following his death and resurrection, sayings of Jesus were passed around. These included sayings, sermons, and stories about his life, death and resurrection. Spirit-filled believers and teachers traveled from place to place sharing the gospel.
Writing of gospels and letters
Eventually, authors collected these traditions into the four books we know today as gospels. These gospels contain a tapestry of sayings, parables, and narrative from a variety of sources.
Each author seems to have had a variety of sources at their disposal. Some of these sources overlapped with the other authors, while others were unique. This made each gospel unique in ways that emphasized and de-emphasized aspects of Jesus teaching and tailored the messages to the specific needs of their audience.
Christianity also spread through the exchange of letters attributed to Jesus’ apostles, most notably Paul. These letters were addressed to specific city churches throughout the Roman empire. But they were also circulated amongst other churches.
Other books written at the time of the early church
In the 20th century, we became aware of many other gospels and letters circulating at the time that didn’t make the final cut of our Bible. We have found books attributed to the apostles Thomas, Judas, and Peter, as well as Jesus’ mother Mary. For a variety reasons, these documents are not considered authentic. But they give us a window into the diversity of the early church.
Diversity of first century Christianity
This variety of letters and gospels helps us to see that first century Christianity was a very diverse movement. The books of our Bible are representative of a movement that was being shaped and formed over time, from a variety of influences. Scholars call this time “proto-orthodox” because it is a time when orthodoxy was being worked out. This is a different perspective on early christianity that contradicts the common view that the bible represents a unified message originating from the apostles.
Collecting the gospels and letters into the canon
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, different Christian groups began to identify specific gospels and letters as legitimate and held them as collections. The process of collecting these books was motivated by the necessity to nail down the authoritative voice of Christianity. Some groups told fanciful tales about Jesus to lend credence to their philosophy. The early church fathers identified these groups “gnostics,” but we now know that gnosticism, like early Christianity, was not a unified movement either. There were many different groups with different beliefs and ideas.
As the church developed towards orthodoxy, her leaders tried to determine which of these writings to include in the canon, by ascertaining which they believed came from the authentic oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, and which were legitimate letters of the apostles.
Their criteria: (From Steve)
1. Authorship – [A legitimate claim needed to be made that a book had been] written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle. For example, [though] Mark was not an apostle, [he was believed to have been] a close associate of the Apostle Peter. The Apostle Paul fit this criteria even though he was not one of the original 12 disciples, because he saw Jesus in a vision.
2. Nature of the Book – Did the message of the book agree with the content of divine revelation in the Old Testament? Did the book reflect the character of the person and work of Jesus Christ and agree with the existing apostolic writing?
3. Universality – Was the book being read and practiced in the churches throughout the Body of Christ? This criterion addresses the degree to which the people of God recognize and accept the authority of the book under consideration.
The writings of the early church fathers and historians identified many different lists of what different Christians believed should be included in the Christian Bible. But by the 4th century, there was near unanimous agreement about which gospels and letters should be included in the Bible we have today. In a letter from 367 AD Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria listed the 27 books that we now consider the New Testament canon, using the word “canonized.”
Identifying the books of the Bible as holy scripture
As these books made their journey from their original author to their inclusion in the canon, a change occurred in how to understand them. These books became more than mere books. Leaders claimed these authors were inspired by God and that their words were His revelations. The label of divine scripture was assigned to them in an effort to discriminate orthodoxy from heresy, though none of the texts themselves claimed to be oracles. The church adopted the word “scripture” to describe them, and elevated these books to the same level the Jews held the Old Testament.
Acknowledging Christianity’s Jewish origins, the early church also adopted the Septuagint, the latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. The early church believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies of a Messiah. The Hebrew Bible eventually came to be known to Christians as the Old Testament in contrast to the Christian Bible’s New Testament.
This canon of books, and ideas about its authority carried the church through the medieval/ middle ages/ dark ages, from the 4th through the 16th centuries. The authority of Popes, and bishops was established on the nature of these books as divine revelation. This also granted them divine authority as the Bible’s sole interpreters. And to question their opinions, was to question God.
A strong case can be made that these beliefs about the canon held Christianity together for 1500 years. But it also paved the way for problems that occurred… and whose ramifications are still being felt today.
To learn more:
“Unless there is this theology that allows the total and complete presence of Jesus christ himself to be immediate, and directly present in every life situation and in every Christian’s life in that situation, unless he is immediately present with us and in us now, I’m sorry, none of this makes any sense.
Unless there is a contemporary reality to the immediacy of the presence of Christ and unless in that immediate presence he is capable of being everything he has ever been. And he can be that right now to you where you are and to the people you are with. Unless that’s true, all we are doing is worshipping history. And christianity as a historical story doesn’t interest me. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important. It means I would not dedicate my life to history.” – Jerry Cook. From his message: “The Radical Relocation of God.”
G.K. Chesterton said that original sin is the most obvious of all Christian doctrines. I completely agree with this. We cannot point to any point in history where humankind did not exhibit sinful behavior. In fact, evolution would agree with this. We are driven if by nothing else, the need to survive, and do whatever it takes to accomplish that. You don’t need a historical adam to demonstrate that sin is a failure of all of us. And an inheritance of our parents, and our parents’ parents. Amongst seculars, I will say “John Lennon is my Adam.” I don’t need to point back to the original pair to say that I have inherited sin. I was born in 1968. I tell people that it is a miracle of grace that I was not around for the hippie revolution. I am certain that I would have been taking LSD, participating in “free love” and protesting all sorts of things. Even though I have never taken drugs, or been promiscuous. I know that those roots are in me. I sinned in my own ways. Jesus’ description that “greater love has no one but to lay down his life for another,” demonstrates the contradiction against the base nature to survive at all costs. The gospel is a radical contradiction against the very things that make us human.
I participate in an online forum on faith filled with all sorts of crazies (like myself.) Recently, a member turned the tables and wrote from the perspective of someone who chose not to be a Christian. I decided to reply to this fictitious unbeliever and thought it might be useful to someone else.
First, I can’t ((this is a footnote)) believe in Christianity because Christianity doesn’t know what to believe. Jesus supposedly lived, died, and rose again. Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit came, He would lead Christians into all truth. But it’s been about 2,000 years now and Christians still don’t really know the truth about anything! They disagree about everything! And it’s not like they only quibble over little things. Ask a Christian to explain the Trinity! Ask them to explain how someone gets saved! They disagree about the very basic components of their faith! And not only do they disagree, they’re NASTY about it. Am I supposed to be impressed by a religion that claims to be based on love and yet has to divide into a handful of churches (at least) in each town?
I think the obstacle you are running up against has its roots in “Christian” being defined as someone who believes certain things, tries to be nice, and gets together once a week in a building to sing songs and listen to a sermon. I don’t think you are at fault for defining it that way. The majority of Christians define it that way. But going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, Christian musician Keith Green once said.
Keith went on to describe a Christian as someone who is “bananas for Jesus. Someone who loves God with all their heart, soul and mind, and loves his neighbor as himself.” It means getting to the core of who Jesus was. Learn what he taught about true living. How do you see yourself? How do you see others? What did he do for us. For you? And then put your stake in the ground and identify yourself with Him.
When people’s disagreements lead to divisiveness and a lack of love, rather than disqualify Christianity, I think it disqualifies those people as Christians.
So how do you become one of these kinds of Christians. My suggestion is to read the stories and teachings of Jesus by those who were closest to him. In the Christian Bible these are called gospels. I recommend Mark first.
Then, be on the lookout for people who are imitating Jesus’ vision. People who are devoted to God. Who are humble. Who are loving and accepting. Who aren’t living a sloppy life. That’s Christianity. When you see it, I’m not sure you’ll be so quick to reject it as the fake imitation you’ve seen.
Feel free to post questions either in this thread, or personally message me. I’d be happy to discuss it further and answer questions you have.
These are three examples of apparent contradictions in scripture taken from Hans Denck’s “Paradoxa,” 1526. [1. This is a footnote]
a) I am not come to judge the world but to save the world [John 12:47]
b). For judgement I came into the world [John 9:39]
a). If I testify on my own behalf that testimony is not true [John 5:31]
b). If I testify in my own behalf that testimony is true [John 8:14]
a). For who can resist his will? [Romans 9:19]
b). You have always resisted the Holy Spirit. [Acts 7:51]
Following is a translation of the work. I was very taken with this document when I attended the Associated Mennonite Seminary in the 90′s taking the class “Intro to Anabaptist History and Theology.” On the surface, it could be interpreted as a treatise on relativism, but more importantly, it is testament to the importance of diligence in reconciling contradictions rather then looking them over and relying on the Holy Spirit in interpretation.The following explanation is given in my copy, though I don’t know the source to be able to annotate it properly.”It is an attempt of the Reformer to demonstrate the higher spiritual unity which must be discovered if one is to understand Scripture aright and find in it the genuine path on which to walk…It provides an interesting key to Denck’s Scripture principle. Quotations taken out of their context without any explanation whatever suggest a rather superficial treatment of Scripture. Many of the “opposites” prove not to be such, it the excerpted passages are seen in their own context. Obviously a text without commentary may readily be taken in evidence for one view or another.The scripture passages cited by Denck have been rendered into English in a form as close to the German original as possible, in order to preserve the vivid and forceful juxtaposition of antithetical pairs he intended.” Note that some of the scriptures given are from the books known to Protestants today as the Apocrypha. I have kept them here because they are representative of the scriptures considered authoritative by the Anabaptists. For more on the Anabaptists use of the Apocrypha, there is an article you can read at the Mennonite Church USA archives website.
While attending a pentecostal Bible college, I received a subscription offer for The Reformed Journal, a theological magazine from the Reformed Church of America. Little did I know that this magazine would have such an impact on me. This review for the book “The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text,” found in the September 1989 issue inspired me to purchase the book. Fortunately, the book was published durably as my copy is well worn from use. It exposed me to ideas about the Bible that I would not have found in my faith tradition. It became the bedrock upon which my view of the Bible and preaching were founded and its impact can be felt in every sermon I preach.
How not to pervert the pulpit by John Vriend
Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text; Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989,374 pp., $19.95 (paper).
On May 14 of this year, the Sunday on which the celebration of Pentecost and of Mother’s Day coincided, I happened to be attending a church away from home. Since I was not totally unfamiliar with its liturgical tendencies, I dared not expect but could not keep myself from hoping that Pentecost would at least have the edge. To my utter chagrin, it was not even mentioned. Only the bulletin cover carried the emblem of the descending Dove. Instead, the pastor gushingly referred to Mother’s Day as “this day of days” on the church calendar.
The sermon was without theme or structure, introduced with anecdotal material that related to nothing in particular, and vaguely oriented to “family values” -a birds hot spray of advice of the do-the-best-you-can variety. Motherhood was elevated to mythical heights; children were told to be obedient. In a little excursus in defense of infant baptism, the pastor allowed himself the fervent exclamation that “nothing is too good for these innocent babes!” A miscellany of oblique references to Scripture concluded the performance.
Angry words came to my mind as I listened. “This domeheaded man in clerical gown is perverting the pulpit,” I fumed. How can these people stand it month after weary month? In truth, the majority seemed glad to meander with the pastor in this swamp of mindless sentiment. God the Holy Spirit was totally out of the picture.
The next day, still a bit hung over from the Mother’s Day fiasco, I began to read Sidney Greidanus’s The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, sensing from the outset that I was entering a very different climate of thought. I was not disappointed. Here, on Monday, I found the cure for the malaise engendered by the perversion of preaching I had endured the day before.
Greidanus addresses himself, as his subtitle indicates, to the task of outlining the principles of interpreting and preaching “biblical literature.” The choice of that phrase is no accident. Whereas in earlier ages the Bible was usually mined for theological “truths,” and whereas after the Enlightenment it was primarily researched for the historical “data” it contained, in recent years the focus of studies has been of a more literary nature. Not that Greidanus wants to settle for any atomistic approach. That would isolate the literary and the historical dimensions from the theological; his whole point is that the divine message of the Bible can be clearly apprehended only through a careful study of the literary and historical dimensions of Scripture. “Holistic” is the word he favors as a description of his method.
This brings him to a consideration of the literary genres and conventions present in the Bible. Why is “genre” important? It is important, negatively, because failing to correctly identify the genre of a given segment of Scripture leads to all sorts of misunderstanding. Take apocalyptic literature-parts of Daniel, parts of the Gospels, and Revelation-and consider what restricted lifestyles and skewed political views have come about as a result of taking apocalyptic writings as literal previews of future events! Genre is important, positively, because it legitimates certain expectations from what one is reading and determines the questions one can appropriately ask of the text. For example, one no longer seeks to extract from the Song of Solomon a theology of the church; rather, one looks in it for the music and madness of connubial courtship in a covenant setting.
But if genre is that important, then preachers who ignore it are being less than completely literate. The outcome of this illiteracy is the practice of pouring the diverse contents of the several genres into a single homiletical mold. Clearly, the Holy Spirit fitted the several cartridges of literary form to the bullets of kerygma he wanted to deliver. If the preacher, armed only with archery skills, views each text as only a plain old arrow, the resulting loss of effectiveness is costly to the church. Accordingly, Greidanus’s thesis is that homiletical style ought to conform to the genre of the preaching text.
Curiously, Greidanus identifies seven major genres but treats only four: narrative, prophecy, gospel, and epistle. I could not find any explanation of why the remaining three-wisdom, psalms, and apocalypse-were left untreated. Perhaps the author will before long surprise us with a sequel.
Particularly illuminating is the section on Hebrew narrative. On the one hand, in those narratives in which the intent is to relate historical events, the author stresses the importance of historicity. One cannot speak of God’s covenant faithfulness if God has not been a covenant-maker in actual history. In accordance with the form of ancient Near Eastern treaties, the treaty-making king must preface the covenant proper with a list of his achievements in history for the covenant-receiving vassal to know himself in a position of obligation. On the other hand, history writing in the Bible is a far’ cry from the 19th-century ideal of “objective” history with its refined standards of accuracy. “Ancient standards allowed biblical authors much more freedom and flexibility to mould and shape the material in order to drive home their specific messages” (p. 191). So they freely rearranged the chronological order, highlighted certain facts while ignoring others, and offered highly condensed material in one place while elaborating in much detail elsewhere.
In this connection-that of historicity and the freedom to shape it artistically-the author has interesting things to say, for example, about Genesis 1. The creation account is clearly unique because it cannot possibly be an eyewitness account. Its structure (eight creative acts distributed in parallel fashion over two sets of three days) is highly stylized. Yet for the validity of its message, this narrative too requires its historical referent. In order for the message to be valid “one needs to accept as historical that God created the sun, moon, and stars. When and how God created them is a secondary issue which the author does not intend to answer … ” (p. 196; see also p. 64).
In this context the author emphatically asserts that “no historical narrative is a transparent windowpane for viewing the facts beyond; historical narratives are more like stained-glass windows which artistically reveal the significance of certain facts from a specific faith perspective” (p. 196). One is called to preach texts, not bare facts.
Pastors will find this work a splendid help and possibly a corrective for what has become a monochrome treatment of the colorful preaching contents of Scripture. At times they may find the author a bit too left-brained to lead them into a more imaginative mode of reading Scripture. He correctly deplores “spiritualizing,” for instance, and as an example offers “Jacob’s physical struggle at Peniel becoming our spiritual struggle … ” (p. 161). But this leaves my mind stuck in a spiderweb of sticky questions. Was Jacob’s struggle primarily physical? Is not this a naming, and therefore a transformational, story? Is it not the story of the Tricky Dickie of his generation, assailed by fear from within and an unfamiliar but powerful antagonist from without, being transformed into a prince called Israel and ending up a crippled victor in the bargain? Is not this the story of faithful Israel, past and present, as well as a paradigm in the lives of embattled saints? Sometimes I felt overdosed on criticism and left groping for alternatives.
Whatever my strictures, however, the book continues to evoke in me the feelings of profound gratitude I mentioned in the beginning. It is a great cure for the unbearable mindlessness that still afflicts too many pulpits in the land and restores to biblical exegesis and preaching the joy of significant discovery.
The Long Now Foundation hosted noted Bible scholar Elaine Pagels at their monthly “Seminars about Long term thinking.” She spoke on The Book of Revelations, the last book of the Christian Bible. Click below to listen. Following is a more in-depth introduction. While you may disagree with her views on the Book of Revelation, I think you will find Pagel’s presentation interesting and thought-provoking.
“The Book of Revelation is war literature,” Pagels explained. John of Patmos was a war refugee, writing sixty years after the death of Jesus and twenty years after 60,000 Roman troops crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.
In the nightmarish visions of John’s prophecy, Rome is Babylon, the embodiment of monstrous power and decadence. That power was expressed by Rome as religious. John would have seen in nearby Ephesus massive propaganda sculptures depicting the contemporary emperors as gods slaughtering female slaves identified as Rome’s subject nations. And so in the prophecy the ascending violence reaches a crescendo of war in heaven. Finally, summarized Pagels, “Jesus judges the whole world; and all who have worshipped other gods, committed murder, magic, or illicit sexual acts are thrown down to be tormented forever in a lake of fire, while God’s faithful are invited to enter a new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven, where Christ and his people reign in triumph for 1000 years.”
Just one among the dozens of revelations of the time (Ezra’s, Zostrianos’, Peter’s, a different John’s), the vision of John of Patmos became popular among the oppressed of Rome. Three centuries later, in 367CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria confirmed it as the concluding book in the Christian canon that became the New Testament.
As a tale of conflict where one side is wholly righteous and the other wholly evil, the Book of Revelation keeps being evoked century after century. Martin Luther declared the Pope to be the Whore of Babylon. Both sides of the American Civil War declared the opposing cause to be Bestial, though the North had the better music—“He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” African-American slaves echoed John’s lament: “How long before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”
But like many Christians through the years, Pagels wishes that John’s divisive vision had not become part of the Biblical canon. Among the better choices from that time, she quoted from the so-called “Secret Revelation of John”: “Jesus says to John, ‘The souls of everyone will live in the pure light, because if you did not have God’s spirit, you could not even stand up.’
“The other revelations are universal, instead of being about the saved versus the damned.”
— by Stewart Brand
“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To
attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the
face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of
These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as
is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be
confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human
doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be
substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is–I repeat
it–a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly
and clearly the line of separation between them.
The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been
accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show
pass for sterling worth–to let white-washed walls vouch for clean
shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinise and expose–to rase the
gilding, and show base metal under it–to penetrate the sepulchre, and
reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.
Ahab did not like Micaiah, because he never prophesied good concerning
him, but evil; probably he liked the sycophant son of Chenaannah better;
yet might Ahab have escaped a bloody death, had he but stopped his ears
to flattery, and opened them to faithful counsel.”
– Charlotte Bronte from the Preface to Jane Eyre