questions on the bible

I’ve been listening to a fascinating course on the early Christians. It has me thinking about the Bible. What seems to be taken as a given is that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are very different forces. Somewhat cruel and hands-on in the former vs. loving and distant in that later. From what I have gleaned so far, scholars know some of the authors of the New Testament and have educated guesses on those they don’t know for sure.

Who “wrote” the New Testament? My guess would be that these are stories passed down from generation to generation until they were written down in texts that were sacred to the Jews. Question for the Jews: in general are the stories of the old testament taken as fact written via the influence of God or for fable to learn by or both?

For Christianity I would say that there are those who believe that God caused the writing of the New Testament (for lack of a better description). My sister-in-law has a good term “God-breathed”. Then there are other Christians who see the Bible more as a set of stories. I’ve typically taken the later view. It’s an easy position, men wrote it down we know that. They are inherently imperfect (i.e. not God). Did they feel inspired by God when they wrote it? Undoubtedly. That doesn’t make everyone who feels “inspired” right.

When I started this blog I posed a question which was, can one consider oneself a Christian if one does not believe that Jesus was the son of God? What has become clear to me after studying these early Christian’s is that whether or not Jesus was the actual messiah, those who wrote the texts of the New Testament certainly believed he was. And it is that belief that shaped everything they wrote, did, said, you name it.

To follow my thoughts to a (hopefully) logical conclusion – if Christianity is the result of the writings and teachings of the early Christians interpretation of Jesus as the son of God whose death and resurrection fulfilled the contract with God and the Jews, then yes – one does have to agree with these ideas to be considered a Christian. As the closest group to Jesus, who himself left no writings, all we have are their interpretations. They define the religion.

The difficulty comes when one begins to understand all the other texts that have surfaced in the last 100 or so years that are also written by early Christians that present a very different view of what Jesus’ message was. Which do I believe? All, because they are all “God-breathed”? Just the traditional cannon, a survival of the fittest gospel concept? Or none, because how can one know. Do I just choose what I like? That’s what most early Christian sects did, they picked the writings that supported their view and discarded the rest. Its human nature I supposed.

My conundrum continues, what is a person who believes in God but does not necessarily believe in Jesus as the son of God? Maybe I am a Jew by definition – that is pending the answer to the question in paragraph 2. Also, how do we reconcile the extreme differences of God presented in the Old and New Testament? I can’t seem to just accept that the Bible is true. I don’t have a problem with accepting God even though he’s less provable than the Bible. I wonder why this is. It makes my head hurt just thinking about it!

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7 thoughts on “questions on the bible

  1. Sybil says:

    Also, how do we reconcile the extreme differences of God presented in the Old and New Testament?

    My thoughts on this (based on absolutely no knowledge of “proper” theological thinking) is that the God of the old testament was a god trying to rid the world of evil; teach people not to be “bad” and those people were searching for their god. Jesus’ mission(whether or not he was the actual son of God)was to show people the “way”, to live the love, to bring the message of love and forgiveness of the god of the old testament.

    As you know, I too have my own struggles with Jesus being the son of God. But, the message of God is the hope, the joy for our lives.

    You might want to do some reading of the beliefs of the Navajo people. I don’t know a lot, but I find such interesting parallels.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Quietpaths says:

    And to continue this discussion– it is also difficult for me to sift through all the material available ‘out there’ regarding the historical Jesus. I just know there is some shoddy scholarship having been printed up and in contrast some very noteworthy works published. Piecing it all together is mind bending, as you said, it makes your head hurt. ( In most ways, my take on it, the OT should be viewed separately as it is so historically broad and includes so many primal elements which many cultures share – the Great Flood for example.)

    I have found it helpful to read some of the Gospel exegesis by NT Wright who was a part of the Jesus Seminar until he, in his opinion, figured out their method for voting on legitimate sources/texts was pretty questionable. In my studies I always return to how oral traditions function in other cultures – pointing toward the power of oral tradition as a media. And I mean this in reference to the early Church. We seem to know so little about how the stories were passed along; in comparison to the studies done on the written traditions. Obviously, it is much hazier study.

    I appreciate your book list here on the blog. Thank you for this post.

  3. Ken says:

    One of the best books I have read about the Bible was written by a British historian and professor. The book is titled “Surpassing Wonder – The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds” by Donald Harman Akenson. It is a historical work, not a religious work. Akenson teaches and researches at purely secular institutions rather than at seminaries. This book offers a scholar’s historical answers to some of your questions.

    Another great historical book that is relevant to some of your questions about Jesus is “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews” by Paula Fredriksen. She is a scholar and professor at Boston University.

    One way that these university scholars look at the connection between Christianity and Judaism is to examine how Judaism and Christianity emerged from a common ancestry in the first and second centuries CE following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the late sixties CE and the rebellion in which the Romans drove the Jews and Christians out of Jerusalem in the 120’s. Akenson uses the expression “Judahist” to name our common ancestor.

    I am not quite sure what books to recommend related to the theological questions that you raise. For me, I have found the most satisfying answers in the writings of sociologists rather than in the writings of theologians. Peter Berger is the first that comes to mind, particularly his book, “A Far Glory – The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity.” That book examines and to some extent reconciles some of the incongruities that you write about. Berger teaches or taught at Boston University, became particularly famous for his work on the social construction of reality and then for his writings about religion. I think his approach to sociology is linked to Max Weber. Another important sociologist who deals somewhat with the journey that you and I and so many of us are on is Robert Bellah, who teaches at UC Berkeley. His approach to sociology is perhaps linked to Karl Marx. His book, “Habits of the Heart” offers an analysis very relevant to the journey you describe. At the risk of oversimplifying what either of these scholars has written, I would say that Bellah explains how individualism limits the religious or spiritual dimensions of our culture and lives whereas Berger explains how pluralism rather than individualism is the source of those limits. Berger also explains how freedom paradoxically precedes and allows belief and at the same time limits belief.

    I wonder if you have read Simone Weil, her book “Waiting for God.” Agnostic Jew, almost Roman Catholic, mystic, not orthodox at all was she. Her life story and writings attract me. Although my own life and particular struggles with God have been so different from hers, on another level, a deeper level, at the level of sorrow perhaps, our struggles are the same. As are yours and mine and so many others around us. May the Spirit of God fill us with wisdom and understanding and give us hope.

  4. Jodi says:

    Ken, what a wonderful contribution. I am always on the look out for new books. They are an essential piece of my journey. I will definitely look into your suggestions!
    Thank you!

  5. Benedict says:

    Ken, these are TERRIFIC books. Akenson’s, in particular, is one of my own favorites, and while there are some definite issues with it, I keep returning to it time and again in my own work. I also enjoy Frederickson’s work; hers is a fascinating story and she herself is a highly sensitive scholar, particularly to the inter-relationship between early Christianity and early Judaism and in tracing the tragic relationship between the two into the contemporary world.

  6. Ben says:

    For me, believing in Jesus as the Son of God and the cornerstone of God’s redemptive work was the easy part. Once I realized and believed that Jesus was a historical figure, a real person, (and for me that took some time) it became harder to ignore his own claims as well as the results of his life, death and resurrection. I’ll never forget asking Art how he could be certain of the nature of Jesus, how could he know without question that he was not just a “good man” or prophet? Quoting CS Lewis, and without any hesitation, he said Jesus was either a liar, lunatic or Lord, so if you don’t believe he’s Lord, why would you follow hiim or his teachings? So once I knew he walked the Earth, accepting him as Lord was my only rational response. But the authority of the Bible was different.

    I’ve done more than my share of cherry-picking provisions of the Bible, ignoring those parts that I didn’t understand or that didn’t support my position at the time. I had a friend at our church in Austin named Jack. He was about 70 years old and was one of about 6 men, including me, that met at Central Market on Thursday mornings for a men’s group. He grew up in the Methodist Church in Nebraska and would joke that he left the Methodist Church because the Bible got in the way of their religion. At some point my inconsistent use and immature understanding of the Bible started to bother me. Like it or not, the Bible was and is the principal text book for Christianity and so I decided to figure out what it said and whether it could be trusted as holy and the word of God.

    As I studied the history of the early church, I realized that the NT writings were 1st century documents. As a result they were more or less contemporaneous with the events they describe and subject to real-time scrutiny or criticism if the author took too many liberties with events. Perhaps more revealing to me was the fact that the compilation or canonization of these writings was the result of internal and external factors – church developments, threats or pagen influences, that for the first time created an issue for the early Church where there was none before. One of the those factors was a wealthy shipowner from Turkey named Marcion who travelled to Rome in about 140 A.D. Marcion’s confrontation with the early church helps illustrate this process and is relevant to how the early Church dealth with reconciling the OT God.

    Marcion was the son of a bishop but was taught under a gnostic teacher who believed that the God of the OT was different that the God and father of Jesus. He taught that the OT God was only wrath and justice, whereas the God of the new covenant was loving and gracious. Marcion therefore rejected the entire OT and any new covenant writings that suggested a God of wrath or punishment. The result was a modified version of Luke’s Gospel and 10 letters of Paul. Although the chruch in Rome excommunicated Maricon from the church in 144, Marcionite churches spread. As a result of Maricon, the church faced the principal issue of whether to retain the OT as part of Christain teachings (i.e. does the new covenant make sense without the Old?). By retaining the OT, faith for the Christain would have to reconcile both the wrath and the love of God – a love that never faces the demands of justice is not Christian love. Consider the new covenant in light of the Passover as told in Exodus 12. There the righteous anger of God is clearly displayed when God strikes down every first born; but so is his grace when he “passesover” those houses covered by the blood of the lamb. By retaining the OT, the church also underscored the importance of history for the Christain faith.

    Interesting too, Marcion’s attempts to define the new covenant writings led to the Church questioning Paul’s letters. Given Marcion’s adrimation and worship of Paul, how could the church accept Paul’s letters as God’s word without endorsing Marionite teaching? However, in reality, Paul’s letters were too well known and too widely used to discard them. In “deciding” to retain Paul’s letters and the OT, the church relied on 3 principal factors to determine a writing’s place in the new covenant, which I find useful today.

    First, the books that are scripture and are truly the Word of God have about them a self-evidencing quality. Simply put, they change lives.

    Second, the books were widely used in Christain worship and were already accepted by the church as authoritative. This was often a starting point though, many books used in Christian worship (Clement’s letter to Corinth in 96 A.D. and Shepher of Hermes) because they didn’t possess the other factors.

    Third, and probably most important, factor as the a book’s validity was its ties to an apostle.

    I would encourage you to study the history of the early church from about 70 – 400 A.D. and, in particular, the formation of the Bible. All of the theological topics that you raise on this blog have been addressed by the early church (e.g. the divinity of Jesus, the God of the OT and NT, etc.), you may find it helpful to see how they resolved the very questions you’re dealing with.

  7. Jodi says:

    Ben – the course I just finished, Lost Christianities, did a great job of detailing a lot of what you said here as well. What that’s done for me is given me a more honest foundation for understanding the Bible compared to what i had known. That’s been incredibly helpful – but still leaves me with many, many questions on the validity of these texts as the Word of God. I’ll write more on this later.

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