|Beliefs about the Bible
AN ESSAY ON BELIEFS ABOUT THE BIBLE
By Peter Longley, MA (Cantab)
Theologian and author of The Magdala Trilogy—a three novel epic depicting a plausible life of Mary Magdalene and her times.
It is the Word of God—The Bible. This is what most of us who call ourselves Christians are taught in childhood. At first, we believe it literally, seeing the books of the Bible as direct dictations of God to man—a moral code, a history of a revealing past, and a promise for our future. We even see those stained-glass windows of the Bible's authors—
Moses, prophets, apostles, and evangelists poised with quill pens in hand as the Almighty dictates His sacred words. What are the biblical stories that most of us remember from our childhood? Probably, they include more than three of the following: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the temptation by the serpent; Noah and the ark; Abraham and the potential sacrifice of Isaac; Joseph's coat of many colors; the plagues in Egypt; Moses and the Ten Commandments; David and Goliath; The Wisdom of Solomon; Daniel in the lions' den; Jonah and the whale; The Nativity; Jesus' baptism by John; Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana; the feeding of the five thousand; Jesus walking on the water; the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus; Jesus' ascension into heaven; the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire at Pentecost; the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus; and a series of missionary journeys made by St. Paul. What is interesting about this list is that almost all the stories are about God proving Himself to be in control through miracles. God gave us these stories to remind us that He is in total charge, and dictated them to us through His chosen biblical authors.
Historically, this aspect of biblical literacy stood up in a world where for sixteen hundred years the vast majority of Christians were illiterate, depending on the church's interpretation of these stories rather than the written word. The Bible itself was not formally formed until it was translated from Greek documents into the Latin 'Vulgate' by St. Jerome, completed in 404 A.D. Jerome was commissioned for this task by Pope Damasus in 382 A.D., following the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. At Constantinople, the canon of the scriptures was formed from diverse Greek scriptures that had been circulating through the second, third and fourth centuries. Some scriptures were eliminated, not considered to conform to the doctrine of consensus at Constantinople, or for perceived historical inaccuracy. These included sections of the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures that for centuries had circulated in the 'Diaspora' as the Septuagint, and the now, much studied, Nag Hammadi texts and gnostic gospels of the second century Egyptian church. With the 'Vulgate', the Bible, as we know it today, was formed, and has pretty much remained as such ever since. There were periodic attempts by popes to revise the 'Vulgate', and Protestant reformation scholars placed much importance on translating the Latin with cross references to Greek and Hebrew texts into English and other European languages. Literacy increased and the Bible became better understood, but without scientific challenge, remained the book of revelation of God's miracles in dealing with His 'chosen people', whether Jews or Christians. It was still indisputably and literally read as the word of God. As such, the Bible took on its own physical mystical power, being used as a seal for oaths, it being seen as a serious sin to swear anything but the truth with a hand on God's book.
As far as the English translations of the Bible are concerned, they flowered at the same time as the English language bloomed, and the glorious Elizabethan English culminating in the King James or Authorized version of the Bible in 1611 became as sacred as the book. One can still hear comments in certain circles that "If it is not King James it isn't Bible." Some extreme Protestant sects still use King James Bible English in daily life with its 'Thees' and 'Thous', and much Protestant prayer is still shrouded in this seemingly sacred language—language that in reality was in 1611 totally up to date having no attachment to reverence or sanctity.
When read literally, the King James Bible, like the origins of the 'Vulgate', appears to be the work of certain divinely inspired authors. The first five books of the Old Testament are attributed to Moses. The early history of the Jewish kingdom is attributed to Samuel. Each of the prophets bears his own name. Most the psalms are considered to be compositions of King David. The gospels are thought to be the complete work of their namesakes. Most of the epistles are attributed to St. Paul, and if not, are specifically named to someone else, like St. Peter, James, John and Jude. Revelation, the last book of the Bible is considered the work of the apostle St. John. The only books that were thought to be conglomerate writings in this literal view, were the history of Israel and Judea as set out in the books of Judges, the Kings and the two books of Chronicles—the two books of Samuel being ascribed to Samuel and his recollections of the early prophets Elisha and Elijah. Many fundamentalist Christians still adhere to these authorships "because the Bible says it's so".
This interpretation might be easy enough to accept if we believed that the Greek texts from which the 'Vulgate' was formed were in themselves the original written words, but textual criticism and assumptions by learned scholars and intellectuals about social linguistics of the biblical period would assume that this was not the case. Moses refers to God both as Yahweh and Elohim in those first five books, which makes one suspicious that there were at least two Hebrew authors, sources that scholars refer to as 'J', Yahweh merely being Jehovah without the vowels, and there are no vowels in written Hebrew, and 'E'. Some of these sources may go back to the time of Moses, and Moses may well have been literate, having been brought up as a prince in the Pharaoh's house prior to an Egyptian dynastic change, or revolution, that rendered the Hebrews slaves. We would certainly like to attribute the text of the Ten Commandments to Moses, who may have borrowed much of the content from the older Code of Hammurabi from Mesopotamia, probably known to the Egyptian court. However, much of the early part of the book of Genesis, just on content, scholars would like to attribute to a period as late as the Babylonian and Persian exiles, nearly a thousand years after Moses. One pointer for this is the appearance of angels and demons into the text, which were foreign to ancient Israel and part of the folklore of ancient Persia. Even if Moses had laid down many of the laws of Deuteronomy, it is obvious that much of this was revised by Ezra the Scribe at the time of the Second Temple of post-exilic Israel. This source, scholars call 'D'. So we have little that we can really attribute to Moses.
The same textual criticism can be applied to the Prophets. There are pre-exilic, exilic and even post-exilic sections to be found in Isaiah, chapters 40-66 undoubtedly of a much later date than the prophet himself. In other cases, such as Jeremiah, the undisputed work of the prophet has been subjected to some revision and addition after the exile, though much more so than the books of Moses, all the prophetic books show clearly the individualities of their respected original authors.
For Christians, however, it is the New Testament that poses the biggest problem when textual criticism is applied against fundamentalist belief in the Word of God. Was there ever a record of the words of Jesus? Did Jesus, himself, ever write anything down, or even have the ability to write? Did he speak or write Greek? We simply don't know. We can deduce that St. Mark's gospel was probably the first to be written and can date it to about 55 A.D., which is approximately twenty-five to thirty years after the death of Jesus. From the personal eyewitness account after the description of Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, noted in St. Mark 14:50-51: And they all forsook him and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked, we assume the young man to be the author of this record, a boy named Mark, who was one of Jesus' camp followers but not an apostle. But, the question has to be raised as to whether a young boy who was a camp follower of Jesus' band of disciples was likely to be literate, or whether this young boy had dictated something to the author of the Gospel of St. Mark. The language of Jesus and the disciples was almost certainly Aramaic and not Greek. Any sayings of Jesus that are found in any of the gospels have therefore gone through an editing process from a possible early Aramaic source to a later Greek source. Because all but sixty-six verses of St. Mark's gospel are repeated in similar form in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, we can assume that the authors of St. Matthew and St. Luke had access to a form of St. Mark's gospel. It is commonly thought that St. Mark, probably John Mark, received much of his information from St. Peter and probably composed his gospel when he was in Rome as an interpreter for the apostle—that is if we are to believe the relatively early first century statement of Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor. John Mark might also be the same Mark who traveled on the first missionary journey with St Paul and Barnabas, of whom according to Colossians 4:10, he was a cousin. He might also have been the son of St. Peter, who we believe was married at the time he met Jesus, for Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law in Capernaum (St. Mark 1:29-31), an incident repeated in both St Matthew and St. Luke. In the first letter of St. Peter, written to exiles, early Jewish Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, he sends greetings from his son, Mark (I Peter 5: 13). If Peter's wife was one of the women camp followers of Jesus' disciples that would be one explanation why the young boy John Mark might have been present at Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane as described in St. Mark 14:51. This link between Mark and Peter could be very important as it might allow for the nearest eyewitness account we can have to possible words, teaching, prayers, and deeds of Jesus, but they are still being recorded in the recollection of an older man thirty years after the events, in an era when there was no media cross reference to the original time. Possibly, St. Peter had in his possession in Rome an Aramaic summary of the sayings and deeds of Jesus that some call the Kerygma or Didache—The Teachings. If so, this could be our New Testament's earliest source, but such a source is only deduced and has never been found. The difficulty with this theory, however, is that many of the most loved sayings of Jesus are not found in St. Mark's gospel and yet shared by St. Matthew and St. Luke. These we would also like to attribute to an early Aramaic source, but, again, one that has never actually been found. As theologians, we call this possible source 'Q', or Quelle. Quelle, as it is used by St. Matthew and St. Luke, also appears to have been copied by them from an identical Greek source that is in turn probably a translation from an earlier Aramaic source, so its accuracy is suspect and proof of its existence questionable. Both St. Matthew and St. Luke also embellish their gospels from their own unique source materials that we call 'M' and 'L'. The 'M' source for Matthew has a heavily Jewish slant and could be important. If we assume this Matthew to be Levi, the apostle, we might in the 'M' sections have something that goes back to one of Jesus' twelve. Matthew was a tax collector, so he might well out of all twelve apostles have been the most likely to actually be literate. Luke was obviously a learned man, we suspect a Greek doctor, and, almost certainly, also the author of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, but he was not himself an apostle. The 'L' source, therefore, although it may be unique to Luke may not in itself go back to Jesus and his disciples.
The Gospel of St. John brings a whole new set of problems. It is extremely unlikely it was written by the apostle known as the 'beloved' disciple. It was probably written sometime in the early second century well after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., most likely between 100 and 120 A.D. However, there is a possibility that St. John, the apostle, did write a good part of the Book of Revelation, usually attributed to him in his old age as a hermit on the island of Patmos. Patmos is not too far from Ephesus in Asia Minor that was one of the thriving Greek communities of the first and second centuries and a center of early Christianity. From the cross in St. John's Gospel, Jesus requested the apostle John to take care of his mother: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" and from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (St. John 19:26-27). Very early in Christianity, there grew up the legend that the Virgin Mary lived with the apostle, John, the 'beloved disciple', in Ephesus in Asia Minor. Even today, tourists can visit the site of Mary's house on the outskirts of ancient Ephesus, although I personally doubt the present building's first century antiquity. If the Virgin Mary did live with John in Ephesus, the early Ephesian Church would have claim on two of Jesus' closest associates. Possibly, St. John, the apostle, might have written an earlier form of the current gospel that some scholars call proto-John. John, if he was not literate as the fisherman brother of James, the sons of Zebedee, could well have become literate in the very sophisticated Greek city of Ephesus, however, it is unlikely that he could have become as literate as the rather sophisticated Greek that we find in St. John's Gospel. If, however, he had written a proto-John in a less sophisticated style, such a document might have been much influenced also by the then living Virgin Mary. The chronology of history in Jesus' ministry is different in St. John's gospel to that in the other three gospels that are based on St. Mark's chronology. If there was a proto-John much influenced by the Virgin Mary, it may be that St. John's chronology is more accurate than that of the other accepted gospels. However, most scholars refute this, thinking the sophisticated philosopher scholar who wrote the final version of St. John's gospel used the chronology to suit his pattern of theological arguments. We know that there was a schism in the Ephesian Church, probably shortly before the fall of Jerusalem. It is possible that this was in part a schism between an early feminist church, in which the Virgin Mary played a serious role, and the followers of St. Paul. Could Mary Magdalene, who is barely mentioned in the canonical books of the Bible except at the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, where she seems to be almost as significant as the Virgin Mary, also have played a role in this early Ephesian church? After all, Ephesus was a feminist center in the Greek world, the city's patron being the goddess Diana or Artemis of the Ephesians, to whom a huge temple was dedicated, and whose cult was a serious problem for St. Paul—not noted for feminist leanings. The Gnostic gospels of the Egyptian church in the Nag Hammadi texts of the second century certainly resurrect Mary Magdalene's role, which might be one reason why they were not given credence at Constantinople in 381 A.D. If Mary Magdalene had left Ephesus at the time of the schism, she might well have found her way to the great Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt. There would have been a constant flow of shipping between such Greek centers in the first century A.D.
The Gospel of St. John we know today with its rather Greek philosophy and sophisticated theology might have been built on a proto-John document well after John, the 'beloved disciple' and the virgin Mary had passed away, the schism died down, and a more Pauline church been established. Assuming the Virgin Mary would have died sometime before 60 A.D., at which time she would have been 70 years old—a long life for the times—John, probably at least twenty years her junior, might well have left Ephesus at the time of schism, too, and retreated to Patmos. Although many fundamentalist Christians like to think of the Book of Revelation as describing the end time today, it is much more likely that it was not a prophecy of a future apocalypse, but a very real account of the apocalypse as John saw it in the last years of his life. This was the decade of the Neronian persecution of Christians. It was the time of the crucifixion of St. Peter and the martyrdom of St. Paul. Christianity was still considered a Jewish sect, and the Jews suffered along with Christians, leading ultimately just two years after the Roman Emperor Nero's death to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The significance to Rome of these persecutions can be witnessed today in the magnificent Arch of Titus close to the Colosseum, depicting the looting of the Temple treasures. It is commonly thought that whoever was the author of the Book of Revelation was deeply moved by the horrific events of the latter first century. Asia Minor itself was more effected by the persecution of the Emperor Domitian in 81 A.D. through to 96 A.D., and this leads many to believe that it was then, after the fall of Jerusalem, that the Revelation was written. At the time, some even believed that Domitian was a reincarnation of the evil Nero. By this time, John the apostle would be a very old man, probably blind and unable to write. Maybe, therefore, the John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, was not actually the apostle, any more than the author of the fourth gospel was, but simply a man named John, who as a Christian, read the abomination of the times as a fulfillment of early Christian belief that these horrors would be the sign of the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. This Second Coming would establish the eternal reign of Christ in the Kingdom of God—a 'New Jerusalem' that would be built up out of the ashes of the old—a new Heaven and a new Earth.
Is this the Word of God, or the word of man—emotionally divinely inspired, but man? The Bible is still the record of perceived Divine revelation. It is the record of Jewish revelation. It is the most complete history that we have, for all its bias, of the story of the Jewish people, from origins, through Egyptian privilege and bondage, to covenant, conquest, and the establishment of kingdoms. It shows faith developing out of suffering, and a history of the Jewish State from those kingdoms to exile and revival. It is the world's great covenant with monotheism. And in the New Testament, it shows a faith that grows in its concept of a love covenant with the Divine, inspired by a Jewish messiah—Jesus Christ—whom the authors all seem to agree was a son of God. This Bible is full of wisdom, guidance and moral standing, but it also shows the foolishness and susceptibility of man and our relationship to each other and our planet.
Is it the truth? No, it would seem from its composition to be more legend than truth. But what is truth? Truth is only a viewpoint, and there are many diverse viewpoints. In its quest for a wise universal truth, man in the wisdom of the Christian church has selected a truth—a useful truth, a guiding truth, even a loving truth, but it can not be the whole truth. So, is to swear to the whole truth on the mystique of the Bible a useful exercise in the light of these discoveries? That remains an interesting question that can only be answered by the individual conscience of the one who is being sworn to speak his or her truth.
Volume One of The Magdala Trilogy—A Star's Legacy—is now available through
www.iUniverse.com and www.amazon.com and at www.PeterLongleyBooks.com
Volume Two of The Magdala Trilogy—Beyond the Olive Grove—will be available in November 2009.