Latebloomer recently wrote about what she called “Bible Irony,” and it made me think of my own experiences.
As a fundamentalist Christian, I was absolutely certain that the Bible was the inspired word of God, the only reliable source of truth. I believed that the Old Testament existed to point ahead to Jesus, and that the New Testament revealed salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice. Obviously, with such an important message, the New Testament must have had a beautiful, miraculous, clear, and quick creation…..right?
The view I was given of the Bible was equally simplistic. As I was taught, everything in the Bible fit together perfectly with no contradiction. The gospels were written by those whose names they now bear, and the epistles as well. Everyone agreed on which writings were divinely inspired, and they were quickly collected together to form the Bible, on which Christians have based their beliefs ever since. Everything was so simple, so black and white. Even understanding the cultural context in which the books were written was not seen as overly important.
What is the “irony” Latebloomer speaks of? Just this:
It’s a great irony in fundamentalist Christianity: putting so much faith in a book but willfully remaining ignorant of how the book got into your hands. It doesn’t do any credit to a person’s beliefs if those beliefs are too weak to encounter reality.
You have to understand that for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, the Bible is all that matters. The Bible is something to be read daily, to be lived and breathed, to be memorized and followed. The Bible, the Bible, the Bible. And yet, the complexities of where the Bible comes from is a subject generally avoided. For fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, it’s as if the Bible was handed down from heaven written on golden plates (in King James’ English, of course).
But as Latebloomer explains, this simply isn’t the case.
The reality is that we don’t have any original manuscripts of any books of the Bible. The oldest ones that we have are from hundreds of years after Jesus. Additionally, the oldest manuscripts are extremely fragmentary and sometimes vary from each other significantly on important points.
The reality is that in the first three centuries of Christianity, there were many other Gospels, Acts, and Epistles that various groups of Christians believed had been written by the apostles. Based on those other writings, there was a lot of variety of beliefs among early Christians, and many of those beliefs would be considered extremely heretical today. Eventually one group of early Christians became more powerful and influential than the others, but this was merely because they were connected to Rome and thus connected to the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the fourth century.
The reality is that there was no consensus on what books should be included in the collection of the New Testament until over three hundred years after Jesus. In the end, a council of people commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325 decided what beliefs were correct or “orthodox”. AFTER THAT, the writings that most matched their “orthodox” views were unofficially chosen to be part of the New Testament canon.
The reality is that now, based on the past 300 years of study, we know that some of those writings included in the New Testament have false attributions of authorship or false claims of authorship. The Gospels, for example, were not written by the uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking first disciples of Jesus, but were written down many decades later by more educated Greek-speaking Christians, based on oral tradition. For instance, the first Gospel, Mark, was written in AD 70 or later, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, sometimes even quoting it word for word. (Have you ever noticed that Paul’s letters never reference the Gospel writings? It’s because they were written after his time.)
The reality is that almost all secular and Christian Biblical scholars know that some of the Pauline epistles in the Bible were in fact later forged in Paul’s name. In particular 1&2 Timothy and Titus were certainly not written by Paul; Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.are heavily contested. Even the letters that were certainly written by Paul have been tampered with in places, and these alternations are part of our modern English versions. For example, the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 (“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church”) were added in later manuscripts, and are not part of the oldest and best manuscripts!
The reality is that there is not uniformity of message in the Bible. If you let each author speak for himself–let each book stand alone as the author intended–then you get very different messages and not simply the traditional Christian message. The “good news” that Jesus preached in the Gospels is different from the “good news” that the apostles preached in Acts, which in turn is different than the “good news” that Paul wrote about.
You know what’s interesting? Realizing all this didn’t make Latebloomer lose her faith. Well, I suppose it made her lose her fundamentalist faith, but she still identifies as Christian.
It’s a harsh reality for people like me who grew up viewing the world through the lens of the Bible, being taught to ignore my thoughts and feelings based on the “clear” teachings the Bible contained. But although it is shocking and unsettling at first, it can become very beautiful and so freeing. You can see the world and maybe even see God more clearly when you stop wandering through life with your face buried in a book. Look up–the world is in color; it’s not all black and white!
This is actually exactly how I felt when I learned what she wrote above. I actually explain that in this post. For me, coming to understand textual criticism and to reject the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible that I had been taught growing up served to enrich my faith. I’ve used the same analogy Latebloomer does – that it was like the world suddenly went from black and white to color. And it was indeed both beautiful and freeing. (It was when core Christian doctrines ceased making sense to me, and when I suddenly realized that I saw no actual evidence for the very existence of a god, that I left Christianity.)
Interestingly, progressive Christians like Latebloomer, who have made themselves knowledgeable on the history of the Bible and textual criticism, actually know their Bibles better than do fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, who pride themselves on being “Bible-believing Christians.” In some sense, it’s like the difference between the person who eats a cake and the person who studies the recipe and watches as the cake is made.