Friday, June 8, 2007

What We Know & How We Know It - Part II

Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

In a recent post, blogger Robin Artisson, proposed this intriguing question:

"What if the entire New Testament was a construct, a forgery, a fake? What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure cobbled together from the myths of many other Gods that long pre-existed Christianity?"

Click here to read Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus.

Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts

Which brings us to the second major issue that Robin's initial questions raised (and the one he focused most specifically on in his post). Even if we can set aside the question of the historical existence of Jesus, we find a difficulty around the Bible itself as it exists as a "sacred" text within the Christian religious tradition. Many Christians view the Bible as the "Word of God," and in this sense presumably treat it as a single, whole and static object, rather than as a collection of texts written by different people from different cultural perspectives and at different times. From here on in, I'm afraid the discussion will get a bit messier and won't be nearly as neatly and clearly laid out as the first half of my exploration, above. I hope you'll bear with me, nonetheless.

In his post, Robin spends some time rehashing various discoveries and theories regarding the historical development of the Bible as a collection of texts, in particular older and earlier versions of the four familiar Gospels. He quotes from an essay on "The Forged Origins of the New Testament," which seems to rely rather heavily on secondary sources written in the 1700s and 1800s, as well as statements from the Catholic Encyclopedia itself acknowledging the lacuna of definitive proof--in short, nothing new--while failing to cite any primary source evidence for the supposed forged documents themselves (here, I'll merely reminder readers of the familiar axiom: a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack). He also focuses almost exclusively on the relative age and authenticity of the gospels, without discussing the historical placement and analysis of the letters of Paul (which most scholars agree are the earliest records of Jesus, dating to as early as c. 10 C.E.), nor the tradition of Christian apologetics which was alive and kicking as early as c. 100-165 C.E.

Although it is true that our information about the historical person of Jesus comes almost exclusively from the collection of texts referred to as "gospels" (those texts which were written essentially for this intended purpose, to provide "the story of Christ's life and teachings;" the word "gospel" is a term applied generally to any such texts which propose to undertake this task, including the gnostic and apocryphal gospels), we have several authentic texts dating back to the first and second centuries that address the already developing Christian religious community and its beliefs, practices and traditions. (Here is an excellent resource for electronically published scholarly works on Biblical texts.) Since (a) we have already set aside the relative relevancy of the question of the historical person of Jesus, and (b) it seems clear that within these other available texts the role of Jesus Christ as a theological idea had already become central to the Christian self- and community-identity, and so it is unlikely that it was merely "invented" in the fourth century and inserted retroactively into the tradition, we can move on to the primary (and quite legitimate) concern: the complexities and contradictions found among these texts.

As Robin rightly points out, some of the earliest gospels (and even the codified versions of the four included officially in the New Testament) tell conflicting and often confusing narratives of the events in the life of Jesus. Certain doctrines and theological concepts that are now considered cornerstones of the Christian tradition (or at least select denominations of it) go unmentioned or entirely unsupported in these earliest documents. As he also points out, again quite rightly, "This may come as no news to many scholars of the Bible (and, it seems, to many Church scholars)..."

In fact, this whole discussion of the development of Biblical literature was covered very early on in my freshman year of college, and my degree isn't even specializing in Christianity or its historical development--it's a general Comparative Religious Studies degree. Furthermore, I would consider most of the people who took that class with me to be "average Christians" and other average people, few of whom went on to specialize in Biblical scholarship, theological scholarship, or even philosophical or religious studies of any kind (some of them were just fulfilling a "general education" requirement). I think this acknowledgment of conflicting versions and missing doctrines is generally much more widely known than Robin gives credit for--indeed, the only people who seem to find the historical development of Biblical literature, and all the complexity and lack of uniformity it entails, to be an obstacle to faith are (a) Christian fundamentalists, and (b) those who fundamentally oppose Christianity.

(Robin may object that he has spoken to Christians who were offended and/or skeptical of this viewpoint, but I would guess this may be because his presentation of it often boarders on a conspiratorial and sometimes even insulting tone, as it does in his post. I might counter that I have spoken to plenty of Christians who were fully aware of the historically diverse origins of the Bible, but then we might compare anecdotal evidence for hours on end and, as your friendly neighborhood scientist will tell you, anecdotal evidence is generally a very weak foundation for any argument. So let's move on.)

Christianity developed gradually and organically over time, just as most other religious systems in the world have developed (and just as Neopaganism is developing right now in modern society). The kind of organized, deliberate forgery and falsification that Robin suggests was, if not impossible, at least incredibly implausible, considering the wide-spread, structured social institution to accomplish such a feat simply did not exist until a good two to three hundred years after the supposed historical events took place and some of the first Biblical texts regarding those events (and the apologetic arguments regarding the theology of these events) had already been written and begun to circulate. This doesn't mean, of course, that particular individuals or groups of individuals didn't develop and pass on as "true" their own versions or stories of these events that were based less on "fact" as we understand it today, and more on the immediate philosophical, spiritual or imaginative needs of their local communities.

We see this process taking place even today within Neopagan communities, as certain Wiccan, Druidic and other occult traditions create, elaborate on and pass on "origin myths" about their histories. Wicca and Druidry, for instance, both base a great deal of their self- and community-identities on two admirable forgers, Gerald Gardner and Iolo Morganwg, respecitvely. It is a unique, perhaps even quirky, aspect of modernity that most Wiccans and Druids seem quite content to acknowledge the certain amount of "invention" at the root of their spiritual traditions (this is a trend Hutton treats in a number of his books), accepting that although these stories or sources may not be historically "true," they yet retain spiritual and social value as ideas, "invented" or not.

Even still, there are those within Neopaganism who indulge in the all-too-familiar urge to justify the authenticity of their beliefs and practices by making false or specious claims to ancient roots, unbroken traditions and even miraculous tales of heroism or martyrdom. If intelligent and well-informed modern individuals--living in a culture steeped in scientific "fact" and the careful academic study of history--still resort to such story-telling, is it any surprise that people two thousand years ago, in a culture utterly unfamiliar with the peculiarly modern notion of an objective and unbiased "history of what actually happened", would do the same? It takes no conspiracy theory of corrupt and manipulative religious or political leaders to explain such behavior. It is the result of ordinary people attempting to grapple with conflicting reports of difficult or painful events while seeking to understand how those events are philosophically, politically, spiritually or personally relevant. Knowledgeable, modern Christian believers are often fully aware of that different cultural and socio-political environments will lead to diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives on a single event, and so they can accept and work with conflicting accounts within a single "sacred text" in this light.

Robin may be right in saying that, were the Bible to be proven factually "wrong," many Christians would take little notice and remain unshaken in their faith. In my opinion, however, this is not a reflection of a general stubborn ignorance on the part of Christians, but because very few Christians actually believe the Bible to be historically factual in the first place (Christian fundamentalists being the exception, as well as the minority). Theological concepts about the "Son of God," (and the phrase "son of man," which does appear in Mark), the "Word of God," the Resurrection and even the Trinity are recognized as exactly that: ahistorical, theological doctrines. Indeed, most Christians would most likely argue that such doctrines grew gradually out of a continuing, communal interaction with the Bible as a living, revelatory sacred text (its historical nature notwithstanding). In other words, new "revelations" of spiritual and theological meaning continue to be possible because the text is a dynamic, self-revelatory witness to the Divine; the "seeds" may be present in the original gospels and letters of the New Testament, even if all of their implications were not fully laid out and explored from the very beginning or from every perspective or viewpoint included. The Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception, the doctrine of the eucharist, the various mystical and feminist implications of the Gospel of John and its ties to Neoplatonic philosophy, even modern "liberation theology" currently popular in Latin America--all of these can believably exist in potentia within the "inspired" (NB not "factual") recordings of historical events concerning the person of Jesus.

Although few Christians have the scholarly background to articulate it this precisely, I believe most Christians have an intuitive grasp on this non-literal and partly-ahistorical approach to the Bible, and are able to explain themselves if given the chance. Once again, I am excepting fundamentalist/creationist Christians from this statement, though they are sometimes an unfortunately loud and vehement minority. In the end, however, it seems that on the whole, the Christian community is both flexible and reasonable enough to continue to incorporate sacred Biblical texts as a functioning part of its religious system, regardless of continuing archeological and sociological/anthropological discoveries regarding their origins and historical context.

What We Know & How We Know It
Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus
Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts
Part III: The Part that Passion Plays


  1. I very nearly skipped this series of posts at your blog... as a "dyed in the wool" non-Christian (not an ex-Christian, or a Christian refugee, as many Pagans are, but a lifeling non-Christian) I don't find the topic of Biblical or historical Christianity especially compelling.

    But I'm glad I didn't skip it--I'm really enjoying following your thought process here, and looking forward eagerly to your Part III.

    I confess, as someone who, as a Pagan, grapples with feeling marginalized among Quakers, I'm really hoping, on behalf of my Pagan kin, that your brand of Christian Druidry is at least as welcome at the Pagan hearth as I'd like to feel among Quakers... As another both/and in the world of religion, right or wrong, I think I identify strongly with your position, and I hate to see you given less than a tender and caring hearing.

    Not that you need my protective instincts; you're obviously a Big Girl. But, for what it's worth, it's lovely to watch you wrestle with these issues with such grace.

    Blessed be.

  2. Cat, That's probably one of the nicest things anyone's said to me about this blog. :) I'm very glad that my ramblings about Christianity have some relevance and interest to a "born-non-Christian," and I hope some of my bits about the more Pagan side of things have the same kind of appeal to my Christian readers.

    I'm certainly glad I started working on this series of posts, though at first I felt a little bad that they were sparked, for the most part, by my (obviously verbose) disagreements with another blogger. Over the past few days, as I've been mulling things over in my mind, I've started to rethink the final Part III, and I think I'll end up completely rewriting it (maybe even breaking it up to make this a four-or-more part series, though that might be pushing it--I don't want to get hung up on one thing for too long ;). My schedule's still kind of full, though, so we'll see if I can actually deliver on that intention... In any case, stay tuned!

  3. I know that, as a blogger, I've been greatly influenced by the idea of blogging as conversation. (One of my favorite websites, QuakerQuaker, bills itself as a "guide to the Quaker conversation" online. The open-mindedness and civility I've found in that online community has had quite an impact on me.

    I think that responding to other bloggers is part of what makes blogging so much more interesting, both to write and to read, than static web page content. We change one another--there's always the chance of growth and surprise. I really enjoy that.

  4. Cat, That's certainly true (and it always keeps me full-to-bursting with ideas of what to write about, too, which is nice :). I was more concerned because a lot of what I wrote was originally worded as a response that I'd planned to post as a comment on Robin's blog, and I felt that, as a writer, having such a very specific "audience" in mind actually limited my exploration of some of the issues (this is very much reflected in the third as-yet-unposted part of the series, which is why I think I may rewrite it). Now that a few days have passed and I've had time to mull over my thoughts in a more general context, I find that I have a lot more to say about certain issues which, at the time, I felt weren't so much directly related back to R's original post, but that I now really want to include (for instance, the role that a sacred text such as the Bible can play within a religion, regardless of its historical accuracy--which is something I had a feeling Robin would think of as "besides the point").

    I love blogging as an on-going conversation, but sometimes that means I find it hard to stay centered and keep the wide view on things, and more inclined to go off arguing tiny, tangential points of disagreement. I want to try to keep the tone of this blog, "Ali ponders many random spiritual things," and not "Ali picks a fight with so-and-so and what's-his-face." I've had a lot of reactionary posts recently (about the Creation Museum, the "God Is Not Great" book by Hitchens, and now this series), I want to get back to the pro-active, creative side of conversation. :)