Month: February 2011

documents of faith, not history

After centuries of analysis, many biblical scholars now tell us that the gospels cannot be taken as gospel. Why is this so?

First, scholars explain that the gospels were created as documents of faith, not documents of history. They were not written as accurate historical biographies of the human Jesus who lived and died in the first century of the Common Era (CE). The gospels are more a record of the early church’s beliefs about Jesus than a true historical record of what Jesus actually said and did. They were written to present the message of the early church—its teaching and preaching about Jesus—and to give an overview of Jesus’ life and death to people who already believed that Jesus was the son of God and savior of the world.

The author of John’s gospel states plainly that his purpose is faith, not history.

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. (John 20:31)

Each gospel has a particular way of seeing Jesus. The gospel writers were not objective reporters (in fact, scholarly consensus is that none of the writers were eyewitnesses), but instead they were creative theological editors one or two generations removed from the events. They took elements that were handed down to them and told the story in a particular way to make a particular point. Each gospel presents a particular interpretation of Jesus: his identity, message, and mission. For these editors, their faith in Jesus as their savior colored their interpretation of his stories and sayings. In other words, their theology preceded the story. And their theology shaped the story.

In front of every person is an invisible belief window through which he or she views the world and life’s experiences. Each of us tends to think that we see things as they are—that we are objective. But this is not the case. In a statement often attributed to writer Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” In other words, we see the world only as we perceive it to be. We therefore need to distinguish the difference between “what happened” and “our interpretation of what happened.” The New Testament writers present an interpretation of Jesus’ words and actions that have been filtered through the authors’ belief window and that of the communities of faith that passed along a specific tradition and viewpoint to the writer.

Second, according to scholars even if these had been intended as historical documents, the notion of history and how to record it was very different 2,000 years ago. Accurate historical accounts that meet modern standards of precision simply weren’t written. Biographies of famous people such as Alexander the Great and various Roman emperors were usually filled with legends and miraculous events, intended to set the subject apart from common people. A first-century biography of a great person often included a story of a miraculous birth and a heroic death or martyrdom. The stories about Jesus were embroidered in a similar fashion.

We must recognize that an oral tradition preceded the written gospels by several decades. For nearly half a century the church recounted the stories and sayings of Jesus through storytelling, preaching and teaching. As time passed, legends and tales began to attach themselves to the stories of Jesus. Although many of these myths were not included in the four canonical gospels, some were. The authors included some of these myths to make a point.

Third, as stated before, mainstream scholars generally believe that none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and death. The gospels are religious testimonies produced 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death by second and third generation Christians. They are reflections of convinced Christians who collected and edited stories and sayings from historical events that most probably occurred before their birth. They relied on the tradition of an early church community to get their information.

Beliefs about Jesus shaped the message of the early church. And the message of the early church in turn shaped the written life of Jesus. Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus reshaped his life and words to conform to both Old Testament prophecies and to the life situation (sitz im leben in German) of the early church. The oral process embellished the historical Jesus to a point that the image we now have of him is no longer an accurate representation of his real life and teachings.

Furthermore, between the historical Jesus and the four gospels stands the theology of Saint Paul. The earliest missionary writings of Paul predate the gospels by at least 20 years and greatly influenced the shape of the belief window of first century Christians. Paul’s belief that Jesus’ death brought about a fundamental change in our relationship to God shaped the theology of the early church. Paul began a process of transformation of the life and meaning of Jesus that evolved in the church for the next three centuries until Jesus was finally declared to be God by a convocation of bishops at the Turkish city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Subsequent ecumenical councils reinforced this image of Jesus. In other words, the Jesus Christ we know today was the creation of memories, legends, distortions, embellishments, interpretations and church decrees.

The gospels are simply not accurate historical records of Jesus. His identity, his mission, and his message must be carefully sifted from the written record. The result is that the Jesus of history is not the same Jesus that we find in the gospels (the canonical Jesus). Nor is the Jesus of history the same as the Christ of faith which the church professes as a product of early ecumenical church councils and their resulting creeds and dogmas.

Obviously, the critical scholarship of mainstream biblical scholars is not well-accepted in fundamentalist and evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries because the findings point out differences and inconsistencies in the gospels. Because they desire to believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, fundamentalists fear the scholarship of higher criticism and evangelicals largely ignore it. Many liberal and progressive Christians are more comfortable with the widespread academic skepticism about the literal truth of the New Testament stories. But most Christians, who are biblically illiterate, are largely ignorant of all of this scholarship and usually take the gospels at face value.


acceptable worship

In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul suggested that an ethical life of compassion, service, peace, and justice is the single form of worship that God desires. According to Paul, it is the only form of worship that God deems good, acceptable and perfect.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases these two verses:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

In an unpublished essay, Dr. Lesly Massey, a Disciple of Christ pastor in Dallas, Texas, quoted Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), an eminent Lutheran theologian who was a part of the Confessing Church in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Käsemann, who after World War II spurred a renewed quest to understand the historical Jesus, saw in Romans 12:1 an unequivocal summary of Paul’s view of worship as a follower of Christ.

Christian worship does not consist of what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere, as something constantly demanded. This takes place in daily life, whereby every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest.

Les Massey comments:

In other words, Paul does not define worship in terms of rituals or ceremonies performed by Christians when assembled together, and therefore segregated from routine life. On the contrary, true worship is offered through the believer’s daily life by means of a noble ethos practiced openly in the world. God’s will is accomplished through that which is seemingly profane, and with such God is well pleased…

In a sense, Romans 12:1 illustrates Paul’s inclination to decentralize religion, specifically the Christian’s life of service to God, removing the holy presence from a stone temple and placing it within each believer, and within all believers as a community of faith and the true temple of God…

True worship, therefore, amounts to an approach to mundane activities that gives evidence of an inner conversion and transformation by the living presence of Christ. This to Paul was the appropriate response to divine grace, and the only sensible, beneficial, and proper means of honoring God. In order to “worship” God one must offer a “service to God.” The interests of God, the will of God, are not “served” by rituals, symbols, gestures, ceremonies, or platitudes. Paul was convinced, from his understanding of the teaching of Jesus, that God cannot be patronized by human lip-service. Rather, God is served by noble and exemplary living motives, attitudes, perspectives, choices, and actions that demonstrate divine love and goodness in the world.

Many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible declared that human justice was the form of worship that a God of justice desired.

And the biblical writers repeatedly stated that God loved justice. This is especially true in the Psalms:

“The LORD loves justice.” (Psalm 37:28)
“The LORD is a lover of justice.” (Psalm 99:1, 4)
“The LORD is righteous, he loves justice.” (Psalm 11:7)
“The LORD loves righteousness and justice.” (Psalm 33:5)

But we find it also in the books of the prophets:

“For I the LORD love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8)
“I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” (Jeremiah 9:24)

John Dominic Crossan writes:

There was an ancient prophetic tradition in which God insisted not just on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. God had repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.”

The Hebrew bible went even further, not just suggesting that justice was more important than worship, but that justice was worship. Here is what the Hebrew Bible tells us about true worship:

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship. (Proverbs 14:31)

I hate, I despise your worship, and I take no delight in your religious gatherings… Spare me the din of your praise singing; let me hear none of your strumming on guitars. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21,23-24)

I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings… with ten thousands of rivers of oil?… He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;… Trample my courts no more;… I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity;… even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;… Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;… cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)



the easter chicken

In the first three centuries of the Common Era, Christians were strongly counter-cultural and anti-imperial. It is no longer so. Christians and their churches have become accommodated to and assimilated into their culture.

In his autobiographical book, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell tells this story of an exchange between himself and P. D. East, a former newspaper editor who had disavowed the Methodist Church of his youth. Speaking of P. D. East, Campell writes:

He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.

“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”

I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”

I said, “Okay.”

“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”

“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”

“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”

“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”

It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.”

Like an “Easter chicken,” Christians all too readily become undifferentiated from the dominant culture around them. The Christian church has become a chaplain to the status quo. And the status quo in America is far removed from the kingdom of God.



born of the virgin Mary

The general reader of the New Testament assumes that the four gospel portraits of Jesus are historically accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Most Christians have been taught that the scriptures are divinely inspired and thus unquestionably accurate. Therefore, if there are differences between the gospels, they cannot possibly be significant, and the four accounts can be easily blended or harmonized with one another. For instance, the two different birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke have been blended for so long that the average Christian is not aware that they are entirely different and inconsistent accounts. Nor is the average Christian aware that the gospel of Mark—the earliest written gospel—not only says nothing about Jesus’ birth, but it also says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into the sky.  (Any reputable translation of Mark’s gospel will note that the last twelve verses of the final chapter—Mark 16:9-20—are not part of the earliest copies of this gospel, and are therefore a later addition.)

A close reading of the gospels creates a problem for the reader. They simply do not agree. The virgin birth of Jesus is a good example of the inconsistency and errors found in the Biblical texts. Continue reading

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