Spoken Against

“Antilegomena” is a word that appears more often in New Testament studies than it does in those of the Hebrew Bible.  Still, it’s an important part of the discussion of “the Bible,” especially since Heaven stands at the end.  Antilegomena is the Greek word for “disputed texts.”  You see, when the Bible was being compiled, there were many books from which to choose.  The twenty-seven books generally recognized as the New Testament included several that were disputed.  The Antilegomena included these books: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, all fine and good.  But the list continues: James, Jude, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.  This final half-dozen made the cut, although Revelation is still disputed in some quarters.  All of these books were, however, in some early Christians’ Bibles.  The exact date that the New Testament canon was fixed isn’t certain, but it wasn’t widely recognized until the fourth century C.E., that is, over 300 years after Jesus.

The first time I learned about canonization in college I was shocked.  Like most people raised on the Bible, I believed that it had come, fully written, from the hand of God.  Maybe there was even an autographed copy somewhere.  Grove City College, at the time, disputed the Documentary Hypothesis of J, E, D, and P, but to the credit of the religion department they did tell us about it.  Moses, of course, we were taught, did the actual writing.  But then there was the problem of the New Testament.  There were other gospels, some as old as those that made it into the Bible.  The realization dawned that “the Bible” was much more complicated than I had been led to believe.  And what was up with the Apocrypha?

One of my professors said that the problem with inerrancy is that it proposed a Bible more perfect than God.  I’m not sure that I follow the logic there, but I take his point (they were all “he”s, whoever he was).  The Bible may not be a perfect book  There are parts missing and repeated bits.  It is nevertheless one of many sacred books from around the world, and it is the holy book of much of Christianity.  From the very beginning some of the contents were disputed.  Even as an undergraduate I had some inklings that a journey that involved taking the Bible seriously was going to lead to some strange places.  That single book that had always been presented to me with a definite article—“the” Bible—was actually a book that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t know.  And they seem to have got along fine, as far as getting to Heaven goes.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

Devil’s Advocate

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil's advocate.

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil’s advocate.

When two people in completely isolated incidents tell me the origins of the term “Devil’s advocate” within a week, I figure it’s time to do a post about it. We’re all familiar with the term, and we know that it means taking the point of view of the “bad guy,” just for argument’s sake. In fact, the Devil’s advocate may not believe his (usually it is a he) own arguments, presents them to make sure the results are correct. The Devil’s advocate was an official office in Roman Catholicism beginning in the late 16th century. The actual title was Promoter of the Faith and the reason such an office was necessary was that so many people had been put forth as potential saints that the church experienced an embarrassment of riches. Canonization, the process of becoming a saint, has a number of hurdles to clear for the would-be paragon. Claims, often extraordinary, were made for miracles associated with the favored ones and the Devil’s advocate was intended to research and present contrary evidence. This made it more difficult to achieve sainthood, but in theory, at least, kept the number of candidates down to only the most deserving. There was no literal devil involved.

Those of us who grew up Protestant often had recourse to only faulty knowledge of Catholicism. We were sometimes taught that it was based on magic, what with the priest speaking in Latin and making mysterious motions with his hands. That meant, for some, that Catholics seemed particularly gullible and would believe things the rest of us wouldn’t. The Catholic Church, however, has often providing its own policing. Not as eager as Pentecostals to accept mundane miracles, when a pareidolia-inspired leakage of water or an anomalous burning of toast occurs, the Catholic Church is quick to debunk claims of miracles just because an underpass stain or a bit of bread looks like a famous religious figure. If you squint enough. The Devil’s advocate was a similar safeguard.

On the opposite side of the equation, I’ve often heard sermons among some evangelical groups claiming that we’re all saints. (Their membership, that is.) Who shouldn’t claim the name when they walk the walk? Many of these saints fail to inspire in the way of those of yore. Some of the beloved cultural heroes that keep coming back in various forms have saintly origins: Santa Claus and Saint Valentine are two that come to mind at this time of year. Some Protestants who may not have been perfect, however, should somehow qualify. Martin Luther King, Jr., another figure of the winter season, by his contributions to justice issues, might be one who would qualify. I’m sure there are many others. The fact is that making a principled stand against the wickedness that sometimes passes for the status quo is difficult and leaves one open to criticism and resentment. A Devil’s advocate might be just what society needs when looking to make saints out of mere mortals.