One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them. The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows. Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all. In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith. The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days. In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.
The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers. Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done. More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest. Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then. (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.) Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books. Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.
The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book. We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus. We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ. Bible is a matter of interpretation. As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts. True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses. It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words. When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered. And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.
Posted in Bible, Books, Genesis, Higher Education, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Books of Moses, Genesis, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Gospels before the Book, historical criticism, Matthew Larsen
In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common. That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit. We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics. This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine. In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope. Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?
Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal. If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious. I sometimes buy things online with PayPal. It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it. So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account. What am I to do with it? Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms). One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?” Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.
Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so. This is nothing new. But the question of ethics now looms extra large. For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal? My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone. What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting? Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do? That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical. What would Moses say? Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time. A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Robotics
Tagged biblical ethics, biblical sexuality, Genesis, Judah and Tamar, morality, PayPal
According to the Good Book, Methuselah lived nearly a millennium. For all that, the information on him in Genesis occurs in a mere five verses, in a span of seven. We learn when he married, whom he sired, and how long he lived. Not much information of the last antediluvian, especially considering how much time he had. When I searched for him on the web the other day, the information box that showed up on Google had, at the very top, a picture of Anthony Hopkins. I immediately recognized his makeup from Noah, a movie that I just can’t make myself love. The fault for having no other image may be the failure of human imagination—where do we find an image of a thousand-year old?
The internet mediates our reality. One of the points of both my books now in the works is that modern understanding of the Bible is largely media based. Few people have the time or inclination to read such a big book. (Given the continued evangelical support of Trump, it’s pretty clear that most of them haven’t read it either.) We want other people to do the heavy lifting and give us a summary in neat little boxes at the top of the screen. There’s far too many things to do in this tangled web to be spending months reading a ponderous, outdated tome, even if it does have plenty of sex and violence. Even if it influences the lives of each and every person living in America every single day. We’d rather have someone else—preferably not some egghead with a Ph.D.—give us the executive summary.
Once I did the math. If you add up the dates in what I used to call “Genesis years,” the year Methuselah died was the year of the flood. The Bible doesn’t say that old Methuselah drowned when the windows of heaven were opened, but it’s a reasonable conjecture. Nature abhors, it seems, a human being living so long. Our bodies just aren’t built for it. Some trees, on the other hand, have been alive for thousands of years. Botanists call them “Methuselah trees” (I told you the Good Book influences everything!). The pity is we know so very little about this ancient human being from days of yore. Was he a good man? He seems to have been washed out in the sluice gates of what became one great universal sewer at the time. Although we know little, his life would make quite an epic movie, I think. We already have an actor lined up, for Google tells me so.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Genesis, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Anthony Hopkins, Genesis, media, Methuselah, Noah, Noah's Flood
The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.
When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.
Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Genesis, Just for Fun, Mesopotamia, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Science, Weather
Tagged flood myth, Genesis, Mysterious Universe, Noah, Paul Seaburn, science and religion