Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Pauline Resurrection

271px-Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_ProjectPaul is dead. Has been since the first century. In biblical studies, however, he is undergoing a kind of resurrection. Studies of Paul are coming thick and fast, with many claiming, with some justification, that Christianity was his invention. Biblical scholars have long realized, however, that many New Testament letters do not come from Paul. Some never made that claim (Hebrews), while others seemed to have played on the popularity of the epistle genre and added Paul’s name to gain authority. Or maybe they were written by somebody else called Paul. Far more intriguing to me is the fact that in the authentic Pauline letters, the apostle from Tarsus mentions other letters he wrote that were not preserved. This should strike no one as unusual; would Luke’s grocery list have been preserved as scripture if it had been found? Probably not. Still, these missing letters do raise an issue that might crinkle brows with thought. What have we been missing?

Paul, like other scripture writers, had no idea he was writing “the Bible.” In fact, the Bible is one of the most obviously cobbled together holy books in world history. It is inspiration by committee. We have known for many many decades that there were other Gospels, for example. Some scholars treat the Gospel of Thomas as canonical, while others have reconstructed Q down to chapter and verse. The Hebrew Bible cites some of its sources that have gone missing. Some of the existent biblical books in their current state are obviously somewhat garbled. An imperfect scripture. And I’m wondering what Paul might have written in those missing letters.

The process of constructing a Bible has been examined time and again by scholars. Mostly they accept the material we have to work out some scheme of how Christianity decided “thus far and no further” and these books only will be Bible. Isn’t there, however, a problem when we know that other bits of parchment were floating around out there with the apostolic stamp of approval? What if Paul changed his mind over time? His current letters, the ones that survive, aren’t always consistent. It’s the job of exegetes to try to tell us what Paul really meant, but the fact is we know that this founder of Christianity sent more advice to more people and nobody bothered to keep a copy. Those bits that were preserved are not systematic or comprehensive, making me wonder just how solid a foundation a theology built on such small bits might have. Nobody, it seems, wrote a life of Jesus in real time. It took a couple decades at least before people started to sketch out his life’s story and teachings. By then Paul had already been killed. His letters, slowly gathered over time, formed a nucleus of a faith that grew to be the world’s largest. And, despite all that, we don’t know what he fully said. And we never will.

Zounds

Back in my first exposure to state university life in Wisconsin, I frequently received eager guidance from students on religion in the media. After having taught in a seminary where interest in the world beyond ecclesiastical walls was rare, this exposure to wider interpretation was welcome. One of the movies suggested to me by helpful undergraduates was the then fairly contemporary Stigmata. My interest in horror films was burgeoning again after my nightmarish experience at Nashotah House, so I watched the movie with renewed appreciation for the abuses presented on the part of the established church. I rewatched Stigmata this past weekend and a number of features stood out as apposite for this blog.

As always in movies, liberties are taken with reality. Stigmata presents the Gospel of Thomas as a serious threat to Catholicism. Of course, even the Gospel of Judas made a public splash back in my Oshkosh days, but the great Titanic of the church remained steadily afloat. The contents of the Bible are secure and non-negotiable for the vast majority of Christianity. There is no more room within its black leather binding for further revelations. The movie also presents a woman – an atheist, no less – as being the vehicle for a truth she can’t understand. In the masculine citadel of the Catholic Church she must be silenced, in an overly dramatic way, of course. The message seems to be that religion is unwilling to learn from secular women, even if they bear the truth.

The critics were not kind to the movie, but I found it a strangely religious film. The premise behind it advocates the reality of Christianity, only the Jesus of history is occluded behind a great mask of human tradition. Enamored of power, the church decides what will be revealed to the masses since control is more important than truth. A woman cannot correct the false belief of men, since a masculine god has given manly instructions to a male institution. Underneath it all, however, is a virgin Mary weeping real human blood as half of humanity is simply disregarded by the half that retains its abusive strength. Perhaps the commentary was a little too close to home, even for the (mostly male) critics.