Paul 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.
Posted in Bible, Higher Education, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Bible, Christianity, Gospel of Thomas, Gospels, Jesus, Paul, Paul of Tarsus
In the white heat of rhetoric, my word processor froze up. I don’t have much time for writing with my commuting schedule, so the full forty-five minutes lost between the typing of a letter “s” that apparently caused the meltdown and being able to access my text was lost in a prayer that my work hadn’t been lost. I remember the days when everyone used Microsoft Word and there was this joke going around about the Devil and Jesus being tested on their computer skills. I can’t remember the joke but I do recall the punchline: “Jesus saves!” So it was in those days that you had to hit “save” every few minutes or your work would be lost. Many laments could be loudly heard of students having lost an entire paper because they’d forgotten their prophylactic “save”s. I found that working on a Mac that such problems weren’t always so bad. But then, system upgrades became more frequent. Two programs that you needed open simultaneously, Word and Internet Explorer (called something else in those days, but I can’t remember what), were a sure recipe for mutually assured destruction. The memory required would freeze even an Apple to its core, and so the systems gurus made improvements and things got better.
Of course, those of us who’ve spend the Gross Domestic Product of a small country on Apple devices have been lulled to complacency. Over the years (since the fiasco of the original iMac) we’ve come to learn that Apple will save our work, and that crashes, while infrequent, will bring our files back onto the screen after recovery. You really don’t need to save since autosave is capable of being the messiah of all computer files. Then the gurus upgraded the system. For the past several months I can’t run a word processor and internet browser simultaneously on my computer without freezing up the system. Imagine my chagrin when, having less than an hour to write, copy, paste, and post my blog entry for the day, my word processor decides that it doesn’t recognize the letter “s.” Of course, Apple long ago stopped being compatible with Microsoft Word. Those of us who used both Macs and Word cheered when the two finally became compatible about a decade ago, but in the battle for computer supremacy, we no longer have that option. My Mac can open Word files and save documents as Word files, but it can’t run Word. Instead it runs word processors that don’t recognize that most rare of characters, the insidious “s.”
So I went to back up my files over the weekend. I keep some files on a memory stick (so called) because they take up a lot of space and I don’t use them that often. The memory stick failed in the middle of a save (doesn’t Jesus save anymore?) and I spent an entire Saturday trying to recover files that were already saved. According to some Christian traditions, once saved, always saved. You can’t be unsaved. After losing an enormous amount of work that equated to many hours of precious weekend time, I’m beginning to have my doubts about my faith. Using Pages, Apple’s version of Word, is sure to lead to a crash. This has been happening since at least September. I get systems upgrades more frequently than calls from telemarketers. I really don’t ask for much. I’ve got about an hour to get my writing done in the morning and I would really, really appreciate it if forty-five minutes of that hour weren’t taken up by Pages trying to recognize the letter “s.” After all, not even Jesus can save without it.
In the beginning was Word…
The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.
One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.
Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.
“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”
Posted in Just for Fun, Posts
Tagged 1868, angel Gabriel, angel Moroni, California, email, F. Wilson, Jesus, Joseph Smith, Nashotah House, Prescott Journal, scam, Wisconsin
The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.
Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.
But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Annals of Improbable Research, BBC, Buddha, Faces in the Clouds, Ignobel Award, Jesus, Stewart Guthrie, University of Toronto