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.

Refillable Ideas

Maybe I’m too slow of thumb, but this ought to be simple. For many years I kept a small slip of paper in my pocket, along with a pen. Eventually I upgraded the paper slips to Moleskine notebooks since they’re harder to lose and the covers mostly prevent the smudging of my ideas. When something strikes me I don’t reach for my phone—by the time I enter the passcode, select the app, and try to type with fat thumbs, the idea’s gone. Instead I pull out my Moleskine, battered and frayed by the final pages, and my pen. The problem is I’m still enough of a working-class guy to lose pens. If a cord comes disconnected beneath my desk, I’m down there on my back fixing it rather than calling IT. Pens fall out of my shirt pocket on planes, trains, and automobiles.

A lost pen shouldn’t be a problem, but finding a pen that writes right away is. Like most people I have scores of throw-away plastic pens handed out by vendors with their company name on them. I prefer a good quality pen—the kind a family member gives you for your birthday—but they hurt when you lose them. I finally settled on a happy medium. One of my kin gave me a heavy-weight, refillable pen that has a robust clasp so it doesn’t slip out of my pocket, down between the seats of public transit vehicles. Refills, however, are another story. Who would’ve thought that I’d spend my time reading reviews on Amazon just to find pen refills that write the moment inspiration strikes? Well, I do.

Unlike those who whip out their phones to write things down, I still pull out my notebook. Nothing is more frustrating that feeling an idea evaporate while waiting for the ink to flow. My most recent refill is on strike most of the time, while that cheap pen from the health fair at work never seems to have a problem until it runs out of ink and has to be tossed into the landfill. I wonder if the Bible would’ve ever been written had Moses to rely on the poor quality of pen refills available before the common era. Maybe he had less commuting time, although I’d say 40 years in the wilderness qualifies. His stone tablets may have been heavier than my Moleskine, but his chisel was sure and his words still adorn courthouse lawns everywhere. Perhaps I’m too modern after all.

Recognition

I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…

One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.

By Numbers

Numbers 12.3 always struck me as one of the oddest verses of the Pentateuch. This was back in the days when I’d been taught that Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, in toto. When I read “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” I had to wonder about the literalness of Scripture. How can someone who is humble boast of being the humblest person on the planet? Humility is a commodity sorely lacking in contemporary times. This shortage, in an era of fake news and border walls, finds expression in some very odd places. The White House, for example.

Kellyanne Conway, who’s apparently still around, recently told televangelist Pat Robertson, on the air, that Trump’s most characteristic trait is his humility. It seems that good old Moses got one wrong. The most humble man on the face of the earth is Donald J. Trump. You can tell that by the way he took a horrific hurricane and managed to make every media appearance concerning it about himself. It is quite a burden, being so humble. Especially when your race is the best one on the planet and there’s bad behavior on all sides when a white supremacist murders an innocent person for disagreeing. What would Moses do? Pat Robertson—you’re a literalist—help us out here! Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the humblest of them all? I surely hope the Bible isn’t participating in fake news.

It used to be called the good news. The message was one of love for all people and acceptance of the poor, the outcast, the widow, and yes, even the tax collector. I forget which chapter in Matthew it is where Jesus suggests building a wall to keep the gentiles out. It must be in there somewhere next to the chapter where Moses builds a tower up to heaven and then names it after himself. He was, after all, the humblest man in the world. He could afford to throw away entire calves made of gold, right? Humility will do that for you. Since we’ve just undergone a major natural disaster, we might as well start pushing our own self-image again. If Moses promised to build a wall, even if thousands and thousands are suffering and could better use the money, he must push through with his plan to erect a wall. And when he’s done he’ll put his name on it for all to see. That’s the price of humility.

Commander in Heaven

I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.

The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.

6082318543_90e9752777_o

This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.

Religious Laughter

Reader’s Digest famously runs a feature, “Laughter: the Best Medicine.” I’m not a Reader’s Digest reader, and I’ve generally only seen it on coffee tables and bathroom cabinets of friends. Still, that’s the feature to which I always find myself turning. The jokes, this being Reader’s Digest, are always inoffensive. Safe subjects that are nevertheless funny. Usually. As adults we come to know that the taboo subjects of childhood are often the funniest. Off-color jokes about sex or religion, sometimes both together, elicit the most boisterous laughs. We don’t use them, however, because someone will surely be offended.

A recent article in The Guardian by Gary Sinyor raises the question of religious humor. Sinyor, who is Jewish, wrote a comedy play called “NotMoses.” As he farmed the idea and advertising around to advisors and friends, he was warned how he might be putting his life on the line for his humor. Reflecting on this, he comes to the conclusion—spot on, in my opinion—that the religions that don’t laugh at themselves are somehow insecure. His parade example is Scientology, as humorless a religion as exists. As he points out, although widely banned, many Christians found Monty Python’s Life of Brian very funny indeed. Of course, some branches of Christianity weren’t, and still aren’t, laughing.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

The world can be a humorless place. There is so much to worry about: the ill treatment of women, starvation, horrific diseases, Donald Trump. What right have we to laugh? I once had a close friend with cancer. Most would agree that this is no laughing matter. During treatment this friend lost all her hair and at one point another friend encouraged her to laugh about it if she could. “If there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well laugh,” was the advice. In poor taste? Perhaps. Nevertheless, there was some truth to it. My friend recovered. The disease is not something she cares to talk about. Nevertheless, humor helped her get through it. The most serious things, in other words, sometimes cause us to laugh. Religious comedy, after all, is not laughing at religion, but at how seriously we take religion. There is a difference. And laughter can, even if I got it from Reader’s Digest, be very good medicine indeed.

Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

IMG_2480 copy

Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

IMG_2396