Q

If you haven’t spent much of your precious time attending to theories of how the gospels were written, you might not be familiar with the dilemma I’m about to describe.  A brief primer: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not eyewitnesses of the events described in their gospels.  In fact, each of these books is anonymous—the titles were only added on later.  Despite their New Testament order, Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke borrowed from it rather extensively.  Mark is the shortest gospel and Matthew and Luke also share material that’s not in Mark.  Since John was written much later (and doesn’t have these common stories), scholars proposed many years ago that Matthew and Luke used a source—in German Quelle—that no longer exists.  This is called “the two-source hypothesis.”  As scholars are inordinately fond of abbreviations, Quelle is known as simply Q.  Other than in explanations like this you’ll never see it referred to by its full name.

So here’s the dilemma: many websites don’t allow for a single-letter search.  If you’re wanting to learn about Q, and you know no scholar worth their s (by which I mean salt, of course) who will spell it out, how do you search for it?  The same might be said for J, E, D, and P, who, along with R, put together the Pentateuch, but at least there you can search for phrases involving more than one letter.  You see, scholars existed before the internet and its search parameters.  Books and articles used to be written on paper, and the former had indexes, so looking up your sources—single letter or not—was fairly easily.  With electronic searching, it has become more difficult.  That’s not to say that single-letter searches can’t be coded—they can—but apart from biblical scholars and their alphabet soup of sources, apparently most people don’t want single-letter options.

This is the trouble with specializing in ancient things.  The internet was originally designed for academic and military purposes—serious stuff.  But then, like everything else in the world it became commodified.  Like a once pristine countryside it has billboards plastered everywhere after one’s Gelt.  (Scholars also like to throw in random foreign words to show how smart they are.)  And when it comes to searches, why enable atomistic, single-letter searching when it won’t end up in the sale of something?  In any case, my search did not end successfully.  I eventually gave up.  And in the light of the ever-shining internet, I’ve opted for the one-source hypothesis.

It must be in here somewhere…

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.

Epistle Writer

I’ve been reading about Paul.  You know, that Paul.  What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense.  Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions.  Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about.  A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.

There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.  Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims.  At some points he sounds downright modern.  Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power.  Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people.  This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues.  Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth.  The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome.  Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.

The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes.  Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected.  There are no committee minutes.  We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing.  With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible.  Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all.  He makes reference to letters that we don’t have.  What might he have written therein?  Is part of divine revelation missing?  The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.”  Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless.  Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial.  For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.

Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

Devil of the Time

There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.

Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?

The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

Wise Women

At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.

Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.

The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.