Wooden Translation?

The summer got away from me, as it always seems to, leaving several boxes of things yet to be sorted.  Since these boxes are in the garage where there’s no heat, doing it during winter isn’t really feasible.  Still, I found myself in the garage storage area the other day and quickly tipped open a box or two to remind myself of what might be inside.  One of the treasures I found is actually from my wife’s family memorabilia.  Not exactly a family Bible, it’s a New Testament one of her grandfathers gave one of her grandmothers as a gift.  It’s a red-letter edition, but what makes it unusual is the binding.  It has olive wood covers from Jerusalem.  The front cover is embossed with a Jerusalem cross.

Bookbinding has long been an area of personal fascination.  Growing up when and how I did, most of my books are paperbacks.  The paperback was initially one of the responses to shortages introduced by wars.  Since they were cheaper to produce they could be priced down.  I have a few academic paperbacks from the twenties (I can’t make myself acknowledge that 1920 was a century ago) whose paper bindings are literally paper.  I fear to take them off the shelf, given the fragile nature of their bindings.  Prior to that books tended to be “hardbacks.”  A piece of cloth-covered cardboard was the preferred means of protecting the vulnerable leaves inside.  Before that leather was routinely used.  Those were the days when books were properly thought of as an investment.

I often think of how little I will leave behind, at least in terms of items of monetary value.  Books seldom maintain their cover price for long.  As someone who lurks on used book websites, however, I do know that the choice tome of either quirky fiction or nonfiction under-appreciated at the time can easily jump market values with predatory sellers.  Even for a paperback.  I am loath to confess how much I’ve paid for a book I really needed for research that mere public libraries simply can’t access.  (The university library is a place of wonder, and one of the resources I most often miss in having become secular.)  Just this past week I saw a sci-fi book from the sixties I wanted to read priced at over $500 on Amazon (used).  When I went to check on it this morning all copies were gone.  And to think the world considers books a poor investment.  The real key is to be obscure, no matter your binding material.

Powerful Wink

Those of us who became academically aware (in the biblical field) in the 1980s knew the name of Walter Wink.  Now, if you’ve ever become academically aware, you know that we all know some names vaguely, as if seen in a glass darkly, and some more intimately.  Wink fell into the former category for me.  He specialized in “the other testament,” and although I read Greek quite well, my academic track led me through Hebrew to Ugaritic and beyond, in the opposite direction.  I taught New Testament in my academic career, but never found the time to go back to Wink.  I knew he’d written about “the powers,” and the idea was interesting, but I had other research I was doing and I never got around to him.  Now I’ve finally finished the first volume of his famed trilogy on the powers (Naming the Powers).

“Powers” was a circumlocution for many things in antiquity.  It is a high abstraction.  Why do you do what you’re told?  The powers.  They can be human, such as bullies or governments (which are increasingly difficult to distinguish), or they can be supernatural.  Much of Wink’s book is technical—this isn’t easy going, even if it’s theology.  He looks closely at the terminology of power and exegetes it minutely.   The book comes alive, however, in part 3.  There were quite a few worthy insights here, but the one that struck me the hardest is how institutions generate a power that no one individual can control or contain, let alone comprehend.  As Wink points out, a school isn’t a building.  What goes on inside such a building takes on a power that reaches beyond any of the individuals involved in teaching or learning.  Think of Harvard.  What is it?  Who is it?  It bears power simply by the citation of its name.  No scientist can quantify it, but none will dispute it either.

Thinking about “the powers that be” in this way is transformative.  Wink draws this into the ancient perception that what is happening “down here” is merely a reflection of what is taking place on high.  Not unique to Christianity, or even monotheism, the idea that our lives reflect the reality of some higher power is pervasive in human thought.  And institutions.  Harvard, as most prestigious universities, essentially began as a place to train clergy.  Even at this stage it began to exert a power.  Today Harvard (and many other schools) still hosts a seminary and training ground for clergy.  They face a largely unbelieving society when they’re done.  And if they’re at all like me, it might take them decades to realize something may be missing.


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.


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.

Prophecy of Hezekiah

Maybe my recollection of the Gospel’s a bit hazy. I seem to remember one of the main characters of the New Testament saying something about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And turning the other cheek. I may be recalling incorrectly, since Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s “evangelical advisors” (and since when do Presidents need evangelical advisors?) has said the Bible gives you permission to take out your enemies. Granted, it takes a twisted exegesis of Romans, and twisted exegesis works best in twisted minds, but this runs full frontal in the gospel ideal of love just two books earlier in the Good Book. Forcing the Bible to say what you want it to say is a tactic as old as preaching itself, but still, those of us with training in Scripture shudder.

Pulling verses out of context like the Bible’s a magic book is called “prooftexting.” Not related to the current plague of texting, prooftexting means you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to. The classic example is that the Bible says “there is no God.” Check it out. I’ll even give you the reference: Psalm 14:1. What’s that? I’ve left out the most important part? “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”? You see what I mean. The danger here is that a feeble-minded, biblically illiterate world leader could easily be swayed. Nukes, after all, are great for your ego. Who wouldn’t want the Bible to say that it’s fine to take out all your enemies, and horde all the money you possibly can (not it’s not the root of all evil—Paul is dead, after all.) Except Paul wrote Romans. How are we ever to decide?

The Washington Post story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey may not suggest that we should pay attention to Bible scholars—hey let’s not get too radical here!—but the world would be a very different place if we did. The Bible is a complex and difficult holy book. (As most holy books are.) The idea used to be that you had to spend a lifetime in a monastery, or at least a few years in a seminary, to say something intelligent about it. And that training wasn’t reinforcement of literalism. But we live in a brave new world. A world that re-envisions Jesus as the loving God with his finger firmly on the button. And sycophant preachers saying, “Go ahead, make my day.” It’s all there in the book of Hezekiah.

Fundamental Fear

Something truly scary landed on my desk. Working for an organization that has many different departments, there’s no way to know everyone. So when something bible-ish arrives in the mail, it gets directed to me. Now, I don’t follow the afterlife of creepy religious people through prison, so it took a few minutes to remember who Warren Jeffs is. I knew I’d read about him but I couldn’t remember where. Then I remembered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs was once the head of this church before being put into prison for child sexual assault crimes. So why had he sent a copy of Jesus Christ Message to All Nations to my publishing house? It is already published, and it is rather modeled on the Bible, at least at a surface level. No letter, no instructions. Just a book that I felt I needed to wash my hands after touching.


I’d not heard of this book before. The author is boldly listed as Jesus Christ. “President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God” it says, given credit for, I suppose, putting pen to paper. What’s to prevent me, I wondered, from claiming God wrote what I framed into words? It is far too easy a claim to make and the credulous follow where the bold lead. That’s the way human authority, unfortunately, often works. Someone with a surfeit of testosterone declares that he speaks with absolute authority—I think of angry atheists as well as televangelists here. Such sense of irrational conviction must feel god-like. I can only guess from the sidelines. And I wonder about those who wrote what are recognized as scriptures in other religions.

Did those who wrote the books of the Bible, for instance, ever feel that they were writing unquestioned truth? Might they not have been a bit more circumspect? Maybe they were writing in the heat of inspiration, but not with the confidence of claiming divinity. Somehow I doubt even that. Writing is a human activity. The creator of an entire universe shouldn’t need to use it. Still, religions are often built around written texts. Parts of the New Testament claim to come from Jesus of Nazareth, although he’s not the actual writer. I guess he must have been working on later works of which I’ve never heard. And I do wonder how the doctrine of the faulty vessel applies in cases like this. I know better than to ask a Fundamentalist of any stripe, because I already know the answer they would give.

When in Rome

69ADMost biblical scholars know that the synoptic Gospels began to take their rough shape around 70 C.E. Many middle school children have heard stories of the Romans, in their bullying way, putting Christians in the arenas to be savaged by wild beasts. It would take a precocious child, or adult for that matter, to recognize that in 69 C.E., Rome went through four emperors. I found Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors quite informative, not having be a precocious child (or adult). The times I’ve taught New Testament courses I have found myself fascinated by the stern and stoic culture that the Romans constructed. Maybe it is because I see so much of our own society in it. Maybe it is because the New Testament is much easier to understand with a basic grasp of the early Roman Empire.

Early in his historical account, Morgan makes a salient point. I had to stop and consider the implications of it. Going over the sources for the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and early Vespasian, mainly Tacitus, Morgan reveals the truth of history: it is story. Romans measured the value of an historian not only by getting the facts right; literary artistry was, in many respects, even more important than dry facts. What might this mean for the Gospels? Anyone who has actually read the Gospels knows they hold some obvious contradictions, some subtle, some not. In a culture that understands the Bible as “history,” in the modern sense, many believers kick their brains into overtime to harmonize discrepancies so that we can have, as Sergeant Friday would say, “just the facts.” But the Gospels, like Roman historians, are telling a story. There is some license here. After all, none of the writers were likely eyewitnesses of the events they describe.

The events of 69 also help to explain the frustrations that the Romans would so unkindly take out on the early Christians. The calm, logical world of reason and the force of law had repeatedly broken down (as they will), perhaps most spectacularly just as the Gospels were being written. Threats and fears of a total societal collapse whipped the Romans into a froth of intolerance. Those who threatened to rock the ship of state could be cast to the sharks, to adapt the metaphor. New religions with new gods don’t mix in a state where the old gods appear to have fled. Indeed, I couldn’t help but get the feeling, as I was reading about ancient history, that I was reading about things not so very long ago. Fear brings out religious conservatism in just about any society. The juxtaposition of the Gospels’ composition with Rome’s period of great stress might just be one of those metaphors that we can still use to explain how a rational civilization loses its grip on what’s really real. And that’s true in any age.

The Spice of Religion

BrakkeGnosticsI haven’t really forgotten about the Bible. It has been such an integral part of my life that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. Going into religious studies, however, I feared New Testament studies. You see, having gotten a taste of historical criticism with good old J, E, P, and D, I was afraid what might happen if I looked Q a little too closely in the face. We now know, however, that the New Testament was just as redacted as the “Old,” and that there wasn’t a single variety of Christianity, even in the first century. I just finished David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity. Brakke admits right up front that some will see him as not being radical enough, but since middle-of-the-road is a comfortable place to be, I found his introduction in the realm of the little bear, just right. The old story, perhaps originating with Irenaeus of Lyon, is that Christianity began as a monolithic faith and then came along these spoil-sports like the Gnostics and soon nobody could keep the truth straight any more. This is, of course, an over-simplification.

Religions are constantly shifting. As Brakke points out, there was no definitive Christianity when Christianity was still Jewish. Paul never calls himself a Christian, and he was, by his own declaration, Jewish. His interpretation of Jesus varies greatly from that of the eponymous John, of Gospel and Epistle fame. No, there never was a single Christianity. Probably from the very beginning there were Gnostics too. And, again with Brakke, they would have supposed they were following what was to become Christianity as well. Same world, different worldviews. They were not sinister and plotting, any more than other varieties of Christians were sinister and plotting. They were trying to live out lives in accordance with what they thought life was all about.

It has become clear over the last several decades that Christianity never really did unify into a single belief system. Constantine certainly gave it his best shot, but Christianity had spread beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire already, and heterodoxy was rife. No account of Late Antiquity can be honest without noting all the fighting going on among true believers about who was a, well, true believer. Really. Tensions existed early between eastern and western brands of Christianity and schisms became as common as missals. Nobody was really able to put Christianity back together again. In fact, this Humpty Dumpty never was an uncracked egg. I’m afraid I’m taking liberties with Brakke here, but the basic truth remains. Christianity came in its own 57 varieties, most of which didn’t blend very well. The Gnostics come out looking pretty good. That is especially the case when the proto-orthodox start gathering stones. In such a case, it is perhaps time to read the Gnostic scriptures to get a little perspective.


It takes a mighty powerful stimulus to get the media to pay attention to biblical scholars. It is no surprise, therefore, when the Society of Biblical Literature meets with the American Academy of Religion each November that, for a few days a year, Bible becomes chic. This year various newspaper articles appeared, perhaps warning Chicagoans what all these crusty professors were doing invading their fair city, but the one that caught my eye was in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle is the purveyor of all that is high-brow and sophisticated, epithets seldom applied to the Bible. The story in November 19’s edition made this clear by throwing in a little scandal—some Bible scholars believe the Bible to be “morally bankrupt.” Now there’s a twist. Nor is it really that hard to understand. Anyone who’s read the Bible seriously will have to admit to having squirmed a time or two at the moral implications. Dashing babies heads against the rocks will be one of those places.


In a society accustomed to seeing in black and white, morally at least, it is difficult to get the religiously convicted to admit that the Bible is a pastiche. Some parts are morally sublime (yes, even in the Hebrew Bible where “love your neighbor as yourself” originates) while others are ethically execrable (can I get an amen from the babies?). It is always interesting to see friends quoted in the media. I taught Hebrew Bible for 18 years without anyone really being that interested (including most students). I guess maybe I wasn’t radical enough. To me the Bible has to be viewed in balance, the moment one falls on their knees before it the corruption has begun. Interestingly, the article focuses on the New Testament side of the equation. That’s where the sexier conflicts wallow.

People arguing about the Bible. Is there anything more representative of American culture? It happens every four years, at least. Ironically the Bible quite often stresses the unity of those who believe. With thousands of denominations mutually excommunicating each other, one has to wonder if the Bible is living up to its full potential. Not that anyone will notice. Amid all the well-heeled, tenured professors, satisfied with their lot in life mill the hundreds who’ve spent thousands earning their advanced degrees. They are the lost generation—those for whom there are no, never were any, jobs. They are every bit as capable, and in many instances even more capable, than their tenured compatriots. The level of concern, at least at a visible level: nil. That, more than anything, indicates to me the true morals of studying the Bible.

Always Against Us

In one of the coolest homework assignments ever, my daughter was supposed to watch The Matrix. Her digital electronics class makes constant reference to the movie, so her teacher decided that in order to “get it,” those who hadn’t seen the movie should watch it. I know the film has many nay-sayers and some of the acting may not attain the highest standards, but it remains among my favorite movies. At Nashotah House, early in the dawning millennium, many students watched the film religiously. One student had it on his laptop and a small knot of his classmates would gather around just about every morning to watch before my class began. I was a bit put off by the claims that it was a “New Testament allegory,” but I have come to realize that without resurrection, the film industry in this country would be dead. American audiences (especially) crave the possibility of coming back. And even though I’m as much a sucker for a good love story as the next guy, that resurrection scene isn’t the highlight of the movie. Not by a long shot.

The Matrix has always been one of my favorites because of the basic premise: what if the world is not real? I’ve been plagued by that question for about as long as I can remember. When, in my first philosophy class, I learned about naïve realism, my worldview shifted. Who’s to say what’s real? And if someone decides to shoot me to shut me up, the lights might go out, but will there be anything left behind? Not that I believe I’m a source of energy for evil robot overlords (I get too easily chilled to believe that), but I often think about the tenuousness of it all. Our reality changes when we fall asleep, and each day we assume that a continuity is the same as the essence of our existence. There’s no way to check it, however, and I’m not entirely convinced. That’s why I like The Matrix so much. Someone else understands my deep fear that none of this is real.

The moment when Neo refuses to leave, but turns to fight Agent Smith, Trinity asks Morpheus what is happening. Morpheus responds, “He’s beginning to believe!” That line always gets me. The idea that something out there actually tips the balance on the side of good creates a longing so deep that it hurts. When I wake up the next morning, however, I see the headlines bring more suffering, more status quo ante-Christ. The last thing I want to see on the front page is Chris Christie’s face first thing in the morning. It can be a very cruel world. In one of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole episodes, a scientist suggests that a Matrix-like world may match our reality. God, the scientist suggests, may be a programmer and has coded us to live in a virtual world. The tapping of my fingers is just an algorithm. I’m not yet beginning to believe that. But if I ever do I’ll be forced to conclude that our programming deity has either a wicked sense of humor, or is just plain wicked.