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Patmos is Just Around The Corner

For years, I now realise, I have studied the New Testament, but not actually read it. Every time I've sat down with those familiar passages, as I have done pretty much every day for decades, it has been with a  text divided up into chapters and verses by Erasmus 1500 or so years after they were written. Every version of the Bible I own, except one, has copious footnotes and cross references to which I turn when befuddled. So now, I am reading it, not studying it, in the exception, my one version from which all that stuff has been deleted. It's just me and these old words. I'm reading each of the documents of the New Testament in one sitting, and leaving a few days between each one to give a bit of thinking space. This morning it was Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, so Philippians will roll around on Saturday or Sunday. I'll be finished by the end of the month, I think.

What has been left out by omitting the divisions in the text and the explanatory material is the church's tradition: that long history of scholarship which has told us what these texts mean. Reading them, as we usually do,  piecemeal, in small shards wrapped liberally in interpretation, means that all sense of the flow of the text is lost, and we become engaged in an odd exegetical spiral. Our doctrine is, so we claim, based on the text, but our reading of the text is never free of our doctrine. So our church constructs itself over the centuries and divides and fights, and produces phenomena like Donald Trump's panel of Tremendous Faith Advisors, and Creflo Dollar, and Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, which are about as far removed from Jesus of Nazareth as it's possible to be, and which all claim legitimacy from the texts and the traditions which interpret them. 

Of course, my faith too has been formed in a particular self reinforcing interpretive stream, so it has been revelatory to be alone with the naked text, or as close as I can be while reading in translation, which is, of course, yet one more layer of interpretation.

Each of the Gospels tells a story of Jesus, and I had never quite noticed before the extent of the differences between them. There is Mark, for whom Jesus bursts into history and for whom everything happens suddenly: "and straightway" is his very favourite phrase.  There is Luke with his meandering interest in story and whose definitive account of the resurrection does not happen at the tomb but on the road To Emmaus. There is Matthew taking pains to weave his account of Jesus into the Old Testament narrative. There is John with his lengthy monologues, placed into the mouth of the writer and of Jesus. I read each of these, and the person of Jesus of Nazareth has never seemed more clear. Or more enigmatically hidden.

Then there is the Acts of the Apostles with all its ellipses and omissions and glosses.

And then there is Paul.

I've always struggled a bit with the Epistles, but never more so than the last week or so. There are flashes of brilliance and great beauty, but mostly there are turgid, meandering, opaque, impossibly long sentences addressed to contexts which - even with the thousands upon thousands of hours of scholarship spent and the oceans of ink expended - we have no hope of recovering. These are the passages which, even more than the Gospels, have shaped the Christian church and therefore shaped Western Civilisation, but their original sense is long gone, centuries beyond recovery.  They function as a kind of Rorschach Inkblot test, into which we read ourselves. The dangerous thing being of course, is that we invariably interpret our isogesis as "the true meaning of the epistle" and thus give our own opinions the weight of holy writ. And produce phenomena like Donald Trump's panel of Tremendous Faith Advisors, and Creflo Dollar, and Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.


Alden Smith said…
Inclusive of the reasons you give, I think that a reading of your Bibliotheca Bible is a more authentic experience considering that it contains the Apocrypha - I have never been quite sure why the post Reformation protestants excommunicated these books.

The Bibliotheca seems to have a similar intention as Eugene H. Peterson's "The Message" - 'The New Testament in Contemporary English'. This (controversial at the time) version also seeks to present the NT part of the Bible in a contemporary idiom divested of footnotes and with a free flowing text.

I am currently reading Bart D. Ehrman's 'Lost Scriptures' - 'Books that Did Not Make It into the New Textament'. It is interesting to read the over 40 so called "Non-Canonical" texts and reflect on the fact that a number of these texts: The Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of the Hebrews, Revelation of Peter, Acts of Peter and the Didache; although disputed were very well known and used in the early church as late as AD 300, with the final New Testament fixed for the West by the Council of Carthage circa AD400.

Although most of these texts were excluded from the Canon, I think it is important to read them to get some idea of the rich literary context from which "Canonical" choices were made and the historical context in which the NT was created. These choices were made by fallible humans beings with the best intentions; the books didn't fall from the sky fully bound in black leather with a little note from God regarding their infallibility (And all that that implies).

C.S.Lewis made the point that the truth (be it a spiritual or psychological truth) that is contained within Myth lives free of, and transcends the manner in which it is told. I take this view regarding the truth regarding "Gods" Love that is implicit in the life of Jesus - however the story is told - the transformational power of Love shines through.
Kelvin Wright said…
Indeed Bibliotheca does include the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, although they are in a separate volume, not included in the main body of the text as they are in e.g. The Jerusalem Bible.

As to why these passages were excluded at the Reformation, it is because although they form part of the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate text, they are not part of the Hebrew Text. Of course the Reformation scholars were only partially aware, if at all, when this decision was made, that the earliest complete and existing version of the Hebrew Text dated from about 1000 AD, and that the Septuagint was considerably older. It's worth noting too, that although the Roman Catholic Church includes these books they are regarded as deuterocanonical, and thus have a lesser standing that the other traditionally accepted books.

The various works which didn't make the cut when the composition of the New Testament was decided is another matter. Yes, there was debate about some works: Hebrews, James, Revelations, 2 Peter and others of the now canonical books that I can't now recall as well as several that didn't make the final cut but which have been at one time or another regarded as authoritative. That said however, there was considerable and widespread agreement on much of the NT - the 4 gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, most of Paul - by the end of the second century.

I have a couple of collections of apocryphal New Testament books and have read, at one time or another, most of the main contenders. They are almost invariably late, and while some of them have intriguing passages which may preserve fragments of Jesus' teaching not included in the NT, the reasons for excluding them seem obvious to me, in terms of their usually fantastical style, heavy borrowings from other traditions, inclusion of farcical miracle stories etc.

Elaine Pagels has done some intriguing work on various apocryphal texts, particularly the Gospel of Thomas, and Cynthia Bourgeault is fascinating on her examination of Jesus' teaching as revealed in apocryphal sources. Both of these scholars has a fairly heavy feminist agenda, which I sympathise with: it would seem that in the early church the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and their presence amongst the disciples was systematically and relentlessly suppressed, and both have interesting (and I think convincing) theses on the role of Mary Magdalene in particular.

It is true that the early church was far from homogenous in practice and belief, and that the need for uniformity became more and more pressing as the church acquired social standing and respectability, culminating in its proclamation as the religion of the Roman Empire: a victory that has proven to be a very mixed blessing indeed for the message of Jesus of Nazareth.
Alden Smith said…
It is easy to read the texts and understand why some of the early NT writings were regarded as more authoritative and authentic than others. It is also easy to understand the controversial claims as to why the emerging church itself introduced even stranger texts and ideas and concocted some even stranger dogmas. An example of these is contained in John Hicks book 'The Metaphor of God Incarnate - Christology in a Pluralistic Age'. Hick states that scholarly consensus agrees that a writer sixty years or more later introduced into the canonical texts the idea that Jesus had said "I and the Father are one" (John 10.30) and "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14.9) Later the dogma 'Extra ecclesiam nulla salus' - Outside the church there is no salvation - was introduced.

Both these human constructs - A particular sense in which Jesus was deified (There are a number of senses in which Jesus as an expression of deity can be understood)
and the insistence on the exclusiveness of salvation have not in the long run served the church well and are both concepts many agree require modifications - something that the church has the capacity to do since it has been producing and modifying dogma for over 2000 years.

I agree with Hicks view:

"That the idea of divine incarnation is better understood as metaphorical than as literal - Jesus embodied, or incarnated, the ideal of human life lived in faithful response to God, so that God was able to act through him, and he accordingly embodied a love which is a human reflection of the divine love .... that we can rightly take Jesus, so understood, as out Lord, the one who has made God real to us and whose life and teachings challenge us to live in God's presence and that a non traditional Christianity based on this understanding of Jesus can see itself as one among a number of different human responses to the ultimate transcendent Reality that we call God, and can better serve the development of world community and world peace than a Christianity which continues to see itself as the locus of final revelation and purveyor of the only salvation possible for all human beings".
Kelvin Wright said…
I'm not quite sure what you mean by your references to the Gospel of John. I know of no evidence which would suggest that the passages you quote are later extrapolations to the text. It is true that the Gospel of John was written some decades (no one is quite sure how many, but the earliest surviving fragment of the NT is a piece of the Gospel of John found in Egypt, and carbon dated to 120 AD) after the event.

But this is to be expected. There is a common sort of assumption that the Bible is the source of Christian belief, but actually it is the product of Christian belief. The church did not arise from the teaching of the Bible, the Bible arose from the church. The Bible documents the early years of a process that is ongoing and always incomplete: that is the understanding of the world and of God which comes from an encounter with the divine mediated by the life, teaching and presence of Jesus Christ.

The early church was a diverse group of people, generally from the unlettered and impoverished layers of Roman society whose commonality was their experience of Jesus. As they reflected on that experience they developed traditions: ways of explaining their common life. These gave rise to a myriad of documents, some of which were regarded as so universally authoritative that they were given, by common agreement, the status of scripture. But the development of understanding didn't end there, and the teachings of the fathers and mothers of the church and. the decisions of various councils became foundational ways in which the church defined itself and it's particular shared worldview. And the development of the church's self understanding has continued unabated.

I have no trouble believing that Jesus said that "The Father and I are one" and "If anyone has seen me they have seen the father", or that the writer of the fourth Gospel accurately preserved that fragment of Jesus' teaching. What Jesus meant by that is the interesting question. The questions of the divinity of Jesus aren't quite as simple as you, and maybe John Hick, suggest. I think that many Christians have fairly crude understandings of this: God is a trinity and one of the bits of that trinity sort of detached and wandered around on the planet earth for a bit. But I think its a little more profound than that, and I have been helped, of late in my understanding of the Trinity and of the incarnation by the British Theologian Sarah Coakley and by the Canadian Orthodox one, David Bentley Hart. In my understanding, the binary opposition of metaphorical and literal don't make a lot of sense. I think Jesus was more than the embodiment of an ideal; I believe that in him the great will which is the ground and origin of all things was uniquely present and was furthering our evolution in a way which we are still figuring out.
Alden Smith said…
Thank you for taking the time to write yet again with great clarity about stuff that I guess we have been discussing on and off via your blog for a number of years. I hold the opinions expressed in your replies in high regard - always informative and thought provoking.

My remark regarding later extrapolations to the text of the Gospel of John comes from this opinion in John Hicks book:

“...... there was, however at the time a hearty welcome to the book [The Myth Pub:1977] from many others, both inside and outside the churches, who were delighted to find theologians writing openly about the historical study of the scriptures and of Christian origins. They, too, were indignant - indignant that the churches had so long encouraged them to go on innocently assuming, for example, that the historical Jesus had said ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 14.9), rather than revealing the scholarly consensus that a writer some sixty years or more years later, expressing the theology that had developed in his part of the church, put these famous words into Jesus’ mouth. Indeed these Christians were indignant that the Churches so generally failed to treat them as intelligent adults who could be trusted with the results of biblical and theological scholarship. The shock to the ecclesiastical system was a repetition on a smaller scale of that caused in Britain fourteen years earlier by John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’.

I agree that questions regarding the divinity of Jesus are indeed not simple matters. John Hick uses material from the work of the British theologian Sarah Coakley that you mentioned and when discussing the concept of ‘incarnation’ he quotes her carefully distinguished six senses in which a Christian theology can be said to be incarnational. The definitions form an ascending scale with the last two stipulating that Jesus has been and will be the - Only - divine incarnation in the sense that ‘no other person could ever be like this again, or convey God in this way’. At this part of my journey I part company with this definition which expresses the ‘exclusiveness’ of Christianity. I also part with the idea of trinity which I think underpins this exclusive claim - while still retaining the idea that in some special way Jesus was someone in whom God found a special expression. (Perhaps in the manner of a Buddhist ‘Bodhisattva’).

The definition that I understand the best and accept at this time is first in Sarah Coakleys ascending scale:

“ In the first sense, an incarnational theology is one that affirms God’s involvement in human life. Thus in acting within human history (as depicted throughout the Hebrew scriptures) God is present with us in the flow of time. The basic thought here is that human life and history are important to God, who is at all times ‘Immanuel’, God with us. In this first sense all versions of Christianity are incarnational; and so also are Judaism, Islam and Sikhism and, in very different ways, extending beyond theism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism and forms of primal religion. “

Thank you for the mention of Sarah Coakley and David Bentley Hart, I think it may be fruitful for me to find out more about their thinking.

Kelvin Wright said…
I can see what Hicks meant. The opinion of some, maybe most, scholars is that the Gospels represent the faith not of individual authors but of communities. So John's Gospel is a record of the tradition that developed within the community assembled around John; and its record of the sayings of Jesus represent not so much what Jesus said, but what they needed him to have said. Well, who knows? From this vantage point we can have no possible way of saying definitively that the words are the words of Jesus. But on the other hand, we have no possible way of saying that they aren't the words of Jesus. Whichever way you read it, it's a matter of faith.

All we have is the story, and as the story was gathered by the church, in it's first or second century stage of development, so down the years it has been interpreted by the church. The revelation is, therefore, not so much a once and for all event which we look back to and try and discern, but an ongoing, living process, in which the formation of the scripture is only one part, albeit a seminal and foundational one.

As to the Trinity, of course it is an invention of the church and derives not so much from the Bible as from the reflection on the Biblical text with 3 or 4 centuries of hindsight. But it shouldn't therefore be dismissed lightly. One of the traps we fall into when trying to nut out what the trinity means is our inability to see God as No-Thing. God is not a thing, that is, not some object or process or person that is subject to the laws and properties of thingness. When we see God as a thing, then we get all tangled up trying to make the laws of the universe as we understand them apply to God and therefore the three and one business gives rise to absurdities like transubstantiation, or like many of the ridiculous theories of atonement, or to the interminable squabbles of the early church about whether God the Son was of the same nature or of like nature to God the Father.

I appreciate David Bentley Hart's clear headedness in describing the experience of God as being of Being, Consciousness and Bliss (read his The Experience of God for further details) which has quite neat trinitarian implications. I like Sarah Coakley's emphasis on the Trinity as relational and dynamic rather than substantial and essential. But enough of that. None of us can think of God, but we can invent metaphors and images, and it's pretty easy to mistake our metaphors, particularly the fancy one with big words involved for the real thing.
Alden Smith said…
I have a copy of David Bentley Harts ‘Atheist Delusions - The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies’. I was reminded why I failed to continue reading this book when looking at reviews of the book you recommend ‘The Experience of God’. It was highly rated by 95% of the readers, but a number commented on his style. One comment stated:

“An example of Hart’s language would be “a level barely above the insentient.” Contemptuous turns of phrase, be the temptation to employ them ever so strong, particularly when legions of internet trolls constantly dog all of our heels, do not to my mind represent the topic “The Experience of God” very well. Perhaps invective is simply de rigueur in academic circles? I don’t know.”

It was this flavour that left a bad taste in my mouth and why I put the book down. But I have Amazoned ‘The Experience of God’ and will read both books.

Observing some of DBHart characteristics within myself, (often in spades) it provides me with a springboard to comment on something that has slowly (being a slow learner and bear of small brain) dawned on me over the last few years and is the end point of the ideas that I have been muddling through (I can hear the sighs of relief).

Our conceptual spiritual truth …… should be the truth that we live (Practising what we preach). Concepts, ideas, whatever, regarding our world view only exist as truth when we incarnate them into the world by our actions. Without our action our ideas only exist as potentialities and only have the reality of dreams. Intellectual discussion and the transformational tools of meditation and contemplative prayer only take us so far - none of this has any life or truth until it lives and has its being within a life of freely chosen loving kindness, with morality (The Tao) as its compass - which all sounds self evident and a no brainer - but it is alarming how easy it is to get caught up in the conversation and not live out the simple truth of 'Gods' love.
Down the final road I think we may see loves reality from a non ego point of view - paradoxically the world and our ‘being’ will be the Same, but Transformed - As the Zen Buddhist saying goes - ‘Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood’.
Kelvin Wright said…
David Bentley Hart does not suffer fools gladly,which is a characteristic of his that I quietly enjoy. In truth, the arguments of some of his opponents are not robust; in fact they are downright adolescent, and he wastes no time in pointing this out.

In the Experience of God, his early chapters get a little polemical as he dismisses, with some vigour, the arguments of some popular atheists. He points out that what they are railing against is not actually God, but something akin to a demiurge, a thing subject to the laws of the universe - which of course is an absurdity. This is not a matter of what you believe or don't, it's a matter of understanding what "God" - as a philosophical concept- is. Atheists don't have this misunderstanding on their own. Many Theists also seem to be working with a concept of God as a kind of thing, and it gives rise to all manner of preposterous theology. DBH then goes on to outline the 3 ways in which people "experience" God (experience being not exactly the right term, but it'll do)

The other characteristic of DBH that some find daunting is his formidable and enviable command of the English language. I always read him with a dictionary to hand, the first time I have ever had to do this with any author. I invariably find that the obscure words he uses have never been chosen just to show his erudition, but because they are exactly right for the context.
Alden Smith said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelvin Wright said…
"For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. " - Meister Eckhart

"...let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath, for people's wrath does not work the righteousness of God." - Epistle of James

I would recommend finding one of the many videos of DBH that there are on Youtube. He comes across as far less ferocious.

And isn't it a wonderful blessing to see your children partnered with admirable people?

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