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
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