Thus far in the series we have covered everything from Mr. Jefferson’s Deism to King Solomon’s euphemisms for adventures in coitus: “I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey” (Song of Songs 5:1). We have discussed the Bible as a political tool, issues in biblical translation, biblical manuscript history, the benign-&-asinine Mark of the Beast, plus a number of other subjects, including how unfaithfulness to God was best understood in ancient times as sex with an Egyptian with the sperm count of the Black Stallion.
This article concentrates mainly on issues of biblical canon.
While a number of individuals, including ministers, have pleasantly shocked me with encouragement (noting how fundamentalism has usurped their beloved religion), a number of non-believers have weighed in with comments along the lines of: “So what? The Bible is an irrelevant tome of fairy tales.”
If you are an atheist, agnostic or practitioner of another faith, you of course have every right to your beliefs or lack thereof. But it distresses me that some progressives do not understand why such a series is critical. Nearly one-third of our nation’s voters are members of the Christian Right: individuals who cast their votes at the polls based on misinterpretations of their holy writ, unaware that these misinterpretations are often presented to them intentionally by those who use them as political pawns. (Or maybe you’ve never heard of The Family.)
I believe it is incumbent upon all progressives to gird themselves with sufficient information to disarm Christian fundamentalism. These Modern Day Crusaders are ransacking liberty and freedom as we speak across the Fruited Plain. Just look at North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, etc., et al. Panic about Sharia Law should be the furthest thing from our minds, when Evangelical theocracy is an actual threat.
Are we simply “to hope” religiously fanatical legislators out of office? (As a reminder, the Egyptian military is not going to come to our rescue.)
The ground game of politics in the 21st century is information, not battle axes. And it’s high-time Christian scholars start blowing the roof off of idiotic fundamentalist hermeneutics. I hope this series will inspire progressive theologians to step forward and start calling a religious turd a turd.
Also, I imagine somewhere in Ottumwa, Iowa, there’s a guy named Floyd. Floyd is already dreading his annual Thanksgiving Weekend trek to Fullerton, California, to visit his sister, brother-in-law and their four children. Every year, Floyd listens to their right-wing religious bloviating while he fills himself with turkey and stuffing, but he has no clue how to counter their nonsensical beliefs.
This series is for all the Floyds out there. While the pumpkin pie is being passed around the table this year, see if your right-wing relatives can offer a counter-explanation for why the Mark of the Beast was clearly a code word for Emperor Nero (Revelations 13) or how the biblical paradigm for Christian living should be something other than communism (Acts 5).
The Bible: Canon as in Rods Not Balls
Back to canon. Since this word is going to be bandied about in this article, we may as well define it, lest the reader keep wondering whether he or she is about to be bombarded with balls. No, not the kind of balls one finds in Deuteronomy 23:1: “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” I’m talking about “canon” as in unit of measurement.
“Canon” is a Greek term that perhaps is best understood as “measuring rod.” Down through time, the word has gathered the connotation of “standard.” As in, the canon of Western literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce, et al.
The “biblical canon” is a reference to the independent ‘books’ that make up the multi-century anthology project known as The Bible. Certain books were let into the club, certain books were excluded. An example of an excluded book is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a 2nd-century CE manuscript which portrays a Little Lord Fauntleroy Jesus blowing up snakes and smiting neighborhood boys for bumping into him. Another book that did not make the New Testament canon is the Syriac Infancy Gospel, a much later (6th century CE) manuscript which features a Christological poopy diaper that has the power to heal.
The Bible: Scratch ’N Sniff Divine Breath on Vellum
While at times Roman Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicalism stand side-by-side in the contemporary American political arena, at the end of the day, they remain very divided on the notion of Holy Scripture.
If you are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, God can speak to you through the Yellow Pages if the opportunity presents itself—especially if a pope or bishop happens to be the editor-in-chief. But if you are Protestant, God has limited his omnipotence for speaking infallibly to Sola Scriptura: through Scripture alone.
How do we know this? Because the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a guy named Timothy.
The New Testament contains two letters to a Mr. Timothy, Paul’s close companion and underling in evangelism on various treks to Greece and Asia Minor. In fact, Mr. Timothy ultimately became Bishop of Ephesus, a city famous as that Ancient Wonder of the World with a temple devoted to fecund Artemis, goddess of the zillion boobs (wouldn’t Solomon be jealous?).
At any rate, Paul the Evangelist told Timothy in a letter that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” (II Timothy 3:16).
Ask yourself the following question: Do you think that the Apostle Paul, when sitting down to write this letter, would have agreed that his private letter to his prodigy was the divine word of God? Beyond this, do you think St. Paul was referring to documents, such as the Gospels themselves, which weren’t even penned yet?
If so, I wonder what the God of Ages meant to communicate to all future generations of humanity by Paul’s final sign-off to Timothy to get back to Rome before winter. What deep spiritual meaning is to be found in the call for Timothy to hurry up or stock up on moon boots?
One little ink-scripted sentence penned 2,000 years ago has become a justification of generations of religious misinterpretation. Let that be a lesson to all of us before clicking SEND on any email we haven’t bothered to proofread.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, at least to my mind, is one of the more mindboggling concepts in the history of religion since ever it occurred to humans to start offering oblations to sun discs and desert jackals. How is it possible to delegate ultimate theological determination to a book which, in actuality, has no master copy? (See discussion of biblical manuscript history in Article III.) Upon arriving at a biblical textual variant—of which there are hundreds—how does one determine which passage is “God-breathed” and which is profane?
Whoa! Now wait a second. Sola Scriptura is a bedrock theological foundation for many Christians who are not devotees of Michele Bachmann. True. So let’s hear Protestants out. The 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith states the following: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
For what it’s worth, “Scripture” in the Westminster Confession is defined as the canonical Protestant Bible: Genesis, Exodus, on and on to good ole 6-1-6 Revelation. Sorry, Judith and Maccabees, you’ve been demoted to the minors.
Well, just what is this Westminster Confession of Faith?
It’s nearly impossible to condense a century of Protestantism into two paragraphs, but here’s my best shot. In order to scion a son, Henry VIII split from Rome and created the Church of England. Simultaneous to Henry’s marital bed religious revolution, Martin Luther and John Calvin were busy thumbing their noses at Rome more due to serious gripes about indulgences and simony than for personal sexual purposes. However, lest one think Hank VIII and the Protestant Reformers were bedfellows against the papacy, Luther once called King Henry a “pig, dolt and liar,” while King Henry’s man, Thomas More, called Luther an “ape” and claimed that he was “the shit-pool of all shit.”
Yet 100 years into the establishment of Protestantism in England and Scotland, things were already screwed up to the point of needing yet another reformation. (Humans can always be counted on to screw up any legitimate reform.) Enter the 1640s, the Westminster Assembly as commissioned during the reign of Charles I, and its five Solae (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria), plus its condemnation of the Pope as the Antichrist and the Roman Mass as idolatry. (In just a matter of time, we will probably see such a bill introduced by the Texas Legislature.)
I’m going to let Reformation scholars weigh in fully via social media comments, but it seems pretty fair to state that the insipidity of American Evangelicalism, whether or not Rick Warren, Franklin Graham or Jimmy Swaggart are aware of this fact, owes an awful lot to wayward application of the Westminster Confession of Faith (and its cousin creeds of the time). When everything is just “Sola” me and the Holy Spirit, there’s an awful lot of room for hermeneutic abuse.
I hate to waste nearly 1,000 words on the subject, but I believe it is important to know the history behind why your Evangelical neighbor down the street pickets your local gay bar with a sign that reads “GOD HATES FAGS. MATT. 9:4-6.”
Your neighbor, through the Holy Spirit, and with some help via the delineation of Scripture into chapters and verses by the official 16th-century Greek publisher to the French House of Valois monarchs, Robert Estienne, turns to the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9, Verses 4 through 6, then scratches the calfskin page and from the fragrance of God’s breath thus released, discerns the Almighty’s hatred of homosexuals.
Let’s turn again to history to consider why we’re in this 21st-century hermeneutical mess.
By the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church, like so many American financial services companies, had pissed off so many people that the Protestant Revolution legitimately arose and declared, “Enough! As we can’t trust Rome anymore, the only thing that makes sense to trust is the canon of Scripture itself and the Voice of God guiding our interpretation of it.” Frankly, who could blame the Reformers?
Well, I can, for one, seeing as the great Reformer John Calvin had a supposed hand in the execution of Michael Servetus, a controversial theologian and also the first man to describe the function of pulmonary circulation! At least Servetus learned that if you crossed Calvin, you ended up on a fiery stake that burnt flesh no less severely than an Inquisitional barbecue.
Anyway, just so you know, there’s a rich history behind why isolated Bible verses and little else matters so much to American Evangelicals. Despite the fact that there’s no master copy of The Bible. Despite every other point made in this series. Even despite those who cannot enter God’s holy tabernacle because they’ve been so unfortunate as to lose their penis (see above, but definitely not below).
The Bible: The Biblical Canon in 666 Words or Less
We’ve spent so much time on Protestantism that we’ve hardly had a moment to devote to Eusebius, the Council of Nicaea or the Council of Trent.
By the time of Jesus, the 39 books of the Old Testament were locked and loaded as Judaic Scripture. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) was well-established. When Jesus showed up at synagogue as a boy, these were the books he heard recited. Except for the scroll of Song of Songs, which was kept in a curtained room in the back for Jewish adult males over the age of 40. (That’s a joke, but only sort of.)
If you want to read more about the history of the Old Testament, I recommend Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? I do not necessarily endorse all of Friedman’s theories, but it’s a quality primer on the subject.
If you’re looking for a solid Thanksgiving Dinner Old Testament canon question to ask your Evangelical family members, ask them who wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Odds are someone will reply, “Moses.” Simply suggest that this may not have been possible given that Deuteronomy 34:5 describes the death of Moses, and it is usually very difficult for a person to write about his own death.
As to the New Testament canon, the singular text on the subject is Bruce Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament. It’s an expensive scholarly work, yet worth one’s time if one has a hankering to learn more about the subject. Here is a used bargain bin link to this title.
The Council of Nicaea is often cited as a general chronological landmark for the establishment of the biblical canon. In 325 C.E., the Emperor Constantine, following his conversion to Christianity, ordered Christian bishops to convene in modern day Iznik, Turkey, to arrive at a matter of consensus on a variety of theological issues. (Consider this an early Catholic-Orthodox Westminster.) Not long thereafter, in 331 C.E., Constantine thought it would be a good idea for the Empire’s official religion to have 50 Bibles formally published. This period in the fourth century is also the dating of the oldest extant Bible, Codex Sinaiticus.
Anyone worth his or her salt in biblical scholarship can list several dozen non-canonical texts that were floating about in the three centuries leading up to this point and that claimed authorship by someone close to Jesus or one of his apostolic successors. Beyond this, there were works like The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve), written within one century of the life of Jesus and which Church Fathers like Eusebius considered worthy of canonical status. The Didache belongs to a corpus of works known as The Apostolic Fathers, which are evidential texts of Christianity in its cultural infancy but which ultimately did not make the canonical cut.
Unfortunately, for Evangelicals, nothing in The Didache is worth a Sola Scriptura hoot, including the classic Early Church exhortation to “hate all hypocrisy and everything that is not pleasing to the Lord” (Didache 4:12). Evangelicals must instead contemplate the Apostle Paul’s cautionary warning that Mr. Timothy purchase snowshoes before it is too late to travel to Rome (II Timothy 4:21).
Finally, there is the Council of Trent. No, this is not a lost Monty Python film. It was a Roman Catholic strike against Protestantism, held a mere 18 years between 1545-1563. Here the Roman Catholic Church, in its De Canonicis Scipturis, decided for once and all on the biblical canon (despite the fact that 31 of 55 voters either voted “nay” or abstained); validated Jerome’s wriggly 4th-century Vulgate Bible translation; and tossed into the street such spurious texts as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul as well as such trusted Apostolic Father texts as The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didache.
As a final note, the reasonably spurious Apocalypse of Peter happens to appear in the Muratorian Fragment, the oldest canonical list of the New Testament. The Muratorian Fragment states that the Apocalypse of Peter is no longer allowed to be read in church services. (If only it had said the same thing about the Book of Revelation, then Kirk Cameron would be out of a career.)
Really, though, the average Christian fundamentalist would be disappointed to learn that St. Pete’s Apocalypse fell shy of the canonical cut. In it, the people of heaven are described as Aryans with milky skin, curly hair and sartorial garb made of angelic lux. Here, everyone sings in perfect harmony, like so many AM radio Republican bullet points. Conversely, evildoers are the traditional liberal bastion of lesbians, women who have abortions for a hobby, and folks who playact Song of Songs out of wedlock. Clearly St. Peter’s Apocalypse was actually written by an ancient equivalent of Glenn Beck.
The Bible: Canonical Conclusion
Every election cycle, millions of Americans head to the polls and cast votes sincerely convinced that the Holy Spirit backs conservative politicians with Jesus in their back pocket. The basis for their fundamentalism is, tragically, a miniscule understanding of the complex history of their own religion.
I believe many fundamentalists would begin to see the light (and find a richer personal faith) if the right person came along in each of their lives to show them that they have built their spiritual foundation on sandy ground. They are being duped by religio-political “charlatans in leisure suits” and honestly believe that everything about their holy writ is as simple as the latest Promise Keepers tweet.
But we aren’t going to get members of the Christian Right to see the light by mocking them with taunts about the “fairy tale” nature of the Bible. That will only serve to drive them to the polls with greater blind enthusiasm.
We must instead take the time in one-on-one encounters to sow the seeds of critical thinking. That is the purpose of this series: to provide you and Floyd in Ottumwa with some useful information for your next encounter with that certain person in your life who just happens to believe the Bible is nothing less than a theological Joy of Cooking.
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