Thursday, November 3, 2011

Banned Questions III

Interesting little book by Christian Piatt I found recently with some more liberal answers to old questions that are usually considered taboo. The further I get along in it, the more disappointed I am. I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions, or responses to what I have to say. Comments can be left at the bottom.

Link back to the first questions

Was the book of Revelation written in code? Or had the author gone crazy? Was he hallucinating? Were the images portrayed to be taken literally?

Becky starts out with possibly the only intelligent response to this question by saying the rapture theories are laughable. She addresses the very recent theology and particularly crazy ideas of John Nelson Darby and rightfully notes, “If you only focus on otherworldly things, then there is no point in working toward peace, social justice, the end of poverty and the like, on the basis that such projects are futile.” Most of the rest is useless, although Jason Boyett does mention that the symbolism would have been clear to a first-century reader and Craig Detweiler calls it a brilliant satire. If you read Revelations and see the stuff about giant bugs, I don’t know how you could think it is literal.

Why haven’t any new books been added to the Bible in almost two thousand years? Is there a chance any new books will ever be added? Why or why not?

This question says a lot about what the Bible is and how religions in general and Christianity specifically developed. The first answer just ignores this and says people wouldn’t accept a new miracle story. The second at least acknowledges that there were regular people who argued about what books belong. And the third that different sects still have different collections in their canons. Most of the rest is the type of answer you get when someone doesn’t like you asking questions like this.

The authors that are in the references for this and other questions have responses to this but no mention is made about that. This would have been a good time to bring up the Documentary Hypothesis, but they don’t. This hypothesis has developed over hundreds of years, by Christians, and although there are competing hypotheses, it holds keys to understanding where the Bible came from. It identifies 4 distinct styles of writing in the Old Testament and how they were edited and the history that shaped the stories. Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible” is the definitive source for that. John Shelby Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious” is better for discussion of who wrote the New Testament.

Equally important would be some examination of the Council at Nicea. This was a pivotal point in history and a sea change for Christianity. It involved intriguing politics and maneuvering by the powerful people of the 4th century. This book, as with most Christian books, refers to the Council as if it were a friendly meeting of a few good Christians who just needed to iron out some details and get some ideas in writing. James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword” is a good reference for that.

The reason there have been no new books added to the Bible is that there are no new people claiming that they or someone fulfills a prophecy or continues with a lineage of someone in the Bible. Joseph Smith is the only one who has managed to pull it off in 2,000 years. He created Mormonism and that may be starting to unravel. Our relationship to writing has changed. We expect people to cite sources and have corroborating witnesses to events. That new books have not been added to the Bible should tell us what the Bible is, an ancient set of books that was created under very different circumstances than today.

Is it true that the Ten Commandments found in the Bible are almost a copy of the Code of Hammurabi, which has been around longer? Why not just include the Code of Hammurabi instead of having a whole new set of rules?

It’s nice that they are acknowledging that there were other similar lists of laws in ancient near east, but these answers don’t give us much. They mention the Ten Commandments appear twice but fail to mention there are differences in those two appearances. They say these laws indicate God cares about us, but provide little or no support that statement.

The Code of Hammurabi doesn’t tell us too much about the Bible, other than that the idea of listing laws existed before it did. Also the Code is not claimed to be divinely inspired. I guess that does tell us a lot.

Did God write the Bible? Is so, why didn’t God simply create it miraculously, rather than using so many people over thousands of years to write it down?

This is another atheist question and it is commendable to include it in any Christian book. If a manual for how to live peacefully suddenly appeared 3 to 10,000 years ago, a lot of suffering would have been avoided and that certainly would be some evidence for a divine being. Avoiding the question once again only makes it worse. If someone is asking this, either they already know that one answer is that the Bible is “inspired” but they don’t really accept that as much of an answer, or they are pretty well convinced that it is completely a human construct and are just giving you one more chance to address that.

One answer does say that the original words have been lost in translations and leaders “must become more honest about that.” This book seems to be that opportunity. Instead they dance around ideas about how God might communicate with us or inspire us, never noting that the Bible ends up looking like any other attempt to convey difficult thoughts about love, hope, loss, community, prejudice, poverty, corruption and forgiveness.

My comments under the “why no new books” questions apply here too.

Do Christians need to read the Old Testament? Why?

This book just gets more troubling as I go. The first answer claims the Bible is a continuous tapestry from creation to the end of time. Once again, banned question, traditional answer. I got a little excited in the second answer when Marcion was mentioned, but then he is branded a heretic.

Several statements are made about the OT being a foundation for the NT. I’ll take just one example. Rebecca Bowman Woods notes that Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross and that those words come from Psalm 22, a traditional Jewish lament. I have heard this many times before, but never with any more reasoning than that. The reason there is no more reasoning, is that there is no more meaning. One writer wrote the words in a Psalm, a lot of people read them, then another writer used them. It is a literary structure, not a tapestry, it adds nothing to the meaning of Christ’s death.

Sure, you’re going to understand more about what is going on in the NT if you read the OT because the people in the NT read and lived the traditions from the OT. But the Bible rarely explains the traditions it just talks about them and includes assuming you know them. You need other sources to understand them. Some things will just be worse. For example Jesus talks about the laws of Moses, but then he breaks them. Some of that can be explained, some can’t but reading the OT will not help you to understand what laws of Moses are supposed to still apply or not. Biblical scholars have been arguing about that for centuries.

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