Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – The Bible

The Bible is the spiritual guide for Christian people around the world. Translated into over two thousand languages, it is also the world’s most widely distributed book, and a perennial best seller. Approximately 25,000,000 copies are sold in the United States annually.

The Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” written by various authors and divided into two testaments, it has almost innumerable interpretations by various religions, denominations, sects and individuals.

The Word of God, Not the Words of God

I do not believe that the Bible is “holy,” as in the “Holy Bible.” Instead, I believe the Bible is a human document, and although the writers may have been inspired, I do not believe God dictated what they wrote. Marcus Borg reminds us that the Bible is the Word of God (capital W and singular), not the words of God (lowercase w and plural). The men who wrote the Bible were fallible human beings who sometimes contradict one another, had their own prejudices, had no knowledge of science, were influenced by the morality of primitive times, and were completely ignorant of most things that twenty-first century people know. I agree with the following statement from Borg: “…it is a human cultural product, the product of two ancient communities, biblical Israel and early Christianity. As such, it contained their understanding and affirmations, no statements coming directly or somewhat directly from God.”

Borg also wrote that the Bible is a human historical product. The Hebrew scriptures are Israel’s story of Israel, not God’s story of Israel. The gospels are early Christianity’s story of Jesus, not God’s story of Jesus.
There are some passages in the Bible that no one should ever attribute to God. Therefore, in my opinion, churches should stop ending the reading of scripture during Sunday services with “This is the Word of the Lord” or “This is the Word of God for the people of God.” I would much prefer to respond as the Anglican prayer book of New Zealand suggests: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

The Biblical Canon

During the early 300s CE, the Roman Empire was divided: Licinus was Roman Emperor of the Greek speaking eastern empire from 308-324, while Constantine the Great was Roman Emperor of the Latin-speaking western empire from 312-337 CE. In 313, they co-authored the Edict of Milan that granted official toleration to Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. After several years of Constantine not showing favor to either pagans or Christians, he successfully reunited the eastern and western Roman Empires with the defeat of Licinus in a civil war. Afterwards he built a new capital, Constantinople, to integrate the east into the combined empire. During the dedication of Constantinople, built on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, a chariot of the sun-god was set up in the market place, while the Christian symbol, the cross, was placed over the sun-god’s head and “Kyrie Eleison” was sung. In 325, Constantine ordered the church to hold its first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, to deal with the Arian controversy. The council resulted in the Nicene Creed, which defined orthodox Christian doctrine. Constantine did not officially become a Christian until he was on his deathbed in 337.
The Synod of Laodicea, held only twenty-eight years after Constantine’s death, was the first church council that attempted to establish a biblical canon, but various subsequent councils adopted other canonical lists. The Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Protestant canons, which are not alike by the way, are rather modern. The Council of Trent, which met in twenty-five session between December 1545 and December 1563, determined the Roman Catholic canon. The Westminster Assembly, which met for six years between1643 and 1649, formally adopted the books that are contained in the Protestant Bible. The Greek Orthodox Church held a council in Jerusalem in 1672 to establish its biblical canon.

I personally object to the biblical canon being closed forever hundreds of years ago. God’s inspiration did not simply dry up. God did not reveal himself for approximately 200 years during which time the Hebrew Scriptures were written, withdraw for approximately 400 years (the time between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament), and then reveal himself again during the last half of the first century of the common era and has never done so since. Such thinking assumes that God no longer speaks through people in our modern world and has not done so for thousands of years. As the Bible is currently constituted, there are no women authors, no people of color are represented and no writers from the last almost 2000 years of Christian history. A book that suffers those limitations is not in any literal sense “The Word of God” unless God’s word came exclusively from Middle Eastern males who lived between 1000 BCE and 135 CE! The God I worship is not that limited! Nor did God take a sabbatical! God’s revelation did not cease when the canon was closed! Why should we follow ancient thought more than modern?

Biblical Infallibility

The Arian Catholic Church (or the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church) does not accept biblical infallibility because they believe there are over a thousand recognized errors in the New Testament (not accounting for translational errors) ranging from Luke’s geographical mistakes to contradictions over the conception, birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They think the Bible should be read cautiously and interpreted logically and with reason. The original biblical manuscripts, except for a few fragments, have long since been destroyed and what we are left with are numerous redactions that were selectively assembled. And many of the books have been amended (Mark’s gospel is one excellent example). In the fourth century following the Council of Nicaea, at least three hundred “gospels” were burned and it became a penal offence to possess an unauthorized gospel. That is most likely why the Essenes hid what has become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Passionate, but naïve politicians defend what they call a “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution of the United States, but they do not seem to realize that the Constitution defined slaves as three-fifths of a human being or that it refused to allow women to vote. A strict constructionist in political circles is what a biblical fundamentalist is in religious circles. Their words sound good, but they consist of uninformed, pious rhetoric. Strict constructionism really means “I want to be assured that the Constitution confirms my present prejudices.” Biblical fundamentalism regards the Bible in the same exact way.
As strange as it may seem, I have heard that scholars in non-fundamentalist seminaries have not believed in a literal or infallible view of the Bible for almost two hundred years. If that is true, their beliefs have not filtered down to the people in the pews of our churches. These laypeople tend to jealously protest that the Bible must be protected from critical scholarship and from the insights of modern science. But such shallow thinking by un-inquisitive and theologically-uneducated laypeople seems woefully inadequate to support a believable faith in the twenty-first century.

Untouchable Bible

Many homes in the Bible Belt, especially those of an earlier generation, had a large family Bible displayed on a coffee table in the living room. Baptisms, confirmations, marriages and death dates were recorded in its first few pages – a family history or ancestry registry – but that particular Bible was seldom, if ever, read. The book was considered “holy,” which meant it was unapproachable and untouchable.

Reading the Bible

I have a confession to make. I have been in and around the church my entire life, but until recently – at the age of 72 – I had never read the entire Bible. So I decided to read it and it was a laborious task. I discovered that the only way I could make sense of what I was reading was to use The New Oxford Annotated Bible and refer often to its annotations at the bottom of each page. Then I would write my interpretation of what I thought each passage meant.

As I read the Bible, I felt confused at times and I had attended Sunday school and had heard sermons preached on biblical texts all my life. I can not imagine someone who knows absolutely nothing about Christianity (or Judaism) picking up a Bible and reading it for the first time – they would be very confused. A good example is Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and Army Air Force bombardier during World War II, who tried reading the olive-drab Bible he had been issued when he left the U.S. for the South Pacific to cope with the anxiety of almost certain death. However, when the Bible did not make sense to him, he gave up trying to read it and sought other methods to relieve his tension.

I found that the Bible is full of contradictions. For example, the same God who says, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), orders Israel to “slay the Amalekies, every man, woman and child” (I Sam. 15:3ff ). The same God who says, “My name shall be great among the Gentiles” (Malachi 1:10) or “every valley shall be exalted” (Isaiah 40:4), also rejoiced over the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Exodus 15:9-11) and allowed the heads of the Edomite children to be smashed against rocks (Psalm 137:7-9). Other similar contradictions would quickly make this paragraph much too long.
After reading and seriously considering what I read, I believe the Bible needs to be read with caution and should never be interpreted literally. We must look at what has been added, misinterpreted or misunderstood by incorporating twenty-first century knowledge.

The Hebrew Bible

Huge sections of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, are dull, often meaningless, irrelevant to the twenty-first century and hopelessly non-Christian in its sentiments. Evidently I’m not alone in these feelings. In the middle of the second century, a Christian bishop named Marcion of Sinope tried to do away with the Hebrew Bible as sacred scripture for Christians. He concluded that many of Jesus’ teachings were incompatible with the actions of the Hebrew gods, Yahweh and Elohim. Although I must admit that the Israelites’ concept of God changed for the better over the eons, most of the time the God of the Old Testament is not a pleasant character.

Jesus clearly rejected certain theologies found in the Hebrew Scriptures and affirmed others found there.
The Hebrew Scriptures began orally and were forbidden to be written down for many years. Most contemporary scholars date the written form from between 539 and 334 BCE.

What Christians call the Old Testament is a collection of thirty-nine books about the history and religion of the people of Israel. The authors of these books are unknown, and each book possesses a unique tone, style, and message. They include stories, rules or laws, and sayings that are intended as models of religious and ethical conduct. They supposedly represent God’s attempt to connect with humankind by relating to a specific group of people – the Israelites – as God’s “chosen people.”
The Hebrews initially thought God was only for their tribe, then only for their race, then only for their nation, then only for their religion, and finally for the entire world. The entire Old Testament is the story of their learning who God is and their relationship to God. The problem for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is that they read a passage with a primitive understanding of God and they think that just because it is in the Bible that makes it conclusive and final.

Reflections and Conclusions about the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible is a record of Israel’s interaction with its theistic God, a micro-manager who meddles in every aspect of the lives of people – both the Israelites and their enemies. This theistic God is viewed in human terms, he (their God is definitely male) does grandiose, but nonetheless, human-like things. This God is both father and judge. He watches over his people, protects them, and keeps records of their behavior to reward or punish them on the day of judgment – keeping a record of our behavior reminds one of Santa Claus who makes a list and checks it twice. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could be persuaded to change his mind, but he could also be vindictive towards anyone who disobeyed. For example, God supposedly promised to curse everyone who cursed Abram. The God of the Hebrew Bible is a militaristic God who fights and wins battles for the Israelites. According to the Israelites, God commands them to utterly destroy their enemies, but genocide is ungodly. The Jews consider Hitler’s genocide unconscionable and completely inexcusable, but their ancestors did exactly the same thing to many entire nations of men, women and children, especially when they invaded the “holy land” and exterminated the ones who already lived there on orders, their leaders claimed, from God.

According to Richard Dawkins, the God of the Old Testament is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” For example: God exterminates the entire population of the earth – not just humans (Genesis 6:9-8:22); God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their Pharaoh would not release the Israelites (Exodus 11:4-8 and 12:29-32); the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them, so God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more (Numbers 16:41–49); God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant (I Samuel 6:19); on orders from God, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they are allowed to rape as spoils of war (Numbers 31:17-18); and some children tease the prophet Elisha, so God sends bears to dismember them (2 Kings 2:23-24). There are numerous other atrocities that the authors of the Old Testament credit to God scattered throughout Hebrew scripture.

I do not believe God, in any literal sense, walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (for that matter, I doubt there was a real Adam and Eve); that God appeared to Moses in a burning bush; that God actually chose a specific nation as “his people” (meaning that everyone else is not God’s people); that God fought battles for the Israelites; that God exterminated everything except one family and some of the almost innumerable animal species with a flood that covered the entire earth; or that God literally spoke to the prophets in dreams and visions.

Does God forget? According to the Hebrew Bible, “God remembered Rachel… and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). That certainly implies that God forgot her – and she was not the only one in a similar circumstance.

If God ever commanded genocide, like during the conquest of Canaan, then God is not good. God supposedly gave the Israelites the Promised Land – I use the word “supposedly” because I do not believe God “gave” the Israelites any land; that is Israel’s story and they are sticking to it – and allowed them to either run the current residents out or kill them. Surely those tribal groups had just as much or more right to the land as the Israelites. I doubt the unarmed women and children deserved slaughter, either. Such behavior makes the God of the Old Testament incredibly evil; if God actually ordered the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of Cannan, God becomes a “god” that is not worthy of worship. That equates God with Allah who demands his Muslim followers to kill all infidels. The Israelites’ concept of God was simply too primitive. If they wanted something – like more land – the leaders merely convinced the people that God sanctioned their taking it by whatever means necessary. According to Hebrew scriptures, many of the tribes were annihilated so the Israelites would not be tempted to intermarry – i.e. remain pure. That is a decidedly racist idea and racial purity should not be a religious concept.

I must, however, admit that the Old Testament view of God changed for the better although the Hebrew God continued to micro-manage.

I believe in God, but not the micromanaging theistic God of the Old Testament.

The Christian Scriptures

If what Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament is more accurately titled the Hebrew Bible or Hebrew Scriptures, then the New Testament is also a misnomer. If there was not an “old,” there cannot be a “new.” A more accurate name might be the Christian scriptures.

If we grew up in the church, it is almost impossible to study the Christian scriptures without imposing our own preconceived ideas. Most Christians have heard these scriptures read in worship services; heard preachers’ sermons on them; heard the scripture’s message in liturgy, through hymns, in church plays, and in church architecture our entire lives. Unless we are extremely careful, this familiarity can lead to misunderstandings.

The Gospels

The early days of Christianity are almost completely void of verifiable, documented facts, but there is one thing we know: none of the four gospels was written by a contemporary of Jesus – i.e. they were not written by eye witnesses.

Around the year 180 CE, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, decided that there should be four gospels because there are four corners to the universe and four principal winds. In The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge, Irenaeus settled on the four gospels we know today – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – as the definitive, inerrant, infallible recording of God’s word. Some other writings that were banned by the church depicted Jesus as an enlightened teacher and a man that we should emulate. However, the Church insisted that Jesus could not be just a man; he had to be Savior, Messiah and Son of God; he had to be unique; he had to be the only path to salvation.

In my opinion, each gospel writer took some basic factual information and mostly historic characters and wrote a fictionalized history (or historical fiction) of Jesus’ life and death. The correct title of each gospel is “The Gospel According to…;” in other words, each gospel is the author’s unique interpretation of Jesus and his life; each of them is writing to a different audience and they include information that they deem necessary to convince their readers that Jesus was the Messiah. I’m absolutely positive many or maybe even most Christians are horrified by this concept and even more horrified by suggesting in any way that the gospels contain any fiction – historic or otherwise.

The early Christians believed Jesus would return soon and the world would end, so they saw no need to write anything down. When after forty years or so Jesus had not returned, it became important to write down the oral history that had survived. That’s when Mark, the earliest gospel, was written. Matthew and Luke came next with John coming much later, near the end of the first century, which is why his gospel is so different from the other three.

Each of the gospels is a mixture of fact, rumor, legend, and myth that had been subjected to numerous interpretations. The Gospels contain many disagreements, and I would love to present several of them here, but there is space for mentioning only a few.

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that report anything about Jesus’ birth and ancestry, but they don’t agree. Matthew says Jesus was an aristocrat, descended from David, in line to be king. Luke agrees with the David connection, but points to a lesser class. Mark, on the other hand, spawned the image of Jesus as the son of a poor carpenter.

The birth stories have different perspectives. Luke says shepherds visited; in Matthew the visitors were wise men. Luke said the holy family lived in Nazareth and journeyed to Bethlehem for a birth in a manger. Matthew says the family was well off and lived in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, not in a manger, but in a house.

Matthew and Luke tell of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. There’s absolutely no mention of Jesus ever saying a word about what happened in the wilderness. How did Matthew and Luke learn what transpired in the wilderness? Luke described Jesus as meek – a lamb. Matthew on the other hand said Jesus did not come to bring peace, but the sword. And how do we know what Jesus’ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? Luke says he prayed after leaving Peter, James, and John. When Jesus returned he found the disciples asleep; he was soon arrested, then crucified. So how do we know every detail? All the gospels speak of the disciples fleeing after Jesus’ arrest, so none of them were present at the crucifixion. How do we know what the Roman soldiers did or what Pilate and Simon did and said? Where did these details come from? Even Jesus’ final words vary. Matthew and Mark say it was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” John is even simpler: “It is finished.” How would the gospel writers know any of that? And the resurrection narratives are completely riddled with contradictions. Each gospel has a different version of who went to the tomb, what was found there – even the days of the week are unclear. And as to Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection – none of the accounts agree.

All these inconsistencies were largely ignored for centuries. No one seemed to notice or care. They were content to accept everything by faith, without question.

Obviously, the idea behind the gospels was to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah, not to be an irrefutable, historically factual biography.

The Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles, or as it is commonly called Acts, is part two of Luke’s gospel, which probably should have been either one large book or at least, Acts should have followed Luke in the New Testament. Most scholars date Acts from the early to mid-nineties, which means that it was written at least thirty years after Paul’s death. They feel certain that it was written after Paul’s imprisonment in 60-61 CE.

The Acts of the Apostles is supposedly about the apostles, those whom Jesus sent to proclaim the good news. Apparently eleven of the original twelve disciples became apostles, because they “went out;” only Judas was excluded. The book’s primary characters are Peter, one of the original disciples and the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and Paul, the famous early Christian missionary. Perhaps the book should have been titled The Acts of Peter and Paul. Other lesser characters in the book include John, James, Stephen, Barnabas, Timothy, Lydia, Silas, and Apollos.

Acts is a history of the early Christian movement that was full of doctrinal and theological differences. It allows us to follow the transition of Christianity from a Jewish sect into its own religion. The controversies over adherence to Jewish law, the role of Gentiles within the church, and the relationship of the dispersed Jews (Diaspora) to the Jerusalem community help us understand Paul’s letters, which comprise a large part of the New Testament.

Of the book’s twenty-eight chapters, the first twelve deal with the time between Jesus’ Ascension and the beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys. The remaining sixteen chapters begin with Paul’s mission to the church at Antioch and ends with his imprisonment in Rome.

The Letters/Epistles of the New Testament

Since thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-one letters are attributed to Paul, Christianity was strongly influenced by his views. His writings are letters or epistles addressed to an individual or a community. They were written during his missionary period, between 50 and 58 CE, making them the earliest surviving Christian documents (they predate the earliest gospel, Mark, by at least ten years).

Since Paul was a first century man, his thoughts reflect the world view of his time. He believed God reigned from his heavenly throne above the sky; he viewed both severe weather and human sickness as punishment sent from this supernatural God because of the sinful nature of mankind. He was a Jew (he identified himself as a Hebrew, a member of the tribe of Benjamin and a zealot for the Torah) who studied under the great rabbi Gamaliel, but he was also a Roman citizen. Judaism was the tradition in which and through which he viewed all of life. Paul was intense; he did everything in a zealous fashion. Prior to his conversion, he zealously persecuted the early Christian movement and after his conversion he was just as fanatical about the Christian faith. His letters are personal, passionate, argumentative and sometimes even vindictive. Therefore, we should read Paul as a reflection of his personality and with his world view in mind. He would probably be shocked and perhaps even disturbed that his writings are actually claimed by some to be the words of God.

According to modern scholars, not all of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul were written by him. Those considered authentic include 1 Thessalonians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon. The Pastoral Epistles, perhaps written by Paul, include 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (sometimes Philemon is also included in this group). They are called “pastoral” because they are addressed to individuals who had pastoral oversight of churches and they discuss issues of Christian living, doctrine and leadership. Scholars are fairly evenly divided about the authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and Second Thessalonians, but they are at least of questionable authorship.

Biblical scholars are fairly certain that the following books were not written by Paul: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the Revelation of John.

I would love to go into more detail about each of the books that make up Christian scriptures, but this article would be far too lengthy.

Conclusions about Christian scriptures

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only seven percent of Catholics read their Bibles daily and forty-four percent of them “rarely or never” read the Bible. For many years, only the priests read the Bible and Catholics were satisfied to rely on what the priest told them it said. But in the twenty-first century, the level of religious vitality must be very low if members of the Catholic Church or members other Christian denominations are basically Biblically illiterate.

In the mid-1920s, Bruce Barton wrote a book entitled The Book Nobody Knows, which suggested, none too subtly, that the vast majority of Christians are so ignorant about the Bible they do not even know that they do not know. And that was over eighty years ago! We twenty-first century Christians desperately need to remove our blinders and rediscover the Christian scriptures in an enlightened way.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – The Bible

  1. Ed, I read the first part of your affirmations of a Layman and I couldn’t help but jump to send you a comment. I have been a follower of John Spong for over a Decade and he has inspired me to think in the terms that you present. I too, am a layman. Born and raised in Portugal, I am still learning how to communicate in English. Raised in the catholic church, however, disenchanted by the hollow messages that didn’t help my church brothers and sisters become better human beings. They didn’t leave the church any better than when they walked in. What a waste of a captive audience. Now, other than John Spong, I can’t listen to any other religious figure, without wondering why they don’t teach their congregations the Reality of Life and, what I have been calling ” The Primary Principle of Life ” ” JOY “. That’s why the Great Creator of the Universe, planted us on this Minuscule Grain of Sand, that we call Earth. If I was to write a chapter in some kind of a Spiritual Book, I would start: I planted you on Earth so that you can enjoy the life that I gave you, however, you must spread that Joy with all of those that I will put on your path. Those are the Words of the Lord.
    I will be reading some more this evening.

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