The Bible – The False Premise of American Theocracy

oops image not foundAmerica is moving closer to theocracy on the basis of a “Word of God” plan that we are assured is fully delineated in the Christian Scriptures – a plan America, to its woe, is refusing to obey. The solution they tell us, the only way to save America, is to legislate this belief and to require it of all citizens. The GOP wants us to believe that we must all collectively and individually do as their God wants or suffer the consequences, but how are we to know what God wants when the Bible was written – and what we are supposed to believe decided – by fallible human beings?

Christian fundamentalists want us to trust them that their religion somehow sprang fully constructed from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. I have tried to show (here and here) how untrue that claim is because it is a very important point. If, as they claim, the Bible in the inerrant word of God, it also must have sprung fully from the mouth of their god – in other words, any human influence voids the entire argument. This is why the issue of contradictions is such an important one. If the Bible contradicts itself – and it does, often – then how can it be the inerrant word of God? Does God have a personality disorder? A perfect being cannot change its mind, after all.

So the contradictions are argued away and trivialized. Four contradictory gospels are somehow melded together into a single gospel that smooth over the often serious disagreements of the authors. All four of them cannot be true as they come down to us. They disagree in matters both great and small, from Jesus’ genealogy to what he said, what he taught, where he went and when, where he was born to how and when he died, what his last words were, and so forth. It’s a mad jumble. But we are supposed to suspend belief and imagine that none of these problems exist.

Another issue that should trouble fundamentalists (and all Americans currently being lied to) is the manner in which their religion was constructed. Because manifestly it did not spring fully grown from the lips of Jesus. It was created by very fallible, argumentative and often violent men (as evidenced by the surviving accounts of Chrysostom, Augustine, Sozomen), who argued over every possible piece of minutiae surrounding Jesus – who and what he was, what he said, what his relation to God was, etc. Historian Ramsay MacMullen offers what is but a sampling of these issues in his book Voting About God in Early Church Councils (2006), positions that, as he puts it, were “seriously argued by someone of influence at some point in time” during the first Christian centuries at various church councils:[1]

Did Christ exist before his incarnation?

Is Christ begotten the equal of God unbegotten?

Did Christ collaborate with the Father in the Creation?

Is God the Father before the Son’s existence?

Was the coming into being of the Son the same process as the Creation?

Is Christ’s divinity or humanity merely notional, an external seeming?

Was Christ man in flesh alone?

Is Christ’s human nature only in the flesh?

Is Christ’s likeness to the Father the same after incarnation?

Is Christ anointed as man or as God?

Is Christ begotten as other men, or made?

Is Christ begotten of the Father or of the Pneuma-Spirit?

If Christ is begotten of the Father, then by the Father’s will?

Is God one or two unbegotten beings?

Is Christ a copy of the Father or an image?

Is Christ a perfect copy of the Father?

Is Christ the Logos?

Was Christ created or born?

Is Christ, as God, God of his substance, or only made of his substance?

Is God’s substance increased or divided in begetting?

Is Christ of one will with the Father, or separate?

Is Christ of one substance with the Father?

Was Christ begotten once or twice?

Was Christ a man indwelt by God?

Is Christ one nature from two? Or one nature in tow, united?

Is Christ’s human nature separate from the nature of the Logos?

Is the Pneuma-Spirit the equal of Father and Son?

Is the Pneuma-Spirit of the same nature?

Did the Pneuma-Spirit take the place of a soul in Christ?

Is Christ’s soul/mind (psyche/nous) human and impure?

Is Christ one in properties, names, and operations, when incarnated?

Did/can Christ’s mind suffer? Or only his body?

Did the Father suffer on the cross?

Is there any separation in Christ between his self and his flesh?

In Christ are two natures resident in touch with each other, or fused?

Does “like” mean “identical”?

Is Christ who suffered the same Christ who performed miracles?

Is Mary the mother of God, or of Christ, or of Jesus?

Is Mary’s nature divine in any aspect?

Did Christ’s existence begin in the womb or at birth?

Was Mary of the same substance as human beings?

Must all theological understanding be supported by terms in Scripture?

These were the questions asked over a period of three centuries at Christian councils. MacMullen traces 255 of these councils over the two and a quarter centuries post-325 but there were earlier councils too, about twenty of them we can identify from the year 253 to 325. But to illustrate the true scope of the process of arriving at a consensus of belief, MacMullen points out that we can identify only about 250 councils out of some 15,000 that must have been held in that two and a quarter centuries between 325 and 553 – that “must more of the record has been lost than preserved.”[2] All that debating, fighting and voting – and even sizable bribes –  yet fundamentalists object vociferously to the idea of voting about what Jesus said – the Jesus Seminar.

Now obviously all these questions are not answered in the pages of the New Testament. They are not even imagined as questions at that early time. Jesus and his followers, in all likelihood, neither talked about nor thought about many of these issues (how many of us even now do so?). Most of these come from a more advanced theology, long after Jesus lived. A division of God, for example, cannot be imagined in Judaism. Since Jesus and his disciples were Jews, they could not have considered such issues.

Paul did not envision Jesus as John’s Logos; he did not envision Jesus as part of any Trinity. For instance, when Paul mentions baptism, it is not through the “father, son and the holy ghost” but “into Christ” (Rom. 6.3, Gal. 3.27) and in Acts baptism is “into” or “in the name of” Jesus (Acts 2.38, 8.16, 10.48, 19.5) without mention of the Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” does not even make so much as a single appearance in the New Testament.  In short, Paul would not have recognized the message being spread through fire and sword amongst the Germanic peoples five centuries after his death.

The problem for fundamentalist Christians is coming to terms with a historic Jesus but not only that but a historic New Testament, a book which did not exist until the fourth century CE and then in several forms. We should note here also the opinion of New Testament scholar Francois Bovon, who argues that “we must learn to consider the gospels of the New Testament canon, in the form in which they existed before 180 CE, in the same light in which we consider the apocrypha. At this earlier time, the gospels were what the apocrypha never ceased to be.”[3]

Athanasius (298-373) is the first Christian to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today (Festal Letter 39). This was in 367 CE. Damasus, Bishop of Rome, wrote a list identical to that of Athanasius in 382 and when the Third Synod of Carthage in 397 repeated both lists it was only ratifying the canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa, 393.

It was Irenaeus, writing in 180 CE, or 150 years after Jesus’ death, who first stated that there must be four gospels and four gospels only. It was not until the time of Justin Martyr, that is, the 150s, that we get our first references to the contents of the gospels, here called only “memoirs of the apostles,” but the quotations we get do not agree with the versions currently in our possession or are so vague as to give no indication as to which text they is meant.[4]
This argues for the existence of gospel accounts we no longer have. Before this time, from 90 to 130, the forty or so years following the composition of the synoptic gospels and possibly John as well, we have no quote from any gospel source. Not by 1 Clement (c.95-96 CE), not from Ignatius (c. 110 CE), not from Barnabas (c. 130 CE) and not from Polycarp (c. 155-156 CE).

By contrast, when Christianity began, it had only the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and an oral tradition of the teachings of Jesus. Clement, the third or fourth pope (the Vatican assigns him the years 92-99 C.E.) knew nothing of any “Gospels.” For Clement, the Bible was the Old Testament and though he refers to some sayings of Jesus and to the letters of Paul, he does not refer to them as “Scripture” (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians c. 96 C.E.). The first Christian “canon” does not appear until c. 100 in the Bryennios manuscript, a 27-book Old Testament which is written in Koine Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.  Irenaeus, (130-202 CE) added 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas but makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude. Even Eusebius, writing c. 300 did not have a complete “Scripture” (Ecclesiastical History 3.3 and 3.25). Yet all the while we are supposed to believe that the New Testament has absolute veracity as the word of God. How is it that if God knew what was true and what was not, it took him almost 400 years to decide?

It is difficult to explain is Eusebius’ early fourth century discussion of New Testament canon (HE 3.25.1). The books Eusebius calls “acknowledged” are the four gospels, Acts, fourteen epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and “if it really seems right” the Apocalypse of John.[5] Under “disputed” he includes some familiar (and currently canonical) books: James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John.  We notice here that throughout the existing witnesses that books currently accepted as part of canon are excluded in these early collections, which would seem to argue against a uniform and (early) New Testament.

So much for a fully grown Christianity dating to 30 CE. So much for a New Testament that is the inerrant word of God. Fallible humans voted not only on the nature of Christ in a democratic context based on the Roman Senate in church council after church council, but voted on which books should be included in the New Testament. If things are not so bad as Dan Brown presents in his fiction, they are certainly bad enough from a fundamentalist perspective. Which brings me back to my original point: The GOP wants us to believe that we must all collectively and individually do as their God wants or suffer the consequences, but how are we to know what God wants when the Bible was written – and what we are supposed to believe decided – by fallible human beings?

Trust them? I don’t think so. Look at the lies they’ve already told.

 

 


1 Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils (Yale University Press, 2006), 30-31.

2 MacMullen (2006), 2-7.

3 Francois Bovon, “The Synoptic Gospels and the Noncanonical Acts of the Apostles,” HTR 81 (1988), 20. Bovon  who holds a doctorate in theology from theUniversity of Basel, taught at the University of Geneva Divinity School from 1967-1993, an institution founded by John Calvin in 1559. He is currently Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at the Harvard Divinity School.

4 For instance, Dial 100.4: “And in having him described as Son of God in the memoirs of his apostles…” Charles H. Cosgrove, “Justin Martyr and the Emerging Christian Canon. Observations on the Purpose and Destination of the Dialogue with Trypho” Vigiliae Christianae 36 (1982) 224. For a full accounting of Gospel quotations in Justin Marytr see Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 360-402.

5For the still problematic nature of Revelation see Elaine Pagels’ new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking Adult 2012). For a review see CNN’s BeliefBlog: 4 Big Myths of Book of Revelation. Eusebius was right to be uncertain.

 

15 Replies to “The Bible – The False Premise of American Theocracy”

  1. One of the first things that turned me away from religion was that there are so many of them. And depending on where you live, the one that’s popular in your area is the one that’s true.

    The history of the merging f the Old Testament and the New Testament is extraordinarily murky. Indeed, the beginnings of the Jewish religion is far more murky. The history of the Catholic Church and its beginnings is even more confusing As to what the popular beliefs were at that time. And I totally agree that Paul would’ve been appalled at what is passing for religion today. The GOP complains that Islam co-ops Government for its own personal use and that we should be afraid of it, but the GOP is trying to do exactly what Islam does. Force the population to live and believe whatever religion they believe in. That is decidedly un-American as it is trying to convince people that the Constitution is based on the 10 Commandments.

    For myself, religion no longer has any credibility whatsoever, it ranks right down there with the GOP on the credibility list

  2. As you have pointed out here and in your blog, Christianity seems to be an amalgamation of Pagan and Heathen beliefs because the very first Christens were Pagans/Heathens and were influenced by Pagan Ritual and customs.
    In the early development of Christianity, Christ was called, I think, “the Good Shepard”. This was based on the drawings found on the tombs of the early Christens buried under Rome. There was a figure drawn of a man with a lamb over his shoulders and this was considered Jesus. I think there were also representations of the 12 followers of Christ also, but I’m not sure.
    The conferences you chronicle here basically put together the New Testament, one article at a time. What I have heard said about a lot of the documents that were present back then is that a lot was written about some of Jesus female followers, but these were excluded. One of the reasons was that these conferences did not want what female influences may have had on Jesus to be documented. Seems it would tarnish his “pure” reputation as being influenced by God only.
    The conference that seems to have had the most prominent influence on the inclusion of documents was the first Conference of Constantine, or at least that has been the most well documented meeting…I think!
    It seems that at that conference, that is where the two dominate ideas about Jesus rising from the dead and dying for people sins gained prominence.

    I enjoyed your interview with Jesus, and being Jewish, I got a real kick out of what Jesus said about the Gentiles and who he REALLY was talking too at the time. Gives a better understanding of the times he lived in.

  3. …”But we are supposed to suspend belief and imagine that none of these problems exist…”

    I hate to cherry-pick here, but, it seems to me that we’re supposed to suspend “reason and logic” and THEN imagine, or believe that none of the problems with untruths, contradictions, etc. exist. (I’m contradicting your “dogma” even though you are more learned and I’ve never been indoctrinated in a desert religion, :)…

    We’re just supposed to “trust” the word of the Republican Christian Nationalist because they are white, right and, by gawd, superior to all over non-believers as they are the keepers of biblical “untruth” and sociopathic behaviors
    …sure, that’s the ticket!

  4. Hrafnkell Haraldsson, You are the best I love your articles,
    Your articles on Jeus have been enlightening.
    I wish you the very best.

  5. That was poorly expressed by me and I accept the correction. It is indeed a matter of suspending reason and logic; as Celsus wrote at the end of the second century, Christians expected Pagans to do just that: “Do not ask questions; just believe.” It is the same expectation they have of us 1800 years later.

  6. Man created God in the limits of brain capacity that was given to man by God!!! The greatness of His perfection is far beyond our capabilities to understand it! Thank you Hrafnkell for another great article! Wish you all the best!

  7. Excellent work Hraf. I’ve learned that most Christians have little comprehension of the Christian bible or its origination. But then again, they have little comprehension of anything not founded in mythos and fantasy. It’s astonishing that in the 21st century, they expect all of us to do obeisance based on fiction. If I have to live according to a fantasy, I will go with Star Wars and Master Yoda. At least he wasn’t a hatemonger.

  8. Well-written article, but you’re preaching so the choir, so to speak. Reason has little to do with the subject at hand. Every religion has fantastical stories that defy belief. I’m with Shiva–neither religion nor the GOP has any credibility, in my book.

  9. The Politicususa articles on religion are very well done and very important to understanding the current state of our society.

  10. Wow! Reading that, I felt like I was back in seminary, except this was interesting.

    I grok your point about the fundies hanging on desperately to inerrancy, but I think that rises out of a fearful attitude that if ONE point is proven wrong or not trustworthy, the whole freaking house falls down. Kinda like removing the individual mandate from the Healthcare Act, but I digress.

    Fundies I have known are very frightened people. They need stability and rock solid assurance that their lives are not going to shatter and fall to ruin. They need to hold tight to Truth because if they don’t, oblivion awaits. With nasty pointy teeth, I guess, since they fear it so much.

    This is kinda ironic, this fear. That death and oblivion have the last word. This is Holy Week when the Christian faithful around the world remember how Jesus faced betrayal, abandonment, death, and oblivion – and went there anyway. Makes me wonder what sort of faith fears death when Easter laughs and dusts it off.

  11. As one who toils in the service of a faith that itself is in service to JUSTICE, this all seems rather irrelevant to me. As theology it’s fascinating. As politics within a democracy, it still has no real presence. It’s what some people DO rather than what they believe that does matter.

    The Dominionists are quite recent, believers (as they posit, though I doubt they believe ANYTHING) in accepting Jesus as the force for their personal salvation. Well, mainline Protestants for the most part are not concerned with salvation, the hereafter, etc. so much as learning from Jesus and, YES, everyone else sacred or secular what is the path toward understanding truth and creating justice. Those who follow the TEACHINGS are vastly different from those who follow arbitrary and contorted “rules”. Rule followers are really Old Testamentarians with Jesus as the “get out of jail free” card for their hereafter.

    Anyone who wants to understand Dominionism DOES need to wade through Jeff Sharlet’s “The Family”. It explains very clearly the drumbeat of Christian autocracy that has driven a lot of our national conversations since the Depression.

    What, in shorthand, they desire is a nation of embedded INequality with business leaders who accept Jesus – or who defer to those who have – in the lead. The rest of us are of no consequence. None. We supposedly have NO rights under the Constitution. Only Christians exactly in sync with themselves have protection of the Bill of Rights. That’s where the massive “America is a Christian nation” comes from – only born again Dominionists are true citizens in the eyes of these people.Only Dominionists have rights.

    What lies beyond the fallacy of inerrancy is the girding of loins demanding Dominionist interpretations of inerrancy be accept as truth – never mind the evidence notwithstanding. Who says what’s true? Human beings who are Dominionists, period. Theological and historical evidence is meaningless. THEY have all the answers.

    Those in the Protestant or even Catholic social justice world are unworthy. You can see that in recent Supreme Court rulings that have, yes, for the first time ever, given rights to ultra conservative Dominionists that cannot be protested by the rest of us. In Winn v Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, the justices in a 5-4 decision allowed tax credits for donations to JUST Christian schools and said it did not violate the separation of church and state. A tax credit, they argued, is not a tax contribution, so taxpayers had no standing to protest the inequitable credit given to people donating to religious schools. Wow.

    No matter what the Bible says, no matter what theological exegesis has been done over the past 2000 years, what matters today is the way it comes out in secular policy. With only one very small cult of Dominionists trying to set the rules of law and civil society according to only THEIR interpretation of the Bible, the rest of the theology matters not. It is merely academic to them, if not to us.

    Of course the rest of us – believers and non-believers alike – are all collectively hung out to dry because we are denied our interpretations of faith and non-faith rights under the Constituion. That is why it’s not an issue of interpretation or inerrancy fundamentally, it is an issue of fundamentalists co-opting our Constitution and trying their damndest to co-opt every institution in America. They don’t give a damn what you and I think, what you and I pursue as our source of morality – it’s only theirs that counts. And they have the Tea Party, the GOP, the House, and too much of SCOTUS behind them.

    Be afraid. Be VERY afraid. It wouldn’t matter what they believed if they were not teetering on the brink of making sure YOU cannot deviate and still prosper in America.

  12. The fiction of Dan Brown et al is just as bad as the fiction of the GOP.
    Your Yeshua dialogs are witty, but it would be nice to read a more accurate portrayal of him.

  13. The best I can recommend in the nonfiction category is Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New millennium” (Oxford University Press, 1999).

    I would very much enjoy an accurate historical novel on the subject matter, if someone would only write one.

  14. I would recommend Robert M. Price’s “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?”; Prometheus Books, 2003.

    This “dispute” reminds me of the “original intent” clap-trap regarding the “true understanding” of the US Constitution that went on during the Reagan Administration, mostly spewed by Edwin Meese, the then Attorney General. Mostly the same “bow down and worship only our version of the Constitution”.

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