Monday, May 23, 2011


Well, Saturday was a lovely day for a Rapture, and it didn't happen. Not that this surprised anyone, except perhaps for Harold Camping and his followers. If the Bible does contain any secret prophetic information, we can say one thing for certain: Camping is no Qabalist.

David Rankine (who, along with his wife Sorita D'Este, have written some of the best works on magic, grimoires, and esoterica for both a general and scholarly audience) published a quote today on his Twitter feed: “There was no Bible in any meaningful sense until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE." He cites "Ulrich", by which he presumably means Eugene Ulrich, chair of Hebrew Scripture and Theology at Notre Dame. (Ulrich wrote some rather definitive texts for Oxford University Press, among his other scholarship).

It's a very important statement, one that provides a real context for Biblical scripture. One piece of the puzzle that helps you put books like the Revelation of John in its proper place. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE spawned a lot of apocalyptic literature and prophecy. After all, Jesus had predicted the fall of the Temple, so that gave his followers hope that the rest of his predictions were true. Of course, no other predictions did come true. And thus--the early Church began what Harold Camping's group had to begin on Sunday--routinization of charisma. A re-interpretation rather than a rejection. No one will reject something they have staked their life on.

However, even understanding this facet of human nature, it's important that good scholarship is not rejected. Most people don't know what good scholarship is, and if they haven't learned how to do real research, they probably never will. People think research is just for academic papers, but that isn't the case. If someone tells you something that could potentially change your life forever, you want to be reasonably sure that their statement is valid. For instance--in the political realm, I hear a lot about the horrible things Obama is going to do--make us all spend thousands to get "greener" homes or we can't sell them, install tracking devices in our cars, send kids to re-education camps, and--the best of all--that he was paying Hamas to come into the country. All of these are patently false. All one has to do is go to fact checking sites. Snopes is one, is another, PolitFact is another. These sites have no political agenda. They find the source of the rumors, and discuss them. If it has to do with a Congressional bill, they'll post the relevant parts of the bill.

"Source" is the important word here. In the case of the Bible, I'm more likely to accept a Scriptural interpretation from someone who actually knows the language of the Bible (and that person would probably be Jewish, or a scholar in Greek or Aramaic). Hebrew is a difficult language, and often times words or letters can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The Bible is also full of puns and word-plays-- common literary devices in Hebrew writing, likely to befuddle the Biblical literalist reading the Old Testament. If the interpreting theologian is not an expert in the language, then I at least want to see that they've consulted the language experts. Often you don't have to be the expert--you just have to know who the experts are.

Historical and social context are also important. One of the best writers I've encountered in this area is Dr. Elaine Pagels of Princeton University. She's written many books, very accessible, and is mainly known for her research on the Gnostic gospels and apocryphal texts. (Here is an excellent talk she gave on the Book of Revelation) Her work is important because it provides context. The so-called "Gnostic" gospels (some of them were, some weren't, by definition) allow us to get a bigger picture of early Christianity, not just the "official" version decided in 325 CE. The gospel writers were called "evangelists", and this is not just an honorary title--the 4 canonical gospels were written for specific audiences. This is why, for instance, the Jews are portrayed as being "more responsible" for Jesus' death in one gospel, and why the Romans are more guilty in another. One was written to evangelize Jews, another to evangelize Gentiles--probably Romans who didn't like Jews, in the former case. If you're trying to sell something, you're going to look for common ground with your potential buyer.

Authorship is something else to be considered. For all the names attributed to Biblical books, we know nothing about who really wrote them. Recently, a scholar from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Bart D. Ehrman, who has the title "James Gray Distinguished Professor", and is a magna cum laude Princeton graduate) wrote a book called "Forged", alleging that the many of the New Testament books were faked. When he says "faked", he means simply that they were attributed to a particular writer, when in fact they are probably not written by that writer. For instance--Paul's second letter to Timothy was not likely to have been written by Paul. For all the controversy this has generated, it's not really that controversial. One can study writing styles and samples, and determine if they were written by the same person. Ehrman says that in the early days of the Church, when it was still trying to define itself and its doctrine, lesser-known writers would make their views heard by signing the names of more well-known writers. They didn't quote the experts, they pretended to be the experts. Writing as one of Jesus' apostles, or saying you knew one of them, probably helped your case, too. People considered the source at that time as well.

Those who object to "liberal arts" Bible scholarship are the same ones who object to their children learning about other religions--they want to preserve their version of the narrative, which has more to do with them than with the Bible. It's like a mirror onto which the believer projects his or her image of the Unknown. If we believe they've found the "light", we try to ignore the shadow behind it. That is the most important thing to remember--regardless of interpretation, it's always about what we'll never really "know".

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