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Bart Ehrman

Theology

the Bible and my house of cards

house of cards

I was in seventh grade when I read the book Things that are Different are Not the Same as part of my school curriculum, and that was when I was formally introduced to the “King James Only” argument, although I’d known for years that was the only version my family and my church used. Over the years, through high school and college, as I was instructed in bibliology, I was given a lot of arguments about the Bible in general, and not just the King James version.

Christian fundamentalism and its sister evangelicalism have something in common that is largely absent from other faith traditions: they tend to see the Bible almost as the ThirdFourth member of the Trinity. For example, I was taught that I should never set any other book on top of the Bible and never place it on the ground. It is holy, sacred, the Word of God. It is special– fundamentally and drastically different from every other book that has been or will ever be in existence. It was the basis of our faith, the only guaranteed Truth.

One of the main arguments for seeing the Bible this way was what I’ll call the “Harmonious Library Argument.”

According the Harmonious Library Argument, the Bible’s very existence is a miracle. It was written and compiled over thousands of years. It was written by men from different times, different cultures, different socioecnomic backgrounds, different professions. And yet, somehow, all of the books in the Bible are really just One Book– The Book. It promotes a single message, a single vision. It’s literally a miracle that so many men over so long a time span were able to write books and letters that agreed with each other so perfectly. It just isn’t possible for men to have achieved such a Harmonious Library on their own without divine intervention. That’s how we know the Bible is the Inspired, God-Breathed Word.

The Old Testament writers were writing about Jesus and the Atonement without knowing anything about him or even Roman crucifixion. Everything in the Law and the Prophets pointed toward Christ; the Temple, the sacrifices, the Patriarchs . . . They were telling stories about Jesus, foreshadowing him in Joseph and David and Adam. And those who wrote the Gospels and the epistles tell the story of Christ and explain his teachings with no discrepancies, with no theological disagreements.

That could not have happened without God.

Over the past couple of years, my views on the Bible have slowly shifted. When you start out believing that the Bible is completely flawless, with no discrepancy, contradiction, or error of any kind, and you start asking questions . . . it is a rude awakening. Suddenly the difference between “Judas hung himself” and “Judas fell headlong and burst open” don’t seem quite as simple and easily resolved. And the differences start building until either you completely change your definition of inerrancy or you throw the whole thing out, baby and bathwater.

I’ve settled into a more comfortable understanding of the Bible, one that admits to . . . well, reality. It was a book written by humans, and this is a good, good thing. God, I suppose, could have done what he has supposedly done before– he wrote the Ten Commandments and gave them to Moses already completed. He took his finger and wrote on the wall of a king’s palace. According to the Bible, there’s nothing stopping God from giving us a book already finished.

But, for whatever reason, he didn’t. And so, we have a book written by people. Blessedly fallen, so very human people. This is good because of the differences that creates. We don’t have our written religious tradition delivered to us by only one man. We have a variety of perspectives and beliefs and arguments. We have people like Peter and Paul writing letters while disagreeing with each other, sometimes so intensely it resulted in shouting matches. We have both Romans and James, Amos and Hosea. No one person got to control the destiny of Christianity or Judaism.

That’s where I still am, although my perspective is undergoing another shift.

I picked up Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman at a library book sale. I hadn’t read anything written by Ehrman before this, and the only thing I knew about him were things I’d read or heard from fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Those things mostly included things like “hates God” and “heretic.” Since I started moving in more progressive religious circles, though, I’d heard his name mentioned with respect, and I was curious.

It was . . . challenging to read. I have a lot of questions, and most of the margins have notes. I don’t think all of the arguments he makes are effective, and I got the feeling that he was occasionally leaving something out. However, he pointed some things out that made me do a double-take and think holy hell how did I never notice that wow that’s . . . so obvious.

The differences between various books in the New Testament are a little more significant than I’d previously thought, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it now. It isn’t quite the paradigm-altering revelation I’ve experienced before, but now I have to ask some serious questions about the Gospels, especially when it comes to questions like what were the authors trying to argue? What did they believe about Jesus that they wanted other people to believe? I started asking those questions months ago, but not quite as seriously as I am now.┬áBefore, I asked those sorts of questions out of a literary curiosity. Now, I’m looking for whether or not Jesus in fact claimed to be God Himself on Earth.

My Harmonious Library understanding of the Bible– really, only a house of cards– has completely collapsed. It couldn’t bear up to an honest examination, and initially I thought I had to replace it with something else right away right now.

It took me a little while to realize that the only reason why I felt that way was that I was still stuck in the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible– as my only source of faith and practice. I simply couldn’t imagine being a Christian without a divinely-ordered Bible. Believing in the Bible as “inspired” was what made me a Christian, and this was as recently as last month. I think I’m starting to figure out that being a Christian has a lot more to do with my life and actions than it has to do with a book and what I believe about it.