How do we read an ancient manuscript? Surely we would be asking ourselves some questions as we read it.
For example, as we read a modern document, scholarly or otherwise, the first question we ask is, “Who wrote it?” It is often easy to discover why he wrote it, in fact, he may say ‘why’ early on in the paper. We also want to know, to whom is it addressed, when it was written, and the general situation leading to the paper. We want to know what education the author has, where he is now employed, and where he was employed in the past. In other words, we ask, “Is he or she qualified to write on this subject?”
If this is a scholarly paper, he or she will cite every reference he makes. That is, he or she will have copious footnotes. (It is also the case that many papers are written by people who have nothing to say; they just want to write a paper.)
I investigate a lot of articles on the Net. Sometimes I have to read a paragraph or two, but soon or late, the writer’s purpose comes to light. Sometimes, I get a clue from his thinking – from his logic. For example, it this unknown writer says something like, “The bible says …” I know I am dealing with an amateur. If he quotes Book, Chapter, and Verse, there is a chance he knows what he is talking about. Also, with modern law being what it is, we can be reasonably sure that the whole text is from the named author, and no one else.
But! As we begin to read that ancient document, we know absolutely nothing about that ancient writer (or writers); in fact we don’t know a whole lot about what he has written. But! Like a detective, or a scientist, we search for clues. For example, the language this document is written in, and the writer’s skill in the use of it tells us something. His skill in presenting his message tells us more.
Sometimes he specifically states what his purpose is: EG Luke (1.4), and John (20.30). At other times it becomes obvious as his story unfolds.
As to who wrote this ancient document, we have no obvious clue. In many cases, there is no named author at all. In other cases it is obvious that the document is the work of two or more authors. There was no attempt to deceive the reader; this is just the way things were done in those days. It is often the case that the ‘redactor’, as he is called by Bible Scholars, was simply trying to clarify something that he thought was un-clear, or even erroneous.
Bible Scholars, who devote their whole lives to this field, have honed their talents to be able to detect the slightest nuances from what they read.
It is my intention to focus on Mark. The other Gospels are known to be paste-ups of earlier documents. That is, Mark is the simplest case. How did it come about?
In Mark 1.15, we get a clue as to his purpose: “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” We are left guessing, at this point, as to exactly what ‘the gospel’ is. In fact, if we were reading Mark for the first time, we would doubt that Jesus had a message, at least a unique message. It might appear that Mark’s message is “Jesus is the Messiah!” Of course, that doesn’t mean much to the un-initiated. But it might be that Mark’s readers already know that. This info might tell us that this is a written version of an ‘oral tradition’ that has been handed down by word of mouth, probably from the disciples themselves.
The opening words of Mark suggest to us the opening words of Genesis. This usage would be a little presumptuous of any writer, but for Mark it is ‘just and proper’ to use these words. ‘This is an important document’, he is saying. Or perhaps a redactor put these words in; they look a little like a title. In 1.9, he says, ‘In those days’ which is a clue that what he is writing about, happened a long time earlier.
Last month, in my Sermon on the Doctrine of the Atonement, I made the radical statement that “The Bible is mostly myths and legends.” I know that this is a pretty big lump to swallow, but it is necessary if we are to move ahead in understanding our faith, and its richness. One reason why it is so important is that the Fundamentalists, who want these myths and legends taught in the public schools as facts, must be stopped.
Today’s Lectionary Rdgs refers to two of these OT stories. In Jn 3.1-16 – John says in verse 14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We see here an attempt to appeal to our Rational Brains. This sounds like simple logic, but as we begin to examine the premises closely, we see the whole argument fall apart.
So also in the Rdg from Paul (Rom 4.1-5), he is reasoning that “We are justified by Faith, apart from the Law” ( ‘Law’ is properly capitalized, because it is a title), because Abraham trusted God. If you have the patience, you can work out his logic in detail. It is not important right now whether his logic is sound; the point is that he is appealing to the Rational Brain.
Now consider the Gospel Rdg. Let us focus on the ‘born-again’ message. Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born again? Can he re-enter his mother’s womb to be born again?” Nicodemus knows full well that his Rational Brain will reject this teaching as foolishness. And he is right. This teaching is not for the Rational Brain. All of us who have been born again, know that this is truly a Feeling Brain phenomenon. And only those with a well-oiled Feeling Brain can accept it. But it is very real to the Christians who have had the experience.
As Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the spirit is Spirit.” – the term ‘flesh’ representing this physical world. But, as Jesus says, there is a whole different world out there (and in here): what I have been calling the Spiritual World. This experience is strictly in the Feeling Brain. I can’t possibly know what is in your Feeling Brain, and it is nearly impossible to describe what is in mine. It is like trying to explain to a Martian what Pain is, or what Love is. These feelings just can’t be described in words. So I hope that if your experience is different from mine; that you will bear with me. I am trying to describe what I feel.
Wilbert F Howard, in his exegesis of the Gospel According to John, says, “The attempt to jettison the Christian facts as being perhaps doubtful, and the Christian doctrines as largely dust-laden lumber, much like the rickety furniture now relegated to some attic, and to concentrate on the Christian ethic, and the living of the Christian life, is hopeless and foredoomed to failure.”
To which I reply, ‘That is a matter of opinion, and that opinion is a product of the times.’ Remember that the Interpreter’s Bible is a product of the 50s and earlier. This is 2008, 60 yrs later. Things have changed. Today, we know more about the Faith than they did then. We know more about the workings of the human mind than we did then.
But we do see from the Howard statement, that even then, people were examining the Faith closely, and as Paul admonished, they were trying to “Hold fast to that which is good, and true, and endurable.” They knew even then that parts of the Faith were untenable. People have known that all along, but in the old days, our policy was to torture them until they believed the Faith as it was handed down to them, or to burn them at the stake as an example to others who might be tempted to question the Faith.
Today, we look back in horror at what we used to do. Today, we have put torture behind us, and we no longer kill people for what they believe.
Today, we have an enlightened society. Let us try to look at Jn 3.16 from that perspective. ” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Luther called this verse, “the Gospel in miniature.”
Most of us are aware that the original Greek has, ‘his only begotten Son’. Why RSV has dropped that, I don’t know. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. But if we look at the verse, as RSV has it, in a non-judgmental way, we see nothing that challenges the Rational Brain. It may be a matter of opinion as to whether Jesus is God’s ‘only’ Son, but there is nothing wrong with having an opinion. In fact, nearly everything about the Faith is a matter of opinion. I said at one time that an ignorant person is not entitled to an opinion – but that in itself is a matter of opinion. One sage has said, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts.’ What we should hope for is that all opinions are based on all the evidence available, even though, that evidence changes almost daily. For that reason, I believe that our Faith should not be set in concrete.
Our Denomination is a small, feeble voice in the world today. It will become even smaller, and even more feeble, if we persist in defending untenable doctrines. There is a movement today called the “Progressive Church”. It is a non-denominational, non-sectarian, but definitely Christian movement. What I would like to see is for the PCUSA to align itself with this movement. I know that it will never happen, because the conservatives among us are too powerful and too crafty. Even so, my message is always Progressive – I hope. This is the Gospel I preach, because this is the Gospel I believe in.
Goto Am I Qualified