All scripture is useful…

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If you like your Scriptures crusty and ancient, then you will love the updated on line resource displaying the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These amazing documents contain fragments of include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon- preserved for two thousand years by the hot, dry desert climate and the darkness of the caves where they were placed.

Part of their fame to Christians is the fact that the many fragments contain almost identical versions of OT scriptures that we still read today. This serves somehow to preserve the idea that the Bible is Gods Word, for all time, floated down intact as the ultimate instructional manual for life.

(As a matter of interest, there is a rather good discussion about how we might understand the phrase ‘The Word of God’ here.)

Most Christians I grew up with had no idea about how the library of books they knew as ‘The Word of God’ came to be gathered. They would have regarded such things as irrelevant, dangerous- trickery of those who would stain the purity of the the holy paper. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls give a window into how scripture was understood even before the wranglings over the Christian Canon.

Biblical scholars can not agree about when the Hebrew closed the book on their own collection of scriptures, but it was clear that those who put away the scrolls in the caves of Quran still experienced scripture as a work in progress.

They also used copies of the book of Enoch;

The book of Enoch was not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It tells of Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, who lived for 365 years and “walked with God”. The displayed fragment describes the heavenly revolt of the fallen angels, and their descent to earth to cohabit with the daughters of men and to reveal secret knowledge to mankind, a story hinted at in Gen. 6.

The Apocryphon of Daniel (and other fragments of Apocrophal writings, whose significance is mostly lost to us.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain extensive apocalyptic literature relating to the final messianic battle at the End of Days. The Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel describes either a messianic figure or a boastful ruler that will arise as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High”, like the apocalyptic redeemer in the biblical book of Daniel. The text calls to mind the New Testament proclamation of the angel Gabriel concerning the new-born Jesus: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… ” (Luke 1:32)

 

It is almost impossible to begin an adventure into trying to understand where these scriptures came from without having to set aside the idea that the ONLY relevant writings useful to Christians are contained within the book we know as The Bible. However we might also come to view these books as all the more remarkable.

The papers today are full of a blundering UKIP MEP who has published a charter that he wants Muslims in the UK to sign ‘rejecting violence’. He also has suggest that some Muslim texts need updating, claiming some say “kill Jews wherever you find them and various things like that”. “If that represents the thinking of modern people, there’s something wrong, in which case maybe they need to revise their thinking. If they say they can’t revise their thinking on those issues, then who’s got the problem – us or them?” he added.

The fool thinks you can re-write scriptures for other people’s religions. As if there are not enough blood thirsty bits in our own.

What we need is more understanding, and an open dialogue about how these still-incendiary ancient texts should rest on our post modern souls.

Honest doubt and fundamentalism…

I have been listening to some of this series on the old wireless during my travels this week- Richard Holloway‘s journey through the emergence of doubt in the wake of faith. Compulsive listening for old pilgrims like me.

For those of us on a quest for honest faith, we have also to be honest about doubt. The two things are intertwined, as I have written about previously. Doubt then is not the opposite of faith, but rather the means through we we engage, wrestle and ultimately it can become the way that we move towards light.

Today the discussion centred around the issue of revelation- the idea of an interventionist God, who reveals himself to his followers through dreams, visions, prophecy, and people ‘hearing his voice’.

Some of these ‘voice hearers’ began to write down these words, and it is these words that we go to most often as we seek fresh revelation.

One little morsel that impacted me today was this one, concerning the writings of Origen

Origen was a hugely influential scholar, theologian and writer of the early church, writing in Alexandria in the second and third Centuries after Christ. His views soon were controversial- he was a universalist and believed in the pre existence of souls. He was condemned later as an apostate- but perhaps we should regard him as a theological adventurer, putting forward ideas and theories for us to chew on.

Today his views on scripture were mentioned. The gospels that were circulating at the time (and there were many more than the 4 we have in our Bible now) had all sorts of areas of disagreement and contradiction. This might be hardly surprising if we read these as eye witness accounts, or scholarly collections of stories.

We might also expect a gospel to bear in some way the perspective, the creativity, the agenda of its particular author- one person might focus on one aspect of the life of Jesus- love for example, anther might be more interested in proving some other theological issue. You could describe this as observer bias.

This is of course not a problem if you understand this as you read- in fact it can be extremely enriching to view the life of Jesus from different perspectives- this is the whole point of us still having 4 gospels in our Bible is it not? However it becomes a problem when you start to treat the text not as revelation through a man, but rather the very ‘Word of God’. Then you have to deal with the contradictions in a whole different kind of way. You have to make it all fit into one homogeneous whole. As we used to hear said- ‘inerrant; without error or contradiction’.

It seems that back in the second and third Centuries there were already disputes about the validity of scripture as the inerrant Word of God. Origen however suggested that God had deliberately allowed these contradictions/disagreements to remain in scripture precisely to remind us that it was not to be taken literally- rather it was to be engaged with, wrestled with, questioned and debated.

In this time of the rise of fundamentalist doctrine, this ancient heretic might well have some more agitation to do for this generation too…

Bible nasties 3- truth and scripture…

(This is a continuation of a series of posts (here and here) asking questions about the dark passages of the Bible. Forgive me if this is all old news to you theological types- I began writing this as a review of where my own thinking is up to….)

So, we come to that truth word. I am tempted to try to deal with this as a philosophical concept- but for now, lets stick to Jesus-

 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:32

What did Jesus mean?

When you read the full passage, the whole thing gets even more complicated- Jesus is in the middle of one of his regular arguments with the religious hard liners- the Pharisees. Firstly they try to catch him out by bringing him a woman caught in adultery- who by law (Biblical, scriptural law that is) should be stoned to death. (Check out Deuteronomy 22:22 for example.)

Leaving aside the fact that only the woman was brought to be stoned, not the man who was the other half of the coupling, what Jesus did here was to take an absolute unequivocal law- an absolute scriptural truth- and turn it upside down and inside out. The way he did this infuriated the religious folk, and thrills us as we read the story.

Next, Jesus claims to be the Light of the World, and the Pharisees try to challenge him using logic and truth- asking him to bring forth witnesses. Then there is a lot of isicussion about the nature of sin- all of it aimed at the very people who seemed to have got it all together in terms of scripture.

So- what sort of truth is it that will set us free when we get to know it?

The church tradition (Protestant Evangelical, slightly Charismatic, left leaning) that I grew up in would have suggested that the issue was that the Pharisees did not get the real truth- they were caught up in surface deep ‘goodness’- all of which may be the case. But this tradition has made a sport of ‘truth wars’ for generations- ever since the reformation there has been a constant schism followed by splinter followed by subdivision- each grouping claiming that their truth was truer than the last one.

And each one of these schisms has used the Bible (or rather their enlightened interpretation of the Bible) as evidence for their claims to truth. Which is just what the Pharisees did. Is this really the kind of freedom that Jesus had in mind?

Is this the kind of truth that he had in mind?

Because in this passage, and in all others, Jesus seemed to apply the truth with a distinct bias towards the poor and weak. It is one of the reasons that I am still captivated by him. The freedom he seemed to promise was from the tyranny of the law- the application of hard, rigid, unyielding truth- particularly when wielded by the powerful. This kind of truth he always (and I mean ALWAYS) seems to have turned upside down and inside out.

Which kind of brings us back to the issue of how we might read, understand and apply the words of the Bible- particularly those troubling aforementioned passages in the Old Testament.

It is probably worth remembering that what we know as ‘The Bible’ is a relatively modern creation- in terms at least of the canon of scripture that is gathered together in the way we understand it now. There is more about this here if you are interested, or check out this summary of the Biblical Canon from Wikipedia. In the pre modern area, Scriptural truth emerged from debates between learned monks, or was ruled upon by the hierarchy of the Church.

Interestingly enough, I was reading something about the early Ionan writings- from the time of St Columba. One of the books that has survived is the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis- a collection of biblical Christian teaching and law making, written on Iona some time in the late 7th Century. What is striking about this book is that it often quotes contradictory sources- the was no concern to decide what should be the absolute final truth- rather the writer appears to expect people to look at the evidence, and work it out for themselves.

Does that mean that there is no truth, just debate leading to a thousand personal opinions that shift according to influence and fashion?

Well- some might suggest that this is the logical outcome of post-modernity as applied to religion. The pendulum swing may yet need to correct itself lest we deconstruct everything to it’s eventual destruction (if you will forgive the mixed metaphor!)

Interestingly enough- what I believe is happening in the emerging church conversation at the moment is that the deconstruction phase is over- we are starting to build again. People are starting to be more comfortable in stating what they have come to believe (rather than just questioning what they had once believed.) We see this creating some conflict- as in Rob Bell’s new book. Of course, such concrete statements (even id tentatively phrased) become targets for the  truth mongers. ‘Oh’ they say ‘I knew all along this man was a heretic/a universalist/un biblical.

I think that is why I started to write this series of blog pieces. I feel it is time to take my own stand on some of these issues- you could say, to find my own bit of truth.

But it needs to be the sort of truth that sets me free.

And if it is to be this, then it needs to be a Jesus kind of truth-

Humble

Biased towards the poor and weak

Driven by love and grace, not existing independently of these

Destablising and challenging- not always obvious

Encountered in stories, relationships and mistake making- not just(or even) in written lists of laws

Applied deeply, not just on the surface

Applied first to oneself, but softly to others- apart from those who wield power

Hmmmm….

Books from the very earliest followers of Jesus…

Did anyone see this on the news yesterday?

(There are more pictures here.)

They could be the earliest Christian writing in existence, surviving almost 2,000 years in a Jordanian cave. They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.

A group of 70 or so “books”, each with between five and 15 lead leaves bound by lead rings, was apparently discovered in a remote arid valley in northern Jordan somewhere between 2005 and 2007.

A flash flood had exposed two niches inside the cave, one of them marked with a menorah or candlestick, the ancient Jewish religious symbol.

A Jordanian Bedouin opened these plugs, and what he found inside might constitute extremely rare relics of early Christianity.

 

The director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, says the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.

“They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Mr Saad.

“Maybe it will lead to further interpretation and authenticity checks of the material, but the initial information is very encouraging, and it seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery, maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.”

 

One of the few people to see the collection is David Elkington, a student of ancient religious archaeology who is heading a British team trying to get the lead books safely into a Jordanian museum.

He says they could be “the major discovery of Christian history”, adding: “It’s a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church.”

It remains to be seen whether these books are indeed what they appear to be, and what their pages might reveal. But as Elkington said above, the thought of these books being handled, passed around and treasured by people who had known Jesus- perhaps even his disciples- this brings a tingle to the spine.

Will there be material here that will challenge, and puzzle? I suspect so.

There will almost certainly be a scramble to ‘make it all fit together’.  To preserve the illusion (or delusion) of those of us whose faith rests on a particular view of the Bible- as an organic, seamless whole ‘without error or contradiction’.

I do not mean to be critical- but it is just that the more I look, the more I see questions, uncertainties, paradox, cultural and contextual bias. And to deny these is for me deny faith, and replace it with religion.

Faith remains- and the journey of engagement- with the Spirit of God encountered in all sorts of ancient text, but also in the sunrise, and the shared cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

The Epic of Gilgamesh and ancient scripture…

gilgamesh_louvre

I have been thinking a little about ancient times recently- so humour me while I scratch a familiar itch- that of the relationships between culture, history and the formation of faith through the interpretation of Scripture.

I heard some of the ancient poetry from the Epic of Gilgamesh read out on a TV programme recently. It was beautiful…

‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find the life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man
they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh,
fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry,
feast and rejoice.
Let your clothes be fresh,
bathe yourself in water,
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
for this too is the lot of man.’

But Gilgamesh said to Siduri, the young woman,
‘How can I be silent,
how can I rest,
when Enkidu whom I love is dust,
and I too shall die
and be laid in the earth for ever.’

One translation of the full text available here.

A summary of the text, and discussion about some of the themes is available here.

The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh -Nineveh 7th Century BC

I had heard of this ancient writing before, but knew little of it, so set off to find out more. It interested me for several reasons-

  1. As far as I can understand, this poetry is amongst the earliest literature known to have been written down, emerging from a little known civilisation that pre-existed the Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires- back to the earlier Sumerian peoples.  The poetry was held as significant to cultures for the next 3000 years, before being lost into history until tablets telling the story began to be unearthed in the 19th Century AD. The amazing endurance of the story, and it’s survival on tablets of stone is fascinating and intriguing.
  2. These civilisations occurred in the middle east, in the areas now known as Iraq and Iran, and the more understanding we have of middle eastern culture in this time of war and the ‘demonisation of the other’ the better.
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poetic recording that pre-exists the recording of the oral tradition that became the Hebrew Bible. There are many parallels between the creation stories in Genesis and those described in the Epic, as well as an account of a great flood. Clearly there are many differences too, but I find myself once again interested in the origins of Scripture- and its relationship with the culture and context that it was inspired within.
  4. There are also echoes of what appear to be perennial human pre-occupations- the origin and meaning of life, friendship, courage, and the approach of death. Consider again the poetry of Solomon from the book of Ecclesiastes- and compare this with the words from the Epic above…

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [c] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

11 I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so men are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

(Ecclesiastes 9, NIV)

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So the question on my mind, is whether this has any significance for how we Christians might engage with ancient Scripture, and in turn, encounter the Living God?

I have written some things before about my own struggles with these issues-  I asked a series of questions, which I tried to give my own incomplete answers to here.

But I find myself increasingly divorced from the way of understanding scripture that I grew up with in the left-of-centre-charismatic-evangelical-fundamentalist churches that gifted me with faith.

This is because the assumptions through which they appeared to approach scripture no longer make sense to me. They seem to include these-

  • The Bible is complete, sufficient, without error or contradiction, and was given to the Church complete as a gift from God.
  • Any challenge to the absolute authority of the Bible has to be resisted at all costs.
  • Any sources outside the Bible- be they writings of other early Christians, or the spirituality of other cultures- all these things are at best dangerous, or at worst, deceptions of the devil.
  • Appreciation and interest of history is highly selective, and should be focussed on the agenda and issues emerging in the 200 years following the Reformation.

I now find myself drawn into new areas of adventure- based on a new set of questions and assumptions. These are not my own, but rather ones that have ‘emerged’ into my experience of faith through a process of re-engagement. They include some of these things-

  • We stand on the shoulders of many other people of faith, who have been drawn by God into incomplete but inspired understandings.
  • Some of this was written down, and some of this writing survived and endured.
  • Over the period of one and a half thousand years, and after much deliberation, some this has been gathered together to form what we know as the Bible.
  • The original meaning of some of these words is lost to us.
  • But the words are still an amazing gift to us, as the Holy Spirit makes them sing again in our context.
  • Let us never pretend to understand fully or finally, or to restrict God to our narrow context or viewpoint.
  • Our ultimate engagement with the God is through the person of Jesus, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • But we too will fall short.
  • And others  that follow us will need to find their own adventure.

God bless them as they write their own Epics.