Friday, August 26, 2011

Making Senses Out of Scripture

I recently finished the book Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did. The book was obviously meant for Catholics so I am not sure why my brother recommended it. Based on the subtitle, one might expect to see how the different Christian groups each viewed the Bible. What the author Mark Shea actually discussed is how the modern church views the Bible.

There were multiple Christian groups with different views about Jesus as well different interpretations of the Old Testament writings. Bart D. Ehrman has a great series through the teaching company called Lost Christianities: Christian Scripture and the Battles over Authentication that discuss these other views in detail. Even though the so called heretics where not discussed, Shea does not provide any evidence that the successful "orthodoxy" actually interpreted scripture the way he claims.This does not mean that they didn't, only that he fails to support his assertion.

The book is mostly about how the Catholic church views the Bible and how to deal with the inconsistencies. There are several issues I have with much of what he says but is a disagreement of opinion. However, in one of the last chapters he gets to the mistranslation of Isaiah relating to the virgin birth. First admits the mistranslation then that it probably should not have been translated incorrectly but then suggests that the mistranslation may have been inspired.

His defense of not just the misreading of Isaiah but of all claims to supposed prophecies that really have nothing to do with Jesus opens creates a large problem. Some of the so called prophecies Jesus fulfilled were not actual prophecies. Shea claims that after Jesus, the existence of these prophecies could be seen. However, we cannot be sure what Jesus really did as we have no eye witness accounts and even if he did those things that supposedly were prophesied, it would be wrong to reread into ancient texts meaning that they did not have from the beginning.

To illustrate how useless it is to try to read prophecies with the benefit of hindsight, consider the case of Nostradamus. Nostradamus writings were very cryptic but that has not prevented people from taking the words and claiming that he predicted everything from World War I, World War II to 9/11. Of course he did not actually predict any of this but with the hindsight bias, it is easy to read into previous works meaning that they do not have.

For early first century Christians wanting to share their beliefs, embellishing a story to make it seem like Jesus fulfilled a prophecy that he never did or to illustrate an important teaching may have seemed justified. This does not mean that Jesus was not born of a virgin or that he was not born in Bethlehem, tough neither one seems likely. This just means that if you believe these things, you believe by faith.

5 comments:

Friar Tuck said...

First, I suggested this book in order to at least give you a non-literalist reference point for interpretation of the Bible since you have often only considered a literalist interpretation in your consideration of Scripture. Whether you agree with it or not, I want to share a bit of the way Catholics view Scripture, so that the next time your criticize Christians for Scriptures, you won't immediately make reference to literalist interpretation, which are obviously silly, but that the majority of Christians don't believe in.

"However, we cannot be sure what Jesus really did as we have no eye witness accounts"
I must point out this is blantly false. Consider this, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4) This is a clear declaration of eyewitness account of the acts of Jesus.

Further, the Jewish historian, Josephus, who has no ax to grind for the Christians, acknowledged the existence of Jesus and calls Him a teacher and miracle worker.

As for additional meanings, I think Shea talked about this in the other three senses of Scripture. There is the literal sense, which is what the original author meant, and the additional senses. Now, if for the sake of argument, you are willing to grant that God exists, it makes sense that the Scriptures could be deeper in meaning than the original intent of the author. There is nothing contradictory about this, once our premises are granted.

Verl Humpherys said...

The author of Luke is not an eye witness. He drew much of his material from Mark and possibly a lost account known as Q.

I never claimed that Jesus did not exist. We only have oral traditions that we passed down until they were collected in the gospels. We do not know how many times these traditions were passed on before they were collected.

Friar Tuck said...

I can't say that Luke himself was not an eyewitness besides the fact that he doesn't come out and say it. Regardless, this book claims to contain eye witness accounts and was written within living memory of the events.

Further, the Gospel of John claims to be written by John the Apostle as an eyewitness: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness [the beloved disciple] to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true." (John 21:24-25)

Further, we have accounts in the Letters of Paul, much earlier, that Jesus was seen by some number of people, some of whom he names. This was easily verifiable at the time. Just go ask the guy and if he say, "Paul is a liar," conspiracy over.

Further, the conversion of Paul is a great witness of the Resurrection of Jesus. He was a rabid anti-Christian and deeply involved with Judaism. He was the kind of man who would not have settled for anything less than meeting Jesus face to face. He surely had not only a hard time leaving the Jewish community but entering the Christian one. This would be like Hitchen becoming Catholic and daily praying at a shrine of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Again, the conversion and pre-conversion life of St. Paul could easily be verified at the time. Someone could have just stood up and said, "You weren't really a Pharisee," or "You're just a Christian poser." And surely the Jewish community would have if they could have.

Verl Humpherys said...

I have no doubt that the author of Luke believed to be writing eye witness accounts but what he wrote was the oral and written traditions, some taken from Mark and from Q.

The author of John was not the disciple John. It is unlikely that any of the disciples were literate coming mostly from poor backgrounds. I would be surprised if you could find a scholar who actually believes that John the disciple wrote the gospel.

Paul is interesting. I do not find his conversion story very compelling and have been think about writing about my thoughts on it. Unfortunately, it is very hard to tell what happened to Paul given that we only have Paul's and the writer of Acts' word on it and they have an obvious bias. I do not think we have anything written by or about Paul preceding his conversion.

Paul does list those he claimed saw Jesus after his death. But we have nothing from them directly only second had testimony. Even if we did have writings from the witnesses Paul mentions, that does not confirm the stories about Jesus in the Gospels about what he said and did before he died.

Friar Tuck said...

"but what he wrote was the oral and written traditions, some taken from Mark and from Q."

Could they have not talked to the same eyewitnesses and gotten the same story? The fact that Mark and Luke agree does not seem to be a problem with it being eyewitness testimony.

"The author of John was not the disciple John."

Interesting. How do you know this?

"It is unlikely that any of the disciples were literate coming mostly from poor backgrounds."

Perhaps, but even then he could have payed a scribe to transcribe his testimony.

"Unfortunately, it is very hard to tell what happened to Paul given that we only have Paul's and the writer of Acts' word on it and they have an obvious bias."

I'm not sure what you mean by this. You can't believe Paul about his own conversion?

Now the fact that needs to be contended with is if Paul was lying in any way, why is there no record of anyone standing up and saying, "Paul is a liar. He was never a Pharisee. He did not persecute Christians. He has been a Christian all along."

You're saying he cannot be trusted to give accurate testimony about a Christian conversion, because he's a Christian. How does that make sense? If he really saw Jesus, then of course he would have become Christian. As I said before, he was so deeply involved with Jewish people, culture, and religion, that it does not make sense for him to become Christian without have a radical experience of Jesus, when the Jews where devoted the persecution of the Christians.

How do you explain his conversion from the context that he was a righteous Pharisee and no record to contest his claims about his pre-conversion life?

"Even if we did have writings from the witnesses Paul mentions, that does not confirm the stories about Jesus in the Gospels about what he said and did before he died."

Well, still from Paul, we have the substance of the Gospels. We have the Last Supper, the death and burial of Jesus, and His Resurrection. And as Paul points out, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our faith is nothing.

If Jesus really did rise from the dead I'm a bit more convinced that people would have gone to great lengths to preserve the life and teachings of Jesus, especially those he visited after the Resurrection. Not to mention, if He really did rise, then He was God, and He really did send the Holy Spirit to inspire the writers.