As noted in a previous essay, during one of my Stetson University continuing education classes in religious history, an elderly male student in the front row simply got up and walked out. Later, I asked him what the problem was. He was angry because I said Christianity was founded 2,000 years ago. He cited the Gospel Book of John, which starts: “In the beginning, there was the Word.” The student insisted that meant Jesus existed before all time.
I didn’t argue with him. What was the point? However, I did note that while Jesus may have lived before the world began, but he only manifested himself in a particular time and place.
The student’s reaction may have been a bit strident, but hardly unusual. In 15 years of teaching these classes, I’ve discovered that many participants freely quote the Bible to support their arguments regardless of known facts or contrary information. They believe what they read; any historical and/or scientific research is simply ignored or rejected.
I only wish the people who founded the Catholic Church were around to argue with them. They recognized that the biblical texts reflected the faith of the authors, not the facts. Besides, the final version was not codified until the end of the fourth century C.E., although the Gospels were originally written from 70 to 110 C.E. That left plenty of time for revising. Over those decades, editors made hundreds of thousands of changes in the texts, a process historian Paul Johnson called “pious editing.” If a later reader thought an earlier author missed something, he simply added it. As beliefs mutated -- or evolved to use a term abhorred by Bible zealots – a sacred account was changed to reflect the new tenet.
The examples are endless. To note one: the book of Matthew, which contains Jesus’ family tree, was changed after the book was written: Joseph is no longer Jesus’ father; the words “who was thought to be the father” were wedged in after Joseph’s name to reflect a later belief in a virgin birth.
Actually, the sacred writings were often seen as allegories to help guide readers, rather than lessons in history. St. Augustine stressed that point in his writings. Protestant leader Martin Luther was no different: he rejected the Epistle of James as a work of “straw.” In doing so, these enlightened religious leaders were following in the footsteps of Jewish sages who did not hesitate to analyze and reinterpret their sacred scriptures to match changing mores and ideas. They had no choice: the Bible contains at least three versions of the 10 Commandments, not to mention two distinct and contradictory stories of creation, Noah’s flood, renaming of Jacob to Israel, rise of David and so on. Such diversity forced interpretations and allowed room for new understandings and appreciation of the texts.
After all, the Bible does not mention dinosaurs. Does that mean they didn’t exist? There’s no mention of the telephone or computer. How are they to be viewed for proper Sabbath observance? Not locked into the text as written, Jewish leaders have found the answers they need.
Because the texts had to be interpreted rather than blindly followed, the Catholic Church restricted access to the Bible throughout the Middle Ages to avoid misunderstandings. That worked until the 1500s when Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. A monk, he discovered that the Church had developed some of its tenets, such as several sacraments and papal authority, without biblical endorsement. He recommended a return to the Bible as a guide.
His leadership launched the move toward biblical inerrancy, which is a hallmark of modern times. Successive Protestant leaders urged stricter reading of the texts and faithful obedience to every single word until many modern Protestant sects base all of their thinking on the Bible, an approach that would have appalled the founders of Christianity.
After all, there are two, contradictory Christmas stories in the Bible, multiple versions of when Jesus said, how he was perceived by the population and more. Protestants straitjacketed into one reading are forced to combine stories – the magi join with shepherds, for example, in Christmas, even though they actually appear in separate, irreconcilable accounts of Jesus’ birth -- or ignore those stories which defy such simple solutions. The Catholic Church has no problem conceding that the texts are not historically accurate and provides interpretations to be accepted on faith. However, rigid Protestant sects cannot be so flexible. Their parishioners rely on strict readings to buttress their religion. Any evidence that undercuts the statements in Scripture also cracks that bedrock belief.
I saw that reality firsthand, too. Another student, a Rev. Brown who was an active Protestant minister, argued with me daily in class several years ago. On the last day, however, he stood and announced to the other students that everything I had told them reflected the latest research in religious history. He said he had studied the subject to eliminate the mythological aspects and to strength his belief. I asked him whether he had shared his new knowledge with his parishioners.
“Oh, no,” he gasped. “They come to church for faith, not history.”
Such faith may move mountains, but has no power against a single, tiny historical and/or scientific fact. Walking away from the truth with the Bible in hand only takes a believer in the wrong direction.
Bill Lazarus has been research and writing about religious history for decades. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.