The Word of God?

“This is the word of the Lord”

That is the liturgical phrase used in Christian churches to mark the end of a reading from the Bible. It is a strange, even a misleading, phrase. Yet Sunday after Sunday it is repeated, reinforcing in the psyches of worshipers a rather outdated attitude toward Holy Scripture.

In many of its details, the Bible is simply wrong! Epilepsy is not caused by demon possession. David did not write the Psalms. The earth is not the center of the universe. On other issues of great public concern, the Bible is no longer even regarded as moral. Its verses have been used to affirm war, slavery, segregation and apartheid. It defines women as inferior creatures and suggests that homosexual persons be put to death.

Church people try to ignore or suppress these biblical deficiencies, but when the Scriptures are read to a listening congregation the response is increasing incredulity. Still they respond, “This is the word of the Lord.”

Outside the church, this presumed authority of Scripture is generally ignored. Secular people live in a post-religious world where the idea that a literary work, written between 1000 B.C.E. and 135 C.E., can be “the Word of God,” is simply too far-fetched to believe. This obvious ecclesiastical power play is no longer even passively accepted as benign. One has only to chart the evil and pain that many people have endured in history because someone regarded the Bible as the “Word of God.” That claim is no longer regarded as valid.

In a series of essays that will appear periodically over the next few months in this column I will examine some of the more frightening examples of these tragedies. My purpose will be quite specific. I will be seeking to call the Christian Church in all of its forms to look closely at what it is, overtly and covertly, teaching its people about the Bible and at the enormous gap that exists between what biblical scholars know and what the leaders of the churches actually say to their congregations. If our clergy do not really believe what they are saying, and if our liturgies affirm things that the scholars universally reject, then something is clearly amiss in contemporary Christianity that does not augur well for a Christian future.

First, we need to state some basic biblical facts.

The people who wrote the books in the Bible did not think they were writing “The Word of God.” That is a quite elementary but singularly important place to begin.

In regard to the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or the Books of Moses, scholars have known since the 19th century, that they are not the work of a single hand. They are rather a compilation of at least four strands of Jewish writing that were composed over a period of some 500 years. Those strands were first, the Yahwist document, written in the tenth century B.C.E. and sometimes called the Hebrew Iliad, which reflects the national history of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The second was the Elohist document, written in the 9th century B.C.E. and sometimes called the Hebrew Odyssey, which reflects the national history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E., these two national stories were woven together into a single narrative. The third document was the product of one known as the Deuteronomic writer, composed in the late 7th century B.C.E., and consisting of the book of Deuteronomy and a general editing of the newly merged national Jewish story. The fourth source of the Torah was not so much a document as it was an expansive editorial commentary applied to the entire faith story by those called the Priestly Writers and written during the Babylonian Exile somewhere between 586 and 450 B.C.E. That is the process, briefly described, that produced the oldest part of the biblical story.

One can identify the places where these versions of the story were woven rather inexactly together, producing many of the conflicting details in the Torah itself. The Sabbath day law, for example, developed during the Exile, is read back into the manna in the wilderness story to make sure that the miraculous food was not gathered on the seventh day in violation of the Sabbath. The ritualistic laws governing sacrifices were used to alter the Noah story so that during the 150 days on the ark, Noah could offer the proper sacrifices without destroying that species.

Finally, there are three versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah. The oldest one, from the Yahwist document, is found in Exodus 34. The version with which most of us are familiar, found in Exodus 20, comes from the Elohist document but was significantly doctored by the Priestly Writers. The third version is in Deuteronomy 5 and though close to Exodus 20 has some revealing differences. The Deuteronomic version of the 4th Commandment makes the reason for rest on the Sabbath, not that God rested from the work of creation and thus hallowed that day, but that the Jews should remember that they were once slaves and that even slaves need a day of rest. The seven-day creation story, with which the Bible now opens, was written by the Priestly Writers well after the Deuteronomic document had been completed.

The idea that the Bible came into being in some sort of miraculous way and is either the literal dictation of God or even the “inspired message of God” is simply not supportable on its face. The Bible is a profoundly human, deeply flawed, tribal history that has created as much pain as blessing in our world.

Moving on to the Hebrew prophets, this analysis produces a similar difficulty. The prophets tended to explain every disaster that befell the chosen people as the direct result of their laxity in obeying God’s laws or in their inability to worship God properly. God seemed to have little more to do than to organize the whole universe so as to teach the chosen people how to be faithful or to demonstrate the dreadful price that unfaithful ones would have to pay. When we turn to the first part of the New Testament to be written, we need to register the fact that Paul’s letters were just that, letters. They are time bound and time specific. They express irritation at and praise for the behavior of the actual recipients. They were composed in a dialogical manner in order to address real issues bothering real people in real time. When Paul wrote in anger, “I hope those who bother you will mutilate themselves,” was that the Word of God? Surely it was nothing more than the word of Paul!

Similarly, when Paul suggested that a woman’s head must be covered in public worship, he was expressing a cultural norm not a universal principle. When Paul said, “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man” or when he suggested that those who do not worship God properly would have their sexual identities confused, does one really want to suggest that this badly dated bit of human ignorance is to be reverenced as the voice of God?

Later the Gospel writers would violently twist out of context the writings of the prophets to prove such things as the literal accuracy of the Virgin Birth or to demonstrate that the ancient prophets supported the doctrinal and creedal development of the 4th and 5th Centuries of the Common Era. Jerry Falwell, in a published book, has suggested that the divine nature of Jesus is “proved” by the fact that he fulfilled in a very specific way, the messianic expectations of the prophets. That attitude, however, has been revealed by modern biblical scholarship to be nothing less than profound ignorance. The idea that a God, living somewhere above the sky, would drop hints into the texts of writers, some 800 years before the birth of Christ, determining exactly what Jesus would do in the 1st century, is fanciful enough. But when one adds that God would need to guard these divine hints through the centuries when these texts were copied by hand, protect them from destruction in war and guide the minds of Jewish decision makers centuries later to include these prophetic works in the Jewish Canon of Scripture, the elements of miracle and magic become heightened to incredibly superstitious levels.

Next, one needs to understand, that contrary to the way Christian theology has interpreted the Gospels from the 2nd century on, Jesus did not miraculously live out these prophetic expectations. It was exactly the other way around. The story of Jesus was crafted some 40 – 70 years after that earthly life came to an end, to make it conform to the biblical expectations! Micah, for example, did not predict that the birth of Jesus would occur in Bethlehem. That was the way that later Christians interpreted Micah. Jesus’ birth, which probably occurred in Galilee, was shifted to Bethlehem in order to make the birth of Jesus fulfill this expectation.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion was, likewise, deliberately and liturgically shaped by their authors who had Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 in front of them as they wrote the passion narrative. We forget, conveniently I would suggest, that the earliest Gospel, Mark, says that when Jesus was arrested, all of the disciples “forsook him and fled.” Jesus died alone with no eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers later wrote the story of his death to “reveal the fulfillment of Scripture.” A great part of the crisis in faith today derives from the fact that the authority once claimed for the Bible cannot and should not be sustained in the light of modern knowledge. How important then is this traditional view of the Bible to the future of Christianity. Can this view of Scripture be abandoned without Christianity, as we have known it, not also collapsing? That question remains to be answered but it will be the present in the background of many columns written during the coming year. Stay tuned!

– Bishop John Shelby Spong

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