You Can’t Take the Bible Literally

15 Sep

So I’ve had this book “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Tim Keller for a while now. It is an amazing book and I love it; however, I am just now on chapter eight out of fourteen. I just finished chapter seven, which is “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally.” Really good stuff.  Here is part of it that I really liked.

You Can’t Take the Bible Literally
“I see much of the Bible’s teaching as historically inaccurate,” said Charles, an investment banker. “We can’t be sure the Bible’s account of events is what really happened.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Charles,” answered Jaclyn, a woman working in finance. “But my biggest problem with the Bible is that it is culturally obsolete. Much of the Bible’s social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So it is impossible to accept the Bible as the complete authority Christians think it is.”
When I was in college in the last 1960s, I took some courses on the Bible as literature and was confronted with the prevailing wisdom of the time. My professors taught that the New Testament gospels originated as the oral traditions of various church communities around the Mediterranean. These stories about Jesus were shaped by those communities to address the questions and needs peculiar to each church. Leaders made certain that the Jesus in these stories supported the policies and beliefs of their communities. The oral traditions were then passed down over the years, evolving through the addition of various legendary materials. Finally, long after the actual events, the gospels assumed written form. By then it was almost impossible to know to what degree, if any, they represented the actual historical events.
Who then was the original Jesus? The scholars I read proposed that the real, “historical Jesus” was a charismatic teacher of justice and wisdom who provoked opposition and was executed. After his death, they said, different parties and viewpoints emerged among his followers about who he was. Some claimed he was divine and risen from the dead, others that he was just a human teacher who lived on spiritually in the hearts of his disciples. After a power struggle, the “divine Jesus” party won and created texts that promoted its views. They allegedly suppressed and destroyed all the alternative texts showing us a different sort of Jesus. Recently, some of these suppressed, alternate views of Jesus have come to light—like the “Gnostic” gospels of Thomas and Judas. This shows, it is said, that early Christianity was very diverse in its doctrinal beliefs.
If this view of the New Testament’s origins and development is true, it would radically change our understanding of the content and meaning of Christianity itself. It would mean that no one could really know what Jesus said and did, and that the Bible could not be the authoritative norm over our life and beliefs. It would mean that most of the classic Christian teachings—Jesus’s deity, atonement, and resurrection—are mistaken and based on legend.
As a student I was initially shaken by this. How could all of these prominent scholars be wrong? Then, however, as I did my own firsthand research, I was surprised at how little evidence there actually was for these historical reconstructions. To my encouragement the evidence for this older, skeptical view of the Bible has been crumbling steadily for the past thirty years, even as it has been promoted by the popular media through books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code.
Anne Rice was one person who was startled to discover how weak the case for a merely human “historical Jesus” really is. Rice became famous as the author of Interview with the Vampire and other works that could be called “horror-erotica.” Raised a Catholic, she lost her faith at a secular college, married an atheist, and became wealthy writing novels about Lestat, who is both a vampire and a rock star. It shocked the literary and media world when Rice announced that she had returned to Christianity.
Why did she do it? In the afterword to her new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, she explained that she had begun doing extensive research about the historical Jesus by reading the work of Jesus scholars at the most respected academic institutions. Their main thesis was that the Biblical documents we have aren’t historically reliable. She was amazed at how weak their arguments were.
Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions . . . Conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all . . . The whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified . . . that whole picture which had floated around the liberal circles I frequented as an atheists for thirty years—the case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.

The Christian faith requires belief in the Bible. This is a big stumbling block for many. I meet many New Yorkers for the first time after they have been invited to one of Redeemer’s services. The centerpiece of each service is a sermon based on a text of the Bible. The average visitor is surprised or even shocked to find us listening to the Bible so carefully. Most would say that they know there are many great stories and sayings in the Bible, but today “you can’t take it literally.” What they mean is that the Bible is not entirely trustworthy because some parts—are scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive. We looked at the first of these issues, of science and the Bible, in the previous chapter. Now we will look at the other two.
“We Can’t Trust the Bible Historically
It is widely believed that the Bible is a historically unreliable collection of legends. A highly publicized forum of scholars, “the Jesus Seminar,” has stated that no more than 20 percent of Jesus’s sayings and actions in the Bible can be historically validated. How do we respond do this? It is beyond the range of this book to examine the historic accuracy of each part of the Bible. Instead, we will ask whether we can trust the gospels, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life, to be historically reliable. By this I mean the “canonical” gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—that the church recognized very early on as authentic and authoritative.
It is often asserted that the New Testament gospels were written so many years after the events happened that they writers’ accounts of Jesus’s life can’t be trusted—that they are highly embellished if not wholly imagined. Many believe that the canonical gospels were only four out of scores of other texts and that they were written to support the church hierarchy’s power while the rest (including the so-call “Gnostic gospels”) were suppressed. This belief has been given new plausibility in the popular imagination by the bestselling book The Da Vinci Code. In this novel, the original Jesus is depicted as a great but clearly human teacher who many years after his death has made into a resurrected God by church leaders who did so to gain status in the Roman empire. However, there are several good reasons why the gospel accounts should be considered historically reliable rather than legends.
The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends.
The canonical gospels were written at the very most forty to sixty years after Jesus’s death. Paul’s letters, written just fifteen to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus, provide an outline of all the events of Jesus’s life found in the gospels—his miracles, claims, crucifixion, and resurrection. This means that the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s life were circulating within the lifetimes of hundreds who had been present at the events of his ministry. The gospel author Luke claims that he got his account of Jesus’s life from eyewitnesses who were still alive (Luke 1:1-4).
In his landmark book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham marshals much historical evidence to demonstrate that at the time the gospels were written there were still numerous well-known living eyewitnesses to Jesus’s teaching and life events. They had committed them to memory and they remained active in the public life of the churches throughout their lifetimes, serving as ongoing sources and guarantors of the truth of those accounts. Bauckham uses evidence within the gospels themselves to show that the gospel writers named their eyewitness sources within the text to assure readers of their accounts’ authenticity.
Mark, for example, says that the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary “was the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21). There is no reason for the author to include such names unless the readers know or could have access to them. Mark is saying, “Alexander and Rufus vouch for the truth of what I am telling you, if you want to ask them.” Paul also appeals to readers to check with living eyewitnesses if they want to establish the truth of what he is saying about the events of Jesus’s life (1 Corinthians 15:1-6). Paul refers to a body of five hundred eyewitnesses who saw the rise Christ at once. You can’t write that in a document designed for public reading unless there really were surviving witnesses whose testimony agreed and who could confirm what the author said. All this decisively refutes the idea that the gospels were anonymous, collective, evolving oral traditions. Instead they were oral histories taken down from the mouths of the living eyewitnesses who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus in great detail.
It is not only Christ’s supporters who were still alive. Also still alive were many bystanders, officials, and opponents who had actually heard him teach, seen his actions, and watched him die. They would have been especially ready to challenge any accounts that were fabricated. For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead. They must be off the scene so they cannot contradict or debunk the embellishments and falsehoods of the story. The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur.

It would have been impossible, then, for this new faith to spread as it did had Jesus never said or done the things mentioned in the gospel accounts. Paul could confidently assert to government officials that the events of Jesus’s life were public knowledge: “These things were not done in a corner,” he said to King Agrippa (Acts 26:26). The people of Jerusalem had been there—they had been in the crowds that heard and watched Jesus. The New Testament documents could not say Jesus was crucified when thousands of people were still alive know knew whether he was or not. If there had not been appearances after his death, if there had not been an empty tomb, if he had not made these claims, and these public documents claimed they happened, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground. The hearers would have simply laughed at the accounts.

The four canonical gospels were written much earlier than the so-called Gnostic gospels. The Gospel of Thomas, the best known of the Gnostic documents, is a translation from the Syriac, and scholars have shown that the Syriac traditions in Thomas can be dated to 175 A.D. at the earliest, more than a hundred years after the time that the canonical gospels were in widespread use. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker wrote that the Gnostic gospels were so late that they “. . . no more challenge the basis of the Church’s faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.” The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, however, were recognized as authoritative eyewitness accounts almost immediately, and so we have Irenaeus of Lyons in 160 A.D. declaring that there were four, and only four, gospels. The widespread idea, promoted by The Da Vinci Code, that the Emperor Constantine determined the New Testament canon, casting aside the earlier and supposedly more authentic Gnostic gospels, simply is not true.

As for The Da Vinci Code, people know the book and the movie plot is fictitious, but many find plausible the historical background that the author, Dan Brown, claims is true. The bestseller depicts Constantine in 325 A.D. as decreeing Jesus’s divinity and suppressing all the evidence that he was just a human teacher. Even in a document like Paul’s letter to the Philippians, however, which all historians date at no more than twenty years after the death of Christ, we see that Christians were worshipping Jesus as God (Philippians 2). Belief in the deity of Christ was part of the dynamic from the beginning in the growth of the early Christian church. One historian comments:

[Dan Brown says] that the Emperor Constantine imposed a whole new interpretation on Christianity at the Council of Nicea in 325. That is, he decreed the belief in Jesus’ divinity and suppressed all evidence of his humanity. This would mean Christianity won the religious competition in the Roman Empire by an exercise of power rather than by an attraction it exerted. In actual historical fact, the Church had won that competition long before that time, before it had any power, when it was still under sporadic persecution. If a historian were cynical, you would say Constantine chose Christianity because it had already won and he wanted to back a winner.
– “The Reason for God,” pg. 97-104


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