This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

How We Really Got the New Testament.


I am finding that many people these days entertain wild misconceptions about how the New Testament was originally put together.  They seem to adhere to a fictitious but very powerful narrative.  It goes like this: 

Shortly after Jesus died his followers rejected his nice, simple, peaceful teachings and began twisting, adulterating, and doctoring his original words to fit their own biases and agendas.  But there were other secret Christians who did keep Jesus’ real teachings and wrote other books containing them.  When the Church decided which books to include in the New Testament, they threw out and violently suppressed the nice ones and kept the bad, doctored ones.  The only criterion the Church used in this decision was what preserved the privilege, prestige, and power of the evil Bishops who were in charge.  

On the one hand, in service of this narrative, scholars dedicate themselves to ripping apart the text of the gospels in an attempt to mine from it the “original” words of the “historical Jesus,” separating them from the “less authentic” material added later by his followers.  

On the other hand, at the same time, some of these same scholars lift up a collection of recently discovered writings that they insist preserve Jesus’ original teachings. 

The facts are quite different.  In reality, in deciding which books would be included in the New Testament the early church used a much wider set of criteria.  These criteria were: 

  1. “Apostolicity.”  In our time this means that a book has a pedigree going back to the 1st century and the preaching of the original witnesses to Jesus.  In other words, it is old.  It had been used and commented upon for a long time.  
  2. “Catholicity.”  The Church felt that, to be canonical, books had to have more than a merely local interest.  They had to have been accepted, shared, and used by the wider church.  
  3. “Orthodoxy.”  The books chosen for inclusion had to agree on the basic Christian story, even if there were differences, sometimes pretty wide, in emphasis, interpretation, and detail.  
  4. “Traditional use.”  The Church did not value novelty.  They trusted the books that had been profitably used by Christian congregations for the previous three centuries.  If books were found to be of such value that people had them copied, disseminated, and commented upon across the known world, they met these criteria.

In other words, the Church chose the books that were already being widely used by Christians.  There seems to have been a pretty broad consensus about them.  There were a few books that were argued about for a while.  But the list agreed to in the 4th century or so was more or less the same as the earliest such lists we have, from a 200 years before.

The church excluded some books from the canon that they still continued to use, only not as Scripture.  There is a book called “The Shepherd,” by an early Christian named Hermas.  There are letters by Barnabas and Clement of Rome.  And there are even non-canonical gospels like the Infancy Gospel of James, or the one attributed to Nicodemus, that the church kept in a secondary category.  They met some of the above criteria for canonization, but not all.

Then there were books that met basically none of the criteria.  They were not witnesses to Jesus, but clearly written in the 2nd or 3rd century.  They were not commonly accepted, but only used by a small number of Christians.  (The fact that these Christians tended to think of themselves as better and more spiritual than everyone else didn’t help.)  And finally, what these books taught was often radically different from what the rest of the New Testament says.  For instance, the New Testament believes, with the Hebrew tradition, that the creation is the good product of a good Creator.  But many of these books said creation and matter were evil products of an evil demigod.  So they didn’t make the cut.  We call the writers of these books “Gnostics.”

So it is emphatically not true that the Bishops sat down in the 4th century with a stack of books and determined, by a corrupt political process designed to enhance their own power and suck up to the Emperor, the books that would be in the New Testament, then violently suppressed all other books.  

If that were the case, we would not have the New Testament we now have, which is an inherently and essentially anti-imperialist document.


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Saturday, January 25, 2020

How We Are Still Ruled by a King, a Pope, and Caesar.

In John’s gospel, the Sea of Galilee is called “the Sea of Tiberias.”  John uses the official Roman name of this body of water to remind us however subtly that Caesar had claimed possession over all bodies of water in the Roman Empire, and that anyone fishing in those bodies of water was required to pay Caesar for any fish extracted from “his” lake.   

Here we see one of the ways imperialist powers implement their colonial authority over conquered peoples.  By the brute force of their militaries, they simply declare ownership over land and water belonging to others.  In other words, they steal it at gunpoint.  This reduces the people who have always owned and worked the land or the water to subjects, servants, vassals, slaves, and employees.

Recently there was a legal case in my State of New Jersey between a Board of Trustees at the First Presbyterian Church of Newark, and the Presbytery of Newark, the regional body of the Presbyterian Church USA.  The Trustees were claiming independence, saying they were not bound by the rules and standards of the PCUSA that apply to every other Presbyterian Church in the denomination.  The basis for this claim was a “charter” granted by King George II of Great Britain to the church in 1753.  This charter gave the Trustees authority over real estate in America.

Judge Jodi Lee Alper ruled in favor of… the King.  

I’m serious.  

She said this ancient document took precedence over the ecclesiastical polity that the church embraced when it became part of the PCUSA and its predecessor denominations.  

This leads me to ask a more fundamental question: 

“Who gave King George II the right to dispose of land he did not own 
on a continent 3500 miles away across an ocean 
in the first place?”

The answer is: Pope Alexander VI.  

Alexander VI was a member of the infamous Borgia family and is universally regarded as one of the worst, most corrupt and venal Popes in history.  One of the very grievous things perpetrated by Alexander VI is something called “The Doctrine of Discovery.”  This was a papal ruling in 1493 that “gave” lands in the Americas to the King of Spain.  It was later extended to other “Christian” countries.  

This Doctrine of Discovery is the self-serving legal framework upon which the whole enterprise of stealing land from indigenous peoples, and their wholesale slaughter, is based.  It also gave European powers the right to enslave the inhabitants of conquered lands.  Thus if slavery is America’s “original sin,” Alexander VI is the snake. 

Oh, and where did Alexander VI get the idea that might makes right and the strong have absolute rights over the weak?  Maybe he was relying on the example of the ancient Romans who were the heroes of the Renaissance, then in full swing in Italy.  In other words, it all sinks back to the depravity of the same Empire that claimed ownership of the Sea of Galilee and also crucified Jesus.

In 1823, the Doctrine of Discovery was adopted officially by the Supreme Court of the new USA.  Conveniently overlooking the “Christian” part, of course, (the USA nowhere in its founding documents claims to be a Christian nation), they just claimed the same rights for themselves as “successor” to Britain.

To claim to be “successor” to Britain effectively denied that we had any kind of real revolution.  The USA was apparently not something new at all, but merely the “successor” to the King and therefore that was the basis of its own authority and legitimacy, particularly its claim on land in North America.  All the Treaty of Paris did, then, was transfer the deed to some property that the King got from the Pope, to the Continental Congress.  

Therefore, let’s be clear.  The legitimacy of the US government doesn’t come from “the consent of the governed” or “we the people” or any other such sentimental propaganda that we like to tell ourselves.  It comes from a King who got it from a corrupt Pope authorizing the application of brute force by nations claiming the label, “Christian.”

Until the Doctrine of Discovery is annulled, courts will continue to fall back on the foundations of imperialism and colonialism, not to mention racism and slavery, in their decisions.  

This is not just limited to arcane ecclesiastical property disputes like this one in Newark.  But whenever courts rule in favor of owners, capital, money, corporations, and privileged, powerful people, the ultimate rationale undergirding such decisions comes down to the Doctrine of Discovery.  Those who favor a “strict constructionist” approach to the Constitution rest on this foundation.  They are about protecting the rights of property and wealth and those who have it, which mainly still means white men.  Think “Citizens United.”  

This is also why voting rights are not absolute in this country and are in fact routinely and systematically abridged and suppressed by governments when they perceive it to be in their interest to do so.  Indeed, the Constitution is explicitly designed to mitigate against the will of the people because it was feared that a majority might someday want to overthrow slavery.  Hence we still have slavery-protective institutions like the US Senate, the Second Amendment, and the Electoral College.  

But look: America was never the Pope’s to give away.  Which means that the only real revolution we could ever have in this country would be to overthrow the Doctrine of Discovery and find a new foundation for our common life, one free of the imperialism and colonialism that currently and fatally infects our polity today. 

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Most Important Verse in the Bible.

When I was in seminary I recall learning in Old Testament class — probably from Dr. Bernard Anderson — that the oldest verse in the Bible, the verse that everything else likely sprang from, the seed of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, the most lucid, potent, and fruitful memory that has forever characterized our faith, is Exodus 15:21.  Here it is:

And Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’


Here we hear the voice of Miriam, Moses’ sister, singing in triumph after the miraculous deliverance of the people at the Red Sea.  It is the song of the band of liberated slaves at the moment when their freedom was guaranteed by the destruction of Pharaoh’s pursuing army.  It may be argued that the whole Bible is a commentary on that verse.  

What this means is that the entire Biblical story and tradition is essentially and originally about liberation, a movement from death and darkness to life and light.  It is written from the perspective of downtrodden people who have experienced a miraculous emancipation at God’s hand.  The Bible is at its core the story of a group of freed slaves; the whole Bible comes from this experience.

The Bible, in other words, is only correctly understood from this perspective.  It is about the movement from bondage to freedom.  It is good news to the poor, the sick, the disinherited, the disenfranchised, the outcast, the excluded, the oppressed, and the destitute, and can only be interpreted from their perspective.  It is about hope to the hopeless, and gratitude for God’s miraculous deliverance.

It is also about the destruction of evil.  Pharaoh’s army represents all oppressive and unjust and violent systems that perpetrate inequity, exploitation, bigotry, and tyranny.  The liberation of the people necessarily involves the defeat of a dominating inhuman power.  

The Lord Jesus recognizes this as well.  He deliberately chooses Passover, the holiday that remembers the Exodus liberation event, as the time for his own death and resurrection.  In many parts of Christianity, what we call Easter is referred to as Pascha, Passover, making the connection explicit.  It is when we remember the Lord’s passion and resurrection that we read the Exodus stories again.  
  
Exodus 15:21 is also the song of a woman.  Christians know that at the most important and seminal places in Scripture, it is the women who first get it.  And they seem mainly to be named Mary: Jesus’ mother sings the hymn called the Magnificat, expressing her faith in the One she will bear, witnessing to the Incarnation in explicit political and economic terms.  Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus in advance for his burial, anticipating his giving his life for the life of the world on the cross, the primary witness to his passion.  Mary Magdalene is the first to meet and proclaim the risen Jesus, becoming the Apostle to the Apostles.  

It is the song of an Israelite, a member of a minority group which had been relegated to slavery and oppressed on the basis of race.  As they were originally migrants from Canaan, this aspect of being foreigners in Egypt also comes into play here.

What Exodus 15:21 shows us is that the Bible is essentially geared towards the interests of marginalized, excluded, suffering, and victimized people.  And it cannot be authentically pressed into service in the interests of rulers and privileged, wealthy people.  It cannot be used to legitimate the power of the powerful, or to oppress the weak, poor, or sick.  To use the Bible to advocate for or defend imperialism, colonialism, slavery, racism, the subjugation of women, economic or ecological injustice, the exclusion of refugees and migrants, or any kind of social pecking order is go contradict not only it’s heart at Exodus 15:21, but the entire flavor and tenor of the rest of it, culminating with the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection constitute the final fulfillment of Exodus 15:21, and of the entire Hebrew Scriptures.  

The church needs periodically, regularly, and frequently to place itself at the edge of the sea with Miriam, and at the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene, and realize again the deliverance to which it is called to bear witness.  The powers that would hold us in crippling and lethal bondage have been vanquished.  The new life has come!
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