Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Blogging the Bible’ Category

When the Church Had No Bible

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on March 9, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Saint_James_the_Just

Read James 1:21-27 here.

Sometimes you are reading a passage from a book or text that you’ve read many times before, and inexplicably, you see something so obvious you can’t believe you never saw it before. Back in my Sunday school teacher days, if this occurred while reading the Bible, it was taken as evidence that God had spoken to me, revealing spiritual truth to my heart by his grace, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a truth my fallen nature was unable to comprehend through the reasoning of my natural mind alone. Yes, I used to think and talk that way.

Today when such an epiphany occurs, I recognize that it is my brain responding to a new piece of information acquired since my previous reading. In other words, there was a gap in my knowledge at that time that has now been filled. Or a faulty bit of information was lodged in my mind that, now removed, allows me to understand a key phrase or idea more clearly. You can translate the phrase laissez les bons temps rouler easily enough, but the full meaning never really clicks until after you’ve visited New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You realize using the word ‘party’ to describe both that event and your last office birthday gathering is criminally misleading.

Or, in the case of the Epistle of James, you imagine that when he writes about ‘the word’, he is referring to the Bible – when of course this couldn’t possibly be true.

There is a haziness – some would say laziness – in the thinking for most believers when it comes to how exactly the New Testament was put together. When I was a churchgoer, for example, I guess I just sort of assumed that the four gospels were written by four of Jesus’ disciples, you know, people who would have first-hand knowledge of his life. But if pressed, I wouldn’t have been able to name all twelve of those disciples – I doubt many Christians could. Imagine my surprise at finding that there were no disciples named Mark or Luke. Matthew’s gospel may or may not have been written by the same Matthew know as Levi, the tax collector. And even the most conservative Christian scholar places the writing of John’s gospel a full 40+ years after Jesus’ death. Pretty shocking when you realize that the supposed words of Jesus cannot possibly be direct quotes, as they were written down decades after he would have said them, often by people who weren’t even there at the time. Any other biography written to this standard would never be published.

I know that Christians, even when faced with these facts, will argue that they really don’t matter, because the Holy Spirit is the true author, and the men whose names are attached to the letters and gospels were writing as the Spirit moved them – this was my line of thought in my fundamentalist days. But I never stopped to think it through. So, there are these documents that are supposed to persuade me to believe in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the main evidence supporting these documents is that they, themselves, were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Which means I’d have to buy into the argument before accepting the facts that are meant to prove the argument. Can you say circular logic?

This really hit home as I was reading James’ letter earlier this week. In the very first verse, there are cross-references to Galatians and Acts; in other parts of the first chapter, James seems to be referring to John, Romans, Thessalonians, even Revelation. Of course, he could not have had any of those writings in mind – as they hadn’t been written yet. With the exception of perhaps 1 Thessalonians, the Epistle of James is the oldest of the canonical New Testament writings. These references were of course added by an editor at a much later date, perhaps in an effort to show the ‘harmony’ amongst the various letters and gospels.

So James – along with every other first-generation Christian – had no New Testament. No written gospel. No letters of Paul or Peter or John. No Bible. In modern Christian parlance, when we say ‘the word’, we mean ‘the Bible’. But there’s no way this could be what James means – as there wasn’t one yet. In fact, the New Testament as we know it today wouldn’t exist until a man named Eusebius put it together early in the 4th century AD. One could be forgiven, I suppose, for not realizing this, as it certainly isn’t something that would come up even in the most advanced Sunday school class – perhaps not even in the vast majority of conservative divinity schools.

In fact, the common icon representing James (see above) shows him holding what looks like – you guessed it – a Bible! Some have said this denotes his authorship of a venerated letter – and indeed, very early icons show New Testament writers holding scrolls or pieces of parchment. But by Eusebius’ time, James, Paul, and others are all depicted with a heavy tome under their arms – perhaps a kind of retroactive stamp of approval for the new canon?

Christians are guilty of this kind of proleptic thinking all of the time. We cannot help but read first century writings through the lens of our own time, twenty centuries later. We ask, “What would Jesus do?” when there is no possible way for us to know what he or any other person living at the time might do. Even men who spend their lives studying that specific juncture in history could not do more than postulate on what a given individual might or might not do.  So, rather conveniently, ‘God’s will’ ends up being pretty close to our own. Yes, yes, I hear you God – buying the Cadillac would certainly bring you more glory than the buying a Ford. Jesus hates homosexuality, so I’m agin’ it too.

What then could James possibly have had in mind when he wrote his most famous verse, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…”? Well, he could have certainly been referring to the Law of Moses, copies of which would have been available at the synagogues where Christians were at this time meeting. In fact, in the next verse he says that anyone who really studies the law, really looks into it, will be blessed. So the only written ‘word’ that James could encourage his flock to read would have been – – and then the epiphany.

Look closely. James isn’t demanding that people read ‘the word’ at all – he’s demanding that they listen. He clearly differentiates his vocabulary – study the law, read the law, look closely at the law – but hear the word. What’s the difference? ‘The word’ is not the Bible, it is not something that is written – it is whatever James says it is. When James says you have to hear and do the word, what he really means are his words – because, of course, he speaks for God. A year or two after this writing, the church decides that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised, not because of some new findings about Moses’ law – but because James decides that it’s OK with God.

Searching several online versions of the Bible, I was amazed to find that not a single New Testament writer demands that we read ‘the word’ – they all basically make the same connection that James makes – the true Christian must hear the word and do it. Go ahead and read the law for yourself, my friend, but if you want to go to heaven, you have to agree with my interpretation of what it says. Faith comes by hearingnot by reading, and the believer needs to do what he hears the preacher say. This is what James is truly saying, and Paul, John, and others say the same thing elsewhere.

James was not a disciple of his brother when Jesus was still alive – he did not believe. He was not an eyewitness of many of the events listed in the gospels. Nor was Paul; not only was he an unbeliever in Jesus’ lifetime, he actively persecuted Jesus’ followers, encouraging a mob to kill the first martyr, Stephen. Yet these men claim to know God’s will – even though they obviously didn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God when he walked in their midst.

You have to believe in Jesus, and you must believe what I tell you about the scripture – or you’ll die and go to hell. Why? Because you were there? Because you heard the words fall from Jesus’ lips? No. Because after Jesus died, God spoke to me. And, as is always the case in these situations, he told me what you need to do.

How convenient.

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

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The Gospel According to Bubba

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on February 13, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Read the Epistle of James here.

Scholars cannot even seem to agree on who wrote the Epistle of James, let alone exactly when it might have been written. A complicating factor is that first century Judea had far too many people walking around named Jim – a problem all modern English-speaking countries share. There was James, son of Alphaeus, whose name is listed in all three synoptic gospels as one of the original disciples, then never really mentioned again. There was James, son of Zebedee who quite prominently figured into the New Testament narrative as one of Jesus’ first and most beloved disciples. Unfortunately, he was also among the earliest martyred, in 44 AD, when Christ’s followers hadn’t yet seen the need to do much – if any – writing. Finally, as the letter appears to be written to Jewish Christians only, many attribute the writing to James the brother of the Lord, who, although not listed as a disciple in the gospels, appears to have been the pastor of the church in Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ death.

As a kid growing up in the American South, I am familiar with the dilemma of having too many kids running around bearing the same given name – not too many Jacksons, Aidens, or Liams christened in the hills of Appalachia back in those days. Looking back at my father’s generation and earlier, it seems every male in my family had some variation of only about five names – George, James, Earl, Andrew, or Donald – two of which they happily passed on to me. The only way to know whom you’re talking about at any given time in this situation is to assign a distinctive nickname or moniker to pretty much everyone you know. Thus, most of your friends end up with names like Junior, Little Billy, Fatboy, and Jimmy the Jew. Once you are stuck with a nickname – even if you eventually become bigger, slimmer, or less careful with money – you are stuck with it for life.

First century believers solved the ‘too many Jims’ problem in exactly the same way, albeit their nicknames were kinder, if not any more imaginative. So Alphaeus is known as James the Less, Zebedee as James the Greater, and Jesus’ brother as James the Just. Historians think the appellation ‘less’ had something to do with Alphaeus’ youth or stature, not an indication of his rank among the disciples. In the perverse naming process of the South, James the Less would weigh in at 300 pounds, while James the Greater would stand about five foot five. And James the Just would be either someone truly above reproach – or the town crook. Southerners can’t resist this kind of cruel yet mirthful irony. So, if you live in West Virginia and you’ve just met a guy online whose nickname is ‘Tiny’, you might want to think twice before going out on that date.

I am dwelling on a trivial bit of detail – nicknames – because as I study the New Testament, I am constantly fascinated by the cultural parallels between the group of people who created the Bible a couple thousand years ago and those who most fervently believe in it today. I am currently reading two insightful books that relate some of the history of my antebellum ancestors, the forefathers of those who inhabit America’s Bible belt.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry M. Caudill, tells a tale not often heard in high school history classes, the story of the many Scots-Irish immigrants of the early to mid-18th century who came to these shores less than willingly. Orphans cleared from the streets, petty thieves or debtors pulled from jails, even poor working men simply kidnapped from their homes, this human surplus of England’s cities and larger towns were sold into indentured servitude to the plantation owners of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many of these arrivals cast their eyes to the mountains that made the western frontier, and ran off into the Blue Ridge or Shenandoahs at the first opportunity; those unable to do so often joined them when their term of service finally expired.

In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant refers to these frontiersmen as Borderers. For centuries, their Scottish ancestors eked out a miserable, often violent existence along the ever-changing boundary between Scotland and England, with fierce Scandinavian raiders arriving from time to time to make things all the more pleasant. Hardened in both body and spirit by centuries of violent clan war and privation, they so threatened the social order that James II (another Jim!) rounded up as many as he could and sent them to Northern Ireland, hoping they might direct their energies into pacifying the Catholic Irish. When that worked out as well as might be expected, they began to arrive on colonial American shores.

These Borderers had little to offer in the way of knowledge or skill, good for only labor – and securing frontiers. In fact the landed gentry of colonies like Pennsylvania were all too happy to send these barbarians out to the edges of their territories. If they could scratch out a living while enduring the raids of the French and the feathered native, great. If they couldn’t, perhaps they might at least wipe out enough of them that the job would be easier for the next guy.

Wanted Jesus 1917

Judea is located in one of the world’s first natural battlefields, unfortunately situated halfway between two incredibly fertile river valleys, the Nile to the west, the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. The hardscrabble mountains, deserts, and wilderness areas of the land we call Israel today were no match for the well-watered agricultural lands that surrounded them when it came to raising up empires. The ancient armies that rolled through on their way to somewhere else are well-documented in the Biblical record – Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans – to name a few.

Because we look at history from the point of view of the writers of the OT, we tend to think of Israel as being in the center of what was really happening in the world; in truth, it lay at the periphery. Other cultures were building massive cities and monuments as early as 3000 BC; two thousand years later, Jacob’s progeny had only managed to build a tiny fort on a scrubby hill – the City of David – the crowning achievement of which was a temple so small Joel Osteen couldn’t manage a staff meeting inside.

No, Israel wasn’t at the center of things – the Judeans were the Borderers of antiquity. They had been smashed on every side for centuries. They were slaves in Egypt. They saw the finest of their people carted off by the Babylonians. The Romans burnt their holy city nearly to the ground. Their scrubby patch of land never allowed them to produce the sheer number of soldiers needed to fight off the armies of the great empires. They were a tiny cog in the great machinations of international schemes.

What’s a Borderer to do? Both groups grabbed hold of their religion and held fast. They rankled at the thought of any authority other than God himself. They dreamt of apocalypse, when those who had oppressed them would get what was coming to them. After hundreds of years, they continue to name their children after heroes, men who may have existed, or are perhaps no more than ancient fairy tales.

The men at the forefront of Christianity in the first century were the religious rednecks of their day. They were uneducated, blue-collar workers, carpenters, fishermen. For nearly two decades after Jesus’ death, they didn’t even bother writing anything down. They weren’t theologians, they were preachers; the Holy Ghost wasn’t something you explained, it was something you felt.

I’ve heard uneducated, uncouth backwoods preachers claim that they know more about the New Testament than any Harvard-educated professor ever could. In a sense, there is some validity to this claim. Today’s Bible belt believer is the natural heir to the first century Christian, like it or not.

So, who wrote the Epistle of James? Well, it was either James, or someone named James, as the old joke goes. We could call him Just, or Lesser, or even Bubba if we wanted. What we should truly concern ourselves with is how its message is playing out today in American churches – and American society.

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Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.