I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading Bart Ehrman, a famous scholar of New Testament studies:
- How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
- Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them)
- Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
- Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
- Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine—this surprised me: who’d expect to find truth in a Dan Brown novel?
- How Jesus Became God
They are all excellent books and I highly recommend them; you can also find lectures and interviews on YouTube. Apart from being simply fascinating as studies of how the mythology of Christianity developed, it has also given me a new perspective on the Bible.
First, let’s acknowledge that the Bible is indisputably an extremely important book, since it underpins so much of Western civilisation; it has greatly impacted the whole world, for better and for worse. It has certainly affected literature. For this reason alone, if nothing else, I think it’s worth being familiar with it. I think I know a fair bit about the Bible—probably more than the average Christian!—but but I have not, in fact, read the whole damned thing; just an expurgated version when I was a child, and various excerpts and verses since. I’ve long thought that I need to, for a variety of reasons.
I have long thought of the Bible as a rather foolish work, in some important ways. After all, it contains lots of internal contradictions, and even presents a set of prima facie incompatible moral frameworks. If it were written by one person, it would have to be somebody profoundly unhinged. This criticism certainly applies to the literalist, inerrantist “word of God” interpretation of the Bible.
But of course I have never bought into that. I may not have known the details of how, say, the New Testament canon was formed over the first few Christian centuries as a result of various warring factions, ‘orthodoxies’, and ‘heresies’; but I knew damned well that the Bible was in fact written by a large number of people over a large number of centuries.
Somehow, though, one perspective never properly occurred to me until Ehrman emphasised it. (I feel a bit stupid and embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t, but honesty above all:) They are different books by different authors. Obvious? Let’s think more closely: It’s not one book written by one large committee of debatable competence, but sixty-six books, by an unknown number of authors (most of them unknown). It’s an anthology. They wrote separately. Their beliefs are related, to be sure, but not identical.
This means that it is not fair to dismiss the whole thing in the same way as though it were a monolith written by one confused person. Rather, the books need to be considered individually if we are to fairly evaluate their literary and moral merit, or lack thereof, as the case may be. The author of Ecclesiastes is not responsible for the brutal, tribal, genocidal violence gloated over by whoever wrote Deuteronomy. Nor can we fairly blame each author for being inconsistent with the others; after all, they didn’t collaborate. Earlier writers couldn’t know about later ones, and later writers may have simply thought that the earlier ones were wrong; or for that matter been unaware of them. They may not have had any idea at all that they would ever be combined in one canon.
This is not least true for the New Testament, where in particular, it sounds like the life of Jesus that ‘Mark’¹ believed in is a story with a good bit of pathos that’s rather diminished by reading it as though it were part of a whole with the other gospels, rather than letting it stand on its own. As Bart Ehrman says:
…The two portrayals of Jesus going to his death in Mark and Luke are radically different, [and] recognizing this radical difference is of utmost importance for understanding what each author is trying to say. The in-shock, silent Jesus of Mark, who is betrayed, denied, abandoned, and mocked by everyone, who wonders at the very end why God himself has forsaken him, simply is not the same as the calm confident Jesus of Luke, who knows God is on his side, who understands what is happening to him, and who knows what will happen to him after it happens to him: he will wake up in paradise.
And so, it’s simply unfair to ‘Mark’ to read his book while pretending that it also says what ‘Luke’ [later] wrote. It robs the story of its pathos and power and makes it worse literature. And this is, after all, literature. I will happily ridicule the whole thing as belief, but the fact that it’s ridiculous to think it’s true does not excuse dismissing it as literature. After all, I love The Lord of the Rings but would hold an extremely low opinion of anyone who believed in hobbits; and in fact it would stand up very poorly as a model of reality.
So I got myself a Bible, specifically the Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV translation, which comes highly recommended. I expect a very great slog, but I do want to read this thing, and I want to try to approach it, as best I can, with an open mind to its literary qualities. Obviously, the literary qualities of some parts will be atrocious, with mind-numbing series of begats, but at least I will try to be honest about it.
Though I may have to print myself some warning labels, to feel less embarrassed about reading this thing in public.
¹ I.e. the author of The Gospel According to Mark, whose name may not have been [the Aramaic equivalent of] Mark, traditionally identified as a travelling companion of the apostle Peter. In fact, all four canonical gospels were written anonymously, and Christians a century later attributed them to people close to the inner circle, presumably to lend them authority.