Scripture—Picking and Choosing
November 8, 2017 § 13 Comments
In a comment on a recent post, Patricia Dallmann pointed out that, in quoting Matthew 18:20—“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”—I left out what she felt was the most important part: “in my name”. So I did.
I have for decades now been trying to chart a way for myself (and for liberal Quakerism) that honors our tradition while selectively letting go of it. I’ve been picking and choosing in the way I read the Bible.
One of the things I’m letting go of is the traditional Christian “name theology”. Name theology—the power of the name of God—has a long and deep history in the Jewish tradition and it made a stark and decisive turn in the dark years between the Babylonian captivity (roughly 587–525 BCE) and the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE. It became increasingly magico-religious, the kind of thinking that believes that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood when the bell rings.
Of course, name theology is also about confession. By invoking Jesus’ name, Matthew is saying, unless you believe in Jesus, you can’t expect him to show up. I suspect that this is Patricia’s point.
But is it true? Is Matthew right? Or are we even reading the real words of Jesus here, or something Matthew wrote? Or maybe some piece of tradition that Matthew inherited, but who knows where that came from? How would we know any of this? Where’s the benchmark, the test for biblical authority, in this case, or in any case?
I am choosing to leave the name thing out in this case. The name theology feels to me like the tradition speaking, and not Jesus himself. But who knows?
We are all of us always picking and choosing when it comes to the Bible. This is one of the things that makes the biblical argument against homosexuality so twisted. Those folks are just picking and choosing, only they won’t admit it.
For instance: Jesus commanded his disciples to call no one father, to wash each other’s feet, and to go out and buy some swords. The Roman church calls its priests father; only the Brethren wash feet; and we Quakers don’t buy swords. In the South, of course, lots of Christians buy their Glocks.
Now fundamentalists will insist that they take the Bible literally. But it is literally impossible to take the Bible literally. For one thing, one third of it is poetry and taking poetry literally is ludicrous by definition.
For another thing, we’re all reading somebody’s translation. Whose translation are you taking literally? The NIV and the modern, reader-friendly translations favored by evangelicals are the very worst at getting things right.
For a third thing, the manuscript traditions vary quite a lot, especially in some cases. For Acts, the differences amount to hundreds of words. Mark is famously missing its original ending and the tradition took three different tries at finishing it. The version used in our Bibles usually includes all three endings. We have no idea what Mark originally wrote.
Then there’s lacunae—holes in the manuscripts we do have. The word or phrase just isn’t there. Translators do the best they can to make up something that makes sense.
Or unique words that have no known cognates . . . we have no idea what these words mean. Again, translators try to use context to fill in the gap.
We are all always picking and choosing, even when we don’t know it. The best we can do is be honest about that and try to justify the decisions we make.
The problem with that is that then you have to study the Bible. Deeply. I have. But most Friends don’t read Bible commentaries for fun like I do. But why should they if they don’t want to?
And that doesn’t really do you much good in the end, anyway. You still end up picking and choosing. For the deeper you go, the more you realize you don’t know. And the deeper you go, the more complex things get; the Bible is the most self-referential library on earth—1500 years of writers and editors and redactors looking at what went before and then adding to it. Virtually every passage has hidden resonances and echoes.
My point is that the Bible is an unreliable foundation for religious life. At least until something in it has been confirmed by our own experience, until the Holy Spirit opens it up to us. Which the Spirit can do, and has always done. For the Bible has also repeatedly demonstrated its value as an aid to faithful religious life, its weirdness, opaqueness, vagueness, contradictions, confusions, resonances, and echoes notwithstanding.
Its a paradox.
I can see that I have more to say about the role of the Bible in our religious lives. I started in two other directions before ending up in this one. Had to stop somewhere.