Tag Archives: Scripture

“I’m not a scientist, man”

Galileo by Giusto SustermansEver since the Roman Inquisition decreed that Galileo was “vehemently suspect of heresy” for suggesting the sun stood still while the earth revolved around it, the interplay of science and religious belief has been problematic for the church.  In the ensuing centuries as the age of reason, of enlightenment, and of rationalism dominated western thought, church folk could either accept or reject scientific data, and Christians inexorably moved into one of two camps.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of “liberal Protestantism” which freely embraced science and empiricism … faith seeking understanding.  Scripture was subjected to scientific and historical analysis, the so-called “historical critical method.”  For this camp, it was “both-and.”

For others, the dilemma was easily solved: If science contradicted traditional, Biblical understanding, science must be rejected.  For this camp, it was “either-or.”

The Presbyterians in the 1920s served as proxy for the whole of Christendom in the so-called “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy.  Presbyterian scholars chafed under imposed dogmatic “fundamentals.” Emanating from Auburn University, theologians circulated a document proclaiming the freedom of conscience and the right of dissent—the so-called “Auburn Affirmation.”  A commission was formed, and the 1927 Presbyterian General Assembly adopted the commission’s progressive report; the modernists had prevailed and the fundamentalists had lost.

    But the rift in Christianity wasn’t healed, and the two camps grew further apart.  Historian David Hollinger suggests using the terminology “ecumenical” for the progressives and “evangelical” for the conservatives.  The terms imply an outward versus insular attitude.  In the Church of England decision this week to preclude female bishops, the “evangelical” camp prevailed.  In the recent legislative wrangling within the modern-day Presbyterian Church over LGBT ordination, the evangelicals lost; this was also the recent experience of the Episcopal Church, the Lutherans of the ELCA, and the United Church of Christ.  All these “ecumenical” denominations have endorsed gay clergy.  Meanwhile, evangelical Christianity continues to loudly defend its non-scientific worldview.

This is the religious background to the political point of this post.

In the last generation, the United States has witnessed the rise of the religious right.  More than that, evangelical religionists have come to occupy a dominant position within the Republican party.  When presumably intelligent and educated Senator Marco Rubio visited Iowa this week, he professed ignorance when asked a simple scientific question about the age of the earth:

“I’m not a scientist, man … It’s one of the great mysteries …  It is a dispute among theologians.”

Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman responds,  “What about the geologists?”

Here is the profoundly frightening part.  By wedding itself to the evangelicals, the Republican party has embraced ignorance, and Marco Rubio is constrained to play dumb for fear of alienating the Iowa base.  Krugman puts it this way:

Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.

Evolution versus creationism and global warming are obvious public policy issues affected by Republican know-nothingism.  Less obvious is economic theory: austerity versus stimulus during a down economy or the lack of evidence to support supply-side, trickle down policies.  As with their evangelical religionist cronies, the Republican preference is for dogma over empiricism.

Lest we dismiss Krugman as just another liberal Democrat, consider the sentiments of Ross Douthat, one of the handful of Republican commentators willing to acknowledge the emperor wears no clothes.

The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead … it’s still neither politically helpful nor intellectually healthy for a minority political party to pick pointless fights with the nation’s scientific and technical elite.

So much for the vacuous impact on public policy wrought by the marriage of evangelicals and politicians.  What about the impact on religious institutions?  On religion itself?  Evangelicals love to beat their chest and point to declining membership in the ecumenical denominations in a post-Christian America.  But it is not just the old mainline denominations—it is Christianity and religion in general.  We have previously posted about this issue and quoted a review of the recent book American Grace which:

makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

And Douthat the Republican agrees:

the goal of Christianity is supposed to be the conversion of every human heart — yes, scientists and intellectuals included — and the central claim of Christianity is that the faith offers, not a particular political agenda or an economic program, but the true story of the world entire. The more Christians convince themselves that their faith’s core is identical with the modern innovation of fundamentalism, and in direct conflict with the best available modern biology and geology, the less attainable that goal and the less tenable that central claim.

Why did Paul persecute the early church?

When I wrote my historical novel about Paul the apostle (A Wretched Man),  I wrestled with some thorny historical questions, including this one.  Last month, I was asked to read and review Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist I once again encountered the question, and I found Ehrman’s answer to be less than convincing.

First, some background.  Paul twice mentioned his role as persecutor but without any details.  As with much of his writing, Paul assumed his listeners already knew the story so he didn’t elaborate.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Cor 15:9 (NRSV)

In the most autobiographical of his writings, Paul speaks to the Galatians,

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. Gal 1:13 (NRSV)

In neither instance, does Paul offer a clue as to what he did, exactly, or why he did it.

the-stoning-of-stephen-by-rembrandt-1625Of course, the Acts of the Apostles goes into much greater detail: Jerusalem persecution, stoning of Stephen, sent to Damascus by the High Priest to arrest the followers of Jesus, etc.

The common assumption is that Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus because they claimed he was the long-expected messiah.  Does that really make sense? Why would such a claim have been offensive to Paul or the Hebrew populace? While that may have been the reason why the Romans and their puppets, the High Priest and his crowd, feared Jesus and caused his execution, that hardly explains why Paul and the populace would have persecuted his followers after his death.

Ehrman initially agrees,

There was nothing blasphemous about calling a Jewish teacher the messiah. That happened on and off throughout the history of Judaism, and it still happens in our day. In itself, the claim that someone is the messiah is not blasphemous or, necessarily, problematic (though it may strike outsiders—and usually does—as a bit crazed).

This statement strikes me as eminently reasonable and debunks the traditional assumption that the early church was persecuted because they claimed Jesus had been the messiah. There has to be more to it.

Ehrman’s response is that the claim that Jesus was the crucified messiah is what greatly offended Paul and the others, because no strain of traditional Jewish messianic expectations suggested a crucified messiah.  While that may well be true, I fail to see the offense.  Here is where I part with Ehrman.  If anything, such a claim would only make its proponents sound even crazier but hardly blasphemous to the point of widespread persecution and arrest.

Back to Stephen.

What did Stephen do or say that caused his arrest and execution?  Why did they “stir up the people against him”?  Because he spoke “blasphemous words against God and Moses,” “against this holy place and the law,” and because he said that Jesus would “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down.”

No where was there any complaint that he claimed Jesus was the messiah, crucified or not.  The charges against him were that he denied the basic tenets of Hebrew religion … adherence to the law of Moses and temple sacrifice.  In Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin, he concluded,

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears … You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

There could be no greater offense than to question circumcision and failure to keep the law.  Stephen challenged the basic Hebrew self-understanding and thus their standing before God.  To a devout Pharisee, zealous for the law, as Paul claimed to be, this was the crux of the matter.  This would also tie in closely with Paul’s Damascus road experience, in which his life took a 180 degree turn away from zealotry for the law to his law-free gospel message.  Furthermore, it also ties in with the ongoing conflict between Paul and the “mother church” back in Jerusalem over the requirements of circumcision and dietary niceties.

That’s my answer, Professor Ehrman’s opinion notwithstanding, and that was also the answer I proposed in the Wretched Man novel.

Did Jesus Exist?

Mention the University of North Carolina during March madness, and the Tar Heels basketball team will come to mind–the Religious Studies department, not so much.  But, Chapel Hill professor Bart D. Ehrman made March news of his own with the release of his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?
Professor Ehrman  has carved out his own slice of fame as a best-selling author of historical books of the early Christian era, offering his own take on the recurring quest to discover the historical Jesus.

Ehrman’s popularity stems from his down-to-earth writing style that targets the folks in the pews rather than the scholarly elites of the academy—and always with tantalizing hints of controversy.  Not that his views are outside the scholarly consensus; to the contrary, Ehrman interprets the findings of the academic community for a lay audience.

Ehrman is often about debunking simplistic Christian notions learned in third grade Sunday school.  Not so with his current book.  This time, he takes on the conspiratorially-minded “mythicists” who would argue that early Christian writers, primarily the person behind the gospel of Mark, created a Christ out of whole cloth; in other words, they made him up.

From the outset, Ehrman makes it clear that there is overwhelming evidence that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth and that no serious, credible scholar would disagree. He’s probably right, but that begs the question: “why respond to a few crackpots and internet blog conspiracists who won’t accept your evidence anyway?” It would seem his task is akin to arguing with political “birthers”.

Are there thick theological layers to the gospels?  Yes.  Did the gospel compilers awkwardly attempt to squeeze Jesus into preexisting Hebrew models?  Yes.  Does the Jesus of the third grade Sunday school class misconstrue the historical person?  Yes.  Are some gospel episodes fabrications?  Yes.  Ehrman argues that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The leap of the mythicists from these starting points to the conclusion that Jesus never existed goes well beyond reason and the evidence.

So, what is Ehrman’s essential argument and what evidence does he cite to support it?

The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus—pagan, Christian, or Jewish—was fully convinced that he at least lived.  Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, his nonexistence is never one of them.  pp. 171-72.

Ehrman meticulously takes the reader through the earliest sources, including canonical and non-canonical gospels, letters, early Roman and Jewish authors, and the oral and written traditions that predated and served as source material for the gospel accounts.  He identifies the independent strains that underlie the gospels.  Ehrman concludes that there are multiple sources that go back to the decade following Jesus’ death and each early story begins with the premise that there was a Jewish man named Jesus “known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified … in Judea during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.”  That the stories contain theological interpretations doesn’t negate this common root assumption.

Most importantly, Ehrman cites Paul the apostle, which is ironic since the mythicists base much of their argument on the fact that Paul writes little about the life of Jesus.  True enough, says Ehrman, but what Paul does say is compelling.  According to Paul’s written account in his letter to the Galatians, he traveled to Jerusalem where he visited Peter and James, “the brother of the Lord”, a few years after the crucifixion.

Paul was personally acquainted with … Peter and James.  Peter was Jesus’ closest confidant throughout his public ministry and James was his actual brother.  Paul knew them for decades, starting [soon after the crucifixion].  It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up.  Paul knew his best friend and his brother. p. 173.

The more intriguing question for me,  Ehrman, and a century’s worth of scholarship that goes back, at least, to Albert Schweitzer and his Quest of the Historical Jesus is not did he exist but who was he?  What did Jesus of Nazareth do?  Believe?  Say?  Finally, in the last of his three sections, Ehrman gets around to what is really interesting to all but the conspiracy-minded—Who was the historical Jesus?  His conclusion?  Turns out he thinks Schweitzer had it right all along:

I agree with Schweitzer and virtually all scholars in the field since his day that Jesus existed, that he was ineluctably Jewish, that there is historical information about him in the Gospels, and that we can therefore know some things about what he said and did.  Moreover, I would agree with Schweitzer’s overarching view, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish prophet who anticipated a cataclysmic break in history in the very near future, when God would destroy the forces of evil to bring in his own kingdom here on earth.  p.14.

Let the theologizing begin.


**Disclaimer.  I was given a complimentary copy of the book by a publicist representing the author/publisher and asked to offer a review.