Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Posted: December 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Before we can explore the way texts were used in ancient, oral cultures, it’s important to understand their physical nature and the manner in which they were constructed. I’ve discovered over the years that something which is obvious or well-known for one person may not be known for another, so I’ll try to briefly cover all the main points. If you already know most of this, bear with me.

First, the two ancient media for texts (if you discount clay or stone engravings) were papyrus and parchment. Papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt from the pith of a plant that grew in the Nile region and became widely used across that region of the ancient world. Parchment was constructed from thin layers of animal skin (calf, sheep, or goat). Both tended to be somewhat fragile and subject to damage by the elements and both were expensive. The higher the quality, the more expensive they were.

Longer texts were originally maintained on scrolls. Scrolls tend to damage the material, especially at the ends where they were attached as they were rolled and unrolled. And scrolls were not necessarily easy to access. You couldn’t just flip to a particular page the way you can in a modern book. There was also a physical limit on the size of a scroll. (When we look at the development of what Christians call the Old Testament, there’s an interesting historical tidbit that flows from that fact.)

Around the first century BCE or CE, the idea of folding or stitching papyrus or parchment in a rectangular form called a codex developed. That form was widely adopted by early Christian writers and is obviously the predecessor of the modern book. A codex, however, was not as large as a modern book. The form wouldn’t physically support that size. That will be important to remember, especially when we consider the New Testament.

At least in part because of the expense, space was not wasted on ancient texts. Unlike your average Rob Bell book, most of the available material was typically covered in writing. Niceties like lower case and punctuation were also relatively late developing. So an ancient text typically was in all one case, with no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. (Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have vowels in its written form.) An overly simple example I’ve seen used to illustrate that point follows.

GODISNOWHERE

What does the above say? Does it say “God is now here?” Or does it say “God is nowhere?” Now that’s ridiculously simple and with any context at all, it wouldn’t be hard for any of us to figure out. But now imagine a large, complex text written like the above from edge to edge with no spacing, no breaks, no marks to indicate how it should be read and understood. Imagine this very post written in all caps with no spaces and no punctuation. Could you read it?

So how did texts work in the ancient world? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. Remember, these were oral cultures. The text was never meant to stand by itself. Instead it captured something that had been delivered orally or which was intended to be delivered orally. A person who knew how it was supposed to be read would orally present it to others who would learn the correct reading from the oral presentation. The text was not the delivery mechanism itself the way it is in a literate culture. Rather the text essentially formed the crib notes for the oral presentation. And the tradition of that oral presentation was then passed along with the text.

I don’t remember who it was, but there was one ancient Christian saint who was known in part because he could read the Holy Scriptures without his lips moving, that is without sounding it out as he read. Now, that seems unremarkable to those of us shaped within the context of a literate culture. But that was highly unusual in an oral culture. People were not shaped to think that way. And the texts themselves did not support it.

So when you pick up a Bible, there are some things you should now recognize about it. First, it was never a single book until pretty recent times. Instead, it was a collection of separate scrolls and codices. Those scrolls and codices were not divided into chapters and verses for easy reference for many years. Their early or original forms did not have any spaces between the words or any punctuation. When you read a modern Bible, even before you get into the issue of the way interpretation influences word selection in translation, it’s important to recognize that all of the punctuation, sentence structures, and paragraph breaks form an attempt to translate an oral tradition into a literate form.

As you can see, it’s a little silly to try to distinguish oral from written tradition. In the ancient world, it was all fundamentally oral tradition. The texts serve to capture part of the oral tradition in which they were embedded. Typically they formed a very important part of that tradition, else they would not have been preserved. But it’s important to place them in their proper ancient context.


Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.


Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the ways that modern Christians discuss and employ the Bible are highly anachronistic. In this series, I’ll reflect on the nature of ancient texts in general and the Christian Holy Scriptures in particular. I was going to do it in a single post, but then I realized that would be a long post even by my standards. At a minimum, this series will help me organize my own thoughts on the topic. It’s possible others will find it interesting as well.

Before we even begin looking at the specific ways texts functioned in the ancient world, we have to step back and look at the culture in which they were embedded. While ancient cultures varied greatly, they did all share one feature. They were oral cultures. We live in a highly literate culture so it can be difficult for us to imagine what that means.

First, it does not refer to how many people in the culture can read or write. That varied wildly. At some times and in some places, hardly anyone could read or write at all. In other times and places a large percentage of the population could read and write at least to some extent. Homer and Plato, despite their great literary works, developed them in the context of an oral culture. The primary feature of an oral culture is that forms of speech are the means of encoding and conveying knowledge across space and time. Oral cultures tend to have as many specialized forms of speech as we have literary forms.

Moreover, when the cultural means of conveying and preserving information is different, our brains actually adapt themselves to the task. We’ve learned a lot by studying members of some of the remaining oral cultures today. In an oral culture, our capacity to store large amounts of orally encoded information almost verbatim expands tremendously. Moreover, we become highly attuned to nuances of speech. As long as the culture itself remains intact, oral cultures seem to retain information across generations very well. Of course, when the culture fades, it leaves less of that information behind than a highly literate culture does.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to reconstruct ancient history. We’re always working from bits and fragments. Much was never recorded at all. And time has damaged or destroyed much that was recorded. We actually know much less with certainty about the ancient world than many people today assume. Now that’s not to say that we know nothing or that the assumptions and patchwork with which we’ve filled in the gaps is wrong. Much of it is reasonable. But reasonable does not necessarily mean those assumptions are right. Ancient history is a fluid area of study. As we find something that seems to invalidate an earlier assumption, we have to reshuffle our conceptions.

I will note that ancient pagan religions of all sorts were largely mystery cults that were “traditioned” orally. When an ancient religion faded, that means very few markers were left about the religion. In most cases, we know very little about the religion itself. For instance, we actually know almost nothing about the Celtic Druids or any ancient Celtic religion. We don’t actually know very much about the inner workings of ancient Norse religions. We know a little bit more about ancient Greek religions, but still less than some would imagine. Moreover, the things we do know about ancient religions that faded in the mists of time are mostly confined to their outward forms and displays. The inner workings were never written down and thus died with the religion.

That’s really why I was never deeply attracted to modern neopaganism. I’ve had friends who were adherents and have attended some of the more open rituals. But I also knew that most of it couldn’t have any real connection to those ancient religions. Of course, a more accurate reinvention would have been completely repellent (and possibly illegal). Animal sacrifice, sacrifice of enemies, child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and many similar things were a part of many actual ancient religions — though again it’s hard for us to reconstruct specifics. That’s probably part of the reason I was always more drawn to the ancient Eastern religions that are still practiced today. There is a continuous thread of connection and practice.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that writing this series would help me organize my thoughts. That’s also something that’s pretty common in a literate culture. We write to organize our thoughts. We write lists to organize tasks. We write speeches before delivering them. We write essays and papers to develop our train of thought or to construct an argument. Oral cultures don’t work that way at all. If something is written down, it’s usually to help convey it to a distant destination or because someone else wrote it down as it was delivered (usually on behalf of someone who couldn’t be present). It’s not just the way our memories function that changes, the way we process and organize our thoughts changes as well.

It’s important to understand just how different an oral culture truly is from a literate culture. Those of us who are thoroughly shaped by a literate culture will never truly be able to place ourselves inside the mental context of an oral culture. Still, if we are aware of the difference, it can help keep us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. It seems to me that many of the anachronistic ideas arise simply because people interpret something from the ancient world through the lens of their modern, literate formation and mindset. We almost can’t help but make that error to one degree or another, but if we keep the distinction always in mind, we can make fewer erroneous assumptions than we otherwise would.


My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

There are many aspects in the study of ancient cultures and life that make it difficult for us to grasp the way people thought and interacted and the way various events are tied together. Not least of these problems is the essentially ephemeral nature of most human artifacts. A lot of people I encounter seem to think we know (as in some certain knowledge) a lot more about the ancient world than we actually do. The reality is that ancient history is a process more akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing and no certain idea what the assembled mosaic should portray. Discerning the overarching threads of the picture is made even more difficult because we do not think about or approach the world around us in the same way they did. Our culture, that is our basic assumptions about the nature of reality, other people, power structures, and the threads that tie it all together, is very different from any ancient culture. When we simply look at collections of artifacts or bits of information through the lens of our modern culture and assumptions, we will invariably construct a false picture of the past.

That’s one of the things that has always made ancient history so fascinating to me. I love the challenge of trying to see the world through those very different lenses. I can never fully do it, of course. I’m as much the product of the forces and assumptions that shaped me as we all are. But I can catch glimpses here and there. I can have flashes of insight. In truth, it’s the same sort of problem that has also drawn my interest to different modern cultures, trying to understand how they shape and form the lenses through which people view reality. But with ancient cultures, you’re operating with fragments. The glass is shattered. Nobody presently alive was a part of that ancient culture and so you’re looking through small pieces at a time and trying to discern the whole.

One of the core differences between most of our modern cultures and the ancient cultures is that modern cultures are predominantly literate cultures rather than oral cultures. Now, that statement means a whole lot more than simply whether or not people can read and write. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds it was not unusual for people of all classes (even slaves and women) to be able to read and write to some extent. But the cultures were fundamentally oral cultures. And that has some profound implications.

(I haven’t read biblical scholars to any great extent because many of the modern ones don’t seem to be historians and are thus less interesting to me. However, I have noticed that Ben Witherington III and N.T. Wright are two biblical scholars who are also historians and incorporate a lot of this into their work. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. But, as I said, I haven’t read or listened to any broad spectrum of biblical scholars. I just happened to stumble across the two above over the course of years.)

One of the hurdles we face seems at first to be a relatively minor difference at first. We trust things in writing more than things that are spoken. They trusted things that were spoken more than things that were written. In other words, if somebody tells us something and we aren’t sure if they are telling us the truth or not, we will try to look it up in a trusted written work. We will look for a signed contract outlining the agreement. We elevate the text over the merely verbal.

In the ancient world the opposite was true. If someone spoke, you knew who was speaking and you knew for certain what they said. You could then decide (often through complex chains of trust) if the person speaking was someone you would believe or not. Agreements and contracts relied on verbal oaths with witnesses. Even when they were written down, the written text was considered poor evidence. Texts, on the other hand, were inherently untrustworthy. You had no idea if the person to whom they were attributed actually wrote them. You didn’t know if they had been changed or altered. And they were subject to misinterpretation.

Those problems were further exacerbated by the nature of writing in that part of the ancient world. Material on which to write was not inexpensive and so none of it was wasted. Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts did not have upper or lower case letters. They did not use punctuation. And they did not put spaces between the words. Ancient written Hebrew didn’t even use vowels. They were inferred from the consonants and context.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine trying to read and understand this post if it were written in all capital letters, with no punctuation, and no spaces.

Now take out the vowels.

Most “letters” in the ancient world were very brief and factual. You could give a servant or messenger a letter that said (after greetings), “Here are the three donkeys I promised to send to you,” with little chance of being misunderstood. The “letters” in the New Testament are really not much like letters at all. They are generally sermons or treatises sometimes inserted inside the structure of a formal letter. (Not all the “letters” have any of that structure. 1 John, for example, is simply a sermon.) As a result, the written text alone would never have been trusted or even correctly understood by its recipients as a mere text. Rather, the text would have been entrusted to a messenger, someone those receiving the text would either know or know about, and would trust that the person came from the one said to have sent the text. That person would then deliver the text verbally in the stead of the one who sent it. It was the person carrying the message who was trusted first, not the message itself. And it was that person who knew how to accurately read the text and who could hand over the correct reading (or tradition it) to those receiving it. Once you recognize that fact, you realize how important those delivering any text like those in our New Testament canon actually were and you realize that a text had no independent authority. Paul does us the favor of identifying many of those who carried the sermons he could not deliver in person to various places. And it is therefore much more significant than many modern people seem to realize that the sermon/treatise to the Roman Church by Paul was given to Deacon Phoebe to deliver.

And that brings us to the way knowledge is held and transmitted in oral cultures. We use the written word as our repository of knowledge and our means of transmitting that knowledge to others. That is not essentially true in an oral culture. People instead commit the important things to memory. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern people are amazed at that or think it’s impossible. But it’s really not. We have trained our minds to work within the context of a literate culture so we use our memories differently than those in an oral culture do. But in an oral culture, people routinely commit segments of their tradition to memory essentially word for word. That is the process of “traditioning” knowledge in an oral culture.

When we do not understand that facet, we miss the many places where our texts speak of “handing over to you what I received” or urging people to hold fast to what was “traditioned” to them either in person or in a text delivered by a trusted messenger. We also misplace our trust. Their trust in the ancient Church was never in a text. They didn’t even have texts in all instances. (Texts were hand written and very expensive.) Their trust was in those who gave them the tradition of our faith within the context of our shared communion. The trust was in the network of people who proclaimed our Lord and who, originally, had seen our risen Lord and been instructed by him. That is actually the basis behind the acceptance of certain texts as canonical. They were texts believed to have originated from those taught by Jesus after his death, those who traditioned the apostolic witness to the Church, and they were texts that were widely read in the Church. (The gnostic gospels and other texts, by comparison, were very narrowly read. Others, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, lacked a definitive connection to a specific apostolic witness.)

When we miss this facet of an oral culture, we also miss the import of statements like that in the Didache, where before Baptism those being baptized “say all these things”. They were reciting the tradition to show they had properly received it and were prepared to join the community. If you read ancient texts from an oral culture through the lens of a literate culture, you will misunderstand the framework that supports the texts and thus often misunderstand the texts themselves.

It’s hard for me to say whether any text in our Holy Scriptures has a “plain meaning” or not. I certainly find both John’s Gospel and Paul’s sermon to the Romans deep theological treatises that are not at all easy to understand and have layer upon layer of meaning. But I do know that even those texts that might have had a “plain meaning” to those originally receiving it no longer have one for us. We are simply too far removed from the cultural context, language, and understanding to interpret them on our own. We need the interpretation of the communion of the life of the Church to understand our faith. We need to receive it first from the Church. Now, that does not mean we cannot critically examine what we have received. That does not mean the Spirit will not lead us into new insight (though I tend to distrust ideas I have that seem truly new). It doesn’t even mean that everything we receive has necessarily been preserved accurately. But it does mean that if I read the text, or I meditate on God, and I come up with an idea that is not only new, but which contradicts the overall tradition of our faith, I am deeply suspicious of it. And that’s the standard I tend to apply to any teaching or idea promulgated by another.

I never applied that same standard to other spiritualities I pursued. There have been other buddhas and other sutras in Buddhism since Gautama Buddha. Every guru in the myriad paths we today label Hinduism takes a different turn of interpretation or application of the vedic literature. But Christianity is rooted in a specific person who lived, taught, and made known to us a very specific God with a particular perspective on the nature of reality. Christianity is tied to history in a way no other faith I’ve explored has been. Either Jesus of Nazareth was all that God is and the events of his life happened essentially as we believe, or there is no reason to be Christian. So there is no room for a plurality of visions about God within our faith. There is one faith and this is the faith in Jesus as delivered by and through the apostolic witness. If something demonstrably contradicts that witness, I don’t understand why someone would choose to believe it. If I believed their witness were wrong in a substantive way, or that the Church had lost the tradition that had been handed over to it, I wouldn’t see any point in being Christian at all. Once lost, I see no way a tradition as specifically focused as Christianity and rooted in historical events and teachings could ever be recovered.


Sola Scriptura 5 – Yanking On Those Bootstraps

Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Yesterday I briefly touched on the complex manner in which the canon of Holy Scripture we often call the Bible developed over time within and as part of the tradition of the church. Scripture is not something which somehow stands apart or separate from the church and its tradition. Rather it is a product of the church and one of the foremost repositories of its tradition. This strange role in which many seem to place Scripture, as somehow in opposition to tradition and as somehow separate from and over the church, is an exceedingly distorted and unhistorical place. In some ways it really is a lot more similar to what Islam would say of Qur’an, which is even described at times as somehow with Allah from the beginning and engaged in the process of creation.

Moreover, as a philosophical idea, it has the proverbial problem of trying to tug itself up by its own bootstraps. A central assertion of sola scriptura in its various forms to the extent that I understand them is that every central or essential belief or practice of the Church must be found in the Bible. However, the concept of sola scriptura itself cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Further, while there isn’t much related to that particular philosophical idea in the New Testament (since it’s not an idea that the first century church would have encountered in a predominantly oral culture), the things that are most closely related actually contradict the idea of sola scriptura. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3:15, it’s not Scripture that is the pillar and ground of truth, but the church. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the church to “..stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The church, the pillar and ground of truth, is urged to stand and hold to the oral and written traditions it has been given. There are a few other places with somewhat related ideas, but they all express that same general theme.

And that, of course, begs the question. If sola scriptura is not itself found in Scripture, and it’s not found in the historical life and practice of the ancient church, and it’s not part of the tradition of the church anywhere until it was invented in the 16th century, why believe it?