Monday, April 07, 2014

The Story of Jesus Matters More

Over the weekend, I watched a well-made documentary. It discussed how the language and content of the New Testament changed considerably from the time of Jesus to hundreds of years later. During the program, multiple biblical scholars were interviewed, and many of them disputed the authorship of particular books.

The focus was specifically directed on the New Testament, the section that I hold in greatest reverence. According to leading authorities, of the fourteen letters and epistles attributed to Paul, only half of them were actually written by him. A compelling case was made by analyzing the writing style and choice of words contained within each book.

Those who hold Christianity in suspicion use facts like these to make their case. To them, organized religion is a scam, too manipulated by councils and emperors to be taken seriously. It is true that particular books and passages never made it into the full canon, many at the insistence of church leaders. Some of them can be safely eliminated as inauthentic and mere curiosities, but a few could very well hold great truth.

In the First Century A.D., which Christianity lionizes as a golden age, this new religion was a very small Jewish sect which had yet to take firm hold. The voyages of the Apostles and Paul to visit other churches are portrayed as dramatic events, but they are very unimpressive affairs. They produced beautiful written passages, but they struggled for oxygen with those who wanted to preserve a more Jewish religious heritage or were conflicted as to whether Gentiles could become Christians. Christianity was never a monolithic entity where everyone believed the same thing, as many think.

It took the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to embrace and expand a faith originally based in the Middle East. Christianity, now the state religion of Rome, was spread far and wide. Scholars have argued that Constantine’s conversion was undertaken for self-serving ends, rather than any particularly strong religious convictions. What cannot be denied is how quickly this new religion took hold and spread throughout the entire world.

The religion of Rome, especially those of soldiers, was homosexual in nature. Christians emphasized heterosexual unions and interpreted certain biblical passages as homophobic. Three passages in the New Testament have long been interpreted as homophobic, but in each of them, the translation and true meaning is not especially clear. In any case, regardless of implication and intent, these passages were interpreted as critical of homosexuality. Constantine wanted to swell the population of the Roman Empire, a move that would ensure that its borders were properly protected. Any faith that favored procreation would be satisfactory for his purposes.

I don’t think it really matters as to who wrote what, nor do I care about the precise chronology of what book or Gospel came first. These are interesting intellectual exercises, often embraced by people who would find Christianity threatening unless it was reduced to a scholarly pursuit. The words that remain with us are significant. The wisdom, sayings, and acts of Jesus remain, though I’m sure that they aren’t 100% accurate. For a time, the Gospels, which tell the life and ministry of Jesus, were spread here and there by oral storytellers, not by a written text. I imagine a few details changed here and there with every retelling.

What we have left is a singularly impressive story. I find it difficult to believe anyone could conjure the tale up purely out of thin air. Jesus was a radical prophet who made enemies by pointing out the hypocrisy of the elite priestly class. Eventually, this led to his death. History records many such people since then, but what made Jesus different is that he was human and Divine. God loved us enough, as flawed and imperfect as we are, to walk the earth in the form of his creation.    

In time, our own words will be garbled. Even with increased technological advances, the past will begin to slip away from our grasp. If we are significant enough to have our words carefully preserved, we may have the benefit of one or two generations of influence where our legacy and works are preserved with relative accuracy. But when primary sources are lost forever, copies of copies are the only documents remaining for us to shape our opinion. The same is true with the Bible and the New Testament.

In an area long before recording devices, it’s not surprising that the complete truth has gotten lost somewhat. We may desire immortality, but like a viral video, what strikes a chord with the audience is up to chance and luck. We are not in total control of our life story, nor how subsequent generations will perceive of us.

The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, written long before Jesus’ life and ministry, shows that humanity has known about its limitations for a long time.

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

What troubles us has troubled many who have come before us. Seeking perfection in belief will only produce anguish and frustration. We can try to strive for immortality, but our time in the sun is finite.

When I was on my Quaker Meeting’s Ministry and Worship committee, it was our responsibility to plan Memorial Services, which are the term we use for funerals. Many times, few of us could remember who the person was. I hope that when I die, the people in charge of planning my Memorial Service will not have forgotten me completely.