A first look at Christendom is like a first peek into a kaleidoscope, a snowflake, or a magic-mirror lantern. In fact, the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001 edition, counts 33,830 Christian variants and sects, often divided on even the most basic tenets of belief. More conservative counts suggest about 9000 groups1. By contrast, Islam has about 20 sects or denominations, or maybe a few more, depending on how finely you tune your focus; Judaism perhaps 15; and Buddhism is in a similar range. (Hinduism seems to outstrip even Christianity in its penchant for variegation.)
Curiously, one thing on which Christian denominations most disagree is the importance of the disagreements. Liberal Christians tend to shrug them off. Biblical conservatives are less inclined to, overall, and perhaps rightly so, since passages like 1 Corinthians 12:24-37 deny the possibility of any real schism or division within the “body of Christ,” the true saved Church.
In short, when two Christians diverge on anything of moment, at least one of them is going straight to hell. That’s a serious business.
As a former conservative Christian, I have been both within the magic lantern and outside it. The paradigm shift, jarring as it was, left me a persistent fascination with how Christians think and interpret, particularly when reading the Bible. Discourses with Christian friends tend to turn on certain key questions: As a Christian, what is your stand on Biblical veracity? How literally do you read it? To what degree is it inspired? How much is myth, human error, symbolism? What rule of thumb may we use, if any, to distinguish one from the other?
… And whatever your answer, can you justify it, please, beyond BISS (Because I Said So)?
In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us “all scripture is inspired of God” (literally, God-breathed), yet here and there Paul says that what he writes is just his own advice, and not from God at all (1 Cor 7:6,10,12,25; 2 Cor 11:17). Was God saying, “This is not God speaking”? That seems a significant paradox. Or was the Bible telling us it is not 100% scripture-that we must cherry-pick it for divine truth?
Answers vary, of course. At one extreme are the hard-line believers who read the Bible much as you would read a newspaper. Fundamentalists, literalists, we fondly call them. At the other are the liberals who see the Bible as a sort of long poem, an Aesop’s fable one must interpret, spin-doctor, and cull. Cafeteria Christians. You can draw your own line anywhere in-between.
For my part, even back in my most confident Christian days, I was never quite sure where to draw it. Even in the Gospel accounts, it seemed obvious that some parts were symbol or myth, and some parts had to be history.
Why? Well, on one hand was the reasoning of the great C. S. Lewis, who fondly argued that the Gospel narratives simply lack the flavor of fiction, but rather have the tone and cadence of a human record of momentous events. In God in the Dock, one of his key collections of Christian apologetica, he wrote:
“Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced the whatever the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened. The author put it in simply because he had seen it.” 2
In choosing his particular example, in fact, Lewis may have goofed. The tale of the woman taken in adultery, the so-called Pericope Adulteræ (John 7:53 – 8:11), was not an original Jesus-story, as scholars now know. A scribe inserted it some time in the 4th century. It appears in no earlier manuscripts, and no earlier Christian writer comments on it.
But perhaps God inspired it, or the scribe was setting down an oral tradition which had certain roots in history. In any case, Lewis could have cited other examples, such as Jesus’ moment of despair on the Cross: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” The mysterious young male follower who ran away nude when Roman soldiers came to arrest Jesus (Mark 14:51-52). His tears for dead Lazarus, so poignantly described (John 11:35). Or that peevish, almost petty dig at Peter: “Get thee behind me Satan” (Mark 8:33, Matt 16:23).
Why would legend-weavers put in things like that, words that seem to humanize and almost discredit Jesus, events that were surely awkward and uncomfortable for the early evangelists, and made the job harder-unless these things happened?
On the other hand we have the rather obvious conflicts between the Gospels, even between the synoptic Gospels. These go far beyond the variances of fallible human memory or different witnesses of the same events. You’ve heard examples, and I’ll regale you with a few good ones in a bit. We can harmonize them perhaps, well sometimes, but it requires gymnastics, some painful mental bending. And Lewis to the contrary even so, some parts of the Gospels did indeed have the flavor and cadence of mythology, to me at least-not as if some humble person were recounting events he had seen, but more as if many people had evolved pieces of a legend, and some rough redactor had cobbled them together later; much later.
For example, the story of little Jesus and the Rabbis. Luke 2:41-50 tells of Joseph & Mary taking young Jesus to Jerusalem for Passover, then forgetting him for the trip home. Hastily returning, they found him in the temple, instructing the learned doctors and teachers. “What’s this?” his mom asked, astonished. Jesus answered, “Know you not I must be about my father’s business?” And the Gospel says that they “understood him not.” Imagine that! But what about all the miracles and visitations attending Jesus’ birth? An angel and “heavenly host” appearing in a glorious blaze, informing Joseph and Mary that their baby was Christ and the Lord (Luke 1:26-38, 2:9-19, Matt 1:20-21). Visions and prophecies straight from the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:46-55). Wise men with gifts, worshipping. Not to mention the whole Virgin Birth thing. And probably much else, since we know but a fraction of Jesus’ doings (John 21:25). Things like that you don’t forget easily. But apparently Joseph & Mary did. Had they suddenly developed Alzheimer’s?
The story of Jesus’ madness contains a similar problem. Hearing of his preaching, his mother and brothers thought Jesus was crazy, and tried to seize him (Mark 3:21,31-34). You’d hardly expect that from a Mary who remembered visiting angels, a virgin conception, the Nativity, visiting wise men, hovering star of Bethlehem or other miracles. You would only expect it if those events never happened.
Then we have the Feeding of the Multitudes. You know the tale. But few are aware that it occurred twice. First Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 with five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:35-44, Matt 14:15-21). The disciples blandly watched this miracle, expressing no astonishment. But weeks later, when Jesus proposed to feed a smaller crowd with a larger quantity of loaves & fish, the disciples were incredulous and astounded (Mark 8:1-9, Matt 15:32-38). Had they completely forgotten the previous feeding? Were they attention deficit? For that matter, what of all the far more remarkable miracles Jesus had performed earlier-healings, walking on water, even bringing the dead to life? If the Disciples, as first-hand witnesses, were that hard to convince, who can criticize unbelievers today?
Seeing the empty tomb, the Disciples were clueless; they didn’t understand that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20:8-9). Yet Jesus had carefully explained this to them, in plain terms, many times (Matt 12:40, Matt 20:18-19, Mark 8:31-2, Mark 10:32-34, Luke 9:22, Luke 18:31-33, etc.). Even Jesus’ enemies understood the prophecy of the Resurrection (Matt 27:63-64). Were the Disciples really all that dense?
I could go on, but won’t-you get the point. Any fair-minded person must admit something is odd. The Gospels do not quite follow the logic of history, not always, but more of a fairy tale logic, a dream-logic, where events are disconnected, memory melts like wax, and the story line flows in hallucinogenic rivulets.
Yet buried in it, and wrapped within it, are chips and splinters of realism: Jesus weeping for Lazarus, or bending to scribble in the dust.
Just how much? And how do we know?
The question still haunts me.
1 World Christian Database, Center for Study of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, http://worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd/about/denominationlist.asp.
2 C. S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Christ”. In The Grand Miracle and Other Selected Essays on Theology from God in the Dock (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), 113.