About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A random walk through scripture

One of the things that is hidden by the choice of Bible read is the arbitrary nature of the books selected as divinely inspired. If you look at the various Bibles (compare Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox choices, to say nothing of "heretical" selections such as those of Marcion), one will find a bewildering array of scriptures variously translated, amended, and discarded.

How did the various lists of canonical books emerge? People gather lists of acceptable scriptures based on their preconceived notions of what must be true. I suppose it is due to a human need for authorities that agree with what is already believed. Take Luther's choice: if some books of the canon disagree with his version of the truth, then  the solution is to amend the list of canonical books. This example, of course, is not limited to Luther. Early in the history of the church, Jude quoted the book of Enoch, presumably considered inspired, but this book was later dropped from the list, probably because of some inconvenient passages. 

Even Jude's book was considered as uninspired by some early christians. At our vantage, the records have been smoothed out, because the particular form of the church that triumphed was the one sponsored by Constantine.  But during the time of the early church, there were various kinds of Christianities: the Gnostics, Docetists, Ebionites, Arians etc that because of the roll of the dice, were unable to establish themselves as the common version of christianity. Presumably, they would also have their own list of canonical books. 

The claim that the New Testament canon was well agreed upon by early Christians is doubtful. From the Oxford Bible commentary, I also learned that the New Testament canon was also an issue during early times. Some books, such as the shepherd of Hermas, were included, while others that now form part of the canon. Hebrews, Revelation, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter and Jude were considered by some Christian groups to be of doubtful authenticity. 

Given the uncertainty in the canon, I've always wondered at people who claim that Sola Scriptura is the only way to approach the scriptures. How do we know that the scriptures chosen can be trusted? What reason have we for believing in them? We definitely cannot use them as scientific authorities because there is no evidence of various things that scripture claims to be true. For example, the account of the deluge is not backed by scientific investigation. One simple counter-argument to the deluge is the sheer variety of species-- they cannot all fit into Noah's ark. 

People who believe in Sola Scriptura, especially the literalist inerrant kind, need to go through strange contortions to make the best of science fit their assumption that scripture must be interpreted literally. An example is the orbit of the Earth around the sun. If the Earth orbits the sun, then the account of Joshua (Joshua 10:12-13) cannot be true; a sudden stop of the Earth's rotation should wreak havoc of great magnitude not just on Joshua's enemies but on the Israelites themselves. (Not to mention the rest of the landscape) Simple Newtonian physics tell us what sort of catastrophe stopping the rotation of the Earth can be. But does this convince the Literalist? Faced with a scientific argument, the literalist would rather deny the science than lose the literalist interpretation. I, on the other hand, will always choose the science first. 

Among the entertainments that I indulge in this year, I've been downloading and reading various apocryphal books. I'm also currently working my slow way through the bible by reading various translations side by side. The pace is extremely slow, since the various commentaries point to various detours, and so I'm not through with the two creation accounts in Genesis. References to the Nephilim, before the days of Noah, naturally led me to a book that's in the canon of some Orthodox churches: the Books of Enoch.I plan to read it later today (and maybe tomorrow). 

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