Why I Don’t Think the Magi Actually Happened, but Still Believe it’s True

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A 4th Century Carving of the Adoration of the Magi. Note that fifth person hanging around…and how Jesus is older. In Matthew this happened a few years after the birth.

The Gospel of Matthew has an agenda: it wants you to trust that the Jesus it speaks of is the same Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The writer (we call them “Matthew” but have no reason to believe a person named “Matthew” actually wrote it) is not unbiased.

The writer is not objective.

The writer is not very original, either.  Want to read an original writer?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are super original.  Matthew cobbles his Gospel together from a few places.

We know that the writer used the Gospel of Mark, and some other sources, in the writing of this Gospel.  The writer quotes Mark directly in some parts, and goes off writing on their own in other parts.  Some of these non-Markan passages are also found in the Gospel of Luke.

And some, well, aren’t found anywhere else.

Like the story of the Magi.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the writer as Matthew and “he” from now on, but know that the only definitive reason we call it “Matthew” is because someone in the ancient world named it that, probably so that it would get wide readership.  Booklets that were attributed to Apostles got wide readership (which is why you don’t see the letters of Clement I and Clement II [which are faithful and wonderful and should be in scripture!], and instead find the scurrilous book of James included in the canon).

Here’s the thing, though.  If you understand Matthew’s point, you can see how the Magi play into Matthew’s working theology.  And through that lens you get the meaning behind the Magi.

And that’s the important part.

What’s not important? Whether it happened or not.  In fact, that’s the truth about a lot of ancient tales and sacred scripture.  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it happens all the time!  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it’s true!

That kind of lens is, I think, one of the things missing from the faith in these post-enlightenment days.  We want things to be fact, equating fact with truth.  But fact is not always true, and true things sometime never actually happened.

I can go on in another blog about that, but back to the issue at hand…

If Matthew wants you to see that the Jesus he writes about is the same Jesus, he’s going to go to great lengths to get you to understand it.

And so one of the things that Matthew is going to do is make sure that you see that the arrival of the Messiah in the world will have a global impact.  Kings, Magi, will literally bow down before him.

They have to.  It says so in Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10…and other places.

And Matthew is very concerned that you see that the Hebrew prophecies come true in the life of Jesus.

See?  That’s why Luke doesn’t include it: it’s not important for Luke to prove that to you.  He has other biases.  And that’s why Mark doesn’t include it: Mark doesn’t care about that, either.

And John?  He’s a lone-ranger on this sort of thing.  It’s a miracle that Gospel even made it into the canon (especially because Jesus dies on a Thursday in John).

The Magi prove Matthew’s point: the prophecies of old come to fruition in Jesus, and so kings, Magi, have to bow down to him, especially since Herod (we know) won’t.

But even though I don’t think it happened, I still think it’s true.  Why?

Because the Jesus story has had a global impact.  And that star that the  Magi followed inspired a whole generation of cosmic exploration by Christian scientists who furthered astronomy more than most know.  And the beautiful foreshadowing that happens in Matthew, by design I think, leads you to understand the nature of Jesus: gold for kingship, frankincense echoing the sacrificial gifts of the old temple, and myrrh because he will die (it was kind of like giving Jesus a coffin).

And what’s more, Matthew makes this wonderful political statement with the story of the Magi!

If Herod, the puppet king (who was ruthless, but historically not a terrible ruler), wouldn’t bow down before Jesus, these kings would.  And when Herod tells the Magi to return to him and tell him where Jesus is, they catch wind in a dream (dreams are important to Matthew because they’re important in the Hebrew scriptures [think Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel]) that they shouldn’t, and the Magi disobey.

The point?  When your rulers tell you to do something that your conscience won’t allow, you disobey, by God.  Literally: by God.

There are all sorts of true nuggets in this story!

And here’s the thing: your pastors probably know this.  But we don’t talk about it. Instead we spend time trying to find out how the Magi traveled and where they came from and what their names were (I love that part of lore, actually…it’s fun and true, even if it’s not fact).

And all of that is, in the end, like trying to describe how a number smells.  You can go round and round and get nowhere because, well, numbers don’t smell.  The story isn’t told because it happened…don’t get wrapped up in that!

In all of that we miss the points, I think.

Because the story of the Magi is important for Matthew, and is so true in so many ways.

But did it happen?

Well, it happens all the time.

It happens when people lay down their power and agendas in deference to God. It happens when people disobey their leaders because they’ve been asked to do in moral things, and choose the path of peace instead.

It happens all the time.

A “Come to Jesus” Regarding Christmas…

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Wonder what they’re celebrating? Hint: it isn’t Jesus’ birthday…because, well, timeline.

So, full disclosure: I was going to title this post “Jesus is Not the Reason for the Season,” but that was deemed too provocative…

Growing up we’d sometimes have a “come to Jesus” meeting amongst the family.  It was a moment to speak some honest truths that were hard to swallow.  It was never a moment to degrade or deride, but rather to just say some honest things that set the ground for going forward.

And I think, Beloved, that maybe we need to have a “come to Jesus” about Christmas.

And I think maybe we need to have this conversation because, well, I’m noticing some strident things coming from certain circles about Christmas, the nativity, and the whole season that are really just, well, inaccurate.

And, I think, probably a bit harmful in the long run.

Because here’s the thing: while your Christmas might be about Jesus…he is the reason for your season, and maybe my season…we have to be honest about the fact that it certainly didn’t start that way.

Humans, since we’ve been recording these types of things, have always celebrated some sort of festival of light at the solstice.  It’s a need within us for reassurance that shadows will not last forever.

We’re, when we’re honest, scared of the night.

And so our ancient mothers and fathers who lived in the north, when the ground became too hard to plow, took a wheel off of their cart, brought it inside, decorated it with greenery and candles, and lit one every night, trying to coax the sun back from its hiding place.

This became, over time, our Advent wreath.  It became a Christian symbol, but it didn’t start that way.  And it’s OK that it didn’t!  I think it’s better that it didn’t…because it makes it all so much more universal.

And that yule log that will adorn your Christmas table is a pagan symbol of the huge burning logs that were lit on the solstice, the shortest day, to last through the shadows.  It’s got holly and ivy on it, the masculine (prickly holly) and the feminine (flowing ivy) to weave together our humanity into the rhythm of the world’s seasons.

And that tree in your living room was a stolen tradition from pagans who used to decorate the trees, making them beautiful (and, sadly, Martin Luther did not first put candles on them, as the legend goes) to counter the cold, frozen days of winter.  Fertility reminders were important in the fallow days, after all.  The sun would come back. The earth would give crops again. Humans would continue to thrive.  The evergreen incorporated all of this symbolism and more.

Early Christians took these fertility symbols and started using them to tell Biblical stories, by the way.

That Christmas tree didn’t stand near the nativity in the beginning, but for early Christians it stood for, well, the beginning!  They’d replay Adam and Eve plays using those evergreen trees, hiding apples in the branches to retell Genesis 1 and 2.

It’s OK that we didn’t invent it, Beloved.  Let’s not pretend we did.

But now for the piece that gets me the most emails, and some recent “unfollows” on social media: the birth narratives in the Gospels.

Here’s the truth:

Mark, it looks like, thought Jesus was born in Nazareth.  He didn’t care much about where he was born, or at least care enough to write about it, so in Mark, Jesus comes wandering out of Nazareth.

John, likewise, doesn’t care where Jesus was born, but just about who Jesus is.  His birth narrative is cosmic, and John 1 is a retelling of Genesis 1 with Christ at the center.  It’s beautiful, poetic, and has a point.

Matthew and Luke are the ones who tell nativity stories.  And why?  Well, if you read them you’ll find out.

Matthew needs you to know that the Jesus of the Gospels (of the Gospel of Mark, specifically) is the same Messiah told about in the Hebrew scriptures.  So he goes to great lengths, jumping over many hurdles, to make sure that the Jesus you read about in Matthew harkens back to the depictions of the Messiah found in bits and pieces throughout the Hebrew texts.

He puts him in Bethlehem because that fulfills the prophecy. (Micah 5:2)

Joseph, his father, is a dreamer, which is intended to echo that Joseph-the-dreamer in Genesis.  In dreams he learns of Jesus’ birth.  In dreams he learns to flee to Egypt when Herod goes on his rampage, which should remind you, by the way, of Pharaoh trying to kill all the newborns in Egypt, with Moses, that other messianic figure in Genesis, surviving.

Do you see?  Matthew is replaying the story for a new generation of the faithful.

And Egypt is important because ancient prophecy noted that, “out of Egypt will come (God’s) son…” (Hosea 11:1)  So Matthew had to get them there.  This all worked out nicely.

Luke, too, places Jesus in Bethlehem, much for the same reason.  But unlike Matthew, Luke has the issue of getting them to Bethlehem, because his Gospel opens the scene with them in Nazareth…probably because Mark starts there.

So the Holy Family is from Nazareth.  But how to get them to Bethlehem?  Ah, yes, we’ll have a census happen, which will connect them to Bethlehem and the ancient prophecy.

Except that, in extra-Biblical records we can’t find any census happening around that time.  There is one that happens later, it turns out.  And I guess it’s possible that the whole timeline is wrong…but that’s not the point, friend.

I’ll repeat that: the timeline is not the point.  Literalism is not the point for these birth narratives.  The point is painting a Divine picture for you.

So Luke gets them to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born.

And all of those other questions on whether he was born in a “stable” or a “cave” or even the first floor of a house are interesting and fun ponderings but ultimately don’t matter.

Because it only really happens that way in Luke, and…yeah, I’m going to say it…probably didn’t happen that way at all.

Because that’s not the point.

For Luke the point comes a moment after the birth: with the angels and the shepherds.  Luke, the Gospel that pays the most attention to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, has the birth of the Messiah being made known not to kings in palaces or the rich elite, but to the shepherds, who weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day because they were considered lying scoundrels.

This is lovely symmetry with the end of Mark’s Gospel where the only people who see the resurrection of Jesus are the women who…wait for it…weren’t even allowed to testify in the courts of the day.

So between Mark and Luke you see that the most important book ends of Jesus’ life and ministry are seen only by people who no one should believe.

And that, Beloved, is the point: Luke wants to reinforce the idea that the poor, the marginalized, and the one you least expect is the one God bestows grace upon grace toward.

Now, why bother saying any of this?

I love nativity scenes.  I have many of them.  I have an icon of the nativity right in front of me at the moment, actually.  It’s beautiful and meaningful and truthful in so many ways.

But it’s not fact.  It didn’t happen that way.

And it doesn’t have to have happened that way.  Because that’s not the point.

Matthew’s point is not that literal Magi traveled across continents to visit Jesus, but rather that God’s entrance into our space and time had a global impact.  And those gifts?  They were not real gifts, but symbols of his life, death, and resurrection.  Gold, for the treasure that he was.  Frankincense, for the offering to humanity that he would become.  Myrrh, because he’s going to die…and that’s what you wrap people in when they die.

These are not actual gifts they gave, but rather symbolized the gift the Christ is.

And Luke’s point is not that an actual stable, or even actual angels, appeared on the scene, but rather that the people you didn’t expect would be the ones to play a pivotal role in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.

People like you.

And, back to the season at hand…

None of this would have happened in December, anyway.  You don’t put sheep out to pasture in December, Beloved.  You do that in June.  So even if Luke was trying to relate reality, we’re way off on our seasons in this era.

No, our date for the Nativity of Christ is another stolen piece that we took from those non-Christians who were dancing around bonfires at the solstice.  They were already celebrating, so the church changed it from the “festival of the undying sun” to the “nativity of the undying son.”

And it wasn’t even a major holiday for ancient Christians!  Pentecost and Easter were the two big festivals for the first church.  That first church would probably be appalled and confused as to why we’re bothering with this December holiday, anyway.  Maybe, if we want to keep tradition, we should abandon Christmas altogether as a Christian holiday and re-ignite a passion for Pentecost (see what I did there?).

And you know what?

Most pastors know this stuff…at least if they’ve had an education that moved past Biblical proof-texting or a glorified Sunday School (and let’s be honest: too much that passes for “seminary education” these days is a glorified Sunday School).

We know this stuff, but we don’t talk about it because, I think, we’re afraid of being caught up in culture wars.  Or we don’t want to deal with the emails that come from speaking truth into a season that has so many tendrils upon our hearts.  Or we don’t have the time, honestly, because it’s already so busy…

But here’s my larger point with all this: Jesus can be the reason for your season.  That’s awesome, and meaningful, and beautiful.

But let’s not pretend that Jesus was always the reason for celebrating at this time of year.

Christianity took the season and made it something for themselves, which we’re wont to do, and that’s OK.

And that argument on whether Jesus was born in a cave, a stable, a house, an RV?  Don’t spend too much time thinking about it all, because that’s not the point.

And this is why I think it’s harmful not to share some of this info with the church: you might miss the forest for the trees.  You might miss the point of it all.

The point is that God’s advent on the scene shook everything from floor to rafter (Matthew), that God would invite the least-of-these into the center of the Divine drama (Luke), that the baptism of Jesus would be his second birth into ministry (Mark), and that the Christ is woven into all creation (John).

The rest, as we say in the South, is just lipstick and rouge, ya’ll.

And I get that this all might be an inconvenient truth.  But in this season of beauty and wonder and awe, it’s OK to lift up scenes and stories that have so much embellishment!

In other words, the stories are true, even if they’re not factual.

And it’s only inconvenient if you need them to be factual to see their truth.

 

 

Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church

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What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

How To Read the Bible-A Primer

bible-pagesThe Bible is not a book.

It is a collection of books.

The Bible is not a type of literature.

It is composed of many types of literature.

Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, perhaps too high in some circles, because the way that some Christians talk you’d think the Bible is their God, superseding even the very acts of Jesus described in the Bible.

This is actually heretical, even sinful, because it breaks the very first commandment in the Decalogue (if you need a reference, go ahead and check out Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:4-21).  In my view Fundamentalists have become what they continually deride: idolaters.

So, if you’re a reforming Fundamentalist, an Evangelical who has read the Bible like an encyclopedia, a Mainliner who doesn’t really know where to start, or perhaps you’re on the edge of being Christian at all (or maybe you’re not even sure you can claim to be that close), I have a prescribed way to read the Bible that I commend to you.

  1. Read a good study Bible.  Not any study Bible, but a good study Bible.  The Harper Collins Study Bible, the Lutheran Study Bible, or some annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version are all to be commended.

    To be avoided?  The King James Version (or any variation of it).  The Living Bible. Any form of an “Augmented Bible.”  Any version of a gender specific/life-stage specific Bible (unless it’s an NRSV translation).
    Get’s a “meh” from me: the NIV, the Common English Version, or anything the Gideons pass out.

    The Message is a fine paraphrase to use if you’re using it for devotional purposes, as is The Book of God.

    Not all Bibles are equal, and what I mean by that is not all Bibles are translated with the same scholarly scrutiny.  Some of these interpretations take terrible liberties with translations, and even more problematic, some of them take absolutely wrongful liberties with commentary.  Any Bible that tries to pinpoint Eden, that attempts to locate support for the Rapture, or posits Esther or Jonah as history rather than story, are of poor scholarly quality.

    And it’s worth noting that the Christian industrial complex (if I can name it that) has consistently duped and made money off of people because they assume that most Christians either aren’t smart enough or discerning enough to know the difference. 

    Just like you should not buy any snake oil from a traveling salesman, don’t buy it if it’s embossed in gold, says “The Bible” on it.

  2. Read it with other people. The Scriptures are best read in community because then you hear what other people are taking from a passage.  Read it and re-read it. Because parts of scripture say different things at different times in your life.
  3. Reading the Bible from front to back is not usually helpful. The Bible was compiled with some logic to rough timeline, but it’s not like a novel.  So reading it front to back is not always the best way to read it.

    The Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures places the books according to type of literature rather than timeline.  Sometimes adopting that kind of reading schedule is more helpful, because you group types of writing together, staying in the same medium.  This is roughly how the New Testament is arranged.

    And, boy I know this is controversial, but there are simply parts of the scripture that perhaps are better left as un-turned pages.  There are pieces that are shallow, and some even dangerous, without some extra guidance (like a good Pastor, a great lexicon, or a reputable commentary).  Adopt a way of reading that works for you, and if something presents itself as a head scratcher, let it go unresolved for a bit.

  4. Speaking of unresolved…you’re going to find contradictions and errors…but keep reading and don’t try to resolve them too quickly, and don’t force a resolution.  And if you don’t, you’re not reading with your brain (which is a mistake, friend).  Why is it that scientists and mathematicians, engineers and auto-mechanics are well-practiced at using problem solving skills in their every day work and perfectly welcome scrutiny as a useful tool in their trade, but all of that is suspended the minute they crack the Bible?

    The Bible is held in high esteem by Christians, but this does not mean that we do not use methods of discernment and scholarly discipline when reading it.  In fact, I’d say that people who take a “plain reading” view of Scripture (or anything!) holds that thing in such low esteem that they are unwilling to submit it to the same tools and rules of finding knowledge.

    The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so don’t treat it like one.  It is not an instruction manual, either.  Any reading that adopts this kind of “hunt and peck,” or “search and find” method does it absolutely no justice and, I would say, is not how it was intended to be read at all.

    The scriptures are full of tension.  The Bible contradicts itself.  It has errors.  And those who put it together saw these, by all accounts, and decided to keep it all the same.  They lived with the tension.  Why can’t we?

    Don’t force a resolution.  Live in the tension.  Such is the life of faith.

  5. Literary over literal. These books were not written for these times, specifically.  So we must adopt a malleable eye and meaning-making mind when reading the scriptures.I am not saying that they’re not applicable to these times.Certainly the message(s) is applicable!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

    But to imagine that the writers had you in mind when they wrote it is to steal their agenda and make it your own.

    The scriptures continue to speak into today, but they use the language, imagery, and thought process of yesterday.  This is helpful when reading passages that don’t jive cohesively with our understanding of psychology, sociology, and even systematic theology.

    Again, allow the tension to linger.

    And one of the worst things that we can claim is that the scripture contains science. It does not.  When representatives in Congress come to the floor to advocate that Creationism be taught alongside Evolution, they make the mistake of thinking that all theories are equal.

    They are not.  Christianity does itself no favors when it mistakes theology for biology (and I would say that science makes the same mistake all the time, too).

The Reformation may have brought the Scriptures to the people, but in some ways the theological world is paying the price for interpretations that have happened without any regard to good scholarship and training.

We wouldn’t buy a chemistry workbook written by someone who only took Chemistry 101 in high school, so why do we buy Bible studies written by people with little more theological training than an advanced Sunday School curriculum (looking at you so-called Bible Colleges)?

Not all Bibles are the same.  Not all studies are the same.  And when we treat them all the same we create an environment that is not only hostile to Christianity (because who would trust a discipline with such terrible standards?), but an environment also hostile to the pursuit of knowledge.

On How I Can Trust that Jonah is a Story but That the Resurrection Was/Is Real

I trust that the Jonah story is myth and not a real event.  I trust that the resurrection of Jesus was/is not myth, but a real event.

I trust that they are both true.

This is a difficult concept to grasp, I think, especially if you come out of a tradition where the Bible is taken very literally.

JonahBear with me a bit on this, though, because the binary thinking of “true/untrue” or “fact/fiction” is not as clear cut as we like to make it out to be.

If we take the Bible absolutely, unequivocally literally, we do it, it’s teachings, and ourselves a disservice.

Primarily we do a disservice because we know that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally in it’s origins.  How do we know this?  Because it contains different types of writings: histories, prose, poetry, legend, and yes, myth.

And Jonah is a myth.  An instructive myth, a myth worth being in the Bible, but a myth.  It’s form is mythic.  It’s pattern is mythic.  It’s characters, narration, plot, all of it is mythic.  It’s not meant to be taken literally.  It’s to be read and learned from and pondered over and thought over…but not in the way you’d ponder over a math problem.  Not in the way you’d ponder over how someone could be stuck in a whale for days and not eaten by stomach acid.

So, we do Scripture a disservice when we hold all of it’s parts (written over hundreds of years) as all the same type of writing.

Secondly, we do it’s teachings a disservice by holding the whole Bible as being all the same type of writing to be held at the same status.  Why?  Well, if I can’t bend my mind around how Jonah can sit in a whale and not be eaten by stomach acid, and that story is just as real as a Jesus story, then I have to throw the whole thing out.

This line of thinking is a byproduct (an unfortunate one) of the Enlightenment.

Finally, we do ourselves a disservice by thinking that it all is the same because we either force our brain to believe something that we know isn’t…and isn’t supposed to be…true, or we keep ourselves from deep riches found in Scripture because, if we can’t buy all of it the same, we’ll buy none of it the same.  In this case we don’t allow ourselves the great love of God shown in the Scriptures, and a relationship with God informed by these ancient writings, specifically around the message of the Christ.

So, how then are we to take the resurrection?  Here’s how this pastor sees it.

For the Christian, something should be honored at the outset: the resurrection is central to the faith whereas the story of Jonah is not.

I think that’s just true.

Were Jonah missing from Scripture, the Christian faith would largely go on with all systems normal (for better or for worse).

I feel that, without the resurrection, the central tenet that God’s work moves into a future where nothing is lost, specifically the very people God has come to hold in love through eternity, would be missing.  In short: the bookend of the salvation story would be lost, leaving everything before it in a heap on the theological floor without any sense, order, or telos.

And thus we end up with Saturday morning Christians: the Christ is crucified, time to hideout in an upper room because there’s nothing left.

It’s also worth noting that, for Jewish-Christians to propose that someone singularly rose from the dead is not only unthinkable, 15-the-resurrection-of-jesusbut would most likely initiate charges of blasphemy and result in death or expulsion from the Jewish community of faith.  If they were willing to risk talking in this way, that’s telling.  The masterful theologian N. T. Wright goes to great lengths on this in his book Surprised by Hope, which I found myself agreeing with.

This all being said, do I think that you have to believe in the bodily resurrection to be a Christian?  No.  The calls from Tony Jones and other theologians (even in my tradition) for those who may not subscribe to a bodily resurrection to “re-think” and recant on their take of a metaphorical/mystical or otherwise-known interpretation are wrongheaded.

As if the Christian faith was ever meant to be one with a list of beliefs that one had to check-off to be considered a Christ follower.  If that is the case, the most literal Christ-followers in Scripture, both the Magi in Matthew and the disciples pre-Easter in all of the Gospels, fail the test.  The Magi were pagan and the disciples were clueless.

Any attempt to coerce another person into trusting the veracity of a certain story, historical, mythical, or otherwise, is not creating trust and faith, it is trying to force fact.

A story can be true without being fact.  I’m reluctant Christian because much of the church has forgotten this.

For this Christian I think it is intellectually honest to acknowledge that not all of scripture is meant to be read the same way. We do all sorts of disservices when we do.

But, for this Christian, a healthy dose of mystery surrounding the central stories is also important, especially those written so as to be a history of the salvation story.  After all, the resurrection is not a “problem” to be solved.  It is a mystery to be pondered over, embraced, and loved.

Jonah is a great fire-side tale that tells many truths and should be embraced and loved and pondered over (and should be acted out by persons to get the whole picture).  But it wasn’t written to be history, and we shouldn’t have to take it as history to be faithful.

The Bible summary you may have wanted but never took the time to compile…or maybe you didn’t want it. Regardless, here it is.

This past Sunday at my church we started a new adult education series called, “The Bible: What is it?”images

I wanted to name it, “The Bible: What the Hell?” but my editors decided against that.

Overall, the first day of the class went OK.  I say just “OK” because, well, we talked about some boring stuff on Sunday like how the Bible came about. Basically some Bishops of the ancient church started proposing that there should be a particular “plumb-line” for what is acceptable to use as scripture…mostly in reaction to some interesting suggestions (they called them “heresies” but, whatev) from some other Bishops like Marcion.

So in the year 331 they arrived at what we commonly call our Biblical canon (“canon” is a fancy word for “ruler”…as in, what something is measured by).

So the Christian Bible (of the Protestant flavor) contains 66 books with histories, myths, poetry, wisdom writing, prose, letters, and little snippets of other stuff here and there (like apocalyptic writing).  How did they decide on the books they would allow?  Well, for the Older Testament they took books being used in Jewish circles already.  They were a little bit easier to agree on.

The books that ended up in the Newer Testament were not so easy to agree on.  And, here’s something to chew on, the early church didn’t ask if God had “divinely inspired” each book before they put it in the canon.  They wouldn’t have been considered “Bible believing” by modern evangelical standards.

Instead they asked questions like, “Who wrote it?”  Because books that were written by people who may have had access to the Christ…or people who had access to the people who knew the Christ…got first dibs.

But they didn’t stop there, they then asked, “Is it any good?”  In essence, were people reading it widely in communities of faith?  And if so, were they gaining some spiritual food from it?

They also asked, “Is it weird?” *  Or, better put, “is it consistent with other things we’ve heard about Jesus.”  This is why the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas aren’t included in the common canon.  I know, you’ve heard the rumors that they were excluded because they lifted up women too much (although, in the Gospel of Mary she turns into a dude at the end…so…yeah), or because they were suppressing gnostic voices or, what have you.

And, sure, some of those theories might have some credence. After all, when you get a bunch of men used to systems of patriarchy in one place, you’re going to get something that fits well within that system.

But I don’t buy the vast conspiracy theories about the formation of the Bible.

And finally, as a person of faith, I believe that God’s breath (the feminine ruach in the Old Testament) moved through this whole thing, as incomplete and laden with patriarchy as it is.  Because God always works with broken things.  And there are certainly parts of this process, and parts of the scriptures and the way they’re interpreted, that are very broken.

I’m not one who worships the Bible.  I worship the one the Bible points to.  I don’t think that’s true for all of Christianity out there.  And if the ancient church didn’t worship the Bible (heck, it didn’t even have a Bible for 200 years after Jesus died), why would we assume that to be Christian you have to believe the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible”?

But, for those of you wonder just what is in the Bible, here’s a rundown of it’s books with approximate dates of authorship according to scholars, much of which is taken from the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2009), as well as a brief description of the book/context/author.

This is just an overview…people study this stuff for years, remember.

OLD TESTAMENT

The Pentateuch (first 5 books authored by at least three different traditions, probably 4…and with edits, maybe more)

Genesis: written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.

Exodus: Meaning “exit,” this book tells the story of Israel leaving Egyptian slavery (perhaps around 1250 B.C.E.?). We find Israel mentioned in a stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Note: Not written by Moses, either.

Leviticus: About offerings, rituals, and some other rites partly compiled during Israel’s monarchy period (1000-600 B.C.E.), but also containing some concerns of the community post being taken over by Babylon.  Written and redacted over centuries. Note: Moses probably couldn’t write if historical accounts are true.

Numbers: Probably to account for people who could serve in the armies.  Continues with the stories and themes begun in Exodus…with a whole lot of counting and “so and so begat so and so” in there. Note: Moses?  Nope.

Deuteronomy: Written around 700-640 B.C.E., this book is another one about rules and relationships, like Leviticus, but with some significant prose and changes to previous laws/understandings.  It was hoped that, if Israel followed the rites and laws of Deuteronomy, they wouldn’t be overtaken by foreign armies because God would protect them.  Let’s just say, that didn’t happen.  Note: Still not Moses.

Historical Books

Joshua: This tells the story of Israel settling down again in the promised land of Canaan after the Exodus.  It’s written about the history of the 13th Century, BCE, but was actually written and completed sometime in the 7th Century BCE.  Not exactly eye-witness accounts, here. The battle of Jericho is one famous story in Joshua…although in an archeological dig we didn’t really find any walls around Jericho.  Just sayin’.

Judges: Written about the time between 1200 and 1020 BCE, this book records the people who watched over Israel (the “Judges”) before there was a king/queen.  This book was put together when Israel was conquered by Babylon, between 587-539 BCE.  Coolest judge? Deborah.  Want to know why?  Read the book.

Ruth: A book of inspiration taking place between the period of the judges and the kings/queens of Israel.  May have been written by a woman after Israel returned from Babylonian capture!

1 & 2 Samuel: Written by many people collected and edited over time, mostly after 721 BCE.  These two books were only one book originally, and speak of the beginning of the monarchy period for Israel.  King David is the major character here.  And Bathsheba.  And David’s harp.

1 & 2 Kings: The author of this book loved the book of Deuteronomy, and records the Kings of Israel (much like 1 & 2 Samuel) in an effort to say that Israel kept being conquered by people because they didn’t follow the rules of God.

1 & 2 Chronicles: Originally one book, Chronicles was written by an author in Jerusalem sometime after Israel had returned from Babylon (539-532 BCE).  It’s main thrust is to give a people who had been without a home (in exile in Babylon) a connection back to Jerusalem.

Ezra: May have been written by the same author as Chronicles (or maybe not), it was completed somewhere around 400 BCE scholars think, and it tries to assign meaning to the events that had happened the previous 300 years.  Much like Chronicles, as the people return from exile in Babylon, they try to distinguish themselves from the surrounding people (Samaritans), while re-claiming a connection to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah: See above…Ezra-Nehemiah were one book until the 15th Century.

Esther: A book with Persian influence! Esther is a fun book about idiotic leadership, there is no direct mention of God, but it speaks of Persia’s power of the Jewish people after they left Babylon (Persia conquered Babylon and let the Jewish people resettle where they wished…and many went back to Jerusalem).  Grab some stuffed grape-leaves and read this book.

Wisdom Writings and Poetry and Songs

Job: A story whose date of composition is unclear.  Maybe the 6th Century BCE.  A meditation on the problem of suffering, it is a difficult book and not a history, but rather a story that raises good questions about the human condition.

Psalms: The ancient songbook of the church 150 units long.  It was composed by many different authors.  There are Psalms for help, comfort, thanksgiving…you name it, it’s here.

Proverbs: Connected with King Solomon, it was finished somewhere around the 4th C BCE and is largely intended to provide practical advice and wise saying.

Ecclesiastes: One of the youngest books of the Old Testament (maybe just 3oo years before Jesus was born), it is narrated by an aged person called “The Teacher” and is a personal memoir to share thoughts that he has learned about the difference between what is fleeting and what is fulfilling.  It was once said of Ecclesiastes that, if you ever needed a reason to hate yourself, read this book.  I don’t see it that way, but I get the sentiment.

Song of Solomon (Song of Songs): Written in the 4th or 3rd Centuries, we don’t know the author…but it wasn’t Solomon.  It has a strong female voice, and may have been written by a woman.  It’s a series of scandalous love poems…and should be read immediately.  Because we all need some scandal in our lives.

Prophetic Books both Major and Minor (“big deals” and “littler deals”)

Isaiah: Big deal.  You know much of what’s in here if you’ve been around the Bible at all.  It tells of the promise of a “Messiah” (anointed one) and was compiled by several prophets and editors over many many years, from around the 740’s BCE to 538 BCE…basically much of Israel’s monarchy to when they were taken over by Babylon, to when they started to return to Jerusalem.  Lots here (not the person, “Lot,” he’s back in Genesis).

Jeremiah: Another big deal. Jeremiah lived from 626 BCE-586, and many of his sermons are in writing in this book.  His secretary, Baruch, wrote some of the end of Jeremiah, and we don’t know who wrote the last chapter but it certainly wasn’t either of those two…

Lamentations: If you need a reason to be sad, read this book.  It’s 5 poems about Babylon destroying Jerusalem’s much beloved temple in 586 BCE.  We don’t know who wrote it, but they sure were sad.

Ezekiel: Ezekiel was a priest during the time when Israel was taken over by Babylon, and had some prophesies for his fellow exiles.  It started around 593 and extended to 571 BCE.  It’s obviously edited by someone, but we think most of the writing comes from the priest himself.

Daniel: A book of stories and visions, Daniel contains some of the oldest material we have as far as the Old Testament goes (including some cool apocalyptic writing).  Written in Hebrew and Aramaic (in different parts), main characters are Daniel (of lion den fame) as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And a furnace.  This book covers a long period of time, from the Babylonian captivity all the way to Alexander the Great (320’s BCE)!

Hosea: A prophet from 769-697, Hosea prophesied during 5 of Israel’s kings in the northern half of the kingdom.  His words were shared through oral communities, scholars think.

Joel: Written after the Babylonian exile, scholars think Joel was composed sometime before 348 BCE and is focused at an Israel trying to rebuild itself.

Amos: He’s a pissed off prophet who said his share around the first half of the 8th C BCE.  See how these prophets aren’t chronological order?  It’s confusing, right?  Mostly just to us…

Obadiah: Written (most likely) after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, Obadiah’s vision is of an Israel sad over the loss of their kingdom and longing for good news from God.

Jonah: A short story, probably what we moderns would call a “myth,” it’s set in the time when the Assyrians had taken over Israel (720’s BCE) and is a tale about what you should not do if you’re a prophet. Main characters: Jonah and a big fish.  Oh, and God.

Micah: Micah foretells doom for an Israel (split into a northern and southern kingdom) who is living a little too comfortably in the shadow of Assyria.  It appears to have been written in the mid 8th C BCE.

Nahum: A group of oracles from around 612 BCE, his sayings celebrated the fall of the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh.  It’s supposed to be a story of good news.  The bad news is that, after Assyria fell Babylon took over…and things got bad again.

Habakkuk: A prophet around 600 BCE, this book is a book where a prophet pleads on behalf of God’s people not to be squashed between Egypt and Babylon.

Zephaniah: Probably written in the second half of the 7th C BCE, Zephaniah begins mad but ends peacefully assured that God will prevail over the threatening power of Babylon.

Haggai: Written after people had returned from exile in Babylon (in 520 BCE), the community of Israel begins to feel some difficulties in rebuilding both community and the temple.  Haggai provides encouragement for a community in depression.

Zechariah: A contemporary of Haggai, this author (and book) offers a vision of an Israel beautifully reformed and reconstructed.

Malachi: Not the scary dude from Children of the Corn, this book asks the people returning from exile in Babylon to become re-devoted to God and use the priests to aid them in leadership.  Probably written after the temple had been rebuilt (515 BCE).

NEW TESTAMENT

The New Testament does not “pick right up” where the Older Testament left off.  There’s a number of gap years.  Rome is now the major imperial power (after Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia all had taken turns).  And then Jesus shows up in an Israel controlled by Rome.  The New Testament starts off with stories about Jesus.

The Gospels

Matthew: Probably written in the 80’s by someone who had read the gospel of Mark.  We call it “Matthew” because that name became associated with the book somewhere in the early 100’s.  Did “Matthew” the apostle write it?  Very doubtful.  It appears that the author of Matthew also uses a source that scholars call “Q” (short for quelle or “pen”) to provide some Jesus stories.  The magi are in Matthew at Jesus’ birth, but no angels or shepherds.

Mark: Oldest gospel book, written in the 60’s or very early 70’s.  Probably was written by the same “Mark” talked about in the book of Acts, and may have had some eye-witness accounts of Jesus.  Jesus is the most human in this Gospel.  In Mark there is no birth in Bethlehem.  Jesus just walks out of Galilee.

Luke: Probably written between 80-90 CE, this writer also had read Mark (because he, like Matthew, copies parts of Mark word-for-word), and also had access to this other document we’ve called “Q”.  Did someone named Luke write it?  We think it may have been.  It is clear from it’s style that this gospel was recited and performed orally, and is the first half of a longer story (the second half is the book of Acts).  Here we have angels and shepherds in the birth story of Jesus…but no Magi.

John: The gospel of John doesn’t fit well with the first three.  It’s thought to be the one written the latest (90’s), and Jesus dies on a Thursday in John…which doesn’t line up with the other three.  Jesus is also most fully seen as divine in John, as he knows what’s coming next.  That being said, it is included because a large number of people were using this gospel book when the Bible was compiled, and although it contains some unique material, it is not out of character for Jesus drastically.

Books about the Church

Acts: The second part of the Gospel of Luke, Acts picks up where Luke lets off and describes the formulation of the early church.  Probably written in the 80’s CE.  Main characters: Paul, Silas, the early church, the Holy Spirit.  You know, the usual.

Letters of/attributed to Paul

Romans: Written by Paul to the Christian community in Rome (context clues!), sent in the mid-50’s CE.  Paul had already been a missionary for around 20 years. Paul entreats the Romans to live peacefully between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians

1 Corinthians: Written in the early 50’s CE, this letter was written to the church in Corinth by Paul to heal a division in the church.

2 Corinthians: OK, we’re pretty sure this is actually like three or four letters all put together by someone other than Paul from letter fragments of Paul’s.  There is no agreement here, though, on the subject.  It was written sometime after 1 Corinthians and pieced together (if that theory is true) much later.

Galatians: Written by the apostle Paul sometime between 50-55 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the church at Galatia.  Again…context clues.  The big fight in this letter that Paul tries to resolve is whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish practices.  Verdict: nope.

Ephesians: One of the coolest letters in the New Testament, it’s almost certainly not Paul who wrote this book (though it claims he did) because the style and verbage is not very Paul-like.  It could be a disciple of Paul’s, though, as the central ideas are echoes of Paul’s other letters.  BTW, it was pretty common for a disciple to write under their teacher’s name…so, who cares if Paul didn’t write it?  It talks about the Cosmic Christ and all of creation being redeemed and is just so freakin’ cool.

Philippians: A letter to the first Christian church in Europe from Paul and Timothy, this is a happy letter and it’s clear that Paul loves this little church.

Colossians: We do not know who wrote this letter. It may be Paul; it may be someone else.  It’s got some not-so-very-Paulish theology in it.  It may have been written in the 50’s or as late as the 70’s.  But it is written to the church of Colossae, and we don’t know much about that church because a big earthquake destroyed much of the area.  Regardless, the author had never been there, but is writing to talk to them about Christian teaching and living.

1 Thessalonians: May be the earliest letter, from the early 40’s CE!  It is Pauline, and is one of the oldest writings that we have of the early church.

2 Thessalonians: Probably not written by Paul, this letter writes again to the church at Thessalonica.  It may have been written by Timothy or Silvanus (Paul’s compatriots), but probably not by Paul.  It’s a letter of encouragement for the church.

1 Timothy: It may have been Paul’s letter…or maybe not, and is relatively late for the letters (80 or 90 CE).  Paul was already dead by then.  It’s obvious the author respected Paul…as he went on to write 2 Timothy and Titus…but it was probably not Paul.  Remember, just because it says it’s from Paul doesn’t mean it actually is.  This didn’t cause the ancient church much trouble, and they knew about it…you don’t need to be troubled by it, either.

2 Timothy: Read above.

Titus: Same dude who wrote the letters to Timothy, this letter goes to Titus (a fun name, right?) on the island of Crete and includes general instructions for the early church.

Philemon: I love this little book!  It’s probably from Paul and written while he was in jail about his friend Onesimus who had a falling out with the church of Colossae that met in this man Philemon’s house.  It’s a book about reconciliation and love.

Other Letters

Hebrews: This book is an odd duck in the New Testament.  It’s written in elegant Greek (much more elegant than even Paul’s writing), and probably is from the 70’s CE.  Hebrews is all about interpreting the Older Testament for the current times, and holds up the cross as central to understanding God’s work in the world.

James: Martin Luther hated this book.  It may have been written as late as 130-140 CE, this letter is dedicated to James the leader of the Jerusalem church, and speaks heavily of right action (rather than right belief…which is why Luther disliked it so much).

1 Peter: Not written by the apostle Peter, but probably dedicated to him.  It was also not written to one specific church, but most likely to any/all churches of the time.  It’s focus is on new life and living hope through Jesus the Christ.

2 Peter: See above.  Same sort of deal except the author now seems to feel his death coming soon.  All sorts of talk about “false prophets” and “false teachers” which has often sent literalists smelling false prophets under every rock…

1, 2, 3 John: We don’t know who wrote these books (may be referred to as “the elder” spoken of in 2 John), but we think that all three of these John books are written from the perspective of a faith community that relied heavily on the Gospel of John.  Time period is unclear, though certainly after the composition of the Gospel of John (90’s)

Jude: We don’t know who wrote this or who they were aiming to write this letter to, but we think it was written in the late first century.  Again, “false teaching” is a major theme in this book (like 2 Peter).  You can imagine that would be a central theme because these Christian communities were so scattered that different traditions and ideas popped up in different places.

Revelation: This book almost didn’t make the canonization cut!  It’s not written by the John who wrote the gospel, nor the John who was the apostle.  It is a type of writing known as “apocalyptic,” which means it uses stark imagery to talk about modern themes.  That’s right, it’s not about the future or the “end times.”  It was about the current times of this John writing at the end of the 1st Century (or maybe even later).  It does not, repeat, does not tell the future.  But it sure does say a lot about Roman imperialism and the Christian call to fight against bowing down to nations rather than to God.

So, there you have it.  For all of you in the Bible course, we’re going to be talking about the history of the Bible this Sunday: how it’s been read over the centuries, by who, and for what.  It’s a much sexier topic than canonization, I think…

Lonely footnote:

*Taken from “Animate: Bible” (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2013)

Please remember: these dates and much of the descriptions were gleaned from a number of sources over the years (from my brain), but chiefly from The Lutheran Study Bible which is a great resource.