Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Testament Interpretation

My take on the New Testament is considerably different to that of many of my co-religionists. I like to think of the books in the New Testament as having a historical context. There were a number of texts in circulation in the early centuries of Christianity, and a committee of Bishops took on the task on deciding which of them to include in the official canon of the official Church and which to exclude. One of the principles used in deciding was "apostolic authority". If a text purported to come from an apostle, it carried more weight than anything written by someone of lesser status or later in time. Another principle was that the text had to jive with the views of the bishops and to support their authority.

The earliest texts, according to scholars, are the letters of Paul, considered an apostle by virtue of his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. There are fourteen such letters, and seven of them are considered pseudopauline and written by someone else altogether, in part because they are so inconsistent with the genuine articles. Paul probably wrote a lot more letters, but these did not survive. Paul was writing to particular churches about particular problems, and I doubt that it ever entered his mind that his letters would one day be taken as holy scripture. He'd have been a lot more careful about what he wrote if he thought he was drafting the Bible. I take Paul's letters, the real ones, as authoritative in the sense that they reflect the views of an important figure who knew Jesus and the other apostles. I don't consider them to have been dictated to Paul by God or to be infallible or inerrant.

I take the other letters by Peter et al in the same way, although I doubt that Peter was the author of the letters attributed to him.

The Gospels and Acts are dated later, John the latest of all. They don't agree in certain details, but I don't reckon that they are meant to be read as historical narratives. The themes and the sayings of Jesus are what matters. Whether Jesus ascended on Easter or 40 days later doesn't much matter. Whether he was born in Bethlehem and visited by the Magi is of no consequence. The Gospels certainly weren't dictated by God, and they should be read with an open mind and an open heart.

Revelations is of little use and probably does more harm than good by being included in the canon. The prophet was writing about his own times in a kind of apocalyptic code.

Ultimately, we each must listen to the Spirit and work hard to discern how to read and use the New Testament.

Sometimes, I wonder when preachers speak of the "Word of God" if they are not conflating the "Word", the Logos with the Bible. In what sense is the Bible God's Word? As far as I can tell, it's the word of human authors who were more or less inspired or discerning, and this does not make it any less important as a source of wisdom.

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