Recently I was invited to a writing circle by a friend of mine; at one point I found myself recounting some of my experiences from theological college and how very human and imprecise the writing of the gospels had been. In one course on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the professor had walked into the class and made the following statement. “Today we are going to consider the “synoptic problem. I am sure some of you here believe that these are the literal word of God. Today you will come up against a dilemma: either you are incorrect or God made a lot of mistakes.” Our studies demonstrated that there is a lot of disagreement between the authors that comes as a result of their own predispositions. For example Matthew was a Greek speaking Jew; it was very important for him to connect Jesus to the Messiah predicted in the Torah; this led to some almost comical errors with profound long lasting impact over the next two thousand years. Matthew did not read the Torah in Hebrew but in Greek and in the Greek version known as the Septuagint, Isaiah prophesies that the Messiah will be born of a virgin so Matthew claims that Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary. However the Hebrew version actually says the Messiah will be born of a young woman, so perhaps the virgin birth comes to us as result of a translation error.
After sharing this story I received a lovely e-mail from one of the group, “I cannot tell you how much you inspired me to re-review the gospels just with your comments.” and asking me to recommend some reading. “I want to come back to the Bible but I gain from the stories when I tap in to passages as metaphor.” I wonder how many people like the pair of us have been put off by the literalism of so many commentators. In fact my studies had helped me find personal meaning in Christianity once again. There is nothing like theological college to reveal the transparent flaws of the original writers. Matthew even has Jesus riding on two animals at the same time (a colt and an ass) when he entered Jerusalem because he was trying so hard to conform to a passage in the Torah but he failed to realize the original was for dramatic effect. I recommended to my friend Elaine Pagels book Beyond Belief, which takes a look at early Christianity and how many of the early factions developed different beliefs. The early church was a bit like Christianity today, everyone developing their own unique slant on Jesus teachings, however because there was fear that a fragmented church could not survive, there was great pressure to introduce conformity and exorcise teachings that were considered inappropriate. But who should decide? There was a great deal of lobbying by two distinct groups and in some ways they were similar to the fundamentalists and the new age Christians of today. One group who would seem to be represented to some degree by the teachings of John positioned Jesus as the unique and only Son of God. Another group led by Thomas believed that each of us contain the divine and should trust our own discernment for truth.
Well John won out and his gospel clearly tries to put down Thomas, (the story of doubting Thomas is only found in John.) Once I could see that John’s writing is very specifically focused on his agenda then I could begin to ignore his more polemic statements and enjoy the beauty elsewhere. Thomas’s gospel was eventually banned and found only in 1945 at Nag Hammadi after being hidden for likely sixteen hundred years.
As a teenager I had rejected all of Christianity because so much of it seemed irrational, often blood thirsty and offensive. Once I was able to put aside that which represented the baser positions of the authors, I could relearn to love the teachings themselves.
Note: I would highly recommend Elaine Pagels book to anyone who is interested in understanding how the orthodoxy of Christianity evolved.