Saturday, March 15, 2008

How many books belong in the bible?

I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

I had this discussion recently on an atheist blog. It started out with a commenter, a guy with a one-song repertoire. All over the relevant subblogosphere he is very proud to drop this nugget:

Is it wrong to goad the local Christian fundamentalists into proving that they are really believers via Jesus' litmus test: Drinking deadly poison and surviving (Mark 16:18)?
Now on at least two other occasions I have pointed out to him that many people believe that the so-called Marcan Appendix (Mark 16:9-20) from which he is taking his slam-dunk criticism is likely a redaction.

The responses were predictable, and along the lines of how convenient that such an inconvenient passage turns out to be an addition. The implication being that it is just as good as any other scripture, and we have no basis for excluding it. It does not matter that a great deal of legitimate scholarship has gone into justifying the suspicion on the basis of the facts that the passage bears no connection to what precedes it, contains more unique vocabulary that one would expect from statistics, uses a different style, and, most importantly, isn't found in the earliest extant manuscripts. According to this logic, Christians never noticed that the passage implies that believers can drink poison with no ill effects—not until millennia later when someone was finally born clever enough to call upon us to demonstrate our faith by drinking Draino and so we slink away muttering “redaction.”

To this I pointed out that there are a few other likely redactions in scripture, including the potential proof text for the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8 (in the KJV). Also, the beloved story of the women caught in adultery in John 8. These passages, which we could certainly use to our advantage, have been identified as suspect. Why? Well according to the logic I recently encountered on the atheist site, the only possible reason that I can see is that we are Machiavellian enough to sacrifice some “good” passages so that we have credibility when we boot unfortunate text, such as the Marcan Appendix.

Not to mention:

And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." (Acts 8:37, NASB)
This passage is left out of some translations, because, again, it is absent from the earliest manuscripts. I commented, sarcastically, that

So you can see why we are embarrassed and arbitrarily leave it out, and without merit attribute its absence to some unnamed scholars,--it is so damaging to Christian theology and it leaves us at the mercy of our critics. We just had to dump it, before [people] used it against us.

The argument shifted to a general consensus that it was absurd to claim that scripture was inerrant, and simultaneously claim that bibles contain errors. I suppose I can see from the viewpoint of an atheist it appears that we want to have our cake and eat it too. But the truth is that there is trivially no contradiction here. The chain of events is manifestly logical:

1) The original manuscripts as penned by the apostles (or their secretary, as you will, e.g. Luke for Paul or Mark for Peter) are assumed to be inspired.

2) Others (such as Clement) wrote perfectly fine books that can be used for our advantage, but as they lacked apostolic authority they cannot lay claim to inspiration.

3) These books have been fallibly transcribed and fallibly translated.

4) Misguided scribes have had opportunity to make redactions.

5) Men, having to decide which of these books should be in the canon, could not agree on some of them. The Catholic Church argues that they were infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit. Protestants, who profess Sola Scriptura, have no basis other than hope/faith to assert that no mistakes were made.

Point 5 opens up a whole new can of worms, one which I’ve discussed here, and one which not only left the atheists feeling as if they were firing at a moving target, but one which not all Protestants have considered. That is:

The table of contents of your bible was not inspired.

You may believe, as a Protestant, that the 27 books of the New Testament are exactly the 27 books that belong there, but you have to admit that for at least that one little instance you are abandoning the reformers cry of Sola Scriptura and adopting the Catholic position of sacred tradition. You are arguing that the Holy Spirit guided the process of canon selection—which is not an outrageous thing to believe—but in doing so you are making exactly the same argument that the Catholic church makes for, say, her Marion doctrines.

Apart from adopting a form of sacred tradition, you must say what may be hard to say: It is possible that there is an error not just in certain passages, but in the canon itself. It is possible that, say, Jude does not belong in the canon. Jude being one of the books about which there was debate—the entire list of debated books being Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation (they made it in) as well as 1 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache (they didn’t make it).

Personally of these books the one that would break my heart, should it be found to have been included in error, is Hebrews—but we must admit that Hebrews was admitted in spite of the fact that it does not really meet the requirement that it is indisputably of apostolic origin, or endorsed by an apostle. (Revelation—is this awful to say?—I could do without—I can’t really use a book that is impenetrable to any advantage.)

Now if, to continue picking on Jude, Jude does not belong in the canon, does that mean Jude is somehow a bad book? Absolutely not—it would just mean Jude is a useful commentary rather than inspired scripture.

And how bad would it be if all the books in question were admitted or omitted in error? It would be of no substantive consequence. The gospel message is accurately contained, presented, and preserved in the books for which there was no debate, those books whose apostolic seal of approval is certain.

My friends on the atheist blog, who argue mostly against crude fundamentalist caricatures, do not like this at all—somewhat counter intuitively.

I think the reason is this: the Catholic dogmatic position (that the canon was, infallibly, delivered to the Church) is reasonable—that is to say it is self consistent. What they would like is for the Protestant position to be inconsistent.

I see this all the time. Most commonly I see it this way: the atheists think the YECs are dumb as door nails. But they also argue that YECs are, at one and only one instance, exegetical savants. The one instance is Genesis One. Here they say that the in-all-other-instances mocked and ridiculed YECs have the only possible correct interpretation of Genesis. (And the often unspoken but always understood next point is that since science so soundly disproves that interpretation, the whole bible is therefore nonsense.) That is, they use the YECs as, in their minds, useful idiots to make it easy to dismiss the bible.

Same thing here, but slightly more subtle. They hated my arguments that the canon might be wrong. Why? Because from Sola Scriptura alone it is the only logical conclusion—and the last thing they want us to be is logical. They would rather hear irrational arguments, because that would fit their stereotype of conservative Protestants.

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