Monday, July 17, 2006

Misquoting Jesus, Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman gives us another gem, both for its ability to provide a readable introduction to some heavy duty scholarly stuff, as well as for his honesty in terms of his own growth process, coming from a fundamentalist background, taking the Bible as the literal word of God, to learning the fallibility of the processes which have given us what we think is the Bible. From being The Book, it becomes a book. An interesting book perhaps, but just a book.

Besides giving us a lively understanding of the trees, the micro issues of textual criticism, and thus helping any reader to demythologize the cult of the Bible in Western tradition, he also backs up to show us the forest and helps us to disaggregate the books and traditions of the Bible, so we can become more critical readers on the level of meaning and the coloration of certain books and authors within the Bible.

Christianity has always strived to interpret the Bible as a whole, and then ends up disagreeing about which whole, and splitting up in a thousand different sects over that. I will never forget two churches at the end of one particular dike in my native Holland which disagreed over exactly one word in one sentence. But feelings ran high over that one word, I assure you.

To students of the Course some understanding of these issues may be helpful to us, since it underlines some of the corrections provided in the Course, where Jesus in some cases out and out corrects the Bible, and in other cases suggest simply different ways of interpreting the Bible. Having an appreciation for the fallibility of the tradition based on textual criticism makes it easier to appreciate where he's coming from in this regard.

When Ehrman gets around to discussing the view from 30,000 feet of the books of the NT at the end of his book, he starts by sorting out the relationships of the four canonical gospels, and making clear their chronological order, as well as how much they are NOT saying the same things. The high point perhaps, which is a point that has escaped Christians for too long already is when he says:
The message of Paul is both like and unlike what we find in the Gospels (he doesn't say much about Jesus' words or deeds, for example, but focuses on what for Paul were the critical issues, that Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead). (Misquoting Jesus, p. 215.)

Coming from the standpoint of A Course In Miracles, it can be even more startling to realize the levels of distortion we are subjected to in the Biblical tradition, for translations are another layer of complication, and not only in the sense Ehrman identifies. It is very evident that the translations compounded the problems of understanding immeasurably, and this is evident even when you consult standard works like Bauer's Dictionary of NT Greek, for by treating NT Greek as a dialect and ignoring the time element within it, a homogeneity in usage is suggested which is not really there. One of the key examples of that is the word "metanoia," which in Jesus' usage is quite obviously what it means literally namely "change of mind," but in the usage of Paul it becomes more and more "repentance" and "conversion" as the focus shifts to a dialectic about Jesus, and  a belief in Jesus the Savior, and the Christian version of God, in a way which is a more rational process and a worldly confession of beliefs, not a following of Jesus in changing our mind like he was showing us to do in his life. To highlight this issue even more, the following passage from the Psychotherapy pamphlet, that belongs organically to ACIM as well, can be helpful:

Yet it is not the awareness of God that constitutes a reasonable goal for psychotherapy. 2 This will come when psychotherapy is complete, for where there is forgiveness truth must come. 3 It would be unfair indeed if belief in God were necessary to psychotherapeutic success. 4 Nor is belief in God a really meaningful concept, for God can be but known. 5 Belief implies that unbelief is possible, but knowledge of God has no true opposite. 6 Not to know God is to have no knowledge, and it is to this that all unforgiveness leads. 7 And without knowledge one can have only belief.
                                                                       (ACIM:P-2.II.4)

The ego's God, which is a projection is in need of belief, and so is Paul's reconstruction of Jesus. Thus the pervasive need to proselytize is merely part of the symptomology of another set of ego beliefs because they are not based on truth. After all, truth needs no defense, and is not dependent on anyone "accepting" it.
Pulling Jesus down into the ego-realm of belief/unbelief, is accomplished by focusing on the words, not the experience and the inner knowing of truth. The Course's answer to that issue is:

1. Strictly speaking, words play no part at all in healing. 2 The motivating factor is prayer, or asking. 3 What you ask for you receive. 4 But this refers to the prayer of the heart, not to the words you use in praying. 5 Sometimes the words and the prayer are contradictory; sometimes they agree. 6 It does not matter. 7 God does not understand words, for they were made by separated minds to keep them in the illusion of separation. 8 Words can be helpful, particularly for the beginner, in helping concentration and facilitating the exclusion, or at least the control, of extraneous thoughts. 9 Let us not forget, however, that words are but symbols of symbols. 10 They are thus twice removed from reality. (ACIM:M-21.1)

And in the final end ACIM makes it completely clear that it is the inner experience, and not the words and the book which matter, when it says: Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God. (ACIM:W-189.7:5)


Conversely then it should become clear to us by experience that even the choices of words in translating the NT, and in some cases even the conclusions in textual criticism might be very different if an understanding of Jesus' teachings were a prerequisite, rather than merely a degree in Greek. And thus for the Course student who was perhaps raised with Christian influences once they have a solid footing in the Course, they might decide to do some time what Jesus recommends in passing a few times, which is to read the Bible from the point of view of the Holy Spirit's thought system of love, insteady of from a stand point of the ego's fear, and a whole different picture emerges.

Copyright, © 2006 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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