Beyond Mere Christianity


  • bookcover

  • Beyond Mere Christianity






  • Eight:

    Context

     

    ‘My
    Lord! Relieve my mind, and make my task easy for me, and untie my tongue, that
    they may understand what I say.’
    (Qur’an 20:25-28)

    ‘You have not,’ it may be
    objected, ‘given us the context
    of all these sayings. You have only quoted very short passages of scripture.
    You are deliberately omitting key portions of the Gospel message in order to
    mislead people.’

    This is another common reaction from Christians
    to the points I have raised here.

    In fact, it may be the most common
    justification for turning away from the approach discussed in this book. The
    argument is that one Gospel verse is simply not complete without connection to,
    or comparison with, another Gospel verse.

    It is extremely important for us to understand,
    then, that this argument arises from a deeply flawed understanding of the way
    the Gospels were written.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    The best (non-Muslim!) Biblical scholars in the world now
    agree: Before there was a story of Jesus,
    there were Gospels.

    The best
    (non-Muslim!) Biblical scholars in the world now agree that the individual Gospel
    sayings I am citing here must stand, and be interpreted, independently.

    The original sayings of Jesus were not
    ‘hard-wired’ to other verses, as we may have been taught, and they are
    certainly not ‘hard-wired’ to the later writings of the Apostle Paul.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    It is not
    necessary for you to take my word on the matter to resolve this extremely
    important issue for yourself.

    We are talking
    about a central finding of modern New Testament research. We are talking about
    a finding that is quite clear for anyone willing to take a moment appeal to the
    scholarship … and not even recent scholarship, but the scholarship of six or
    seven decades ago. We are talking, at this point, not about whether Islam
    agrees with Christianity, but about the objective facts of contemporary textual
    analysis of the Gospels.

    Here is the proof.

    • ‘It is one
      of the points made by recent criticism that the characteristic method of
      Gospel compilation was just this artless collocation of originally
      independent units, and that the more effort after continuity there is, the
      more advanced is the stage of development from the original tradition.’
      A New Gospel,’ C.H. Dodd, Bulletin of the John
      Rylands Library
      (1936), reprinted in New Testament Studies,
      (Scribners, New York, 1956), p. 12-52.

    The more
    comprehensible the narrative is
    the further removed the Gospel passage in
    question is from the original tradition, from the ‘originally independent’
    units. The more artful the narrative is, the less authentic a given account is likely to be.

    So if someone
    insists that we must ‘interpret’ (for instance) Jesus’ description of the
    requirements of salvation in Matthew 5:25-26 by first reminding ourselves that
    such a verse cannot be ‘understood properly’ without recourse to some other
    Gospel verse or story …

    … that person isfrom the viewpoint
    of modern scholarship
    simply mistaken.

    Actually, we must begin by asking ourselves
    what such a passage means when viewed as
    a single unit.
    We cannot assume that it was originally composed as part of some larger narrative whole. It was
    not.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    To make this point in public is to be considered, in some
    quarters, a ‘bad Christian’.

    Yet is it really ‘good Christianity’ to ignore
    the painstaking Biblical scholarship of the past century? Surely one does not
    become a ‘better’ Christian by obediently closing one’s eyes to facts when ordered
    to do so.

    We now know that we draw closer to the historical Jesus when we evaluate
    ancient Gospel sayings independently, without the benefit of narrative
    continuity … because that is how they were originally collected.
    Rather
    than pretend this important fact does not exist, we must use this fact to gain a greater understanding of the original
    Gospel message.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Whether it is popular for us to say so or
    not, whether our priest or pastor wants to admit it in front of the
    congregation or not, whether raising the fact is convenient to our loved ones
    or not, the very first Gospels were collections of Jesus’ sayings. They were
    not stories.

    These early
    Gospels largely avoided storytelling.
    They simply reported what Jesus said at various points during his ministry.
    Early believers remembered individual sayings of or brief exchanges with Jesus,
    and shared them with each other in conversation, then memorized them. This oral
    tradition eventually became a written tradition.

    As thoughtful Christians, we should, of
    course, be interested in what Jesus actually said. I hope you will agree that
    if someone claims to be a Christian, but is not
    interested in what Jesus said, that is a very strange variety of Christianity
    indeed!

    And so we should be interested in
    determining which sayings were in fact
    contained in those earliest Gospels.

    Ó

    Ó Ó

    The creation of the later Gospelsincluding Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnwas
    not, as we may have been taught, a matter of someone ‘starting from scratch’ or
    writing under the spontaneous ‘inspiration’ of God. Rather, these traditional
    Gospels came about through the careful drawing together and amplifying of
    various existing traditions. The individual sayings were gathered into
    discourses, and, eventually, surrounded by narrative material
    by
    a story.

    This means that, when we consider the
    authenticity of the various Gospel sayings in Q, the smallest possible unit of the text is often the most important. The
    ‘explanatory’ or ‘story’ material that may surround that small unit of text,
    when it shows up in the traditional Gospels we have today, is, by definition,
    somewhat suspicious. Why? Because all
    the narrative material within the Gospels is, by definition, of later origin
    than the brief sayings that were memorized and transmitted orally by the first
    believers.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Even if it is difficult to do, we must
    learn to look past the ‘story’ of the
    Gospels, and focus intently on the individual sayings themselves, if we wish to
    understand Jesus’ actual mission.

    We have,
    however, been taught by religious authorities for most of our lives to accept the narrative material that
    surrounds a Gospel saying as undisputable truth, or even as historical reality.
    If a certain passage says that Jesus said such and such in order to explain
    thus and so, then that (we have been taught) is how it must have taken place.
    But if God gave us the Gospels, as He did, He also gave us minds
    and
    we should hold as self-evident that He wants us to use both of them.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Once we look past the narratives, we may
    focus directly on what remains of the memorized versions of the early
    individual sayings of Jesus. Refusing to do this is not a sign of faith, but
    rather a sign of obedience, and the two are not identical.

    Fortunately,
    the earliest versions of these sayings appear to have been preserved for us in
    Q. How accurately they have been preserved, we will never know. But they are
    there. And they are earlier than what surrounds them.

    That is why I have only quoted very short
    Gospel passages in this book, and avoided cross-referencing them to other
    Gospel passages.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    At this point, I often hear the following: ‘What you say
    about the scholarship and the textual development of the Gospels seems
    interesting. But still somehow, I cannot escape the feeling that the texts in
    questions have been manhandled.’

    And this is true. They do appear to have been manhandled. But
    it is not modern scholars who have been doing the manhandling.

    To explain what
    I mean, I must give you some background information … and apologize in advance
    to you. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity in my life to
    study the world’s religions fairly closely. Some historical patterns in the
    development of religious culture are impossible to ignore, and I am about to
    share a few of them with you now
    but I want to say
    ahead of my time that it is not my intention to denigrate anyone’s faith or to
    attack any person’s conception of God. My intent is only to call attention to
    the simple facts of history, facts that may be confirmed by consulting any good
    encyclopedia or responsible textbook on comparative religion. If we study these
    facts, we may be able to come to some conclusions about how the real
    manhandling of the message of Jesus took place.

    Consider that …

    ·        Many
    faith movements from before Christianity
    promoted the idea that the suffering and death of someone else makes
    salvation possible.

    ·        Long before Jesus, the god Attis, in Phrygia (contemporary
    Turkey) was regarded as the only begotten son of God and the savior of mankind.
    On March 24th of each year, he supposedly bled to death at the foot of a pine
    tree. His blood was believed to bring forth new life from the earth. Each spring, his worshippers celebrated his
    triumphant rising from the dead.

    ·        Long before Jesus, the god Abonis of Syria was
    regarded by his followers as having died
    to attain redemption for all mankind. Each spring, his worshippers celebrated
    his triumphant rising from the dead.

    • Long before Jesus, followers of the
      Egyptian god Osiris celebrated,
      each spring, his triumphant rising from the dead.
      They also
      celebrated his birthday
      on December 29th.

    ·        Long before Jesus, the Greek
    demigod Dionysius
    was regarded as the son of Zeus. His followers
    celebrated his triumphant rising
    from the dead at the spring equinox. His Roman incarnation, Bacchus, had a
    familiar birthday: December 25th.

    ·        Long before Jesus, followers of Mithra, the
    Persian sun-god, celebrated his birthday
    on December 25th. Their religious rituals included a Eucharistic supper at which believers participated
    in Mithra’s divine nature by means
    of a holy meal of bread and wine.

     

    C.S. Lewis makes (understandably) brief reference
    to these traditions in Mere Christianity.
    He does so as part of a sweeping historical survey of human religious experience.
    Rather than offer his readers the specifics of these faith systems
    specifics
    that I have just shared with you
    Lewis tells us that
    these movements were precursor faiths to Christianity: rough drafts, if you
    will, of humanity’s eventual attempt to bring itself closer to the
    (as-yet-unborn) Jesus Christ.

    This is either
    supreme intellectual laziness or deliberate deception. And Lewis’s was not a
    lazy mind.

    So let us
    acknowledge the facts. The pagan
    constituencies played a major role not only in the development of the Gospels,
    but also in the later theological doctrines, rituals, and sensibilities of the
    Christian Church. These influences betrayed the original message of Jesus.

    The influences
    of those pagan groups, fortunately, appear to be entirely absent from the early Gospel passages we find in Q. And
    that is why I pay such close attention to them, and to the rigorously monotheistic
    pattern of worship they outline
    and why I believe you
    should, too.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    We have been looking at the ‘context’
    supplied by human religious history before
    Jesus. Religious history after Jesus’
    ministry, however, is just as revealing. This, too, is a source of ‘context’.
    Of particular importance is this fact:

    The doctrine of the Trinity was formally imposed upon Christianity over
    three centuries after the birth of Jesus, by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

    At the Council
    of Nicea in 325 came the first formal approval of the doctrine that God was
    ‘triune’ in nature, a move that paved the way for the ruthless persecution of
    those who rejected this doctrine. The Council was summoned by the Emperor, and
    not by any religious figure within the Christian community, a fact that sheds
    some insight on the political importance of this event.

    Constantine did not invent the Trinity,
    but he had some distinctly earthbound reasons for backing the three-in-one
    formulation, chief among them unity in his kingdom. As one resource puts it:

    ‘As it exists today the doctrine (of the Trinity) developed over the
    centuries as a result of many controversies
    … These controversies were
    for most purposes settled at the Ecumenical
    Councils, whose creeds affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Constantine the
    Great, (who called) the first council in 325 AD, arguably had political motives
    for settling the issue, rather than religious reasons.’

    [Source: Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org)]

    Those groups
    who dared to disagree with the emperor’s formulation were quickly labeled
    heretics and, eventually, exiled or eradicated.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    What kind of man was this Constantine,
    this ruler who played such a fateful role in the global development of
    Christianity? I am afraid the image he presents in history is not a
    particularly flattering one … if we are willing to look beyond the careful
    euphemisms of his traditional biographers.

    Constantine was
    a genocidal tyrant who used violence on the large and small scale to pursue his
    (sometimes mysterious) objectives. He murdered his own son and wife for reasons
    no one has been able to piece together; he slaughtered literally thousands of
    political opponents; he was known to be an enthusiastic fire worshipper. And he
    was baptized as a Christian only on his deathbed. And yet, regardless of how
    deeply his own personal commitment to the faith went (or didn’t), this
    ruthless, pragmatic, and possibly sociopathic head of state was, after Christ
    himself and the Apostle Paul, probably the most influential man in the history of
    the faith.

    This fact is
    worthy of close consideration by every follower of Jesus.

    The case can be made, in fact, that Constantine outranks both Jesus and
    Paul in influence. It is Constantine’s Nicene formulation of the Trinity that
    has governed, in a determining way, most Christian theology for the past seventeen
    centuries. Many people today act as though this historical reality is as
    natural an outgrowth of the mission of Jesus as the rain falling and the grass
    growing. It is not.

    Anyone who
    maintains that the Gospels themselves support Constantine’s brand of orthodoxy
    must confront an awkward question: How are we to account for the fact that no
    one preached the Nicene formulation before the time of Constantine?

    No responsible
    historian of Christianity disputes the stark and enduring changes in Christian
    theology that took place in the centuries following Jesus.

    These changes
    did not spring from thin air. Rather, they culminated in Constantine’s council.
    They carried distinct political benefits for the Emperor‘s regime. And they are
    simply impossible for a modern, thoughtful Christian to come to terms with
    without accepting at least the possibility of apostasy
    that is, formal betrayal of the theology Jesus
    himself followed, the theology of total submission to the One Creator God.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    The remarkable thing is that so
    much of that original theology is still evident in the earliest Gospel verses.
    Look at the teachings we find in Q ... and ask yourself how closely they match
    the ‘context’ of Constantine.

    In Q, Jesus
    warns us to fear only the judgment of a single God:

    ‘And
    I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after
    that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear:
    Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say
    unto you, Fear him.’
    (Luke 12:4-5)

    This is
    identical to the Islamic principle known as Taqwa. Compare:

    ‘To Him belongs
    all that is in the heavens and the earth. God’s retribution is severe. Should
    you then have fear of anyone other than God?’ (Qur’an
    16:52)

    In Q, Jesus
    warns humanity plainly that earthly advantages and pleasures should not be the
    goal of our lives:

    ‘But
    woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you
    that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall
    mourn and weep.’
    (Luke 6:24-5)

    This is
    identical to Islam’s warning that we must not be fooled by the allures of Dunya,
    or earthly life. Compare:

    ‘The desire to
    have increase of worldly gains has preoccupied you so much (that you have neglected the obligation of remembering God)
    until you come to your graves! You shall know. You
    shall certainly know (about the consequences of your deeds). You will certainly
    have the knowledge of your deeds beyond all doubt. You will be shown hell, and
    you will see it with your own eyes. Then, on that day, you shall be questioned
    about the bounties (of God).’ (Qur’an
    102:1-8)

    Perhaps just as
    revealing, Q teaches nothing whatsoever of the Crucifixion, or of the
    sacrificial nature of the mission of Jesus ... an intriguing omission indeed!

    And consider
    the following chilling words:

    ‘And
    I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down
    with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But those who
    believe they own the kingdom of heaven shall be cast out into the outer
    darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
    (Matthew 8:11-12)

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    There is context … and there is betrayal. Each of us must decide
    for ourselves which is which.

    Those of us who are unwilling to accept
    the pagan remnants of Constantine as the permanent foundation of our religious
    faith may, as our detractors claim, not be ‘real Christians’.

    Then again … one never knows. We may be.

     

    The more I looked at the Q
    sayings, the more
    impossible it became for me to reconcile the notion
    of the Trinity with that which seemed most authentic
    to me in the Gospels. I found myself face-to-face
    with some very difficult questions:

    ·        Where in the Gospels did Jesus use the word
    ‘Trinity’?

    ·       If Jesus was God, as the doctrine of the Trinity claims, why did he
    worship God?

    ·   If Jesus was God, as the doctrine of the Trinity claims, to whom
    was he praying, and why?

    The more I tried to ignore these questions,
    the more they haunted me.

    In November of 2002,
    I began to read a translation of the Qur’an.
    I had never read an English translation of the entire
    text of the Qur’an before. I had only read summaries
    of the Qur’an written by non-Muslims.
    (And very misleading summaries at that.)

    Words do not adequately describe the
    extraordinary effect that this book had on me.
    Suffice to say that the very same magnetism
    that had drawn me to the Gospels
    at the age of eleven was present in a new and
    deeply imperative form. This book was telling me,
    just as I could tell Jesus had been telling me,
    about matters of ultimate concern.

    The Qur’an was offering authoritative guidance and
    compelling responses to the questions I had been asking
    for years about the Gospels.

    The Qur’an drew me to its message
    because it powerfully and relentlessly confirmed
    the sayings of Jesus that I felt in my heart had to be
    authentic. I knew as a fact that something
    had been changed in the Gospels.
    I knew too that that something had been left
    intact in the text of the Qur’an.

     

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