Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…)

(This post was created for and first appeared on The Way Station blog)

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, are the familiar words of 2 Timothy 3:16, written, probably, by a sincere follower of Paul borrowing his name sometime during the first century. You may know it as “all scripture is inspired”, and you probably learned that the words were written down by Paul himself – and so they referred to themselves immediately, as this is part of what we now understand as “scripture”.

Passing swiftly over the issue of whether we should take this proof text for inerrancy seriously, given that on this understanding it is saying that it’s “theopneustos” itself, and most people would not take a claim of inerrancy seriously from someone who just declared that they were inerrant – even the Pope – the question has to arise as to what Paul (or pseudo-Paul) actually meant by both “theopneustos” and by “graphe”, the word we see translated as “Scripture”.

The thing is, in the context of the time, “graphe” didn’t have all the baggage attached to it which we attach to “scripture”, and which is what potentially scares us. Everyone using the word prior to 2 Timothy meant by “graphe” just “writings”. Paul definitely did have a concept of what was to be regarded as authoritative; he writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (my italics), which refers to Moses striking the rock to produce water in Exodus 17:1-7 at Meribah – but later on, in Numbers 20:7-12, he again strikes a rock to produce water, and the text says “These were the waters of Meribah”. And Hebrew commentators determined that the rock must have followed the Israelites through their journey through Sinai.

The proof-text for that interpretation is “Now He led His people out into the wilderness; for forty years He rained down for them bread from Heaven, and brought quail to them from the sea and brought a well of water to follow them. And it [the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountains with them, and went down into the plains” which is to be found in Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15 (and pseudo-Philo is quoting earlier Jewish tradition, probably the Tosefta, there). So Paul, the putative writer of 2 Timothy, was there treating as authoritative a text which does not appear in either the Jewish nor the Christian collections of sacred writing which we now regard as “scripture”.

Likewise, the writer of Jude references The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, better known as 2 Enoch – and no, you will not find that even in your Apocrypha, should you ever delve into those books which formed part of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures) but were not accepted as part of the Jewish Canon when that was finalised (somewhat later than was the Christian one) and which therefore were rejected by Luther and his followers and thus don’t appear in most Protestant Bibles.

There are also a host of documents, including gospels, letters, apocalypses and others, produced in the early years of Christianity which did not get incorporated into the Bible most of us know. Some of the “oriental” churches have one or more additional books, the most extensive being the Ethiopic church, but the Catholic and Protestant churches and most of the Orthodox have the same New Testament canon.  Most of them were excluded for good reason (generally, in the first case, because they were not popular enough among the mainline churches of the day), but all of them cast interesting light on what the Christians of their day actually believed, and echoes of some still persist in more modern times. Interestingly, if you are familiar with any of the cycles of mediaeval Mystery Plays, some of those do incorporate scenes which are more reminiscent of (for instance) the Infancy Gospels than the actual Biblical text (I was fortunate enough to play Annas in the Butchers Play in the 1998 production of the York Cycle).

A substantial number of those tend to be condemned as “Gnostic Gospels”, and as Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy at a fairly early stage, Christians tend to avoid them. Actually, they tend to live in fear of anything which might be considered “Gnostic” in a way which doesn’t seem to affect most other traditional heresies… Gnosticism is, it seems, big and scary!

Gnosticism is characterised by two main features; firstly it conveys a “secret meaning” which only initiates are taught, and secondly it regards the Old Testament God as not being the One True God, but an imposter – and I’ll come back to the second of those!). It also tends to an “emanationist” concept of creation, which is otherwise typical of Jewish arcane and mystical traditions, in which God’s creation comes down to us in stages via a set of realms until, eventually, it is the material world, which is seriously debased; the Old Testament God is one such subordinate emanation.

However, of course, the canonical Gospel of Mark regularly talks of keeping things secret (such as almost every miracle recorded there and much of the teachings), John has private discourses with the apostles and Paul talks of at least two levels of understanding in faith, so the mere concept of a “secret meaning” is not exactly foreign to mainstream Christianity either.

Among the “Gnostic Gospels” as usually put forward is the Gospel of Thomas, which is unique as being a “sayings gospel”, just recording sayings of Jesus. Frankly, it is not significantly more “Gnostic” than many of (say) Paul’s letters, but it was found initially among many other documents which did display Gnostic leanings. However, significant numbers of liberal Christian scholars regard it as potentially being a very early document indeed, and possibly pre-dating the four canonical gospels, at least in its original form. As perhaps a preponderance of scholarship tends to think that the canonical gospels rest on the foundation of a now lost “sayings gospel” (as well as an equally lost account of events, often referred to as “Q”), even if Thomas is not as early as some claim, it is a fascinating glimpse into what the origins of our current New Testament might have been.

It is also, for what it’s worth, the source of a couple of sayings which were responsible for me deciding that Christianity was worth investigating as a language of expression of relationship to God.

Many scholars have also decided that there are traditions in some of the less theologically mainstream non-canonical materials which actually date back far further; a recent vogue is for elements in the Gospel of Peter, and Robert Eisenman makes much of the epistles of Clement and of the Dead Sea Scrolls (notably the War Scroll) in his “James, the brother of Jesus” (I grant you very controversially).

Finally, I’d suggest that no-one contemplate forming a view of the many New Testament references to Atonement without reading 2 Maccabees (apocrypha) and 4 Maccabees (extra-canonical), which talk of the Maccabean martyrs as “atoning”.

You can therefore understand a great deal more about the New Testament and about the times it was set in by not being afraid of the documents some of which are accepted as scripture by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church but not by the Protestant churches (apocrypha), some of which are only accepted as such by more exotic Eastern churches and some of which plainly were accepted at one time or another by churches but which now aren’t.

But those are not the only scriptures which we seem to be afraid of, and part 2 will look at that…

2 Responses to “Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…)”

  1. revkindle Says:

    Chris, your examination of the texts which inform some of the New Testament comments raises some interesting questions: Did the NT writers who drew on these non-canonical books think they were “inspired’? And if so, why shouldn’t we? Perhaps, more to the point, why should we consider the NT books any more “inspired” than the works they drew upon? It’s time we leave behind the notion of God acting in any special way in the creation of the NT beyond people with a close relationship to God drawing on insights this provided. And these insights may be judged as relevant or not according to our own understanding of how God relates to us and the world, even as those who wrote the NT books did.

  2. Chris Says:

    Steve, apologies for not responding earlier.

    Obviously the author of 2 Timothy thought either that all the writings which he had in mind were “theopneustos” or that there was a particular category of “God-breathed” writings, and we don’t know which was the case. We have a tendency to jump straight from that to the assumption that what he meant was the canon of the Bible as we now know it, which to my mind is an unwarranted assumption. For one thing, that canon was a long way from being closed and fixed at that point.

    He could, perhaps, have meant “all writings” in the broadest sense possible, meaning “anything which is written down”. Now, I tend not to write anything substantial myself unless I am in some sense “inspired” to do so, but there are levels of inspiration at work there, from the spark which gets me writing about a subject after which the rest is the hard labour of marshalling thoughts and arguments in a comprehensible manner all the way up to the VERY occasional time when words seem to just come to me as if they emanate from another source. There are a lot of shades between those two, and I tend to be a lot closer to the first than to the second!

    A significant slice of Christianity thinks that “God-breathed” can only mean the second extreme which I describe above. The trouble is, even if the writers felt that they were doing something akin to “automatic writing” (a term used in spiritualism with which they would probably NOT want scripture linked), what comes out on the page has to be something which was in the brain of the writer, albeit possibly entirely subconsciously. “Ex nihilo nihil fit”; nothing comes out of nothing. This means that any inspiration has to be filtered through the available language, the available concept structures and the author’s preconceptions. I’d argue that if we accept some kind of inspiration is at work, there’s also evidence that the Biblical writers generally moderated what may have been the initial inspiration to something which their then audience might actually listen to – and indeed, if there were writings which didn’t contain material the audience would listen to, those are highly unlikely to have been passed around, copied and finally canonised.

    So whatever starts this process, there is at the least a filter within the author’s mind and a filter imposed by the then audience’s ability to “have ears and hear”. There’s also a filter imposed by OUR ability to have ears and hear, as we have our own constraints of language (there are some things which can be said in one language which cannot be said in another – witness, for instance, the tendency of English to steal words and phrases such as “noblesse oblige”, “savoir faire”, “laissez-faire” and “elan”), our own constraints of concept structures and our particular preconceptions (which might not be from universal concept structures in our societies). I’m agreeing with your suggestion that we need to judge insights as relevant or not according to our own understanding, in other words, but perhaps expanding on it.

    You say “It’s time we leave behind the notion of God acting in any special way in the creation of the NT beyond people with a close relationship to God drawing on insights this provided”, and in a sense I agree with that. However, the Bible is the normative text of Christianity (subject to some fairly slight variations), and as such it is inevitably going to have a special place in the understandings of people who identify as part of a Christian community. Perhaps God has not acted in any special way in the creation of the NT, but the Christian community most definitely has acted in a special way to select and preserve this particular collection of books rather than some other. Tradition is not something we can ignore (unless we are Luther), I would suggest!

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