Sunday, December 18, 2005

Testament: a few remarks, mostly preliminary

I’ve recently finished reading Testament: The Bible Odyssey, a 632-page narrative taken from the text of the Revised English Bible, compiled and edited by Philip Law (not to be confused with the more famous John Philip Law, who played the angel in Barbarella), with the help of a half-dozen consultant editors.

Testament is touted as the Bible with the boring bits left out. The begats are reduced to a minimum, and we miss out on the list of construction workers for Solomon’s temple, etc etc. There was also a bit of shifting and sorting and rearranging to make the narrative run smoothly. The usual chapters and verses are dispensed with, which was often a problem, but I followed a lot of it in the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible (an annotation of the KJV), which provided me with lots of much-needed light relief, as well as being an invaluable resource for the Bible’s inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies, absurdities and barbarities.

All in all, I think Law’s project was a successful one. The only bits I found boring were some of the propaganda speeches of Paul, and the silly apocalyptic stuff at the end, but I realise that these bits needed to be included.

Now, before going any further, I should state my general position on religion. I’ve done this before, in expanded form, elsewhere, so for now I’ll just restate things baldly.

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

Jacques Monod

This sentence pretty well sums up what I’ve written before about the psychology underlying religious inventions. As to whether these inventions or creations are heroic, I’ve had my doubts, but I’ve certainly been impressed with their apparently unstoppable force. The primary purpose of religion is to transcend the limitations of mortality and the laws of nature. As such, it’s a creation forged by an alliance of human fear and human egoism. This alliance predates by a long way the advent of science, and it may well outlast any scientific worldview.

Now that’s about as lofty as I intend to get, I hope. I don’t want to write a review of Testament as such, I simply want to let my thoughts wander through some of the large and small questions raised by my reading. Nor do I want to get into the micro-detail of biblical exegesis, if I can help it. That’s a field usually reserved for committed believers, and they’re welcome to it.

Having said that, I’m happy to respond to commentators on a previous post. Saint usefully provides a comparison of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions of the Simon of Cyrene story. From this it’s clear that Testament has selected Luke’s version, but there’s no real contradiction between the three versions. Both Matthew and Luke claim that the cross was carried by Simon from the outset (‘as they were going out’ and ‘as they led him away’, respectively, in the New International Version). Mark is less specific.

Rachel has pointed out a difference between the synoptic gospels and John on the cross-carrying story. Being something of a novice in matters biblical I had to find out what the term synoptic gospels meant. There’s a useful brief account here.

John’s account is certainly quite different, but is it really a clarification of the synoptics? It reads to me more like a contradiction. Rachel wrote: Perhaps John wanted to clarify that Jesus did carry the cross for at least part of the way, and that's why he prefaced his statement with "carrying his own cross". Certainly tradition favours an account where both Simon and Jesus carried the cross.

I accept that John’s clear statement about Jesus carrying his own cross is sufficient to justify the depictions of artists and film-makers (to whom I humbly apologise), and I can understand a tradition emerging which blends the different versions and has both Simon and Jesus doing the lugging at different times or together, but what these different stories underline for me is the difficulty if not the impossibility of arriving at the truth (assuming the literal truth to be of some importance). It’s likely that the synoptic gospellers versions are all derived from the one source. Maybe this source is correct, maybe John is correct, and maybe neither of them is correct.

On the dating of the gospels, recent scholarship suggests that Matthew, traditionally regarded as the earliest gospel, was actually written toward the end of the first century. Mark is now widely regarded as the earliest gospel, written between 60 and 70AD, and a major source for the others. Luke was written about ten years later, while John was the last. According to Bartleby, scholars generally agree on a date between 95 and 115AD. There’s no evidence that any of them witnessed Jesus’ death. A ‘primitive document’, Q, from which much of what’s common to the synoptic gospels is derived, has been posited, but there’s no substantive evidence for it.

On the matter of who was responsible for Jesus’ death, it’s a bit of a non-issue for me. Believers will have it that his death was fore-ordained, the Jews or Romans being mere instruments, while non-believers can hardly be expected to get excited about the local politics behind just another barbarous crucifixion in a barbarous era.

Next, I want to focus on the old testament and the origins of the most influential religion in the West.

I welcome any comments and will try to respond to them.



At 9:07 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Even though you did not read the Bible you probably read more of it than many Christians manage in a lifetime!

On the gospels...yes John is different as they all are - even the synoptics. The important thing to remember is that they are not strict chronological accounts. Each of the four authors selected their material and edited and arranged them to suit their intended audience and purpose. Having said that, John's gospel, while more 'theological' in emphasis is probably the most chronologically arranged and does give the view of a three year public ministry while Mark say, gives a different impression.

The Skeptics Annotated Bible is a bit of a joke IMHO.

There are a number of bibliobloggers -mostly men, few women - who are academics pr undertaking PhDs in the field of 'Biblical studies' or related fields who post interesting stuff from time to time (some just post personal blog stuff). Mostly UK (big Sheffield Uni camp online) and US, couple of Aussies. Not necessarily believers (some are) much less believers in the historicity of the biblical accounts. A few with specialities in the gospels/historical Jesus research. Including the fairly prolific Ben Witherington, a few Greek and Hebrew scholars etc. A couple of them are setting up a clearing house site here

BibleDudes has a fun intro to Biblical Studies- yep the two guys behind this site are professors.

Look forward to your reflections on the OT.

-- saint

At 11:10 am , Blogger Stewart said...

Thanks for the very useful links, especially the clearing house site, which opens up lots of avenues.

The Skeptics Annotated is certainly a joke, but I quite like jokes. I also happen to think that Christianity’s a joke, only far less funny. I prefer to describe myself as a skeptic, if only to dodge the boring atheist/agnostic distinction/argument. I think you might be surprised at the depth of my disdain for the religious turn – though no doubt some religions are more worthy of disdain than others. My heroes have generally been the skeptics – Socrates (without the twist of Plato), Hume, Diderot, Schopenhauer among others.

At 6:13 pm , Blogger stephen clark said...

This is a good thing to have done. I am a priest and I constantly encourage people to read the bible.
But from my point of view there is mnore opportunity here since we Christians believe that intersecting with God's story through this book is an ooprtunity to be cauight up in the story ourselves.
This may mean that it is worth taking it slow as well as fast.
Which is a great Christian tradition. To just pay attention to its smallness as well as its bigness.
The message of Christmas really.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

pavlov's cat