In the 1980 film The Competition, starring Richard Dreyfus and Amy Irving, there is a scene that has always been a metaphor, for me, for how Christians come to know Jesus Christ. Sounds strange, I know, but bear with me a moment.
In the film, Richard Dreyfus plays a talented but not quite top pier pianist desperate to win a major competition so he can become a professional musician. He does everything right: Practices compulsively, really knows his stuff. Living with his parents, now well in his twenties, he travels all over the country to compete in regional and national competitions… and yet he never quite wins. At one competition, he meets a fellow competitor, played by Amy Irving, and they begin a romance that Irving’s stern teacher, played by Lee Remick, is determined to thwart.
“Ludwig Von Beethoven taught Carl Czerny,” Lee Remick’s characters says slowly, lighting a cigarette. “Who taught Leschetizky… who taught Schnabel… who taught Renaldi… who taught me. And now the sixth pianist in a direct line from Beethoven is standing here staring at me in her Jordan Marsh mix-and-match.”
In other words: The music that Amy Irving plays is handed down in a kind of apostolic succession… from one generation to the next… a living tradition passed on, master to disciple, over centuries.
You can read all the biographies of Beethoven you like…you can study music theory to your heart’s content… and yet, if you stand outside of that direct teaching line, that “hands on” instruction, you probably won’t be able to play the piano as well as Amy Irving’s character does. You won’t really hear the music.
Well, learning Jesus, and discovering the truth of his kingdom, is a lot like learning music: you have to learn it in person, not just from books.
This isn’t a pitch, by the way, for the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox understanding of Apostolic Succession over and against the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture… although there is a tie-in.
Instead, I am simply making an historical and sociological point: that, as the saying goes, Jesus is more “caught than taught.”
For most of Christian history, the followers of Jesus learned his story, absorbed his teaching and committed their lives to his service not through academic study… not because they weighed the historical evidence for the resurrection and decided it was probable… but through a quasi-mystical encounter with Jesus’ outsized, cosmic personality in the communities of believers he left behind. They meditated on the events of his life, heard second-hand, depicted in medieval passion plays and modern rock operas, and decided to say a resounding Yes to his call to be part of his kingdom.
In the earliest age of Christianity, there was no Christian Bible to study. Even if there had been, few people could have read it. The overwhelming majority of people in the ancient world were illiterate.
People learned about Jesus through the preaching and teaching of Jesus’ early followers, almost always oral, and through the sacraments, rites and customs of the early Church, especially the “thanksgiving rite” celebrated every week (known in Greek as the eucharist). “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am.” After encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, his disciples realized that they had “recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”
When you think about it, that’s still true today.
Most people who are Christians today are Christians because they were born into Christian families, or because they encounter Christian disciple groups that intrigue them enough to learn more. They learn about Jesus Christ and discover his continuing presence in the world through personal testimony, the example of other people.
Indeed, most of what we know about Jesus and his teaching comes not from academic Bible study, as valuable as it is… but through preaching in churches… medieval passion plays… scenes depicted in stained glass windows or in bas-relief Stations of the Cross… Nativity pageants… and, in our time, televangelists… Vacation Bible School… Campus Crusade for Christ meetings… and films like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
With all due respect to the fine work of Christian apologists, I would argue that very few people convert to Christianity because they’ve studied textual variants in the Gospel of Luke and concluded that, on balance, we have the original text. Instead, they become Christians first… because they encounter the personality of Christ reflected in the lives of his modern-day followers and decide to say Yes to his call to be part of the Kingdom. Only later do they read the Bible in depth… and only later still, if ever, do they engage in an academic study of Biblical origins, sources, and textual variants.
“Jesus is most fully and consistently learned with the context of the believing community of the church…” writes Luke Timothy Johnson, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, in his wonderful book, Living Jesus. Johnson is a professional New Testament scholar who spends all his time in academic study of the Bible… yet, he insists, true knowledge of Jesus Christ does not come primarily through such study. For people who have “entered into the energy field that is Jesus’ continuing presence in the world,” that is, believing Christians, knowledge of Jesus comes from other sources than history.
In his book, Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar and scourge of conservative evangelical Christianity, Bart Ehrman, marvels that more Christians in the pews don’t know about the details about contemporary New Testament scholarship, textual criticism and so on. He suspects that it’s a conspiracy among ministers to keep their gullible congregations in the dark. But the real answer is: Ministers and preachers rarely expound on the latest theories of Bible scholars because they’re really not all that helpful…. or relevant to the lives of real people. What’s more, they change frequently and often conflict with one another.
Of course, I am not saying that academic Bible study is not worthwhile. I spent a large chunk of my life engaged in it… and many of my personal heroes are academics, like Bart Ehrman, who master the details of the historical-critical method in search of any new discoveries or insights about Jesus and his kingdom. I think most people could benefit from at least introductory classes on the Bible and the latest research and methods used by Bible scholars.
No, what I am saying is that academic Bible scholarship rarely if ever threatens Christian faith directly… because Christian faith is not based on historical reconstructions of what “really happened” when Jesus walked on earth.
If that were the case, the only true Christians would be Bible scholars and historians… and I don’t think most of them would say that.
This is the basic mistake that fundamentalism makes. It is, at root, a denial of faith as it is actually experienced in the Christian community… which is the experience of the Risen Christ through word and sacrament.
The doctrine of what’s called the verbal or “plenary” inerrancy of scripture leads, almost inevitably, to assertions that the historical truths embedded in the Gospel texts can be “proven” true – when, in fact, they cannot be. If they could be proven, then Christian faith would not be faith at all but history, scientific knowledge. At best, an historian or secular Bible scholar deals in probabilities, guestimates, hunches even. But faith in Jesus is not a judgment of probability: it’s a response to a call from a real human being.
The debate over Evolution, Creation and Adam and Eve is one of my least favorite topics. That’s because I’ve accepted the theory of evolution ever since fourth grade, when it was first explained to me in science class by a Dominican nun.
As a result, debating evolution feels a lot like debating the Pythagorean theorem: It’s something I studied 40 years ago… long ago accepted… but makes my head hurt even thinking about.
This is one of the many differences between Catholics and Protestants, I’ve found. Catholics rarely if ever think about evolution. For Protestants, it’s one of their favorite subjects, a principal “litmus test” for theological orthodoxy in many churches.
It took the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrmann nearly 20 years of rigorous graduate education before he could finally come to accept what I learned in fourth grade: that human beings have existed on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years… and their physical bodies likely developed out of more primitive animal forms.
When I was in high school, one of my Jesuit teachers showed me a copy of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis in which the pope explained that “the doctrine of evolution, insofar as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter” is not incompatible with Christian faith as revealed in the Biblical texts. Here is the key section (36):
For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.
The key point for Catholics, the pope explained, is that human beings are all descended from a real, historical, single human pair (called in Hebrew ha-adam and Hava, Adam and Eve), however they may be conceived.
Theologically, this belief is known as monogenism, the view that human beings are descended from a single couple.
Ironically enough, scientists in the 1950s were leaning toward another viewpoint, that of polygenism, the belief that the human race developed from many different independent groups. I have to admit, to my teenage mind, the theory of polygenism seemed much more plausible. After all, doesn’t it make more sense that there were many different groups of primates all over the world and humans “evolved” independently from those groups?
Nevertheless, I’ve never had any problem believing in both the Genesis account of creation and in various scientific theories of evolution. Neither of the twin fundamentalisms in this debate — that of some evangelical Protestants or that of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins — appealed to me.
Pope Pius XII’s explanation made more sense to me: The first 11 chapters of Genesis, the pope explained, do not conform “to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time” yet constitutes history in “a true sense.”
The inspired text, he added, “in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.”
Precisely: Genesis is …
(1) a “popular description of the origin of the human race,” using
(2) “simple and metaphorical language,” that nevertheless contains
(3) “principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation.”
The new atheist crusaders (such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) like to pretend that the concept of universal human rights just popped out of thin air in the 17th and 18th century, the creation of the agnostic and atheist thinkers of the French Enlightenment.
But the truth is precisely the opposite: The recognition of universal human rights is one of the preeminent legacies of the Bible and the two religions, Judaism and Christianity, centered around it.
We forget that the great English political philosopher John Locke – widely credited with working out the first systematic theory of natural (human) rights in modern times – based most of his arguments on Biblical precedents.
In his First Treatise on Civil Government, which is more Biblical exegesis than philosophy, Locke argued that human rights are not privileges dispensed or withdrawn at the discretion of the State. Rather, they are gifts from God which no prince or potentate, no state or sovereign, may take away.
Thomas Jefferson relied primarily upon Locke’s insights, and not those of French Enlightenment thinkers, when penning the Declaration of Independence — which, for the first time, proposed founding a state upon this fundamental, God-given, Biblically-based idea: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”
There is also some empirical evidence that respect for human rights grew out of the Biblical heritage when comparing the “freedom” rankings produced by the international democracy watchdog organization Freedom House – co-founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt — with the percentage of the population in each country ranked as Christian by the CIA. (The CIA designation refers more to “nominal” rather than “practicing” Christians but nevertheless is illuminating when it comes to the cultural context that produces civil liberties.)
Each year, Freedom House publishes its annual survey which attempts to measure the degree of democracy and freedom in every nation of the world, producing “scores” that represent the levels of political rights and civil liberties in each state and territory – from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free). Out of 194 countries and territories surveyed for 2006, 73 countries (38 percent) were rated Free, 54 (28 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 67 (34 percent) were rated Not Free. (This is a marked improvement over 1980 when only 23.9% of nations were rated Free… 24.8% were rated Partly Free… and 51.3% were Not Free.)
Among the countries ranked as the most free (1) and with the highest respect for civil liberties (1) are Australia (66% Christian), Austria (78.3%), the United States (79%), Canada (66%), Costa Rica (92%), Belgium (100%), Chile (100%), Denmark (98%), France (90%), Finland (86%), Germany (68%), Great Britain (71.6%), Ireland (93%), Iceland (93%), Norway (90.1%), Portugal (98%), Spain (94%), Switzerland (78.9%), Sweden (87%), Italy (90%) and New Zealand (79.5%).
These are not fixed absolutes, of course. There are exceptions.
Haiti, for example, is listed as 96% Christian by the CIA yet has among the very worst record for human rights and political freedoms. The same is true of Rwanda: Rated 93.6% Christian by the CIA, it scores a 6 out of 7 for political freedom and a 5 for civil liberties. Some Latin American countries, just emerging from years of civil war or military dictatorship, have higher Christian populations but somewhat restricted freedom. For example, El Salvador, which is 83% Roman Catholic, is rated “free” but only scores a 3 for civil liberties. Mexico, which is 95% Christian despite its historically anti-Christian government, is rated 2 for political freedom and civil liberties.
But at the opposite end of the spectrum, those countries with the smallest percentage of Christians are rated overwhelming “not free” by Freedom House and are among those with the worst ratings for civil liberties by far – but again, with a few interesting exceptions. Almost all of the Islamic countries have very small Christian populations and rank near the bottom when it comes to political freedom and civil rights – including Saudi Arabia (0% Christian and no political freedom), Sudan (5% Christian and no political freedom), Libya (3% Christian and no political freedom), Iran (1% Christian and no political freedom), and so on.
Current Communist regimes, such as China (4% Christian), Cambodia (0%), North Korea (0%), Laos (1.5%) and Vietnam (7.2%), also have very low Christian populations and virtually no freedom whatsoever.
Interestingly enough, although some of the former Communist states are still ranked as “not free” or “partly free,” including Russia (only 15% Christian) and Albania (30%); a number of former Communist countries with sizable Christian populations are now ranked near the top in terms of civil liberties and political liberty. Once these countries were freed of Soviet military domination, they quickly adopted laws protecting political liberty and basic human rights. These include Bulgaria (83.8% Christian), which scores in the top rank for political freedom and a 2 for civil liberties; Poland (91.2% Christian), which now scores 1 for both civil liberties and political freedom; Hungary (74% Christian), which now scores 1s as well; and Lithuania (85%), which now scores 1s; Romania (99%), which scores 2s;
There are also some countries that are neither Christian nor communist but which nevertheless score badly in terms of civil rights and political freedom, including Bhutan (0% Christian), rated 6 for civil liberties and 5 for political freedom; Nepal (0.2% Christian), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; the Maldives (0% Christian), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; Guinea (8%), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; and Malaysia (7%), which scores 4s.
Finally, there are a handful of countries with extremely low Christian populations but which nevertheless score high in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. These are Israel (2%), which scores 1 for both political freedom and civil liberties; Japan (0.7%), which also scores 1s; Taiwan (4%), which scores 1s; South Korea (26%), which scores 1s; and India (2.3%), which scores 2s.
Clearly, therefore, a sizable Christian population is not a requirement for civil liberty and political freedom, but you could still make the case that those non-Christian societies that have a solid record on human rights and political liberty benefited from prolonged contact with, and influence by, Christian nations.
Israel is a special case because respect for fundamental human rights and political freedom is a preeminently Jewish cultural legacy, one that is implicit in the Torah and which Israel bequeathed to Christianity. Japan, of course, had its western-style democratic government more or less imposed upon it by U.S. Occupation Forces following its defeat in the Second World War – but what was imposed by force has now taken root and grown into a distinctly Japanese style of liberal democracy. India, which was a colony of Great Britain’s for more than 175 years, and which today still prides itself on its membership in the Commonwealth and its record as preeminent cricket champions, is today a federal republic with a president, prime minister, a bicameral Parliament and a legal system based on English common law. While only 2.3% Christian, India has adopted many of the cultural values of liberal democracy and retains, like other members of the Commonwealth, remarkably strong ties to Britain.
In conclusion, therefore, we can say that the enemies of Christianity, Judaism and the Bible have it exactly backwards: Far from being a threat to liberal democracy and political freedom, the biblical heritage is, in fact, the intellectual matrix out of which both arose.
The values and beliefs that permeate the Bible — the notion that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God and that no king or ruler may claim unquestioned obedience — were the proximate cause for the development of a religious theory of liberty and the recognition of universal human rights. It is certainly not true, as atheist crusaders claim and as the freedom rankings from Freedom House refute, that commitment to Biblical religion results in intolerance and oppression. In fact, with a few exceptions, the countries on earth that practice freedom of religion and social tolerance are those with large Christian or Jewish populations.
People often ask me why I remain a Roman Catholic – given all the scandals over homosexual pedophiles in the Church, the Peter, Paul and Mary liturgies, and so on.
They’re not asking me for the party line reason but my own, very personal reason.
And this is what I usually say: Whenever I really look into a question – an ethical, political, scientific, religious, Biblical, historical question – whatever it is – whenever I really dig deep and wrestle with all the issues involved, from abortion to Biblical studies – I find myself inevitably concluding that the “official,” even papal position ends up being correct.
I mean that very sincerely.
Over a lifetime, such independent investigations develop a certain amount of trust – the same kind of trust you might feel toward, say, your father, despite his annoying idiosyncrasies.
Evolution, Creation and Adam and Eve is just another example of this.
Whenever I am goaded by my Protestant friends or in-laws to, once again, really look into the controversies over evolution and creation, I find that, as usual, the Catholic position ends up not only making the most sense exegetically (in terms of the Biblical texts) but is also, amazingly enough, supported by strong scientific evidence.
And that brings us back to Adam and Eve.
For years, I believed that the world was basically covered by overgrown chimpanzees… and that, maybe 50,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon Man suddenly appeared to chase down Woolly Mammoths and drag their wives by their hair into the cave.
But we now know that isn’t the case.
Human-like (hominid) species flourished on earth up to a million years ago – and they looked a lot more like Raquel Welch in the film “One Million Years BC” (a big favorite with my classmates when I was in fourth grade) than they did like Cheetah.
Anthropologists now keep pushing the dates for proto-human groups back hundreds of thousands of years – as far back, in fact, as 800,000 years ago. The scientific evidence for these groups is overwhelming (which isn’t, by the way, the same thing as evidence for Darwinian natural selection).
Nearby is an artist reconstruction of some hominid forebears of ours, Homo heidelbergensis (“Heidelberg Man”), an extinct species of human that may have lived around 600,000 years ago. This is not the knuckle-walking semi-semian many people assume, but a genuine cave man who stood about six feet tall, walked upright and had a brain as big as that of modern humans. There is evidence that Heidelberg Man used primitive tools, buried his dead and may have possessed a language.
An even earlier species, so-called Homo antecessor, fossils of which were discovered in the 1990s in Sierra de Atapuerca region of northern Spain, may have lived as long ago as 1.2 million years ago. This early human species also stood about six feet tall with the males weighing about 200 pounds but had a 20% smaller brain.
There weren’t a lot of these creatures roaming the world back then – as few as a few thousand, perhaps. Our genuine cave man ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, is considered by anthropologists to be the ancestor of both the extinct species of Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). Neanderthals lived in the period from 600,000 years ago until around 30,000 years ago, when they mysteriously became extinct. DNA evidence suggests that there was some, although very limited, inter-breeding between Neanderthals and modern humans.
Anatomically modern humans, known as homo sapiens sapiens, first appeared around 200,000 years ago in Africa. In Europe, they are called Cro-Magnon Man
Now, with all of these various proto-human groups running around the world between 1 million and 30,000 years ago, how likely is it that we are all descended from a single historical human couple, an Adam and Eve?
After all, doesn’t it make more sense that there were many ancestors of the human race?
Well, here’s what fascinating… and what makes any effort to reconcile the Biblical account of creation with what passes for scientific anthropology even more difficult.
The DNA evidence actually does show that all human beings alive today do descend from a single mother – so-called Mitochondrial Eve. Different DNA evidence also suggests we are all descended from a single male – Y-chromosomal Adam.
What isn’t clear is whether the genetic Adam and Eve lived at the same time. It’s possible that they could have literally founded the current human race… but it’s also possible that Eve was an older woman (by tens of thousands of years!).
The bottom line is that the scientific evidence tends to support monogenism, the unity of the human family, which is what Pope Pius XII insisted upon as a key point of Catholic doctrine vis a vis any scientific theory of evolution in his encyclical humani generis.
His real name was almost certainly Yeshu’a bar Yosef. From all the available evidence, he was a semi-skilled Jewish journeyman from a tiny village in northern Palestine who became, very briefly, an itinerant prophet, miracle worker and social revolutionary, one who challenged the religious and social institutions of his day so radically that he was put to death for it.
Of course, for two billion people on the planet today, he was also something much more: The Word of God… the wisdom and mercy and justice of God … incarnate.
What is undeniable to the honest historian is that this one man’s life, teaching and symbolic acts eventually created a social and cultural revolution that reverberated far beyond Palestine and altered almost every institution on earth — and is still felt today.
In short, Jesus changed everything: politics, art, science, law, the rules of warfare, philosophy, sexual life, the family. Even Napoleon was amazed: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but upon what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
But the question is: how?
Beyond the piety of believers and the doubts of modern skeptics lies an enduring mystery:
What did Jesus do and say, in as little as one year and a maximum of three years, that could possibly have had such an impact?
How could his rag tag band of illiterate fishermen, reformed prostitutes and tax collectors create the philosophical and social revolution that we have described in this book – one that made possible such diverse realities as experimental science, the abolition of slavery, the recognition of universal human rights, even authentic feminism?
In short: How do we explain the fact of Christianity?
One answer, given by scholars from a wide variety of perspectives – including that of so-called liberation theology – is that Jesus’ movement was neither small nor “rag tag.”
Instead, it was just as portions of the New Testament describe it as being, a massive popular outpouring of messianic enthusiasm, especially among the poor and marginalized, that alarmed the Jewish religious leaders of the time and made Roman military officials very nervous.
Many modern people think of Jesus as something like the befuddled hippy Christ in the 1970 play and 1973 film Godspell, teaching his message of peace and love to small groups of dazed flower children.
But what if Jesus was actually more like the figure depicted in the film and stage play Jesus Christ Superstar: A fiery, charismatic, rugged populist who drew crowds by the thousands, even tens of thousands — and whose caustic, subversive, often very funny parables about the “reign of God” and the arrogant elites who try to stand in its way electrified an entire country already seething with rebellion?
What if Jesus wasn’t the meek and mild pacifist of Christian iconography but actually something far more dangerous – a genuinely courageous iconoclast who had the sheer guts to stare down a crowd about to stone a woman to death and who stormed right into the holiest place on earth (a place with every bit of polished awe and grandeur as St. Peter’s in Rome) and began attacking the sales people and moneychangers with a whip?
Such a man could very well have put the fear of God (quite literally) into almost everyone in power — the moneyed aristocracy who controlled the Jerusalem Temple (the Sadduccees); the pious frauds who lay unjust burdens upon people’s shoulders; certainly the small band of Roman military officials charged with keeping the peace. Read more
As skeptics tell it, reflecting the worldview captured in The Da Vinci Code, the Christian church systematically suppressed the truth about Jesus and his early disciples, “censoring” alternative accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching because these texts didn’t reflect the “dogma” (primarily the alleged “sexism” and “homophobia”) of the institutional Church.
The Da Vinci Code was hardly original in taking this line: In 1972, novelist Irving Wallace wrote a thriller called The Word that described, interspersed with lots of sex, the alleged discovery of an alternative gospel (the Gospel of James) that would “blow the lid” off of institutional Christianity and reveal the truth that the evil Church had kept hidden for millennia.
There’s even a secret society that has suppressed the truth that Jesus survived the crucifixion – and a man who, “if he can survive long enough,” struggles to tell the whole world what really happened.
So, is there truth to the charge? Did the Christian church “suppress” lost facts about and sayings of Jesus?
The answer of mainstream biblical scholars would be: If only! That’s because, for two centuries now, scholars have been poring over every word of every “apocryphal” (non-canonical) gospel available, desperately searching for a lost saying or an authentic new fact. Far from being “lost,” every single apocryphal gospel extant can be easily read in translation in such collections as The Nag Hammadi Library (edited by James Robinson), or in more popular anthologies such as The Complete Gospels (edited by Robert J. Miller) or The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (edited by Ron Cameron).
Alas, the results have been disappointing.
The researches of such scholars as Elaine Pagels and Bart Erhman have taught us a lot about early Gnosticism but precious little new about Jesus.
The primary reason for this is because these lost, “apocryphal” gospels were written, by and large, decades, sometimes even centuries after the canonical Gospels.
They were the creation of Gnostic sects (sort of second- and third-century New Agers) that usually just followed the outlines of the canonical Gospels and simply put into the mouth of Jesus various philosophical ramblings of a particular Gnostic sect.
Most of them strike modern readers as deadly dull and quite bizarre… and nothing like the canonical Gospels in vivid, real-life detail.
Here is a typical passage from The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), a favorite with New Agers and conspiracy theorists:
The Savior said, “All natures, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the [roots] of its nature alone. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
As you might guess, if the church “suppressed” these texts it was probably more for bad writing than for heresy.
The simple truth is that, when the early Christian leaders looked over the various works purporting to be about the life and teaching of Jesus, they found that most had little if anything to do with the Jesus proclaimed by the Church and instead were full of bizarre Greek philosophical ideas (about various deities and emanations from the godhead) that Jesus would have had nothing to say about.
That’s why the church historian Eusebius, writing around A.D. 324, spoke of the books that are “adduced by the heretics under the name of the apostles, such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthew, and others beside them or such as the Acts of the Apostles by Andrew John, and others.”
He added the common sense observation that “indeed the character of the style itself is very different from that of the apostles, and the sentiment and purport of those things that are advanced in them, deviating as far as possible form sound orthodoxy, evidently proves they are fictions of heretical men.”
These “other” gospels, Eusebius concludes, are “spurious writings [that] are to be rejected as altogether absurd and impious.”
“We’re told that four fifths of American homes have a Bible, so go get it,” bellows Penn Jillette of the controversial comedy/magic act, Penn & Teller, on their Showtime TV series, Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!
“Really, no kidding! Go get your goddamn Bible! If you don’t read along with us tonight, you’re going to think we’re making this sh*t up.”
And so begins the controversial duo’s debunking of the holy scriptures of Christianity and Judaism—a twenty-eight-minute, foul-mouthed harangue exhibiting all the erudition of a biker bar and just about as much sensitivity.
Penn, a towering lumberjack of a man with a ponytail and Norris Skipper goatee, does all the talking in the show while Teller illustrates his points with little magic tricks.
“Tonight, we’re going to take you through the damn Bible and show you it’s full of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright impossibilities … that it’s more fiction than fact,” he announces solemnly—and then, thumping his black leather Bible, he adds, “You know, being on TV, in a suit, and yelling with this damn book in my hand … I look just like one of those evangelical assh*les.”
On and on it goes.
Anyone who says that Christianity in general, and the Bible in particular, are not mocked in popular culture has not been watching TV in a while.
Penn & Teller trot out a handful of alleged Biblical “experts”—such as Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine—to make their case against the Bible.
“The more we learn about archaeology and history of Biblical times,” says Shermer excitedly, “the more we realize that most of the stuff in the Bible is fiction.”
In the first chapter of Genesis, Shermer points out, Adam and Eve are created at the same time. In the second chapter, Adam is created first.
See? Right off the bat, you know the whole book is a complete fraud. Inconsistencies like that just rattle your faith to the very bone.
There is at least some evidence that the deeply pious Pilgrims — who, as Puritans, believed the Old Testament law was binding on Gentiles as well as Jews — may have been partially inspired by the Jewish harvest festival of Booths (Sukkot).
Sukkot is a week-long celebration, mandated in Leviticus 23, in which the Jewish people remember and give thanks for their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It is usually observed in October — as was the original Thanksgiving in 1621.
At the very least, the concept and duty of thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the Biblical tradition. Indeed, you can actually see much of the Torah’s ceremonial commandments as being nothing less than institutionalized thanksgiving: The Sabbath, Passover, the Festival of Weeks, The Festival of Booths, the entire sacrificial system, seeks to inculcate among the people the awareness of divine graciousness.
“He appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel,” says Chronicles. “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done,” sang the Psalmist.
The apostle Paul, in the earliest book in the New Testament, makes thanksgiving a virtual commandment: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Pilgrims set aside a special time to give thanks to God for his mercy.
Thanks to contemporary accounts written by Edward Winslow (in his 1621 A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth) and Governor William Bradford himself (History Of Plymouth Plantation), we have a pretty good idea of what happened 386 years ago.
As most people know, the first winter was devastating: Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, only about 50 survived the cold and hunger of that first winter.
But then, on March 16, with freezing winds still blowing across the Atlantic ocean, a seeming miracle occurred. An Abanki Indian named Samoset strolled right into the Pilgrim settlement and announced, in English, “Welcome!” Samoset had learned English from British fishermen along the coast. Samoset brought his friend, Squanto (Tisquantum), who not only spoke better English but had actually lived in England for nearly a decade. He had been kidnapped from the Plymouth area in 1608 and had traveled back and forth.
It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, how to catch fish and eels, how to tap maple syrup — and basically how to survive in this harsh Massachusetts winter.
By the time fall arrived, the Pilgrims meager barley and wheat crops were offset by a bountiful supply of corn, fish and wild turkeys. For that reason, the deeply pious Puritan Governor Bradford, reflecting on the ancient Israelites’ thanksgiving for their deliverance from Egypt, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.
Squanto, the local chief Massasoit and 90 Indian braves came to the three-day celebration — and brought most of the food!
Thanksgiving has evolved into a secular holiday in the United States, shared by people of all faiths and no faith, but we should remember that our Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers looked to Biblical precedents for their inspiration. Plus, it bears remembering whom the early Pilgrims were thanking as they enjoyed the unexpected bounties of nature and the equally unexpected kindnesses of America’s native people.