Tag Archives: Bible

The Other Christianity?

kenneth-garrett-fragment-of-papyrus-from-the-gnostic-text-of-the-gospel-of-judas_i-G-40-4040-VR7LF00ZMany believe that the gnostic gospels are a challenge to Christianity; some even think that it is a serious challenge. My personal reaction to this has always been fairly apathetic. I’ve never seen much reason to take the gnostic gospels as either historically serious accounts or a reason to throw out orthodox writings as more of the same.

This is to say that the fact that the mystery religions adapted the Christian story in order to promote beliefs more in line with greek philosophy is hardly surprising. All at really seems to establish is that Christianity was a known religion in the areas in which the gnostic gospels were written.

But very few people today take the gnostic writings to be credible. Rather, it is sometimes asked, how do we know that the writings eventually compiled into the New Testament are any more reliable? This is a good question, though it is has been answered by historians.

There are a few reasons for this, in fact. The orthodox writings are older, are written in the style of reports (unlike the gnostic gospels), and otherwise show more knowledge of the area near Jerusalem, to name two.

However, I’ve since run across an argument for taking the books more seriously–not as a refutation for Christianity, but as a support for it.

That is to say that the gnostic gospels constitute an excellent example as to what writing a story like Christianity’s, but divorced from the facts of history, would look like. The authors of these books not only fail to offer anything like the detailed information about the region, they clearly don’t know what Jewish people named their children (giving greek names to many characters).

The Christian gospels, on the other hand, are clearly written by people with knowledge of the area and its people. All of the information we’ve been able to gather has confirmed this.

For those interested, Peter Williams has presented an excellent summary of the argument (which is too long to present here). And, if he is correct, the gnostic gospels do more to highlight the New Testament’s signs of authenticity than they do to challenge Christianity.

So, while there’s nothing undeniably conclusive here, it is a point worth making for those who are concerned about the issues raised by the gnostic gospels.

Virtue Flows from Gratitude

good-samaritanFor years, something about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan puzzled me:

Why is it about a Samaritan?

Like most modern people, I appreciate that Jesus casts a hated minority as the hero of the story. It is a wonderful statement about tolerance, equality, and care for the oppressed. Still, it seemed like an unexpected twist in that particular moment–making me wonder if I was missing a more fundamental reason for its being there.

More recently, something has been pointed out to me:

Though the things listed above probably are part of the reason Jesus chose a Samaritan as his hero, I think there is a more basic reason which has to do with the framing story. We often forget that the parable is told in response to a question from a theological scholar.

When he is told by Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself”, he begins to realize what kind of radical life this would require of him–one that not even the best of us, let alone most of us, can manage. Hoping to get out from under the guilt and judgment of this, he asks “who is my neighbor?”.

It would have made perfect sense for Jesus to then tell a story where a man just like him came across a wounded Samaritan and saved him. That would have answered the question, but failed to have taught him (or us) about grace. It would have been a simple “do it”, a command to be good–just like all commands.

Instead, Jesus has the man bleeding on the road, and his enemy (the Samaritan) up in the saddle. He’s essentially asking him “What if your only hope of survival was an act of kindness from someone who owes you nothing but contempt?”. In framing the issue this way, Jesus shows that he understands the dilemma we each face: no one can radically love others simply by being told that we should. First, we need to know that we’ve been radically loved ourselves.

In this way, he’s getting to the gospel. This, I think, is a call to be grateful for the God who, like the Samaritan, chose to love us when he owed us nothing but wrath. If we can begin to see Jesus Christ as our own personal Good Samaritan, that he radically loved us when we didn’t deserve it, we can begin to do the same for others.

Russell XVII: The Joy of (Mis)Reading


Now turning to what he finds objectionable about Christ’s teachings, Russell starts with what he considers to be an obvious inaccuracy:

For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that.

This is an old debate. As far as I know, it centers mostly around whether or not the word “come” in one particular verse describes Christ’s final return before the end of the world, or the coming of the spirit at the Pentecost. It takes very little study, however, to see that “great many” and “prove” are clearly overstatements.

I’ll not add more, because choosing between the resolutions of this issue seems a minor point for those who accept Christianity as true. It is not a major objection to Christ’s teachings as a whole.

What is more relevant is that Russell uses the following as one of his main supports for the point:

When [Christ] said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

One wonders how Russell knows this is why Christ said these things. Surely, as a sage, it is not out of the question that he felt people were too worried about personal daily affairs? Is the idea that he thought the world was ending when he said “tomorrow will worry about itself” really the only possible explanation?

Russell seems to think so. In fact, he adds this:

The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent.

I don’t know where Russell has gotten the idea that the early Christians refrained from planting trees, nor am I sure why he feels he can extrapolate from this that Christ had committed himself to a specific time-frame.

This is yet another point at which I am reminded of the New Atheists, who often demand, without support, that their own strange interpretations of the Bible are correct. Of course, if one simply takes full license to completely re-interpret a view, it is easy to “refute” it, but I doubt that the New Atheists would submit to others taking this approach to their own writings.