December 02, 2003
Beyond belief

That Pagels book seems to be catching on like wildfire in the blogosphere; now Bill Allison's reading it. Although he has no particular attachment to orthodox Christianity that I can see, he's skeptical of the idea of a Jewish carpenter's son going around spouting Greek philosophy. He writes:

The Nag Hammadi find is certainly of major importance; while I haven't read the whole collection, I have found several texts worth pondering. I suppose, though, that what gives me pause is the argument made by some commentators that these previously lost tracts, which were denounced by the Orthodox and later suppressed by the Church as it grew in power and influence in the waning era of the Roman empire, represent a more authentic Christianity than the Gospels. They seem to discount the notion that the early Church fathers might have been capable of separating texts which captured what they understood, from tradition, from centuries of believers, from the writings and letters of their predecessors (not all of which are extant), what was authentic and what was corrupted.

It has become increasingly apparent to me that the extent to which you trust church tradition is really the central question of Christianity. It's an even more basic question than whether you trust the Bible, because the Bible is itself part of church tradition. Catholics and Orthodox see the whole thing as one unbroken chain; Martin Luther (and, I'm guessing, Calvin) had no quarrel with the first thousand years or so, but thought things went astray after that; more radical types have tried to recover the spirit of apostolic times, or their own personal encounters with God, and regard that whole history as born of human error and political interests.

And yet everyone relies to some extent on the old texts, because what else do we have? Yet if you don't really trust those who wrote them or compiled them, it can lead to some odd readings. Back when I was blogging the Borg/Wright book, I quoted Wright on what he called the "hermeneutic of suspicion":

If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text.

As often seems to be the case, I can see both sides here. After Jesus ascended, the church was built by mere mortals, who had their own interests and illusions; certainly they were not foolproof. But at the other extreme lies reliance on another mere mortal, oneself, to know everything that the saints didn't know. Either way we have the problem of knowing God through human limitations, always a tricky business even in the best circumstances.

Posted by Camassia at December 02, 2003 12:47 PM | TrackBack

I've not yet read the Pagels book, but I find myself in a similar intellectual position to your own vis-a-vis modern biblical interpretation. If modern biblical criticism has taught us anything, it's that the authors of scripture cobbled together extant sources, redacted, edited and otherwise manipulated texts in order to achieve a particular theological goal. It's one thing to try and trace, for instance, the development from Mark and Q to Luke. All of this is useful and good. But where Borg, for instance, loses me is when he uses these textual inroads to cast doubt on the events themselves. Do the discrepancies in the birth stories of Luke and Matthew force us to conclude that both are fabrications? Does the development of ideas about the bodily resurrection over time imply that there was no bodily resurrection?

In short, I don't think that textual clues can ever tell us whether the gospels are "true" or if they are supernatural hagiographies. If we believe in a God that's capable of creating a Universe, it seems to me that we ought to allow a physical resurrection and a withered fig tree here and there. On the other hand, that doesn't mean we have to believe everything we're told.

Anyway, assuming that any of us can even begin to understand the implications of an event like the Resurrection, it's difficult to see how our conceptions of such things affect our day-to-day faith. As much as we like to figure things out, at the end of the day it may be healthiest for us to conclude that there's some stuff we simply don't know.

Sorry for the ramble, but I just read the Borg/Wright book recently and haven't had a chance to talk to anyone about it. I love your site!

Posted by: Matthias on December 2, 2003 02:54 PM

Camassia --

You raise several good points here, not the least of which is this one:

And yet everyone relies to some extent on the old texts, because what else do we have?

Nothing else but faith, I would answer...

Posted by: Bill on December 2, 2003 10:16 PM


Very interesting thoughts. I've sort of come to some similar conclusions myself over a long period of time.

I definitely come out of a Protestant denomination and am probably still much closer to a Protestant sense of the church than a Roman Catholic one. That having been said, the RC insistence on the significance of church teaching and church tradition looks a lot less weird to me now than it did ten years ago.


Posted by: Captain Inertia on December 3, 2003 08:05 AM

Matthias: Thanks! Too bad you weren't around for the Borg/Wright blogathon last summer. But my reaction to Borg was pretty similar to yours: he raised some interesting questions and issues regarding the texts, but his ways of resolving them seemed awfully whimsical and based on a personal image of Jesus he got I know not where.

Bill: The question is, faith in what? Unless they were lucky enough to get some personal communication from God, the only way Christians know about Jesus is from other Christians, whether in written or interpersonal form. So you can't really separate faith in God from faith in texts and traditions, as I was trying to point out.

Captain: Yeah, I didn't really get the Catholic viewpoint until I came here and started interacting with Catholic bloggers. And Telford, actually, even though he's an evangelical, because he's big on how the Body of Christ is the central reality of Christian life. (He just has a more expansive definition of it than Catholics.)

Posted by: Camassia on December 3, 2003 01:50 PM

I agree with you about how central the question is, how much you trust church tradition. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what my own answer is. More than Elaine Pagels, I think, and less than a traditional Catholic (though the Catholic viewpoint does make sense to me). It's one of the things I'm hoping to sort out as I go through the Education for Ministry class.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 4, 2003 07:32 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?