Bible Shaped by Competing Forces
By Dr.
Charles W. Hedrick

Most people need a "safety net" affirming their religious faith and practice. The "net" must provide the believer certainty, to ensure that faith is based on "Absolute Truth." The stakes are too high to allow for anything less.

Generally, for Protestants, the safety net is the Bible, regarded (some poetically; others literally) as "the (inerrant) word of God." For Roman Catholics the "net" is both Bible and church tradition. In Catholic faith, the church produced the Bible, and thus is its authorized interpreter. And so it has happened that a fourth-century collection of ancient Graeco-Roman texts, the New Testament, continues to define Christian faith and practice.

Faith unexamined, however, is akin to self-delusion. And this observation, if true, encourages a close look at the ancient collection.

The story "about" the Bible raises significant issues. From the historical records, the collection does not appear to be a deliberate product. A plausible case can be made that the church stumbled into the collection, a process lasting more than 300 years, and the Christian Bible was perhaps not finalized until the 16th century. The collection was shaped by competing religious factions, economics, personal ideologies, politics, the influence of larger churches and more. Many texts were eventually excluded.

Nevertheless, the fourth-century collection is still religiously quite diverse with four competing gospels, and Paul's undisputed letters vying with later texts in matters of faith and practice. Surprisingly, second-century Christians included texts in the collection based on their pre-Scripture faith; yet today's Christians judge the validity of modern religious experience by Scripture and creedal confessions.

Virtually all surviving New Testament manuscripts are from the third century and later, even though they were composed more than 100 years earlier. No original manuscripts exist. All we have are copies and no two are exactly alike. Hence, New Testament texts read in church today are constructs by modern scholars, who make them by bringing together parts of later copies.

Reassessing the collection seems justified because from Jesus to the fourth century there was neither a common "Christian Scripture" nor megalithic institutions to shape Christian religious experience. Christian Scripture was not generally available until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Few Christians had access to Bibles until relatively recently.

Thus the Christian God was not always experienced through text and creed. Is that still possible to live a Christian existence apart from mandates of ancient texts and modern institutions, apart from Biblical constraints and ecclesiastical creeds? Possibly, but probably not for people unacquainted with the history of how we got the Bible.

For them, the Bible will always be a holy relic, commanding religious awe and obedience, but forbidding critique and dialogue. The question is: Should the history of the Bible influence how we regard and evaluate it?

Charles W. Hedrick, Springfield, is emeritus professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University.

SOURCE: News-Leader.Com




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