Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Biblical Literalism

I've posted a clip on YouTube that recaps a key point that came up in our Sunday school class this past weekend, namely that no one simply "believes the whole Bible" and "takes it all literally".

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Divergent Birth?

Apologies for the pun in the title, but it seemed the best way to sum up the theme of today's installment in Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class. After a brief introduction of how historical study works, we compared the geographical movements and time frames in the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In Matthew, unless one knew otherwise before reading the text, one would assume that the hometown of Jesus' family was Bethlehem, the first geographical setting mentioned. It is hinted that Jesus may be up to 2 years old, since Herod, after inquiring when the star appeared, gave orders for all males two years old and under to be killed. At the very least, Jesus does not seem to have been a newborn. The family is found in a house.

They flee to Egypt, and particularly striking is what happens after that. After Herod's death, they want to return to Judea, and only head for Nazareth in Galilee because they are afraid of Archelaus, Herod's son who ruled over Judea after his death. Going home for Joseph in this Gospel thus meant returning to Bethlehem.

In Luke, the impression given is very different. The family lives in Nazareth, and only go up to Bethlehem for the census. If we ask how long they stayed there, we have a firm basis to draw a conclusion about that. They go up to Jerusalem to take care of Mary's purification, as specified in Leviticus 12. They were thus in Bethlehem for little more than a month after Jesus was born. We're told that once they completed everything required by the Law, after making a very public appearance in the capital of Judea (which it would be hard to imagine them doing in Matthew's Gospel) they return to Nazareth.

The impression given and the historical details seem irreconcilable to someone approaching the text asking historical questions (even without bringing in outside considerations about the census under Quirinius). But while this may raise problems for those arguing to inerrancy as popularly understood, such situations can be good news for historians, since they suggest that the two authors did not collude with one another. It certainly makes clear that the later church did not conspire to assemble a canon that spoke with a single unified voice, reflecting the aims of Constantine or some other authority.

A discussion ensued of how one might make sense of these aspects of the Biblical writings. Next week we'll look at some of the theological content of the stories, including themes and motifs such as the genealogies and the fulfillment of Scripture in Matthew.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Outside the Canon

Another subject that came up yesterday in Dr. McGrath's Sunday School class is the character of those writings that existed in the early Christian centuries but did not become part of the canon of Scripture. Possibly the best site to learn more about those other writings (some of which were excluded because they were deemed "heretical", but this is clearly not the case for all of them) is Early Christian Writings. I recommend it for anyone interested in exploring this particular subject further.