The Bible Is A Collection of Human Spiritual Traditions
Much has been said and taught about the Bible and many of the claims that are made are based on what serious and devout individuals want the Bible to represent. They want it to be the perfect and inerrant word of God, however, it cannot be that. It is, rather, a collection of Judeo-Christian oral spiritual traditions put into writing by various authors over about a thousand years (roughly 950 BCE to about 250 CE.) Let’s look at some of the evidence that makes this clear, because the best way to understand the Bible and its different messages is to look carefully at how its various parts were written and put together. In other words, we need to take seriously what the Bible tells us about the Bible.
Books In The Bible Were Created From Oral Traditions
The first thing that must be made clear about the Old Testament is that the first written word to appear anywhere in it was penned after 920 BCE. That was some 939 years after the time of Abraham, the first Jewish patriarch, who lived around 1859 BCE. That means all the sacred traditions in the Old Testament about Abraham, his family, Joseph, the Egyptian captivity, Moses, the Exodus, the Judges, and the first three Hebrew kings, Saul, David and Solomon, were all transmitted orally before being recorded in documents that would be placed in the Hebrew Bible also known as the Christian Old Testament. The Old Testament is only vaguely a history. Oral traditions change and are embellished as they are transmitted from generation to generation, which makes them variable and unreliable as historical records. What they do preserve, however, are what devout Jews in different locations and times felt were important spiritual and theological teachings during a 1,000-year span of history.
The books of the New Testament are also based on oral traditions. There is not a single word in the New Testament that was written by someone who knew, saw, listened to, or talked with Jesus. His disciples were poor, illiterate, Aramaic speaking day laborers and the writers of the Gospels that were named after Jesus’ disciples, were educated and wrote sophisticated theological documents in Greek. They were not the same people.
It is also clear that the Gospels of the New Testament show developing Christian theology from the earliest Gospel of Mark to the last Gospel of John. They do not all say the same things and this is one of the many reasons that the claim of Biblical inerrancy is not supported by what’s literally in the Bible. It is clear that different groups of Christians had different beliefs so when their oral traditions were written down, that created conflicting stories in the New Testament for all to see for themselves.
Changing Traditions About Jesus’ Divinity
Christology In The Gospel Of Mark
According to Mark, Jesus became divine when John The Baptist baptized him. Mark wrote that when Jesus came “…out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased’ “ (Mark 1:10-11). Jesus saw the dome that first century people believed separated earth from heaven split open and God spoke directly to him telling him of his then exalted state.
Mark portrays Jesus as the most human in comparison to the other Gospels. Mark has no birth narrative and, in fact, his hometown friends and his family think he might be losing his mind when he starts preaching and some were even offended (Mark 3:20-21, 31-32 & Mark 6:2-4). Approaching his crucifixion Jesus is in anguish (Mark 14:34, 36) and upon his death on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Matthew also has Jesus uttering the same last words in his Gospel (Matt 27:46). But, Jesus’ quoted last words begin to change in Luke. Luke writes that Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Then John shortens Jesus’ last words even more, to simply saying, “It is finished.” John (19:30) There is clearly a progression of spiritual understanding evolving from the earlier Christian writings of Mark to the later Christian writings of the Gospel of John. The Gospels reflect theological history more precisely than human history.
Christology In The Gospel Of Matthew
Matthew, the second gospel to be written, moves the beginning of Jesus’ exalted status to his birth. Matthew records an oral tradition stating that when Jesus’ “…mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). This was supposed to be the fulfillment of “…what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” (Matt. 1:22) in Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew scripture. However, when you read Isaiah 7:14 in its full context it is about a sign given to King Ahaz indicating that his country of Judah would not be conquered by the combined forces of two hostile neighboring kingdoms. (Isa. 7:16) This was a battle that took place centuries before Jesus was born, so it clearly had nothing to do with him.
In addition, The Hebrew version of the Old Testament (the Torah), contains the word, "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 which, in Hebrew, only means young woman, not virgin and it is not at all ambiguous. The Hebrew word for virgin is a completely different word, "betulah". Since "almah" is used in the original Hebrew text, its meaning must be accepted as the intended meaning of that passage, which means Matthew's assertion of a virgin birth is a translation error from the Greek version of Hebrew scriptures. The Greek word used in Isaiah 7:14 can mean either young woman or a virgin. Matthew's Christian fervor apparently overwhelmed his skill as a scriptural scholar. Bottom line, Matthew’s story of a virgin birth was his interpretive Christian messaging, not history.
There are other elements of Matthew’s Gospel that describe for us his overall intended message. He is the only source of the stories about Mary and Joseph living in a house where Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:11), about the Magi from the east (Matt. 2:1-12), a wandering star (Matt. 2:2, 7, 9-10), the suspicion and fear of Herod (Matt. 2:3-8), Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-14), and Herod’s slaughter of all the male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16). Only Matthew describes Mary and Joseph’s eventual return from Egypt (Matt. 2:19-21) and that they had to go live in Nazareth in Galilee instead of returning to Bethlehem, because it was still too dangerous (Matt: 2:22-23).
All of these story elements are reminders of the Joseph and Moses stories in the Torah, starting with Joseph, the interpreter of dreams (Gen. 41:15-16) who was sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:28), only to rise to be second in power to the Pharaoh (Genesis 41:40) because he protected Egypt from a severe drought. Joseph subsequently also protected his family by having the Pharaoh invite them to move to Egypt so they would survive the drought (Gen. 47:5-6). Generations later the Jews in Egypt became a threat to a new Egyptian king who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:7-8) and who decided to have all newborn Jewish boys killed by casting them “…into the Nile” (Exodus 1:22). Then, like Joseph, Moses escaped death in Egypt and came under the protection of the Pharaoh and his family (Exodus 2:1-10). In the meantime the Jews in Egypt were treated as slaves (Exodus 2:23). Eventually, Moses was called by God (Exodus 3:7-10) to lead the Jews out of Egypt, through the desert, where he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) then on to the border of the Promised Land (Canaan) where Moses died and was buried (Deut: 34:1-6).
Matthew wanted everyone to understand that he viewed Jesus as the new and more powerful Moses, which was initiated by his miraculous birth to a virgin, not when he was baptized. Even Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount (Matt: 5-7) appears to contain revisions of the Ten Commandments given to Moses. Matthew presents the most Jewish perspective of Jesus’ life and teachings when compared to the other Gospel writers.
Christology In The Gospel Of Luke
The way the author of Luke writes, he may have been a pagan convert to Christianity since that appears to be his perspective. Luke, like Matthew, considers Jesus’ holy conception and birth to be the moment God exalted Jesus to a divine status (Luke 1:26-35). The birth tradition Luke wrote in his gospel is so different from the story Matthew wrote there is no way they can be harmonized. If one were historically true then the other would have to be false. They are both theological interpretive stories, not histories.
Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth in Galilee when they are required to travel to Bethlehem because of a census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). (There are no contemporaneous Roman documents indicating Augustus decreed any such census.) Luke’s story continues. Despite being great with child, and having to travel by donkey or walking, Mary and Joseph make the journey. They find Bethlehem so crowded they had to lodge in a stable, with the animals. That’s where Jesus is born. (Luke 2:6-7). The shepherds in the fields come to town to visit Jesus (Luke 2:8-20) and after eight days Jesus is circumcised according to Jewish law (Luke 2:21-23). Finally Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to “…their own city of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).
Both Matthew and Luke tell essentially the same story of Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 4:13-17) and (Luke 4:21-22). Unlike Mark, however, the voice of God in Matthew and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ baptism, spoke generally to everyone, not just to Jesus. It could have been that Luke simply followed Matthew’s version, instead of Mark’s. Still, none of these writers wrote about events he had witnessed. Each was writing down oral traditions that expressed theological viewpoints meaningful to his particular community of believers.
Christology In The Gospel Of John
The Gospel of John is so different that none of its stories can be lined up in parallel with similar stories appearing in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Mark, Matthew, and Luke). The first three Gospels are called “Synoptic” because they share common and parallel views of the events in Jesus’ life. However, John is very different. There is no birth narrative in the Gospel of John because John claims that Jesus was the Word of God made manifest on earth (John 1:14) and Jesus’ grace and truth supersede “…the Law given through Moses” (John 1: 16-17). Jesus had existed eternally “…in the beginning with God” (John 1:1) and was the creator of all things (John 1:3-4). In stark contrast to the other Gospel writers, the writer of John is claiming that Jesus had always been divine.
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John has Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning of his teaching career (John 2:13-16) not just prior to his crucifixion (Mark 11:15-17; Matt. 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not glorify himself. In fact he makes the statement, “Why call me good? No one is good by God alone.” (Mark 10:18 & Luke 18:19) In John, however, his acts and long speeches and signs are all about his exalted divine status and redemptive power. The Gospel of John expresses an extremely different and more complex Christology than the previous three Gospels.
Considered in their chronological order, the four Gospels reveal to us a progression of how succeeding Christian communities had remarkably different oral traditions about how and when Jesus was raised from humanness to divinity.
The Evolution of Monotheism
It is frequently taught that Abraham founded the Jewish nation by rejecting polytheism and worshipping the one and only true God. However, it didn’t happen as quickly as that. There are traces of polytheism or, at least, monolatry (the worship of one god over all other lesser gods who also are believed to exist) throughout the Old Testament. Consider the First Commandment that states one must “,,,have no other gods before Me.” (Exod: 20:3) This clearly suggests that of all the gods that are in the heavens, the God of the Jews is the most important and the most powerful. This is also true for phrases such as ”Almighty God” (Gen. 17:1) or “Lord God." There is also the story in 2 Kings about male deities having sex with attractive human females and the resulting children “…were the heroes that were of old” (2 Kings: 13:19). Divinely inspired scriptures of a monotheistic religion would not contain such passages. Scriptures were written by humans, for and about human spirituality.
Even in the first century, during Jesus’ lifetime, 90% of the population was polytheistic, so the move to monotheism involved a slow and gradual progression, even then. In fact, various early Christian communities that formed after Jesus’ crucifixion had polytheistic doctrines claiming the existence of as few as two to as many as three hundred sixty-five gods. They all claimed to be Christian, they all claimed to be right, and they all claimed that any opposing viewpoint was heretical. Ultimately, the theology that evolved into “Orthodox Christianity” finally won the religious debates and their view of heresy became the standard. As a result all opposing Christian ideas and teachings were vigorously attacked and sacred literature considered heretical was destroyed wherever possible.
It appears that those who win will always attempt to write their own version of history. However, biblical scholarship can help us see the Bible from a theology-free perspective. The purpose of these lessons is to provide as bias-free a look at the Bible as possible, so the practical, metaphysical, and spiritual lessons can be revealed. Dogma should not dictate reality. It should be the other way around. What we see, feel, and learn every day should be expanding our knowledge and increasing our spiritual awareness of every expression of reality we experience. What we are starts and stops with what we allow ourselves to believe. Therefore, what we believe should be treated with special care, respect, and honesty. Also, unless one claims to know everything, what we believe should develop and change as we have new experiences in life and learn.