Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Oh Look- Christianity Has Been Rocked To Its Foundations Again

One of the interesting periods of history is what is often called "The English Civil War", ignoring the fact that Charles I was king of three kingdoms, and its effects were felt across both the modern day United Kingdom and the modern day Republic of Ireland.

Oliver Cromwell is often portrayed as a stern Puritan, but a new book shows that actually he was a bit of a wine-bibber, and enjoyed his dancing on a Sunday.

OK, there are only extracts of the new book available at the moment. Actually, fragments of sentences. But this surely should be enough to overturn the conventional wisdom about Cromwell.

Time gap? Pah! This is only written three-and-a-half centuries later. That's contemporary.

Now, no-one would describe the early 21st century as being contemporary with the middle of the 17th century. Or would they?

There is something interesting. In that era known as a long time ago events several centuries apart can be considered being contemporaneous. And going further back to that era known as a very long time ago then events of millennia apart are contemporary. We know that 2011 is last year and 2013 next year. Your average caveperson of 10,000 BC would feel that 11,000 BC wasn't too long ago and 9,000 BC isn't too far round the corner.

Well, they wouldn't. But as time goes on, people of the distant future would start to see our years, and our centuries, roll into one. We already talk of "80s music" as if Kylie Minogue was singing the same time as St Winifred's School Choir. In time the two World Wars will roll into one in popular consciousness. And then other events- go forward a few hundreds of thousands of years and we'll be looked at as people "living around the time of the Norman Conquest". And that brings me to the latest story in the Daily Mail which has Christianity rocked to its foundations.

OK, so what we find, when you strip away the hype, is that there are some fragments that imply that three-and-a-half centuries later (roughly the gap between Cromwell and us) there were some people who believed Ms Magdalene was really Mrs Christ. And, er, that's it.

Why chase little fragments of documents that small groups believed over three centuries after Jesus, when we have the Gospels, which are more extensive in documentation and from an earlier period? Why let the little later bit overturn the larger earlier bit? As Paul reminds Timothy (2 Tim. 4:3) people will not endure sound teaching, but instead have itchy ears and listen to myths.

In recent years, there seems to be a trend that whenever anything novel is suggested as the way forward for the Church of England, there is the hunt around to find any Christianesque group in the first half of the first millennium AD which does that, so its supporters can declare "Aha! It's tradition. What are these evangelicals and/or Catholics banging on about?" So you can find some catacomb walls with paintings of a priestess conducting communion. Find someone, somewhere who did a same-sex wedding etc.

Now, the first question shouldn't be "Did a group early on do this?" but "What does the Bible say?" Yes- OK to do it. No- don't do it, regardless of who did it.

But what about when the Bible is silent and we look to history for guidance? Then it's time to ask the second question- "What sort of view of the Bible did the early group have?"

There is something I will call "Bible sense". If "common sense" is what you get living in the world, "Bible sense" is what you get living in the Word. It's that sense of morality that you get from deep Bible study.

I remember a sermon years ago that dealt with gambling. The preacher was clear that the Bible was silent on it. Does that mean it's OK? By no means. As Christians we should consider what the social implications are of gambling- such as the excellent resources for Christians provided by organisations such as CARE and the Evangelical Alliance.

There was an interesting point he raised- churches and organisations that have been opposed to gambling have tended to have a high view of Scripture. To put it another way, there's that Bible sense that has developed that says gambling is wrong.

The article seems to be based in part on a common myth- there were all these little groups, just as Christian as each other, and then Emperor Constantine called them together to thrash out a new common theology.

What such a myth misses out is that the Gospels are early. Historic Christianity hasn't drawn up its doctrines and theology and then drew up some holy writings to back them up. This myth crops up- a few years back, I overheard a man I knew to be a lapsed Catholic explain to a couple of his friends that around 400AD the Vatican drew up its beliefs and then wrote the New Testament to support it. He argued that there were "authentic accounts" of the life of Jesus- the "Gospel of Thomas" was his example- which the Vatican ignored.

The Bible came first. Our beliefs are based on what the Bible says. Doctrines of faith and creeds are simply summaries of Biblical teaching, not replacements.

The associated myth is that the Bible we have was written by some sort of horse-trading in rooms filled with holy smoke. Perhaps St Nicholas agreeing to there being parts of the New Testament that talk about Hell in return for an agreement that the College of Cardinals would have a binding referendum on whether the Pope sho├║ld be elected by the Alternative Vote.

I would reply that, OK, suppose the Vatican drew up the New Testament. Well, they didn't do a good job did they? Producing a document which from the time of Martin Luther has been used to challenge some of their doctrines and beliefs. If the Vatican had drawn it up, would the idea that elders should be married (1 Tim. 3:2) be left out (surely Paul would say that elders should be single men?), wouldn't the writers decide not to give Peter a mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14)? Wouldn't Jesus have been told that His mother and cousins were there to see Him and reply that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is His cousin? Wouldn't you want to remove anything that smacked of justification by faith? Follow the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and James (Acts 12:2) with a bit where on one of their missionary journeys, Paul and his companions pray to Stephen and James to intercede for them?

I remember just before Christmas a few years back the Daily Mail did an article about a shocking discovery that would rock Christianity to its foundations- the discovery that Jesus had a half-brother James. Who, er, actually we've known all about for getting on for 2000 years. But there is this idea which I came across when I was in Mensa's Christian Forum- namely that there was a Jacobite Christianity, based on James's writings about his half-brother, and then there was a Paulime usurpation, with the nasty, misogynistic, homophobic Paul hijacking it all and forcing his own beliefs on it. And Paul and his supporters ensured that traces of James' teachings were destroyed.

Hmm. Except of course for the Epistle of James. Oh, and somehow Paul forgot to remove a reference to James being an Apostle (Gal. 1:19)- i.e. someone who has the same apostolic authority Paul has, so someone Paul sees as his equal in terms of apostolicity.

Now, if I were a Pauline Christian wanting to remove all traces of Jacobite Christianity, I would have burned the Epistle of James and edited Galatians to remove that bit.

What intrigues me about those who wanted to talk about this destroyed Jacobite Christianity is that they simultaneously believe:

  • All traces of the Jacobite teaching has been lost
  • They know what was in the Jacobite teaching- normally a Jesus who flits around first century Palestine saying things that could come straight out of a Polly Toynbee column.
  • This little fragment is just a nine-day wonder. Excites those with itchy ears. Nothing more.

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