Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Monday, Dec. 30, 1974
The event shines across the centuries like a beacon. In a Bethlehem stable, a child was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. But the rude circumstances could not conceal an extraordinary birth. Angels filled the sky, praising God and proclaiming peace on earth. Amazed shepherds came to honor the babe. Wise men from the East, guided by a miraculous star, arrived to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

To Christians—and perhaps to a good many others at this time of year —the familiar details seem etched on the heart. Yet they have been questioned by liberal scholars for years. Though often believers themselves, these scriptural experts have challenged nearly everything in the Nativity story: the angels, the star, even the wise men. As recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the only one to mention them, the Magi are not the familiar three kings of Christmas legend (later piety gave them names, ages, races and crowns), but rather an unspecified number of astrologers, perhaps from Babylon. Even in that guise, some critics suggest, their existence is questionable, possibly merely a preaching device used by the evangelist to suggest the import and universality of the astonishing event: God become man.

The Nativity is hardly alone among biblical stories to come under the scrutiny of scholars. Even more than the Gospels, the Old Testament has been subjected to exhaustive investigations going back into the 18th century. Faced with mounting scientific evidence for evolution, many biblical critics long ago moved away from belief in the "six days" of creation reported in Genesis. More crucially, especially for the Christian doctrine of original sin, they began to regard Adam and Eve as prototypes of humanity, not real people who committed some terrible primordial sin. Genesis to the contrary, said the scholars, the flood that Noah escaped did not cover "all the high mountains under the whole heaven"; nor was Jonah actually swallowed by a "great fish."

In the judgment of many biblical scholars, especially mainstream Protestants in the U.S. and Europe, a number of these scriptural issues have long been resolved. But others are still being examined. Roman Catholics especially, who contributed little to biblical research for centuries after the Reformation, are enthusiastically at work, encouraged by Vatican II to re-examine the Scriptures. They are embracing a wide variety of biblical opinions, some of them as liberal as Protestant views. Germany's Hans Küng, for example, has joined those rejecting the belief that Christ was born of a virgin. As Catholics swing away from the right, Protestants have been nudged by new research toward a more traditional view. In 100 licensed sites in Israel, archaeological digging continues to turn up new evidence that the Bible is often surprisingly accurate in historical particulars, more so than earlier generations of scholars ever suspected. By establishing physical settings of scriptural accounts and certain details of corroboration (finding horned altars like those mentioned in 1 Kings 1: 50, for example) recent archaeology has enhanced the credibility of the Bible.

Fundamentalists and other conservative churchmen never needed such corroboration. To them a literal biblical faith is a badge of honor, and their battles in its name have recently grown more intense. The most notable conflict has taken place between conservatives and moderates in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, one of the nation's largest denominations (2.8 million U.S. members, 300,000 more outside the U.S.). In 1969 conservatives captured its leadership, and last winter nearly 400 moderate students walked out of its major seminary and established a rival seminary in exile (TIME, March 4). Now the Synod may well be facing an outright schism within its ranks, probably after its biennial convention next July.

In the meantime, local parishes are beginning to be caught up in the civil war. One historic congregation, 90-year-old Trinity Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has actually split this month over the biblical debate. Its liberal-leaning pastor, who quit under pressure from his deacons for his scriptural views, is being followed into exile by 50 of Trinity's families, with whom he is forming a new congregation called Peace Lutheran Church. The separation of Peace and Trinity will become official on Christmas Day.

Resentments between traditionalists and those who advocate freer scriptural interpretation helped to cause schism a year ago among Southern Presbyterians in the U.S. The Roman Catholic Church is increasingly beset by similar quarrels. Last March, Bishop James Rausch, a progressive who is general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, publicly censured several conservative columnists who had questioned the orthodoxy of some current U.S. Catholic biblical scholarship.

The Bible is being called as witness in other kinds of current ecclesiastical debate. Both Jesus' selection of his Apostles—all men—and St. Paul's restrictive remarks about women ("It is shameful for a woman to speak in church") are cited by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Missouri Synod Lutherans as precedents that forbid female clergy. On a quite different level, Gospel polemics against the Jews still help to nourish a residual anti-Semitism in Sunday-school and catechism classes.

Biblical controversy also rages outside church doors. In Kanawha County, W. Va., the entire public school system has been disrupted this fall because of parental objections to textbooks. While complaints have been raised about patriotic, sexual and racial contents, the quarrel with the textbooks is very deeply a biblical issue. Fundamentalists all, the parents contend that the schoolbooks breed doubt of the Bible's literal truth. One contested passage compares the scriptural account of Daniel in the lion's den to the old tale of Androcles and the lion. Another suggests that the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a myth explaining the origin of languages. "We object to books that ridicule a child's faith and treat biblical stories as fables," says Mrs. Alice Moore, a school-board member and vocal opponent of the teaching materials. "The inference in many of these texts is that the Bible is nothing but a book written by men and not to be taken literally."

In California, a similar protest against public school textbooks has resulted in widespread revisions. For nearly a decade, beginning in the 1960s, some Californians who adhered to the biblical view of creation sought to have that theory represented along with evolution in the state's public school science textbooks. In 1972 the state finally decided against requiring textbooks to include religious creation theory, but adopted a compromise measure, ordering that textbooks should not reflect a "scientismic" bias—i.e., the assumption that the scientific approach is the only one possible. Some fundamentalists are still not satisfied. The Creation Research Society, whose members subscribe to a literal, six-day view of creation, is currently buttonholing local school-board members to get them to include the teaching of creation theory.

Some of this seems more than faintly reminiscent of the '20s, when William Jennings Bryan faced Clarence Darrow to prosecute Darwin's evolutionary theories in the Scopes "monkey trial." What is the reason for the revival today of such fierce fundamentalism? Perhaps the cause is an increased need for spiritual security in a troubled world. It may also derive from the current distrust of science and disillusionment with rationalism. This mood may account, too, for the Bible's growing popularity among people of all spiritual stripes—or none at all. Translated into 1,526 languages, it is being bought by or sent to more people than ever before. In the U.S., seven noteworthy new versions have come out since 1966. All have sold well (see box, page 41).
Zondervan Publishing House, a Michigan firm that puts out probably more varieties and styles of Bibles than any other U.S. publisher, reports sales of all editions this year are five times as great as they were four years ago. Zondervan's Robert Bolinder thinks he knows why: "Our product has the answers."

But what kind of answers? Strict fundamentalists believe exactly what the Bible says. The more learned of them use concepts like "inerrancy," which means that the original text of the Bible cannot be wrong in anything it says because it was inspired, word for word, by an infallible Deity. All this does not mean that every passage need be taken literally; obvious figurative language (Jesus calling Herod "that fox") is treated as such. A more moderate version of inerrancy holds that events like the Fall, though real, may have been recorded in a highly symbolic way. Some conservatives reject the Inerrancy idea altogether but insist that the Bible is absolutely trustworthy on theology and ethics and substantially accurate on history.

The world's most famous believer in inerrancy is Evangelist Billy Graham, but the most controversial hard-liner today is the Rev. Jacob A.O. Preus, 54, a Minnesota Governor's son with a Ph.D. in classics. Preus' crackdown as president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod led to the seminary walkout and the current threat of church wide schism. His personal view of Genesis includes a global flood in the Noah story and a six-day creation (though he leaves open to question how long the "days" were and how old the earth is). He believes literally in the Adam and Eve story and the entire New Testament, including accounts like Jesus' walking on water. Because of the way Jesus referred to Jonah's sojourn in the fish, Preus insists that the Jonah tale is history.

It was sharply contrasting interpretation of the Bible that led up to the ouster, in Cedar Rapids, of the Rev. Richard Osing, 41. In a letter to his district president, he made it clear that he doubted that Jonah or Adam and Eve were historical and that Jesus turned water into wine. Osing's views proved too much for his conservative parishioners. "The Lutheran Church has always been based on the Bible," explains Phil Beck, production manager of a local paint company and the church's Sunday-school superintendent. "If you start questioning it, where do you stop? If I have to have that much education to sit down and understand Genesis, then why did God ever let Luther put it in the people's language? At what point do I throw the whole mad mess out of the door? And at what point will my children throw it away?" The plea of that Cedar Rapids father is at the heart of the biblical controversy today, for he represents millions of Christians and Jews. His concern is a basic, agonizing one for any believer: How do you preserve faith in the Bible in a world that seems increasingly faithless? For Protestants it is an especially poignant question. Besides the Scriptures, Roman Catholics have the authority of tradition, Jews the guidance of the Talmud. But Protestantism bases its faith on the Bible alone. Its truth is essential; if the Bible falls, faith topples.

It is not only the advocates of absolute inerrancy who worry about preserving faith; most liberal exegetes share that concern, as well as a profound respect for biblical truth. Yet the truth they discern is of a different order, less tied to the Bible's literal events than to its underlying spirit. The faith such scholars affirm reflects the endemic doubts of modern man, child of the Enlightenment, reading his faith largely in the light of reason.

There are gnawing common-sense misgivings about Scripture: the awareness that a literal reading of the creation accounts seems to contradict science or, more importantly, that the Bible contains disturbing contradictions in its own moral teachings. Readers have been scandalized by a horrible incident in 11 Kings that tells how the prophet Elisha was taunted for his baldness by a group of youngsters. The prophet cursed the boys "in the name of the Lord," whereupon two bears came out of the woods and tore them apart. More immediate for Christians are the troubling "dark sayings" of Jesus like his warning that "I have not come to bring peace but a sword." One dire command is that a disciple must "hate his own father and mother and wife and children." Literal readings of such passages can lead to such mindless zealotry as that of the Children of God.

Clearly there are two sets of assumptions at work in Bible criticism. Like a Missouri Synod mother who insists that God "would not give us a book with errors," the literalists insist that an omniscient and loving God would give the world an absolutely inerrant Bible. Today's liberals, on the other hand, recognize and generally emphasize the human, historical factor in the Bible's composition—a view that goes much farther in explaining its apparent contradictions and deficiencies. Believing critics argue—and experience has sometimes shown—that rigid faith is the most vulnerable to complete destruction. In their view, the believer who can live with some doubt is more likely to keep some faith. An occasionally fallible Bible, therefore, is a Bible that paradoxically seems more authentic. 

Questions about the Bible's truth are nothing new; they have arisen from its earliest days. The Bible's first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah ("teachings"), had probably been canonized by Jews as the core of their sacred writings by the 5th century B.C. But even before that, there was growing up along with the Scriptures a body of oral interpretation eventually codified in the Talmud. It includes legal judgments known as halakhah and pious elaborations of biblical stories known as aggadah. Even in matters of law, however, the rabbis were not literalists. An "eye for an eye," for example, was not construed strictly (as it was in the Hammurabic Code). Instead, monetary compensation was deemed lawful. Nor were Jewish commentators troubled by the verbatim truth of every Bible narrative. Some, like the creation chapters of Genesis, were considered part of the "secrets of the Torah," mysteries to be continually probed for their hidden meanings.

Early Christianity had its own embryonic scriptural criticism. The great 3rd century church father Origen declared that some passages in the Bible "are not literally true but absurd and impossible." Even St. Augustine of Hippo, a 5th century champion of biblical orthodoxy, cautioned against literalism. "We must be on guard against giving interpretations of Scripture that are farfetched or opposed to science," he wrote, "and so exposing the word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers." Despite such precedent, this spirit of critical inquiry—limited though it was—did not carry over into medieval Christendom.

The historical setting of the Bible became the subject of investigations with the coming of the Reformation. Luther and Calvin believed doctrine should be based on "Scripture alone," not ecclesiastical tradition. Though the Reformers had a complete trust in the Bible's reliability and developed their own creeds to reinforce its teachings, their insistence that each individual read the Bible for himself set the stage for the rise of radical new ideas that they would have abhorred. In the 17th century the Dutch Philosopher Baruch ("Benedict") Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew, used a method that would be widely emulated by rationalist critics during the Enlightenment: he treated the Bible as a human rather than divine work and thus subject to investigation of its books according to date, authorship, composition and setting.

The giants of biblical criticism who emerged in 19th century Germany basically believed in the Christian message but carried over from the Enlightenment the emphasis on the Bible as a human work. Their aim was to find the historical core of Scripture by confronting it with an entire range of scientific disciplines: linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, comparative religion. There were other influences, too. Hegel's philosophy of history characterized the "Tubingen School" of criticism, which saw the New Testament as a synthesis of competing theses in early Christianity: the Jewish church centered around Peter, the Gentile church around Paul.

As for the Old Testament, 19th century scholars all but canonized a theory that discerns four major documents that were woven together in the five books of the Pentateuch. Two of them, the "Yahwist" and "Elohist" strands, are labeled by the different names—Yahweh and Elohim—which they used for God. The Yahwist strand portrays an anthropomorphic deity, the Elohist a spiritualized God. Though rigid application of this theory has come under fire, it is perhaps the most widely taught example of 19th century criticism.

The New Testament remained a formidable challenge to the critics. At the beginning of the 20th century, liberal scholars were still trying to peel back layers of the miraculous and the mythical to find out what the historical Jesus really taught. The Jesus that some of the searchers found was a mild-mannered ethical preacher, definitely not God incarnate. But Missionary-Philosopher Albert Schweitzer suggested that the real Jesus would be an embarrassment, that he had been a misguided fanatic who proclaimed an imminent apocalypse and died to bring it about.

None of the reactions to the liberals' search for a historical Jesus were more profound or far-reaching than that of a Lutheran theologian and Scripture scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, who at 90 is living in Marburg, West Germany, and still writing in scholarly journals. Bultmann did not object to the liberals' methods or their presuppositions. Like them, he felt that the New Testament's supernatural world view was intolerable to modern man, but he believed that the liberals were on the wrong track in trying to reconstruct the teachings of a historical Jesus. Schooled in the thought of Martin Heidegger and Sören Kierkegaard, Bultmann was convinced that the Christian message, or kerygma (from the Greek "proclamation"), must be something more existentially powerful. One clue to the message, he thought, lay in the beliefs of the first Christian communities where the Gospel was preached, and their perception of Christ from their own situation in life.

To uncover that earliest stratum of Christian belief, Bultmann joined other scholars like Martin Dibelius in perfecting a research tool called form criticism, which examined the Gospels and Epistles with an eye to discerning the various stylized forms of the oral traditions behind them. Distinguishing among the oral traditions would help the scholar determine how faith built up the experiences of these early Christians into the formulas of what Bultmann called myths. Getting beneath those myths to the believers' experience is the famous Bultmann process of "demythologization." It reveals the kernel of existential faith that can be translated into a meaning for modern man.

What Bultmann sought was the "once for all" intersection of eternity and history that he called the "Christ event," which had clearly changed the lives of the first Christians. The Crucifixion, which Bultmann recognized as a fact, played a part in this encounter, but the event culminated in the Resurrection. This, Bultmann says, was not a historical occurrence but an existential one, a "coming to faith" by which the first Christians believed that Jesus was somehow victorious over death.

Instead of the liberals' lukewarm "Jesus of history," what Bultmann came to offer his followers was a "Christ of faith": a historically intangible but existentially forceful figure whose liberation of mankind is an ever-continuing act. This Christ can free human beings from the banalities and cruelties of history, but only in terms of their own continuing decision to be free, which becomes the life of faith.

Bultmann's critics today feel that he too casually relegated the Resurrection to the realm of the unhistorical. One of his most famous students, Oscar Cullmann of the University of Basel, broke with his teacher because of Bultmann's overriding concern about the beliefs of the early church. "It is well and good to say that what matters is only the faith of the first Christian community," says Cullmann, now 72, "but after all, these oral renderings were based on specific facts as witnessed by the Apostles. No matter how you interpret the empty tomb, it was a historical event."

A somewhat younger generation of Bultmann's students form a loose alliance known as the post-Bultmann school. While their work usually reflects Bultmann's existential tone, it also recognizes that the master was too skeptical about recovering history. James Robinson, a leader of the school in the U.S., explains their rationale: "Liberal scholars, including Bultmann, used to say, 'We cannot write a biography of Jesus. There are too few facts in the New Testament. All we can say about Jesus is what Christians believed.' So the quest for the historical Jesus was given up." But Robinson and others today have taken it up again. "We say that if what you mean by history is the intentions, the stances, the understanding of existence, then that can be established with regard to Jesus. There are enough sayings of Jesus to see what he was up to."

While Protestants enthusiastically debated the findings of biblical criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries, Roman Catholic investigation of the Scriptures was discouraged. Counter-Reformation Catholicism, petrified into a siege mentality at the 16th century Council of Trent, had become fiercely dogmatic in its defense of biblical truth. Though its own eminent scholars—Thomas Aquinas among them—had warned that the Bible was not intended to teach scientific truth, the Galileo case in the early 17th century suggested otherwise. Galileo's teaching that the earth revolved round the sun shocked church inquisitors, who charged that it contradicted Scripture, in particular the famous command of Joshua: "Sun, stand thou still."

Roman Catholics who sought to follow the Protestant lead into biblical criticism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were either silenced or excommunicated by Pope Pius X. Those who chose to stay in the church were commanded to give "external and internal assent" to such decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission as the one insisting that woman had been formed out of the body of the first man.

Then in 1943, Pope Pius XII published Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Holy Spirit). The encyclical encouraged new biblical research, literary criticism, and new translations from the original languages rather than from the sacrosanct Vulgate, the 5th century Latin translation by St. Jerome. In 1955, the Pontifical Biblical Commission told scholars that they had complete freedom to overlook the commission's literalist decrees under Pius X, unless the matter involved faith and morals. Catholic scholarship moved almost as fast in a decade as Protestants had in a century. By 1964 the biblical commission acknowledged that the Apostles "made use of various modes of speaking which were suited to their own purpose and the mentality of their listeners"—a virtual endorsement of form criticism.

Among the biblical questions still being pondered by Catholic scholars is monogenism—the belief in one set of Adam-and-Eve "original parents"—as opposed to polygenism, the theory that evolution to human form occurred in many places at roughly the same time. Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 cautiously left the door open regarding polygenism, pointing out that it "apparently" was not consistent with church doctrine on original sin. But Jesuit Francis McCool of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome says that "the scientific evidence for polygenism seems to have increased," and he feels that the theory need not necessarily clash with the Scriptures. McCool stresses that whether Adam and Eve are viewed as individuals or symbols in Genesis, the story still carries the traditional teaching on original sin.

To Orthodox Jewish exegetes, like Catholics, modern critical methods were a stumbling block: by questioning Moses' authorship of the Torah, biblical criticism cut to the heart of Jewish tradition. A modern Orthodox scholar like Rabbi Norman Lamm of Manhattan's Yeshiva University still supports Mosaic authorship of the Torah because "it is a dogmatic necessity." But Lamm, like most Orthodox Jews, allows much more latitude than fundamentalist Christians in understanding Genesis accounts. "Certainly the creation text is not literal," says Lamm. He is also not concerned, for instance, whether Noah and his family were the sole survivors of the biblical flood. What is important about Noah's story, he explains, "is the moral teaching that man's actions have consequences and that ultimately God's judgment encompasses all mankind."

Liberal Jewish scholars tend to take Bible criticism for granted, but they no longer accept it as unquestioningly as they once did. Says Rabbi Eugene Borowitz of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan: "The scientists are no longer the bishops. Reform scholars can now relax and show their true affinity to the Bible."

The fact that biblical critics pick and choose among the supernatural events they accept baffled the late Anglican novelist-critic C.S. Lewis. He wondered at the selective theology of the Christian exegete who, "after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection, strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes." These critics would be apt to seek a naturalistic explanation for Jesus' multiplication of loaves and fishes—for instance, that he inspired the crowd to share food they had hidden for themselves.

Whether such an interpretation is justified may well be questioned, but changing the event from a physical to a spiritual phenomenon does not necessarily undermine its value as a miracle. It is quite orthodox Christian theology that miracles are not meant to be simply marvels. That sort of thing, accepted as a commonplace in the 1st century world, was left to pagan magicians. A miracle, rather, is understood as a sign of God's power to heal and save. George Bernard Shaw put it slightly differently. "A miracle," he wrote, "is an event which creates faith."

Compared with other ancient literature, the Bible contains relatively few miracles; mostly they accredit individuals through whom God's promises are carried out: patriarchs, prophets, Jesus. Even very conservative Bible experts will now agree that the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus can be too literally construed. Study shows that the Israelites apparently crossed the Sea of Reeds, a series of shallow lakes that once lay where the Suez Canal now runs. The high wind noted in Exodus could have made the lakes more easily fordable on foot—but not by the Egyptian chariots. None of that, however, really detracts from the immensity of the providential favor: in any event it helped to change permanently the way in which Jews thought of God.

The miracle of the virginal conception of Jesus is another problematic sign. Luke's account of the Nativity clearly means to underline Jesus' humanity: the shepherds, the humble surroundings, the hardships, the very fact of birth. The idea that he was born of a virgin, however, signifies an extraordinary event: a message that God's will, and not man's, was involved. New Testament Exegete Raymond Brown, probably the premier Catholic scriptural scholar in the U.S., is one of those who are deeply interested in the question of Jesus' virginal conception. Brown—the only American member now on the Pontifical Biblical Commission—has cautiously suggested that the church reopen the question to concentrated scholarly research, at least partly because other Christians are calling the virgin birth into public question. But he is also wary of shocking the beliefs of the pious, and thus spends considerable time explaining biblical criticism to priests and lay people.

Brown combines a progressive approach to method and analysis of the Gospels with a careful attention to conserving some essence of fact. One telling example, in his widely used Anchor Bible commentary on John, is his treatment of the account of Jesus' raising of Lazarus. The miracle is a vivid incident, placed at the very end of Christ's ministry by the evangelist and cited as the reason for Jesus' arrest and execution.
Yet none of the other three Gospels mention the Lazarus incident, and all are presumed to be dated before John's time. Would not such a fateful miracle be reported by everyone?

Brown readily allows that the Lazarus account is a dramatic embellishment by John of an event that is nonetheless in some way historical. In the Gospels there are other instances of Jesus raising a dead person (the son of the widow of Nain in Luke), and Brown suggests that John may have transposed a similar event to the end of Christ's ministry to symbolize in one act the audacity of his miracles.

The breadth, sophistication and diversity of all this biblical investigation are impressive, but it begs a question: Has it made the Bible more credible or less? Literalists who feel the ground move when a verse is challenged would have to say that credibility has suffered. Doubt has been sown, faith is in jeopardy. But believers who expect something else from the Bible may well conclude that its credibility has been enhanced. After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived —and is perhaps the better for the siege.

Even on the critics' own terms—historical fact—the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack. Noting one example among many, New Testament Scholar Bruce Metzger observes that the Book of Acts was once accused of historical errors for details that have since been proved by archaeologists and historians to be correct.

There are other levels of biblical truth that today's believers and nonbelievers alike can share. A purer, more accurate text, for example, closer to the original than scholars or laymen have enjoyed since antiquity. A more accurate understanding of its meaning, made possible by the abundance of excellent translations. The erosion of literalism, moreover, may have put the Bible's poetry in sharper relief. With a literal whale out of the way, readers can appreciate the splendid parable of Jonah: the story of a stubborn man trying to avoid doing good for an enemy.

The Jonah parable goes beyond that humanistic dimension, however. What Jonah resists is a call from God to preach repentance to the sinners of Nineveh. No manner of scientific search can establish the reality of a call from God. This is not a miracle, but it is a supernatural idea, and it requires from any critic who hopes to grasp it something more than secular understanding.

The miraculous can be demythologized, the marvel explained, but the persistent message of the Bible will not go away. Both in the Jewish and Christian Bibles it is irreducible: some time, some where, God intervened in history to help man. Whether it was at the time of the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the Incarnation or the Resurrection, or any of those many smaller interventions that are still so cherished, ordinary human history was interrupted, and has never since been the same.