Thursday, 16 August 2007

So why do we have all these 'books'?

There was a question recently on Smulospace about the origins of the bible and how the writings that we now officially recognise as scriptures came to be so. As is often the case, this generated plenty more questions and stated points of view.

In the past I’ve seen people taught academically about the origins of scripture and I’ve seen the confusion that (bad) teaching has brought. This has certainly served to harden my attitude toward theologians and Christian academics and such teaching, even becoming convinced that most theologians had ‘missed it’.

But blissful ignorance can only carry one so far.
Now I don’t think that a working knowledge of how the bible came to be is AT ALL important for the faith of the average Christian, but it is *interesting* and potentially useful if one is that way inclined. I am so inclined, and therefore in my own fumbly and pitfall-strewn manner am trying to learn a little.

As part of this learning, I’ve begun reading some of the books that are rejected by what one might call the ‘post reformation’ church, but accepted by the older streams – the Apocrypha. This collection of writings dates from around the end of the old testament through to the re-established state of Israel after the return from exile in Babylon prior to Roman occupation. The books seem to be a mixture of the prophetic, historic and story telling, rather jumbled up together, and in some cases, having significant overlap.

Now if I said I was trying to read through prayerfully, that would sound ‘cringy’ and be only half true. For example the book of Tobit starts off like a genuine historical account but eventually ends up reading just like a Jewish version of the Arabian nights tales, and is, I’m pretty sure, a distillation of popular myth and stories. The first part may well be a genuine account but the latter part involving the son seems to be just a bit of fluff, added to ‘prove’ to the reader if you’re righteous everything will come good in the end. There's nothing complex about it, and the distinction *seems* obvious.

The 2 books of Maccabees are interesting because they overlap with different perspectives. It’s hard to be completely objective because I automatically distrust the writings and feel as though I want to find things wrong, proving to myself that these books aren’t ‘scripture’. However they have the feel of historical writings that have been massaged to emphasise certain points of view, and don’t feel totally consistent (I’d need to do a event-by-event breakdown to feel happy with this conclusion). I also felt a little ill at some of the descriptions of torture.

Esdras is interesting – I’m still reading through – and it's the strangest so far. Parts of the book I feel are genuinely prophetic, almost shockingly so, yet other parts miss the mark so widely. I took this one to God because I really wanted to know, and I believe what I heard was that the prophetic word was for then but is not for now – it was made to a very specific group of people. I am SURE that the book has also been very substantially added to or modified as well, because the manner in which it talks of God does not seem to honour Him or reflect a character consistent with either the old or new testaments.

In fact the kind of God reflected in most of what I’ve read so far lines up much better with the characters of gods in Greek mythology: capricious, wasteful of human lives and suffering and uncaring for His people. I very much wonder if there is a substantial influence from Greek culture in these writings, as Greece was the major military power in the area at this time, and seemingly constantly at war with Jewish culture. This is probably not helped by the translation I’ve got – the ‘Good News’ version was never more than approximately right, and although easy enough to read, lacks anything like precision. I’m not sure that the benefit of this kind of knowledge actually justifies spending money on a better version, so we’ll have to wait and see.

So based on my reading thus far I’d say it was definitely right to exclude these books from the canon of scripture. While they have a spirituality about them and use some of the right words, they do not provide a presentation of God that is consistent with the rest of scripture as I recognise it. I don’t *think* that I am just reading it that way because I already know them to be excluded.

Those of you with a great deal more knowledge than me, feel free to chip in on my conclusions. Who knows – I might even agree. For those who’ve never read them, unless you have a thirst for this kind of knowledge, don’t bother, there’s nothing there to push you further into God.

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