Friday, July 27, 2007

A fundamentalist assumption examined

As I've already mentioned, one of my special pleasures in reading Christopher Hitchens's latest book is his mentions of authors and issues that I'm already familiar with. Reading God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything tends to confirm some of my own understandings about religion:
Many years after C. S. Lewis had gone to his reward, a very serious young man named Barton Ehrman began to examine his own fundamentalist assumptions. He had attended the two most eminent Christian fundamentalist academies in the United States1, and was considered by the faithful to be among their champions. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew (he is now holder of a chair in religious studies [in Chapel Hill]), he eventually could not quite reconcile his faith with his scholarship. He was astonished to find that some of the best-known Jesus stories were scribbled into the canon long after the fact, and that this was true of perhaps the best-known of them all.
      This story is the celebrated one about the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11). Who has not heard or read of how the Jewish Pharisees, skilled in casuistry, dragged this poor woman before Jesus and demanded to know if he agreed with the Mosaic punishment of stoning her to death? If he did not, he violated the law. If he did, he made nonsense of his own preachings. One easily pictures the squalid zeal with which they pounced upon the woman. And the calm reply...—"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her"—has entered our literature and our consciousness.
      ...Long before I read Ehrman2, I had some questions of my own. If the New Testament is supposed to vindicate Moses, why are the gruesome laws of the Pentateuch to be undermined? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the killing of witches may seem brutish and stupid, but if only non-sinners have the right to punish, then how could an imperfect society ever determine how to prosecute offenders? We should all be hypocrites. And what authority did Jesus have to "forgive"? Presumably, at least one wife or husband somewhere in the city felt cheated and outraged. Is Christianity, then, sheer sexual permissiveness? If so, it has been gravely misunderstood ever since...Furthermore, the story says that after the Pharisees and the crowd had melted away (presumably from embarrassment), nobody was left except Jesus and the woman. In that case, who is the narrator of what he said to her? For all that, I thought it a fine enough story.
      Professor Ehrman goes further. He asks some more obvious questions. If the woman was "taken in adultery," which means in flagrante delicto, then where is her male partner? Mosaic law, adumbrated in Leviticus, makes it clear that both must undergo the stoning. I suddenly realized that the core of the story's charm is that of the shivering lonely girl, hissed at and dragged away by a crowd of sex-starved fanatics, and finally encountering a friendly face....
      Overarching all this is the shocking fact that, as Ehrman concedes:
The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable; this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.
      I have again [after selecting C. S. Lewis] selected my source on the basis of "evidence against interest"; in other words from someone whose original scholarly and intellectual journey was not at all intended to challenge holy writ. The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or "inspiration" has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no "revelation" can be derived from that quarter. So, then, let the advocates and partisans of religion rely on faith alone, and let them be brave enough to admit that this is what they are doing.
  1. The Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College.
  2. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, from which I quoted in my post of April 30.


  1. He didn't know about those verses. That doesn't mean nobody did. For example, the NWT (1961) very prominently sets those verses apart from the main texts and explains their spurious nature. Watchtower publications never refer to those verses for the same reasons.

    But fundamentalist groups are the last to come to grips with scholarship. A good many of them yet believe that only the KJV is valid, whereas all others are tricks of the devil.

  2. Right, like everyone (with the possible exception of certain Jehovah's Witnesses*), he didn't know about them until he learned about them....
    * But it depends, I guess, on whether [JWs] "never refer" includes "never did refer, in their whole history of furnishing the goats who would listen the only really true view of these things."