Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gospel Principles #3 - Jesus Christ, Our Chosen Leader and Savior (NOM version)

I actually didn't teach this lesson in Relief Society because of the way the schedule was arranged that particular year. I taught lesson #2 instead, but it didn't seem like a terribly interesting one discussion-wise. Therefore, I decided to do this one instead. For reference, see Jesus Christ, Our Chosen Leader and Savior in the Gospel Principles manual.

Growing up I always had a fairly strong personal belief and relationship with God ever since I was 14 years old (as I wrote about earlier), but it took me considerably longer to develop my relationship with Christ, most likely because I felt closer to God through prayer. (For those of you from other faith traditions who are reading this blog, Mormonism posits that God and Christ are two separate individuals.) My freshman year at BYU I experienced a period of intense disillusionment with church culture and felt very estranged from Mormonism although I continued to attend church. My sophomore year of BYU, I started to warm back up to Mormonism again as a result of some loving roommates. One day, after listening to a BYU Devotional with Neal A. Maxwell, I felt the strong desire to recommit myself to God and Mormonism. The day of my re-conversion I spent several hours in prayer and repentance. It was then that I developed a close, intensely personal relationship with Christ, which I maintained as a strong source of comfort and direction for nearly a decade.

But these days I am highly skeptical of the divinity of Christ. My current worldview was very painful for me to accept, but it was the result of my study of the research conducted by scholars of New Testament textual criticism over the last 300 years. I'll discuss why I find their evidence persuasive and I'll end this blog entry on a positive note by talking about how I still feel the concepts of grace and the Atonement are still psychologically useful.

Problems With the New Testament
When I try to accept the divinity of Christ, I find myself in an epistemological quandary. That's a fancy way of saying that it's difficult for me to trust the authority of most sources that claim to provide me with direct, credible knowledge about Christ's divinity. Aside from personal or prophetic revelation (which have their own epistemological flaws that I won't get into here), our main source of access to knowledge about Christ's life and teaching is the New Testament (as well as some extra-canonical Christian literature such as the Gospels of Thomas and Mary). Although I sincerely believe that Christ existed historically and that we can re-construct fragments of his life and original teachings, it is extremely difficult to do so---especially if we use the New Testament in its current form as our exclusive source of knowledge about Christ.

The first problem that I've had in trying to access the truth about Jesus has come as I've studied the history of how the New Testament came into existence. The books of the New Testament were not written chronologically in the order they appear in the New Testament. Here's a nice little graphic I got from Jared Anderson that shows the timeline of when the books of the New Testament were written, according to scholarly textual research:

I don't have the time to rehearse the scholarly methodology used to construct this timeline. You'll just have to trust me when I say that this timeline represents the prevailing scholarly consensus of the dates these books were written. I've listed some helpful sources in my footnotes of this blog entry for further study, if you're so inclined. [1]

As you can see from the chart above, the first books of the New Testament were written by Paul, composed nearly 20 years after the death of Jesus. The Four Gospels were written in the decades after Paul's death in the latter half of the first century. Most contemporary scholars accept something called the "Q hypothesis," which posits that "the material common to Matthew and Luke, but lacking in Mark, probably came from a source no longer extant and commonly designated as 'Q' (from the German Quelle, meaning source)." [2] It was a text that was hypothetically based on an oral tradition dating back to Jesus's time.

Most modern scholars also assume that "despite the identification of these gospels with individual men, we have no reliable historical information about the actual authors of the gospels." [3]  Most scholars assume that John was written by a particular religious community---typically referred to by scholars as the Johannine community. They also infer that the Book of Acts was written by the same author(s) who wrote Luke.

Furthermore, most Biblical scholars agree that the books of the New Testament were written for specific theological and rhetorical purposes. Kraemer and D'Angelo describe the prevailing scholarly consensus:
All presume that early Christian gospels, whether included in the canon of the New Testament or not, reflect the intentional activity of ancient authors and ancient transmitters of traditions about Jesus and about those who made up the early communities of his followers. All recognize that the fundamental character of these traditions is theological, which means, among other things, that their primary concern is to interpret Jesus called Christ to diverse communities of followers, and they are only incidentally at best interested in what we might understand as "history." All acknowledge that a significant portion of these traditions is unlikely to be historically reliable. [4]
Simply put, the writers of the New Testament were less concerned with creating an accurate historical representation of Jesus and were more interested in putting a particular spin on Jesus and his teachings for specific audiences---and for shrewdly calculated rhetorical purposes. (For example, the gospel of Matthew may have been written for the purpose of creating a Jewish-Christian hybrid religion. The gospel of John is decidedly more gnostic in its tone and reflects the fundamental values of the Johannine community that produced it. And so forth.) What this means is that the representation of Jesus in these books is constantly being mediated by the particular rhetorical agendas of its authors. In other words, in these books of the New Testament, we're getting a varied interpretations of Jesus that are being filtered through and colored by specific worldviews, theological values, and rhetorical agendas. As Mormons we're used to reading the Gospels in parallel with each other in Sunday School, cherry-picking our favorite parts to reinforce our contemporary Mormon views. There is some value in this approach, but it can also potentially blind you to other more useful or accurate interpretations of the texts.

Furthermore, it is important to note that several of the books of the New Testament that are attributed to Paul are believed by many scholars to be pseudepigrapha, meaning that they were letters falsely written in the 2nd century in Paul's name after the fact. These writings were written by well-intentioned individuals who likely saw no real ethical harm in what they were doing. They merely wanted to authoritatively settle the theological disputes that were plaguing early Christian communities (for example, issues of high or low Christology, gnosticism, monotheism, and---most importantly to me as a contemporary Mormon feminist---defining the role of women in the early church).

So, that's how the New Testament was constructed timeline-wise, but that's only the tip of the iceberg as far as problems with the New Testament are concerned. As Bart Ehrmann, a well-respected New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, explains:
It is one thing to say that the original [manuscripts of the books of the New Testament] were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much, unless I can reconstruct the originals.

Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. …

[T]hese copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. ... Even so, what's one to make of all these differences? If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don't have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see [later in this book], we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are! [5]
As Ehrman is alluding to here, the New Testament has changed dramatically as it has been passed down through the centuries. We have no access to the original manuscripts of the New Testament, nor do I think we have any hope of being able to have access to the originals one day. The existing manuscripts that we have today are copies of copies of copies and they contain a multitude of discrepancies---some changes made on accident by the unprofessional scribes of the early centuries and some changes made deliberately for politically and theologically motivated purposes. I also feel that the process of canonization was also a very political process that was particularly oppressive to views that gave an equal role to women in Christian communities.

In short, I feel that the New Testament is a very unstable, unreliable text. We cannot un-complicatedly state that it gives us pure, direct access to Christ and his teachings. We simply do not have access to any kind of authoritative, genuine record of what those teachings really were in any kind of pure form. We only have access to a murky shadow of what it might have been.

Mormons have an "out" for this, of course. According to the 9th Article of Faith, Mormons are only obliged to believe the Bible is the word of God "as far as it is translated correctly." I'm not going to claim to know what Joseph Smith really meant when he penned those words. However, by this logic it almost stands to reason that since the "translations" of these Biblical texts have been proven to be so utterly riddled with centuries of errors that the Bible should practically be rejected in its entirety---which I'm fairly certain was not Joseph Smith's intent. Furthermore, I am extremely hesitant to trust Joseph Smith's supposed translation of the Bible as being authoritative in any way---especially given the multitude of problems with the Book of Abraham. (And we haven't even mentioned that if, according to Mormon theology, the Great Apostasy began shortly after Paul's death, which is traditionally believed to be around 67 A.D., then that throws suspicion on nearly 2/3 of the New Testament as being corrupted by apostasy---including the four Gospels.)

We simply have to accept that the New Testament and its representation of Christ and early Christianity is problematic at best. I just can't trust the authoritativeness of the New Testament any more, as much as I may want to on an emotional level. If it truly is the word of God, then it is clearly a very flawed vehicle for it---and it has the suspicious imprint of human hands all throughout it. [6]

My Current View of Christology
I want to point to Mark 16 as an example of a particular disputed chapter in textual criticism that illustrates my current perspectives on Christ. There is an intense debate about whether verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were in the original Markan manuscript or not. Mark is, of course, believed by scholars to be the first gospel that was written and is known to be one of the sources of material used by the authors of Matthew and Luke when composing their gospels. The disputed verses of the final chapter of Mark provide an account of Jesus's resurrection.

The controversy between scholars about these verses comes from the fact that these verses are missing from two of our earliest and most complete Markan manuscripts: Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dated mid-300's A.D. To be fair, I should also mention that the scribes who wrote these two codices left some blank space after verse 8, indicating that they were possibly aware of a longer ending to the Gospel of Mark, but they did not have it available from the manuscripts they were copying.

Most other manuscripts of Mark 16 and early versions (such as translations into other languages) include verses 9-20. There is also evidence that the early Christian church leaders immediately following the apostles' deaths may have been aware of these verses. [7]

Nevertheless, I personally think it makes sense that they were not original to Mark. The Gospel of Mark seems to have a very low Christology, meaning that he does not seem to be terribly concerned with proving that Jesus was divine (at least not the way Luke or other gospels seem to be). And it's important to note that many early Christians would have had differing views on Christology in general. Christian communities which had low Christologies were certainly in existence at the time Mark was written.

This is just one key example of several important verses that are either in dispute by New Testament scholars or which are considered by scholars to be later additions by scribes. While many of these changes are inconsqeuential, some have a very direct impact on our understanding of Christology and Christ's original theology.

My own personal belief based on my study of the New Testament is that when Christ was alive, his followers sincerely believed that he was the predicted Messiah who would deliver the Jews from political bondage under the Romans. Christ and his followers likely believed that the end of the world was coming soon and the Kingdom of God would soon be established on the earth. When the Romans assassinated Christ, it threw the early Christian community into theological chaos. How could he be their liberator if he was dead? Paul helped to make sense of this theological problem by preaching that Christ would return in glory soon and would bring about the kingdom of God. As is clear from the original letters of Paul, he and his followers were millenarians, which means they sincerely believed that they would one day live to see the Second Coming. As time passed and the original Christians converts began to die, the younger Christian communities had to deal with the theological cognitive dissonance caused by the fact that Christ hadn't come yet. I think that the theology of grace (the Atonement, as Mormons call it) and resurrection were later theological adaptations created by Christians as a way to make sense of Christ's absence. We've seen this kind of pattern for resolving millenarian cognitive dissonance emerge time and time again with many Christian sects in more contemporary times (and I include the Mormonism in that category, given that many early Saints fully believed the second coming would occur in 1890). In short, I think the version of Christianity that has survived today is a complex, man-made theological construction that is very different from what the earliest Christians believed---including possibly Christ himself.

I recognize this view is a bit naive, underdeveloped and awkwardly expressed. I'm not a Biblical scholar; just a Biblical enthusiast who likes to read scholarly Biblical criticism. As such, my views are liable to change as more information and evidence comes in. But, nevertheless, that's where I currently stand on the matter: the Atonement and other high-Christological concepts were theological innovations that emerged later in the development of Christianity (or were at least in strong competition with other views of Christ in ancient Christianity). I therefore am skeptical of the evidence that Christ is a divine being.

Nevertheless, the Atonement is Still a Useful Concept
That being said, I generally keep my agnostic beliefs about Christ to myself. On one level, I do that because I don't want to start a fight with anyone. But on another level, I don't want to hurt anyone's beliefs in the Atonement. Although I think there are some potentially damaging elements of the idea that God hates sin and requires suffering as recompense for sin, I nevertheless see value in the concept of Christ and the Atonement. [8]

Let me relate a brief story without going into too much detail. A while ago I broke an important promise that I had made to someone. It was a promise that no longer had any intrinsic meaning to me and which would have meant nothing to someone who didn't understand the context. But I felt tremendously guilty about my actions the next day---a feeling that I had not in any way anticipated. I knew that I couldn’t undo the effects of my actions because I couldn’t change the past---I couldn’t un-break my promise. All I could really do to learn from the event so that I could avoid making the same mistake in the future. And although I had stopped believing in the literal Atonement long before that event occurred, I admittedly mourned for my loss of faith in it on that day.

Guilt can sometimes be a productive, pro-social emotion---but when we wallow in it or experience it unnecessarily, it can become unhealthy. And so I think I mourned for my belief in the Atonement because I wanted to displace guilt/pain the way I used to by just handing it over to Christ. It had been so much easier, so much more convenient really, before my beliefs about Christ had gotten so complicated.

As I was reflecting on that, I was thinking about how psychologically useful the concept of repentence is. From a certain point of view, it’s like giving us a way to “change” the past even though we can’t actually change the past. And repentence allows us to psychologically put our guilt about the past behind us and move forward doing good works in the future—with our psychological image of ourselves as “still a good person” relatively intact (which is itself another very useful social fiction). [9]

The problem for me is the dilemma of the placebo effect: the Atonement doesn’t work if you know how it works. I see value in the concept, but I can’t personally psyche myself into it believing it—even though I miss the function that it used to have in my life. Now, let me state that I do believe it is possible to train yourself to let go of the past and be optimistic about the future without the aid of the Atonement---but it is a lot more difficult to do on your own because it does require deliberate training and personal discipline.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I wouldn't ever want to take someone's placebo effect away from them. If their beliefs are working for them, why try to disabuse them of it? But for me, I'm personally more interested in having an accurate view of the world than believing in social fictions---useful though those fictions may be.

 [1] For a good and accessible summary of the history, methodology, and evidence accumulated over the last 300 years of New Testament criticism, I would recommend reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why a trade book written for a lay audience by Bart Ehrmann, a well-respected New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill. I would also recommend listening to Jared Anderson's "An Academic Introduction to the New Testament" on the Mormon Stories podcast. Lastly, I'd recommend investing in a study Bible such as the New Revised Standard Version. (I believe my husband and I use the Harper-Collins edition.) I list my sources here so that you know I'm not just pulling this stuff from Joe Schmoe's Anti-Christ website. This is legitimate scholarship being made by individuals who have devoted their life and careers to the study of ancient Greek languages and the New Testament manuscripts. They study the Bible in a league of their own and to disrespect their scholarship shows incredible audacity, naivete and ignorance of this field of study.

[2] Kraemer, Ross Shepherd and Mary Rose D'Angelo, eds. Women and Christian Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ehrmann, ibid.

[6] Just as a humorous side note. An image was floating around the Internet that said: "To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click 'I agree.' "

[7] This is a very complicated debate and one that I'm not fully qualified to retrace, so I'll refer you to Wikipedia's entry on Mark 16 for more information about the debate.

[8] It's useful to acknowledge that there are many different ways of conceiving of the concepts of grace and the Atonement.

[9] My friend who is a New Testament scholar with an LDS background wrote a beautiful Middle Way Mormonism post expressing similar ideas: "Jesus: Savior or Symbol."


  1. Hi, hope you are doing well.. are you still there? I came across your "Composition of NT Books" chart and was curious where you got it (or did you make it yourself). Take care and happy easter.

  2. I am still here. I'm just incredibly busy with work and haven't had time to post much. As for the chart, I got it from a friend of mine who is a New Testament scholar (PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina a Chapel Hill) specializing in the chronology of when New Testament books were written. Why do you ask?

  3. OG, thanks for your quick response. I was watching a documentary on the book of revelation that kept referring to it as a 1st century work (I thought it was written much later). I know that identity-theft and people calling themselves apostles are very rampant in the bible, so I wanted to find an overall chart. Happy Easter & thx again :)