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The chilling facts of time

This week is the anniversary of Christ's death.
This week is the anniversary of Christ's death.

We have heard of the "facts of life." But in scholarship, there is the fact of time and what it means to the manuscripts and documents that are of utmost importance to Church history. I used to write, and say, that few people have actually "read" the Bible, simply because most people do not read Hebrew and Greek. What we have all read is translations of the Bible, except for those who can read the original.

But there is still the element of time. Everything and everyone grows old, and in the case of the precious documents that contain our Scriptures, they simply no longer exist. At some time in the Fourth Century, they crumbled away into dust and we are now completely dependent on translations of those original books and letters. At this point in time we can say truthfully that no one living has “read the Bible.”

You can read more about this in an immensely-important book called Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman. He is accustomed to delivering unwelcome truths to the scholarly community, such as the discrediting of the so-called ossuary of St. James, which as I understand it is not considered genuine. Ehrman is one of a few people who are contacted immediately when a discovery is made that could be of importance to the faith community.

In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman documents the reality that during the hundreds of generations that have passed in the Church, there were actually persons who thought nothing of changing the content of the New Testament to accord with their ideas. A famous passage from St. Paul, in which he denigrates women's status in the Church, simply does not appear in the oldest copies of the letter the passage appears in. It must have been inserted by a copyist. Yet women have borne the burden of this lie for more than a thousand years.

That brings me to the Paul's Letter to the Romans. Bearing in mind that the original Letter does not exist--it has long since crumbled away to nothing--we can look at its content in a different light. There is no guarantee that what you read in your Bible is the pure translation of what Paul wrote.

We can believe that Scripture is infallible, and many people do. But the Scripture that was infallible was the Scripture that was written; in the case of the New Testament, Paul's Letters (the ones he actually wrote) may be worthy of literal acceptance. But copies of Paul's letters do not merit this honor, especially when we have actually seen changes made from copy to copy. So we come to the passage in Romans that seemed to torment Fred Phelps of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church:

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

"Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

"Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error." [Romans 1:18-29]

The first thing to note is that Paul does not say that the people he is writing about were Jewish. He does not say where they lived either, nor does he mention the name of their culture or tribe. "Somebody, somewhere" began worshiping idols and God "struck them gay," and somehow they received the "due penalty" for this.

This is a pretty poor passage to use to terrify a man into being struck gay by God, but unless we hear otherwise we must believe that either Preacher Phelps thought that God might make him wake up gay one morning, or he was too ignorant to understand the passage. Nevertheless, his son told interviewers that Phelps was obsessed with the passage his whole life (for whatever reasons).

But we must consider our relationship to time, and the fact is that whatever Paul himself actually wrote, or dictated to a scribe, is gone forever. Therefore, because that particular passage is so bizarre, and so unlike the rest of Romans, there is legitimate doubt in my mind that Paul wrote the story at all. It seems much more likely that it is one of the extraneous passages that were put into some documents and it has survived as part of the Letter to the Romans.

And this is why we are not fundamentalists. We don't have the Letter to the Romans. It is gone--it no longer exists. We have copies of copies that have been made though about seventeen hundred years; that is what we have, and all we have.

Therefore I do not believe that Christians should be fundamentalists and insist that faulty copies should be taken literally. If the Letter to the Romans still existed we could settle the matter. As it is, only a biblical scholar who has access to hundreds of copies of Romans could make an educated guess.

Let's compare the passage above to two famous passages from Romans:

"For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is [only] the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

"For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." [Romans 4: 13-17]

That passage is followed by this:

"Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die). But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we are justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." [Romans 5: 1-11]

How do these passages stack up to the tale of the people who were struck gay? I repeat: who were they? What city did they live in? What country did they live in? Were they Jews? What tribe did they come from? When did this happen?

I think the internal evidence of Romans suggests as strongly as possible (since proof is impossible) that the passage in Romans 1 is not original content. I will continue to believe this no matter how fervently anyone insists that every word of the Bible must be interpreted literally, in agreement with their interpretation.
And you have that right as well. You have every right to think over what we read in Scripture and decide for yourself just how it much sense it makes to you.

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