II Timothy 3:16-17
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 9, 2015
University Baptist Church
Way back in 2007/08 we did a worship series called “Whose Faith is it Anyway?” On most Sundays we looked at two scriptures. One that made a statement and one that contradicted it. Kind of like a thesis and antithesis. The point was to show that the Bible speaks with many voices and that astute students of the Bible need not simply take the Bible at face value, but delve deeper into its cultural context, the political backdrop, the time in Israel’s or the church’s history, who their current opponents were and so forth. It was a way for us to responsibly embrace the Bible while not checking our brains at the door.
So, naturally my thoughts went back there when the topic for today’s sermon was picked out of last Sunday’s Grab Bag: “Who chose the collection of books that make up the Bible today and where, and why these books. And what is the apocrypha?” How long do we have?
Of course there is no simple answer to this question. The Bible developed over years and different groups had their set of holy and authoritative books. We have our books that we find authoritative for our lives in our faith libraries, don’t we? I’m sure the Bible is in there, but I imagine it’s one of many books in our faith libraries.
I love the Bible because in it I find direction when I am lost and comfort when I am hurt. I am passionate about the Bible. And you cannot get passionate about something that you don’t love. There are parts of the Bible that make me very angry, especially those parts which have been used to put people down and keep people out. And as I read further into its pages, I see that the Bible mirrors our own human frailties, our propensity toward evil and our obsession with injustice. Perhaps it is not the Bible which is the problem, but those of us who are not willing to look at it closely enough and challenge its words and its meanings. One of the songs we sang as we opened the series eight years ago was from Porgy and Bess “It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re libel to read in the Bible it ain’t necessarily so.”
What books, recordings, videos do you go back to to remind you of who you are and whose you are? What do you look for when you are trying to address the bigger questions of life?
There are several lists of books that make up the Bible. The sixty-six that we are most familiar with are those established by the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611. There they declared the Canon closed once and for all. But it wasn’t always like that.
As the church got increasingly large, it also became unruly. Someone had to decide what was truth and what was heresy. Church Councils were held across the centuries, deciding the nature of God and eventually the nature of scripture. Those on the losing side of the Councils didn’t disappear. They remained alive, if beaten down a bit. There is something powerful about being in the opposition. It makes you even more zealous about the truth. There are dozens of books and letters that are not in the Bible. Some of these are known as the Apocrypha. But those that are printed alongside the Bible are often those that complement the Bible. Think, the Wisdom of Solomon, Maccabees, Esdras, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Susannah. The ones that contradict it or have been considered heresy are not considered apocrypha, but heretical. Think The Gospels of Thomas, Judas, James, Phillip, Mary Magdalene, Pistis Sophia and many others.
So, the decisions that closed the canon of scripture were political decisions that included some and excluded others. There is a reason that Mary Magdalene disappears after the resurrection. There is a reason Timothy says that “Women should not speak in church”. There is a reason that the Gospel of John is in the Bible and not the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas declares that Christ is in each of us. John declares that Jesus is God and is wholly other than us. Elaine Pagels wrote a whole book on this subject.
Given that, let me take you through some of the history of canonization of scripture.
First of all, we need to remember that scripture was an oral tradition. Most people didn’t read and people certainly didn’t have their own scrolls in their homes. It was written down after years of it existing as stories passed down from generations, but mostly for ceremonial purposes—to be said in the temple. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible had at least four distinct authors. There is the Elohist tradition of E. The names for God are Elohim. The first creation story in Genesis one is from this strain and it represents the people in the northern kingdom of Israel which fell in the year 722. There was the Jawhist or J. This is the tradition that lifts up the name YHWH for God. The second creation story (Adam and Eve) comes from this tradition. This is related to the southern kingdom of Judah which fell in the year 587. Then there is the Deuteronomist or D. The writer of this reflects the reforms of King Josiah in the 6th century and is the basis for the book of Deuteronomy. Finally there is the Priestly tradition or P. This portion was written after the exile and holds most of the restrictive laws in Leviticus and the lists of kings and parents. This strain tries to fill in the gaps of the stories and makes them seem like one story. Later, you have the writings of the prophets and the Wisdom literature. You see how this gets confusing? More years, more writing. More languages.
Rabbinic Judaism recognizes 24 books of the Masoretic text called Tanakh. This was compiled and canonized between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Also, the Babylonian Talmud, written as scripture and commentary, is authoritative to the Rabbinic Jewish tradition. This was compiled around the year 500.
But then there is Samaritan Judaism. This has a parallel Torah that they find authoritative. They lift up Mt Gerazim not Mt. Sinai as the place where Moses received the 10 commandments. Mt. Gerazim is conveniently in Samaritan land.
The early church used the Septuagint or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.
The first written books of what we know today as the Christian scriptures were Paul’s letters. They were circulated as a collection as early as the late first century. The first Christian canon was developed by Marcion in about 140, but it’s very different than our New Testament. Marcion had 10 Pauline Epistles and a Lukan Gospel known as the Gospel of Marcion. He was deemed a heretic, because he believed that there were two Gods. An old Testament creating and vengeful God; and the God of Jesus who was benevolent and merciful.
Already there were disputes about who Jesus was, who Christ was, who God was and is and the implications for the church. It was hard to build a unified church when there were such disputes. So they did what most political movements do, they consolidated ranks and curried favor on certain groups and dismissed others. The books that are included in our Bible were all finished being written by the early second century. But people kept writing books or adapting books. Bishop Iraneaus declared that there must be only four Gospels. Hear his logic:
"It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four-quarters of the earth in which we live, and four universal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the 'pillar and ground' of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh… Therefore the gospels are in accord with these things… For the living creatures are quadriform and the gospel is quadriform… These things being so, all who destroy the form of the gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious”. So there.
St. Augustine considered the canon closed by the fourth century. Although controversies over the inclusion of Hebrews, Revelation, James and Jude continued into Martin Luther’s time. The matter was supposedly settled in 397 at the Council of Carthage. By this time the 27 books of the NT were the accepted books of the community. Some overzealous bishops declared that all of the other books be burned. That’s why we have so many of them. If they had just been left to fade away, they might have died out. But since they were deemed heresy, people kept them. Put them in clay jars and they were discovered in caves in Qumran and Nag Hammadi. It’s like telling someone not to look at something. That just makes it more enticing.
Revelation and Timothy, two of the last written books of the NT hold these passages that make up today’s scripture readings. Warnings about people adding to the scriptures. Of course, those words might well be put in there to emphasize the book itself—that’s certainly Revelation’s case. But it has given good fodder to the people who want to reopen the Canon.
So, did God stop speaking in the second century? The UCC has this slogan that says that God is still speaking. How do we tell the difference between the words of a crazy person and the words of God? That’s the hard thing isn’t it? And so many people have used the Bible to condemn people or to hold up so high a standard of righteousness that we bristle at the mention of it.
Today’s scripture reading from 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 affirms that “ALL scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that every person of God may be complete and equipped for every good work.”
The letter of Timothy was a letter after all long before it was scripture. Is a non-canonical “scripture” better or worse than a canonical one?
While the writer of Timothy was talking about the Hebrew Bible when he said, “scripture” he was also talking about the original versions, not all of the mistranslations that we have today. He affirmed that it is important for us to look at scripture, and not just some scripture, but all of scripture, for it will prepare us for everything that we do and everything that we face in the world.
But there is a right and a wrong way to approach scripture. When we look at the Bible, recognizing its historical background, its context and its purpose, asking questions of it, trying to figure out how its writings met the needs of the time in which it was written and how its words speak to today’s situation; when we read it with the Holy Spirit as a guide and the community as a sounding board, then we find the word of God for our lives.
Okay, so let’s say that we’re going to look at scripture. Which translation should we choose? Are they all good? Researchers and historians have found over 5000 ancient texts of the Bible written in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Coptic. None of them are identical!! Which libraries are most faithful? The Bibles which we have today are at best, a consensus of what most of those ancient scriptures have said. Some Bible will even give you a footnote to say, that other ancient authorities leave off or add this or that verse. For the first 10-12 centuries of Christianity, the priests were the only ones permitted to read the Bible. And even then it was in Latin. The 13th century invention of the printing press brought the advent of Bibles in people’s hands. It was the seed of the reformation. For as people read the Bible for themselves, they interpreted it differently than the church hierarchy did.
When we have the Bible in our hands, we all have power. We also have the possibility and responsibility to find the liberating word in its pages. When we do so, then we connect with the movements of people inspired by God to make positive change in individual and collective lives. That’s the liberating word of the Bible. But liberating people isn’t always easy.
When William Tyndale translated and printed the Bible from Greek and Hebrew texts into English in the 1530’s, he was burned at the stake for such insolence. Early Baptists and other separatists were also executed for not towing the party line when it came to Biblical interpretation.
King James had a bit more power than Tyndale. When his translation was published in 1611, it used 14 English translations, the Latin Vulgate and Greek and Hebrew texts as its sources. For 250 years it was the authoritative Bible, at least for Protestants. Even now, it is revered and I cannot even think of reading the 23rd Psalm out of any other translation.
But language changed over the years. In addition, discoveries of more ancient texts than were used in the King James Version came to light as a result of archeology. The politics of Biblical translation reared its ugly head, exposing for instance, the bias toward royalty in the King James Version, the lack of inclusive language in any version, and the desire to make more explicit the message of liberation in the scriptures. This past century has seen a dramatic increase in the number and variety of biblical translations.
We most of us have access to the Bible at our fingertips. There’s an app for that. But an app might give you information, but it will not give you wisdom or knowledge. That takes work.
When you read the scriptures, I encourage you to always look for the breakthrough of God. Sometimes God even breaks through the restrictive, proof-texted scriptures which have been used and perhaps misused to put others down. God can also break through our prejudices, our judgmentalism, our roadblocks to relationships and love.
Jesus always sought to have us look at religion and evil with new eyes. Jesus always called us to a higher moral law, even when that law broke down scriptural barriers. Hear this. When Jesus saw that scriptural law got in the way of God’s moral law, he opted for God’s moral law. Just read the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus quotes scripture: “You have heard it said,” and then he reinterprets it “But I say to you.”
We must have God’s moral law as our real Bible. Most theologians say that that moral law is defined by the dialogue of scripture, reason, tradition and experience.
We need to take scripture and our faith serous enough to argue with the passages which we find troubling. We also need to reclaim that comfort and that sustenance which comes from God’s moral law alive in our lives.
I hope that you will turn to the Bible once again in whatever translation you have. I hope you will challenge yourself to read more than just a few verses at a time. Try reading a chapter a day. Give yourself more than you can get on a Sunday morning, or better yet, use some of the questions that have been raised during a sermon as a springboard for further study. Maybe the questions will make it into the grab bag.
The ancient question of Pilate still plagues us. “What is truth?” (John 18:38), he asked Jesus who had been condemned by the crowds and the Jewish aristocracy. Jesus said that we could synthesize the entire Torah and the Prophets in the two commandments to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. How’s that for an ethic? How’s that for truth? Jesus never encouraged people to praise or worship him. Worship God, and do the work that follows worship—that’s the loving your neighbor part.
The Bible is a mirror of our search for God. But it is not the end of our search. It is a springboard for our faith and an essential, but not sole resident of our faithful libraries.
I like the second verse of “We Limit not the Truth of God” #316 in the black hymnal (we’re singing the blue hymnal version, but listen to this great verse):
“Who dares to bind to one’s own sense the oracles of heaven,
for all the nations, tongues, and climes and all the ages given?
That universe, how much unknown! That ocean unexplored!
Our God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from thy Word.”
May we see more light and truth break forth from thy “Word,” thy “Logos”, God incarnate living in each of us. May we seek the truth, be challenged by it, and go about making our corner of the world a little bit better. That’s the core of the scripture I follow.