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About Sex – Part 3

September 15, 2013
The relationships between the three synoptic g...

The relationships between the three synoptic gospels. Source: A Statistical Study of the Synoptic Problem by A.M. Horore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adapting scriptures

Continuing from the previous section, Christianity has always struggled with “difficult” scriptures, with the difference between Jesus and Moses, with Jesus’ rejection of violence and that seen in the OT, or the difference between Paul and Matthew, Paul and James, Paul and Peter, and more. To dismiss contrast and harmonize doctrines, scriptures were wrested out of their original context, overly spiritualized and interpreted in a metaphorical way.

A classic example of this, is what was done to the Songs of Solomon. The erotically explicit language was completely dehumanized, and was made to fit an exclusively ethereal, symbolic representation of platonic love between God and the church. The original celebration of human sexuality was removed, in order to harmonize the text with the pervading theology, in which sex was intrinsically evil.

Similar adaptations were done also to other Old Testament’s writings, particularly those with accounts that seemed to endorse unorthodox sexual behaviour, violence, genocides, etc. To a degree, this was done also to the Matthew passages which we were looking at. Thankfully, in the last couple of centuries, scholarly work on the Bible has taken huge leaps forward; the techniques for textual analysis have been refined, more original sources have been found and new archaeological evidence has emerged. From it, emerges a much clearer but also different picture. Here are some things that have changed, from our previous understanding:

The older gospel is not Matthew, but Mark, which appears to be based on Peter’s testimony, presumably intended for a Roman audience. Matthew and Luke took most of Mark and, adding from some other sources and oral tradition, they weaved a narrative fit for different audiences. Luke’s aim were the larger gentile population and Matthew’s was the Jewish community. Matthew’s Jesus is in fact a devout Jew, who holds his disciple to a stricter standard than that of the Pharisees.

Even in His scathing rebuke of the pharisees, in chapter 23, Jesus is not proposing a more liberal stance, but a stricter one. His condemnation of the Pharisee is not for their legalism, but for their hypocrisy. He’s not rebuking them for what they believe, but for not doing it:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. (Matt 23: 2)

Someone reading only Matthew, would therefore act very differently than someone reading only Luke, though they both draw from Mark. Conclusion? That there is no such thing as a pure word of God that is spoken or written by humans. Humans are humans and, even if God speaks through them, it is through weak and fallible channels. Their humanness will always be there and we will see God’s message through it, through their eyes and the cultural conditioning that they bore. There is no escaping this.

In Matthew’s case it is obvious that the author meant exactly what he wrote! The correct interpretation of those difficult passages is the simplest and more straightforward one, even if it deeply disagrees with Paul. The differences cannot be smoothed out, but will need to be worked out some other way, which is rather simple.

All Christian institutions have majored on Jesus and tried to piece together all available information about him and his early movement. From the available material they had to work around a lot of contrasting positions. Paul’s writings greatly resolved the incompatibility of Christianity with OT extremes, the Mosaic Law, etc. Thus Paul lead the way into the type of Christianity we know today. His adaptation of previous scriptures became the new scripture but even he went a bit back and forth on it. After all he was the product of his time, so there was to be some later adaptations of his writings as well, especially on women, marriage and celibacy.

Christians are well used to such adaptation and reinterpretation of the Bible text, nonetheless there remains a short of unspoken red line preventing the same from happening to the words supposedly spoken by Jesus himself. The question that begs to be answered is, how certain can we be that the red letters in our Bible are verbatim transcripts of Jesus teachings.

How the gospels were written

We must consider that the gospel authors, or their final redactors, were not eye witnesses of the events written about; they drew on the testimony of some apostle, who perhaps even wrote some of the material, like Matthew and John might have, but it is fairly certain that it was their followers, or school of thought, who completed the work.

In spite of some inconsistency and disagreements, the material reveals a true event, something that impacted equally all early Christians. The overall picture and the sense of Jesus‘ teachings do come through fairly well, but it would be unrealistic to expect a verbatim, untampered and perfect record of Jesus’ words. Like in John 17, how could such a long prayer be preserved by oral tradition word for word for 70 years? Obviously it’s impossible, and there are better explanations for how these teachings were reconstructed and written at such a distance.

Matthew‘s and Luke‘s gospels reveal how the writing process worked. There was no apostle getting in a trance and miraculously transcribing what the Holy Spirit dictated, or reminded them off. No, nothing that mystical and dramatic. The authors simply took whatever material was available, in this case Mark‘s already written gospel, some other text no longer available called “Q”, oral tradition and they weaved it all together in the style of ancient biographies. There was no particular concern for accuracy, historically or otherwise, but mainly the intent to preserve the teachings of a particular apostle and give it continuity.

There were many more gospel but only these four were preserved in the Bible canon, and not because they were perfect, but because they were the most widely accepted and reliable.

No perfect record and no perfect picture

Like Paul said, in this life we can only see as through a mirror, darkly and partially (1Cor 13:12). In his days mirrors were full of imperfections and distorted whatever one could see through them. That’s also how scripture allow us to see Jesus, but it’s better than nothing and since Jesus is alive today, we can go directly to Him, which is what the gospels are supposed to lead us to anyway.

We must not get stuck on some questionable, difficult passages in the text that don’t rime with the rest. We must appreciate the text for what it is and appreciate the fact that it leads us to know the Spirit beyond it. From there on we must let that Spirit fill the gaps and lead us.

Just as we allow for human influence in Paul, the OT and other human works, so must we allow it in the Gospels. That’s why we have four, and early Christianity had even more, but never looked at them the way that we do now. It never expected perfect inerrancy from such text. Even pseudepigraphical works, which are essentially fraudulent, were accepted and somewhat respected. The Bible contains a number of such works, as it wasn’t unusual for writers to ascribe their work to more accredited sources, or for a school of thought to produce documents, posthumously, in the name of their founder.

Christian writings were not so deified in antiquity, as they became later. Depending on their whereabouts, first and second century Christians used a variety of sources, including the gospel of Thomas, which contains many red letter words of Jesus. The gospel of Thomas was rightly excluded from the canon because of its gnostic content, but gnostic elements are present in the canonical gospels as well, though not so conspicuously.

The fact is that there is no such things as a pure “printed” word of God. Written words can at best be a shadow, a trail of God’s speaking, but He can never be encapsulated in a text. Just as He cannot be held in a temple, a statue, an image, neither can He be held in a book. To put Jesus on equal standing with the Bible is a form of idolatry and a dangerous departure from what He really is. It is fettering him into a human construction.

Scripture can only be a testimony of God, the record of his doing, working and speaking through various people. But we must never let the written record cause us to dispense from our own conscience and the living voice of God in our hearts. We must remain free to judge by the leading of His loving spirit in us. For it is the Spirit that gives life and words can convey that, but only as a key that opens the Spirit’s door. Without the spirit they are only dead letters and the words that liberated us yesterday may enslave us today.

Matthew and the other evangelist did colour their story with how they saw it and understood it then. We cannot exalt their words above Jesus himself and, as Bishop Spong put it, above that “spirit beneath the letter that brings the Bible forward in time with integrity”. We must hold Jesus and His Spirit in us above mere human script, theology and doctrine.

Humans are humans and their work will always reflect that. It is unthinkable to attribute divine properties to anything humanly created. We can get a glimpse of God through inspired works, such as the gospels, but we will also see blemishes and distortions. Such is the case with the Bible, though it is better to have an ancient piece of glass that allow us some view, than to have no view at all.

How many times, however, did we read something in the Bible that made us cringe, something that scared us, depressed us and made us turn the pages to find something more “edifying”, and we did not dare to doubt because the book is “holy”? How many times we just blamed ourselves for lacking faith and understanding? The truth is that there are horrible things in the Bible, which do no reflect God’s nature, but reflect the ancient ideas of a people who wanted a tribal God, instead of the universal One that Christ came to reveal.

Back to Matthew’s sexual admonitions

So where does that leave us in regards to our original question on Matthew and sexuality? If the author of that gospel meant exactly what he wrote, which he did, then 95% of males and 73% of females will either go to hell or must pluck out their eyes and cut off their right hand to escape it. In this David was right, it is impossible for anyone to keep such a rule and God could not expect it.

Other stories in the Gospels show Jesus being touched, speaking to and forgiving such people as Matthew said should either mutilate themselves or go to hell? Obviously we are faced with different images of God, contrasting ones which cannot all be right.

Matthew‘s extreme position has little to do with love for others but has, at its heart, a self-perfecting ascetic effort to escape hell. Such a concept runs contrary to most of the gospel message. Matthew’s formula has little to do with the effects that our actions have on others, which is at the heart of Christianity. The advice is all about interior, private guilt, and about taking maximum measures to eliminate it, and thus save one self. Who needs Christ then?

These ideas sound a lot more oriental than Jewish, but they had become fairly popular in those days, making inroads also into Jewish and Christian thinking. Most apocryphal gospels were rejected because of such contents, like Thomas’; others were disputed for a while before being approved, but none are fully exempt of their influence.

There is no absolute black and white, when it comes to the human record of God’s activity. Even the best scribe is apt to make mistakes and add from his own bag. All of the greats of Christian history have done the same, from Origen to Augustine, Aquinas to Luther, Calvin to Barth and on till today. If they all had their Achilles heel, showed flaws in their thinking and opinions, why should we expect any less from the authors of the gospels?

Bible inerrancy is a false doctrine created to resolve a question of authority. The holiness of the Bible and the idea that God miraculously intervened to make it perfect, has more to do with some magical traditions than with Christianity.

The Matthew passages on sex are of dubious origin and have caused more harm than good. Thousands, if not millions, have suffered unnecessary fear, guilt and even physical harm because of them. And to what purpose? All in a self-serving effort aimed at achieving self-perfection and escape hell. Fear was at the root of it, and not faith, and it never did any good to anyone. It was an ugly intrusion in an otherwise beautiful account of the sermon on the mount, something which has motivated untold good through the ages.

It is imperative that we gain understanding of the Biblical authors‘ humanity, of their cultural context and time related understanding of human society and sexuality. We must lower the book from its “untouchable” status and look at things in a new light. We must also let the light of God’s love lighten our path and not depart from its voice in our hearts.

If some things cause us to fear, to become overly introspective, feeling overcome by guilt, to withdraw from others and entertain self-loathing and self-destructing thoughts, these cannot be the voice of God, no matter what scriptures come to mind.

(End of Part 3)

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