Friday, 21 August 2015

Bloody Sweat

Via a series of blog posts, Bart Ehrman is currently telling the story of how he got into textual criticism of the Bible back in the 1980s. He sets the context very clearly - I already knew that the textus receptus Greek translation upon which the KJV was translated was based on very few and quite young manuscripts. But I did not know that they were all done by one man, a humanist, who updated his own work over time but that was the only improvements provided. I did not know that there was a part of Revelation he literally had no Greek manuscript for whatsoever and borrowed in some latin that he had that has never matched any subsequent Greek manuscript discovered.

In this textus receptus, you get the story of the woman caught in adultery, you get the long ending in Mark 16, you get the verse in 1 John 5 affirming the doctrine of the Trinity.

As the centuries went on, more and more manuscripts were discovered. Hundreds more. Thousands more, many of them older and more reliable than those used to form the textus receptus used for the KJV. Finally in 1881 was released a huge edition of the Greek NT, one version of which included a major contextual analysis of each significant variant in the manuscripts, along with the most likely originals. This was done by Westcott and Hort. On the basis of the evidence of the many small changes (some accidental, some not) made by scribes and their analysis of which way the changes probably went (did the scribe change John 1:18 from the only begotten God to the only begotten son, or was it the other way around, or did he add God or Son to an original "the only begotten [one]"?). In fact they did such a monumental work that there were virtually no changes for a century, or even expectation about how we could get closer to the original Greek, because we were virtually there already!

That's where the bloody sweat kicks in.

It's actually a really popular passage found in Luke's description of Jesus' "passion" building up to his crucifixion. But there is absolutely NOTHING about a text that appears good, profound, inspiring, etc., that makes it true. And while Ehrman would quibble that we are not talking about truth anyway, just the way in which the text was changed, I believe that Christians concerned about truth today should not be putting their faith in a significant textual variant or calling it the word of God. This applies to the above additions (long ending of Mark, Trinity proof text, etc.), but it also applies, I am sad to say, to the bloody sweat.

Ehrman is zooming into this passage, that a lot of Christians will know has some issues if their bibles have footnotes, for a reason. He is keen to show how the field of textual criticism really matters for other areas like theology and exegesis. It had been assumed that the study of textual changes was pretty much devoid of implications for other areas than its own technical field.

So if the bloody sweat verses are an addition, why would it be significant? Most people, like me, would be thinking about size - where most changes concern a single word or article, here is something highly constructed and thought through, like the end of Mark, that has been deliberately appended. Of course that remains a pretty big concern in its own right, there are not many passages like that where the manuscript credentials are very low. But there is a bigger more serious problem.

If you compare Luke's passion with Mark's, and most seem to agree that Luke was using Mark, there is an astonishing systematic removal of Mark's references to Jesus' anguish and suffering, right up to the point that he actually dies. If it weren't for two rather critical verses, then you might read the account thinking that actually Jesus did not really have such a hard time dying after all.

And these are the two verses concerned, from Luke 22:43-44
An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

Imagine you are a committed Christian scribe. Maybe a 100 years have gone past since the events in question, maybe more. There are heretical elements threatening the identity of the church regarding just how human Jesus really was (did he just appear human, people asked?) There are other stories circulating about what happened at Gethsemane about Christ's suffering, some quite extreme and explicit.

In my  next post, we will see just how significant and clear this insertion into Luke's account actually is, via a comparison with Mark and a look at the literary structure of the passage into which the verses were later inserted.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Trinitarian Interpretations

I have been pretty quiet on the blog front of late - the reason for this is I have been working hard to finish my paper on how we talk about the Trinity today. If you would like to have a look at it or even download it, please feel free, it is available here:

This is both personal and a little academic, but I hope not too dry in style. I hope you enjoy it and feel free to feedback about wrong assumptions or things that you really appreciated or found enlightening.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Key notions defined series: 15. Trinity, trinities and Fourth Century Trinitarianism

For a tight definition, I am not of much help to you here, sorry.

What can we say of Trinitarianism? Its traditional form originates from the end of the Fourth Century in very close connection to the creed issued at the Council of Constantinople in the year 381[1], and the subsequent fifth century Council of Chalcedon (451), at which Christ’s two natures were also more carefully described. The nuts and bolts of that language can be laid out: God is exactly One God in precisely three co-eternal, consubstantial and co-equal persons, yet the Father is not the Son and neither the Father nor the Son is the Spirit
The key goal of the confession really was to establish quite what Christians should not be believing and saying, and flushing out some of the controversial beliefs in the early church, while helping Theodosius, the Roman Emperor, to unite a crumbling Roman empire into a more-defined and less-divided faith.
The focus throughout Church history, however, has been on comprehending what believers are to believe about God, and thus almost every word of that statement has been analysed to unbelievable levels in the attempt to understand what could be meant precisely by this language and its implications for the church and individual followers of Christ.
Surprisingly enough, “trinity” does not originally mean very much other than a threesome, or simply “threeness”. Consequently, when it started being borrowed into theological discussions concerning the Christian God, I contend it did not originally mean the single-being-yet-tripersonal God in the second and third centuries (the period separating the New Testament and the beginning of the creedal period). The Latin word used by Tertullian in the third century, trinitas, was a plural referring term, with God being the founding source member of the other two, who are not properly called God or understood to be God in the same way, but were instead derived or sent out from within God. (Please refer to Chapter 4 for a quick examination of a variety of references on this evolution, including Tertullian). I believe it is important to realise that even the language provided by the fourth and fifth century Catholic[2] Church (trinity as a theological word still being a fairly recent word), already provided a subtle evolution in the term “trinity”, I contend, from its earlier theological use.
As the church entered the Middle Ages, well after the trinity came to be understood as three co-eternal, consubstantial and co-equal persons in one perfect godhead, the Trinity, there was a further significant shift – for some – in trying to figure out exactly how the Holy Spirit is sent. This debate became a source of division and permitted the eastern and western churches to split, the East preferring the name “Orthodox” and sticking resolutely to the original formulation of Constantinople regarding the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church resolutely defended the addition of the “filioque clause”, which means that – for them – the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
Another very significant swing in Trinity theory is the so-called Trinitarian “revival”, which is much more recent, alive today and has roots from within both the Catholic and Orthodox wings, and has been developed differently throughout denominations. The Trinity has become a source of lots of reflection (and speculation) about how God is like a perfect community, or church or even society (we will explore the fact of multiple expressions of what people actually mean by “Trinity” today in the very next chapter).
Stephen Holmes explains how recent developments and theories of the Trinity are in actual fact a departure from divine simplicity and the oneness of God maintained throughout most of church history. Thus the enthusiasm and charisma of many modern expositors such as Ravi Zachariah, Leonardo Boff or G. K. Chesterton, who might delineate through word play the “tri-unity” of God, or expound that “God himself is a society”[3], can legitimately be described as a subsequent development or even an interpolation of what the word T-R-I-N-I-T-Y has meant historically. So we have a complex matrix of meaning here to untangle. One thing is certain: there is not a single theological meaning commonly understood throughout church history, right up to today, and there exists no one sentence or formulation of ideas that can adequately state them all, and they cannot be mutually compatible.
So historically, there is considerable movement in the notion of what Trinity might actually mean, and it seems likely to continue to shift. But suffice it to say, that the question of “the” Trinity, is a far, far more complex issue than a “do you or don’t you believe it”, precisely because what is understood by “it” varies and has varied so much. This is a key point of this paper. Let me repeat again, any dream of consensus on what the doctrine actually is disintegrates as soon as you attempt to go any further than the traditional language, which is vague, apparently self-contradictory and necessarily invites disagreement.
Another difficulty, then, in providing a precise definition, in addition to the huge variety of interpretations of what the words actually mean, is that it does not seem at first glance to make sense! It is one of the reasons why there are so many views on it.
Take for instance the simple word “is” if you want to affirm that “Jesus is God”. Is this “is” identical to “=“? Or to put it in an even more confusing format, is the “is” identical to “identical to”, and is the “is not” the exact opposite of “is”? That might seem trivial, but ask yourself the question: if God is the Trinity and the Holy Spirit is God, then is the Holy Spirit not then the Trinity? That would seem absurd, right? So the “is” is a problem. But then we get to greater and trickier questions still, of substance, essence, persons and even personality.
Sometimes apparently simple terms become not-so-simple when you look at them in more detail! In this paper, when I refer to “Trinity” or “Trinitarian” with a  capital “T”, I am referring quite specifically to an authoritative, ecumenical, fourth-century, full Nicene confession of the One God in three divine co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial and unconfused Persons or hypostases (and by “full”, we also have to refer to the 381 version of the creed, not simply the 325 version), and I am necessarily not referring to anything precise in terms of its subsequent development, of what on Earth those words might actually mean in the positive sense (remember the key goal of the confession really was to establish quite what Christians should not be believing and saying).

[1] The actual creed to which most refer as the Nicene creed is in actual fact the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed
[2] Catholic in the sense “Universal”
[3] G. K. Chesterton,  Orthodoxy, p94, Christian Classics Ethereal Library