But Jesus never said that

But Jesus never said that. 

In my last post on Jürgen Moltmann, I pointed out that the passage he relies on so heavily, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani) appears in only two of the four gospels.  In Luke, Jesus seems calm and in control of his own death.  The same applies in John, where Jesus says that the power to crucify him comes from God, not man (19:11).  The conclusion I draw is that one cannot rest an entire argument on a single verse from the Bible, especially if (as in this case) different gospels quote Jesus quite differently.

The problem arises because the gospels were written forty to sixty years after Christ’s death.  They rely primarily on second generation oral tradition, a source called Q   and Mark.  The first to write about Jesus was Paul, who wrote the letter to the Corinthians about    53-54 CE, a little over twenty years after Christ’s death.  But Paul, who was concerned with missionary matters, never wrote about Christ’s crucifixion.

The problem runs deeper than this.  It’s not just a question of which gospel, but which of the hundreds of copies of the book in question are we going to rely on, each a little different, and sometimes a lot, from the other.  We possess no autograph copies, as originals are called.  We possess only copies of copies of copies of copies.  The first copies of Mark (the first gospel) that we possess are fragmentary, and were written around 200 CE.  Others come later.

How many differences?

In the early eighteenth-century, the theologian John Mill published a version of the New Testament with notes indicating about 30,000 variations in about 100 different manuscript copies he had drawn upon.   Recently, Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, estimates there are between 200,000 to 400,000 variants, based on 5,700 Greek manuscripts, and 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and other ancient translations (pp 87-89).  Other estimates run higher, though it’s important to note that most of the variations are minor, and do not change the meaning of the text.  But some do.

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The Protestant Reformation was not all great

The Protestant Reformation was not all great.  The Reformation (16th and 17th centuries), initiated by Martin Luther, is credited with the creation of the individual, and fostering the Enlightenment.  This is the usual sketch, and its correct as far as it goes.  I’m going to look at the good parts and the not so good parts.  First, the good parts.*

The good parts of the Reformation

Many people know about Luther’s 95 theses, stuck on the church door in Wittenberg.  In it he attacked the Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences, which allowed the dead to get out of purgatory faster, a toll road for sinners.  The practice was corrupt to the core.  While his attack on the corrupt church helps explain Luther’s appeal, it is even more important to understand how Luther’s own religious experience lessened the fear that most people lived under five hundred years ago. 

It’s difficult for most of us to grasp Luther’s sense of guilt and dread in the face of an angry God (Marty, loc 105).  Of course, it was not just Luther’s dread, but almost all who believed in the Christian God, which means almost everybody.  People trembled at the thought that when they died, Jesus would judge them, sending some to heaven and others to the fiery flames of Hell, including many who led exemplary lives, but had less than exemplary thoughts.  That includes most of us.  Since God knows our every thought, as well as sees our every act, there is no escape. 

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