Rescuing the Bible from Literalism...

By RICHARD SMOLEY “The world,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is the totality of facts, not of things.” So it is, but facts take many forms. The hard-edged events of ordinary reality are only one form, and not always the most important. This insight can be hard to accept in the positivist world of mainstream Western thought. In these terms, either an event took place or it did not. Truth and falsehood are judged by this criterion alone. And yet such a stance has only a limited value. It is indispensable in history and journalism and perhaps in science (although the anomalous discoveries of twentieth-century physics have blurred the picture somewhat). But in the spiritual dimension, even though there are facts here as well, they are not of this kind. To overlook this truth is to mistake one reality for another. Conventional Christianity has often made this mistake. Practically from the start, it has presented its case in literalistic terms: the Bible is true; moreover it is literally true. Its facts must be historical facts, and its record of the past must be a true one. At first these claims fostered Christianity’s rapid success in the ancient world. By the early centuries of the Common Era, Greco-Roman civilisation could no longer take its own myths seriously, so it was persuaded to adopt the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians on the grounds that these presented not only sacred truths but an accurate record of the past. Since the Enlightenment, such claims have been more of an embarrassment than an advertisement for the faith. Over the last 250 years, scholars in many fields have taken Christianity at its word and investigated in great depth just how much the Bible jibes with science and history. The...

What Do the Lost Gospels Have to Teach?...

By RICHARD SMOLEY Over the last century, a number of previously lost and unknown texts have come to light and illumined the origins of the main religions of the West. The most famous include the Nag Hammadi library, unearthed in Egypt in 1945, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in Israel in 1947. The Gospel of Judas is only the most recent example; in all probability it will not be the last. What have scholars learned from these often baffling and obscure documents? The issue is a complex one, but it’s possible to sketch out a few key points. • The historical Jesus remains a mystery. Here is a man who was revered as a divine or semidivine being very shortly after his death. And yet there is not one surviving eyewitness account of him. None of the authors of the New Testament Gospels says that he saw Jesus with his own eyes; the closest we have is Paul’s claim he saw the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5–7). And with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, most of the lost gospels (including the Gospel of Judas) are later than the canonical Gospels and probably do not include a great deal of true biographical details about Jesus’ life. Some scholars have taken this fact to mean there was no such personage as Jesus, that he was a mythic figure concocted to reflect certain sacred mysteries. While this is in all likelihood too extreme a conclusion to reach, it does show Jesus remains hidden behind a cloud of mystery. • There was not one original Christianity, but many. Some more or less resembled what would later become Catholic and Orthodox Christianity; some were Gnostics; some denied Jesus was anything more than a great teacher....