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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Creating the Bible: Water Into Wine

Professor Ehrman
Recently I’ve been reading the fascinating books of Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including “Forged” and “Jesus, Interrupted,” in which he explores how the books of the New Testament of were composed and settled upon for inclusion in the Bible.  Ehrman began life as a fundamentalist who attended  the Moody Bible Institute and graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois, earning his his PhD and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.  During this period, as he learned how much deception and outright forgery went into the Biblical writings, he worked his way from devout evangelical to agnostic. 

Scholars are in agreement that the books of the New Testament called by the names Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John were not written by contemporaries of Jesus, as most of us were taught in Bible classes, but were instead composed decades after Christ’s death by later members of the church, probably gentiles, who were learned men in places such as Rome or Greece.  The four books of the Bible just mentioned were the first written records of the oral stories about Jesus that had floated around for decades, being repeated from one person to another, creating legends that changed with each telling.  Like any story repeated over and over by many different people, the incidents in the life of Jesus became confused and contradictory.  The current version of the Bible disagrees on many of the details of events common to more than one of the books in which they’re described.  For example the details of Christ’s birth vary from book to book, as do those of his death.  Where they contradict each other—what happened at Jesus’s tomb, for example—one of these versions must be wrong, but no one seems to care much about that. 

In this blog post I speculate as to what it must have been like for those learned men who first wrote down the legends they’d gathered from many sources, deciding which ones were true and which false.  It would be a daunting task to write a definitive version of the life of Jesus Christ, and there would undoubtedly be good moments and bad ones in the decision-making process.  In the following fiction I imagine how one segment of the Bible might have come to be.  It concerns the final composition of the Book of John, which experts date to around 90 A.D. 

Abantes, Medon, and Tityrus looked at each other across the table.  Having just written the word “Amen” to a document they had been crafting for a full year of labor, they were speechless. 

“Are we done?” Medon asked with a note of wonder in his voice. 

Yes!” said Abantes, adding a whoop of joy, whereupon he pounded the table, causing all items on it to jump. “We’re done, done, done!  Praise God!

Wine, then!  Let’s have wine and celebrate!” They scurried to the task.  Tityrus rose and fetched cups and a wineskin, Abantes went to the cupboard for cheese and bread, and Medon carefully stowed away the important document on the table and their writing implements.

When the wine was poured they drank the first of a series of toasts.  This was to God for giving them the strength and wisdom to have completed the task of gathering the stories of Jesus—his works and his sayings—from many sources and compiling them into a coherent narrative (better, they believed, than the incomplete and awkward other gospels that were beginning to circulate).  But that toast was followed by ones to themselves, to their wives and children, and to the many people who had related the fables of Jesus’s life that formed the basis for their narrative (some of which they had rejected as too improbable—although, after a long debate, they’d finally decided to include the shaky “walking on water” episode).  As wine was poured and drunk, and another wineskin fetched, they grew very merry indeed.
“Jesus himself must have liked wine!” young Medon declared.  “Don’t you think it was so?”

“Yes!” Abantes agreed.  “He made it part of his ritual at the last supper, so it must have been important to him.”  Abantes was slurring his words, but was still perfectly understandable.

Tityrus had a thought.  “We should put something in early in our version in which Jesus makes it clear he approves of wine!”

“Right,” replied Abantes, raising his glass as if toasting the idea.  “Stop future arguments about whether wine should be allowed in the church and at meals.  My wife won’t let me drink it at home at all, and that’s not right, damn it!  She says it makes me a bad husband!  Me!”

“How about this?”  Tityrus rose solemnly to make his proposal.  “The young Jesus goes to a wedding and gets drunk.”  They all laughed at the absurdity of that. 

“No,” Medon said firmly. “Not drunk, but maybe he could bless the wine at some wedding.”

OH!  OH!  Abantes cried with excitement.  Listen to this: they run out of wine at the wedding and Jesus performs a miracle—waves his hands and a jug of water becomes the best wine they’d ever tasted!”  The three of them hooted at that.

When their laughter died down, Tityrus shook his head.  “Nah.  Jesus wouldn’t be willing to use his magical powers for so trivial a thing.  Wouldn’t seem right.”

Wait!  Wait!” Abantes shouted, and then through giggles, he explained.  “Jesus forgot to bring a wedding gift, so this is his way of making up for it!”

Medon topped that.  “How about saying that Jesus’s mother is at the wedding and she makes him do it!  Because in the beginning he doesn’t want to.”

Tityrus shook his head.  “Too silly.  Jesus wouldn’t perform a miracle just because his mother told him to.”

“Oh, no?” Medon responded.  “Have you ever met a Jewish mother?”  They roared over that for a long time.

But then a melancholy settled over them, and with a sigh they began to clear away the wine and cheese.  As they parted for the night, Abantes sighed with regret.  “It would’ve made for a great light moment in the gospels, a real change from all the heavy stuff.  It’s a shame we can’t put it in.”

The others agreed.  “No one would believe it happened,” Tityrus commented.  “It’s too farfetched.”

Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010
“Superstitions,”March 21, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Muslim Atheist," March 16, 2011
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Is Evolution True?" July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
"An Atheist's Christmas Card," December 23, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
“I Don’t Believe in Coincidences,” February 28, 2013
“Pious Ejaculations and the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” May 30, 2107,
“What Did the Lions Eat on Noah’s Ark?” October 20, 2017;  

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