Monday, April 1, 2024

The Bible is a Library

 The bible is a library, and the librarian has a strong bias as to which books to put on the library shelves. It is not one book, but a collection of books. It clearly has more than one author, with some of the book's authors named in some fashion. Not everything in the bible are books. Some of the documents are letters from different writers. In the end, it is a set of written documents collected between two covers. In essence, like a library (which is a collection of documents contained within a structure), the bible is a collection housed in a binding we call the 'holy bible'.

I mentioned a librarian. In the early days, there were a number of different libraries. However, in the year 397, one librarian, with the help of that librarian's board of directors, tore down any other library so their own library would be the only one people could come to. I've always said there are two ways to climb the ladder of success. One method is to employ strength and endurance to lift oneself up each rung until reaching the top. The other method is to pull others off their ladders so you look higher up than anyone else. It seems, with all the talk of heresy and such, the "catholic" church employed the second method. While Athanasius' Festal Letter 39 defined the list of 27 acceptable books for inclusion in the canon (read: library), it took a couple councils to affirm that list. (see: the Council of Hippo in 393 and the Third Council of Carthage in 397.) 

Athanasius' list appears to be based on four general criteria.

  • Apostolic authorship
  • Widespread usage
  • Theological consistency
  • Unity with Hebrew scriptures

Let's take a look at each of them. Like many early Christian leaders, Athanasius likely considered apostolic authorship or association as an important criterion for inclusion in the canon. Books believed to have been written by apostles or those closely associated with them were highly regarded and considered authoritative. This criterion would have favored the inclusion of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the letters of the apostles, such as Paul, Peter, and John. It would have ignored many documents which were not making claims of apostolic authors.

It is reasonable to believe that the apostles were relatively uneducated fishermen and similar locals who lived near Jesus. To claim they became educated authors in Greek is a bit of a stretch. It is far more reasonable to assume learned people took the stories and teachings handed down to them and wrote them decades later.

"Widespread usage" needs some definition. This is widespread as defined by the librarian. A document that has widespread usage in Jerusalem may not have widespread usage in Alexandria. Athanasius was a Bishop in Egypt. While it would be reasonable that Athanasius communicated with other bishops in the roman imperial provinces of the fourth century, that interaction would be limited to similar thinking churches.

Based on the books included versus excluded, it is clear that Athanasius had a theological assumption integrated into his choices. He clearly favored Pauline theology over the teachings of James. He was strongly against anything that hinted at a pro-Arian stance. (This is reasonable considering he was exiled from his bishopric multiple times for defying Arian theology.)

By "theological consistency", it is meant that Athanasius ignored any teaching or book that did not conform to the theological story Athanasius wanted to present. The bible is not a compendium of the variations of belief seen throughout the world. Instead, it is a single view held by a collection of groups. Unfortunately, I see the subjectivity of view to be a weakness and not a strength. Considering the variety of ways people professed their faith in the newly forming religion, to say one perspective is right and all others are wrong makes it too likely that the professed perspective is not a complete and whole understanding.

Early Christian communities recognized the continuity and connection between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the emerging Christian writings. The books that maintained a connection to the Hebrew Scriptures and demonstrated a fulfillment of the Jewish prophetic tradition were more likely to be included. This criterion would have influenced the inclusion of the Gospels and Acts, as they presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish messianic prophecies.

So, if these criteria are not met, then Athanasius did not include the writing into his "library". Was Athanasius biased? Well, he was exiled from his position on more than one occasion for having a viewpoint that did not conform to the general beliefs of the time and place. His nicname "Athanasius contra mundum," suggests he was more on his own than a representative of the general understanding held by people of the time.

So, in the end, the bible is really a library of books assembled by Athanasius as his personal viewpoint which stood in direct conflict with the general understanding of the christian theology of its day. It is intriguing that today, it is considered the inerrant word of God. How did one person's offshoot viewpoint become the only acceptable view?

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