Why Are Scriptures Old?

Sounds like a dumb question, doesn’t it?

I finished the Bart Ehrman lecture series referred to in the last post. I recommend it to anyone whose knowledge of the History of the Bible (as opposed to its theology) consists of what you are taught in school or church. Most likely, like myself (a product of parochial schools), you have no real understanding of the history behind that book. Six hours of lectures are not the equivalent of a lifetime of study, but it is a very good introduction to the subject.

My question now, that I throw out to anyone reading this, is – why are scriptures, of necessity, old? Ehrman listed in his last lecture the criteria for becoming scripture, and if I can do this from memory they are

  1. Age (i.e. written near the time of Jesus)
  2. Orthodoxy (i.e. the right beliefs contained therein)
  3. Widespread use (i.e. not just one church or a few read them at services, but they have been widely disseminated)
  4. Apostolic origin (it had to be written by an apostle or some companion of an apostle)

The first one is what interests me. Why don’t we have scriptures that set forth the proper belief of the particular church that were written recently? I understand that if they were written now, by the first criteria, they wouldn’t be written near the time of Jesus, so I guess my query is what does being written close to Jesus’ time have to do with the appropriateness of the scriptures?

Supposedly, the original books of the New Testament were, at least, inspired by god. The early church fathers must have felt that if they were written by actual Apostles, or close companions of the Apostles, then they were more prone to be orthodox (again, containing the right beliefs). Close proximity in time apparently meant a close proximity to Jesus’ actual words, rather than some later approximation, and hence would be more reliable, theologically speaking. But, as you can see, the theological legitimacy is much dependent on the historical legitimacy of the scriptures.

To hear Christians speak today, god is always with us, even in modern times. What prevents him from inspiring written books or other writings in the present time? More to the point, what prevents him from making known the legitimacy of such writings in an unambiguous way? Being omnipotent, it should be a simple task for him. Why force us to jump through historical hoops, such as those that Ehrman and other scholars are forced to jump through, with all of the limitations cause by time, loss of original materials, lack of sophistication regarding preservation etc.?

For instance, couldn’t he cause a CD, DVD or other electronic or digital medium with a new set of scriptures on it, to be created and then dropped in the middle of the Vatican on a beam of light, while hundreds of thousands watch, coupled with some unambiguous miraculous happening indicating a divine, supernatural origin for the new or supplemental scriptures? Can’t god do that? Why do we have to rely on outdated books, the originals of which are lost, to make theological decisions of the utmost importance to the human race? Where has god been these past 2000 years, totally silent on these matters, never once updating his scriptural pronouncements? Did he send Rick Warren to write The Purpose Driven Life, yet forget to tell us that it should be considered scripture?

The very fact that scholars like Ehrman exist, because of the necessity of dealing with ancient texts on which to base modern thought, indicates that there’s something wrong with this picture. God should be able to update scriptures at whim, the better to prevent the human race, laced with natural, god-given skepticism, from questioning them. Leaving us to analyze 2000 year old non-existent writings is a ludicrous way to run a religion.

It’s just one more reason to arrive at the obvious conclusion that scriptures are the invention and product of humans, not gods.

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30 thoughts on “Why Are Scriptures Old?

  1. I just finished reading Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted a few minutes ago. It appears that the lectures you listened to cover the material contained in the book. Ehrman concludes, as you do, that the Bible is a human creation rather than a divine one. He also concludes that Christianity is the product of human invention rather than divine intervention. Interestingly enough, even though he is no longer a believer (he is an agnostic), he believes that the Bible has value for informing Christian faith. He still respects liberal Christianity even though he finds beliefs in biblical inerrancy untenable.

  2. But remember, the Mormon’s have some scriptures from god that are fairly new (about 180 years old). They believe they were god’s updated materials. The argument I have heard from some Christians is that there is some verse (maybe in Revelations) that says, approximately, “on to this, nothing shall be added”. But that stills needs an answer to your question – why?

    OG is right. It’s all in “our” heads. The magnificent human brain created all of the gods that ever have been and ever will be. All of the protests from cl and others who defend how the bible (or any other text) could be seen as not inconsistent – is a silly side argument. God exists, or he doesn’t. But whatever he is or isn’t has nothing to do with the books written by men. I guarantee you that I have as much knowledge of god as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

  3. Evo beat me to the punch on the Book of Mormon. But don’t forget the “scriptures” that are even newer than the Book of Mormon: All the Scientology writings, the Wiccans’ Gardnerian Book of Shadows, the Rastafarians’ Holy Piby, and various other cultish documents. Ehrman’s wrong about age being a requirement.

    The only requirement for some drivel being accepted as “scripture” is human stupidity. And that, alas, seems to be a pretty easy requirement to fulfill.

  4. Evo beat me to the punch, too. As for the party line that there would be no new scripture, no new revelations? I suspect (and I think I read it somewhere, but can’t remember where yet (OPD)) that the ‘nothing shall be added’ was to prevent the church splintering into hundreds or thousands of sects, each with slightly different revealed beliefs. The (as Ehrman put it) proto-orthodox had just come through a confusing time of dozens of competing beliefs, doctrines and scriptures. After hammering out what Christians had to believe to be Christians, they certainly did not want new revelations screwing up all of their careful cherry picking (of course, they saw it as divinely inspired cherry picking). And it doesn not mean that ‘nothing shall be added’ was added, merely that it may have been emphasised.

  5. Why can there be no new scripture? There is, like Muhammad’s Qu’ran or Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon. People will always claim there are new scriptures. Personally, I don’t accept these. I do think there can be valuable religious and spiritual insights given to people that do not hold the weight of scripture. In other words, New Testament scripture is something we must believe and obey, if we are Christians, but other books of spiritual value can’t command that of us. As Christians we might have huge disagreements about which modern books are valuable, let alone which could dictate doctrine. Just my thoughts. I love reading collections of the Gnostic Gospels, Ehrman, Dale Martin, etc. but I don’t consider these authoritative. I think Thomas Merton has incredible wisdom and gifts from God, yet his books are not scripture.

  6. Yes, thanks. All valid points. In fact there have been many newer claimedscriptures, as you have all pointed out. And Ex, I think Ehrman was quoting some church father (Atheneus?), not creating his own criteria.

    I wasn’t clear. I should have limited my question to the current Christian obsession with their Bible, specifically the fundamentalists. Why doesn’t Christianity allow newer scriptures?, is what I was aiming at. It doesn’t presently accept the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and/or Scientology tracts as scripture.

    The mindset of on to this, nothing shall be added probably is the answer to my question. But this mindless reliance on ancient scripture is just stultifying.

  7. Age adds validity. That’s why all the government buildings were designed with Roman columns and so forth. When you have something new, it helps to ground it in history. The early Christians did that by tying to Judaism. The Mormons did that tying to Christianity. Same with Rastafarians, I think. It’s really the late 20th century that gave us the newbies like Scientology and Raelians. My theory is it wasn’t until then that new shit was respected as much if not more than old shit.

  8. Age adds validity.

    is alsow the reason early Christians of the proto-orthodox tradition (damn, there must be an easier way of saying that) could not countenance a clean break with Judaism — the classical world valued tradition and age above all else. Christianity (I guess that should be Christianities) claimed that Judaism was a precursor to Christ; that Christ fulfilled the prophecies of what is now the Old Testament. Had they claimed to be a completely new religion (which they were, but that’s a different argument), it would have been a much harder sell to any in Rome.

    As to why “on to this, nothing shall be added” remains so powerful, I would guess (and this is a wild-ass guess) that admitting new prophecy, new scripture would imply that the old scripture, the scripture which, because it comes from god(s) is perfect, isn’t. A literalist Christian will say that the Bible is the inerrent word of God. If they believe that, then adding to it would start them wondering, “If it is from God, and God is perfect, why did He forget to add this at the beginning? Why didn’t he tell us about a personal planet as our own heaven back in the 1st century?”

  9. Interestingly enough, martial art have this “age” thing going too — it is called lineage, but the same thing. Old is better seems a persistent persuasion model in our brains.

  10. Old is better seems a persistent persuasion model in our brains.

    That’s why conservatives revere tradition.

  11. Lorena, if you feel at all compensated, I’ve heard it applies to men, but from a personal perspective it does not – other than in my own biased eyes!

  12. What do they say in “Fiddler”? “Traditioooooon! Traditiooooonn…”

    People insist on doing and thinking (?) whacko things just because it’s always happenned that way. Yeah, it’s a kind of leaky, kicked about boat, but it still floats, is useful to the ‘owners’, plus, a new one might be a bit expensive.

    Since the originators of ‘scripture’ are long gone, they can mean what you want them to mean, and find people willing to accept what is the interpretation of others with a more forceful personality.

  13. It’s downright silly to cling to scriptures as the sole source of all truth, yet that’s what’s done by many. It not much different than adults still hanging on to their blankies, simply because they were always comforting when they were little.

    Grow out of it, for Pete’s sake.

  14. Not to be an Amanojaku, but I don’t think many Christians “cling to scriptures as the sole source of all truth“. Most believe the god gave them their minds to supplement the truth in his word (the bible) but not to override it. I think it is important to state the opponents positions well and try not to exaggerate when possible — you would not want them doing the same to you.
    — Sabio, an ex-believer

  15. Sabio, where I live there are more than a few who will tell you exactly that, that the KJV is IT, and that thought and examination are, well, wrong.

    A lot of these people used to be in main line churches (which are going toes up in these parts)but they were, in fact, looking for something strict, stringent, and they are quite willing to say accept that someone ‘senior’ to them has the right interpretation, and that’s the end of it.

    I have been informed that we are now in “The Age Of Faith” by some, and one can expect no miracles. And a good thing, too, they say. They feel that miracles today would be too easy to look into.

  16. Sabio: Many, in fact, most, Protestant traditions hold tightly to Martin Luther’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura – that the Bible is the inerrant authority and that all correct doctrine is found therein. It was originally a reaction to the traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which held that revelation was a progressive process and that their rites and doctrines were as valid as those laid out in the Bible. The whole of Protestantism is based on Sola Scriptura, and it’s a fundamental tenet of their faith for Lutherans, Reformists, Baptists and Anabaptists, not to mention the modern “Bible-Believing” fundies.

    The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is also my personal answer to SI’s original question. Age is almost a coincidental aspect of scripture – according to Luther, if it’s in the Bible, it’s the inerrant word of God, if not, it’s a big old phony. Since the books that make up the Bible happen to be kind of old, old stuff is considered the business. As a result, in order for a book to be scripture, it needs to be in the Bible, and hence, it’s an old book.

  17. The discovery of how common it is for people to manufacture “traditions” to prop up current concerns was one of the early pieces of information that led me to question the Bible. In an anthropology class that took place more years ago than I care to name, the Evans-Pritchard classic, “The Nuer” (to the best of my memory) described how the people he studied could all recite long lineages for themselves (exactly in the Biblical sense of X begat Y, and Y begat Z) but when he went to try to pin down the specifics of a particular lineage, he found that after a few steps, they would “conflate” (not a technical term, but my academic days are long behind me) them into a larger, somewhat fuzzier and less historical entity, which would have the effect of linking them into a currently politically popular or advantageous clan. This lineage account could also change as alliances changed – people did not knowlingly lie about their lineages, but they had a lot of choice as to which line they decided to follow in which circumstances. This led me immediately to question the Biblical lineages and wonder at the convenience with which they lead so directly to the famous ancestors – David, Abraham, Noah, Adam – and to wonder how much “conflation” took place before they were written down.

    But look around and it will not be hard to spot new “traditions” in the making. eg – Thanksgiving – it commemorates a 17th century, possibly apocryphal, event, but was not actually celebrated as the quintessential American holiday until the 19th century, when America began to feel in need of traditions that made it feel like a grown up nation.

  18. SI,

    Being omnipotent, it should be a simple task for him. Why force us to jump through historical hoops… For instance, couldn’t he cause a CD, DVD or other electronic or digital medium with a new set of scriptures on it, to be created and then dropped in the middle of the Vatican on a beam of light, while hundreds of thousands watch, coupled with some unambiguous miraculous happening indicating a divine, supernatural origin for the new or supplemental scriptures? Can’t god do that?

    I imagine that God could do what you ask for. I doubt it would change anything. There’s always room for skepticism.

    Sabio,

    I don’t think many Christians “cling to scriptures as the sole source of all truth“. Most believe the god gave them their minds to supplement the truth in his word (the bible) but not to override it. I think it is important to state the opponents positions well and try not to exaggerate when possible — you would not want them doing the same to you.

    Good words.

  19. Ostro

    Thanks for that. I read the Fish piece, which was a sort of review of the Eagleton book, and found I was reading what Hitchens calls “white noise”. The comment you linked to called it “circular reasoning” which may be why my head tends to spin when I read stuff like:

    its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.”

    and

    “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

    or

    “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.”

    WTF does all that mean? It all assumes the existence of something no one can prove, to bootstrap us into pursuing theology as a valid path to truth. I like what the first comment said:

    It would be more useful to discuss whether right and wrong depend upon whether there is a God, an after-life and faith, and whether our knowledge of what is right and wrong depends upon the intermediation of clerics and theologians.

    I agree.

  20. Revelation 22:18-19 reads (NASB): “Testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.”

    This clearly forbids augmenting prophecy but doesn’t seem to forbid the existence of a future holy scripture, so long as it does not prophesy the future.

    The only other reference I can find is Ecclesiastes 3:14, which reads: “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.”

    This is Old Testament stuff, of course. If you read it as a prohibition against future holy truths, then it would nullify the New Testament. But, “…everything God does,” is vague, at best.

    So I don’t see an explicit prohibition against future scripture in the Bible (with the exception of future prophecy). But if there is one, it would seem (to me) an attempt by the author(s) to solidify their writings at ultimate Christian truth. Humans are that way.

    Could God send a glowing book to the Vatican with new holy truths? Nothing forbids it. By why would He? God (if He existed) could also freeze time and appear as a giant face in the sky and put on such a show that we would have no choice but to believe. The church would tell you that He doesn’t do this because He wants to preserve free will; that humans must choose to believe, must use our faith. The church would say that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was the “big show” designed to make us believe, and that we don’t get another (until the end-times, and that will be too late for those of us who remain heathens).

  21. Good eye for detail.. anyone publishing crime fiction and getting good reviews likely understands logic and forensics, and the power of subtle distinction.

    You said, “This clearly forbids augmenting prophecy but doesn’t seem to forbid the existence of a future holy scripture, so long as it does not prophesy the future.” I agree, and the distinction you note is valid and corollary to something else I’ve pondered for awhile: Even if we presumed 100% biblical truth, neither does such necessarily preclude the existence of truth in other holy scriptures. Truth is truth regardless of its source, and this is why I’ve never understood the subset of believers who look at other religions with absolute fear that precludes even a remote semblance of open-minded analysis. Granted, there are certainly incompatible doctrinal elements in many or most religions – and even within individual religions – but I believe it’s reasonable to claim that the general core values predominantly overlap.

    To build on your comment, in Philippians 1:18 Paul seems unconcerned and even happy that competitors and financially-motivated charlatans were preaching from ill motives, because nonetheless “whether in pretense, or in truth” the message got out. This unfortunately put a small chink in my lifelong opinion that nothing good could possibly amount from televangelism; it helped me understand that in spite of the sheer absurdity and criminality of most or many televangelists – if their message is true in the first place and they’re preaching at least the bare essentials correctly – there is no reason to assume anyone in that crowd who took the necessary mental steps couldn’t activate their faith – even if the preacher was a total charlatan. Again, if the message is true at all, it’s power doesn’t come from those who preach it.

    Seeds dropped on fertile soil while robbing a nursery can still grow.

  22. Nice post. The problem for conservative Christianity is that they place such a high value on having the right beliefs. If the stakes are so high, it wouldn’t make sense for the evidence and requirements to be so unclearly from a god.

    Did you listen to the whole set? Does he have a specific teaching on the canonization process? I’m reading his “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” textbook which doesn’t touch on that, just those early Christian folks.

  23. cl

    Again, if the message is true at all, it’s power doesn’t come from those who preach it.

    Big “if” there, cl.

    attr

    I think one of the last chapters dealt with that. More of a synopsis than an in depth discussion.

  24. That’s a common typo. I make it all the time, and when I see it, I try to suppress my normal pedantic nature, instead sticking to the substance.

    It says a lot, if you’re (another typo potential) serious, that the typo concerns you more than the”if”.

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