Questioning Believers

Saturday, October 12, 2013

At the beginning of the service at my church, a member of the congregation reads a Welcome statement. Part of it says "Welcome to questioners, believers, and questioning believers." I'm in that third category.

Part of my return to faith journey has been trying to learn more about Christianity and Jesus's teachings. It's always been frustrating to me that there is so little written about this outside of the Bible. I know, there are those who are asking what more do we need, but let me explain.

We're used to having multiple sources for news in our everyday life. There's television and newspapers and the Internet and radio and Twitter and... well, you get the picture. No one source is totally unbiased or totally accurate. It's one of the reasons I listen to both a talk radio station that carries Fox News and the local public radio station. Surprisingly enough, I've often found Twitter to be the most timely, accurate source for breaking news. It can also be very wrong.

With Jesus, there is almost nothing outside the Gospels and some apocryphal writings. All of these were written years after he lived and all have a bias in that they were written as witness to Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.

The one authoritative source outside the religious writings comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian, but these are so brief all they do is confirm that Jesus lived. The third citation, which provides evidence for the crucifixion, has been questioned because it is possible that it was later altered by those who believed in Jesus as Messiah.

My minister, during his weekly Bible study, emphasizes that we have to understand the books of the Bible in their historical and sociological context. If you understand the audience, it's easier to understand the stories. Matthew and Mark were written for Jews and so they use references that were familiar to Jews. Luke, however, was writing for Gentiles, people who had no knowledge of the Torah or Jewish history and tradition. Because his audience was different, his stories are different. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets lived at different times in history and the issues they faced were different depending on their circumstances.

In an attempt to gain more knowledge, I recently borrowed Part 1 of Bart Ehrman's The Historical Jesus lecture series from the library. (It's much too expensive to buy.) This didn't help much. (And a warning: these are college class lectures with Ehrman standing at a podium, not a History Channel dramatization.) Ehrman basically analyzes what we can deduce as being historically true from the Gospels. This is limited information. But one lecture did tell me that there were many wandering acetic philosopher miracle workers in the Middle East at the time of Jesus. One, Appollonius of Tyana, also claimed resurrection.

Now, this isn't the only story of resurrection. In Egyptian myth, the god Osiris also dies and is resurrected. Put that together with the story in Matthew of Jesus's family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, and isn't it possible Jesus developed his mythology from hearing about Osiris?

Now, I'm not saying that these other stories are true or that the story of Jesus is not. What I am saying is that they are things to think about, facts that lead to questions. It doesn't help that the Bible is not entirely consistent. As many have said, you can prove just about anything with a quote from the Bible.

Parables are particularly difficult to interpret, at least for me. Part of this has to be that context. I'm not a First Century resident of the Holy Land, so I'm not coming to them from the same place as Jesus's original audience. Did he really mean for all his followers to give up all their possessions to follow him? If so, why do so many Christians live in houses and drive cars? A recent lesson had Jesus talking about how slaves were to be treated. Does that mean slavery is okay? Around the time of the Civil War, some slave owners said just that. See, lots of questions.

In my Community of Faith mysteries, my somewhat ironically named main character struggles with some of the same issues I do. In each book, she not only unravels a mystery, she also attempts to unravel an aspect of being a Christian that puzzles her. That's one of the reasons I call my genre realistic Christian fiction. The characters are not perfect. They sin, repent, and sin again. They not only question God, they get angry at him. They are searching. They are questioning believers.

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