Sermon: The Problem With the Bible, History and Culture

Preaching Text: “[Every] tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:11)

“The Bible,” writes Tim Keller in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, is often viewed today as “scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive.”

Having discussed our biblical faith’s relationship to science in my last sermon, we conclude this sermon series with the Bible’s often misunderstood relationship to history and culture.

Many of us are familiar with Dan Brown’s famous novel of a few years back entitled The Da Vinci Code. Though most of us know it’s a work of fiction we nonetheless tend to accept its historical analysis of how the Bible came into being and the way Christianity developed.

In short, Brown’s thesis, mirrored by many writers and scholars today, argues that the Holy Roman emperor, Constantine, singlehandedly determined the New Testament canon, and in so doing cast aside many earlier and supposedly more authentic gospels, especially the Gnostic ones.

Here, as late as 325 A.D., Constantine supposedly created a new religion that decreed Jesus’ divinity while suppressing all evidence that Jesus was a mere human teacher. Constantine did so, or so the theory goes, to shore up the church hierarchy, giving it (and him) ultimate status. Thus power, not truth, accounts for the “victory” of Christianity in gaining Rome’s allegiance.

On closer inspection, this theory simply doesn’t stand up. For one thing, the earliest gospels were written over 250 years before Constantine, just 40-60 years after Jesus’ death. Paul’s letters are even earlier, some 15-20 years from the time of the crucifixion.

Additionally, the authors of the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) go to great lengths to name specific eyewitnesses, many of whom would have been alive to either corroborate or refute the writers’ claims. One would assume that if the writers were making things up, the legions of Jesus’ opponents would have been quick to challenge their accounts.

Many scholars today, in keeping with Brown’s thesis (they are, after all, Brown’s source), maintain that the Bible, rather than seeking to accurately report historical events, is merely a collection of various anonymous, evolving oral traditions that eventually were put into final form.

And yet, as we’ve seen, the textual evidence found within the church’s earliest writings doesn’t support this theory. We know, for example, that people were worshipping the crucified and risen Jesus from its earliest days as seen in today’s reading from Philippians, a document written only 20 years after Jesus’ death.

Besides, history shows that Christianity was already firmly established and had already “won” Rome’s allegiance well before Constantine ever arrived on the scene.

And it did so NOT as a theology born of cultural power, but as a besieged and persecuted minority. Thus it’s historically inaccurate to say that the gospels were written by church leaders to “promote their policies, consolidate their power, and build their movement.”

After all, why would the church promote the idea of the Crucifixion? By all accounts, for both Jewish and Roman societies, crucifixion was reserved for the worst crimes. It was shameful and connoted not victory but failure. So if you were creating an ad campaign for early Christianity, crucifixion is about the last thing you would use to sell your “product”!

In the same vein, why did the church rely on the testimony of several women to prove the Resurrection when everyone knew that women were utterly untrustworthy witnesses?

And what about Peter’s denial of Jesus? Why would the early church tell the story about the gross failure of one of its most prominent leaders? As an advertiser or campaign manager, you’d be out on your ears!

Furthermore, contrary to what we’re often told, Christianity did not attempt to “suck up” to the sensibilities of Rome’s power elite. It challenged them, unlike Gnosticism, which mirrored the dominant views of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity had a positive view of creation and promoted the welfare of the poor and oppressed, views that deeply offended those within the Greco-Roman world.

Okay, but what about all the offensive cultural practices found in the Bible? Aren’t they hopelessly outmoded and regressive? What about the Bible’s views on slavery? Or its views on women?

As for slavery, our frame of reference is, naturally enough, our country’s tortured history, characterized by cruelty and oppression. But in antiquity, slavery was simply a fact of life. And unlike our country’s experience, slaves were often indistinguishable from non-slaves. They could come and go as they pleased. And they were paid, often as much as non-slaves. Most were eventually able to buy their freedom. Though the Bible does not specifically challenge this then-common practice, it did eventually become the source and inspiration for slavery’s dissolution in the West.

As for the Bible’s treatment of women, as with many of its other cultural and social stances, the picture is more complicated than we commonly assume. One must understand the role of women in ancient society. Generally, women had no rights; they were mere property. That the early church consisted of many women leaders may not be adequate to satisfy our 21st century expectations, but in denying the church’s then groundbreaking opposition to the norms of its day, we may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Consider children. Today we venerate and cherish them. But in antiquity this was simply not so. Again children were mere property. In Rome, for instance, a father could legally kill his daughter simply because he didn’t like the way she looked!

Picking up on this theme, G.K. Chesterton, in his often profound book, The Everlasting Man, writes tongue-in-cheek: “Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter.”

His point, simply put, is that children’s stories such as Peter Pan would have absolutely no place within the Greco-Roman world of antiquity, but only within the culture Christianity created, one where all human beings – bar none – are valued and cherished.

In conclusion, as I’ve said many times (and likely will say many more times!), Christianity is a victim of its own success! Its values and norms, such as those manifest toward children, not only have become largely invisible to us moderns (who hold to them dearly) but are used routinely to attack Christianity!

In the end, unless we thoughtfully and accurately evaluate what our values are and from whence they came, we fall prey to a kind of amnesia that is both rootless and aimless.

Only by delving thoughtfully, carefully, and prejudice-free into the world of biblical faith will we discover the true hidden treasure that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in so doing find the godly tools and resources necessary to live life fully and joyfully. Amen.