In 1966, I was condemned for heresy. No kidding. It’s a bit humorous now but it wasn’t funny then. At one time, you know, the Catholic Church burned heretics at the stake.
I was a Catholic monk and priest and a professor of scripture at St. Mary’s College of California. I had spent eight years in graduate work, the last two years at the Pope’s University in Rome, and I had received as many degrees in sacred scripture as the Catholic Church could offer at that time.
I was lecturing in the Oakland Auditorium on the two Christmas narratives; the first one in Matthew where Bethlehem is hometown to Mary and Joseph and the second one in Luke where their home town isn’t Bethlehem at all -- it’s Nazareth, and our nine-month-pregnant Mary must hop on a donkey and ride 80 bumpy miles to Bethlehem. The obvious contradiction didn’t bother me. There were plenty more to come.
I knew that Luke had read Matthew’s account and that he felt quite comfortable changing the story. Neither one was writing history. It didn’t matter how Jesus got to Bethlehem. What mattered was that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The prophets said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so he had to get to Bethlehem somehow. These writers were not telling lies, they were telling faith-based stories. Historically, Jesus was probably born in Nazareth.
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I know it’s difficult for us to get into the heads of the men who wrote these tales. We want them to follow our modern literary rules. For example, when we tell a fairy tale, it begins: “Once upon a time.” So when we read the Bible we get lulled into thinking it was written in English by eyewitnesses who wrote like New York Times journalists. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Today, we have three religions that are “By the Book:” Judaism’s Tanakh, (the Old Testament), Christianity’s Bible and Islam’s Koran. All three religions are split down the center by fundamentalists and seekers. The fundamentalists look at each word in their individual book and proclaim that God somehow wrote all the truth man needs to know right here in this book without errors or contradictions -- and he wrote it just the way it appears in English. The seekers, on the other hand, see this same book as a source of inspiration and discussion, a book with both clarity and confusion. A book about God but written by men. A book with obvious contradictions which cannot be taken literally.
In 1966, Bishop Floyd Begin of California was a fundamentalist. He had my lectures secretly taped and then he ordered me to show up with my monastic superior on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. He played about five minutes of the tape, shut it off, and screamed at my superior: “He’s a heretic. Get him out of here.” I laugh now when I think how different Pope Francis is. “Who am I to judge?” Francis asked. Bishop Begin loved to judge.
Middle Georgia is full of “judgers.” A young woman spoke to me last week and pleaded with me to write more about the Bible. She said her church is full of fundamentalists who claim that people who disagree with them are Satan.
I haven’t read much of the Koran, but I have studied the Tanakh (the Old Testament) in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek with some of the best scholars in the world. One thing I’ve learned is this: the English versions we read in church are not the “originals.” We don’t have the originals. We have copies of copies of copies -- over 5,000 completely different Greek copies of the gospels before they were translated into Latin and then into English. We come a lot closer to the Tanakh Hebrew originals now that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, but we’re still 200 to 400 years from the authors.
When someone says, “Hey, we’ve got the exact word of God -- word for word -- right here in this book,” I just smile and say, “Oh well, who am I to judge?”
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.