An Open Letter

How is it that many of the basic facts of Jesus’ life remain in dispute? How is it that John’s Gospel presents a very different order for and account of Jesus’ life and a very different style of speaking? Why doesn’t Jesus, in John, emphasize the kingdom of God as he does in the other gospels but only mentions it once? How can you put such absolute faith in such problematic historical texts?

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
June 2013

A couple of years ago I heard a fellow minister speak about the “pagans of the world”---particularly Indians--- and how they are doubtless destined for hell because of their lack of belief in the Bible and Jesus. I responded to him on behalf of the “pagans” through a letter written as though from a modern Hindu. To this date I have not received a reply. Would anyone else care to respond? I believe that until the church develops straight answers about these questions we will look to the world very much like the hypocrites whom Jesus condemned.

Dear Friend,

Two years ago, while you were in Bombay, India, I heard you preach and was much impressed by your enthusiasm and zeal. As a result, I decided that I ought to consider the possibility of, as you say, “accepting the Lord Jesus Christ.” You must recognize, of course, what a difficult decision that would be for me, for it would mean alienation from my family and friends and caste members. I would doubtless lose my job; certainly I could no longer participate as I have in Indian society, for our culture and our religion are very much intertwined. I would be consigned to a low caste and would probably have to work at some menial task for the rest of my life. So, a positive decision would be difficult. Nevertheless, I decided to read the Bible to see whether the great disruption would be worth it.

The Bible, for the most part, is a very interesting book and I read it as carefully as I could from cover to cover. There are, however, many things that trouble me about it. For instance, I discovered very soon that not all Bibles contain the same books and that your tradition removed from the Bible books that had been accepted by Christians for centuries because those books had not been approved by a Council of Rabbis which met after the time of Jesus at Jamnia. For a non-Christian it is very disconcerting to discover that Christians do not even agree about which books are “the inspired Word of God” and that your own tradition has chosen to depend upon non- and perhaps even anti-Christian Jews to form part of the canon. Moreover, I came to learn as I studied the subject that it took many, many years for Christians to decide which books were to be included in the New Testament. No formal decision was really made until the 16th Century! Some Christians still do not agree about the decision but use a somewhat different canon. How can you be sure that those Christians who made the decision about the canon, who were by no means perfect, made the correct choice?

I also became aware, as I read the Bible, that the text of the Old Testament contains many, many sentences which do not make good ordinary sense or are extraordinarily difficult to render. I also came to learn that the text of the New Testament is filled with a variety of question marks, for there are no original texts, but rather a great number of fragments and versions which do not agree with each other about many details. How can the Christian Church depend upon such a debatable text for its absolute truth?

What bothers me even more are certain features of the content. Consider, for instance, the idea of life after death, something which virtually all Indians believe in and which you made central in your sermon. The Bible begins with the stories of creation and the Garden of Eden that, by the way, I found very endearing and similar in some respects to some of our own stories. There is, however, one big difference. Adam and his wife are thrown out of the garden so that they will not be able to eat of the tree of life and live forever. God forbids immortality! Indeed, we are told quite directly that humans are dust and to dust they shall return.

As we proceed through the Bible, however, we discover that the spirit of a human is not entirely mortal, for it goes to Sheol and, as in the case of Samuel, can be called up from the dead. Sheol seems to be neither heaven nor hell but just “The Pit.” To it both the righteous and the unrighteous go. Thus, it is neither a punishment nor a reward.

Sheol is not the final answer, however, for in other places there are strong hints of reincarnation. For instance, it is said that Elijah will return in bodily form. There is also some mention of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day (though this also occurs in Matthew at the time of the crucifixion). This idea of the resurrection seems to have developed within Israel under the Persians who already taught it in their religion. Were the Persians, then, also inspired by God?

John speaks of eternal life, while Ecclesiastes expresses an agnostic position. Jesus says in some places that the unrighteous will end up in Gehenna (a fiery, very this-worldly garbage dump), though in other places he consigns them to outer darkness which, whatever it is, is certainly not Gehenna. In a few places there are hints of the immortality of the soul (psyche), but these are not terribly clear. Now my question is: if one God inspired the Bible, why did he not make evident from the beginning the correct answer to this very important question? Why is it that no genuine notion of heaven and hell appears before the New Testament? To the outsider it seems that New Testament writers invented the problem in order to solve it.

Let me give another example of my problems with Biblical teachings. In your sermon you spoke of the great importance of monogamous, heterosexual marriage for Christians, but when I began to read the Bible I found that God seemed to approve of polygamy and concubinage too. In fact, the twelve tribes of Israel would never have existed without Jacob’s two wives and his concubines. Moreover, I do not find elsewhere any very clear correction of this practice. Only in a letter to Timothy are bishops advised to have only one wife. What about everyone else?

You made quite a point about Christian aversion to homosexuality, but I find little about that subject in the Bible. It is true that the book Leviticus condemns it, but the New Testament (particularly Ephesians) makes clear that Christians are free from both the commandments and the ordinances of the Torah. What I did discover is that Jesus clearly forbids divorce, a practice that, I believe, many Protestants now accept.

Again, Jesus offers many sayings that imply that a believer ought to avoid violence at all costs. His followers are called upon to turn the other cheek and go the second mile, to love their enemies and give whatever is asked. But the Hebrew Scriptures seem to exult in violence. God even encourages Israel to put various peoples to the sword. How can you reconcile the values of the two parts of the Bible? Or are not the Hebrew Scriptures really inspired? Concentrate on the New Testament you say, for the Old has been supplanted. If that is true, why include the Old Testament in the Bible at all?

Moreover, even if we consider just the New Testament there seem to be problems.. I have read the Gospels as carefully as I can and find them, taken together, very confusing. For instance, the various accounts of Jesus’ birth and his genealogy do not seem to agree. Neither do the accounts of the Last Supper or the Resurrection seem to fit together. (I could site numerous examples, but for the sake of brevity will refrain from long enumerations.) I consulted, therefore, with Biblical experts and, although I found some who, with the greatest sleight-of-hand, tried to make all the Gospels say the same thing, I also found some very reputable scholars who agreed with me that, in fact, the Gospels do not cohere about many important details. One scholar I read said, in fact, that the Gospels were not written “to inhabit the same neighborhood” but, in part, consciously disagree. How is it that many of the basic facts of Jesus’ life remain in dispute? How is it that John’s Gospel presents a very different order for and account of Jesus’ life and a very different style of speaking? Why doesn’t Jesus, in John, emphasize the kingdom of God as he does in the other gospels but only mentions it once? How can you put such absolute faith in such problematic historical texts?

But, I said, let’s not quibble about all those details of history. Let us look at what Jesus teaches. As I read Jesus’ words I was deeply moved, but I also recalled the words of my own countryman Mohandas Gandhi who said repeatedly that what Jesus taught was wonderful but remained largely untried by Christians. Gandhi attempted to follow Jesus. He gave away his money and position, retaining in his possession a simple dhoti, a picture of Jesus and a copy of the Gita; he became, as it were, a eunuch for the kingdom, eschewing all sex. Most of all he shunned all violence, all hatred, all judgment of others. It was his aim to show compassion to all human beings and animals too. The truth is that I have never known a Christian who really takes those teachings with anything like the seriousness that Gandhi, a Hindu, displayed. Instead, all Christians seem to talk about is grace and forgiveness for themselves. Renunciation, except in a very symbolic sense, is far from their minds. Certainly Christian history has been filled with violence and judgmentalism, often carried out in the name of Christ.

This emphasis on forgiveness, which you so underlined, comes, I take it, from Paul, someone whom you seem to quote repeatedly. Jesus himself counsels that followers should expect forgiveness only to the extent that they forgive others. To be sure, Paul did, if we can believe the Bible, have a profound spiritual experience, but so have many other people. As someone standing outside Christianity, how can I distinguish between the experience of Paul and that of Mohammed? In fact, the latter is better attested to by history, for there are eye-witness accounts of him receiving the revelations. You say that the Bible is the truth, and perhaps in some sense it is, but my Muslim friends say the same about the Koran. How can I distinguish between one and the other?

My reading of the New Testament implies that Paul came to a knowledge of Jesus very much on his own, as the result of a blinding miracle. He did not initially consult with the apostles who knew Jesus. He did not have the gospels before him to read. Therefore, he only had a partial knowledge of what the historical Jesus really taught. The only Jesus he seems to have known was the Jesus of his own personal vision. In so far as he knew what the original twelve disciples were teaching, he seemed to disagree violently with them. Can I risk my whole life on such a flimsy basis? What makes Pauline theology the be all and end all of your religion and of truth?

All of this means that I have decided that “accepting the Lord Jesus” is not for me. Now, many of my friends call Christians the “Children of the Devil” for to them Christians appear to be egotistical and close-minded, intent upon imposing their will and their culture upon others. They say you are agents of foreign colonialism intent upon destroying the Indian way of life that God has given to us. I myself do not feel that way, for I believe Jesus was on the right track when he set forth a way of life like that of our sunyasins. In fact, he seems very much like many of our holy men. Nevertheless, I plan to remain as I am, a humble Hindu trying to live as compassionate and useful a life as possible. I will continue to revere the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Gita and our vast spiritual literature and, of course, the God to whom they point. I will continue to revere the way of nonviolence and renunciation and peace. I wish you well and if you judge me evil, I will not mind, for I know that in whatever final judgment there is, I will be judged by a power who transcends both Christian and Hindu, who looks at the heart and not at the theology and is not the captive of any human book or institution.

Judge me as you will. I remain your fellow human being,

Sharesh Sharma

Comments (1)

It took some time for this Open Letter to open, at least for me, so this is a rather late comment. It's rather indirect, since I fully share your quizzical view of hellfire preaching. I am astonished that it, along with many other religious phenomena, still exists. As befits an expression of puzzlement, it will be rather rambling.
There is an interesting article on Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (London Review of Books 25/13), with a cross-reference to Bunyan's 'Grace Abounding' - about Christian approaches to scriptural paradoxes such as you mention. These problems have been around for a good few centuries.
I am a member of the Oxford Diocesan Synod (Church of England). At our last meeting we heard, without turning a hair, the surely hair-raising remarks in Luke about hating - well, yes, hating - your family and your own life, which I think must mean wishing you were dead. Such is the interesting process of familiarisation. I am wondering whether I have the impudence, Anglican regard for Bishops running deep in me as it does, to email the Bishop of Oxford and ask whether he is in the relevant state of mind or wishes he was and/or would expect it of the rest of us. All in all, I wouldn't call in an aggressive tone for pagans to accept Jesus: I would certainly understand that they had legitimate problems, which I would try to address with such humility and patience as I could muster.
Perhaps B and I would like to publish something some day on the difference between the Luke and Matthew versions of this passage, whose differences seem to me to illustrate the Marcionite controversy in action.
Just to add that the London Review of Books had a long article about Gandhi by Perry Anderson a few months ago, showing that G was not without fault and not really a better Christian than the Christians.

#1 - Martin - 06/29/2013 - 14:25

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