The Multi-voiced Constitution & Bible

In American politics, there are people who call themselves “Constitutionalists” and I am not one of them. I am glad this country has a constitution and rule of law, but I think the constitution has a major flaw.

The constitution was a compromise between various conflicting political philosophies — and with a little study, those conflicts are apparent. And it is for that reason, that it does not take much effort to get the document to say what you want it to say. Thus we have fluxing “interpretations” and amending over the last two centuries. The constitution’s flaw is that it is does not have one voice. But this is only a flaw when you assume it does have one voice.

But enough politics — I try to avoid politics on this blog, but instead, I am using the example of the US Constitution to point at a similar principle in the Bible. The Bible is not homogenous. Even narrowing down to the Gospels, it is obvious that there are many different Jesuses in the gospels. And history shows that people pick out their favorite Jesus to champion their favorite causes.

The New Testament Jesus is hugely mythologized. I won’t go so far as to say that there was no real person called Jesus upon which some of these various puppet Jesuses are based, but I really don’t think we can figure that out. But often Christians and Atheists alike think they can tell us who the real Jesus was, what he taught and what he was trying to accomplish.

I think it is important to not buy into the myth that the New Testament (or the Constitution) has one voice. The different voices are most instructive and far from trivial.


(1) This post was inspired by two posts:

  • By my conversation over at the excellent blog, “Groping the Elephant
  • By an interesting post concerning another upcoming book by David Fitzgerald. I am not sure if Fitzgerald fits into the supposed “mythicists” camp but I still find much of what he writes informative.

(2) See my post: The Homogenized Bible


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

22 responses to “The Multi-voiced Constitution & Bible

  1. I find it interesting that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but neither taste nor truth. In America we have spun off some of the most nutty
    religions imagined. Religions have a constututional right to screw their followers free from interference from the government.

    And we are now seriously considering a Mormon to lead the most powerful country in history. Yet no one on the press will take on the task of pointing out the various mad beliefs that Romney will bring with him. And what if Romney decides to bring along his fellow Mormon, Huntsman as the Vice President?

  2. Ian

    I both agree and disagree, but unfortunately needed a diagram to explain why… So I put a response post on Irreducible Complexity:

  3. Of course, unlike the Bible, the Constitution has some amendments and a methodology for making further amendments. : )

  4. @ Doug B,
    If only the Bible had amendment methods — we wouldn’t have half the problems today.🙂

    @ Ian,
    After reading the post and studying the diagram, I am not clear on how you disagree with me.

    I think this quote may be key,

    “Historically much of this is dubious, a lot of it downright absurd,”


    If it is absurd, and our only sources are the gospels and nothing outside them validate this info, that get even close to a Historical Jesus is next to impossible.

    Yes, if we accept Christians’ view that the 4 Gospel writers were all witnesses and thus their overlap is important, then we can go somewhere. But I see no reason to believe that. So the question is, do we buy into this huge leap of faith just to dialogue or do we point out the myth leap and don’t jump with them?

    I looke forward to your instruction.

    @ Ex-Android
    Like I said, this post is NOT about politics. And if you think Mormons are weird, then maybe you should read this post of mine: “Your God is Weird

  5. Ian

    I’m not doing so well for being clear, sorry.

    I agree 100% with you about the historical Jesus. I just think that is a bit of a red herring. Because most Christians look to a *biblical* Jesus. They aren’t much concerned with historical criticism in deciding the implications for their lives and religions. In that case, in that kind of discussion (i.e. about what it is appropriate for Christians to do, or what political stand is more ‘Christian’), I think it is fine to use the consensus Jesus of the NT, say, as a non-subjective foundation for arguments.

    Of course, the result of such a process is only as valid as the basic assumption that it matters a fig what Jesus wants or commands, or that Jesus had any significant wisdom worth sharing at all.

    So nobody is going to tell you or I that we shouldn’t hold a particular view because Jesus taught the opposite. Going against Jesus’s teachings wouldn’t be a problem for us, even if we had any confidence we knew what they were.

    But it is entirely valid, I think, that two parties who agree that it does matter, and agree that the NT is the source material for knowledge of him, should use the consensus Jesus in those arguments. So I disagreed with your response to the original elephant-blog article.

  6. Sabio,

    I would like for you to elaborate on something you say in this post:

    “it is obvious that there are many different Jesuses in the gospels.”

    Personally, I don’t think that is at all obvious. In fact, I don’t think there are “many” different Jesuses in the gospels.

    Would you take a little time to lay that out for us?

  7. “The constitution’s flaw is that it is does not have one voice. But this is only a flaw when you assume it does have one voice.”

    I really like that line.

    I was always under the impression that the bible was taken to be “written by god but through the hand of man.” so to that end, it does have one unified voice to those who believe it to be so. This says a lot about the sheer conversational disconnect I find myself in when I’m speaking to such people.

    I actually have a lot more to say about this, but it is too complicated to get into for now.

  8. @ Brandon
    Exactly. That was the point of this post. You get it.

  9. @ Doug B
    Your question is a large one — and since Ian is visiting (he is a Bible Scholar turned atheist), it may be best if he answered in a post on his site. I started a post on this issue but it will take a lot more work to do justice to. But the obvious voices are the writers of all four gospels had obviously different agendas. Then, we can see traces of attempts to still or amplify certain voices in each of the gospels in the changes of editors over the centuries. It is clear to me that Mark’s Jesus, for example was very different from Matthews’. But you are familiar with this issue, aren’t you?

    Most Christians blur the 4 gospels in their heads and can’t hear the different voices. Lots of atheists do the same — because they themselves were Christians who did the same.

  10. @ Ian & Doug B
    Let’s say my daughter idealize Barbie cartoons, filled her rooms with Barbie dolls, played for hours with her Ken and Barbie dolls dreaming of having a future life as the ideal Barbie. Imagine she idealized the Barbie & Ken body types and all their fashion values. The cartoon tell her, let’s say, there is perfect love and ideal roles. And she is still doing this when she is 17 years old. I could approach this dire situation in several ways. Here are a few:

    (a) Tell her Barbie is not real and no real person lives the way she imagines. Tell her life is not like that. Barbie’s assumptions are wrong.

    (b) Get into playing Barbie with her and try to get her to be a good Barbie.

    (c) Play Barbie a little, win her trust, start talking about what the real Barbie would do and hopefully get her to see point (a)

    I hope I have not offended anyone’s favorite toy fantasy!🙂

  11. @ Ian,
    You said,

    So nobody is going to tell you or I that we shouldn’t hold a particular view because Jesus taught the opposite. Going against Jesus’s teachings wouldn’t be a problem for us, even if we had any confidence we knew what they were.

    Let me put it strongly – even at risk of being slightly wrong: Even if they did tell us we were going against Jesus teachings, I could point out that there is no consistent teaching you can call Jesus’.
    What teaching theme do you consider truly Jesus’?

    (a) He came to help the poor and suffering [there are contradictory teachings to this.

    (b) He came to die for our sins [voices show this was not the case]
    (c) He came to tell everyone to become poor, give up all you own and rejoice that you no longer need to worry because the end is here. God’s kingdom is coming now!
    [this contradicts taking care of the poor]

    (d) He came to tell people to be nice, forgive and love one and other. [Yawn, so did many others]

    (e) He came to tell people to ignore the Pharisees and Saducees. It was a Jewish thing.

    Anyway, you get my point. OK, waiting for the correction.

    You also said,

    So I disagreed with your response to the original elephant-blog article.

    So, your response here was not to something I said here, but to what I said on another blog?

  12. Ian

    Re: Barbie – well, mental health professionals do both. Sometimes it *is* appropriate to converse within the delusion, much of the time it is right to challenge it.

    Re: What teachings… well let’s consider the original point – the gospels portray a Jesus that did not, and did not command his followers to acquire wealth nor desire its acquisition. The prosperity gospel is not the consensus view of the gospel writers. His degree of prohibition on rich followers does vary between the gospels, but no gospel disagrees with the basic point on whether material wealth is the currency of God’s blessing. This, I think, should qualify as a consensus view of the gospel writers about Jesus. Whether that is something we can ascribe to the historical Jesus’s teaching is another matter: one that’s irrelevant for now, I submit.

    Now I’m sure there are individual verses in the gospels that could be quote-mined to suggest something opposite, but any sensible reading of the text as a whole would show that runs counter to the evangelists’ view of Jesus. (Lest you think the quote-mining is somehow just as valid – ‘who’s to say the quote-miners are wrong’ – I’m referring to the same basic process we do when reading *all* texts. We can tell that Darwin was convinced of evolution, despite the quote-mining by creationists that seem to indicate he wasn’t.)

    There are teachings that are not in the consensus, that vary too much, and others that the gospel writers have basically no significant disagreement over. There are some that are consistent among the synoptics, but not mentioned in John, say. And so on: there are layers of agreement.

    Re: Where to respond… Sorry if I put stuff in the wrong place. Seemed like an ongoing conversation across venues. I didn’t make the source of my issue clear enough in my original comment, but I thought it was clearer in my post.

  13. Very thought-provoking. I think this could apply to anyone in your life.

    Who do you really know? Who really knows you? I have found that I hear different perceptions of who I am currently from different sources.

    Today I heard that someone perceived me as being mean when I was in high school. Last week someone told someone else that I was a loyal friend and wonderful mother. Both of these examples baffle me, because I think neither of myself.

    I wonder how much those perceptions would be skewed if they were written down and read thousands of years later.

  14. Sabio,

    With all due respect, I think you are overstating your case. To say different authors tell a story in different ways isn’t the same thing as saying we are talking about “many” different Jesuses. I mainly use the synoptic gospels as the sources for my understanding of the person of Jesus. I’ve gone into that before on my blog so won’t go into it here on yours. But wouldn’t you agree that the synoptic gospels agree on the basics about Jesus? Don’t they all present him as a believer in and preacher of the Jewish religion, of the Law and the Prophets? Don’t they all agree that Jesus preached about an impending Kingdom of God (or Heaven) to be established on the earth, even in the lifetime of his disciples? Don’t they all represent him as a healer and miracle worker? Don’t they all present him as a fire and brimstone preacher? Don’t they all consider him the king of the Jews or Messiah? I could go on, but I’m curious to hear about the many different Jesuses you find. Even allowing for all the redaction and legend making, can we say the synoptic gosples present us with different Jesuses? Now I’m inclined to agree that John’s Jesus is somewhat different. That Jesus is a God/man and a more universal savior – something he seemed to deny in the synoptics. That is the biggest difference I find. And sure, we can get all bogged down in the various strands of Jesus scholarship. I’m aware of all that. But how many of your average Christians are into all that? I prefer to remain in dialogue with them. My blog is aimed at the common man and woman. I’m no scholar nor intellectual myself.

  15. @ Doug B,
    Well, at least you agree that between John and the synoptics there are two different Jesus’. How about Paul? Was his a third? (He wrote next to nothing about Jesus’ life).
    You wrote:

    I’m curious to hear about the many different Jesuses you find.

    I listed them above as (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) in my comment to Ian.

    @ Jessica,
    I think we have a bit more than different authors giving their different impressions on someone they actually observed.
    But as to how folks view us differently, I totally agree.

  16. Now how did we get from “many different Jesuses in the gospels” to the Apostle Paul?

    And as far as your (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) list in your comment to Ian, I’ve read enough of your thoughtful posts to know that is an argument totally unworthy of Triangulations.

    What, (d) for example, which is a feature of all three synoptic gospels is an example of a different Jesus from the one I suggested in my blog post which opened this discussion? Really? The same for (e). Your (a) needs to be expanded upon and not just presented as an argument in itself; I don’t see the contradiction. Ditto for (b). Argument (c) sounds like a village atheist argument and is easily disputable also.

    Again I suggest that the Jesus of the synoptics was an apocalyptic Jewish preacher. I find no other. Certainly I don’t find many different Jesuses in the gospels.

  17. @ Doug B
    “unworthy of Triangulations” ?
    You seem angry. I don’t need it going there. You can drop Paul’s Jesus, that is fine.

    a,b,c,d and e were just meant to be examples of the different Jesuses seen in the Gospels and emphasized by different believers. Just like Ian points out when he mentioned the prosperity Gospel Jesus.
    I was not trying to make ‘arguments’ for these by any means.

    Ian agrees partially, it seems, with you about the importance of some Consensus Jesus. So you are in very good company, he is a ver bright Bible scholar. To write about why I think my perspective is important is going to take much more work which I am not motivated for at this time. So we have to walk away disagreeing.

    Well, if Jesus did exist, I agree that he was probably an apocalyptic Jewish preacher, but beyond this, I think there are many different Jesuses that were layered on top of this.

    And heck, on a funny note, how can you deny the plurality of Jesus when you write the word: JeSuSeS? 🙂

  18. Sabio,

    No, my friend, not angry in the least. Just flabbergasted a bit because I have tried repeatedly to get you to clearly state your position, or more to the point, tell me exactly how I have misrepresented the Jesus of the gospels. After all, your original comment on my post was:

    “Even atheists, yourself included, pick out their favorite parts and try to say, “I honor them” and thus somehow give your favorite ideas weight because they were supposedly said by a failed-apocalyptic cultist.”

    Aren’t you accusing me of cherry-picking there? It sounds as if you are suggesting that I am somehow trying to force my views and ideas into the gospel record.

    To the contrary, I feel what I did is simply attempt to find what Ian calls a “consensus Jesus.”

    I’m sorry if you feel I was being snarky with my remark about your argument being “unworthy of Triangulations.” I just feel you usually do a better job of articulating your positions. You can’t just say certain things are obvious as you did here and leave it at that.

    I will post no more comments about this here on your blog. I don’t want to come across as rude, angry, confrontational or whatever. If you wish to discuss it further you are welcome to do so over at my place.


  19. @ Doug,
    NP. I will try to do another post on this topic. Both you and Ian are referring back and forth between this post and the comments on your post which can be confusing. That is inevitable when people elaborate their comments by posting on their own site — as Ian also did and thus we have three sites talking about this.

    I did not elaborate my position on your sites because it was in the comment section. Hopefully I will do so in the future. Thanx for visiting.

  20. Another good post. People argue as heatedly about what “the founding fathers wanted” (as if they all wanted the same thing!) and what is constitutional or not (i.e., how much the Supreme Court should/needs to interpret it), etc., as much as they argue about what “the Bible says” you need to do to get into heaven. Obey the Sabbath, be baptized, accept Jesus as your Lord and Spiritual Fitness Trainer, click your ruby heels together . . . . The two are multi-faceted documents, fur shores.🙂

  21. @ Andrew,
    Thanks. You got it!

  22. C

    One-voicedness is always false, a matter of diminished perception. This is true of one’s own utterances, no matter how much a particular intention is imagined. Meaning is carried via social convention; any meaning expressed symbolically is contestable if the contestors are smart enough to find the gaps. They are always there.

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