Thomas F. O'Neill
An understanding of the Biblical Scriptures
I've had an interest in the biblical scriptures ever since I was very young due to my parents being devout Catholics. With my Catholic upbringing I have read the scriptures on a regular basis and I have even served as an altar boy during the Catholic Mass each day before school and every Sunday. I never felt forced to follow the literal interpretation of the scriptures but as for the Catholic mandates that was a different story. I had difficulty from an early age comprehending how a superior intelligence could mandate the dogmatic rules of the Catholic Church on to its followers.
My parents’ devoutness to the Catholic faith was forced upon me and the mandates of the Catholic Church seemed at times to conflict with my spirituality. I never viewed god as an anthropomorphic personality fixated on whether we follow the strict adherence of religious mandates. When I grew older I still felt pretty much indoctrinated in the Catholic religion. I also made it a point to find the time to study theology so that I could gain a clearer understanding as to how and why the scriptures were written.
I took theology courses in college and I also studied theology as a Roman Catholic seminarian. What I have found is that most modern theologians and historians have begun to rely more on archeology in order to gain deeper insights as to the time period the nation of Israel was founded and when that region was first inhabited. Many theologians and Historians are beginning to conclude due to empirical evidence that the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, etc....... are not historical accounts of the region.
There is also tangible archeological evidence that the cities and buildings mentioned in the bible did not exist in the time period that Abraham, Moses, Joshua, etc......supposedly lived. The cities mentioned and the accounts of the Old Testaments mythological wars did not occur either because archeology and other historical evidence have proven otherwise.
When it comes to the biblical story of King David there is also no historical evidence outside of the scriptures that he was a flesh and blood human being. The buildings and cities mentioned in the Bible’s David story did not exist in that time period either. They existed when the biblical text were written centuries later.
The biblical writers used buildings and cities as reference points to tell their stories. They were communicating their theology in story form to the Israelites about their relationship to the god of Abraham.
The biblical writers were also using the scriptures and the biblical stories as a means of giving the Israelites a national identity.
It has also been discovered that when the Jews were in captivity in Persia, long before the scriptures were written, they incorporated the Babylonian mythology into their belief system.
Some changes were also made to the Hebrew alphabet due to the Persian influence during this time period. There were other cultures that were enslaved in Persia along with the Jews and the Jews were influenced by their beliefs as well.
It has become a great misconception among modern day Christians that the ancient Jews believed in a monolithic god. The concept of a one Supreme Being came much later in history long after the Old Testament Scriptures were written. The ancient Jews during their captivity in Persia came in contact with many cultures but none of those cultures believed in a one supreme god. That concept was foreign to them and although the ancient Jews believed in multiple gods they worshiped the god of Abraham.
The Jews did believe that it was the god of Abraham that delivered them from the Babylonian captivity but most of the mythology found in the Old Testament came directly from the Babylonian myths. When you study the beliefs and customs of ancient Judaism and the ancient Babylonians, you see a whole array of similar beliefs throughout the biblical text. The Babylonian culture and customs had a profound influence on the ancient Jews cultural mythologies.
The Babylonian concepts of fallen angels, good verses evil spirits, and Angels verses Devils have been incorporated in the Judeo-Christian Mythology. The Babylonian beliefs of spiritual possession of humans and animals by evil spirits can also be found in the Judaic-Christian literature. The ancient Babylonian stories directly influenced the early Jewish culture which we find throughout the Bible.
Today’s Christian fundamentalist will argue that the god of Abraham was the superior Yahweh that the ancient Jews worshiped. However, during the time the scriptures were written the scripture writers did not have a reference point to develop a concept for the belief in a single supreme deity. The reason for this is (and like I mentioned before) the various cultures that the Jews had contact with at that time believed in multiple gods. The scripture writers did however worship the god of Abraham and credited the god of Abraham for delivering them not only out of Persia but Egypt as well. Another misconception among today’s Christian fundamentalist is that the ancient Jews did not believe in Reincarnation. However, many cultures held those beliefs including the ancient Jews. The concept of Reincarnation was a major premise in the Babylonian belief system which greatly influenced the Jewish beliefs during their captivity in Babylon. The concept of Reincarnation was a core belief in that region which predates the written language.
We have a better understanding of the biblical text today than any other time in history because we are taking a more scientific approach in studying the scriptures rather than interpreting them literally. Modern Theology is using History, Archeology, and Mythology to come to a greater understanding of how the bible was written. The biblical writers were influenced by the mythology of their day and other cultures.
When the scriptures were written over 90% of the people could not read or write. Stories were passed down orally. Religious scholars have gained a better understanding of the Jewish culture and the various historical influences that influenced their culture. It is due to historical and archeological discoveries the various mythological influences are also being taken into account as to how the surrounding cultures impacted the ancient Jewish beliefs. These influences had a direct impact on their cultural development and we can gain a better understanding of this when we read the scriptures, not as an historical account of what took place, but as theological literature.
Theologians have also come to a greater understand of the biblical writer’s perception of their relationship to the god of Abraham as a people and as a nation. It was from studying the scriptures in light of more recent historical and archeological discoveries. These discoveries did not just come from ancient Jewish sites but from various other cultures that impacted the Jewish belief system as well. The Old Testament writers did not write out of an isolated vacuum. The Babylonian culture in particular influenced the Jews understanding of who they are as a people and as a nation - in relation to the god of Abraham. The Old Testament writers provided the Jewish culture with a national identity through a theological belief system.
These scientific methods that are being applied to understand the Old Testament more fully are being applied to the New Testament as well.
When I studied the history of the Catholic Church, I began to realize that the Catholic Church’s teachings are also steeped in mythology. The myths dominate the Judeo-Christian theology.
There are a large number of theologians and scholars that rely on history and archeology to gain a deeper understanding of the New Testament scriptures. Modern theologians have searched for historical and archeological evidence outside the scriptures to shed light on the New Testament. However, they were unable to find independent sources to prove that Jesus was in fact an historical figure. They have concluded that, just as the Old Testament cannot be studied as an historical accounting of what took place, the New Testament cannot be studied as a history Book either, but rather as theological literature and as a continuum of the Old Testament. Many theologians have also found that the various New Testament writers were conveying the god of Abraham’s relationship to the Jewish people. They accomplished this in story form by using the mythological figure of Jesus as being the new Moses for the Jewish people.
Additionally, modern theologians have found historical evidence that St. Paul was in fact the founder of the Christian Church. There is a growing consensus among Theologians that St. Paul was once a member of the Essenes - a Gnostic sect. The Essenes writings were discovered near the ancient city of Hebron in 1947. The term Gnosticism means Knowledge and the Gnostics believe that spiritual knowledge is implicit within all of us. That knowledge is accessible to all through spiritual discipline and spiritual exercises such as meditation.
St. Paul shared the Essenes beliefs; he used his own theology and the Essenes writings to build his own vision of a spiritual Jewish lifestyle. St. Paul and the Essenes used the myth of Jesus as a means to overthrow the strict Jewish laws that governed and dominated the Jewish Lifestyle.
St. Paul and the Essenes believed that the Jewish laws inhibited spiritual growth. He used the stories of Jesus as a means of converting the Jewish people away from the strict Jewish mandates. He wanted a more spiritual lifestyle for the Jews. St. Paul used the Essenes beliefs and his own Christian vision when he built the Christian sect that later developed into the Christian religion.
Historians have also discovered that there have been changes made to the New Testament’s biblical text. They were made under the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine at approximately 325AD during the council of Nicaea. The Emperor Constantine called the council among the religious leaders in order to solidify his political power. He placed himself above the Church and used Christianity as a means of uniting the Holy Roman Empire under him. The early Christians were influenced by the Jewish beliefs and many Christians believed in Reincarnation and Karma. The Emperor Constantine, however, felt that Karma and reincarnation placed too much responsibility on the individual. He wanted the Church to have the ultimate authority over ones faith here on earth and in the afterlife. He declared Karma and Reincarnation heretical and all the Gnostic texts that referred to those spiritual concepts were ordered destroyed. Most of the Gnostic texts were destroyed, but a few survived in Egypt, and were discovered by the Muslims around 900AD and were preserved.
At the council of Nicaea there was a dispute among the Arian Bishops and the Gnostic Bishops. The Arian Bishops insisted that Jesus is God and the Gnostic Bishops insisted that he was a mere man. They had to compromise under the orders of the Emperor Constantine and they came up with the god man theology that was passed down to modern Christianity. The emperor Constantine had the four synoptic gospels which are in the bible slightly changed to reflect the New Theology. He ordered all the other Gnostic Gospels destroyed. A few of them survived in Egypt, but most of the other gospels were lost forever.
Constantine told the council that he wanted four gospels to evangelize the four corners of the world under his empire. They became known as the synoptic gospels that are found in today’s Bible.
Some of the Gnostics fled the Holy Roman Empire to Egypt in the fourth century A.D. after being declared Heretics for not believing in the new Christian theology. In the Ninth Century Muslims unearthed Gnostic texts that were buried in Egypt. The Sufi Muslims understood immediately the importance of their find and they preserved the Gnostic writings; the few surviving Gnostic scrolls that were buried in Egypt would have been lost forever if it were not for them. Religious theologians do not know which Gnostic group or society buried the scrolls in Egypt. There were 13 gospels written by various Gnostic groups in the early church only a few of these texts have survived. Each gospel was written to represent an early Christian church or a community which was named after one of the apostles represented in the early mythological story of Jesus. Some Modern Theologians however believe that the Gospels were in fact written by members of the Gnostic sect – the Essenes.
Constantine viewed the Gnostic teachings as a threat because it places responsibility on the individual for spiritual growth. Constantine wanted the church to have full authority on the person’s outcome on earth and in the afterlife. The emperor Constantine, by placing himself above the Church, gave the Church and himself the ultimate authority, including the authority over knowledge within the Holy Roman Empire.
This later became a problem for Christians as knowledge began to develop secularly. A power struggle ensued between secular rationalism and religious faith. There are numerous examples of this power struggle throughout history. The traditional church through the centuries has taken a stance against advancements in scientific knowledge and in developing that knowledge further to enhance humanity. The traditional church viewed itself as sole heir to all of humanities knowledge and understanding in our relationship to god and our surrounding Universe.
An example of this is that the Catholic Church in the middle ages held that the world was the center of the Universe and that the Sun revolved around the earth. Scientists who discovered that the world and the other planets in our solar system revolve around the Sun were soon declared heretics because they contradicted the Bible.
The Catholic Church declared Newtonian Physics as heretical as well because of its views on gravity. The Pope at that time declared that any Catholic teaching it would be excommunicated. The Pope made the statement that god holds men in existence not gravity. The Church refused to acknowledge that the world was round because it contradicted the Bible which states the world has four corners. In the middle ages when it was becoming common knowledge that the world was round the church continued to declare it heretical teachings. If you were a Catholic at that time and teaching the round earth theory, you would have been excommunicated or possibly put to death.
The Catholic Church in the late 1700’s during the forming of the new American government declared democracy an immoral form of government. They viewed Democracy and the separation of Church and State as being morally evil. The Church also declared evolution to be heretical and they still hold the view that man was created fully man and the belief in human evolution is a fallacy.
The current Pope still believes that our form of Government is morally inferior to a theocratic Christian Government under the Pope. He, the current Pope, declared Embryonic Stem Cell research as a moral evil because of the Church’s theological assumption that life begins at conception. The Christian fundamentalists’ view that embryonic stem cell research is ‘murder’ is in my opinion - irrational. It is also a dogmatic stance against the advancements in science, technology, and human knowledge in general - for the betterment of humankind.
The church’s overall position, however, on preserving life is in fact admirable; I also believe that all life should be preserved. Even the lives of those free thinkers that the church burned at the stake centuries earlier. Their lives should have been spared as well. The Church however viewed their gruesome executions of the free thinkers as being morally justified because they were simply preserving the church’s authority.
An historical perspective of the Roman Catholic Church gives us a better understanding of how their dogmatic positions have come into play. The church throughout history has taken a dogmatic stance against what they believe to be a threat against their faith. Whether those threats are rational or irrational, the Church’s dogmatic position is mostly rooted in their theological interpretation of the scriptures.
Most mainstream Theologians in today’s world do not view the biblical scriptures as a science book, historical documentation, or a literal moral guide; the scriptures are simply theological literature. When I read the biblical text, I have to take into account the cultural and historical influences surrounding the writing of the scriptures, such as when and how they were written. The scriptures are masterpieces of great literature which I enjoy reading. They also had a profound influence throughout history due to the religious significance humanity has placed on them and its religious institutions.
It is only now though, that we are gaining a much more holistic understanding of the theological literature and its profound impact on humankind. It is mostly due to our deeper understanding of the power mythologies have on human cultures and on the human psyche in general. Our growing understanding of the scriptures has also given us a much greater appreciation of the power human beings have bestowed onto that literature throughout history. Our understanding of the significant impact the bible has had on world history both positively and negatively is also continuing to evolve and mature with each passing day.
The writing of the scriptures was a labor of love for the ancient theologians and for those who copied the texts over the centuries. The scriptures in the Judeo-Christian tradition are believed to be the revelation of god. Many of today’s theologians however, have come to understand intuitively that we cannot limit our understanding of god to a single book.
In our secular world many have been seeking other spiritual traditions in order to find a holistic balance in their lives. It has been written throughout the centuries through various spiritual traditions that god is a god of love. Humankind has been seeking a deeper understanding of our relationship to that love.
In today’s fast paced world with instant communication and knowledge at the click of a computer mouse, people seem to be seeking the spiritual life rather than turning to traditional mainstream religions. Modern theologians have also pointed out the drastic drop in vocations within the Roman Catholic Church as an example of this trend in spirituality.
We are not becoming a godless society because over 80% of people believe in god. Most Americans, and Catholics in particular, pick and choose their beliefs which have become a trend in our modern eclectic spirituality. Spirituality for most people has become a means and a quest for answers due to a lack of fulfillment in their lives. Some are turning to Buddhism and other spiritual traditions for a holistic and spiritual balance that can only be found within.
Some have also found great comfort in knowing that the love we seek is already within us. Those who truly seek the spiritual life will soon discover that they are maturing and evolving revelations of that love. When we reveal the love that is within us we become the living and breathing presence of god’s love for others to embrace and emulate.
What we give to humanity, we give to ourselves, and what we change in ourselves, we change in humanity. If we want to witness more loving people in the world and directly in our lives, we must change for the better, by loving others more fully; this is the true essence of god’s revelation.
Thomas F. O’Neill
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