Monday, February 7, 2011

Fixing First Texts

It's called textual criticism when Bible scholars examine how the earliest Christian texts -- St. Paul's authentic letters and the four gospels -- could have been altered by scribes, either because of copying errors or for substantive reasons. Experts think a ban on women speaking in church was added to the 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians after Paul wrote it, for instance.

Now Scientologists are saying much the same thing about their holy writ. A church spokesman blames unnamed persons for adding anti-gay references to L. Ron Hubbard's writings after his death (Hubbard is shown here). The LDS received new revelation in the late 1970s about the status of African-American people and, just last year, softened its teachings about homosexuality.

Cynics are are probably inclined to think that officials of both churches manufactured latter-day insights about first principles so that their doctrines would better conform to current social mores. So-called orthodox Christians accuse so-called progressives of the same thing when they accord full sacramental status to women and gay and lesbian people.

And yet modern biblical criticism does help expose the astonishing social egalitarianism in the Christ moment and early church, especially in the context of patriarchal Palestinian culture and the hyper-status conscious Greco-Roman world of the first century. Our scholarship aims to recover the true gospel and help us better appreciate Jesus Christ's teachings about how people should behave toward one another despite differences in condition and circumstance. Whether the same can be said about the founders of Mormonism and Scientology is for others to say -- though it's hard to criticize any institution that's bending in the direction of justice and righteousness.

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