You asked your mother in the car: “Why should I study religion (actually, the history of Christianity and other religions) at school? I do know that the world was not created within seven days, but instead it began in the big bang billions of years ago.”
You might as well have continued that you know that man, like all living things, has evolved over millions of years, and that you know many other things for facts as well.
There was so much noise and hassle in the car, and the traffic was so busy that I had to concentrate on driving and could only listen. Now, after a few more peaceful days I’ll try to answer your question. The answer is – sorry – a bit long, so I am asking for your patience.
EVOLUTION AND BIG BANG
The Sunday of Creation in our Lutheran church calendar [in Finland] occurred a few weeks ago. The text of the day was Genesis, the 1st Book of Moses. So, does our church teach that the world was, indeed, created in a week and man in its sixth day?
When Charles Darwin published ‘The Origin of Species’, i.e. the evolution theory, in 1855, Gregor Mendel, a Czech Augustinian monk and director of the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno was conducting research on heredity using the flowers in its garden. From the results he published the three Mendelian laws of heredity. These explained how evolution functions and made Mendel the father of the science of genetics.
How about the Big Bang theory? It was first presented in 1927 by Georges Lamaître, Belgian Jesuit priest and professor of physics in the Catholic University of Louvain. When he later presented his theory to Pope Pius XII, the pope was so enthusiastic about it that Lamaître needed to cool him down – big bang was still just a theory that was debated about. Cosmology accepted the Big Bang theory as late as in 1964, just two years before the death of Lamaître.
Could Mendel and Lamaître have conducted their research in a monastery and in a catholic university and publish their results within a church that claimed Genesis, interpreted to the letter, to be the complete explanation about the origins of the Universe and the world, and that condemned the evolution and big bang theories? At least the Catholic church does not teach – did not even 100-200 years ago – Genesis as science. In fact the Catholic church has not taught so as long as long as actual science based theories about the origins of the universe and life have existed. Yet, there are also Christian churches which base their science on Genesis [or more correctly judge science on the basis of Genesis]. I’ll come back to these later on.
Mendel and Lamaître have not been unique bright spots in the history of science within the churches, monasteries and Christian universities [actually, for 800 years the only universities]. In the 1700’s Anders Chydenius, vicar of Kokkola [and powerful legislator in the Parliament of Sweden] was one of the most progressive economists, forerunner of modern liberalism and he also started the vaccinations against smallpox in Sweden/Finland only years after Edward Jenner in England.
SO, WHY DOES THE CHURCH STILL PREACH GENESIS?
How should one understand that in the middle of the summer of 2019 Genesis is still preached in the Sunday of Creation in every church of Finland? The short explanation is this: Genesis is a key element in the Judeo-Christian religious and cultural history. It is equally wrong to understand it as a textbook of science as it would be to understand Iliad and Odýsseia of Homer as a textbook of Greek history – or to condemn it on the grounds that it is not.
The longer explanation: You do know the greatest of playwrights, Shakespeare, right? His most popular drama, aside of Romeo and Juliet of course, is Richard III. It presents King Richard III (1452-1485) as an embodiment of the evil. Research on history has demonstrated, however, that the Richard III of Shakespeare is a rude and intentionally unjust misrepresentation of King Richard III. Shakespeare was surely rewarded by the Tudors who, after having killed King Richard III, the last of the house of York, ruled at the time of Shakespeare.
Now that we know this, how is it possible that theatres still put Shakespeare’s Richard III on stage. Should the wrong be corrected, the play be banned or edited to respect the historic truth? My guess is that you would propose neither ban nor editing – and neither would I. But why not? Because both Richard III, the King of England and Richard III the play of Shakespeare are essential elements of the history of England, the former of the political, the latter of the cultural history. Editing the play for political correctness would destroy the latter [there might be a broader message here as well]. In the school curricula its place, however, is in literature, but not in history.
Incidentally, who was William Shakespeare? There exists so little contemporary information about him that every now and then an academic raises the questions: has there actually been a real person behind that name, and if so, has he ever written a single play? Namely, the plays have only survived as scattered notes written up by and compiled by others. Quite the same questions and doubts have been raised about the historic reality of the existence and words of Jesus of Nazareth. Although Jesus lived 1500 years before Shakespeare, much more contemporary information has survived from his life than from the life of Shakespeare. Yet, in my mind, doubts about the historic existence of both Jesus and Shakespeare are absurd. They both left their marks in their contemporaries and through centuries those marks have become indelible, intensified and spread over the globe – people, language, culture and society. If one cannot believe that Jesus or Shakespeare have existed, how could one believe in the existence of any particular individual who has supposedly lived centuries ago – or what would we actually mean by ‘having existed’?
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE BIBLE?
Several scholarly Church Fathers compiled the Bible towards the end of the fourth century in a series of synods via debating, selecting and combining from numerous Jewish (Septuagint in Greek 132, BC) and early Christian scriptures. They included in the final compilation of the 54 books of the Old and the 27 books of the New Testament – the biblical canon – all of the available independent and original texts and did their best to organise them into a logical order. They left out, e.g., several Jewish personal histories from the Old Testament and from the New Testament they left out several Gospels which had obviously been written after and based on the four included ones (Mark, Mathew, Luke and John). Some of those left out were considered heretical, others just redundant. They have been published separately as biblical apocrypha. The current Bibles used by the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and other protestant churches contain the same books in the same order, with the exception of some Old Testament books that exist only in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. The Church Fathers closed the New Testament’s biblical canon – that included the four Gospels, Acts, 21 Letters and Revelations – in 367, but they accepted that the individual texts will be critically evaluated and edited also in the future because those they had available had been copied and sometimes rearranged during the past 300 years many times over, and some more original texts were likely to be found. The first complete Bible in Latin was Vulgata, translated by St. Jerome in 420 AD.
Later archaeological and linguistic research has indeed found several more original/older texts and incorporated them into the more recent bible translations, and such findings have continued up to present. For example the ‘dead sea scrolls’ (Qumran Caves Scrolls), originating from 300 BC to 100 AD, were found in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and contain numerous passages of the books of Old Testament from Genesis to Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc., written in Hebrew and Aramaic.
The first domestic language [other than Latin and Greek] Bible translations were done from Latin about one thousand years after St. Jerome. Already in the 1500’s Luther translated the Bible to German using Greek and Hebrew originals. Since then the number of languages the Bible has been translated to has grown to 700, and the total number of translations to ca. 1000. Modern Bibles are, indeed, based in parts on older originals than the Bible that the Church Fathers compiled in 367. Linguistic and cultural research on the original Bible languages, Koine Greek and Hebrew, have also pointed out numerous errors in the translations and interpretations in the older versions, and more precise translations have replaced earlier ones. There have also been speculations about the precise words used by Jesus, who spoke Aramaic [the regional lingua franca] and not Greek. Only one sentence in Aramaic is found in the Greek originals: Eeli, eeli, lama sabaktani (Matt. 27:46). Our current Finnish Bible translation from 1992 is based on a different interpretation philosophy [true to meaning rather than true to dictionary] than its predecessor from 1938, and on older originals than the 1776 Bible, let alone Agricola’s New Testament in Finnish from 1548.
In my mind the greatest virtue of the Church Fathers was that they did not even try to edit/rewrite the available, more or less loose books, letters etc., into a single, logical, watertight narrative. That would inevitably have eliminated or distorted most of the original texts. Instead they left the differences, inconsistencies, conflicts, questionable and even outrageous contents as they stood in the originals they had in their hands for the readers, scholars, philosophers and artists to think about, interpret and decipher as best they can.
Of the nearly one thousand Bible translations two, the already named Latin Vulgata (420) and the English Authorised Version of 1611, better known as King James have in their time acquired such authority, that even many scholars have occasional difficulties to keep in mind that they have not been dictated from heaven, but translated from Koine Greek and Hebrew. Understanding Vulgata requires fluency in classic Latin – which until the 1700’s was the basis of any academic education. King James Bible got its name from the committee that King James I of England formed for the translation. The result is a rare literary masterpiece, comparable to the plays of Shakespeare, which together laid the foundations for the written English language [like Luther’s Bible did for the German and Agriciola’s Bible for the Finnish language]. To read King Janes with full comprehension, however, requires more literary education and experience than most native English speakers of today have. Besides, both the original Vulgata and King James contain numerous errors that have been pointed out by more recent research and also corrected in, e.g., the Authorised Standard Version of 1952.
AND THEN EMERGED THE CREATIONISTS
Protestant churches, particularly in America, are presently divided between the liberal and the fundamental (evangelical). E.g., of the North American Lutheran churches the bigger, ELCA, belongs to the former, and the smaller, LCMS (sc. Missouri Synod), to the latter. Unlike the Anglican, Lutheran and most other protestant churches in Europe, LCMS and several American protestant churches have not approved many of the findings of the 19th and 20th century sciences, notably evolution biology, palaeontology and cosmology. Instead they claim that the book of Genesis is an accurate ‘scientific’ description about the origins of the physical and biological universe. They prefer to use the 1611 King James Bible, for which its archaic language gives authority and difficulty to decipher leaves room for interpretation by the preachers. They have followers in Africa and Asia, and among smaller groups in Europe and in Finland as well. Their doctrine about the origins of the world and its creatures is called creationism [another version is intelligent design], and it is important to realise that creationism is not an early/original Christian doctrine but, instead, originates from the 1900’s. Creationists are eager to distribute their ideas/opinions in, e.g., TV-studio discussions. Stereotypically a complacent narrator sitting in the end of the table invites to one side self-assured atheists, a cosmologist and an evolution biologist, and to the other side one young female and another old male creationist, and all five lead the less informed viewer to believe that creationism is Christianity and Christianity is creationism.
A more intelligent discussion is possible. In 2004 and 2010 Juha Pihkala, bishop, and Esko Valtaoja, professor of cosmology and self-proclaimed atheist, published together two books about their debate on Christian faith vs. faith [restricted] on science. They also prepared a TV-discussion about the topic. These were intelligent, reasonable and informed discussions between two highly educated, civilized and mutually respectful gentlemen. The books sold well, the TV-discussion had a large audience, and they also won praise and prizes.
PENTECOST WAS THE BIG BANG OF CHRISTIANITY
None of what I have written above demonstrates that Jesus was a son of God born on earth into the midst of humans. I have only written about the origins of the Bible, what it is and is not according to the current catholic and European protestant churches.
Who was Jesus? To understand this the beautiful legend of Christmas/Nativity is not a critical event. Its foundations on reality are impossible to judge and also irrelevant. The gospels of Mark and John mention nothing about the birth or youth of Jesus, nor can anything be found in the rest of the New Testament, aside of the gospels of Mathew and Luke.
The critical event for the birth, early expansion and global spread of the Christianity is Pentecost. About six weeks earlier, Jesus, the teacher whom the future apostles had followed and listened to for 2 – 3 years, had been arrested, prosecuted by the Jewish religious leaders, sentenced and executed by the Roman authorities. Executions were common, many people who had been excited about Jesus for a while began to forget. The authorities were less interested about the frightened disciples, who were hiding, split into smaller groups, some searching possibilities to return to their earlier life or begin a new one unidentified. And then the first Pentecost happened.
You may find St. Luke’s (Acts 2:1-3) description – the believers having gathered in one place, a sudden noise like a strong wind blowing and tongues of fire spreading out and touching each person in the room, the disciples speaking in all languages of the present audienge – strange and unbelievable. Still this is the only description about the event which must have been profoundly shattering, because it first empowered this small group of hiding fishermen and peasant women, and then sent them into the midst of the people to tell what the Jesus, whom they had known and many amongst the people had heard about, had told and done, demanded, prophesied and promised. This message began to transmit from them to new people and again forward inexhaustibly like an epidemic. Pentecost was the big bang of Christianity. What followed is no more a matter of opinion or faith, but the leitmotif of the history of the Western World. We know in strictly scientific terms what followed from the Big Bang and what followed from Pentecost, although we have no scientific explanation as to what caused them.
The Apostles did not go out to stir up intolerance or xenophobia, quite the contrary, everyone was invited to join, and to lower the threshold the apostles abandoned [after bitter internal struggle] the previously unquestioned requirements of Judaism [circumcision, pork ban, sabbath laws, etc.]. Neither did the apostles call, organise, equip and raise troops for battle [as many of their later followers did], but they set off lightly equipped, alone and in pairs to wander to the different directions of the known world, to talk in the marketplaces, heal the sick, found and organise local churches and to write shorter and longer letters to the churches they wanted to visit, but could not at the time. Everyone did not view their activities approvingly – and they also had their internal disagreements. For what we know only one of them, St. John, died a natural death.
The most productive apostle in writing was St. Paul, who never met Jesus live, but met him and at the same time had his own ‘Pentecost’ a few years later on the way to Damascus. Paul, who at that time was called Saul, was a formally educated pharisee, could read and write Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek and as a citizen of Rome since birth [a privilege shared by only a small proportion of the people outside of the city of Rome] he had a special legal status and respective rights. He, together with St. Luke [about whom we know much less as a person], were the first followers of Jesus who did not belong to the lowest classes (peasant and slave) of the Roman Society. At times they worked together, knew each other well, wrote between them half of the texts that the Church Fathers three centuries later included into the canon of New Testament and their influence on the dispersion of Christianity and dogma of the Christian faith is larger than anyone else’s.
Only exceptionally did the apostles talk to representatives of the higher social classes [Philip to the Ethiopian official, Acts. 8]. Usually their audiences consisted of common people, free as well as slaves. To the higher ladders of the society knowledge about the Jesus-faith trickled from below, and the responses ranged from joining the Christian congregations to launching raids on them. Christians were rarely violent themselves but frequently objects of violence. Circuses needed action entertainment and Christians were available closer, cheaper and easier than barbarian prisoners for gladiators to mutilate and lions to tear apart.
This phase continued for ten generations, until the number of Christians grew so big that emperor Constantine the Great saw it advantageous to legalise Christianity in 313 and Theodosius the Great declared Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire in 390. The new status changed the life of both the Church and the Christians for better and for worse. Christians could now build churches [several first generation original Christian Churches and Baptistries built in the 400 – 500’s have remained in excellent condition in, e.g., Ravenna, Italy] teach and preach freely and in the open. At the same time, however, the emperors as well as lesser secular rulers began to interfere in the church’s business for their own personal objectives [as they have tried and done ever since]. And then, new opportunities for the use of violence and corruption for personal gain began to open also for the church’s own powers that be.
These changes marked a whole new period for the Church and the Christians.
Already in 285 the Roman Empire was administratively divided into the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) parts [Over the next hundred years or so, Rome would be reunited, split into three parts, and split in two again]. Christianity benefited from the status of the official religion of Rome for only nine decades before the West-Roman Empire collapsed and was split irrevocably into smaller and larger more and less temporary principalities. In the West the Church could no more base its authority on the State, but had to keep on fighting for its independence, establish its own and independent power hierarchy, administration, legislation and sources of revenue – the justifications and structures for its existence. And, indeed, the Catholic Church did build a sacral Roman Empire on the ruins of the secular Roman Empire. Now, some 1700 years later, the 1,3 billion members, one million employees, 5353 dioceses and 222 thousand parishes make the Catholic Church the greatest international organisation by far.
The East-Roman Empire with Constantinople its capital city also collapsed, but 950 (!) years later than its Western counterpart. Consequently, in the East the Church retained its official position but also symbiotic dependence on the State for ten times longer than in the West. Although the Christian Church was formally divided into the Eastern, Orthodox, and Western Catholic Church as late as in 1054, the two had by then developed in very different political environments for already 570 years – I guess that one would say today grown apart from each other.
Finally, back to your original question, why should you study religion at school? For exactly the same reason than you should study, e.g., biology, geography, literature, arts and history. To first know and then better understand where we come from, who we are, and where are we going to. Without knowing and understanding, you and we all are moving in the dark.