News Flash from Nazareth!

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have found the remains of a home in Nazareth, Israel that can be dated back to the era when the New Testament says that Jesus lived. This is a discovery that could provide tremendous insight into the lifestyle of the people who lived in the city at the time that Jesus is believed to have been a child.

Here’s what we know so far: Nazareth sat on only four acres of land and comprised only 50 homes. According to the Gospels, the Messiah grew up in one of them. For that reason, the timing of this discovery is especially meaningful to Christians. According to Father Jack Karam of the nearby Basilica of the Annunciation—where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary that she would give birth—finding this ancient home during the Christmas season is “a great gift.”

For centuries, theologians have debated whether the man known today as Jesus actually existed. Not only does the Bible contain no firsthand accounts of him or his miraculous acts, they say that his virgin birth, execution and resurrection suspiciously mirror the life narratives of ancient mythical gods. Some say that Jesus might actually have been a metaphor for the Christ spirit within all of us. Others speculate that a traveling rabbi did exist who understood the divinity of man, embraced it, and uplifted others by spreading the word.

Since none of the gospels was written by men who actually knew Jesus or lived during his time, any of these possibilities exist. If someone who was half-human, half-Divine Spirit did walk on the planet, ancient history does teach us that he wasn’t born in December. The Bible doesn’t make that claim and it doesn’t declare that Jesus came to start a new religion.

According to some religious historians, the real reason for the season is that Christian converts, who were accustomed to participating in Jewish or pagan celebrations during the winter solstice, wanted their own holiday during that time of the year. Mythologists also note that December 25 was traditionally the birthday of mythological heroes said to have been the offspring of virgin mothers and pagan gods.

Certain stories and facts are often repeated in the Bible, highlighting the fact that scribes and storytellers liberally borrowed from each other. Remember, this was long before plagiarism laws. Matthew and Luke, for example, copied most of Mark’s book verbatim, but they thought the story was incomplete. Mark hadn’t established Jesus as the Messiah, the only begotten son of God. Matthew and Luke “fixed” that problem by adding birth narratives to Mark’s text. These narratives, written decades after Jesus’ death by men who didn’t know him, intentionally matched Jewish prophesy. Among other things, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so both set Jesus’ birth in that city. But that’s where the similarity ended.

The Gospel of Luke claimed that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem barn because there was no room in the inn for his Galilee-bound parents. Matthew’s gospel claimed that Mary and Joseph actually lived in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born at home. As theologians have reminded us throughout the centuries, it really doesn’t matter that Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth in two different places. After all, when Constantine the Great gathered religious leaders in Nicea to decide which of the hundreds of known manuscripts should be included in the book they would call the Holy Bible, few of those books—and none of the 27 selected for the New Testament were written as or perceived to be historical documents. But once the Council declared this collection to be the “gospel,” perceptions of their veracity began to shift. Complicate that with the fact that none of the original manuscripts existed when the Council met in 325 A.D., and thousands more copies were re-created by hand and translated (never flawlessly) for another thousand years.

So does it matter whether you believe everything in the Bible is the “word of God”? Not really. Over time, Thinkers have figured out that Jesus couldn’t have been born in two places at once. History has revealed that tax time in that region did not occur during December and that Joseph wouldn’t have been required to travel from Nazareth to Galilee to pay taxes at any time.

Now we learn that Jesus of Nazareth  grew up in a city that was a mere four acres in size, leading us to conclude that if the Messiah went missing, it would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been no 18-year gap in the record of Jesus’ life. There probably would have been a town-wide search party; residents in neighboring towns might have joined in, and the mushrooming posse would have been so unprecedented that one of the few literate citizens would have written about it.

What does it all mean? Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the Old Testament to declare that there is no God. But what if it only reveals that the ancient storytellers were recording their limited idea of what God is and what God does, and their stories don’t capture the essence of the real God?

Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the New Testament to declare that there was no Jesus. But what if ancient storytellers were merely creating an allegory about what humans would be able to do if they loved each other unconditionally, treated others the way they’d want to be treated, were aware that their souls were perfect, healthy and complete, and that the spirit of God was within them?

Maybe a man named Yeshua did exist who had this awareness, and lived it daily. Maybe he spent three years of his life teaching others what he knew. Maybe his empowering message enraged the Romans and they murdered him in a most humiliating way, and maybe decades later, writers edified this profound man’s teachings by encasing them within the framework of Jewish prophecy and pagan god myth.

At this point, we know more about what didn’t happen than what did. But do any of those facts mean that we have nothing to celebrate on this Christmas Day? Absolutely not.

Whether we believe Jesus was God, man or myth, we can celebrate the Christ Consciousness that has lived since The Beginning and resides within each of us right now. We can celebrate the birth of a period when Christians were defined by how they behaved rather than by the stories they believed.

Today we can celebrate the opportunity to totally transform our lives by patterning our behavior after that of the indisputably legendary Jesus: We can love unconditionally, bring a healing presence to every room and every relationship that we’re in, judge and condemn nothing, forgive everything, and do nothing to anyone that we wouldn’t want done to us.

It’s called non-religious Christianity, a transformative and powerful way to change our lives and save our souls from the consequences of errant choices and hurtful actions. It makes this day and every day a…

Very Merry Christmas!

News Flash from Nazareth!

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have found the remains of a home in Nazareth, Israel that can be dated back to the era when the New Testament says that Jesus lived. This is a discovery that could provide tremendous insight into the lifestyle of the people who lived in the city at the time that Jesus is believed to have been a child. 

Here’s what we know so far: Nazareth sat on only four acres of land and comprised only 50 homes. According to the Gospels, the Messiah grew up in one of them. For that reason, the timing of this discovery is especially meaningful to Christians. According to Father Jack Karam of the nearby Basilica of the Annunciation—where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary that she would give birth—finding this ancient home during the Christmas season is “a great gift.”

For centuries, theologians have debated whether the man known today as Jesus actually existed. Not only does the Bible contain no firsthand accounts of him or his miraculous acts, they say that his virgin birth, execution and resurrection suspiciously mirror the life narratives of ancient mythical gods. Some say that Jesus might actually have been a metaphor for the Christ spirit within all of us. Others speculate that a traveling rabbi did exist who understood the divinity of man, embraced it, and uplifted others by spreading the word.

Since none of the gospels was written by men who actually knew Jesus or lived during his time, any of these possibilities exist. If someone who was half-human, half-Divine Spirit did walk on the planet, ancient history does teach us that he wasn’t born in December. The Bible doesn’t make that claim and it doesn’t declare that Jesus came to start a new religion.

According to some religious historians, the real reason for the season is that Christian converts, who were accustomed to participating in Jewish or pagan celebrations during the winter solstice, wanted their own holiday during that time of the year. Mythologists also note that December 25 was traditionally the birthday of mythological heroes said to have been the offspring of virgin mothers and pagan gods.

Certain stories and facts are often repeated in the Bible, highlighting the fact that scribes and storytellers liberally borrowed from each other. Remember, this was long before plagiarism laws. Matthew and Luke, for example, copied most of Mark’s book verbatim, but they thought the story was incomplete. Mark hadn’t established Jesus as the Messiah, the only begotten son of God. Matthew and Luke “fixed” that problem by adding birth narratives to Mark’s text. These narratives, written decades after Jesus’ death by men who didn’t know him, intentionally matched Jewish prophesy. Among other things, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so both set Jesus’ birth in that city. But that’s where the similarity ended.

The Gospel of Luke claimed that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem barn because there was no room in the inn for his Galilee-bound parents. Matthew’s gospel claimed that Mary and Joseph actually lived in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born at home. As theologians have reminded us throughout the centuries, it really doesn’t matter that Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth in two different places. After all, when Constantine the Great gathered religious leaders in Nicea to decide which of the hundreds of known manuscripts should be included in the book they would call the Holy Bible, few of those books—and none of the 27 selected for the New Testament were written as or perceived to be historical documents. But once the Council declared this collection to be the “gospel,” perceptions of their veracity began to shift. Complicate that with the fact that none of the original manuscripts existed when the Council met in 325 A.D., and thousands more copies were re-created by hand and translated (never flawlessly) for another thousand years.

So does it matter whether you believe everything in the Bible is the “word of God”? Not really. Over time, Thinkers have figured out that Jesus couldn’t have been born in two places at once. History has revealed that tax time in that region did not occur during December and that Joseph wouldn’t have been required to travel from Nazareth to Galilee to pay taxes at any time.

Now we learn that Jesus of Nazareth  grew up in a city that was a mere four acres in size, leading us to conclude that if the Messiah went missing, it would not have gone unnoticed and there would have been no 18-year gap in the record of Jesus’ life. There probably would have been a town-wide search party; residents in neighboring towns might have joined in, and the mushrooming posse would have been so unprecedented that one of the few literate citizens would have written about it.

What does it all mean? Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the Old Testament to declare that there is no God. But what if it only reveals that the ancient storytellers were recording their limited idea of what God is and what God does, and their stories don’t capture the essence of the real God?

Many have leaped into the numerous credibility gaps in the New Testament to declare that there was no Jesus. But what if ancient storytellers were merely creating an allegory about what humans would be able to do if they loved each other unconditionally, treated others the way they’d want to be treated, were aware that their souls were perfect, healthy and complete, and that the spirit of God was within them?

Maybe a man named Yeshua did exist who had this awareness, and lived it daily. Maybe he spent three years of his life teaching others what he knew. Maybe his empowering message enraged the Romans and they murdered him in a most humiliating way, and maybe decades later, writers edified this profound man’s teachings by encasing them within the framework of Jewish prophecy and pagan god myth.

At this point, we know more about what didn’t happen than what did. But do any of those facts mean that we have nothing to celebrate on this Christmas Day? Absolutely not.

Whether we believe Jesus was God, man or myth, we can celebrate the Christ Consciousness that has lived since The Beginning and resides within each of us right now. We can celebrate the birth of a period when Christians were defined by how they behaved rather than by the stories they believed.

Today we can celebrate the opportunity to totally transform our lives by patterning our behavior after that of the indisputably legendary Jesus: We can love unconditionally, bring a healing presence to every room and every relationship that we’re in, judge and condemn nothing, forgive everything, and do nothing to anyone that we wouldn’t want done to us.

It’s called non-religious Christianity, a transformative and powerful way to change our lives and save our souls from the consequences of errant choices and hurtful actions. It makes this day and every day a…

Very Merry Christmas!

The Bible vs. President Obama?

Several times within the past few days, I’ve received emails admonishing me not to buy a bright yellow T-shirt that says: “Pray for Obama, Psalms 109:8.” If you haven’t read that verse, it says: “Let his years be few, and let another take his office.” (KJV)

In the game of politics and political parties, some variant of this prayer is whispered, shouted, and muttered through clenched teeth—without Biblical reference—throughout the four-year term of any President. When a Republican is in office, Democrats pray for another to take his office, and vice versa.

 

It’s tradition, and it’s no big deal—except in this case, many have decided that the verse on these shirts and bumper stickers is intended to include subsequent verses in that chapter, namely Psalms 109:9-13. These five additional verses, which are referenced nowhere on the shirt, infer that we should pray for God to hurt or kill our enemies—yes, God’s other children. For weeks now, folks have been whipping themselves into a frenzy, concerned that everyone who wears the shirt poses a threat to our President’s safety.

 

I could be wrong, but it seems that the only real threat here is that there are people who actually believe that God responds affirmatively to mean-spirited vengeful prayer requests. But what else are they to believe, if the Holy Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God? That means that every word is true, even if those words characterize God as behaving more like Satan and less like The Divine.

 

Over the years, I’ve had a number of circuitous discussions with those who believe in the rage-filled, relentlessly unforgiving, kick your kids out, kill-every-living-thing God portrayed in the Old Testament. Typically, they discount these rants by asserting that God changed in the New Testament.

 

No, it wasn’t that the Jewish rabbi named Yeshua (colloquially known as Jesus) perceived God as more benevolent than the scribes portrayed Him in the Hebrew scriptures. They insist that God actually committed genocide, crammed predators and their prey in the cargo hold of a boat with one window for weeks while bloated human bodies floated all around it, contaminating the water, killing the fish, all the fruit-bearing trees and other vegetation. God did those diabolical inhumane things. But He changed after that, and the New Testament proves it: God decided to forgive all of His children’s sins, on one condition: The Prince of Peace had to be subjected to three days of horrific sadistic torture.

 

Really? Why did Jesus teach that God was unconditionally forgiving before he was heinously tortured, if it didn’t happen until after his death? And why did God want the Romans to savagely stop the good rabbi from teaching that God was a loving Father? His important message and ministry had lasted only three years. If you have the answers, please free me from my confusion.

 

What does this confusion have to do with President Obama, a t-shirt and Psalms 109, you ask? Simply, I think it’s helpful to understand the meaning and implications of scripture before deciding whether or not it has the power to harm our President. As any Bible scholar will tell you, we can’t intelligently discuss or react to specific passages in the Bible if we haven’t read the entire book, have no historical context for the writings, the writers or the politics of the time, and have read none of the large body of theological research regarding the collection of works that comprise the Bible.

 

This reminds me of a link that my friend Rev. Gaylon McDowell shared yesterday on Facebook. The link led me to the YouTube videos from an insightful lecture by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. It’s divided into 10 segments because of the time limits on YouTube, but I’d highly recommend watching all of them. Treat yourself to some jaw-dropping “I didn’t know that!” moments.

 

Dr. Ehrman is the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which he calls the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. He has written 20 books about the Bible, including New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and JESUS, INTERRUPTED: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible. Dr. Ehrman teaches historical approaches to early Christianity and the New Testament.

 

On the first day of class a few years ago, he looked out at the 360 students in his lecture hall and asked three questions:

 
  1. How many of you would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.)
  2. How many of you have read The DaVinci Code? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.) 
  3. How many of you have read the entire Bible? (There was a hand raised, here and there throughout the lecture hall.)

Ehrman looked at them and said, “I’m not telling you that I think that God wrote the Bible. You’re telling me that you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you might want to read a book by Dan Brown; but if God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to see what He had to say?” he laughed.

 

And that brings us back to Psalms 109:9-13. Did God say or even inspire those destructive words? Do these verses really pose a threat to our President or his family?

 

I can’t think of a better time to have a discerning heart than when reading or repeating the Bible. If we put our thinking caps on, we would realize that God wouldn’t give us conflicting directives or portray Himself as bi-polar. For example, an Old Testament scripture about discernment totally contradicts the spirit of Psalms 109: “So God said to him, ‘Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart…’” (1 Kings 3:11-12, NIV)

 

When we are discerning, we can objectively look at a situation, person or written word and determine whether it aligns with what we believe to be true. When we are discerning, we can more appropriately interpret and react to Bible verses.

 

For example, does God brutally punish humans, as is indicated in so many Bible passages, or is 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 accurate when it states that God is love? It’s impossible for the answer to be “all of the above” unless we believe that God is bi-polar and not absolute. We must make a choice.

 

Why? Well, according to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (NIV)

 

If God is love, is God angry and vindictive? If God is love, does God brutally punish? If God is love, does God harshly judge? Would love destroy every living thing on the planet? Can we believe the Flood story and believe that God is love? Can we believe the Garden of Eden story and believe that God is love? Which do you believe?

 

Have you tried the “Would Love do that?” challenge when you read the Bible? It’s my litmus test. When I applied it to the vengeful lyrics in Psalms 109, my answer was a resounding, “No, Love would not do that!” That influenced my response to both the t-shirt and the e-mail.

 

Between you and me: If we believe that God is Love, we really don’t care whether people buy “Pray for Barack, Psalm 109:8” t-shirts and bumper stickers. We don’t even care if they pray the entire mean-spirited chapter. Why? Because they’re spitting in the wind. We know that Love would never respond affirmatively to prayers asking Him to brutalize any of His children.

 

Needless to say, I didn’t respond to the urgent call to forward those Psalms 109 t-shirt e-mails. In fact, they immediately went in the trash, right behind the e-mails asking me to pray for President Obama’s protection.

 

Don’t be alarmed. I have a rationale for that, too: Appeals of this nature presume two things: 1) God is not Love and 2) God has such careless disregard for His child Barack Obama that He will only protect him if we submit a formal request.

 

I am not going to denigrate God by believing that either of these presumptions is true.

The Bible vs. President Obama?

Several times within the past few days, I’ve received emails admonishing me not to buy a bright yellow T-shirt that says: “Pray for Obama, Psalms 109:8.” If you haven’t read that verse, it says: “Let his years be few, and let another take his office.” (KJV)

In the game of politics and political parties, some variant of this prayer is whispered, shouted, and muttered through clenched teeth—without Biblical reference—throughout the four-year term of any President. When a Republican is in office, Democrats pray for another to take his office, and vice versa.

It’s tradition, and it’s no big deal—except in this case, many have decided that the verse on these shirts and bumper stickers is intended to include subsequent verses in that chapter, namely Psalms 109:9-13. These five additional verses, which are referenced nowhere on the shirt, infer that we should pray for God to hurt or kill our enemies—yes, God’s other children. For weeks now, folks have been whipping themselves into a frenzy, concerned that everyone who wears the shirt poses a threat to our President’s safety.

I could be wrong, but it seems that the only real threat here is that there are people who actually believe that God responds affirmatively to mean-spirited vengeful prayer requests. But what else are they to believe, if the Holy Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God? That means that every word is true, even if those words characterize God as behaving more like Satan and less like The Divine.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of circuitous discussions with those who believe in the rage-filled, relentlessly unforgiving, kick your kids out, kill-every-living-thing God portrayed in the Old Testament. Typically, they discount these rants by asserting that God changed in the New Testament.

No, it wasn’t that the Jewish rabbi named Yeshua (colloquially known as Jesus) perceived God as more benevolent than the scribes portrayed Him in the Hebrew scriptures. They insist that God actually committed genocide, crammed predators and their prey in the cargo hold of a boat with one window for weeks while bloated human bodies floated all around it, contaminating the water, killing the fish, all the fruit-bearing trees and other vegetation. God did those diabolical inhumane things. But He changed after that, and the New Testament proves it: God decided to forgive all of His children’s sins, on one condition: The Prince of Peace had to be subjected to three days of horrific sadistic torture.

Really? Why did Jesus teach that God was unconditionally forgiving before he was heinously tortured, if it didn’t happen until after his death? And why did God want the Romans to savagely stop the good rabbi from teaching that God was a loving Father? His important message and ministry had lasted only three years. If you have the answers, please free me from my confusion.

What does this confusion have to do with President Obama, a t-shirt and Psalms 109, you ask? Simply, I think it’s helpful to understand the meaning and implications of scripture before deciding whether or not it has the power to harm our President. As any Bible scholar will tell you, we can’t intelligently discuss or react to specific passages in the Bible if we haven’t read the entire book, have no historical context for the writings, the writers or the politics of the time, and have read none of the large body of theological research regarding the collection of works that comprise the Bible.

This reminds me of a link that my friend Rev. Gaylon McDowell shared yesterday on Facebook. The link led me to the YouTube videos from an insightful lecture by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. It’s divided into 10 segments because of the time limits on YouTube, but I’d highly recommend watching all of them. Treat yourself to some jaw-dropping “I didn’t know that!” moments.

Dr. Ehrman is the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which he calls the “buckle” of the Bible Belt. He has written 20 books about the Bible, including New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and JESUS, INTERRUPTED: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible. Dr. Ehrman teaches historical approaches to early Christianity and the New Testament.

On the first day of class a few years ago, he looked out at the 360 students in his lecture hall and asked three questions:

  1. How many of you would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.)
  2. How many of you have read The DaVinci Code? (Voom! The entire roomful of students raised their hands.)
  3. How many of you have read the entire Bible? (There was a hand raised, here and there throughout the lecture hall.)

Ehrman looked at them and said, “I’m not telling you that I think that God wrote the Bible. You’re telling me that you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you might want to read a book by Dan Brown; but if God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to see what He had to say?” he laughed.

And that brings us back to Psalms 109:9-13. Did God say or even inspire those destructive words? Do these verses really pose a threat to our President or his family?

I can’t think of a better time to have a discerning heart than when reading or repeating the Bible. If we put our thinking caps on, we would  realize that God wouldn’t give us conflicting directives or portray Himself as bi-polar. For example, an Old Testament scripture about discernment totally contradicts the spirit of Psalms 109: “So God said to him, ‘Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart…’” (1 Kings 3:11-12, NIV)

When we are discerning, we can objectively look at a situation, person or written word and determine whether it aligns with what we believe to be true. When we are discerning, we can more appropriately interpret and react to Bible verses.

For example, does God brutally punish humans, as is indicated in so many Bible passages, or is 1 John 4:8 and 4:16 accurate when it states that God is love? It’s impossible for the answer to be “all of the above” unless we believe that God is bi-polar and not absolute. We must make a choice.

Why? Well, according to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (NIV)

If God is love, is God angry and vindictive? If God is love, does God brutally punish? If God is love, does God harshly judge? Would love destroy every living thing on the planet? Can we believe the Flood story and believe that God is love? Can we believe the Garden of Eden story and believe that God is love? Which do you believe?

Have you tried the “Would Love do that?” challenge when you read the Bible? It’s my litmus test. When I applied it to the vengeful lyrics in Psalms 109, my answer was a resounding, “No, Love would not do that!” That influenced my response to both the t-shirt and the e-mail.

Between you and me: If we believe that God is Love, we really don’t care whether people buy “Pray for Barack, Psalm 109:8” t-shirts and bumper stickers. We don’t even care if they pray the entire mean-spirited chapter. Why? Because they’re spitting in the wind. We know that Love would never respond affirmatively to prayers asking Him to brutalize any of His children.

Needless to say, I didn’t respond to the urgent call to forward those Psalms 109 t-shirt e-mails. In fact, they immediately went in the trash, right behind the e-mails asking me to pray for President Obama’s protection.

Don’t be alarmed. I have a rationale for that, too: Appeals of this nature presume two things: 1) God is not Love and (2) God has such careless disregard for His child Barack Obama that He will only protect him if we submit a formal request.

I am not going to denigrate God by believing that either of these presumptions is true.

I Wish Jesus Had Dropped Bread Crumbs

Humans are a lovely and loving lot—except when we forget we are. And that memory lapse scripts all human drama.

From the missives in my e-mailbox, there’s many a beautiful soul out there who believes that it is his or her mission to save the rest of us from eternal damnation; and by golly, they’ll do it by force, in the name of Almighty God. They’ll shake us, insult us, slap us and zap us until we abandon our belief that God is infinitely bigger—and better—than the ancient scribes portrayed. If we really loved God—I mean really, really loved God—we’ll forward their guilt-tripping e-mails to everyone in our address book, and know that a blessing is on the way.

I have no doubt that these wonderful people really mean well. They truly believe that when God does things that are judgmental, inhumane, punitive and…er, ungodly, it’s for our own good. Hey, drastic times call for drastic measures. That’s why they practice Coercive Christianity. If they didn’t, the rest of us would go to hell in a hand basket.

I received an e-mail yesterday that pimp-slapped those who believe the claims in hoax e-mails, but don’t believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. (It didn’t address the group that believes neither.) This type of e-mail used to irritate me. I guess I’m mellowing. Now, I simply wonder how closely these beautiful people have read the Bible—or what’s left of it—before imposing such harsh judgment on others.

In his utterly fascinating book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, renowned biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman says, “[T]he vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making [the scribes’] inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.”

You don’t have to be an historian or biblical scholar to notice that there are several versions of the Noah and the Ark story clumsily squeezed into the book of Genesis. Close your eyes and let a child read it aloud. You’ll be surprised to hear things you haven’t noticed in all the years you’ve been reading the Bible or repeating that story. You’ll discover that the details and numbers conflict, from one verse to another—repeatedly.

The New Testament has its issues, too. There are four conflicting accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, and even his death. That’s because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had different perceptions of Jesus and his mission, were talking to different audiences, and trying to convince those audiences of different things.

Matthew was speaking to religious Jews, and made an effort to connect Jesus to Jewish scripture. He portrayed Jesus as fulfilling Jewish prophesy—royalty, the King of Kings. Mark addressed the Romans, presenting Jesus to them as servile, the bearer of man’s burdens. To Luke, the erudite Gentile (non-Jewish) physician, Jesus was the perfect and sinless son of man. Luke was believed to be a friend of Paul. His book targeted a non-Jewish Christian audience. By contrast, John’s message was for the common man, particularly the needy. John viewed Jesus as the perfect son of God. Needless to say, the four covered all the bases.

For many millennia, schools of theology have taught our ministers truths about the Bible that many have forgotten to pass on, including the fact that none of the gospel writers actually knew Jesus. Despite the similarities in their names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the Apostles. In addition, few men were literate in Jesus’ day. Consequently, the New Testament never contained direct quotes, and neither do our current red letter editions.

Ehrman, who became a born again Christian as a teen, tells a humorous story about how his theological studies fine-tuned his beliefs. (At least, I thought it was funny.) At the urging of the young teacher responsible for his enlightenment, he decided to study Scripture full time. Following high school graduation, he entered Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

Ehrman considered Moody’s curriculum as “hard core Christianity, for the fully committed.” It was there that he first learned that “none of the copies of original scripture is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places.” All the scribes did this, he was taught.

Despite this insight, Moody students and instructors were required to sign a statement declaring that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. No one else seemed to have a problem with viewing the inaccurate copies of copies as the inerrant word of God, so he accepted it, too.

Ehrman was fired up, following his three year Bible immersion at Moody. He wanted to evangelize to the secular world. He decided to earn degrees that would enable him to teach in secular settings. First step: a bachelor’s degree. He selected Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, alma mater of famed evangelist Billy Graham—ignoring warnings from Moody colleagues that he’d find no “real” Christians there.

His study of Greek at Wheaton highlighted his concerns about the biblical translations. As he approached graduation, he was compelled to devote himself to studying the New Testament. The world’s leading expert taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. Ehrman headed in that direction, ignoring warnings from friends at Wheaton that he’d have trouble finding any “real” Christians at Princeton.

He recalls that he reached a turning point during his second semester at Princeton, after writing a final term paper for a much revered and pious professor. In that paper, he examined a passage in Mark 2, in which the Pharisees catch Jesus and his disciples eating grain during the Sabbath. Jesus defended himself and his apostles by citing 1Samuel 21:1-6, which told the story of King David and his men. The scripture says that they went into the temple when Abiathar was the high priest, and they were so hungry that they ate bread that was exclusively for priests.

Scholars who have studied the Bible in conjunction with other historical texts say this scene actually happened when Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, was the high priest—a factual error. Ehrman faced this challenge by writing a lengthy and admittedly convoluted argument that the names in 1Samuel and Mark 2 were indeed incorrect, but the Bible itself is inerrant.

His pious professor minced no words, writing on Ehrman’s term paper: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” (That’s when I laughed.)

Laypersons such as myself might not be able to spot the thousands of conflicts that scholars have found, but we can clearly see the obvious ones. For example, Matthew’s “inspired” story of Jesus’ birth, written 38 to 68 years after the crucifixion, says that Jesus was born at Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, and a brilliant star in the East led three wise men to the newborn and his mother. He writes: “Going into the house, they saw Mary and the baby, and fell down and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11)

Luke was inspired to relate a totally different birth narrative. In it, Mary and Joseph didn’t live in a house in Bethlehem. They traveled to the city (presumably from Nazareth) to pay taxes. The reason for the trip, Luke claims, is because Joseph belonged to the lineage of King David.

In Luke’s version, it was not the three magi, but shepherds who were led to newborn Jesus—and not by a star, but by an angel: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”. (Luke 2:12)

Historians have been unable to find any evidence of such a mandate for taxpayers to travel to their ancestral home to pay taxes—ever. Tax time wasn’t recorded to be in December, either. Personally, I’m looking for the rationale for making a pregnant woman travel by foot and donkey to watch her husband pay taxes.

But Luke had to devise a way to get this family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because Hebrew Scriptures portended that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Jewish prophesy also said that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, so Luke claimed that Joseph was that descendant.

(Cue the screeching brakes) Does this mean that Christmas pageants and Nativity plays the world over are portraying Joseph, not God, as Jesus’ father?

So much for the biblical issues surrounding Jesus’ birth. Let’s look at the Gospels’ dueling versions of his death. Mark, who was the first to chronicle Jesus’ life, 35 to 45 years after his death, claims that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal (Mark 14:12). By contrast, the Gospel of John, which scholars say was written 25 to 30 years after Mark’s version, claims that he was crucified the day before the meal (John 19:14). There are also conflicting reports of the series of events that followed his death. The contradictions are too numerous to mention here.

As the Reverend Dr. Evelyn Boyd-Castillo, one of my favorite teachers at Christ Universal Temple, says, “There’s a lot of truth in the Bible, but everything in the Bible isn’t true.”

For one thing, Jesus can’t be born in different places or die on different days. But more important, believing that the Bible is inerrant doesn’t make us “real” Christians. Reading it for guidance in practicing the teachings of the Jew named Yeshua, whose name was changed to Jesus in one of the many translations, is what makes us “real” Christians.

Yeshua brought good news that has long outlived his time on Earth: God is not the sun or an object, as believed by Roman pagans. And God is not the intervening, score-keeping Bogie Man who angrily smites, vengefully commits genocide, heinously demands the live sacrifice of animals, as described in the Old Testament.

Even though Yeshua’s actual words were never recorded verbatim, their essence was this: God is Love. God is Spirit. God is unconditional forgiveness. God is within everyone. God is good all the time; and all the time, God is good. That was his story; and he stuck to it, no matter what.

For three very challenging years, Yeshua dutifully served as God’s PR person. That’s an awfully short time to change centuries of firmly entrenched images and perceptions of what divinity looks like, especially if the religious establishment virulently opposes you. He knew that mere words wouldn’t do; so he put on a show and took it on the road. He demonstrated what it looks like to exude the real power of the Loving, Living God that is within us: a power that compels us to treat others the way we’d want to be treated, love and forgive unconditionally, and honor free will, forcing no one to do anything.

He issued no commands. Instead, he gently and lovingly extended an invitation for us to mimic his thoughts, beliefs and behavior beyond his space and time.

“Follow me,” he urged.

Sigh. If only he had dropped bread crumbs.