preaching

How Exclusive is Christianity?

Looking around on the Internet we find many claims that Christianity, and even the bible, foster a negative attitude towards other religions. While it is hard to prove what priests, deacons and elders tell the members of their congregations, there is so much agreement among members that they are being warned against other religions and philosophies, that in this article we will presume that warning against exploring other religions and philosophies is the norm. This will be true in varying degrees for different denominations.

However, while some people define Christianity as what most people who claim to be Christian says and does, that is not a meaningful definition. Actually, we already have a word for that: stupidity. Two better definitions would be:

  • what Yesus tought and did
  • what is taught in the largest selection of writings that accord with each other and with what Yesus taught and did, and best fulfills the requirements specified in 2 Timothy 3:17 of what constitute holy scripture

the latter being used on this blog. So, what does the bible say about what use a Christian may make of the lore of other philosophies? We start in the old testament:

When thy brother — son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend who is as thine own soul — doth move thee, in secret, saying, Let us go and serve other gods — (which thou hast not known, thou and thy fathers, of the gods of the peoples who are round about you, who are near unto thee, or who are far off from thee, from the end of the earth even unto the end of the earth) — thou dost not consent to him, nor hearken unto him, nor doth thine eye have pity on him, nor dost thou spare, nor dost thou cover him over. But thou dost surely kill him; thy hand is on him, in the first place, to put him to death, and the hand of all the people last; and thou hast stoned him with stones, and he hath died, for he hath sought to drive thee away from Jehovah thy God, who is bringing thee out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of servants; and all Israel do hear and fear, and add not to do like this evil thing in thy midst. — Deuteronomy 13: 6-11, YLT.

Here we have a clear statement of religious intolerance, but we have to ask ourselves: Who is intolerant? This is not primarily a part of the bible but is primarily a part of the law of the ancient Jewish state of Israel. It was supposed to be enforced within the country’s borders only. Consequently, wether or not this portion of text was inspired by Yehovah, after this ancient law was voided and replaced with the law of Christ (Galatians 3:13), it doesn’t speak for Christianity. Christianity’s relation to the Mosaic law consist of using it to learn about the character of Yehovah, the principles of sound religion and for calibration of a Christian’s conscience. The following detail from the previous chapter will be of use:

When Jehovah thy God doth cut off the nations — whither thou art going in to possess them — from thy presence, and thou hast possessed them, and hast dwelt in their land — take heed to thee, lest thou be snared after them, after their being destroyed out of thy presence, and lest thou enquire about their gods, saying, How do these nations serve their gods, and I do so — even I?
Thou dost not do so to Jehovah thy God; for every abomination of Jehovah which He is hating they have done to their gods, for even their sons and their daughters they burn with fire to their gods.
— Deuteronomy 12:29-31, YLT.

for” in this quote is כי in Hebrew, suggesting that what preceded was caused by what followed. So, if it weren’t for the fact that the religions practiced in Canaan at this time resulted in outrageous deeds, there would not necessarily have been a reason to warn against adopting their practices for use in worship of Yehovah. LXX agrees, using γὰρ (for/because).

Paul explained a Christian’s relation to the Mosaic law further in Romans 2:12-16:

for as many as without law did sin, without law also shall perish, and as many as did sin in law, through law shall be judged, for not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law shall be declared righteous: — For, when nations that have not a law, by nature may do the things of the law, these not having a law — to themselves are a law; who do shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing with them, and between one another the thoughts accusing or else defending, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my good news, through Jesus Christ.

When Paul talks about the law he uses definite article, indicating he means not any law but a certain one. The law in question is probably the Mosaic one. Paul argues that the Mosaic law is not the way to salvation and claims that gentiles (εθνη) can be righteous before God. Gentiles usually did not count as fully Jewish, so this is an argument against the exclusivity of Judaism. If Judaism wasn’t exclusive, why would Christianity — the continuation of Judaism — be?

John 14:6:
𐌵aþ imma Ïesus · Ïk im sa yigs jah sunja jah libains · 𐌰inshun ni qimiþ at attin niba þairh mik :
Said to him Yesus: I am the way and truth and life — nobody comes to [the] father except through me.

Mankind journeys into the mist of future, from a time when God wasn’t as respected as he needed to be in order to be able to save us, and into an age when God is commonly held to be a joke.
When Yesus says no one can come to the Father except through him, we need to understand that no one can come to the Father at all today. In other words, we cannot become perfect enough in order to live forever, nor can our children and grand children even make peace with each other. If, however, our children and grand children take Christianity seriously, and if we provide them with exact knowledge and a sense for what God’s will is, our descendants will eventually make it. The same is true for, say, a buddhist and with a little luck (just like a Christian needs) his grand children will align their lives with the essence of Yesus’ teachings and they will all be saved.

A common interpretation, starting from the context of this statement, observing that Yesus is addressing his 11 apostles, suggests the statement was meant to be true only for them and perhaps for the readership of John’s gospel throughout the first decades of its existence. If so, Yesus would be just one of many ways to God the father today. This is valid exegesis but leaves an apologetic aftertaste. Yesus’ statement is indeed universally true, and will remain true until mankind has been reunited with either God the father or with sheol the nonexistence. However, keep in mind that nothing has prevented Yesus from influencing other philosophies both before and after he showed up in the promised land.

Next quote:

And having come near, Jesus spake to them, saying, ‘Given to me was all authority in heaven and on earth; having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them — to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days — till the full end of the age.’ — Matthew 28:18-20, YLT.

Why, if Christianity isn’t the exclusive way to salvation, should Christians preach worldwide? The Greek underlying ”all the nations” is familiar — παντα τα εθνη. Eθνη was translated as ”gentiles” above.

Jewish Encyclopedia writes[1], citing Sanhedrin 59a (a Jewish but not Christian scripture):

Inasmuch as the Jews had their own distinct jurisdiction, it would have been unwise to reveal their laws to the Gentiles, for such knowledge might have operated against the Jews in their opponents’ courts. Hence the Talmud prohibited the teaching to a Gentile of the Torah, ”the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob”.

And here is the portion of text they refer to:

Resh Lakish also said: A heathen who keeps a day of rest, deserves death, for it is written, And a day and a night they shall not rest, and a master has said: Their prohibition is their death sentence.
Rabina said: Even if he rested on a Monday. Now why is this not included in the seven Noachian laws? — Only negative injunctions are enumerated, not positive ones. But the precept of observing social laws is a positive one, yet it is reckoned? — It is both positive and negative.
R. Johanan said: A heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, Moses commanded us a law for an inheritance;  it is our inheritance, not theirs.
— Babylonian Talmud — Sanhedrin 58b-59a.

It may be against a backdrop of such sentiment, Yesus instructed his disciples to disciple and teach all gentiles, that is, without discrimination. If so, it becomes quite easy to understand James’ suggestion in 3:1, not as a contradiction but as a clarification and as good advice:

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV)

With this, the bible as a whole, does not command Christians to teach worldwide unless they, like Yesus’ disciples, have knowledge that would greatly benefit the people of the nations. Certainly, for a Christian to suggest that his or her local congregation didn’t give them such knowledge would usually be correct, but would also require an amount of fortitude.

A text which is sometimes cited to show the exclusivity of Christianity is Mark 16:14-16. This, however, is questionable since Mark’s gospel probably ends after 16:8. The verses from 9 onward
are supported by Italian and Antiochene manuscripts while they are omitted by early Alexandrine mss and by the Sinaitic Palimpsest.
They read thus:

Afterwards, as they are reclining (at meat), he was manifested to the eleven, and did reproach their unbelief and stiffness of heart, because they believed not those having seen him being raised; and he said to them, ‘Having gone to all the world, proclaim the good news to all the creation; he who hath believed, and hath been baptized, shall be saved; and he who hath not believed, shall be condemned. — v14-16 from the long (forged?) ending of Mark’s Gospel.

What is next in the list? Luke 9:49-50:

And John answering said, ‘Master, we saw a certain one in thy name casting forth the demons, and we forbade him, because he doth not follow with us;’ and Jesus said unto him, ‘Forbid not, for he who is not against us, is for us.’ (YLT)

While, on the surface, this seems like clear evidence of a nonexclusive attitude towards what could easily become a sect and a different faith, from Yesus, the background of this story is a situation where Yesus challenges the established religious authorities and relies on his popularity to survive, and where a substantial part of the people appreciate him for his ardour. Therefore, the parallel story in Mark adds:

… for there is no one who shall do a mighty work in my name, and shall be able readily to speak evil of me — Mark 9:39b.

2 John strikes another tone:

if any one doth come unto you, and this teaching doth not bear, receive him not into the house, and say not to him, ‘Hail!’ for he who is saying to him, ‘Hail,’ hath fellowship with his evil works. — 2 John 10-11, YLT.

”This teaching” probably refers to ”Jesus Christ coming in flesh” (v7).

Some commentaries suggest that expressing a greeting in this age was a much longer procedure than today, involving hugging and smalltalk. In any case, the author is certainly trying to scare people from talking to those who have different opinions from his own. One wonders if the author would like to be shunned in the same way when he preached the gospel of Yesus come in flesh. (Luke 6:31)

It should be remarked that some Christians simply omit 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation from their personal canon. These books have the weakest support among manuscripts and church fathers, of the NT books of the protestant canon.

Finally, let’s consider the name of this blog. It’s from 2 Timothy 3:14-15 which reads:

And thou — be remaining in the things which thou didst learn and wast entrusted with, having known from whom thou didst learn, and because from a babe the Holy Writings thou hast known, which are able to make thee wise — to salvation, through faith that is in Christ Jesus; (YLT)

Almost all English translations put Holy Writings, or their corresponding expression, in definite form. It has traditionally been translated definite since the Byzantine greek text use definite article in front of it and in the middle age, the Byzantine text was the best we had in Europe, in competition with the Latin versions.

Now, however, we have a lot of Gothic text in a translation made ca 350 CE, and it says:

þatei us barniskja yeihos bokos kunþes

Yeihos has the strong inflection and no article, so it is almost certainly indefinite in the Gothic text. Consequently, literally it says ”that from childhood you have known holy scripture(s)”, or in older English: ”that from a babe Holy Writing(s) thou hast known”.

The Gothic versions receive support from the Alexandrian text-type where for example Codex Sinaiticus reads[2]:

…ΟΤΙΑΠΟΒΡΕΦΟΥ•ÏΕΡΑΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑoΙΔΑCΤΑΔΥΝΑΜΕΝΑCΕCΟΦΙCΑΙΕΙCCωΤΗΡΙΑΝΔΙΑΠΙCΤεωCΤΗCΕΝΧω̄ΙῩ

ὅτι (that) ἀπὸ (from) βρέφου[ς] (babe) ἱερὰ (holy) γράμματα (text) οἶδας (you have known) τὰ (that) δυνάμενά (enable) σε (you) σοφίσαι (attain wisdom) εἰς (for) σωτηρίαν (salvation) διὰ (through) πίστεως (faith/commitment) τῆς (that) ἐν (in) χριστῷ (anointed) Ἰησοῦ (Yesus).

ΠΑCΑΓΡΑΦΗΘΕΟΠΝΕΥCΤΟCΚΑΙωΦΕΛΙΜΟCΠΡΟCΔΙΔΑCΚΑΛΙΑΝΠΡΟCεΛΕΓΜΟΝΠΡΟCΕΠΑΝΟΡΘωCΙΝΠΡΟ-ΠΑΙΔΙΑΝΤΗΝΕΝΔΙΚΑΙΟCΥΝΗ…

Πᾶσα (Every) γραφὴ (scripture) θεόπνευστος ([is] godspirited) καὶ (and also) ὠφέλιμος (beneficial) πρὸς (for) διδασκαλίαν (teaching) πρὸς (for) ἐλεγμόν (rebuke) πρὸς (for) ἐπανόρθωσιν (restoration) πρὸς (for) παιδίαν (pedagogics) τὴν (that) ἐν (in) δικαιοσύνῃ (righteousness) ·

The Alexandrine witnesses are split between reading hiera grammata and ta hiera grammata (for example Codex Alexandrinus has definite article), so it could be an example of a) scribes missing the ta, b) a change in the language (and peoples’ lines of thought) leading to definite article being used in more places than before or c) an attempt to make sense of a text perceived as contradictory because it suggests there could be useful material outside of the Christian canon.

If it were just about a missing definite article, it would have been unwise to hinge ones perception on it, but there is also the expression Pasa grafæ theopneustos in the next verse, suggesting every writing is inspired by God. A common explanation suggests[3], because the Jews had almost decided their canon, they referred to these scriptures as grafæ and used other words for the non-inspired writings. Therefore, when Paul writes Pasa grafæ, he means all of the Jewish canon + the Cristian writings that were later to be canonized. Still, with this explanation one wonders how Paul would express himself if he meant ”every scripture” in a wider sense.

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, describes the background of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish scriptures with these words:

Καὶ περὶ τῆς κατὰ τοὺς ἑβδομήκοντα ἑρμηνείας τῶν θεοπνεύστων γραφῶν… (Historia Ecclesiastica V 8:10a)

And concerning the translation according to the Seventy of the godspirited scriptures

In the subsequent story he keeps using plural definite: ταῖς γραφαῖς (v13), αἱ δὲ γραφαὶ (v14). Therefore, if Paul was really referring to the Tanakh – the Old Testament, we would expect him to use grafæ in plural definite form.

According to a similar explanation, Paul in 2 Timothy 3:17, defines what constitutes scripture – γραφὴ, by listing a number of properties it must have. Could a non-biblical writing qualify? It seems so. Paul himself exemplified how scripture outside canon can be used for teaching. He did so by quoting the Greek poet Aratus while speaking to Athenian philosophers, and throughout the speech radiating familiarity with Greek philosophy and literature.

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. — Acts 17:28, YLT.

References:
1. More on the exclusivity of Judaism: http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6585-gentile
2. 2 Timothy, chapter 3 in Codex Sinaiticus
3. The concept of scripture discussed on Larry Hurtado’s blog.
4. More on 2 Timothy 3:16:
http://drchris.me/higgaion/?p=1027

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