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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God and the democratization of knowledge

While many religious leaders like to talk about their authority to interpret God's will, God and the Bible challenge the idea of such authority in the hands of an individual or elite. Indeed, the idea of exclusive or secret sacerdotal (priestly) knowledge is foreign to the Bible. Instead, the entire message of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation) is one of empowering the people - the entire community of believers to study, learn, interpret and employ the knowledge that is revealed there.

Unlike the writings, prophecies and oracles of other ancient religious traditions, the Bible was never regarded as the property of priests and/or nobles. Instead, the Hebrew Scriptures and the writings of the New Testament were addressed to the entire community - the people as a whole. Everyone was expected to study the writings and employ the lessons derived from those studies in their own lives. The Bible was never intended for the king's eyes only. Indeed, for a majority of their history, the Hebrew people had no king of their own (and the foreign kings who reigned over them largely ignored their scriptures).

The phrase "speak unto the children of Israel" is used thirty-two times in the first five books of the King James Version of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the people were instructed to thoroughly familiarize themselves with this knowledge and pass it on to their children. We read: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates." (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) For emphasis, these instructions are repeated a few chapters later: "Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates..." (Deuteronomy 11:18-20)

Notice that the task of studying and learning this information was assigned to everyone, not just to the elite of the community. Indeed, the people are specifically instructed to discuss these things in the privacy of their own homes, while they were walking along, when they went to bed and when they got up in the morning. In other words, learning and passing this information along was considered the responsibility of each person within the community; and this activity was specifically described in these remarks as taking place without any priestly, scribal or governmental authority's presence. "You do it - on your own - when nobody's watching you!"

In fact, the only time that the subject of their earthly king is mentioned in the Torah, the instructions sound very similar to the instructions that were given to the people as a whole: "And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them..." (Deuteronomy 17:18-19) In other words, the king was to study and learn for himself the same material that his subjects were required to study and learn for themselves.

In similar fashion, the "Wisdom Literature" (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) was addressed to the widest possible audience. It was envisioned by God (and the people who wrote, recorded and/or collected these writings) that everyone within the community would have access to this material. Likewise, the prophets generally address themselves to the people as a whole. Indeed, even their messages for the king himself are recorded for everyone to read. Ezra read the entire "Book of the Law of Moses" to the entire community (men, women and everyone who could understand it). (Nehemiah 8:1-3)

Moreover, this democratization of knowledge was not confined to the Old Testament. Jesus Christ delivered his message to the masses. (Matthew 4:23-25, 8:1, 18, 9:35-36, 12:15, 13:1-2, 34-36, 54, 14:13-14, etc.) "Yes, but he specifically committed the responsibility for disseminating his teachings to his apostles," my skeptical friends will remind us. (Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8) This is certainly true, but notice that they were given the task of disseminating (spreading) his teachings to the people. In the great tradition of the literature which had preceded them, the apostles gave their information to the community as a whole - it was not theirs to keep or parcel out as they saw fit. Indeed, Peter was later shown that this information about Christ (and salvation through him) was not to be confined to the Jewish community - that it was also for the Gentiles. (Acts 10 and 11)

Likewise, most of the apostolic epistles are addressed to entire congregations. Paul wrote to all the saints at Rome (Romans 1:7), the entire church at Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2 and II Corinthians 1:1), all of the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2), all the saints at Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1), all the saints at Philippi (Phillippians 1:1), all the saints and faithful brethren at Colosse (Colossians 1:2) and the entire church of the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 1:1 and II Thessalonians 1:1). Even in those instances where he addressed a specific individual, we find that those letters were preserved and made a part of the canon for the benefit of the entire community of Christians. James addressed his epistle "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad." (James 1:1) Peter addressed his first epistle "to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." (I Peter 1:1) John's Apocalypse was addressed to seven churches in Asia. (Revelation 1:11)

Moreover, it is made abundantly clear in the New Testament that there would be no authoritarian elite tolerated in Christ's church. Jesus said: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve." (Luke 22:25-26) In fact, even the apostles did not seek to impose their understanding or interpretation of Scripture on their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul wrote to the saints at Rome: "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." (Romans 14:4-5)

Thus, we can clearly see that the Scriptures were never intended to be the purview of a single individual, ministerial council or group of scholars or elders. The Bible was intended to be the purview of the entire community of God's people. It is not an elite book of state secrets that was intended to be the exclusive intellectual property of a few. Rather, it was intended by its authors (and the One who inspired them) for everyone. It's almost like God has posted a big sign across the Bible that some people refuse to see: "Sorry folks, no religious authorities needed here!"

1 comment:

  1. After posting this article, I was reminded about the example of the Bereans as being a perfect illustration of the soundness of this thesis. These folks were checking the scriptures to make sure that the message that they were hearing from Paul and Silas matched what was recorded in the Old Testament. (Acts 17:11) They had access to Scripture, and they weren't about to take anyone's word for what it said - even an apostle of Jesus Christ!