13 November 2004

Meeting the Bigot

Do you know the Orange Calendar? January, February, March, march, march, march...
Today I met my first bigot. It was amazing. He happened to be a Protestant, but that doesn't mean anything, really. All religions have them.

I was with my friend Eddie, who hopes to become an Anglican minister, in Wesley Owen, Manchester's Protestant bookshop, where I started telling Eddie about the rather biased Christianity for Dummies, pointing out, as I've done in the past online, how the author has a tendency to play hard and fast with the facts.

As I explained to Eddie the author's blatantly false claim that it was only at the fifteenth-century Council of Trent that the Church decided to canonise the deuterocanonical books -- the ones Protestants call Apocrypha and either shove to the backs of their bibles or ignore altogether -- we were interrupted.

'Excuse me. Are you talking about the Apocrypha?' said a voice to my right. The speaker was burly, with close-cropped dark hair, a square head, and tiny eyes. He looked to be in his late thirties, maybe a little older.
'The Deuterocanonicals?' I smiled. 'Yes.'
'The Apocrypha themselves say they're not canonical.'
'Yes, the First Book of Maccabees says that there are no prophets in the land of Israel.'
'Well, I'm not sure that's exactly what that says, and besides, Maccabees was probably written in Egypt, not Israel. And that doesn't talk about the Deuterocanonicals as a set. Nobody did that for centuries.'

Eddie at this point drifted off to do some browsing while I remained seated, listening to my new friend's declarations. He seemed very certain, and was usually about half-right in what he said. For what it's worth, the passage from 1 Maccabees he spoke of was 9.27, which doesn't seem to indicate that all prophecy had ended, never to resume. I've found the line variously rendered as:
  • 'There had not been such great distress in Israel since the time prophets ceased to appear among the people.' (New American Bible)
  • 'Thus there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.' (Revised Standard Version)
  • 'So was there a great affliction in Israel, the like whereof was not since the time that a prophet was not seen among them.' (King James Bible)
  • 'And there was a great tribulation in Israel, such as was not since the day, that there was no prophet seen in Israel.' (Douay-Rheims Bible)
Now I don't think that's quite the same as saying that Maccabees, let alone the entire set of deuterocanonical books, is not divinely inspired, but I didn't want to get into that at the time. I already had a sinking feeling about my increasingly aggressive friend. There probably would have been little point saying that the deuterocanonical book of Baruch was written about a century and a half before the prophet Malachi died with no prophet to replace him. Or that the book of Daniel was almost certainly written in the early second century, though it deals with events from long before. Or that there's a difference between someone with a public role as prophet and someone writing under divine inspiration - was the author of the Psalms, say, a prophet? Or was he, as traditionally thought, a king?

I even managed to bite back my urge to ask why the Interrupter was willing to accept that one statement as infallible, giving the lie to all seven deuterocanonical books, if he didn't see it as divinely inspired. It was as though he had decided that one line, and only one line, of the deuterocanonical books was canonical. Most odd.

But anyway, he carried on, babbling about how Saint Jerome said the Apocrypha weren't inspired, which is kind of true. Jerome had doubts, certainly, but he accepted the fact that the word of the Church as a whole carried more weight than his own; he included them in his translation and quoted them in his writings as though they had as much weight as any other Jewish scripture. The Council of Rome in 382 had made it clear that the seven deuterocanonical books, as well as a couple of extra passages in Esther and Daniel were to be considered canonical. This had been reiterated by subsequent councils at Hippo and Carthage.

So, after bombarding me for a while with spurious claims about Jerome and Augustine, my new friend moved on to claim that the deuterocanonicals are never quoted in the New Testament. Jesus, he said, had never quoted them. To be fair, it would have been surprising if he had, as the deuterocanonicals don't seem to have been in common use in Palestine, though they were regularly used among Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world -- if Jesus had quoted them the most probable response would have been 'Huh?'

In any case, the same thing could have been said about loads of other Old Testament books - Joshua, First Chronicles, Ruth, the Song of Songs, and seven or eight others. Whether or not something is quoted would hardly prove anything. Besides, as it happens, while the deuterocanonicals may not be directly quoted in the new testament, there are numerous passages in the New Testament that seem to paraphrase or allude to them, but I couldn't see my new friend buying that.

So much for that, but my increasingly strident friend had now moved on to claim that the Apocrypha contradicted the rest of the Bible. He belligerently asked me, several times, whether I'd read the seven disputed books, and then several times whether I'd read Tobit. I said that I had indeed, but he obviously didn't believe me as he said I should read it sometime as it features such nonsense as an angel with a human bloodline, something which is obviously unbiblical.

I do tend to agree that such a thing would indeed be unbiblical, but then there's no such thing in Tobit. That book is in the same genre as Job, being a spiritual novella, clearly fictional but nevertheless intended to inspire and to teach. There is an angel in it, Raphael, but that angel is in fact pretending to be a man. The author of the book never says the angel had a human bloodline, just that in masquerading as a man, so he claimed to have human relations. Seriously. Take a look.

By this stage, while my face was still smiling, my heart was continuing to sink. This bloke was apparently keen to bombard me with all sorts of rubbish. Unfortunately the rubbish, while up to this point well-meant, turned very nasty.

'In fact,' said my new friend, hence to be referred to as The Bigot, 'I would say that anybody who believes that the Apocrypha are inspired doesn't have the Spirit of God in them!'
'You would?'
'That seems a bit rough. It leaves out about two-thirds of the Christians in the world.'
'That sounds about right.'
'Oh. And it leaves out almost every Christian up to the Sixteenth Century -- after all, the earliest Christians must have used them and they'd been officially recognised as part of the canon as early as the Council of Rome in 382.'
'Well, on principle I wouldn't believe anything that came from the Church of Rome.'
'You wouldn't?'
'It's an abomination!'
'It is?'
'Yes. It's condemned in the Bible, in the Book of Revelations!'
'It is?' This was new to me, I have to admit.
'Yes. It's the Whore of Babylon! Read it, you'll see! All the emphasis is on the Whore!'
'Um,' said I, rather astounded by this, which struck me as an improbable identification, to the say the least, 'don't you think it's a bit odd that the Church of Rome would have chosen to include the Book of Revelations in the Bible if that book criticised it so much?'
The Church of Rome didn't include-- '

He would have gone on, were it not for Eddie then reappearing and pointing out that we were due to go and meet Dave in Waterstone's for coffee. I was grateful for the rescue, and departed with a smile, though I was a bit troubled to see The Bigot's little daughter had stood beside her father, looking puzzled and upset as he ranted at me.

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