On Originality and Divine Revelation
Peter Breitbart’s short film A Madman or Something Worse is the latest in a line of criticisms of Jesus’ teachings to carry an unspoken, but integral, underlying assumption that divine revelation must somehow be original in order to truly be divine.
So, I would like to pose the following question: Why must something be original in order to be considered divine revelation?
This criticism isn’t unique to Breitbart. When I mention a teaching of Jesus or the Bible, the skeptic counters that said teaching predates the Bible or Jesus by centuries. I see this especially in connection to Jesus’ ethic of reciprocity, the so-called Golden Rule. This little gem predated Jesus by quite a bit; centuries in fact.
The implication seems to be that if the Bible were truly God’s word, that it would be 100% original. Or, that if Jesus were the Son of God, he’d say things that no mortal teacher had ever said.
So pointing out that things like the Golden Rule existed well before Jesus is somehow supposed to mean that Jesus isn’t divine. Or that the Mosaic Law isn’t divinely inspired because similar legal strictures existed 500 or so years earlier in the Code of Hammurabi.
We humans are made in the image of God. While every fiber of our being is tainted by sin, the fact of the matter is that we still retain part of this identity as God’s special creation. And that means that it is possible for us to know morality when we see it, and that means that moral teachings might come from places other than the divinely inspired texts or the words of Jesus. It is possible that some enlightened individuals, though not divinely inspired in the strictest sense of the term, may have found part of the divine truths by means other than a word from God. Moreover, they might have discovered them before God revealed them in a divinely inspired teaching.
Given that humans are made in God’s image, this isn’t really unexpected.
Morality is absolute and objective. Our knowledge of morality can change, but what is right is always right and what is wrong is always wrong. Child sacrifice is just wrong, whether or not Canaanite society believed it was right and just. The Holocaust was wrong, whether or not 1930s-1940s German society was overwhelmingly in favor of it.
Morality, therefore, is something that we discover as our knowledge increases; not something subjective that we put to a vote. Being made in the image of God means that this morality is written on our hearts and that we can gain a greater understanding of it as time passes. We can find a better path than even the morality on display right now.
And we probably will.
Two thousand years from now, an enlightened society will probably look at America 2011 and think that we are as backwards and as barbaric as we in America 2011 view the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opposition.
The Bible is the divinely-inspired and objective guidebook to finding this higher morality, but no one is claiming that it is the only source of morality or even the first source of any particular moral teaching.
Now, some folks do claim that the Bible is the source of certain teachings, like the Golden Rule, but they’re misinformed. Since, however, there’s no reason (given that humans are made in the image of God) to believe that a teaching must be unique to the Bible or to Jesus to be true and divinely inspired, let’s just educate the misinformed person and move on. Unless the skeptic is prepared to explain why a teaching must be unique in order to be divinely inspired.