Bible verses were being tossed back and forth in Canada’s Parliament on Friday as the House of Commons debated a bill that would make conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people a criminal offence.
The Liberal MP for Kingston, Ontario, Robert Oliphant spoke in defence of the bill. Mr Oliphant is a gay United Church minister and he quoted Micah 6:8 in his remarks. It is a passage that refers to the qualities of justice, mercy and humility.
Conservative MP Tamara Jansen who represents Langley British Columbia and opposes the bill in its current form, used a passage from Matthew 23:27 in her response to Mr Olipant. The Matthew passage she quoted talks about people who are hypocrites and unclean.
One of the reasons I was so interested in the way the Bible was being used as justification to argue both sides in a contentious debate was because I just started an online course with Dr Heather Barkman, a religion professor from the University of Manitoba and in our first class, we learned about the origins of the gospels of the New Testament.
There are no original texts for the materials in the current four gospels. What we have are copies of texts, or even copies of copies, all subject to the errors that can occur when copying and re-copying take place. The original texts that were the sources for our current versions of the four gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, but were accounts that had been passed on orally for at least forty years or more, in the case of the gospel of John close to 90 years, and subject to all the changes that can happen during such a lengthy period of oral transmission. We have no idea who wrote the original texts. They were given the names of Jesus’ followers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to lend them an air of authenticity, but those men most certainly didn’t write them.
Could some of the copies that have been found up till now be forgeries? Dr Barkman said it is entirely possible. Might other ancient copies still be found that contain different information and viewpoints. That is entirely possible too.
During the first several centuries after Jesus’ death there were a multitude of different gospels circulating about his life, each written by different people in different times for different reasons. Then in the year 393 some powerful bishops reached a final decision about which four gospels would become the stable Biblical canon, the one we use today.
Why chose only four gospels from the many available? Well, one of the bishops instrumental in that decision said it was because the wind came from four different directions. And why decide on a canon? The reason for that probably involved unifying various Christian groups and spreading Christianity for political reasons.
As I read about the debate in Parliament over the bill to criminalize conversion therapy I marvelled how the Bible remains such a powerful book. There it is, being used to defend and question new laws in the political house of a large and influential nation.
Yet, as I am learning in my course the Bible’s origins and authenticity are clearly subjects open to discussion and as one person in the course put it, the choice to accept certain gospels and their unique points of view was most likely made by “a bunch of powerful men with a political agenda.” Given those realities it is truly interesting to ponder how the Bible has maintained itself as such a source of authority by people of every political stripe for thousands of years.