Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion: How the New Testament Came to us – II

The Technology

Technology and the bible

In my previous commentary, we thought about how the books we have in our Bible were selected.  We looked especially at the New Testament selection, the ‘canon’ as it is called by scholars.   This time we will look at the technology that brought us and still brings us the Bible.

We will take a very broad view of technology, starting with writing itself and ending with the ‘digital revolution’.  A few questions to ponder:  How did technology affect the bringing or ‘transmission’ of the Bible down through the ages and across the world?  How does it affect what we think about it?  Does it actually change the Bible itself?  Again, our focus will be mainly the New Testament (NT).[1]


In the last two centuries archaeologists have unearthed much ancient writing. From Mesopotamia come thousands of clay tablets with a cuneiform script (made with a wedge-shaped stylus).  While most remain unpublished, great poems, loosely paralleling Biblical accounts, have emerged, such as the Creation and Flood stories, and the epic of Gilgamesh in his search of immortality[2].  The Egyptians developed hieroglyphs, a form of pictorial writing, with abundant examples painted on the walls of royal tombs and written on papyri.  Clay tablets found in Crete and southern Greece from the second millennium BCE were brilliantly deciphered in 1952 as primitive Greek in syllabic characters (Linear B)[3], predating alphabetic writing by several hundred years.

The Phoenicians developed an alphabet about the beginning of the first millennium BCE[4], that became with many variations the basis of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets and by derivation most of today’s Middle Eastern and European alphabets, including English.  An outstanding example of an early alphabetic script in Hebrew was found on the wall of the water tunnel King Hezekiah had cut under ancient Jerusalem in anticipation of an Assyrian siege in 701 BCE[5].  It described the amazing engineering experience of the workmen as they met underground tunnelling from opposite ends.

Writing in ancient and medieval times was mostly the preserve of a specialised caste of scribes and priests, who alone could read and write, along with the ruling class and their skilled staff.  Through most of history until printing, the great majority of people were illiterate, a fact we too casually overlook.  But their memories were better trained than ours[6].  They had to be, there was no mobile phone or internet to fall back on!

Writing materials

So what did they write on?  Carving on stone and using baked clay tablets is great for longevity of preservation, but not very practical for personal use.  Papyrus (from the Nile valley reed, 2 John v12) and vellum or parchment (dried and treated animal skin, 2 Timothy 413) were the main media for ancient books in the West[7], until the technology of paper making spread from China in the 13th century CE.  Personal notes were made on wax, wooden or soft-metal tablets or on ostraca (pieces of broken pottery or sherds)[8].  The letters were formed by carving, scratching or impression or with quill and ink.  A little reflection shows how limiting and expensive this technology was for the accurate spread of written materials (scriptures), let alone for personal ownership.

Book production

Written sheets were produced by an individual scribe copying from another manuscript or by a group of scribes writing in response to a reader following a ‘master’ text.  Book factories, or scriptoria, were not commonly used by the early Church[9]. Scribes wrote, not at desks, but sitting with the writing material on their legs – the reason the typical width of a manuscript column is 8 to 10 cm.  The posture would have been uncomfortable, indoor lighting poor, spectacles and hearing aids unknown and the hours long.  Although the general diligence of scribes is acknowledged[10], the opportunities for variations and errors to enter texts transmitted in this way were manifold.

In the 1st century CE, finished sheets were traditionally glued together to form a scroll or book (biblion, Rev 51) about 10 m long.  But Christians had moved early (by 200CE) to adopt the new technology of the codex book with leaves sewn on one side[11].  This no doubt facilitated looking up passages of scripture, an incredibly difficult task using a set of long, rolled scrolls.  But the expense was great; 50 to 60 sheep or goat skins would have been needed for a bound parchment manuscript of the whole Bible, like the famous Codex Sinaiticus, before allowing for the enormous scribal labour of copying, checking and illuminating the text[12].  The small fortune required would have been beyond the reach of an average Christian household, for whom memory of Scripture would have continued to be the default method of reference.

Until the 9th century, Christian manuscripts were written in capital letters, UNCIALS. The words were not separated and punctuation was minimal.  Private as well as public reading was therefore commonly done aloud to aid in the identification of the individual words.  Philip heard the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah (Acts 827-30) and 300 years later Augustine showed his surprise on  finding Bishop Ambrose of Milan reading silently in private, when he visited him (Confessions 4.3).

The text of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 69-11a) as it appears in the Codex Sinaiticus manuscript (4th century CE) is shown opposite, with the word divisions imposed on the original in red.

In the 9th century CURSIVE manuscripts, written in lower case “running” writing began to appear.  They allowed faster production. But by then so many variations had entered the uncial template manuscripts, that the plethora of these subsequent cursives (5-6,000) contribute little to the task of establishing the original text, the role of textual criticism, which we will consider below.


What were the implications of this technology of the Christian Bible in the first millennium and a half of its existence till the advent of printing?  (In the final part of this series we will consider the issue of translation into other languages, including Latin, using both the same and newer technology.)

  • Bibles became precious, because Christians believed they contained God’s words, because they were individually crafted and because they were expensive beyond ordinary Christians’ means. Consequently, they were mostly known by memory.  And there would have been much variation in the details of wording because of the heavy reliance on memory and the means of transmission.  Any idea of ‘inspiration’ precisely at the verbal level would have been problematic.
  • Christians were early adopters of new technology, notably the codex book, which has been a major contributor to the advancement of Western civilisation generally. Because the codex book allows non-linear access to a text, in contrast to a scroll or a long inscription carved on a wall, scholarship was unshackled.  An early example was the development in the 3rd century of the Eusebian canons or tables, which compared materials in the four canonical gospels.  They are still used in today’s printed Greek texts.
  • There was enormous ‘fluidity’ in the text arising not only from the technology of transmission, but also because of editing by its religious custodians.

This was not the Bible as we have known it in our lifetimes!

Mass production

The advent in the West of Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press in 1439 and the publication of the printed Gutenberg Bible (in Latin) in 1455 heralded a momentous technological advance for civilisation.  One uniform publication could now be distributed in vast numbers at relatively low cost.  Copyist errors became a thing of the past, unless they were accidentally (or deliberately) incorporated into the printed text, as with the Wicked Bible of 1631, which omitted the negative from the seventh commandment.

From this time pressure began to grow for Bibles to be authorised by both church and civil authorities, examples being the King James Bible (KJV) of 1611 in English and the Luther Bible in German.  The Latin Vulgate had long been the underlying standard for Roman Catholics.  The tide seems to have turned from increasing ‘fluidity’ towards ‘standardisation’.

The other major consequence was the rapid rise of literacy among the populace.  William Tyndale’s wish to put an English Bible in the hands of every ploughboy, echoes the spirit of the times.  The use of the Bible among lay people was beginning to move towards the 19th and 20th century experience of every household having and reading a Bible.

Establishing the new testament text

Printing also enhanced the application of scholarship to the Biblical texts in the original languages. Translations of the New Testament into English, German and other European languages were made from a printed Greek text which had been primarily established by Desiderius Erasmus, an esteemed Renaissance scholar.  It was published in 1633 as the ‘Received Text´, or Textus Receptus, by the Elzevir publishing house in the Netherlands, with the division into verses, as we now have it, done for the first time by Robert Estienne (Stephanus)[13].  It was effectively the text on which the KJV translation relies.

As impressive as was Erasmus’ scholarship, his text relied on only a handful of ancient manuscripts.  Textual criticism since the Enlightenment has been prodigious, especially in recent years.  The ‘Received Text’ contrasts with the latest, scholarly ‘received edition’ of the Greek New Testament (Nestle 28)[14], in which over 120 papyri and 280 uncial manuscripts are cited in evidence for the resultant text, most of them many hundreds of years earlier than the manuscripts used by Erasmus.

In its 28 editions across 115 years and building on the inputs of many great researchers[15], the reconstructed Nestle text of the original Greek New Testament represents layer upon layer of research and refinement, leading to the most reliable reconstruction of the originals of any collection of ancient literature in existence.  Be clear, however, that we do not possess any of the actual original documents, from the hands of their authors!.  The earliest piece discovered to date is a tiny fragment of papyrus copied from John 18, dated about 125 CE, perhaps 30 years after John was written[16].

What does it mean?

The nature of the New Testament documents as Christians have received them, moved over 1400 years towards increasing fluidity as thousands of variations entered the text, partly because of deficiencies of the manual technology and partly as the currents of interpretation influenced their transmission.  Since printing, that trend has been reversed, towards ever greater certainty in the reconstruction of the original text.

Another trend has been the huge increase in literacy and the ready availability of written material, including the Bible, in both paper and electronic forms across the world.  Now ploughboys/girls in tropical rice paddies can read the New Testament on their mobile phones.

Technology has also seen an explosion of biblical scholarship.  More research is now being done on the Bible than in all of previous scholarly history, be it in archaeology, history, culture, linguistics or interpretation.  Modern software[17] allows instant access to the analysis of grammar, syntax and interpretation for any passage of the New Testament in the original or translated languages.  Contrast this to the handful of literate first Christians who laboriously unrolled a scroll as they read it out aloud to themselves and their illiterate friends, wrestling all the while in their memories to relate it to some other passages of ‘scripture’.

Are these really the same New Testament documents as we receive them?  Yes, there were disputes back then (2 Peter 315-16), but over the same minutiae of interpretation which entangle us?

And ironically, as we shall see in the next part of this series on translation, with multiple versions of any passage instantly available to us through digital media, it is now possible to effectively ‘tailor’ or ‘cherry pick’ the translation of a passage to suit our individual tastes.  The slow cycle we have seen in the New Testament as we receive it, from fluidity to certainty, may now be swinging back again to greater fluidity.  In all of this, where is the Spirit of Truth, who Jesus promised would guide us into all truth (John 1613)?

John Court

[1] An excellent summary of the technology behind the Bible was presented by Prof Pamela Eisenbaum (Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado) in her keynote address to the 4th Common Dreams Conference, Brisbane, September 2016, “The End of the Word as we know it?  The Future of Scripture Past”,,

[2] Pritchard JB (ed.) 2011 The Ancient Near East:  an anthology of texts & pictures (Princeton Univ. Press), Ch 2.

[3] Robinson A 2002 The Man Who Deciphered Linear B:  the story of Michael Ventris (Thames & Hudson).

[4] The Gezer Calendar on a limestone tablet is an early example, Prichard p287 & Fig 65.

[5] Pritchard p290 & Fig73.  The date is disputed by some.  The photo above was taken in the tunnel by the author in June 2015 – standing in running water!  It is of a replica of the inscription which is now in the Museum of the Ancient Orient, Istanbul.  References: 2 Kings 2020; 2 Chronicles 323-4,30; Isaiah 2211.

[6] Botha PJJ 2012 Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity (Cascade Books), Introduction and Ch 5.

[7] Aland K and Aland B (trans. Rhodes EF) 1989 The Text of the New Testament; an Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans), pp75-77.

[8] Lightfoot, NR 2003 How We Got the Bible, 3rd ed.(Baker), Ch1.

[9] Aland & Aland, p70.

[10] Lightfoot, pp30-31.

[11] Aland & Aland, pp75 & 102;  this was a human technological advance as important as the wheel!

[12] Lightfoot, p51 and Aland & Aland, p77.

[13] Aland & Aland, pp 3-6;  Lightfoot, pp 106-108.

[14] Aland K & B, Karavidopoulos J, Martini CM and Metzger BM (edd.) 2013 Nestle-Aland: Novum Testamentum Graece 28th ed. (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft).

[15] K Lachmann, C von Tischendorf, BF Westcott & JA Hort, SP Tregelles, HF von Soden and E Nestle, to name but a few of the prominent forerunners in the discipline.

[16] Aland & Aland, p 85;  Lightfoot, pp 122f.

[17] Logos Bible Software, Bibleworks, etc.


Opinion: Priority of action over belief

The work of Robin Meyers is the central focus at tonight’s seminar at Redcliffe Q.

With the current lectionary readings now focused on the Sermon on the Mount, we are reminded of Jesus call to action rather than to belief.

This quote is from his book: Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age.


Opinion: Life again – practicing morphic resonance

From our new friend and explorer:

Brendan MacCarthaigh. “Born Dublin 1938. Eleventh of eleven children, loveless childhood, eventually fled into first escape route available – the Christian Brothers, at 14. Fled further to India at 22, lived there for 64 years, legal realities compelled return to Dublin in 2022, where now am. Negative life experience turned miraculously (yes) positive in 2019, and have lived in that glow since then. Loved India. The meaning of life is God, another name for Love. Have loads of qualifications in various fields. bursting with new ideas, mostly denying the beliefs we have nourished for decades, even centuries., enough about me!”

“One grows foolhardy, I guess, when none of the bullets one is braced for actually strikes. By now you know that for me Jesus is a role-model. I don’t tie up Jesus with religion past the point of his name going on to Christianity as a religion. Religions I am pretty cynical about, regarding them as very useful, very bonding of people (both strong reasons for associating with them, I grant) but insofar as they are exclusive of all interpretations of divinity except their particular one, I dismiss them. They bond adherents – great! They exclude others quite pointedly who interpret God differently – a result of anthropological illiteracy. And that last sentence includes of course Christianity, and its various offspring such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Presbyterianism, etc. as well as the non-Christian faith traditions.

“I suppose I must believe in what is commonly indicated by ‘life after death’.  By ‘must’ I mean, I draw such strength as I have from my association with Jesus, who of course is dead. The Roman soldiers on Calvary knew their job. But I believe that the spirit of Jesus lives in millions of people all over the world, as does the spirit of every other human person who ever lived, but with the difference that the one I refer to lived such a life that his spirit remained and remains influential in the choices millions make about their lives ever since. What’s more, I recognise that those who are not thus influenced are quite likely touched by other great names, and live equally if not more admirable lives as a consequence.

“Thus, if I happen to have a function centering on Jesus, I do not exclude someone who draws all her/his inner inspiration from someone I had never heard of, or had heard of, but do not myself know enough about to find inspirational. For me, as I have said earlier, the entire meaning of life arises out of love. That love is, in my case, modelled after the example of Jesus. Others see it modelled elsewhere. Fine. So long as it is all-inclusive love, I say welcome.

“Yesterday I was at a function where one of the participants quite emphatically dismissed prayer as useless, and that the future of our earth depends not on prayer, but on each of us doing our thing to save the globe from destruction. He dwelt on the idea quite strongly, and in fairness I learned that he was himself, though old, vigorously involved in various measures towards rescuing our earth from her destroyers.

“This issue didn’t arise in the life of Jesus, so there didn’t look like there was any connection there. (I do acknowledge that Jainism and Zoroastrianism might demur, and I appreciate their hesitation. They are an important minority.) Still, this old man had a point. The rescuing of Earth from her destroyers is scarcely a religious issue. Ok?

“Not ok!

“Although the scientist Rupert Sheldrake didn’t intend it, his thesis arising out of, and leading to the term morphic resonance has become a common term in religious literature for quite some years now. Morphic resonance is defined as, a paranormal influence by which a pattern of events or behaviour can facilitate subsequent occurrences of similar patterns. Very briefly, birds in one town discover they can with their beaks stab open the tops of milkbottles, soon other birds living far away make the same discovery. Monkeys discover that it’s easier to rinse the sand off their washed-up coconuts than eat them and then wash the sand out of their mouths, soon other monkeys living far away make the same discovery. Scientists, who devise brand-new equations to explain problems, discover that far away other scientists at the same time are making similar discoveries.

“And so when you and I pray for things to improve in the healing of our Earth, our prayer becomes linked with the same idea all over the place, and action is motivated on a wide scale. This old man’s desperation is understandable, but in practical reality his impatience with prayer as an effective instrument is actually misplaced. Prayer prompts ideas, strengthened by this morphic resonance phenomenon, and ideas lead to practical involvement, because it gathers power in the process of performance.

“Thus, our love for Mother Earth is enriched by our prayer life – and indeed, let me add, by the impatience of this old man, though he may not recognise it, because it strengthens the power of the idea now found all over the globe, thereby prompting the rest of us to do our individual and group best. It is of course helped by the power spelled out in Laudato Si’, while that itself is a result of the listening world to its message.

“God bless.”

Brother Mac.

Link: Leaving India after 62 years.


Opinion: The urgency of church reform remains the greatest challenge

Shaping the Basis of Union of the UCA: the influence of progressive thinkers

We are privileged to have received a positive response to our request to Rev John Gunson, author of God, Ethics and the Secular Society: does the church have a future? to produce a brief paper on the influence of the Congregational representatives at the negotiated construction of the Basis of Union first published in 1971 prior to union in 1977 of the Methodist, Presbyterian (in part) and Congregational denominations. The original BOU can be found here.

The historic text of the Basis of Union was prepared at a time when the desire for gender-inclusive language was only just emerging. By the early 1990s there was a need to re-examine the language and the Assembly Standing Committee approved the publication of the 1992 edition, which incorporates relatively conservative changes to the language of the Basis, while seeking to retain its meaning. The 1992 version can be found here.

John’s words below remind us of the importance of keeping the challenge of Paragraph 11 at the forefront of our progressive work.


“Openness to new understandings of the Faith”

As one who was heavily involved in the life of the Congregational churches at the time of the negotiations for union with the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, I believe I can accurately comment on the process by which union was consummated.  While I was not on the Joint Commission itself, which undertook the negotiations and drew up the Basis of Union, I was involved in inter-church discussions and in other ways preparatory to union.

There are those in key positions in the UC today who believe that the Basis of Union was intended as the forever definitive theological basis of the Uniting Church.  Some of those on the Joint Commission may well have believed that, or at least hoped that would be true.

What in fact determined the theological position expressed in the Basis of Union was the pragmatic need to find a basis upon which three very different denominations with widely diverging theological positions could come together in union.  In other words it had to avoid looking like a normative/typical statement of any one of the three negotiating churches.  e.g. “That’s Presbyterian.  We can’t agree to that.  That is a takeover.”  So let’s base it on one of the historic creeds that we give lip service to as part of the church’s history – a kind of neutral ground.  The Nicene Creed is more or less recognized across the major expressions of the church as the first official definition of faith and the first that came out of an ecumenical council.  Among other things it was an attempt to unify the many different theological positions of the time.  Congregationalists recognized the creeds as historic formulations of the church’s faith, and also Reformation confessions such as the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession.  But for Congregationalists none of these were forever definitive, nor were they to be used as tests of faith.

Our union some 50 years ago happened at a time when neo-orthodoxy /Barthian theology was resurgent (that doesn’t mean it was right).  As a young man I had a decade previously returned from post-graduate theological study in the USA , my head filled with the excitement of Karl Barth’s massive and scholarly restatement of theology, in the light of which I moved away from the rather “superficial” expression of 19th century liberal theology that was characteristic of Australian Congregationalism at the time.  It was this neo-orthodox theology that was being embraced by  the young “turks” and the academics of the three negotiating churches at the time of union.

It should surely be clear to us now that the form our Basis of Union took was inevitably an expression of the times.  Had we come together in the 19th century we would have had an entirely different Basis of Union,. but simply the best and most pragmatic way to get agreement/union between the churches at the time, and thus subject to review and change.

The majority of Congregationalists would probably not have entered into the Uniting Church if they had not believed that the Basis of UNION was a starting point on which we could come together, not a permanent “once and for all” expression of the faith of the Uniting church.  Such a confession would have been called “The theological basis of the UC’, not the basis of UNION.

The second factor at work 50 years ago was the ecumenical spirit of that time.

Dominant in the life of our three churches, it brought home to us powerfully the scandal of denominationalism and disunity.  I, along with many others, was heavily involved in ecumenical activities and the work and scholarship of the World Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Churches.

Congregationalists historically did not look on themselves as a denomination but as a reforming movement in the life of the church, and we urgently desired and worked for both the continuing reformation of the churches and the unity of the church.  That was a much higher priority than a particular choice of a confession of faith we could all agree about at the time.

We believed that the Basis was a necessary pragmatic concession, in order to achieve union – which we could each interpret in our own way, in spite of its Greek philosophical thought forms, themselves incomprehensible to most.

To make absolutely sure this was the case Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11.

Our representatives believed that modern scholarship was giving us new knowledge and understanding of our sources and our faith, and that we expected the Uniting Church to take that seriously.

For Congregationalists the church was always a church under reformation, and not to be imprisoned by a nearly 2000 year old statement of faith, expressed in the limited knowledge and ancient Greek thought forms forced on the church by a Roman Emperor; nor a 2000 year old interpretation of it, nor a modern re-expression of it.   Scholarship and knowledge has moved on, both in our understanding of the world and especially in the new insights into the sources of our faith through the work of the Westar Institute.

Our representatives on the Joint Commission would have approached each meeting of that body with the words of Pastor John Robinson ringing in their ears as he farewelled the Pilgrim Fathers (Independents/Congregationalists) on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution from “orthodoxy” in England for a new life in America in 1620.

Robinson urged them :    “I charge you before God … to follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.  If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive truth from my ministry, for I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word. …..  The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw  … and the Calvinists  … stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things.  This is a misery much to be lamented.”

The Congregational representatives were of course outnumbered and exercised very little influence on the Joint Commission, but insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11, their version of which I am sure was carefully re-worded by the drafters of the Basis so as to not seem in conflict with the rest of the Basis.

Paragraph 11 reads as follows:

 Scholarly Interpreters.

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left his Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to his living Word.  In particular she enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and thanks God for the knowledge of His ways with men which are open to an informed faith.  She lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which she will learn to sharpen her understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought.  Within that fellowship she also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help her understand her nature and mission.  She thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr.  She prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds.

(Note: Highlight & bold are my emphases).

The first problem with the expression of this paragraph (which I suspect was deliberate) is the heading.  It should have been headed “Openness to new understandings of the Faith”.  But that was not what the majority framers wanted to hear or express.

A third and powerful factor also determining the Basis of Union was the vision expressed in the deliberate wording of our name – the Uniting Church in Australia, not the “United” church.  In coming together we all believed that this was only the first step in a larger on-going process of union, beginning with the Anglicans with whom preliminary discussions were already underway, and ultimately, some dared to hope, even with Baptists and Roman Catholics. (See paras 1&2 of the Basis.)

To even start conversations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics we knew we had to have a theological/creedal basis with which they would readily agree.  Nicaea made obvious sense.  Further, in support of this goal, great consideration was given on the Joint Commission as to the possibility of including Bishops in the polity of the new church.

Again, “The Basis” was about achieving a starting point, and assumed an ongoing reformation and reformulation of the faith, not a capitulation to the other churches with whom we hoped for union, but from which we had deliberately distinguished ourselves since the Reformation.

Ecumenism, unity, and the scandal of denominationalism was the driving motivation, formulation of the faith was secondary and pragmatic (but not to the framers of the Basis.)

Ecumenism and ongoing church union is no longer a central priority of the Uniting Church.   Anglicans and Roman Catholics are only interested in absorbing us, not uniting with us.  The priorities of 50 years ago need no longer delay our urgent attention to a ”fresh confession of the faith” and the ongoing reformation of the church.

John Gunson.    30/1/23


Opinion: Democracy or Doctrine

From Bev Floyd

What else hasn’t ‘organised religion’ understood?

It doesn’t realise people no longer want to be TOLD what to believe. They’ve gone off ‘authority’. It’s let them down so much in the past. A fair proportion of both secular and religious leaders have been arrogant or corrupt or just ‘not up to it’.


The culture of ‘organised religion’ is very patriarchal. In an era where concerned folk are striving to obtain equality for women, most religious leadership positions are reserved for men… particularly so (and medievally so) in the Catholic church but also in other religions and denominations.

Structures and procedures are also based on what I call a ‘male’ hierarchical model.    It is the ‘who can get to the top model?’ and the ‘who can we kick off the bottom?’ model.

This is a power-based model. Not inclusive. Decisions flow from the top to the bottom. It does have its uses. Emergencies are best handled this way,  as are certain key decisions that need to be made quickly and expertly, such as construction and war (both of which men seem to like and to do so well).

The alternative is a flat structure where decisions are made collectively at the lowest suitable level. It is an inclusive model. No-one is left out. Everyone can participate.      It does take longer and can be challenging to ‘efficiency nuts’ or people who are impatient, but the outcome is better. People feel involved… part of something. Decisions are more likely to fit the needs of the group. I’m inclined to call this the ‘female’ model. It’s emerging more as more women are coming into their own in the secular world. It seems to be a better way of for people to share decision-making and problem solving.

How far behind can ‘organised religion’ get?

The problem seems to be ‘doctrine’… that’s a set of ‘beliefs’ which have been formalised and handed down over many years. They appear to be set in concrete… never-changing.

I suppose for many the idea of something unchangeable in an ever-changing world would make life seem more comfortable, more certain, more manageable.

But people who are searching for ‘Godliness’ should not be using doctrine and churchiness as a mattress to slumber upon… true religion can be a springboard to life abundant… to joy and love and hope.




Opinion: Are we concerned enough about artificial intelligence and freedom of religion?

Why The Church of England Is Talking About Artificial Intelligence

People are often surprised and encouraged when I tell them about the work the Church of England policy team and its bishops are doing in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. Purple-shirted, dog collar-wearing members of the House of Lords are frequently spotted at committee meetings and sessions on these topics. Indeed, bishops report sensing surprise from some delegates who may be wondering whether the senior Church of England leaders belong in this environment.

Until 2016 the Church of England was not formally involved in this area. Then, thanks to some synergistic happenings, AI and Robotics arrived firmly on the Church of England’s radar.

One of these happenings was a 2016 ECLAS conference at the University of Durham. There, bishops and other senior church leaders were immersed for two days in the world of AI and Robotics. The delegates met research scientists in their labs and saw the painstaking work that goes into training machines to recognise chickens, cats, and dogs (all part of that fascinating area termed ‘machine learning’). They saw the ‘raw’ ‘training’ of machines to accurately perceive distances and objects while in motion, for use in technology to support driverless cars. Our church leaders were delighted to meet and interact with robots. Later, together with scientists, ethicists and theologians, they reflected on big questions emerging from the event. By the end of the conference, if they hadn’t been already, delegates were convinced that it was vital for the Church to engage with AI….

For the complete article go to the link below:

Why the Church of England is talking about Artificial Intelligence – ECLAS (



Opinion: How the New Testament came to us

by JOHN COURT –  JANUARY 2023 [ previously in 2018 for Eastwood Uniting’s quarterly magazine, Contact]  

John Court ‘put bread on the family table’ through a 50-year career as a professional engineer in the chemical and environmental industries (BSc & MAppSc).

Raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment, he also undertook tertiary studies in classics (BA major in Greek) and ancient history (MA on Greco-Roman social life) with the aim of deepening understanding of things Christian, in parallel to rather than in concert with the conventional seminary scene.

Not surprisingly, this led John to re-think many aspects of his faith.  For the past 40 years he has found a friendly home and worshipped in the Uniting Church in Sydney.   He has also savoured the worlds of antiquity and early Christianity through some travel in the Middle East, Greece and Italy. But for his wife and himself, both now octogenarians, such adventures are realistically over. With retirement have come opportunities to indulge in eclectic reading and discussion.


John has kindly given us access to some of his writing on this topic. This is Part 1 of 3 parts.

How the New Testament came to us – 1 Inclusions and exclusions

Our Bible

We tend to take our Bible for granted:  39 books in the Old Testament (OT); 27 in the New Testament (NT); usually bound together; and often in black leather with gilt edges – at least when a book was something we read on paper rather than on our mobile phones.  Many of us have known this format from our youngest years in Sunday school and church youth groups.  But does this give a misleading picture of its origins and its immutability?  We will explore this question in several short pieces.

The old testament

The Old Testament preceded the New, to which it is inextricably linked.  It was composed in the ancient Hebrew language and transmitted orally and in writing by Jewish priests and scholars over a period of more than a thousand years.  When Christians adopted these ‘scriptures’, as they called them, they mostly used a Greek translation made by Jews about two centuries earlier.  Why Hebrew and Greek?  Well Hebrew was the language of ancient Israel.  The Old Testament is often called “the Hebrew Scriptures”.  And Greek because it was the lingua franca of the world of the early Church – a little like English tends to be today in many parts of the world.  That’s why Christian scriptures, of which our New Testament is the prime collection, are also written in Greek, a language which could reach many people.

Were these the only writings held to be ‘holy’ in their time?  Not at all!  In the Jewish world the writings we call the Apocrypha roughly fill the four-hundred-year gap between our Old and New Testaments.  They are not included in today’s Protestant Bibles but are found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.  And there were other writings besides these, as shown abundantly by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls last century.  And we now have many other ‘gospels’, ‘acts’ and ‘revelations’ written in the early years of the Christian church, including the large collection in the Coptic language from Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Choosing what’s in and what’s out

When a community ascribes special status to a set of writings, as when it considers them to be the ‘Word of God’, it becomes important for it to define what it accepts into this collection of sacred writings, the so-called ‘canon’.  Jewish councils basically decided what constituted the Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament, by about 100 CE (AD), although they did not precisely codify this for another eight hundred years.  Church councils had basically decided what constituted the Christian scriptures, the New Testament, by about 400 CE.

Over the last two hundred years scholars of language, ancient literature, history and theology have delved intensively into the way these selections were made and the nature, form, source and circumstances of the writings selected.   They have done this in the context of a plethora of additional ancient writings and archaeological information coming to light from the same environment as the chosen writings. The net result at present is some real divergence in the world of Biblical scholarship as to just what constitutes ‘our Bible’.  This fascinating and growing field of study has raised many questions, including the nature and working of ‘Divine inspiration’ in the original writing and selection of the canon, the transmission of the text and the authenticity of claims of authorship.

My understanding of what the Bible is has changed enormously in my Christian lifetime.  What about yours?  Perhaps you just accept it as a given in our Church without further concern.  Most Christians probably do.  Perhaps you find it all too difficult to sort out and just give up on it.  A lot do.  Perhaps you are inclined to reject it in whole or part, based on what does and does not appeal to you.  Not a few do this.  Does it matter?  I don’t know, but I’m one of those who are intrigued, rather than put off by such questions.  So, with your indulgence, I’ll explore them a little further in three brief pieces.

Two views on the New Testament

In 2017 I attended two fascinating presentations by visiting Biblical experts on aspects of the canon of the New Testament.  They held almost diametrically opposed views.  Professor Darrell Bock of Dallas, speaking at Macquarie University, Sydney, argued that the New Testament as we have it is the authentic Bible for Christians and that the additional early material now available did not come from an alternative, foundational Christianity.  Shortly afterwards Professor Hal Taussig of New York, speaking at Merthyr Road Uniting Church, New Farm, Brisbane, argued not only that early Christianity was more diverse than we had previously believed, but that some of the recently discovered early Christian writings should be included in our New Testament.  In fact, he has published, with support from other scholarly experts, A New New Testament, which includes eleven additional ancient Christian books not in our canonical Bible.

The case for the canonical new testament

Prof. Bock in his book The Missing Gospels[1] has made a close study of these additional Christian writings, many of them classified as ‘gnostic’.  He searches the Nag Hammadi collection for differences from our canonical NT on the subjects of God as Creator, of Jesus as a human and divine figure, of the nature of redemption and on Jesus’ death and salvation. He concludes that Christian orthodoxy is dominantly represented in the earliest strands of the canonical NT.  In summary, he claims that the alternative ideas on these subjects, as found in the alternative writings, are differences which entered Christian circles at a later time and were not part of earliest belief.  One belief in particular, which derives from the Gospel of Thomas, that Jesus was “the ultimate wisdom teacher, a kind of mysterious Jewish Zen master who scandalized his listeners”[2] by his radical teaching, is rejected as not a key part of earliest Christian belief.

I found that Prof. Bock’s book gave a relatively comprehensive and systematic overview of the Christian Gnostic writings, especially those from Nag Hammadi.  But he has an agenda which is apparent throughout.  He sees a trend in some modern scholarship dealing with these new writing to “cull out what fits nicely with our culture”, establishing “a case…for a historical makeover of early Christianity”, which he calls “the Buzz”[3].  He acknowledges that history is written by winners, so that the views which prevailed in the early councils of the Church are the views of those who prevailed.  But he asserts that sometimes the winners deserve to win.

The case for alternative writings in the New Testament

Prof. Taussig, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, has also extensively studied the non-canonical writings of early Christianity.  He is of the view they genuinely reflect the diversity of belief in the early Church, to the extent that he has edited, under the guidance of an eminent scholarly council, A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st century combining traditional and newly discovered texts[4].

The books included, intermixed with canonical books are: The Prayer of Thanksgiving; the Gospel of Thomas; The Odes of Solomon (in four books); The Thunder:  Perfect Mind; The Prayer of the Apostle Paul; The Acts of Paul and Thecla; The letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John. A 100-page Companion is appended discussing the history, environment and some exposition of these new books and their relationship to the canonical material.  It is noteworthy that much material not selected from these new sources is strongly contrary to canonical texts, for example, portraying the god of creation as an inferior and ill-disposed deity.

Prof. Taussig senses a freshness and beauty in the additional material.  But, like Prof. Bock, he also has an agenda beyond the purely academic.  “There are beautiful prayers, stories and proposals to nourish today’s thirst for spirituality that are both grounded in tradition and new to almost everyone’s experience.” “Most powerful…is the possibility of claiming for the twenty-first century new meanings inherent in the first- and second-century Christ movements.”[5]

A question for reflection

The Basis of Union states[6]: “The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word.”

Where do we stand then, when sincere and well-credentialed scholarship is clearly divided as to what is in and out of the Scriptures?  The Uniting Church in the same Basis lays on all of us the duty of reading these very Scriptures[7].  But which ones?

John Court

[1] Bock, Darrell L 2006 The Missing Gospels:  unearthing the truth behind alternative Christianities (Thomas Nelson).

[2] p xxii

[3] p xxiii

[4] Ed. with commentary by Hal Taussig with a foreword by John Dominic Crossan, 2013 (Mariner Books).

[5] p 519.

[6] Section 11

[7] Section 5



Opinion: Finding the big picture

Richard Rohr on ‘The supreme unifying force’

Big Picture Thinkers

In a 2006 CAC conference, Richard Rohr identified the prophet as one who places issues in the context of the “big picture”:

What is a prophet? Let me try this as a definition: one who names the situation truthfully and in its largest context. When we can name the situation truthfully and in its largest context, it cannot get pulled into interest groups and political expediency. I was preaching in Atlanta, and I went for the first time to the Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit. It’s so obvious that he was a biblical prophet. I stood there and heard the addresses right in his very church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, where they play his preaching constantly. I realized how he was always putting racism and segregation in the big context of the kingdom of God. And then he kept going and came out against the Vietnam War. He is said to have lost at least one-third of his own followers because he placed the issue in too big a frame.

We don’t want the big frame. No one wants the big picture. I’m convinced that Jesus’ metaphor and image for what we would simply call the big picture is the reign of God, or the kingdom of God. That’s Jesus’ way of describing a phrase we used to say in Latin [sub specie aeternitatis] which means, “In light of eternity.” To consider things in light of eternity is a great clarifier. Maybe it comes to us on our death bed, when we think to ourselves, “Is this going to mean anything? Does this really matter? Is this little thing we’re upset about now and taking offense at going to mean anything in light of eternity?” The prophet or prophetess speaks truthfully and in the largest context. [1]

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he spoke from the “big frame” to call for a revolution of values based on love:

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [humankind].… When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is of God. And everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.… If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and [God’s] love is perfected in us” [1 John 4:7–8, 12]. Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. [2]

Monday, January 16, 2023 —  Martin Luther King Jr. Day


Opinion: Reflecting on the Epiphany

A New Year and the Epiphany

The new calendar year is upon us, and we have now had the clearing of the Christmas decorations.   And we now have the celebration of the Epiphany – the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.   All very well presented in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

We read of the arrival of “wise men” from the East in Jerusalem as they sought to meet the newborn king of the Jews whose star they had seen in the East – presumably in the western sky at sunset.   The tale continues that these three men whom we know as “The Magi,” although we do attach the names to them of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, were able without any difficulty to have access to the head of the state, the king, one Herod, and to report the purpose of their visit.   Herod for some reason for all his learning needed to seek the advice of the religious leaders as to the supposed birthplace of the “King of the Jews” and was informed that the town of Bethlehem in Judaea was the location forecast.    That these visitors seemed to know more of the birth of the king of the Jews than the ecclesiastical establishment is itself interesting.   Herod, the sublime operator, then suggested to his visitors that they should go to Bethlehem (no major distance from Jerusalem) to find the newborn and to report back, so that he could honour him.

They took themselves then to Bethlehem with the guidance of the star and found the house where the baby Jesus was to be living with his mother.    Matthew reports, as we all know, the provision of great gifts to the newborn of gold and frankincense and myrrh.    For all that, they then had a dream which suggested not returning to Herod but going back to their own country by a different route.

I find all of this open to some measure of doubt in terms of historical accuracy.   We know that Herod died in the year 4 B.C. and that though Luke speaks of Quirinius being the governor of Syria at the time of the census which took Joseph to Bethlehem, the Roman records tell us that this was so in what to us is the year 9 A.D.    We are also aware that to the world of the scientists and astronomers, the year 7 B.C. (and its later months in our chronology) saw what they would call “the great conjunction of planets” when five of them were visible in the night sky almost as one.   Such an event did not occur again and then on a reduced scale until 1982.  If the Magi were astronomers (and astrologers) – they were almost certainly men to see in the night sky guidance for their own lives – it is quite possible that the conjunction of planets which would have been especially visible in the eastern Mediterranean was the cause of a journey westwards from lands to the East.    We do not know.

The stories from Matthew then tell us of the plan to take the baby to Egypt as Joseph had been warned in a dream to go to Egypt to escape what the angel who forecast the problem would be Herod’s reaction.    We are told Herod on realising that the Magi had not passed the necessary information on the birth of the child back to him, decided to kill all boys under the age of two years in Bethlehem in order to ensure that his throne was secure from challenge.   It has to be said that there is no historical record of such an event.    We are told however that after the death of Herod, and, with significant convenience, another angel appeared to Joseph in Egypt and reported the death of Herod and the succession of his son, Archelaus.   At this point, Joseph took Mary and their son back to Galilee (significantly further north in those days of no transport) back to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.   This met the vision that the Messiah would be called “a Nazarene” – perhaps again conveniently.

What are we to make of all of this?    My answer is to say that I do not know.   It is all so it seems very colourful and wish-fulfilling.   It suggests that Jesus was from his very birth the special man that he was to become in the eyes of those who knew him.   Is this however the embellishment of storytelling to make a good story even better?   And if we then go to the stories of his birth and the shepherds in the fields and the birth in a cattle shed, it all becomes yet more open I fear to doubt.    Have we been led astray?

Strangely enough for all my doubts of the historicity of the tales of his birth and earliest life from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, I find this rather charming.   I am sure that those who wrote the Gospels, and there seems unanimity amongst the scholars that the three synoptic Gospels drew upon common material including material that may have been lost and that the Gospel of John is a very different and a significantly more poetic version of the life of the man, were at pains to emphasise the extraordinary quality of the man Jesus and his wisdom.   Not to provide a decorated story of his birth and early life they may have felt would have reduced the quality of the sublime and extraordinary of the man who had touched their lives with such intensity that their lives were to be totally given to the promotion of its guidance.    The Jesus they knew would have had a birth as out of the ordinary as his later life and message.    I do not know.

What does come to me however from all of this and it is the Epiphany – the manifestation – that supports it is the extraordinary (I used that word again and without apology) quality of the man and his message.   The writers and teachers were determined that the wider Jewish and Gentile worlds of the first century would accept without demur that in the life of the son of the carpenter from Nazareth, wisdom had come to mankind of such measure as to be utterly foundational.   His birth must have been surrounded by events that reflected the measure of the gift that had been made to humankind.

It is in that context that I see the Epiphany.    Eternal wisdom had been given to men and women of such a scope and scale that its arrival must have been itself surrounded by events of truly cosmic proportions.   And it is the measure of that wisdom that we are now being offered again two thousand years later its glorious elegance and simplicity.

For all that, I am sure that whether we want to question the stories and their presentation really means very little.    What has come to the world through the wisdom of Jesus as the last of the great Jewish prophets is a vision of life to the full of such proportions that we must ourselves be the men and women whose lives in all their detail reflect that wisdom and its provenance.   We are the sons and the daughters of the Source of Creation, dignified and responsible with beings so fully equipped to live well that our failures to do so will always sadden.     We are born as individuals so brilliantly equipped and yet equally so brilliantly different from each other that the world can happily see the whole tapestry of earthly possibility in all its completeness.   We are the expressions of an Eternal and Greater from Whom we come and to Whom we go, and we are built to reflect our origins in all that we are and in all that we do.

But the message of the Epiphany is that we must reflect those origins in our daily lives of great energy and of significant constructiveness.   We are born to build our lives to the maximum and so few of us do.    If there be a message of the Epiphany as the season of the Manifestation and the new calendar year now with us, it is that we must resolve fully to grow and equally fully to expand and offer that growth and expansion to our fellow travellers in life.    This is the contribution of agape to the world.   Jesus observed so we are told in the Gospel of St. John in the tenth verse of the tenth chapter that he had come “so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”   That is the sole test of the worth of our lives and our activities and in this new year we must be forthcoming and constructive in all we are at all times.

A Happy New Year of growth and fulfilment – your duty of the Eternal is no less.

 Maxwell Dodd, Friday 6 January 2023


As with gladness, men of old

Did the guiding star behold,

As with joy they hailed its light,

Leading onward, beaming bright,

So, most gracious Lord, may we

Evermore be led to thee.




Opinion: Looking forward

As we commence our 23rd year of sharing worldwide progressive Christian thinking, we look forward with hope, based on the growth of interest and support, for the continued transition away from the worst of the past and the adoption of the best of the present and past practice. We acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and our thinking so often needs critiquing. We have learnt so much from each other, the scholarly work of others and the life experiences of some.

Much of the Church is changing slowly as it faces the big challenges of the era and collaborates with the major global movements for social justice, economic development, industrial ecology, environmental policy, developmental consciousness, and the sharing of and sustaining of resources.

Although a significant number of our subscribers have walked away from the Church, we have many friends active inside the Church making a great impact on where the Church is going. It is generally understood that change is often resisted and there is comfortableness in complacency. Two thousand years of an institution established and locked into governance and doctrinal models by the Romans and living with the tensions of the teachings of Jesus means that much of the change and reform will be resisted. But there are new imperatives that make this resistance futile.

These imperatives include the threat of a diminishing role for individual humans with technological superhuman powers, the escalation of political crises, the search for effective leadership, the acceleration of greed and how to address Jesus’ goal of heaven on earth.

Collective intelligence is the greatest resource available to us. The combining of spirituality and science is transformative and helps us to find meaning. It also helps us to address the imperatives and make sound judgements. It gives us better ways of discovering truth and thinking through the complex issues of our time. It makes the Christian (Jesus) notion of humanity even more significant than ever before.

Many young people are expressing and demonstrating strong moral values about the future of humanity. I am optimistic about the future of the universe in their hands. There is much to discuss and even more to do. I hope our many Explorers groups will continue the discourse and experimenting with applying new understandings.

Happy New Year!

Paul Inglis