Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Elisha’s Bones

Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular (with its ‘sola scriptura’), sits uneasily atop documents written and redacted in eras very different from our own. This causes a fair amount of dissonance for believers who spend time reading these texts.

It seems to me that the history of Christianity has tracked with Western history in general as we have moved away from a demon-haunted world to one that can be understood through the scientific method. Protestantism, whether theologically liberal, fundamentalist, or somewhere in between, rejects much of the ‘spooky’ thinking of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. One topic in that vein which can be particularly troubling for Protestants is that of relics, and they should let it move them further into reason and away from supernaturalism.
"As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet." -2 Kings 13:21
Relics are items thought to hold a special blessing for believers who possess them. My first encounter with the concept was during my First Communion class (I was the only student that year) when the teacher showed me where in our church’s altar a relic should be. She was uncertain whether our parish actually had one, and I still don’t know. Throughout the Middle Ages various relics found their way to altars, shrines, and elsewhere, including private owners. It has been joked that if all the alleged splinters of the True Cross were put together, we could build Noah’s Ark.
"God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them." — Acts 19:11–12
Protestants generally denounce the collection and veneration of relics as ‘unbiblical,’ and then have the inconvenience of running across the phenomenon while reading the Bible. A common solution theologically conservative Protestants put forward argues that scriptural examples are specific to certain times, places, and situations and therefore should not be generalized or expected to be replicated. This is a subset of the larger position that conservative, non-Pentecostal evangelical theologians take regarding miracles in general. Among Pentecostals, for their part, there are those who hold to a form of having relics, such as obtaining strips of cloth from a preacher as a ‘point of contact’ for healing. In the grander scheme of Protestantism, however, this is quite anomalous.
​"Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured." — Acts 5:14–16
In my ministry training program at a very conservative Christian university the matter was handled in essentially the way I described above. For example, Peter’s shadow healing the sick and driving out unclean spirits came up, there were nervous chuckles in the classroom. The answer to this as well as other such passages was that those ‘historical events’ are part of our faith but should not be expected ‘in this dispensation’ while we await the bodily return of Jesus and the final judgement.

What this topic should do for contemporary Bible readers is wake them up to the legendary nature of their sacred text. With its many anachronisms, contradictions, endorsements of genocide, and miracles, together with the oppressive, patriarchal outlook it holds forth from beginning to end, the Bible is not a historical text nor a very moral one. Stories like that of Elisha’s bones should not be ignored by Christians, who either need to tread the ground back toward folk religion and animism, or accept that there’s no evidencial basis for belief in relics and the like. That sort of change, I’m afraid, could well take a miracle.