[this piece was written in the style of a local newspaper.]

Shakespeare made England, it is said; and the Bible made Shakespeare. But on what was the Bible built? According to a new theory, comfortable underwear might have more than a little to do with it.

According to many modern theologians, the Bible isn’t – as it purports to be – an account of God’s dealings with humanity, but was rather a collection of word-of-mouth stories (the Old Testament) put together by priests trying to purify their religion, and keep the Israelites from worshipping the gods of their neighbours – some of whom demanded human sacrifice. Nor does the New Testament contain a historically accurate record of Jesus performing miracles, but was written by his disciples, who were trying to deal with problems in the church, to give authority to their teachings.

For the past 200 years, scholars have been trying to find the true events that inspired the text of the Bible. This search is called ‘higher textual criticism’, or more often merely ‘higher criticism’. Higher criticism began at the University of Tuebingen in Germany in the early 19th century. It arose of 18th-century rationalism, which placed the faculty of human reason as the highest authority – above the Bible and church tradition, the two horses that had been pulling the cart of the Christian church for the previous 1700 years. The first higher critics considered that many of the stories in the Bible contained inconsistencies – for instance, in the book of 2 Samuel, David the king of Israel is incited by God to count the number of men of fighting age living in Israel. However in the book of 1 Chronicles the text says that the devil incited David to do this.

Students of this school note also that a number of Old Testament stories are essentially the same in content, but the names of the actors are changed: for example, in the book of Genesis, Abraham travels to Egypt, telling his wife Sarah to pretend to be his sister so that Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him and take her for the royal harem. But the ruse is discovered; and despite his lie, Pharaoh gives Abraham a huge amount of wealth in animals and servants, and tells him to leave Egypt. Several chapters later, the same thing happens to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his wife Rebekah.

The higher critics also mention aspects of the Bible that are more difficult to quantify. They refer to the way an episode or story in the Bible is written, comparing it to the style of another book. So we might find that several chapters in the book of Genesis were really written by the author of the book of Deuteronomy, because both accounts prefer to use the word ‘Elohim’ when speaking of God, rather than the name ‘Jehovah’. It seems that the priests who put the Bible together were less concerned with style than with content.

This critical scholarship is not limited to the Old Testament, but is also applied to the writings in the New Testament. Apparently Jesus could not have said the things He did if they sounded too much like the later teachings of the Christian church or the teachings of a 1st-century rabbi. According to the Jesus seminar – which seeks to find the ‘real’ Jesus, who has been hidden by the authors of the New Testament – it is only when Jesus’ words appear unique to Him, that we can ascribe those words to Him.

So also with the apostle Paul: of the 13 letters which bear his name, sometimes only as few as 3 or 4 are considered to be genuinely authored by him. The other letters are thought to have been written by Christians who wanted to give Paul’s authority to their teachings. The reasons for this hypothesis are similar to those given for the Old Testament writings: there appear to be different writing styles, apparently contradictory views of issues such as the role of women in the church, and inconsistencies between the account of Paul’s travels found in the Acts of the Apostles and those mentioned in the ‘Pauline’ letters.

But now another theory steps into the ring to do battle – but this dark horse, at first blush another champion for the higher-critical school, might turn out to be a white knight for the cause of the conservatives. In a word, this theory is ‘underpants’. Its founders and proponents – Daryl Speyer, Caedmon Woodford and Brett Yosper, students of Trinity Theological College in Perth, Western Australia – have considered how one supporting pillar for the higher critical hypothesis – writing style – might be, like a Jenga tower after 10 minutes of play, a precarious support that cannot bear much weight at all.

I meet Speyer and Woodford at “Soto’s” cafe.. Yosper could not make it, they apologize. He is busy trying to rescue the local youth ministry from various predators, “silicon- and carbon-based”. At my quizzical eyebrow, Woodford explains: their computers have been attacked by a virus.

After ordering a morning caffeine jolt – latte for Woodford, affogato for Speyer and capuccino for myself – we sit down to talk. Despite my best journalistic training, I cannot resist asking: ‘So, tell me: the apostle Paul – jocks or boxers?’ They both smile, clearly expecting the question. They look at each other to see who will answer. Woodford nods at Speyer: ‘Talk it up, big fella.’ Speyer looks mildly pained at the appellation, but turns to me, sipping his coffee while collecting his thoughts. Woodford leans forward, brow furrowed, and nods enthusiastically. He clearly enjoys my question, and is waiting for his colleague to answer.

Speyer chooses his words carefully, but it becomes clear his tongue finds a comfortable home in his cheek: ‘I think that ‘jocks or boxers’ tends to be a false dichotomy,’ he replies. ‘There was a bit more of a range in strides back then than there is now. For instance, they’re now advertising ‘jockey shorts’, I think they’re called? You know, the shape of boxers with the support of jocks. Anyhow, it’s not just a distinction between daks, it could also be what he ate the night before – if he ate the night before. Maybe he was feeling a bit chilly and tired when he wrote Colossians, but warmer and more rested while he wrote Ephesians.’

He sips his coffee again, and Woodford takes the opportunity to expand. ‘The traditional view is that Paul was in prison when he wrote those two letters: in those days you had to get your food and clothes from relatives. Colossians and Ephesians, they’re very similar, but Ephesians is longer. You know yourself how when you’re uncomfortable – whether you’re cold or hungry – you’re not able to concentrate as well, you’re more irritable?’ I nod, and Woodford continues. ‘Well that’s what this whole theory is about: just because Paul used words in Timothy and Titus that he rarely did anywhere else, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t write those letters. For example, would you write to your friends in the same style that you write a letter to the taxation office?’

I can’t help but smile. Of course I wouldn’t: I’d use much more sarcasm and probably profanity with the ATO. Woodford continues: ‘There you are. You see, that’s a problem with using ‘writing style’ as a way to find the ‘real background’; it’s unnecessary, and can be explained in a much simpler way.’ Speyer nods, and comments, Homer Simpson-like: ‘Mmm … Occam’s razor.’

Woodford continues: ‘You can’t reject a letter simply because one letter phrases things differently than another might. So we’re just taking things to the logical extreme. And it’s turned out to be a double-edged sword: as a factor in the critical analysis of a document, you have to continue the reduction until you’re down to single words. By then, it’s got way past the level of ridiculous. When you look at the purely human factor in the writing of the Bible, there’s so much that goes into their choice of words: their education, their temperament and mood, their social circles, their environment, their trade, what language they’re using and how good they are at it, whether or not they’re using a scribe who might suggest a better way of phrasing things… And it goes on. There are a lot of factors involving someone’s choice of words and style which can explain these supposed ‘contradictions’. So we thought, an aspect that should bear serious consideration is how comfortable their clothes were. That’s how the whole ‘undies’ thing came about… I guess we just chose ‘undies’ as a more… well, provocative example of the factors that might have influenced the writer, and also to show that once you start atomising things with higher criticism, you’ve got to go the extreme end of it. I mean, that’s the case with anything, really.’ He sips his coffee enthusiastically – as he seems to do everything – and affirms, ‘Yeah, it’s good.. it’s all good.’

Speyer talks up the baton and runs with it. ‘Yes, you see, this sort of higher criticism is taking seriously the saying “you are what you eat” (Ludwig Feuerbach, I believe). The problem is, you are influenced by so many things, that there’s virtually nothing left of you at all. There’s so many factors influencing the writer, that you can continue the reduction ad infinitum.’

‘On the other hand, our position is that God is big enough to guide the writers to write exactly what He wanted, without dictating to them: He actually used them as they were, with their experiences and all, so that the Bible is fully from the mouth of God; He spoke not just using people’s hands but also their minds.’

He shakes his head. ‘But the usual higher critical position is that the Bible was a solely human document, edited, cut and pasted over the years… Well, there’s no telling how the documents originally read; so we can barely know anything about the God of whom they spoke. The point of the whole ‘undies’ theory is to show how ridiculous the reductionism of higher criticism can be. For instance, if you look at the phrase ‘Jesus Christ the Lord’ and its variations, you could divide Paul’s letters based on that as well as anything else. If the author writes just ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus’ – the brevity, the single word – you might infer that he was quite uncomfortable; but writing ‘Jesus’ could be seen as a sign that he was okay within himself and towards his recipients: ‘Jesus the man, just like us’, it has a more personal touch. Whereas using just the title ‘Christ’ indicates that he’s still uncomfortable; but also in a state of consciousness and praise – it’s more exalted, more impersonal, suited for worship.’ As he warms to his topic, Speyer becomes more animated, moving his hands around, creating incipient danger to his coffee. ‘But if he uses – the author, that is – a longer phrase, like ‘our Lord Christ Jesus’, it would indicate that he’s in pretty nice digs: the collective ‘our’; putting the titles ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’ before the personal name ‘Jesus’ to give the exalted feel to the phrase. Based on that, you might infer that the background is something like this: it’s about 7:30 in the morning – warm, not yet too hot; probably just after breakfast, and he’s sitting, relaxing in the warm sun on the porch of a villa on the Mediterranean waterfront, having a coffee and watching the world go by.’ He pauses and grins. ‘And for my money, he’s wearing boxers.’

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2007.