April 29, 2013
This is the second in a series of posts about the Bible in which I want to say how and why I find the Bible essential for my spiritual life. (The first is here.) I hope these musings may be useful to others. The reflections in these posts about the Bible draw on material I presented at the Midyear gathering of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, and on reflections that Friends at that gathering shared with me, as they welcomed me into their midst.
In trying to take hold of the Bible – in trying to figure out what to make of it – an obvious question is to ask who wrote it. If we knew who wrote it might give us some basis for judging its trustworthiness or its authority. No sooner is the question asked, however, than we know it has a complicated answer: many people wrote it. Worse, we quickly realize we know little about most of these people.
Let’s just focus on the New Testament. Each of the four Gospels has a name associated with it, a putative author. In none of the cases, however, do we know anything solid about the author. About when each of these four accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus was written we have some educated guesses, but if those guesses are right, then we have to conclude that none of the Gospels was written by a person who had direct (first person) experience of the events recounted. We might call these accounts ‘hearsay’ if we were in court, and that would weaken their trustworthiness. Of course there are many discrete stories that are told in more than one of the Gospels, and that gives these stories greater weight.
It seems likely that stories about Jesus circulated only orally for some decades after his crucifixion and resurrection. These stories were shared and re-shared in the communities of early believers. (This is certainly the burden of a good deal of the best scholarship on the Bible.) No doubt the stories were treasures. Care was taken to tell them again and again.
At some point some, after a few decades had passed, there were efforts to write down these stories about Jesus into longer chronicles like the Gospels we know. Were these compilations done by single individuals? We don’t know. We do know that more Gospels were compiled and written than the four that came to be included in our Bible. We think that some of the Gospels we have drew material from other Gospels, ones that we have and others that we no longer do. These Gospels were written several decades after the crucifixion.
At a still later point, some of the Gospels that had been written down, but not others, came to be broadly accepted among the early Christian communities as the best accounts we have of the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Whoever put pen to paper, the four Gospels we have in the Bible were adopted by the early Christian communities.
In an important sense, we can say that these accounts are community chronicles. They are re-tellings of an important story whose veracity is affirmed by communities of early believers. These re-tellings made whole sense out of two things: what they had learned from those who did have direct experience of Jesus, and what they were learning from the Holy Spirit working within their communities in prayer and worship.
This community affirmation is more important than any affirmation that may come from knowing what individual wrote them down.
At first glance it might seem different with the twenty-one letters that make up much of the rest of the New Testament. Nine of the letters come to us as letters of Paul, the apostle who did not meet Jesus during his life, but who had a powerful epiphany on the road to Damascus a few years after the crucifixion. But some of the letters that say they are by Paul probably are not. And about some others we are simply unsure. It is also difficult to square the letters of Paul with the chronology of Paul’s life in Acts (which is really a continuation of Luke).
Most of the other letters provide an indication of who wrote them (James, Peter, John, Jude), but in virtually every case we either don’t know who this person really was, or believe that he wasn’t who he claims to be. For instance, despite his claim, the author of 1 Peter and 2 Peter is not the Simon Peter who was the illiterate fisherman who Christ called to be a disciple. Nor is it likely that John is the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel.
As with the Gospels, what seems more important is that these letters—out of many, many letters that probably circulated among early Christians—were embraced by those communities as especially valuable for what they taught. Their authorship is less important than their selection and embrace by communities. They, too, are community chronicles.
The New Testament contains no first-hand accounts of the life, ministry, crucifixion or resurrection of Jesus. It does, on the other hand, contain the best accounts we will ever have of these events. And it does capture the beliefs of the earliest Christian communities. A gift from these early Christian communities, it is a chronicle of their earliest understandings of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We should receive it in that spirit.
Next: The Bible as Inspired Work.