Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The New Testament: How'd We Get It? (part 1)

When Jesus was alive -- and we should first start by affirming that he actually did live on earth -- he traveled from place to place teaching. And his teaching was remarkable.

For example, there were guards stationed in the Temple to keep order and maintain the peace. One time they were sent to arrest Jesus, but they ended up not doing that. When asked why, they responded, "No one ever spoke the way this man does" (John 7:46). Imagine how many speakers they had heard. Jesus was unlike any other.

His teaching was special, and people remembered the things he said and passed them on to others. Remember, they didn't have tape recorders back then. They didn't show up for the Sermon on the Mount and receive a big notebook with fill-in-the-blanks. Initially, Jesus' teachings weren't written down; they were passed on because people remembered them and retold them.

I can't even remember the three things I went to the grocery store for if they're not written down. Sometimes, I walk into a room of my house, and -- when I get there -- I can't remember why I walked in there. How in the world could a person remember what Jesus said and did accurately if they weren't written down?

The first century was an oral culture. Today we're inundated by words -- newspapers, magazinne articles, stuff on the Internet. Back then it wasn't so. In his book Excavating Jesus, John Dominic Crossan cites a study that says in the Mediterranean basin the literacy rate was about five percent. In Israel, it was probably closer to three percent.

Literacy wasn't as big a deal to them as it is to us. At night, they didn't sit around watching television or playing video games. They sat around a fire and told stories or shared wise sayings. They would recite genealogies. They remembered everything.

Some of you have kids, and you know what this is like. A child will often have a favorite book and will ask that this particular book be read to them night after night after night. Are my kids the only ones? There are nights when I get tired of it and try to skip a page or a paragraph. Ever tried that with your kids? It doesn't work, does it? They know.

In Jesus' day, people were just as bright as we are. They just weren't literate. They knew the stories. Jesus' life and teachings were well-known by a culture that was well-equipped to preserve them.

By the way, this is probably one reason why Jesus tells so many stories. Nearly 80% of what Jesus did was either put in story form, or in a kind of structure featuring parallelism or structures designed to help people remember what he said and be able to repeat it.

Well, after several decades of this, the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life began to age and die. The church was expanding, and there were false teachers who distorted what Jesus taught. Church leaders realized that they needed to write down Jesus' story -- his life and teachings -- so that it would outlive them and so it could be spread to churches around the world. That's probably why and how the Gospels were written.

Over time, a lot of other documents about Jesus were written as Christianity gained popularity. Some of them are what are called Gnostic gospels. Gnosticism emphasized a lot of secrets and concealed information and whether or not you were on the "inside" -- part of the Illuminati.

These texts had stories in them about Jesus that were different from what we read in the New Testament Gospels. The early church leaders realized that they needed to have criteria that would help them decide which documents -- which Gospels -- should go into what became known as the Canon. This word means "the norm, the standard, the rule." They wanted to know which books ought to be canonical. Which books can we trust? Which books are reliable?

Are you still with me?