Monday, October 10, 2005

The New Testament: How'd We Get It? (part 2)

In the second century after the birth of Christ, there weren't just four Gospels (i.e., testaments to the life and times of Jesus) in circulation. There were about 80. As the Jesus movement grew, more and more people wanted to get in on the act, and the quickest way was to write a story about Jesus and attach an apostle's name to it.

These texts had stories in them about Jesus that were different from what we read now in the New Testament Gospels. There was a lot of confusion, and 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 (a word meaning "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?

Church leaders developed essentially three criteria to evaluate these different documents:

  • Does this document have roots connected to one of the Apostles? Was it written by an apostle or by a student or associate of one of the Apostles?
The four Gospels that we have in the New Testament meet this requirement. Matthew is associated with Matthew, also known as Levi the tax collector. Mark was a student of Peter. Luke was known as the "beloved physician," a good friend of the Apostle Paul. John is the Gospel connected to the disciple John. (By the way, the other books in the New Testament like the letters of Paul or the letters of John meet the same criteria.)

It's important to remember that most scholars agree that all these books were written within 30 to 60 years after Jesus died. In other words, they were written while there were still eyewitnesses around who could challenge what was in them. They had to meet the task of being read by people who were alive when Jesus was around, and who would be able to say, "No. I was there, and it didn't happen like that," if something was inaccurate.

The Da Vinci Code talks about many other ancient books about Jesus' life and suggests that maybe the church was trying to cover them up. In reality, all of these books were written much, much later. In some cases, they were written centuries after Jesus -- after that eyewitness generation. They were often given fictitious and misleading names like the "Gospel of Mary," or the "Gospel of Peter," even though they were written centuries after Peter or Mary had died.

  • To be included in the Canon, the contents of the book had to be consistent with the kind of teaching that Jesus did.
There's one account of Jesus' life that was probably written about 50 years after the Gospel of John, the latest of the New Testament Gospels. Some of you may have heard of the "Jesus Seminar." It's a group of people who get together and vote on whether or not Jesus said the things attributed to him in the Bible. They have argued that the Gospel of Thomas ought to be taken more seriously.

Have any of you ever read the Gospel of Thomas? It's not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. In some places, it doesn't even make sense. For example, here's a quote from the very last part of the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (GoT 114)

Aren't you glad that didn't make it into the Bible? It seems a little weird, and it doesn't sound like anything Jesus says in the New Testament. This leads to the third criterion that was generally applied.

  • In order for a book to be included in the Canon of Scripture, it had to have widespread influence in churches both in Israel, in Asia Minor, in Rome and had to have continuous acceptance and use by the church at large.
It took some time, and there were a few books where the decision was very difficult, but the materials and Gospels that are included in the New Testament are the ones that fit these standards. One historian puts it like this: "None of the non-canonical gospels comes close in date of composition, breadth of distrubution, or proportion of acceptance."

So the idea that we have the New Testament gospels today because Constantine put them together in 325 AD for political purposes is wrong. By 325 AD when councils were pulled together to talk about important questions (which they sometimes were), in a sense they were formally recognizing the authority of these Scriptures that had already been guiding followers of Christ for centuries.

There is a lot of evidence of this. For example, more than 100 years before Constantine, a man by the name of Origen said, "The four gospels" -- and he goes on to name them -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- "are the only undisputed ones in the whole church of God throughout the whole world."

That's a quote from at least a century before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. A great New Testament professor by the name of William Barclay from Edinburgh wrote once, "It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so."

Now, as for this Council of Nicaea -- what exactly is that? That's what we'll talk about next.