Why Was the Bible Written -- And Why So Late?

November 19, 2015

Why was the Bible written? The Bible itself tells us very little. I don’t recollect any verse in which Jesus says to a disciple, “Simon, will you take notes today, you know, for the record?”

When I first came to know the Bible in my teens and 20s, it never occurred to me to wonder why the Bible had been written. Of course there was a Bible; it's what tells us the stuff we need to know to be Christians. I guess that was my attitude.

As a young man I came to understand there were two parts to the Bible, two testaments. The Old Testament (as we called it then) was the part written by the Jews that recounted their long history before Jesus was born. The New Testament, the more important part, was the part written after the Crucifixion, in the early years of the Church. So if it had occurred to me to ask why the Bible was written, I’d have had to give two answers, one about each part. I guess I thought it was obvious that people would want to keep track of that kind of stuff. What stuff? I guess I didn’t think about that either.

Gradually I came to understand that the Hebrew Testament had been written over many centuries by many different authors, but it didn’t occur to me to ask why there had been no additions to it for nearly two millennia. I was well into adulthood before I began wondering instead why there had been no recent additions to the New Testament, and long after that before I realized that the lack of interest by Christians in the post-Jesus history of the Jews was a terribly insufficient reason why the Jews hadn’t added to their own chronicles.

And so I drifted in confusion.

Reading Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant (Penguin, 2006) started me actively thinking about the writing and assembly of the Bible. It was Wills who first led me to understand that Paul’s letters were written before any of the four Gospels even though the Gospels are placed first in the New Testament. I realized I had no warrant for thinking I knew anything about what Paul knew of Jesus other than what his letters say. About the letters Wills also says “They are occasional writings, fired off to deal with local crises” (p6). Wills makes sense of Paul’s letters by sketching the predicaments in the early Christian communities Paul was trying to address. Of course, I realized; that makes sense why those were written.

But if that was why Paul’s letters were written (and when), why were the Gospels written? And why were they written so long after the death of Jesus? Understanding Paul better made the Gospels more problematic for me. I had been focusing on why nothing in the New Testament was written after about 100 or 150 CE. Now a deeper puzzle dawned for me at least: why was there a few decades long pause between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels? And more important, what does that pause tell me about why the Gospels were written?

If it was important to have a careful account of the life, ministry and death of Jesus, why wasn’t such an account written at once: right after the Crucifixion, or right after Pentecost? Again, why the pause, and then why four separate, not altogether consistent accounts?

The pause before the Gospels were written is long enough that likely every eyewitness had passed from the scene. That would increase the risk of factual error. But it may also suggest a reason. Perhaps the first followers of Jesus expected His return to come quickly, within their lifetime. As the years passed and Jesus did not return in glory, perhaps the idea of pulling together an account of the extraordinary life, death and rebirth of Jesus occurred to one of his followers – or perhaps more than one.

That makes sense, but it doesn’t support the insistence that we view these accounts as the inerrant word of God.

I’ve just finished reading John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). He suggests another possibility, one that turns not only on recognizing that the Gospels were written as the last of the first generation of Christians were passing away, but also on recognizing that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE provoked a crisis in Judaism.

Most of the first generation of Christians, Spong urges us to remember, worshipped in and among Jewish communities. They weren’t set apart yet. They worshipped together and followed the same liturgy. There was tension in some of these communities between those who were especially drawn to Jesus and those who weren’t so much. And there were problems about how to integrate those Gentiles who were followers of Jesus. Garry Wills’s discussion of Paul’s letters reminds us again and again how much those letters are aimed to sorting out those problems between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus (did you need to be circumcised to follow Jesus, etc.).

Spong argues that the destruction of Jerusalem ruptures this uneasy connection between followers and non-followers of Jesus. The Jewish communities now have powerful motives to pull together and define their identity clearly without a Temple and despite diaspora. The nascent Christian communities, in turn, have to work out a liturgy that is just for them, that doesn’t simply presume the context of a Jewish liturgy with Torah reading at its center. Spong invites us to see each of the Gospels as successive efforts to create a lectionary for Christian communities that would anchor a new Christian liturgy. Before 70 CE, they didn’t need that; after, they did.

None of these gospels should be read as literal history, he argues. That mistakes their intent and purpose altogether.

The Gospel of Mark is the first of these, Spong argues, written just before 70 CE. He says, “Mark’s gospel is neither biography nor history so much as it is corporate memory, informed and affected by the Hebrew scriptures and organized according to Jewish worship practices” (p 86). Each of the subsequent gospels (written not along after 70 CE) attempts a somewhat different imaginative recreation of the experience of Jesus for those who could not have known Him in life.

Each of the Gospels, he spends the book demonstrating, deliberately drew on Hebrew Testament scriptures to connect the experience of knowing God-through-Jesus with earlier experiences of God breaking into human experience.

Literal history the gospels are not. Powerful they are as efforts to keep alive the experience of knowing Jesus long after the crucifixion.

[also posted on Riverview Friend]

Views: 1078

Comment by Howard Brod on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 12:23pm

Thank you Doug.  Beautiful and concise with much power.  This helps one to appreciate the New Testament writings as they were meant to be appreciated.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 2:11pm

Think liturgy and oral tradition, ritually recited & discussed in Christian synagogues

[== 'assemblies', not necessarily buildings for assembling until much later -- just whatever place a village or a minyan would come together to do their thing].

Not written down because most everybody was functionally illiterate, while scrolls were both expensive & difficult to reference. Scholars in a discussion would be working from memory of the text most of the time. The invention of the codex was changing that, but gradually, of course.

So the gospels existed in much the way that Homer's works existed

-- were written down later, as that became feasible -- and probably as a unifying, disciplinary effort, in much the same way & for the same reasons as Paul [and others in his name later] wrote letters.

Not literal history -- and not "eyewitness" either. Collective memory, some of it witnessed early in the formation of a group of Christians, & some of it hearsay. [Gossip and rumor are pretty effective communications systems in times and places when they're the only media available. Certainly more accurate than tv...]

Anyway, Jewish sacred writings did continue & do continue to this day: Talmud, Kaballah, Hasidic writings etc.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 7:56pm

Hi Doug:

I enjoyed reading your post.  But Spong's views are held only by  minority of scholars.  In fact, they are kind of fringe and eccentric.  There are a variety of interpretations regarding when, who, and why the New Testament was written.  Roughly they fall into three categories: 1)Early Daters, 2) Middle Daters, and 3) Late Daters.  The early daters see the NT as written before 70 A.D.; with the possible exception of Revelation.  The early daters are a minority but interestingly those who hold this position have both liberal and conservative views.  Middle daters usually think the first Gospel appeared about 50 to 60 AD, and everything else after that, on up to about 100 to 120 AD.  Late daters start the NT at about 70 to 90 AD.  The Middle Daters are the majority, but all three views have their adherents.  Personally, I am an early dater; but I realize that the other positions have their coherent defenders.  Nevertheless, I think that an earlier dating of the NT is the best explanation taking into account Christian history, the scriptural remains, the reports from early church histories, and the 3rd party reports.  Best wishes, Jim.

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 9:36pm

Here we go again!!!  Douglas Bennett: thank you for another provocative discussion topic!

You never did answer my question about which George Marsden book you referenced for your information on Biblical inerrancy.  I ran out of patience, and ordered *Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism*.  However, I discovered that some of his other books are also first-rate.  I had better not order any more until I finish UF&E.

I think Forrest provides some very good insights into the present issue you have raised.  It is very difficult for us to grasp information transmission and the role of writing two thousand years (or more) ago. Back then, people lived mostly in an oral (rather than written) information environment.  Even after the New Testament took shape, for many centuries it was communicated to most people through religious art and communal ritual.  Literacy was limited to a small portion of the church, and Biblical writings were not widely available before Gutenberg.  Most people did not own Bibles; they heard the Bible read during church services.

In ancient societies oral transmission of cultural knowledge was a highly developed art form.  Even in so-called primitive societies, stories were passed from one generation to the next with an accuracy we would find hard to imagine.

The idea that the gospels were "proclamation" rather than scholarly biography has been accepted for a century or more.  This is "old news."  After all, the gospel writers were not preparing Ph.D. dissertations!!  Their purpose was more nearly evangelistic.

I think Forrest is correct in claiming that Jewish religious writing did not end before the time of Christ.  I think that the canon of the Hebrew scriptures assumed final form only within a century or two of the beginning of the Christian era.  But Jewish scholarship and the religious writing (even of sacred texts, such as the Talmud) has continued.  Some of the most esteemed commentaries on the Torah were written in the Middle Ages.

For that matter, Christian interpretation of the Bible has continued, even to the present day.  The core of the New Testament was accepted as canonical from the early centuries post A.D., but there was controversy over which marginal books should be included for some time after.

John Shelby Spong is a fringe figure in modern scholarly dialogue.  Few responsible Biblical scholars would choose him as a credible authority on Biblical matters.

Thanks anyway for catalyzing another significant discussion about the Bible!

P.S. I keep wondering about how this impulse to record the stories of Biblical figures plays out in the later literary genre of Quaker ministers' journals.  

Comment by Doug Bennett on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 10:24pm

Howard, Forrest, Jim, William – thank you very much for these comments.

Jim – I’m just a reader, not a trained Bible scholar. The questions I have are ones that come to me as a seeker. However one dates the gospels and letters of the New Testament, the question remains for me why the various materials we have were not put in written form for at least a few decades after Jesus’s death.

William – You’ve made a good choice in Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. His other works are excellent, too.

All –I find Spong a marvelous preacher. I always come away from hearing him with fresh understandings and more questions.  Whatever one makes of Spong’s scholarship, in the large, he is thinking about questions that interest and concern me. If we accept that the gospels first took shape orally and were told and retold until written down, I still wonder about the underlying coherence of each, each a different coherence, and wonder, too, about what I can discern about the purposes for which they were given the shape they took. That’s not a scholarly question at bottom so much as a seeker’s question. 

Perhaps it’s obvious to the four of you but I have deep concerns about the Biblical inerrancy (yes it takes various forms) that has been oozing into Quaker meetings.  I’ve been a member of meetings in Philadelphia, North Pacific, Indiana, New Association and now New England Yearly Meetings. My travels for Earlham took me to many other yearly meetings across the geographical and theological spectrum of Friends.

Insistence on Biblical inerrancy, I find, leads to more further problems than whatever solidity it promises. I was drawn to worship among Friends many decades ago by the insight that I could try to know God in the present, with little mediation of minister or Bible. Still, I find the Bible a remarkable collective journal of the seekings of many earlier seekers, and I see this same posture in various ways in earlier Friends. I want to understand what to make of this this book so that I can draw from it as best I can. 

 I appreciate your various contributions. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 19, 2015 at 11:52pm

"Inerrancy" is kind of an odd concept, given that there probably never was an "original copy" of any of the gospels... in the sense of a prototype which subsequent copies might have drifted from.

People would come together, pray, recite-&-discuss "the gospel", which would vary slightly from place to place and from occasion to occasion. The core material would be preserved pretty conservatively, but if there never was any "The" Book of Luke, which copy would have been 'inerrant'? All of them?

The coherence (and the variation) both result pretty naturally from the method of transmission, in that there was coherence and mutual-correction in people's understanding of the material.

Different emphases, different meanings drawn by different 'readers' on different occasions -- That's inevitable; people are going to draw different meanings from the same story or the same saying depending on what circumstances are impacting their lives at the moment, even when they're reading from a fixed text. Different people reducing 'the Gospel' to writing likewise had different contexts in mind and produced different 'books' -- but saying roughly the same.

I harassed a Biblical scholar once re the reasons for late-dating. The chief rationale seems to be: that Mark is likely the first written, and contains a prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed, as it in fact was in the AD 70 revolt. Now if you believe that Jesus 'couldn't possibly have known,' if you believe the explanation has to be "prophecy after the fact," that puts Mark around AD 70. "Any other reasons?" I asked. None he could tell me.

Spong is good for pointing out holes in the traditional ideas of Christianity's origins -- but he throws in too much "must have thought", ie ~"What those primitive, unsophisticated early Christians 'must have felt' and why they 'must have thought' something else really happened." Um, not much room for "They thought this because this actually happened", which given the power of God is not so unlikely. [This doesn't mean that they always got it right, or that there wasn't a certain amount of drift to stories and quotations -- or that they didn't have their own versions of "must have" leading them to 'correct' a passage here & there. Matthew sending Jesus into Jerusalem riding two animals at once, 'a donkey' and 'a colt', comes to mind.]

Anyway, all of this is very intriguing and mystifying to me; and I still consider it important. I hope you too continue in the pleasure of discovering more!

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 20, 2015 at 8:01am

Forrest:  I get the impression from your account that the four gospels were "originally" composite accounts of the life of Christ.  This seems somewhat implausible to me, although Mark is often treated as the "template" for the other two synoptic gospels, as far as I know.  What are your sources for this "composite " approach?  And, what reason is there for assuming that it would be equally true of all four gospels.

I haven't looked up the texts for the "donkey"/"colt" references, but "donkey" and "colt" could easily refer to the same animal; couldn't they?

Whether or not your explanations of Biblical origins are true, they are certainly interesting to ponder!

Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 20, 2015 at 9:52am

In Hebrew poetry -- such as Zechariah's lines:

"Behold, your king comes to you;triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass."

will typically feature paired lines carrying related meanings (clearly enough in the example.) Yet the transcriber of this 'most Jewish' gospel seems unaware of the conventions of such poetry -- the clearest example I know of how 'prophecy' frequently replaced 'factuality' in this gospel.

When somebody wrote down a gospel, that would be his version. When someone recited a gospel (both before and well after the actual writing down) that would be his version -- for that occasion. A local composite would be preserved precisely because those present knew it and could continually correct anything too divergent.

'John' is pretty clearly the work of one author with probably some editing by himself or some scribe he'd given or dictated the material to. But that's the most unhistorical of the gospels, most clearly a tendentious summary &  development of the meaning of the gospel everyone knew, which presumably was known because it had been conveyed to them in that 'composite' way.

Quite a few of Horsley's recent books are precisely on this point [and you can dig through his bibliographies if he doesn't belabor the point sufficiently); there's also _Jesus and the Spirit : A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament by Dunn, James D. G., 1939- which I think also went into the difficulties of assuming a 'prototype' text for most of that. Coherence + diversity is precisely what you would expect from 'group memory' as the means of transmission, particularly in a case like this where what you're going over is sacred to the members... I suspect what they did was in fact similar to what I participated in at P'nai Or, each week a different leader's improv on that week's 'portion' of the Torah -- which they, like other observant Jews, read through each year and with discussion of that week's chunk -- the main difference being that the modern group has literacy as a backstop.

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