Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
November 19, 2015
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]