In my last article, I talked about the history of the Hebrew Bible, from its beginnings in the legends and propaganda of the Canaanites to its eventual form as the holy scriptures (but not a single book) of the Jewish religion. This time, I am going to talk about the New Testament.
Once again, I must stress that I am not attempting to provide any academic scholarship of my own here, merely an overview of current opinion designed to spark interest. As always, there is active debate about much of this, and I would encourage those interested in more detail to read up on the subject further rather than taking what I say as (if you excuse the pun) Gospel.
Part 2: The Writing of the Bible – The New Testament
Unlike the Hebrew Bible, which was written and compiled over a almost a millennium, the vast bulk of the New Testament was written over a much shorter period of time – about a century and a half, from the mid 1st Century to the end of the 2nd Century. Much like the traditions about Moses writing the Torah, there are strong traditions about the writers of the New Testament books. These traditions are usually little more than just tradition, but they are often taken for granted.
One of the biggest questions regarding the New Testament, particularly regarding the Gospels, is that of the nature of Jesus. Was he a real person? If so, how much of the biographical detail in the Gospels is correct? Did he actually say what the writers of the Gospels claim he said? Are the stories of miracles mere exaggerations? Or descriptions of the actions of a successful charlatan and faker? Or merely stories with no basis in historical reality? In truth, many of these questions are now unanswerable. We can only talk in terms of probabilities and possibilities – or in terms of faith, not in terms of proof.
Circa 40 CE: Collected Wisdom sayings
At this time (or slightly later), an individual or group in the vicinity of Galilee writes down the collected sayings and wisdom of one or more itinerant preachers or philosophers. Some of this wisdom has clear influence from the Cynic school of philosophy; other parts are more eschatological in nature – talking about the coming “Kingdom of God”. Whether these sayings were from a single individual or a whole group of teachers is impossible to say, but if they are from a single person then this person is the closest we have to an historical “Jesus” – although we do not, of course, know whether that was actually the person’s name. We no longer have any copies of this document, although the text of the sayings is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Because this document is inferred to be the source of the sayings in Matthew and Luke, it is called the “Q” document (which stands for “Quelle” – the German for “source”).
Circa 50-60 CE: Paul the letter writer
Meanwhile, a small sect or cult is growing up around the Mediterranean. One prominent member called Paul – who claims to have had some kind of revelatory experience from God – starts writing letters to the heads of the sect in other cities giving them advice, often arguing with them over theological matters, and generally acting as one of the de-facto leaders of what is growing to become a fully fledged religion. The letters written by Paul that we have include those to the groups in Corinth (1 and 2 Corithians – although since 1 Corinthians mentions a previous letter to them these numbers are somewhat misleading), Philippi (Philippians), Ephesus (Ephesians), Galatia (Galatians) and Rome (Romans). These letters – which seem clearly intended to be read aloud to the congregations as teaching aids rather than being personal letters to the leaders of the groups – form the backbone of the New Testament and indeed of Christianity itself.
Interestingly, these letters include none of the sayings associated with Jesus and no indication that Paul knows anything about his life. While there are a few references which may be indicators that Paul is referring to a flesh-and-blood Jesus, there is no indication that he is talking about someone who actually physically lived in Judea a couple of decades ago. Indeed, when he needs to make theological points such as those about dietary laws he ignores Jesus’s explicit teachings on the subject and instead quotes the Hebrew Bible for support for his viewpoints.
This apparent lack of biographical knowledge about Jesus, coupled with similarities between Paul’s rather mystical and spiritual worldview (focussing far more on the “Holy Spirit” than on Jesus’s life) and the spiritual views of his Hellenistic contemporaries (Paul was from Tarsus – in modern day Turkey now, but part of the Hellenistic world at the time) is unusual to say the least. The religion of Paul and his contemporaries has its emphasis on direct divine revelation as a source of truth rather than word-of-mouth news that has passed from eyewitnesses to events and people who have heard Jesus speak. Indeed, the whole preaching career of Jesus seems irrelevant to Paul. Only the spiritual sacrifice is relevant. It is clear that Paul’s religion is a far cry from modern Christianity.
When reading in the traditional order – with the Gospels first and then Paul’s letters – is seems obvious that Paul is talking about the person that one has just been reading about the life of. When read in chronological order, though, where Paul’s letters come first without the Gospels having “set the scene” the ambiguity and lack of reference to any biographical details of his Christ are much more apparent.
His apparent ignorance of the biographical details of Jesus’s life is one of the main points of support that proponents of the “Jesus Myth” theory (the theory – albeit a minority one – that there was no historical Jesus and that Christianity started as a purely spiritual religion) have.
Circa 65-80CE: The first Gospel
Around this time, someone in an unknown location wrote the Gospel of Mark. It is not known where this person lived, but given the abysmal knowledge of Palestinian geography displayed by the routes that the author claims Jesus took at various times he clearly didn’t live there.
The anonymous author of the Gospel (the name “Mark” is just tradition) talks of a human Jesus who walked around Galilee, and is the earliest work we have that provides such biographical additions to the story. By writing this Gospel, the author has combined the spiritual Christ of Paul’s religion with a story of a local teacher giving out wisdom similar to that collected in the Q document.
Interestingly, we seem to see a development in theology here. Although Mark gives Jesus an explicitly earthly existence, he gives no details about his life before his baptism and preaching career, and the baptism scene itself implies that he only becomes special and becomes the Son of God at that point when the spirit descends (in the form of a dove) into him. This seems to indicate that the author’s beliefs were those of an Adoptionist (a belief – later declared heresy – that Jesus was God’s son only by adoption, and not by divine conception and virgin birth).
Similarly, originally the Gospel of Mark ends with no resurrection and no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It has Jesus cry out on the cross and “give up the spirit” (the spirit that descended into him at his baptism) and then die and get buried. Again, this fits more with the theology of Paul’s more spiritual religion than with modern Christianity.
It seems to be a development from Paul’s purely (or almost purely) spiritual theology where there is no biography for a human Jesus and it is not entirely clear whether Paul even believed that there was one, into a theology where a purely spiritual Christ descends into a purely human Jesus at his baptism and then leaves as it experiences his death.
Whether Mark thought he was writing about a real person, or whether his story of Jesus was supposed to be didactic allegory in nature rather than historical biography, we cannot tell. Similarly, if he was talking about the Q teacher, it is not clear whether he believed this teacher to be the person that Paul’s Son of God was based on or whether he was consciously combining the two traditions – Paul’s spiritual (and possibly human) Christ and Q’s teacher – into one like a modern New Ager combining Native American Shamanism and European Tarot to produce an amalgam which satisfies them spiritually.
Circa 80-120 CE: More Gospels and theological development
Within a couple of decades of Mark’s Gospel being written, we get to the writing of another couple of Gospels – those of Matthew and Luke. Again, these names are only traditional, the works themselves are anonymous.
These both clearly base themselves on Mark’s gospel, but both add many extra sayings and teachings to Jesus from the Q document. Since the Q document does not contain context for much of the teachings – only the sayings themselves – both authors add their own contexts which are sometimes mutually exclusive and involve Jesus making the same speech in multiple places.
By this stage, the Son-of-God-as-a-human theology has become well established, regardless of whether the first Christians believed that – and both Gospels add two important elements to the Jesus story: they both provide a story of a divine impregnation and virgin birth (an essential element in most saviour stories), although unsurprisingly (since both of them are writing about a century after the alleged events) both of them give mutually contradictory dates for this, and rather than just end on an empty tomb, both give stories of Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to various people.
Circa 90-200CE: Internecine squabbling and pseudoepigraphy
By now, the Christian church is getting well established, although there is a wide variety of beliefs ranging from the purely spiritual Docetists who believe that there was no human Jesus, just an illusion of one (by now the Gospels have been around long enough that even those believing in a purely spiritual Christ seem to accept that there at least appeared to be a human Jesus) through to Adoptionists at the other side believing a purely human Jesus and a separate spiritual Christ.
As the religion grows, there is much squabbling between the various groups – the writings of the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus are testament to that. All the groups are trying to claim that they are the True Christians and that the others are all deluded at best and evil at worst (just like many of today’s groups still do, of course).
In order to support their claims, many of these groups either edit existing scriptures to match their theology (such as the insertion of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – the famous “Unequally Yoked” passage – into one of Paul’s letters) or simply writing new letters and claiming them to be authentic.
Indeed, during this period there are myriad Gospels (including: Gospel of John – the only other one included in the Bible, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of the Saviour, and many others) epistles (including: James, 1-3 John, 1-2 Peter, Jude, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus – all of which are included in the Bible, and many others) and apocalypses (including: Apocalypse of John – included in the bible as “Revelation”, Apocalypse of Paul, two Apocalypses of Peter and two Apocalypse of James) none of which are by who they claim to be by and all of which are attempting to push the theology of one group or other as the theology of the founders of the religion.
200CE-400CE: Less writing, more arguing
Although there is still the occasional new book written, such as the blatantly fake “Acts of Pilate”, by now it is getting harder to pass off new books as being authentic. However, many of the earlier fakes have been around for so long that it is no longer clear (if it ever was) which books are fakes and which are genuine.
By this stage, the conflicts between the competing sects of Christianity are more political than theological, and this culminates in the Nicene Creed in 323CE (followed by the Constantinople Creed in 381CE) which officially defined which subset of Christianity would be considered orthodox and which subsets (i.e. all others) would be considered heretical.
At the start of this period, there was no fixed canon – people simply disagreed over which of the books written over the past couple of hundred years were genuine and/or authoritative. We have little information about how quickly a single canonical set was agreed on, but within three years of the Constantinople Creed Damasus’s Latin Vulgate Bible was first produced, and that contained the standard list of 27 books that we are familiar with today. In 405, Pope Innocent I ratified this canon of 27 books officially.
Next month I will discuss the translations of the Bible, and how the Bibles we have today are related to the ancient texts.