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Archive for the tag “New Testament”

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

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Difficult Passages: 1 Corinthians 11 (part 3)

So over the past two weeks, I’ve looked at the difficult passage of 1 Corinthians. Most of the time spent on it is focus in the first half, which last week and the week before addressed. This week, though, I’d like to examine the latter half: verses 17-34.

What seems to be the issue of difficulty is not the instruction, necessarily, but the penalty for failing to keep it. Specifically I want to address the passage beginning in verse 27:

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

Is God that concerned with the liturgy of the ordinance (or sacrament) that he would punish people by sickness and death? Well, sort of. It seems, as in most of 1 Corinthians, that the issue is not the external worship, but rather the unity of the Church. As in the first half of the verse, Paul is telling the Corinthian Church that our worship should look different from the surrounding culture.

The pagan temple and emperor worship of Rome often included a drunken feast. There was a bit of “oneupmanship” as people tried to show themselves better than others by throwing more lavish feasts. Clearly, social distinctions were maintained, though, and the wealthy only invited other wealthy persons. It seems that prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist or Communion, they are essentially the same) a big supper was held. This may have been because when Jesus initiated the practice, it was at the end of the Jewish Passover meal, and the Jewish Seder can put many an American Thanksgiving to shame. At any rate, this meal, often termed a “love feast,” seems to be where the drunken gluttony was occurring, while many of the poorer persons went hungry

For Paul, however, the concern is not necessarily the exact liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, but that certain people failed to “discern the body.” The body, in this instance, clearly refers to the Church. They had taken what should have been an act of worship, and turned it into a divisive and prideful activity. This was the problem. Even today, then, it seems whenever we shift worship to an occasion to distinguish ourselves, and possibly even when we eat without considering those unable to eat as plentiful a meal as we are, we are failing “to consider the body.” The Church is intended to be God’s Kingdom on earth. Because of that, we should be focused on the benefit of each other and the glorification of God.

What do you think?

And do you have a difficult passage you’d like to see covered?

Sidenote: it is possible to read verse 30 as a rhetorical question “Is it for this reason [this drunken, gluttonous division] that many of you have been afflicted, injured, or killed?” Possibly reminding the Corinthian church that their past persecution, which may have resulted in temporary pain, long lasting injury, or death, was for the sake of unity and Worship of God, not self-glorification. However, the verbal order does not make this the most likely rendering. Still, it is possible (and certainly not too bizarre a rendering). Part of the difficulty of pre-modern Greek is the lack of clear punctuation

Where did our Bible come from? Part 11: Inspiration of Scripture

This is part of a series. Click here for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, especially because it has been a while and you might like a review.

So when I left off the series I had given five of the six major criteria the early church had for determining canonicity. These were not criteria that were arbitrarily selected, but upon examining those writings that unquestionably functioned as Scripture, they noticed these criteria in common and they were held exclusively by these canonical Scripture. While books outside the canon may have held one or even a few of these criteria, only those within the canon held them all. However, the one criteria that only Scripture held and all Scripture held is the final, and most important, criteria: Inspiration.

The word “inspiration” is used in a variety of ways in our world today, so perhaps we should be more clear about what we mean. As best as I can tell there are seven ways that inspiration can be used to talk about the bible, six of which assume some sort of divine place and one of which does not. We might think of them as on a scale. I’ll list them below with the top assuming that God is the sole author of the writing and the bottom assuming man is the sole author of the writing. I’ve given them the standard label in theological language here and discuss them below.

1)    Dictation

2)    Verbal Plenary

3)    Dynamic

4)    Neo-Orthodox/Witness view

5)    Spiritually Illuminated Human

6)    Limited Inspiration

7)    Just Inspiring

Now, I should mention that there can be a significant amount of overlap between some of these groups. I also think that one can be perfectly justified in saying different sections of scripture were inspired differently, at least with the ‘dictation’ view. Let me explain. It seems pretty clear that portions of the Torah, the first five books of the bible, were dictated from God to Moses, who spoke with God face to face. Still, it seems unlikely that the same could be said for other portions of Scripture, such as some of the psalms, where the writer is asking God to do rather ungodly things (“Happy be they who dash their infants heads against the rocks”). Still, even with that diversity, I’d maintain that the early church stayed in the top part of that list, and that the contemporary church would do well to do the same, or else risk losing any real sense of authority beyond itself. Let me briefly explain each of these views.

The dictation view states that God wrote the Scripture in its entirety and the human writer functioned merely as a sort of Scribe.

The verbal plenary view states that God fully inspired every word of Scripture completely. It is sometimes taken to the extent that it was inspired beyond what would have been possible for the human author to have known, particularly in stretching to areas beyond theology. For instance the view that Genesis 1 is not only saying something theologically, but is also saying something about history and science is an example of a verbal plenary view of inspiration.

The dynamic view of inspiration indicates that the human author and divine author have a kind of partnership; not in the sense that each does a portion, but that the Holy Spirit works together with the human author to produce something unique to both.

The neo-orthodox view makes an interesting move. Associated largely with Karl Barth (though arguably going back as far as Martin Kähler), this view says that the written Scripture we have is not, itself, the Word of God. Instead the Word of God is God’s activity in history. As such, Scripture is merely the witness to the Word of God and not the Word itself. Jesus is the Word of God. Divine action is the Word of God. Even preaching may function as the Word of God. It is for this latter reason that this theology also began to be called ‘kerygmatic theology.’

The spiritually illuminated view of inspiration is the position that inspiration just means that the human author received some additional divine insight, but that the writing (scripture) is still essentially human.

The limited inspiration view is the position that only some areas of scripture can really be described as inspired and much likely isn’t inspired divinely.

The final view is a non-religious view. It simply states that if something is somehow uplifting it is, therefore, inspired.

As I’ve said, it seems best to keep to the top half of the list, but I wanted to put all these views out there so that you were informed (if you hadn’t been). What do you think? Do you think we should only keep to one particular view of inspiration? Which one?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 8: The Diatessaron

Ok, I’ve been bad, really bad, about keeping up with blog posting. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy. Unfortunately, I’ve been busy writing the sort of stuff that probably wouldn’t work to well in a blog post (I doubt anyone (or more than a handful of people) wants to read a 25,000 word piece about German idealist philosophers and their impact upon the continental theology of a later German theologian’s idea bout contingency). That said, I hope to get back into blogging on trains and such. To be honest, though, I may still be a bit patchy the next couple weeks, but I will make an effort to at least get two posts a week out (maybe getting back to three). Today, I’m going to briefly make mention of the Diatessaron, which really drove home the point that the church needed all four distinct gospels, not a single harmony, and then next time (whenever that is) try to move towards a slight conclusion as to what the probable criteria was for determining which books were, in fact, Scripture. Following that, I may say something about translation and the use of the bible today, but we’ll see.

The Diatessaron

If you want to review (hey it’s been a while) feel free to click back to other posts in this series. Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Last time I made mention of the first attempt to bring about a single gospel. Marcion’s purpose, however, was a malicious one. He sought to expunge any evidence of the Old Testament from the bible and so simple cut out those parts that didn’t match his worldview. He tried to shape the Word of God, rather than be shaped by it. Because of this, he was one of the earliest heretics of the early church. Please note that he was not considered a heretic because the views he held were mistaken (which they were), but because he refused any correction and actively sought to convert others to his mistaken view at the cost of unity to the church. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the more “virtuous” attempt to produce a single gospel: The Diatessaron.

Between rough 150-175, the Diatessaron was produced by Tatian, who was a Christian Apologist (the group who came right after the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers). I say that the Diatessaron was a “virtuous” attempt to produce one gospel because Tatian’s motives were not to divide the church, nor did he want to edit out parts of the text that didn’t fit his worldview. Instead, he attempted to blend together all four gospels into a single “harmony” of the gospels that could be read, chronologically, straight through. In doing so, he attempted to explain seeming contradictions. In a few places, however, he simply removed the seeming contradiction (he famously did not include the genealogies of Jesus from either Matthew or Luke. Still, of the four Gospels as they are accepted today, remarkably only 56 verses do not have a corresponding or analogous verse in the Diatessaron.

Rejection of the Diatessaron

While the Diatessaron was accepted in the Syrian until the early 5th century, the overwhelming majority of the church, though appreciative of it, rejected it as genuine Scripture. What was the reason for this rejection? While we can only speculate, we nevertheless have good reason to believe that the early Church felt that it was important to maintain the four unique perspectives on the Jesus event, warts and all. The “four winds” as they were often called, were important in their unique peculiarity. The church may have rejected the Diatessaron, but it did so primarily because it needed the authenticity, the “realness” of the four Gospels.

This should give us cause, on the one hand, to consider that these four gospels are likely what they say they are: namely historical accounts written by real people who were either themselves eyewitnesses, or who were in conversation with eyewitnesses of the Christ event. On the other hand, it should cause us to appreciate the gospels in their uniqueness. Why did Mark leave out things that Matthew and Luke thought important? Why does John seem to follow a wildly different chronology from the other three (and include completely different accounts of miracles)? Why does Matthew use the term “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God”? Why does Mark skip past the infancy of Jesus? And on and on the questions could go. The fact is, we have four unique accounts of what happened. While the general story is the same in all of them, they chose to tell it in different ways. Therefore, although all four have the same purpose (something akin to promoting faith in God and Jesus Christ), they each, nevertheless, seem to have distinct, not homogenous, purposes beyond that. The truth is, we have four, not one, and that is important.

Transition between this time period and the criteria

With regard to the rest of the New Testament, there were a lot of more minor shifts, and no major pronouncements until the canon was more or less identified. I mentioned in my first post on the New Testament some of the timing related to when certain books were accepted. It seems, though, that the recognition of the rest of the New Testament  occurred without much incident, at least compared to the acceptance of the four Gospels as four different Gospels. Next time, I’m going to look at some of the criteria that may have been used to determine which writings could be accepted as Scripture very early on, and what that means for us.

Where did our Bible Come from? Part 7: Marcion

This is part of a series. You can go back and read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 if you feel like you’ve missed something.

Emerging from Conflict

Last time I established the window during which the New Testament went from non-existence to formal acknowledgement of the 27 books we know as the canon. There I framed this process largely in terms of a response to Gnosticism (I’ll have to do a posts on the Gnostics at some point). In the comments a former classmate of mine noted that this category of Gnosticism might not be very helpful. While I agree that we should avoid viewing it as a monolithic group, and we should avoid too much of a dualistic distinction between them and Christianity, at least historically, I nevertheless still feel it is a valid and useful category. However, what this revealed was a presupposition that I had neglected to state from the beginning of my dialogue on the New Testament.

While I believe that the canon was formed and began to function as authoritative for one set of reasons, I believe that the formal recognition of this canon by the Church was due to an entirely different set of reasons. Essentially, it is my contention that the Church developed a formal recognition of the biblical canon in response to conflict.

To a certain extent, this makes sense. Think of morality. There are certain things we just instinctually know are wrong, things that make the blood boil: like murder. However, there are other things that are only wrong insofar as they lead to other wrongs. For instance, there is nothing in traffic regulations that makes obeying them inherently good or disobeying them inherently bad. However, their function in keeping other individuals safe is what makes them appropriate rules. In the same way, the gospel is Christ Jesus. That is he is inherently the person (and God) whom you put your trust in, follow, rely upon for salvation, and look to as a source of authority. There is nothing in particular words on a page that make them in favor of that or against that. However, in distinction from traffic laws, what we consider Scripture is not arbitrary. There is this thing, we call it inspiration, that Scripture has and non-scripture doesn’t (and so maybe there is something to these words on a page). So we don’t create the Scripture (as with traffic laws), but we identify what is Scripture. However, there is no need to distinguish between the two on a day to day basis if there is nothing else pretending to hold the same claim as Scripture: namely that it points to Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is only in the presence of conflict, when other people suggested limiting, adding to, or changing the Scriptures in such a way that they no longer pointed to Christ, that it becomes necessary to come up with a rule (greek: kanon, it’s the same word that we use for canon of Scripture) for determining what will count as Scripture.

So, while Scripture itself, being inspired, is distinct from other claims to authority, it is only in the face of conflict that there is a need to distinguish between what is actually Scripture and everything else. In the last post, I mentioned the conflict between what I consider the orthodox church and the Gnostic pseudo-church. However, it is likely that a large chunk of the New Testament began to be recognized as canonical in large part due to a very early controversy. Specifically, I’m talking about Marcionism.

The Marcion Controversy

While Eusebius claims that Marcion was a Gnostic (I should really do that post), this seems incredibly unlikely because, given what we can reconstruct from his critics, he would have had little tolerance for many of their myths. Still, given some other aspects of Marcion it is possibly an understandable mistake.

Marcion started out as a Bishop in the early church. However, he began to teach, and advocate, a very specific limitation of the biblical canon. Marcion seemed to believe that the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) was not the same as the Father of Jesus. Instead, he argued that the Old Testament God was a wicked God, who was vengeful, demanded bloody sacrifice, created the material world (which he believed was evil), and generally angry. He believed that the true God was the “unknown” or “alien” God who was different from the Old Testament God. Jesus’ resurrection, according to Marcion, proved that the God of Jesus was superior to the Old Testament God and that is whom we follow.

While most of this comes from his critics, most notably Tertullian, my homeboy (not really), we nevertheless have good reason to believe it is accurate. This is, in part, because the dualistic understanding of the world, like the Gnostics after him, is rooted in religious Platonism that was common during this time. And the exact same controversy that happened with Marcion occurred again in the tenth and thirteenth century.

In order to make the evidence better fit his vision, Marcion compiled the first canon of what he considered Christian Scripture. In it he included a single Gospel, most likely Luke’s Gospel, heavily edited to remove Old Testament references and (it seems) any of the birth narratives. Then he included ten of Paul’s letters (not the pastorals), also heavily edited. The Old Testament was completely removed. As a result of his teaching and his decision to limit the canon to these books, Marcion was told to stop teaching these doctrines and stop promoting this far too limited canon. He refused and became one of the earliest heretics, subsequently pushed out of the mainline church (often called the “proto-orthodox” church because Orthodoxy came to be associated with adherence to the Nicene Creed which had yet to be written). Rather than keep quiet, though, Marcion instead established his own church against the Christian church, though it eventually dwindled and disappeared, with almost all evidence of its existence being removed.

Oh, and all of this happened before 160 (around the time Marcion died)! That’s incredibly early. Marcion was likely born around 85, during which time the New Testament had either just been written (by the most conservative accounts) or was still being written down. I say this now so you don’t get the idea that the Christian church was going around for centuries without any clear decisions on canon, some of the earliest decisions had be made almost immediately after the writing of the New Testament.

The Reaction

In what is an incredibly rare occurrence, I find myself in (qualified) agreement with Bart Ehrman, along with other scholars. The majority of scholarship argues (rightly I think) that the Marcionite Controversy was probably one the most, if not the most, significant moment for identifying the New Testament canon. Ehrman is again likely correct when he identifies the story, circulated by Epiphanius, of Marcion attempting to “seduce a virgin bride” prior to his excommunication not as Christian slander (as other scholars had argued), but as a metaphor for Marcion trying to seduce the church (the virgin Bride of Christ) (don’t get used to my agreeing with Ehrman, it’s not likely to happen again). What this reveals is that the majority of the church, and not just bishops but congregants too, recognized that there was something wrong not only with Marcion’s theology, but with his canon.

The church decided a few things as a result of this. First, the Old Testament could not be dispensed with. It was, instead, integral and foundational to the understanding of God. Jesus was not preaching about a different God than the one in the Old Testament, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament and in relation with that same God as Son to Father. Jesus, and Paul, quoted the Old Testament at length, not to dispute it, but to affirm it and use it authoritatively, the Old Testament could not be expunged.

Second, the Church decided that they need all four gospels, as they were written. No harmony of the gospels that unified them into a single document would be appropriate. Keep this in mind, incidentally, when people point out any supposed “discrepancies” between the four gospels. The early church was not ignorant of these, but they neither considered them genuine contradictions, nor particularly troubling. What was important, it seems, was that all four voices (Gospels) were permitted to speak.

Third, the Church felt the early canon beyond the Old Testament and the Gospels should include more than just the ten letters of Paul that Marcion noted (and, if it is correct he included things like the letter to the Laodecians, we might be able to surmise that some of the letters where either considered inauthentic or inappropriate for the New Testament canon). Thus, while the four Gospels and the Old Testament were accepted, the Church was still trying to identify what else could validly be considered Scripture. This process we’ll keep talking about in the next post(s).

Sidenote: I’m going to skip talking in depth about the Ebionites, who would be the polar opposite of Marcion. In short, the Ebionites believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that all of Judaic law still remained. Thus they were essentially Jewish with a few Christian elements. As such they accepted the Old Testament, an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel, parts of James and (possibly) Hebrews in an edited form. I am not going to talk about them in depth because 1) very little beyond that is actually known about them (this may be due to the fact that they were even earlier than Marcion), 2) they were never really Christian, and were more likely Jews who were pushed to Jewish fringe (yet failed to accept the full gospel, and 3) they were never large enough to create the same level of conflict that Marcion did. Finally, they were rejected for essentially the same reasons that Paul gives for rejecting the Judaizers (see the Galatians series on this blog for more on that).

Things to Keep in Mind Today

Today, although most Christians outright reject Marcionism in name, they nevertheless function as followers of Marcion. Two-thirds of the bible is Old Testament, and, within the New Testament, slightly less than a third was written by Paul. Why, then, does the preaching in most churches limit itself largely to Paul, and when it does deviate from that it remains mostly in the New Testament. If we accept the full canon of Scripture we should preach all of it (pastors), and read all of it (everyone).

Second, theologically we need to avoid Marcion thinking as well. The Old Testament God and covenant is not in conflict with the New Testament. It is the same God, and he covenants with his people in much the same way (though obviously the incarnation changes that in a radical manner). If we ever find ourselves setting up a dichotomy between a God of grace and a God of works, we have failed to read the bible properly. Let me be very clear: God has always been a God primarily of grace. This grace has never negated the requirement for good works. Instead, the grace of God should always be understood as the foundation for all good works. Good works are neither superfluous, nor the way we receive grace. Instead we receive grace and that has the result in us of good works and seeking to maintain continued relationship with God.

What do you think: Do you sometimes find yourself slipping into the line of thinking of Marcion? What can be done to avoid this?

Where did our Bible come from? Part 6: The window for the development of the New Testament

If you’re just joining this series, I’m currently giving a rather lengthy answer to the question of how we ended up with the books that we consider the bible. Feel free to go to the home page and click back on the previous posts which introduce this concept, state why we don’t accept various other descriptions of canon, and gives some interesting tidbits about the development of the Old Testament. Today’s post now begins to talk about the New Testament. Once that is wrapped up, we’ll talk about the unity of the bible and then conclude with some final helpful tips.

Review

While the process of the canonization of the Old Testament was complex, we unfortunately know very little about that process (the same cannot be said of the New Testament). The only things we could definitively say were that the Torah was considered canonical very early on, likely just after its completion, and that by the time of Jesus what Protestants accept as the Old Testament had begun to function canonically, even if a formal pronouncement of canon had not yet occurred. In fact the genuine need to declare a set of books as canonical to the exclusion of others did not seem to arise anywhere in a definitive state until the fourth century among Christians (while the Jewish council of Jamnia was earlier, it is unclear that it actually had authority over other Jewish communities). The criteria for canonization seemed to be less a matter of date of writing and more a matter of function. Recall that the “writings” (Kethubim) was likely the last collection canonized, yet it spans the largest period of time. Arguably, Job is the earliest book in all of the Old Testament and Chronicles is the most recent. Eventually the text of the Old Testament eventually began to function as authoritative, probably due to the other criteria mentioned last time, without having the official approval on it as authoritative. This indicates something that we need to keep in mind about the early church: the need for a canon was less important than the actual content of the gospel, namely Jesus Christ who was God incarnate, died in our place, and was raised from the dead conquering all evil in this world with a great sense of finality.

The need for a canon is felt

However, by the time of the fourth century a number of other “gospels” and dubious epistles had begun to appear. The Gnostic sect of Platonism, which had taken that dualistic philosophy and sought to add some rather grand religious concepts to it, had decided that it would attempt to assimilate Christianity. This decision, which, like many other religious decisions, was likely less formal and more gradual, resulted in them taking some themes from Christianity, such as a focus on Christ as God, an emphasis on the evils of sin and (as a result of sin) the world as it currently operated, and the suggestion that there is a higher truth to the world to which most of those in the world are blind. However, to these themes the Gnostics subtly added their own, twisted theology: themes like the suggestion that creation is inherently bad (rather than temporarily fallen), that Christ was not really human, that there were multiple gods, and that salvation was really a matter of attaining a secret knowledge and not commitment to Christ as one person of the single God. As a result of this, it became necessary for the church to distinguish itself from the Gnostics who were preaching an incorrect and dangerous gospel. Since the Gnostics were subtly using the same language and terminology of Christianity, the clearest, easiest, and quickest way to distinguish this false gospel from the true gospel was to lay out a specific canon that limited which writings would be considered authoritative.

Keep in mind that, much like the Old Testament, the council which formally stated the 27 books we know as the New Testament did not establish the canon, but merely recognize those writings that already functioned as canon for the early church, and had arguably been functioning as canon from a very early period. Nevertheless it will be helpful to know the absolute end date for the decision that marked which 27 books would compose the New Testament.

Upper Limit

The latest possible date for any church would be around 508 for the Syrian church, who had only formally accepted 22 of the 27 before this date. However, most of the Church had accepted the 27 books of the New Testament by the time of the councils of Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397). Before this, church fathers Jerome and Augustine had already listed these books as canonical, but the earliest complete list we have comes from a letter by Athanasius in 367. Usually this type of study lists the “Eusebian Canon” which is a collection from a letter by Eusebius from the very early 300s. However, Eusebius was never the most trustworthy source and even his letter does not list the full 27 (Revelation is not mentioned, nor is the letter we know as Hebrews (though a different Hebrew letter was mentioned)) and includes other books not considered canonical (like the Apocalypse of Peter). However, the overwhelming majority of the New Testament is part of a list dating around 200 called the “Muratorian Fragment.” It is only a fragment and references two Gospels (not written in the fragment, but likely Matthew and Mark), Luke John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, 1 & 2 John and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) as being canonical. A little later, again in the 300s, Origen mentions essentially the full 27 books, but lists many of them as disputed (James, Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude). However, we do have a nice end date that suggests by the mid-300s, at the latest, the 27 books of the New Testament was essentially established.

Lower Limit

What about when the New Testament began to be written? We’ve established the upper limit on when these books were codified. What about the lower limit? The earliest of the written gospels is almost universally accepted to be Mark. While a handful date Mark as early as 50, it seems more likely that Mark was written sometime between the late 50s to the mid-60s. However, we have strong reason to believe that the  earliest New Testament writing is actually one of the Pauline epistles, very likely the first letter to the Thessalonians. While it could have been written as early as the late 40s, it is more likely to have been written sometime in the earl 50s. So, it is likely that by the 50s documents begin to emerge and be circulated that might be considered Scripture. It is also very likely that the writers of the New Testament understood that what they were writing was Scripture, a point that I’ll address in a later post. While we could also frame the question in terms of when the last New Testament book was written, that is a much more complicated, and less agreed upon, answer. Sometime between 70 and 150 the final New Testament book was written. Personally, I tend to set the dating for the final book as fairly early, with Revelation (generally, but not necessarily) considered the last book to be written by most, and the last book written prior to the close of the first century. The dating of Revelation essentially boils down to whether the persecution the church is undergoing would make more sense as that instigated by Nero, or the more sever, but later, persecution instigated by Domitian (since I accept an earlier date, I would lean toward Nero).

Conclusion

Nevertheless, we now have a window during which the New Testament went from unwritten to the authoritative 27 books we know today: from roughly 50-367. It seems the New Testament was both written, and considered authoritative, over a much briefer period of time than the Old Testament. While the Old Testament took shape over more than a millennium (if not two millennia), the New Testament took that same status over a matter of a couple centuries (if not merely a few decades). With that established, now we can begin to look more specifically at the development of this authority, starting with the Gospels, in the next post.

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