Session 3: Being Christian In The World We’re In
The earliest Christian Scriptures
For, among the very first things, I delivered to you what I had also received: that Christ died because of our sins, in accord with the scriptures, And that he was entombed, and that he was raised on the third day in accord with the scriptures, And that he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve. First Corinthians 15:3-5 (D.G. Hart translation)
This is the earliest preaching of the Christian church. St. Paul, who is the earliest writer in the New Testament is passing on the tradition which he received. Of all the layers of distinctively Christian scripture, it is the oldest. It says that 1) Jesus died for our sins 2) He was buried 3) God raised him on the third day. It emphasizes that the death and resurrection are in accord with scripture. 4) Jesus appeared to Peter and the Apostles.
Christianity emerged from Judaism. Jesus and all his disciples were Jews. For them, the Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus, his followers and most of the ordinary people of that region spoke Aramaic, a language of that region somewhat related to Hebrew. However a very large portion of the Jewish population lived outside of Palestine and spoke Greek. They used a translation of the scriptures known as the Septuagint. That name contains the word for seventy and refers to a legend that seventy (or more often, seventy-two) rabbis went into separate caves and each translated the entire Torah, or Pentateuch, without consulting one another, but when they emerged the texts were word for word identical. Hardly anyone accepts this story at face value today, but it served to give the Septuagint, including the other books of the Old Testament that were added later, authority that many regarded as equal to the Hebrew text. The Christians adopted the Septuagint as their Bible and used it in their worship and missionary work.
All parts of the scripture were used by the early Christians, but they most frequently referred to the prophetic book of Isaiah and the Psalms. Passages like Isaiah, chapters 52 and 53, which describe the Suffering Servant were key to early Christian interpretation and preaching about Jesus. Since Isaiah was an old book, if it was talking about Jesus, then the prophets would be predicting the future, right? That is how some understood this. However, the understanding of the scriptures was never that simple. Isaiah 52 tells how God rescues Israel from bondage and suffering, while taking that real suffering very seriously. “For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52:3) “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7) and “Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations.” The followers of Jesus saw the parallel of God’s action in Jesus’ suffering and resurrection—humiliation pointed to God’s ultimate salvation, through Jesus’ resurrection. The shift in the prophet’s words from the broad invitation to the nation to its personification in the figure of the suffering servant encouraged interpretation of the passage as referring to the suffering Messiah.
The application of old texts to new circumstances is not a Christian innovation, it’s the foundation of the teaching of the rabbis, and in fact it is how most sacred texts are interpreted in most religions.
The letters of Paul
The oldest Christian texts that we have are the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul was a rabbi who, at first, was one of the most zealous opponents of the followers of Jesus. Then he had an experience, which he describes as an appearance of the resurrected Messiah. It’s often described as his conversion, but when you look closely, he was not converted from one religion to another, rather it is described as being called, in very similar terms to the call of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. The thing is, as Paul understood it, the resurrection of Jesus changed the whole world, and spelled the imminent end of the present world. In turning everything upside down. God, in Christ, had invited all the gentiles, that is the non-Jewish people, to become grafted in to Israel. But this wasn’t by having them become Jews, but by having all those distinctions break down: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
The earliest of Paul’s writings are probably from the early 40’s CE, about a decade after Jesus was crucified and was raised from the dead. In Galatians, Paul gives an account that puts his call about 14 or 15 years before his writing that letter. His latest writings were probably in the mid to late 50s. There are some books of the New Testament that are attributed to Paul, but were probably not written by him that come from a later date.
Paul wrote letters. These were to address pastoral problems and controversies in the church. Those who think they have lived through harsh congregational controversies haven’t come close to what Paul went through with the church at Corinth. In ancient times, people around the Mediterranean Sea wrote on papyrus, which is a material sort of like a rough paper. It’s cheaper and easier to get than parchment made of animal skin, but it was nowhere near as plentiful as paper is for us. People would write or hire a scribe to write the things they wanted to communicate. If the writing was important, they might make a copy. People who really wanted to distribute their work might make a few copies and send them to different people. The distinction between a letter, an essay or a book were not as clear as people in the modern age, after printing was established, might think. A writing sent to a couple of people, had been published. Usually the composition was done carefully, since there was a time lag and the writing was costly in materials and labor. If you received a letter, you usually didn’t toss it in the trash, but shared it around with family or friends who might be interested. Paul wrote to congregations and those congregations kept his letters, re-copied them and shared them with other congregations. In all likelihood, the first Christian “scriptures” were a collection of Paul’s letters that was made in a congregation, re-copied and shared around. It is quite possible that the Epistle to the Ephesians or perhaps, to the Colossians was drafted by someone in the process of making this collection to pull together Paul’s thought, like a cover letter or executive summary.
We don’t know precisely how the early Christian communities used either the Septuagint or these letters of Paul. It is quite possible that an entire letter was read aloud at one seating. Scholars have traced the close relationship between early Christian liturgy and synagogue worship, they may have been virtually the same at the beginning, and then developed independently. Sharing of a meal was a common feature of early Christian worship and Paul discusses it several times.
One of the problems in understanding Paul, as well as any scripture, is that the world in which he wrote, and the problems which he addressed were so different from our own. I think the problem is worse for us with Paul, because he’s not so much telling stories with concrete images that we recognize as exotic, but addressing people’s beliefs and behaviors which we think we can recognize more easily. But the facts on the ground for Paul were much different: the entire economy was based on slavery, everyone knew slaves and slave owners; social relations and family relations were much different from our own, the legal status of men and women was much different than today.
Some people assume that Paul was a misogynist because of certain sentences that get quoted. I believe that the opposite is likely the case, the place of women in the churches in his letters is among the most egalitarian in the ancient world. Some of the sentences that get quoted are from letters written after Paul’s death, and the most problematic sentence in 1 Corinthians appears to be a later interpolation, since different manuscripts have it in different places and it interrupts the sense of the passage. In the churches that Paul founded women prayed and spoke in the church, but he said they should do so with their heads covered. This seems harsh and discriminatory in our culture, but in the modest culture of Paul’s experience, the lustrous hair of a woman was regarded as the chief beauty of her sex and elaborate hair-dos and so forth were a sign of high social and economic status, since it usually required slaves to accomplish them. The overall passage is about problems and divisions in the worship in Corinth where the wealthy or more influential looked down on the less elite and families were not sharing their food with one another at the church dinners. Paul was frequently dealing with Christians who behaved badly, even to the point of sexual abuse of one another. It is important to read carefully through passages of Paul’s letters and not to fix on isolated sentences without context.
Paul certainly believed things, and taught them, but he did not write abstract treatises. He was always discussing the Gospel in terms of the pastoral circumstances he was addressing and it is a mistake to cull through his letters for statements of pure doctrine apart from those contexts.
The part of the early Christian scriptures that is most familiar to most people are the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been reading in the liturgy this year, is the earliest of the four. It was probably written about 60, or a few years after the last of Paul’s writings. The bulk of Mark (and of the other three Gospels) is dedicated to the last week of Jesus’ life and his crucifixion and resurrection. It is likely that this story, known as the Passion, took shape over time in Christian communities before it was written in its present form along with the rest of the Gospel. Mark describes Jesus as a healer and exorcist who also taught and preached. There is very little in Mark of specific teaching content apart from Jesus’ healings, exorcisms and miracles. It takes about an hour and a half to read through Mark aloud, and the narrative is compelling.
The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular in the church, so it comes first in the New Testament. It has much of the language and story order from Mark, but has added quite a bit of teaching of Jesus, notably the Sermon on the Mount, as well as other sayings and parables of Jesus. Matthew has more attention to Jewish religious practices and beliefs than the other gospels and it begins with a genealogy linking Jesus with Abraham through David. It was probably written about 20 or so years after Mark.
The Gospel of John also has a very extended account of the Passion, but it is the one that is not based on the same text as Mark. There are very long discourses by Jesus and theological reflections. In John, in particular, the Samaritans take a major role. John is often referred to as the “spiritual gospel.” It was probably written near the end of the first century, but its relationship with the writing of the other gospels is hard to establish because its writing, and the community it emerged from is different from Matthew and Mark. There are three letters (1,2 & 3 John) that share much of the language and theology of this gospel as well as the book of Revelation. These likely came from related communities, but were not written by the same person.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are a two-volume work. It is probably the latest of the four gospels, likely from the early second century: 110-120 CE. It used to be thought that it was written at about the same time as Matthew, but it reflects responses to more later development and its historical accounts are less familiar with Palestinian geography and its accounts of Paul and the earliest church seem historically remote and idealized. In Luke the separation of Christians from Judaism is much further accomplished than in the other gospels. Luke has some of the best loved stories, including the birth narrative we remember and parables like the Good Samaritan that don’t appear elsewhere. Luke places Jesus in the center of world history and salvation, and concentrates, especially in Acts, on the mission to the gentiles. His genealogy of Jesus starts with Adam (at the creation).
The gospels emerged in different settings as fewer and fewer of the teachers of the church had exposure to Jesus or the earliest days of that proclamation that Paul passed on: “that Christ died because of our sins, in accord with the scriptures, And that he was emtombed, and that he was raised on the third day in accord with the scriptures, And that he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve.” It became more important to gather the sayings of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus and the accounts of the life of Jesus in order to explain and understand this proclamation.
The Canon of New Testament Scripture
Different communities of the earliest Christians lived in slightly differing circumstances, explaining what God had done among them in slightly varying ways. During the second century various documents were gathered and passed around the church. There were some that I haven’t discussed that came into the canon of scripture and a few others that some collections of the New Testament contained and others didn’t. By the end of the fourth century, in practice there was agreement about which books made up the New Testament, but it was only much later that formal decrees defined the canon of scripture.
Questions for reflection and discussion
- What is your image of Jesus? What is Jesus like to you?
- Paul’s letters were the first writings of the New Testament. When Paul wrote his Epistles (letters), he did not have the (written) Gospels to refer to. Reflect on and discuss the implications of this.
- Paul’s epistles in part addressed problems and questions in the early Christian communities. List some of the problems in Christian communities today. Do you think that some of those same issues are addressed by Paul? Discuss.
- Compare and contrast the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew (Mt. 1-2) and Luke (Lk. 1-2). What do you notice? Discuss the differences in the details based on what we know about the original reasons and communities for whom Matthew and Luke wrote.
- The Hebrew scriptures have a familiar theme of a person sent by God to free God’s people from oppression and exile (Egyptians, Babylonians, Seleucids, etc.) Based on these stories, describe the characteristics and expectations of a Messiah held by the people of Jesus’ time. How did Jesus’ life and message compare to those expectations?