Over the next few weeks, we are discussing big questions about the Bible. We will be adapting our sermons for this blog. This is part two of our sermon series, "Questions About the Bible".
Where do we begin to tell the story of how the Bible has come to us? First, we need to remember the order of how God’s revelation has always come to us:
- God Reveals Godself to the world, not just in written word, but in living word [God shows up in person]
- A people interpret this activity within their own history, their language, their own religion, their own family systems, their own political climate, their own socioeconomic standing, their own healthcare needs
- And then they tell the story of this divine and personal encounter – (and they called it good news).
They literally told stories. Both the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and what has become New Testament scriptures (and the Gospels specifically) began as Oral Tradition.
Now it is difficult for us to imagine what it feels like to be in an oral culture, because we read constantly. We imagine Oral Tradition like the telephone game we played as kids: Tell one person something, then in secret they tell the next person on and on. When it gets to the end, it’s a completely different result.
But that’s not how an Oral Culture worked. An oral culture was a story-telling culture. And everyone was involved in the story telling. And in our culture today, we are still surrounded by stories. Movies. Books. Events. Songs. All of these contribute to our story telling.
Some of you immediately picture these faces when you hear, “Shut up, Beavis.”
Or, “I’m not really superstitious. But I am a little stitious.”
And I would argue that even though we are not an oral culture, we are still shaped by story telling. It’s how we remember things down to the last word. During my sermon last week, I said these three words: “In West Philadelphia…” and two women on the front row immediately jumped in with the rest of the words to the theme song from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
You can tell the story of the Kennedy Assassination, the British invasion, parts of the “I Have a Dream” speech, or 9/11. And my guess is, you didn’t read it. You first heard it, or witnessed it, and then you told and were told the stories over and over again. This is the nature of Oral Tradition and in a culture that could ONLY communicate through spoken words – it is easy to see that, as they claimed God’s revelation to them in their times of joy, trial, rebellion, and exile, that they would tell stories and sing songs about it.
THE OLD TESTAMENT (THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES): A VERY, VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Most experts believe that the oldest stories in the Book of Genesis come from Israel’s faith traditions during the days of Moses (13th Century BC). Then a substantial portion of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were a part of Israel’s oral tradition for three or more generations before they were fixed in written form.
This process of “canonization” (canon= reed or stalk, rule or standard of measurement) was not finalized until around AD 100. But once this was done, Judaism took special care in preserving these documents. The scribes (like ancient experts) followed very specific rules when copying these manuscripts.
To the best of their ability, scholars have sketched out this timeline of canonization for the Hebrew Scriptures:
400 BC -- Books of the Law/ Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) were seen as the authoritative Scriptures of Judaism. Perhaps it was because of Ezra, who read and established the law after the Jewish exiles were allowed to come home in the 5th century. (You can read about this in Ezra and Nehemiah).
200 BC -- Judaism accepted and canonized the Former and Later Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zephaniah, Malachi) as authoritative.
30-95 AD -- Some of the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Esther, Job) were considered sacred scripture early in the first century AD and official endorsement was given to all 39 OT books by the rabbis at the Council of Jamnia in AD 95.
These are the texts that influenced Jesus of Nazareth. But not only that, it appears that Jesus understood his own vocation and identity in terms of the Hebrew scripture. In other words, Jesus was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures and understood his own role within salvation history through the reading.
They were also the books that were used in worship in the early church. To Jesus, Paul, John Mark, and Peter these 39 books, were Holy Scripture. They were the authoritative and inspired written word of God – telling a portion of God’s work in a vast salvation history.
When Paul writes to Timothy and says, “The scriptures are God breathed and are useful for teaching, training, rebuking, and correcting…” he is talking about these 39 books! None of the NT writers considered what they were writing as Holy Scripture.
None of them set out to write the Bible! And yet, they wrote what we now have as holy Scripture. How did that happen?
THE NEW TESTAMENT (THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES): A VERY, VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Again, the people who witnessed and experienced the work of God in Jesus told their stories again, and again, and again. Eventually however, people began to write down some of these stories in order to have a keep a proper account of the events, like Luke:
1 ”Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. (oral tradition) 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
--The Gospel According to Luke 1 (NIV)
When Luke says, “many,” that is exactly what he means. MANY! Lots and lots of people attempted to and did write down the events as they saw them. But eventually, 27 texts emerged as authoritative. Now, this wasn’t done willy-nilly. In fact, like the Old Testament, there was a process that took place over time.
The earliest form of putting together a “canon” (a list of authoritative books) was that of Marcion (85 -160). But Marcion wasn’t a great person for this job. He liked Paul but he hated Jews (so he didn’t include the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or John – they were Jewish); hated the God of the Old Testament – so he did his own cut and paste, dumped the Old Testament, and took the letters of Paul that he liked. And like a sound bite being taken out of context, he ended up creating a whole new theology of Jesus Christ (Christology).
Eventually, he was seen as a heretic yet he forced the church to think about where they really stood and how to tell the story in a faithful way. So, in response to Marcion and the dangers of poor theology – the Church responded, wanting to get it right! They understood that bad theology is very, very dangerous, and that making sure to tell the story right is very important. So they began the process of trying to get it right.
They would consider inclusion in the canon by going with the “rule:” they would wait, pray, and think. They asked questions: Was this written by an eye witness or was there consultation with an eye witness? Does the message of this text line up with apostolic truth (is the message consistent with what the Apostles saw and talked about)? Do the churches (everyone) use this text in worship and is it accepted in the churches?
Over the course of several hundred years of praying and asking these questions, the 27 books of the New Testament were established as authoritative canon:
- AD 180 -- Irenaeus (Wrote Against Heresies) narrowed the collection to the four Gospels.
- A few decades later, the early church father Origen made three lists: authoritative texts that must be included (this was the general makeup of today’s NT); disputed texts that may not be authoritative; and heretical/ unorthodox texts that should be totally rejected.
- By A.D. 200, 21 of the 27 books were clearly recognized as being Scripture.
This is a simply amazing thing – the church in its first 200 years had expanded greatly, the people were under severe persecution, and these texts were collectively agreed upon and preserved with diligence and care. Some even gave their lives to protect these books – not because it was the book they worshipped, but because the story was essential and needed to be preserved! As cultural and theological issues would arise, the church would live with the three categories of Origen (accepted, disputed, rejected). By the close of the fourth century the Church made an official statement – declaring and affirming that these 66 were the canonized texts of Holy Scripture.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Egg heads like me really like doing the historical work of this process - it is interesting to me. But in a world of chopped up sound bites, talking heads, and 140 character statements, I’d like to argue that it’s not just interesting.
The Church believed that this was the story of How God intends to save the world. All of it. All 66 books. It wasn’t put together flippantly. The stuff that is easy to understand and the stuff that is difficult.
It’s necessary for our survival to understand and pour over how we got here. Without knowing our history or the stories that shape who we are, we cannot live into that which we are called to be.Jesus understood his own identity and vocation within these sacred pages – how dare we think that we can find our identity and vocation if we avoid them?
Scripture identifies God’s activity in the past, to help us recognize God’s activity in the present, so we can move into the future with God. It’s a big story we’ve been given, and a big story we’re invited into. Let’s dig in.