from the Spring/Summer issue of Reflections magazine
by the Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson
I’ve heard that there were some really great writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament – why?
This question often seems to arise in the negative, as here, whereas the process for the formation of the New Testament was really more a result of positive choices. It began from the ground up, as congregations copied and passed letters and early versions of the Gospels among themselves. It helps to remember that most early Christians were illiterate and that written documents were expensive to create, to reproduce, and to deliver. They lived in a culture that relied upon oral witness, and even after written documents began to circulate, the oral witness to the Gospel was more highly prized than written versions. A reliable witness was a person whose manner of life looked like that of the Christ he or she proclaimed.
The second step in the coalescing of the New Testament was the role of the most prominent Bishops (of Antioch, Rome, Alexandria) in passing among themselves lists of what they considered to be the most important writings for establishing the center of Christian faith and practice. The lists are witness to the coming into and falling away from popularity of various documents, though the core of the three earliest Gospels and the Pauline Epistles was constant.
The third step was a more explicit process spurred in the fourth century by the insertion of the Roman Emperor Constantine into the decision-making of the early church by calling for the great councils that ultimately defined Christian belief. It is important to add that the canon (Greek for “measuring rod”) of scripture was never definitively closed, though it is by now effectively determined, with some variation across denominations.
So what about the documents that didn’t “make it” into the canon? Early Christianity was remarkably diverse in the first two centuries, as congregations interpreted the life and death of God’s messiah in light of the philosophical and religious traditions of their local settings. The major centers of early Christianity mentioned above (Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria) were all places with a high concentration of Jews who were dispersed after the Jewish War, following the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The flowering of earliest Christianity in ongoing contact with its origins as a Jewish sect meant that its Jewish roots remained strong. This is the type of Christianity preserved as the “measuring rod” of faith, the canon of the New Testament. The New Testament is deeply Jewish and indelibly shaped by Paul’s insistence on welcoming the gifts of all, not merely the more sophisticated members of the community.
The early bishops and the 4th century councils were not making their decisions based upon “inspiration.” They recognized that many writings are inspired. Rather, they were concerned with a minimal definition of the core of Christian faith and practice. Several very popular documents, such as “The Shepherd of Hermas,” were not brought into the canon, though Christians continued to read them and to be guided by their wisdom. Nothing was found wrong with these documents; they were simply not deemed essential.
The writings that took shape within gnostic circles were seen as not in keeping with the Jewish insistence on the goodness of the created world. These writings were not ever in line to be considered by the bishops at the councils because they represented a very different interpretation of the basic understanding of Christ as the Jewish messiah. Known previously from quotations in early Christian literature, they were re-discovered in an archeological cache in the mid-twentieth century, and have become an important part of the conversation about early Christian practice and belief.
These questions concerning the canon of the New Testament spark us to ask the most significant questions of our faith: who do you think Jesus was and is? What readings help you to live a Christ-like life? What beliefs and practices are at the core of your faith? These are the very same questions that guided our mothers and fathers in the earliest Church as they copied and carried those most precious documents across land and sea to share with one another.
When was the Old Testament Written?
It used to be that people spoke of the oldest parts of the Old Testament as “campfire stories,” finally written down after centuries of repetition. While there may be an oral tradition behind some of the writings, we know now that the biblical narratives, histories, prayers, and prophecies were composed mainly in the sophisticated scribal culture of the monarchical period (8th-7th centuries before Christ) and after.
But the most important time for the gathering, preservation, and copying of ancient Jewish documents was, ironically, the tragic period of the Exile to Babylon (586-538 BCE). Unlike the earlier time when the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, it was the well-educated Jewish political and religious elites who were exiled to Babylon, where the emperor employed them as skilled workers for the imperial government. While separated from their native land, and still mourning the destruction of the original Jerusalem Temple, these scribes gathered up the traditions that made their people distinct and recorded their history and practices for the generations to come.
The documents they were compiling were so precious that they maintained separate traditions from different geographical and social points of view. The result is like a rich quilt of stories and traditions, some of which repeat patterns, and others of which sit uneasily next to one another.
The various scrolls that make up what we now call the Old Testament are witness to centuries of prayerful reflection on how God relates to people in good times and dark days, through periods of faithfulness and times of forgetfulness. They were the Bible that shaped the faith of Jesus and of the first centuries of the Church, and they are the scriptural foundation that supports the witness of the New Testament.
How did we get the New Testament?
The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) came into being over decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, which occurred around 30 CE. The process we should imagine is one of deep conversation among interpretations of the Jewish scriptures (the Bible of the early church); stories of the words and deeds of Jesus; and liturgical practices of Baptism, Lord’s Supper, singing, and prayer. This rich conversation provided the soil in which the Gospels grew, each taking on a particular character within communities scattered northward from Jerusalem following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70.
One of the most important factors in the life of these communities was their sense of the nearness of the risen Lord with them, guiding their conversation, revealing his ways to them ever more profoundly over time. The stories of Jesus grew sharper and truer as they were honed over time and tested by the experiences of the communities living the way of Christ.
The Epistles, on the other hand, are the earliest Christian literature. The first letter that we have (1 Thessalonians) dates from the 50’s and the latest from the end of the first century or early in the second century. Most of the Epistles were written to specific communities, in response to particular issues or circumstances that they were experiencing. They are practical guides to faithful Christian living, and besides remaining important sources of inspiration and guidance even now, they also give us a window into the concerns and circumstances of the earliest Christians. These letters were so valued that they were copied and passed from community to community.
Is there anything special about how Episcopalians interpret the scriptures?
There are several aspects of Episcopal tradition and belief that shape how we read and interpret the scriptures. First and foremost is a deep reverence for the Incarnation of God in Christ, a belief that has several implications for biblical interpretation:
One is the habit of encountering God in and through the things of this world, a habit that makes it possible for Episcopalians to have confidence in God’s presence in and through the scriptures even while recognizing the multiplicity of voices and points of view found in this group of writings that were composed over a span of about 1,125 years.
A second implication of Incarnational belief is trust in the inspiration of the original authors, editors, and compilers of the scriptures. For this reason, we have a tradition of study of the historical circumstances of the composition of the various biblical documents. Knowing more about the people who wrote and edited them helps us see more clearly how God is revealed in and through the words of the scriptures. The discipline of historical research keeps us from mistaking what we want to hear for what God actually inspired the original writer to say.
A third implication of Incarnational faith is confidence that ordinary human beings can interpret the scriptures, with the help of the Spirit. Our task is to become the best interpreters we can by becoming attentive readers, by being willing to learn enough about the biblical history to understand what the authors are talking about, and by engaging the practices of our faith so that we can interpret the scriptures in the light of our own lively experiences of God in Christ.
Additionally, Episcopalians recognize biblical interpretation to be the work of the community of faith, not of individuals. Our understandings are enriched and corrected by the interpretations of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Finally, Episcopal practices of interpretation are embedded in the sacramental life of the church. When we stand for the reading of the Gospel on Sunday morning, we do so because we believe that Christ is present through the proclamation of the Gospel. We stand because he has just walked into our midst, where he continues to teach and heal us and call us to love of God and neighbor.
The Rev. Jane Patterson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. She is co-director of St. Benedict’s Workshop in San Antonio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.