The New Testament: Some Firm Ground


A revision of the version at present uploaded in my White Crow blog.

Even if we were to question the teaching of some Christian churches, we do need to try to push back against a tide of rubbish put forward as fact. An example: “Scholars are perfectly aware there is no evidence that either the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the other writings, as we have them, existed within a hundred and twenty years after the Crucifixion."* (I’ll discuss that one later.) Another one: “When it comes to Jesus, there is no direct historic record at the time of his existence.” – (That is quite untrue:  there are several non-Christian writers from the 1st century CE who mention Jesus, including Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, the Talmud, Mara bar Sarapion, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.*)

 Similar rubbish are the constant assertions, inspired by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. *

[* = if you  want to check or follow up, click the link at the end of the blog]

 Some prominent Materialist academics also seem not to bother themselves with the facts: controversial theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt for instance, sees Jesus as a radical secular humanist.*  In The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross  J.M. Allegro  went so far as to argue  that Jesus in the Gospels was in fact a code for a type of hallucinogen, the Amanita muscaria, and that Christianity was the product of an ancient “sex-and-mushroom" cult. The way to international renown seems to involve coming up with such startling theories on flimsy evidence.

 People who make such claims take care not to mention St Paul. Nobody in this wide world doubts that he was a real person. Nobody in this wide world doubts that he wrote his letter to the Galatians that we find in the New Testament of our present Bible, and that he wrote it about the year 50 CE, sixteen or so years after the death of Jesus. In his letter he mentions that great event, when the risen Jesus appeared to Paul when he was travelling to Damascus, changing him from being the chief persecutor of Christians to being a follower of Jesus himself, and how after three years from this life-changing event he went to Jerusalem to “get information from” Jesus’ disciple Peter and James the brother of Jesus, for the first time.

 In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,* Paul writes, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”  Now, all agree that Paul really did write this letter. For him life after death is the same for us as for Jesus:  “When [our body] is buried, it is mortal, when raised, it will be immortal.” [1 C0r 15:14] 

 Our survival of the death of the body, and Jesus’ survival of the death of the body, our communion with the spirit of the risen Jesus: that is central for St Paul. It was also central for early Christianity.

But we do need to remind ourselves what both “Christianity” and “Judaism” would look like in the years after Jesus died. According to many historians, most of Jesus' teachings would not have seemed strange to the Jews of his times. There wasn’t a Jewish orthodoxy except the Books of the Law (Torah) and commentaries.  There were Pharisees, Scribes, Essenes and other religious groups. The followers of Jesus worshipped at the Temple, attended the synagogues.  When St Paul was on his missionary journeys, he apparently was welcome to preach in synagogues in Asia Minor, Greece, and in Rome. He was still considered a Jew although he wanted to reform Judaism.  What set Christians apart from Jews was their faith in Christ as the resurrected messiah.  The belief in the resurrection of Jesus made the divide. All the same, the Christians retain and use the Jewish Bible, (the Old Testament) to this day.

scribeThe Oral (or Memorised )Tradition

Memorising was the normal mode for communicating the teachings of a spiritual master in the ancient world. For one thing, before the use of papyrus was widespread, writing was both clumsy and expensive. Using a stylus on a clay tablet worked, but once the clay dried no "corrections" or "edits" could be made. Writing on a scroll made of an animal skin was certainly an improvement, but was still limited. The widespread use of papyrus for the ancient world was a great improvement, but you didn’t carry this expensive material around in your pocket for note taking.

 Even when great teachings began to circulate in written form ancient writers continued to be sceptical of using the written word. The spoken word was seen as much more powerful for the communication of treasured knowledge. Church historian Eusebius said it like this, “But I will not hesitate also to set down for your benefit, along with the interpretations, all that ever I carefully learnt and carefully recalled from the elders, guaranteeing its truth....[But] I supposed that things out of books did not profit me so much as the utterances of a voice which lives and abides.” -  * 

 For the above reasons, in the early years after the death of Jesus his teaching would have been mainly preserved in the oral traditions, recited from memory. There were no printed books for followers of Jesus to carry around with them, and of course only a small minority could read. Memorisation was central, as was certainly the case in preliterate societies of Greece or the New Zealand Maori, where a complex culture about the gods, genealogies, legends, histories, and skills necessary for survival were passed on by word of mouth and memorising. Before the development of the Greek alphabet “Homer, whoever he was, composed the works orally, committed them to memory, and recited them on demand, perhaps with a certain amount of improvisation to take into account the particular preferences of his audience.” *

 In Islam, people who memorise the whole of the Koran, and can recite it, are highly honoured.

 The written tradition

With regard to the life and teachings of Jesus, in the first place there will surely have been the memorising, the oral tradition. Paul however does write down what he learned from Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, about the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection appearances. And what he learned then was to dominate the rest of his life. At the very least, Paul refutes the nonsense that Jesus never existed.  That spiritual genius, Paul, with his letters and constant travels, ensured that it was his interpretation of the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus that shaped the origins of a Christianity that was apart from Judaism. Paul does refer to other missionaries, such as Apollos, who presented the teaching of Jesus somewhat differently, and who would have had their following as well.


Gospel of Thomas

But the letters of Paul were not the only early writings about Jesus and his teaching.  In 1945 the manuscript of the Coptic text (CG II), was found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It is now called “The Gospel of Thomas” * and the original Aramaic or Greek was possibly written earlier than Paul’s first letter. It contains some of the sayings of Jesus quoted in our present gospels.  But how and where were these gospels compiled?

 There is some agreement that they were compiled after the  Romans sacked Jerusalem  70 CE *, and when they destroyed Temple and slaughtered or enslaved those who lived there. In so doing, they destroyed Christianity in Jerusalem, leaving followers of Jesus in other countries needing to supplement the oral tradition with written material that could be read at assemblies for worship.

 There is some agreement that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written, that in compiling their gospels, the writers of Matthew and Luke each copied most of Mark, word for word, and also quoted from a document that scholars call “Q” which is a collection of Jesus’ sayings that may have been written down while Jesus was alive, and then added material peculiar to the writer. These three Gospels were called “Synoptic” or “seen from the same point of view”. The Gospel of John was probably written later.



How the books of our present New Testament were chosen.

Other gospels were also written, and there are numerous early writings, letters, homilies, that were circulating amongst Christians in the early days, and it took a long time before there was a consensus that the best of them all consisted of most of the books we now call The New Testament.  After the fall of Jerusalem, amongst the Christians outside Judaea, there were many Christian and Gnostic sects with differing beliefs, differing holy books. Space does not permit to describe the complicated processes by which something like our present 27 books was accepted by many as the definitive selection after the year 200 and there was some kind of a consensus about basic Christian belief.  “Nonetheless, full dogmatic articulations of the canon [definitive selection] were not made until the Canon of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism, the Gallic Confession of Faith of 1559 for Calvinism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox.”*


How modern Fundamentalism originated

For much of the history of Christianity, prior to the invention of the printing press, the Bible (with its varying make-up) was the Church’s book, and the Church decided which parts of the Bible were suitable to be read in public worship. Although   Genesis 1 and 2 were regarded as a true account of the creation, there was no doctrine that the Bible contained the infallible truth.  The Bible was to be interpreted and taught as seemed right to church leaders.

 Then the printing press was invented. Gradually texts of the Bible became available to individuals, who drew their own conclusions about its message, and these conclusions were not necessarily sound, or not necessarily better than those presented by church scholars. The formation of small sects was made easier.

The printing press played a role in producing the Reformation, and then the Enlightenment*
which led to the development of science perceived by many as hostile to religion. In the established churches many members became less certain about the reality of the spiritual dimension. It was in the late 1800s that many, feeling threatened by Materialist science, retreated into asserting that the recently established selections of books of the Bible were infallibly correct, and that every word of the Bible was literally true: and that is the definition of Fundamentalism.* This modern retreat into Fundamentalism has sometimes led to strongly held beliefs contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. It involves failure to see the Bible as a library of books written over a period of 1200 years, of unequal value in inspiring to a life in Spirit. It has produced the very stultifying legalism that Jesus was protesting against with the Pharisees. And continuing uncertainty about spiritual realities in mainline churches, not only fails to provide a counter to Fundamentalism, but fuels a retreat into it by people seeking a milieu friendly to deep faith. There is a desperate need for the light thrown on mind and Spirit by quantum physicists and open-minded studies of consciousness.

   If we are not to be Fundamentalists, we may see the Bible as containing the testimony of spiritual forebears living palpably close to a beneficent spiritual reality. Their testimony invites us to go deeper into our own personal spiritual journeys and explore what will enable us to grow in spirit. We will evade the call of Spirit if we allow ourselves to get bogged down with disputes about the historicity of this or that event recorded in the New Testament, if we get annoyed by St Paul sometimes departing from his words, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, male nor female, bond nor free,” and reverting to the patriarchal ways of his culture.  We let our spiritual forebears inspire us as much as they may, and in humility and openness also seek the Christ that is in all, through all, and above all.

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