So This Book Of God’s Was Written By Men?

I had an interesting email from one of my best friends tonight. They asked a pretty crucial question for anyone considering discounting Christianity or encountering Christianity. It goes like this:

Who decided what books to put in the bible, who complied it. If all scripture is God breathed, a human being still had to decided what
manuscripts went in and which ones didn’t? How did he know what was God breathed? why are the other books written at that time less important than the bible.

There is only one thing you can do when something so huge is introduced to the evening. It helps if it is introduced as you are busy cleaning. The nature of the question compels you to open a beer, stick on some Ben Folds and fire out some thoughts on canon.

Canon is the key word in any answer to this question. You could summarise the question as who compiled the canon and what do we think this has to do with God. First things first: Canon does not suggest a weapon with which one stream of Christianity destroyed all the other equally valid forms of Christianity. Canon comes from a greek word that means a reed used as a measuring rod, a fixed point. What I am going to try to briefly answer is:

    – Why was a canon formed? (Alister McGrath defines canon as “a limited and defined group of writings which are accepted as authoritative within the Christian church”).
    – Who got to form it?
    – What methods would they have applied?
    – What the hell does this have to do with God?

Why Canon?
If you go into any bookshop in Ireland and wander down to the basement and into the furthest corner, more hidden than the erotica will be the religious book and you will find very few books that would sit on my shelves and instead a whole bunch of lurid paperbacks claiming to reveal the “shocking truth” or “unravel the conspiracy” or “detox your body while revealing the secret history” of Christianity. The range available indicates there are people buying these books when all you need to buy is Philip Jenkins‘ superb Hidden Gospels which is a serious, but readable account of the competing “gospels”.

The reason a canon was formed was far less shocking than the Dan Brown School would have us believe. Christianity had the largest social impact of any movement in history. It was a bigger deal than Communism, Fascism, Feminism, Scientism and Jimladism wrapped up. As it spread and subverted everything it touched, splinter movements and parasitic cults attached themselves to the main body of believers; as happens with every big movement. The Canon was the naturally evolving reaction of the believing Christians as a kind of Darwinian selection took place amongst the pool of rival voices clamouring to represent Jesus. The books that individual congregations valued were maintained, copied, read, learnt and quoted. They survived. Others didn’t.

The existence of rival voices is no secret, as Brown and co would claim today. In fact, it is openly stated in the book that we are preaching through at church. Paul, an apostle, is writing to the churches in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth trying to combat gnostic teachers who are infiltrating the church. He is quite open about the fact that their message is different from the Apostles’ message. The whole book 1 John is pretty much a challenge to gnostic teachers.

Who Canonised?
Christians selected the books they believed in and discarded the books that didn’t represent the Apostolic teacher of Jesus’ first followers. As a result a canon naturally emerged. More about that emergence later.

There were councils in the 400s and 500s where all the church leaders got together and as a tangent off the main work they were doing they sometimes made statements about the Canon. No council was ever called to actually discuss the Canon, per sé, because it was formed very organically by the reading habits of the small cell churches that had populated all the known world. In fact, the great early church leader Eusebius wrote out a list of the books his church read in the 200s that has all the books we have in our New Testament today. The Gospels are pretty much uniform in any of these lists that get mentioned in letters from about 120AD onwards. There is some dispute recorded over books like Hebrews which was written for converted Jewish communities in the major Roman cities. Congregations mostly made up of non-Jewish people didn’t see a huge relevance in that text whereas congregations in Ethiopia or the Middle East were less likely to cite Revelations which is laden with anti-Empire rhetoric. I can understand this diversity of opinion because I sometimes catch myself treating a book like CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity as if it is Scripture. If I had my way, it would be at the back of every Bible! But by the time Athanasius wrote his list in the 300s, the organic formation of the Canon had been completed. There was practically unanimous appeal to the same 27 books we now read.

This happened not through the top-down manipulation of church leaders but the bottom up enthusiasm of church members. The Catholic Church is usually blamed as the bad guy in the conspiracy theories yet it didn’t even really exist at this point. You have to understand the nature of church life in the first three centuries. Persecution against Christians was widespread and often ferocious. Individual congregations in one city were quite remote from churches in other cities. Huge effort was still made to keep contact with other Christians as can be seen from the ecumenical councils between leaders and clues like Paul asking the churches in Colossae to share the letter to the Colossians with the churches in Laodicea.

Under persecution, therefore, the worldwide church was like a submarine in trouble. One compartment of the ship was seperated from the others. Each city’s churches were in a state of effective lockdown. Then in the 300s, the persecution lifted. Christianity was legalised. The submarine rose to the surface. The crisis was over. All the compartments opened up to each other and they found that largely independent of each other, they had all come to the same conclusion about which books were inspired by God. It is only at this stage that the big Councils like Nicea took place where proclamations could be made about what was in the “Bible” (although it still didn’t really properly exist) and what wasn’t.

How Canon?
The Canon emerged to distinguish apostolic Christianity from gnostic religions that were trading on the hugely powerful symbols and stories of Christianity and it was formed by the lifestyle of churches across the world over a span of a couple of centuries. The selection process, however, had two major factors. The first was “who wrote it?” and the second was “what did it say?”. The first Gospel (which are the biographies of Jesus) was Mark, written, we believe by John Mark, a missionary with Paul and almost certainly an eye-witness of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, the Apostle, we have reason to believe, is the author of the 2nd Gospel. The third Gospel was written by the Gentile Luke, a doctor who also traveled with Paul. He also wrote the 5th book of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles (it should be the Acts of Jesus Christ!). The final Gospel, is traditionally said to have been written by the “beloved Apostle” John, who also wrote 3 letters and the book of Revelation. Peter, traditionally “the rock” upon which Christ built his church, wrote 2 letters and the rest are Paul’s work except for Hebrews. The joker who put that masterpiece together never mentions his name and so he is forgotten by history. All of the New Testament books are in what is called the Apostolic succession. They are either written by Apostles or their students. The earliest churches were founded by the students of these Apostles (Apostles by the way, are people who were taught by the resurrected Jesus) and the line of teaching went unbroken from Jesus to the Apostles to the early church leaders. Who wrote the book mattered a lot.

The second factor was what the book contained. The so called Gospel of Thomas is not really a Gospel but a series of aphorisms (this makes it technically suspect but that is a discussion for another day). It was written early, relative to lots of the “hidden Gospels” but its message diverges from mainstream Christianity in an alarming way. Read Aphorism 114, the final message of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them : “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said : “Look, I will guide her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit like You males. For every female who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It is obvious that this is a different message to John 4 or Luke 8 to even the untrained eye. Most of the contested gospels that you read about in these paperbacks were never even considered because they are so late. They didn’t exist when the Canon was emerging. For example, the latest controversy surrounds the “Gospel of Judas” which was written 300 years after Jesus. Most all of the Gnostic Gospels are written centuries after Jesus and unlike the bios we now call the Gospels, they were never intended to be read historically.

The God Canon?
So what has all this got to do with God? When we say that the Bible is God’s Word we do not mean that God handed Paul a photocopy of something he scribbled on a napkin, Paul tidied it up, put his name on the top and posted it off to some churches. We do not mean that Paul went into a trance one day and whal-lah, fifteen minutes later we had Galatians. Christianity is not Islam. The Bible is not the Koran. We do not believe that the Bible is the transcribed word of God. Our words couldn’t fit the thoughts of God even if that is how he worked! Neither do we believe that the Bible is the only book that God inspired. I pray the Spirit of God is inspiring what I write here to guide my friend through doubt.

But instead Christians hold to a concept of inspiration which is much more organic. Paul was charged by God with a task, as was Peter or Luke or any of the other writers. They dispatched their duties to the best of their abilities. We believe that through their faithful efforts and God’s graciousness, the intentions of God are captured in some of their writings. We don’t think Paul had a magic God-inspiration gift so that his shopping list would be sacred. In fact, we think we lost the first and last letters to the Corinthian churches (we can’t be sure because, well, they are lost, aren’t they!).

Over the centuries it became clear that while John was a smart man who dedicated his life to reflecting theologically and poetically on Jesus, his Gospel is charged with something different. Christian communities around the world found that they did not read it to get information or to know something. They read it and it knew them. They found a sacred experience in the sharing of this short scroll that changed them. The same can be said in my life for Galatians and for Romans and for many other books. The concept of authority and the idea that God charged the writings of these books did not arise from the theological ponderings of a monk in a hut somewhere and then put into practice. Instead it arose as Christians put their faith into practice around the world and they found certain books profoundly impacted them in a unique way. They kept reading these books. They went to the huge cost of copying them. They quoted and cited and sang and prayed these books. They used them. And slowly a consensus emerged that something very sacred had happened with these words.

The concept of inspiration is thus, not meant to be some huge construct that you intellectually adhere to. The Bible is not a book we should be paying homage to reverently (I think I actually mean what I say here). Instead inspiration is something we are called to experience and the Bible is a book we should eat. We should get intimate with its cadences and its verse. We should learn to love the styles of the writers. It is a book we should live with and love by instead of plainly studying. Get into the book and you find that the book gets into you. This amazing power is what makes us think it is inspired.

Your Correspondent, You better watch out because I’m gonna say “Fuck!”

5 Responses to “So This Book Of God’s Was Written By Men?”

  1. wylie says:

    Bloody hell Zoomtard you are a wonder! thank you for taking the time to write this blog for confused people like me! i will need to read it at least 5 more times before i begin to get my head around your overwhelming genius but already i am on my way to a better understanding. the stuff you wrote about the inspiration of scripture is brilliant. the bible isn’t the only stuff God inspired – i never got that before. ahh it all makes sense!

  2. Andrew Smith says:

    Great stuff Zoomtard. I agree entirely but would like to throw out a few thoughts for your consideration which may lessen the Darwinian nature of the canon slightly.

    I have previously made the mistake of speaking like Paul, Mark, etc. didn’t know that they were writing scripture when they wrote but I am becoming increasingly convinced that the early church appointed these people to authoritatively pass on the tradition faithfully which was then recognised later in the process of canonisation.

    I have often thought that many of the books of the NT were anonymous but recently it has been suggested to me that this is untrue. If we think about how a 1st century Christian would have their scrolls a different picture emerges. Scrolls by their nature all look the same and it isn’t easy to open them up and work out which ones they are particularly if you have a large number of them. Imagine trying to find one Euro coin with the date of 2001 among 99 other similar coins of date 2002. In order to overcome this problem all scrolls has little tags attached to their end which usually had the author’s name and maybe some other details. This means that it is likely that the name of the author of a book always travelled with the book.

    Also, the church in 1st century was surprisingly small. Rodney Stark has argued this in detail. This meant that the major figures were known at least by reputation to everyone. The church only allowed certain people to pass on the tradition authoritatively. Hence, Paul often argues that he has the authority and others don’t.

    I would suggest that the process of canonisation involved the 1st century church choosing a select number of people, who had access to the life and teaching of Jesus, to record the events and teaching. These authoritative writings were then used and recognised as authoritative by the church in the proceeding centuries as argued masterfully by Zoomtard. The process of canonisation simply affirmed what had been decided in the beginning and affirmed by continued use was correct.

  3. zoomtruiged says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Good to see you here man. The Regent contingent is pretty formidable. This comment is a fascinating addition to the discussion. If only I had time to read Stark et al. I hope you Seminary boys appreciate how sweet a life you have!

  4. Graham says:

    Each person’s spiritual journey is inherently different. There are many spiritual pathways leading to the same destination.

  5. zoomtard says:

    Well Graham, there are indeed many ways to reach any destination and each journey is unique.

    There are however, lots of roads that leads to nowhere. Wouldn’t you agree?