We have been talking over these last few weeks about where the Bible comes from. But where did it literally come from? I think most of us agree that the Bible did not appear out of heaven on a golden platter the moment that Christ left the earth…. like a dumb waiter…Jesus ascended into heaven and here came the Bible with a bow on it at the same time. But, if no platter, then how? I think that the origins of the Bible can sometimes be a little confusing. People hear half of a story about these councils that chose what books would be included, or they hear about another Gospel like the Gospel of Thomas or Mary, and it gets a little confusing as to what actually happened. So, this morning I present: Three Myths About How the Bible Was Written.
Myth Number One: The order of books in the New Testament is based “in order of appearance.” Most of us have stuck around for the movie credits in order to see the list of actors in a movie, and often we have seen them listed with this phrase: “in order of appearance.” And some folks look at the table of contents in our New Testament and wonder if maybe that’s how the New Testament was written. First came Matthew, and then Mark, and then Luke, and then John and Acts and so on. But most scholars agree that this is not the way that the Bible was written. In fact, the order was probably much different than that.
As a way to describe the process, imagine with me that you just got back from the most amazing trip you have ever taken. How would you tell people what you experienced? Maybe in three phases. First, you would handle the practical things now that you are back in town – do the laundry, answer the emails, remind the dog sitter that you are home. Practical stuff. Then, you would start to tell the story – organize your pictures, tell your friends or co-workers, post an album on Facebook. You tell the story. And then, finally, you would consider how the trip might have a lasting impact – will you already start to plan to go back, eat more sushi now that you have tried it and like it, or if your trip was a mission trip you may volunteer more now?
Perhaps the New Testament was written in a similar matter. After the life and teaching of Christ, this amazing experience, his believers were trying to make sense of what had happened. The first responses were practical – as represented by the first books written in the New Testament: Paul’s letters. They are about immediate concerns and practical needs of the churches that had begun. How will we worship, do communion, do the work of the church? The next responses were more organized and narrative: The Gospels. Written several decades after Christ’s death, they respond with stories, genealogies, eyewitness accounts, quotations. These require a little more organization and a little more research. And just like when we have told the stories from our trip a few times, they gain a life for themselves. Finally, the last phase of New Testament books comes as the institution itself was changing and churches were trying to figure out how everything was going to change in response to this event. Some of these later writings, like I-II Timothy and I-II Peter and I-II-III John read like a church polity manual. Now that we know these things about this man Jesus, how are we going to create an institution around how his life and teachings that changed everything? Of course this is a bit of an oversimplification, but it is helpful to know that the books of the New Testament were written in a different order and process then perhaps they appear to us.
Myth Number Two: The books were written in a kind of magical trance. We might think that each book was written by a single author, in a single moment of time, who had no real input or the process, and then put it in a box for me to read when I was ready. It sounds silly when we say it that way, but sometimes we imagine that the Bible was written in this kind of magical format. Here’s more likely the case.
One, it was not always written in a single moment of time. These books were written and edited over time, and often used one another. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and then Luke and Matthew used Mark extensively, as well as another source, and then John was written way later without much reliance upon that Markan tradition. Even the way that the books of the Bible were chosen was a process. There were councils that met to decide which books seemed to represent Jesus’ life and teachings best. That process took hundreds of years. Our passage today is a helpful example of that process. When we read Philippians 2, we see that it is a different style and voice. Most scholars believe that this was actually a hymn used at the time of Paul’s writing, perhaps even a hymn that the early church used. It would be like if I was preaching a sermon about grace, and just started referring to amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Just about all of us in the room would know that I was using a hymn and it wasn’t really my words. I would not need to say, “and now I am going to quote from a famous hymn.” That’s what Paul is doing here. But 2,000 years later, it feels more complex and confusing. And scholars are needed to sort through the various sources to figure out the process of writing and editing that took place.
Two, it was not always a single author. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the Revelation of John were all written by a community of scholars called the Johannine community. We like to think of one guy named John sitting down and writing it all out, but it is likely that it was the work of a community of scholars and believers.
Three, I think that we presume sometimes that when we open the Bible, it was written for us. That someone stuck it in a box until we were ready to read it. But obviously, it was written out of a certain context and TO a certain context. Just because Paul told the Corinthians to do something, that doesn’t mean that we ought to apply those words verbatim to our lives. If that were the case, women shouldn’t be wearing gold jewelry or braided hair, and all of us should have no problem eating food sacrificed to idols, something that I am sure concerns you on a daily basis. It takes some work to discern how to apply these words to our lives. They had a context from which they wrote, and thank context is different than ours.
Now, some folks have a hard time hearing words like this about the Bible. It’s like watching the sausage made, instead of just closing our eyes and taking a bite. For some, it is difficult to know that the origins of the Bible are not as simple as the golden platter from heaven, that it involved the work of individuals and processes and time and context. Hearing about all of this, they wonder if the Bible is trustworthy. They suspect that maybe the Bible is just a bunch of words from people that God had nothing to do with. Even worse, they wonder in the back of their minds in places that they cannot ever say in Sunday school, what if it is all made up?
Which brings me to…
Myth Number Three: The origins of the Bible are from a shadowy conspiracy!
Think of this one as the “Da Vinci Code myth.” A few years ago, Dan Brown’s book and the movie that was made after it got a lot of people upset. It was a book about a generations-long conspiracy by the church to hide the truth about Jesus and about his life and his family. Now, for the record, I think it is a great book and a decent movie and I enjoyed both. And, for the record, I don’t think any of it is true. That’s why they call it fiction. All the “facts” from the book aren’t historically accurate. They sound good, but they aren’t true and are provably fictional. But I think the Da Vinci Code was so popular because it touched on this concept of conspiracy. We seem to want to think that there is a shadowy story behind the story. We want to see the Bible as a creation of political maneuvering, hiding of the Truth, and covert conspiracy. But I don’t think so. I think exposing some of these myths about Scripture actually give us a greater sense of what God was doing, and IS doing.
One, take the idea that the Bible came to us by way of a process. Again, if you want to see this as a dark conspiracy, I am sure that you and Dan Brown can find some way that the councils hid the truth of who Jesus was…that these alternative books like Gospel of Thomas or Mary are the truth and our Bible is made up. But again, wouldn’t it be more likely that they were working off of what they knew about Jesus? In fact, those other Gospels were often judged as unfit for Scripture because they seemed to miss the boat when it came to describing who Jesus was. Those who knew him read them and said that they were off their rockers. Furthermore, to me it seems more meaningful that the Bible was written in process, that the Holy Spirit created a process over time to bring about the truth of Christ’s life and teachings, perfecting it as time moved on.
Two, consider that Biblical books were sometimes written by more than one source. The tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists will have you believe that there was some dark enclave that decided what the Bible would say…that there is some dark truth that they are covering. But wouldn’t be more likely to say that there were sometimes communities working together to tell the story: that out of their community experience, they came to a deeper understanding of healthy relationships and of love? Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the concept of love is broadcast throughout all the Johannine books!
And finally, isn’t it a matter of faith to say that the Bible was written to a certain context and for a certain context? Isn’t it more meaningful to know that the Spirit of God was engaged and moving through the Biblical writers? Doesn’t that give us a greater awareness of what God is doing now?
Instead of a shadowy political conspiracy, what if we instead saw the Bible and the world from which it came, in the way that Dallas Willard refers to it: A Divine Conspiracy. According to this conspiracy, there is indeed a hidden story behind the story. But it is really a story of the work of the Spirit in the world:
• The Spirit who inspired someone out of a meeting or a relationship with Jesus.
• The same Spirit who inspired someone to write down a story about Jesus from that encounter.
• The same Spirit who inspired someone to pick up that story and add and edit and pass it along.
• The same Spirit who guided the councils that chose what books best represented Christ and his life and teachings.
• And the same Spirit that rests on our hearts as we open up the big black book and listen for what God is doing in our lives, how that story spills over into ours. God invites us to join the conspiracy.