Posts Tagged 'New Testament'

Is the Holy Ghost the Second Coming?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican.Wikicommons

Holy Spirit as a Dove (detail) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, ca. 1660. Stained glass. Throne of St Peter, St Peters Basilica Vatican (Wikicommons)

While discussing bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, “The Fourth Gospel:  Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (which I enthusiastically recommend reading) the question arose as to whether we might understand the Holy Ghost as the Second Coming?  I think the answer depends upon how one understands the terms, and the ideas toward which the terms point.

Chapter 19 of Spong’s “The Fourth Gospel” relates the allegories of the “vine” to an understanding of God as an in-dwelling Spirit;  this is specifically in opposition to thinking of God as external to us.  Spong is speaking of the in-dwelling Spirit of God as comprising part of who we are as self-conscious human beings.

  • It is not that God is absent in animals, and even rocks.
  • But we do differ from rocks and even birds and cats and dogs, in that we have a very strong sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness.  This is why we struggle against the idea of death.  Dogs and cats and cattle may struggle against death itself, but they do not sit around worrying about the eventually.  We do;  because we are self-consciousness.  We know that we exist, and we know that we will cease to exist.  The effort to transcend this eventuality is the reason many of us search for God.


Pantheism basically means “God Everywhere.”  God is understood as being everywhere in the cosmos: in every rock, every tree, every stream, every bird, every dog and cat, and in every person. This is one of the ways animalism and many aboriginal religions are interpreted by persons living in the West, although typically with the arrogant caveat such a “primitive” notion must be mistaken.

Small Pantheism

The “small” way of viewing pantheism is as lots of little spirits dwelling within everything: wood sprites, water spirits, etc.  Every culture of which I am aware, from the dawn of history, developed such a view.  Greco-Roman paganism was similarly structured, ranging from the “Big Gods” on Mount Olympia to city gods, to family gods, to gods of brooks, streams, woods, etc.  There were gods everywhere, and they were vested in every part of leading one’s life.

Most forms of Christianity, I suggest, see this as a form of multiple (“false”) gods.  But there is an important point to add here, which I find adds perspective.  Christians tend to be concerned about their afterlife:  Heaven or Hell, as the saying goes.  Pagans were not especially interested in this.  Most of them assumed death brought our annihilation.  What did matter for them was this life and getting enough to eat, having enough water to drink and raise crops, remaining healthy, and related basic needs of our survival.

Also, death was ever-present in a way I feel we fail to appreciate.  Where we get an abscessed tooth, and go to the dentist, they usually died!  The world was very different 2,000-years ago, and this is a significant point we tend to forget or fully appreciate;  many of us (most?) certainly fail to feel that kind of reality in our own day-to-day lives.  So I suspect we tend to ridicule “pagans” and those who hold aboriginal beliefs largely out of our own ignorance.

Big Pantheism

The “big” way of viewing pantheism, starts by asking a very different question:

  • Where is God not found in nature?

This requires some thought regarding the nature of God.  Is God only a personality?  Or is God the vital force of life itself?  Does God have a face and lungs, or is God the very essence of life?  Stated poetically, we ask if God is the Breath of Life?  Stated more abstractly, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich suggested that we consider God as our Ground of Being.

If God is the essence of Life, then we have to find some way of imagining God within everything:  rocks, dust, bugs, deer, sharks, cattle, dogs, cats, and ourselves.  I would suggest this way of seeing God is very close to the truth;  and would result, if taken seriously, in better treatment of all the creatures and resources of this world; as well as one another.

An alternate view, is seeing God as a Big Person Above the Sky.  Useful in terms of language and metaphor, to be sure.  But if we take this too literally, how does this significantly differ from Zeus-Jupiter?

Panentheism (note the –en-)

The late Prof. Ron Miller of blessed memory, suggested it is instructive to think of God as panentheistic.  Pan*EN*theism (adding the “en” between pan- and -theism) argues God is everywhere, both within the cosmos, and outside the cosmos.  The key point of this idea is that God is not limited to the confines of this universe (cosmos).

Of course, we cannot really wrap our minds around what this means.  Our language cannot adequately describe what this implies.  We are creatures of time and of space.  And our language reflects, and is limited by, our nature as beings of time-space.  How does one envision a Being which is not constrained by the very limits of the universe itself?  This is a really, really BIG God!

I believe this way of thinking about God has to be tied to Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” idea.  For me, this represents God as the very vitality of life itself.  As advanced as our medical science is today, we do not understand the *essence which creates life.  We, for example, know that brain trauma may become debilitating, but we also know the brain sometimes compensates by building new neural pathways.

And doctors have not found our spirit, or even our consciousness, inside the brain.  Some disagree, and equate behavior changes as the result of brain trauma as proof of our seat of consciousness residing within the brain.  I disagree.  I think this only demonstrates that the “radio” has been damaged, and no longer receives the “radio waves” properly.

In this analogy the brain is the radio, and the radio waves represent our spirit, our consciousness.  And I submit that our consciousness, or spirit, is our seat of being.  But from what does our spirit, or being, emanate?  Tillich suggests this flows from the Ground of Being:  God.

  • In this way of seeing God, God is the fabric, the very essence, of the universe;  God is what holds the subatomic particles together;  God is space-time, onto/into which everything else resides. God is all that, as well as that which is beyond the knowable universe.

If one believes this is likely to be true, then “God” is best understood as panentheistic.  And even though we cannot completely wrap our heads around this, we can sense this is a very, very BIG idea of what must comprise the very nature of the “Beingness” (ontology) of God.

Now, as Christians, we have to figure out what to do with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

  • In the early days of the Jewish-Christian “Jesus Movement” there was only One God.
  • Not three Gods.
  • And not God-three-is-one, as the doctrine of the Trinity came to propose in the 4th century.

Some early Christians believed Jesus was entirely human and unable to be God.  Others thought Jesus was God and unable to really be human (he just appeared so).  Others thought Jesus was a divine being of the highest order (above angels for example) but a creature created by the Uncreated God (this view presupposes there are only two categories of existence:  the Uncreated;  and that which is created:  “creatures”).

All of these ideas were early Christian teachings.  And they all had sacred books, thus proving their point!

  • Why books are so important to the Christian traditions is an interesting question.  In part, it is because Christianity evolved from Judaism, and the earliest Christians needed to be thought of as already “ancient” and therefore just another way of understanding the very ancient Jewish religion.  In part, it is because completely unlike pagan religions, Christianity is very concerned with what a person believes; pagans, in contrast did not care what a person believed, only in what actions they took – namely, offering the proper sacrifices and prayers to the gods, so as to sustain our life in the here and now.

All of these ways of “properly” understanding what it meant to be a Christian were being debated in the first 300 years after the execution of Jesus.  In the orthodox Christian tradition, these matters came to be codified in the Council of Nicene, convened in 325 ce.  It is from this council that we inherit the Nicene Creed.  While this council did not settle the debates entirely, they did resolve the larger issues, and framed the limits of theological debate to the present day.

But they lived in a three-tiered universe:  Heaven Above;  Earth; and Land of the Dead Below.  We no longer live in that three-tiered universe/cosmos. Therefore, we have to re-think their basic arguments and assumptions, if we wish to carefully think through questions such as the nature of the Second Coming and the Holy Spirit.  And we really have to re-think these kinds of questions if we are going to try to understand the Gospel of John on its own (mystical!) merits.

I find I agree with bishop Spong’s proposition:  the Gospel of John was written by Jewish-Christian mystics.  These authors were not speaking of God as residing Above the Heavens.  They were speaking of an In-Dwelling God, an understanding of God as dwelling within each of us.  This is a very different understanding of God, even today, nearly 2,000-years later!

And to be fair, this is a mystical way of thinking about the Divine, which makes it slippery to grasp.  It is difficult, not easy, to understand.  Anyone can understand a God Above the Heavens who gets angry and destroys cities and people, or rewards individuals or nations for “obeying” whatever it is one presupposes “God wants from us.”

  • The details of “what God wants from us” change, from one tradition to the next -even within Christianity, let alone across religions- but the core idea that God wants something from us, which we supply by modifying our behavior. But this is not a mystical understanding of God. A mystical understanding of God experiences God as in-dwelling! (In-dwelling in all persons; thus, one adopts Unity Consciousness.)

But what if “God” is within each of us and “wants” us to live in such a manner as to expand life for ourselves and everyone around us?  What if God is the very expansion of the universe and the force of life that constantly seeks expression?  What if this self-expression of the essence of God is vitally present in self-conscious beings, such as human beings?

  • God is present in everything, but we are aware of this in-dwelling Presence!

This is a very different understanding of “God” and for many it doesn’t seem easy to grasp.

What about the Trinity?

I am not a strong trinitarian.  In the many hundreds of years since formulating the conceptualization of God as the Trinity of Father-Son-Spirit, no one has nailed this down!  The best theologians of the last 1,700-years or so have always said the heart of this is a “mystery.”  In other words, no one understands it!

We can formulate it pretty clearly.  But this is not at all the same thing as understanding it!  Professor Phillip Cary offers the following technical formation:

1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
7. There is only one God.

We can see how strange this is if we say much the same thing from the classical Greco-Roman perspective:

1. Zeus is God.
2. Apollo is God.
3. Poseidon is God.
4. Zeus is not Apollo.
5. Apollo is not Poseidon.
6. Poseidon is not Zeus.
7. There are three Gods.

Here we have the same formulation, one from a Christian perspective, and one from the Greco-Roman perspective.  They are identical in the logic of the first six steps.  However, the final conclusions are in direct opposition to one another!  This illustrates why Christianity was so perplexing to pagans 2,000-years ago.  And it demonstrates “why the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult, interesting and strange” (Cary: “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine”).

Some have said, when speaking of the Trinity, we forget how to count:  God is above/before numbers.  Others say that God is three Persons (I prefer to say, Personae) but with a single Will.  But no matter how we try to explain the idea of the Trinity, it seems strange and remains beyond our grasp.  And so it has for some 1,700-years, for even the best and brightest theologians over the centuries.  So if this does not really make perfect sense to you, you are in good company!

  • If, and when, one finds speaking of God-as-Trinity useful, I say go for it!  Where it is not useful, I suggest, speaking in different terms.

Active Agent of God

When I speak of the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, which is the transliteration we get from German scholarship on the Holy Spirit/Geist) I mean the active Spirit of the Divine, of which we are aware, and with which we seek to interact.  Our Christian history has offered this idea to us as the Holy Spirit, so I frequently use the same name-title.

  • “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” are two different names for the same thing:  Holy Spirit is translated from the Latin, Spiritus Sanctus;  from German as, heiligen Geist;  both of which are translated from the original Greek, άγιο πνεύμα, which is roughly “agio pneuma“.

From this perspective the “Holy Spirit” is what I sometimes call the “Active Agent” of God in the world.  I think of this as the aspect of the Divine with which we have interaction.  If one is able to go along with this interpretation, then I think we are getting close to being able to see the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming.  But we still have some more ideas to explore.

Transformational Christianity

I view both the Holy Spirit and the Second Coming as related to Transformational Christianity.  By this I mean the emphasis to first transform ourselves, and through and as a result of our personal changes -a transformation in our thinking, speech, and behaviour- to transform the community in which we live.  I believe this is how we observe the Holy Spirit as being active in our lives, and in our community.

  • As we think, speak, and act better toward one another, I propose calling this change in our personal formulation, the Holy Spirit as active in our lives. Some have also called this Putting on the Mind of Christ.

In this view, we understand the primary function of the Holy Spirit as that which transforms these elements (thinking, speech, and behaviour) in us, and through us, into our wider community.  Thus, the Holy Spirit is that aspect of the Divine which initiates significant changes in our lives;  It is the aspect of the Trinity with which we interact in this physical world.

But what of Jesus?  What about the Christ?

This is a closely related, but somewhat different question.  Here we must address the question of Christology, which is the effort to understand and make sense of the role of Jesus and the Christ, both in the early Jewish-Christian church, and in our own day and age.  This is a very deep subject, asking the very nature of Jesus the Christ!  Entire books have been written on this topic, and there is yet more to say.  This is obviously not a question which may be adequately addressed in one essay.

Christ is the Greek word for messiah, which in Hebrew is mashiach.  It means “anointed” or “the one anointed” and was a ritual anointing which identified the king of Israel as chosen of God, or as the son of God.  When the Babylonians wiped out the line of David, this began to symbolize something more than the kingship;  the idea of the messiah began to be associated with ideas of freedom and liberation from foreign powers.  God’s messiah would come in glory and overthrow the foreign rulers, and put the son of King David back on the throne.

In the Jewish understanding, the messiah was never thought to be a person executed by the state!  This is perhaps the single largest barrier to Jews coming to understand Jesus as the messiah.  He simply could not be, because far from overthrowing the Romans, he was crushed by them!  (Gentiles did not hold this presupposition, so it was easier for a gentile to see Jesus as the messiah, than for a Jew to come to the same understanding.)

  • In the synoptic gospels ―Mark, Matthew, and Luke― we find Jesus hesitant to speak of himself as the messiah.  I think this is because Jesus did not embrace the popular understanding of what this meant to his fellow Jews:  one coming in power to overthrown the Romans.  This concern is not shared in the Gospel of John, however.  But we also cannot read the Gospel of John as remotely literal.  To do so, is to miss the point entirely!

What I think I may say about Jesus and the Christ, in just a few words, is that the way in which Jesus is interpreted in the Gospel of John, expressed as a work of Jewish-Christian mysticism, is that Jesus is the embodiment of the Life of God flowing into the world.  Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, does not mean we “believe Jesus is God.”  And it is certainly not saying that Jesus has to be killed to save us!

Instead, we are asked to believe that Jesus lived his life in such a way as to promote the in-flowing of the Divine Spirit of God in him, and through him, into the world.  But more than this ―and more importantly I believe― is the proposition that you and I may do the same thing!  (“Even greater things shall you do,” Jesus is made to say in the Gospel of John.)

This is the core meaning of Jesus as understood in the Gospel of John.  Jesus lived a life which brought the vitality of God’s Spirit into this world, and we may do the same thing.  God is not “out there” somewhere, but rather God is “in here” ― dwelling within us.

  • The way to get more God into the world, is to allow more God to flow within us, and through us, into the world:  exactly as it did in, and through, Jesus.

And that ―I believe― is what the mystical Gospel of John is trying to relate to us as the Second Coming.

So, may we think of the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming?

Yes, I think we may.  In the same way, the Kingdom (or Realm) of God is always at hand.  But we are required to participate in bringing it into existence.

God is not going to just drop the Kingdom of Heaven upon us, crushing the wicked and rewarding the good.  That was the thought behind apocalypticism, which was very popular in the time of Jesus (both roughly 100-years before and after his execution).  This was the idea that God would come in glory, displace the evil (Romans) and install the City of God in his Heavenly Realm on Earth.  And all would be ruled in peace for 1,000 years.

But that did not happen.  2,000-years have passed, and despite that some argue “soon” means aeons may pass, that is clearly not what the people of Jesus’ time meant.  They meant really soon, as in their own lifetimes soon.  If we choose to read “soon” to mean thousands and thousands of years later, we are not reading the books as they were written to be understood in their own day and age.

And the writers of the mystical Gospel of John were aware of this!  Nearly 70-years had already passed, and a lot of people had given up on the apocalyptic understanding of “soon.”  So they searched for a new interpretation, one they viewed as replacing what they now understood to have been a mistaken interpretation.

And this leads to the mystical understanding of Jesus’ life and the way God seemed to be expressed in the life of Jesus.  This is why we get the “I am” saying, which very clearly means Jesus is God the Father.  But so too, as Jesus is in God, we are in Jesus, and Jesus is in us.  We all are able to embody God the Father!  This is the very radical change that John is bringing to our understanding, not only of Jesus, but of God the Father;  meaning the Uncreated, which brought all that is, into being;  that same vital essence is available to us, and may flow within us, and through us, and through us into the world!

John is a wonderful gospel! Wonder-filled Good News!  From within the Christian New Testament, it offers the most transformative way of understanding Jesus and God.

  • Yes, we may think of the Holy Spirit as the in-dwelling transformative Breath of Life, which brings about the Second Coming, and creates the Realm of Heaven on earth.  But our participation in this transformative experience is required!

May the Lord bless and keep you!


“The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) John Shelby Spong.

Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine

Hearing the Voice of Jesus

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Why is Hearing the Voice of Jesus a Problem in the First Place?

The most obvious reason we find hearing the voice of Jesus so challenging, is that in so far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

At the best of times, literacy rates in the ancient world were very low.  Literacy rates of peasants living in the backwoods of Galilee would have been vanishingly low.  It took a great deal of time and money to learn to read and write.  Dirt poor farmers, fishermen, and other peasants simply did not have the luxury of the time or money required to acquire this set of skills.

So speaking from a strictly historical perspective, it is very unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.  Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was an exception to this rule, however, while one cannot categorically state Jesus was illiterate, we have no objective reason to think otherwise.

And we ought not cite the story of the woman accused of adultery as evidence to the contrary.  This story, which includes the observation that Jesus wrote something in the dirt, does not appear in any manuscripts until the late 4th century, well over 300-years after Jesus’ death.  This story now appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, but over the centuries is has appeared elsewhere, including in an entirely different gospel.  It is a lovely, instructive story, but it cannot be properly attributed to the historical Jesus.

In any event, no writings of Jesus survive.  So to discover the voice of Jesus we are unable to appeal to Jesus directly, as we may with Paul, for example.

20-Year Silence

If anything was written about Jesus during his lifetime, it no longer survives.  In fact, we know of no Christian writings during the 20-years following Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are indications of an oral tradition during this period, but it remained an oral tradition for two decades.

The earliest Jewish-Christian writings we have about Jesus come from the pen of Paul, who began writing in the early 50s.  And as surprising as it may seem to us today, Paul wrote very little about Jesus.  This is because Paul wrote what are called occasional letters, meaning he wrote in response to specific occasions, or problems.

Why is it Important that we Hear the Words of Jesus?

To many ears this may sound like a crazy question.  Some answer, who would *not* wish to hear the very words of God!  Others answer that the original words of Jesus are long lost to history, and can never be recovered, so only a fool would propose the question in the first place.

My answer is to be found somewhere between these stark responses.

I start with the recognition that recovering the original words of Jesus is challenging.  We certainly cannot simply read the Red Letter Edition of the Holy Bible and assume that Jesus really spoke all these words.

The evolution of the Christian New Testament ―which is an anthology of 27 books and letters, written in Greek― grew organically, over a period of decades.  These writings were then transmitted to us over the course of several centuries.  And it took nearly 300-years for these books and letters to coalesce into an agreed upon canon of scripture.

Scholarly historical and textual criticism is able to inform our understanding of this organic process.  Through this scholarship we are able to discern layers of redaction (editing) and interpretation laid over one another throughout the New Testament.  And this is equally true for the words put upon the lips of Jesus by the gospel authors.

But those who already “know” Jesus’ voice is forever lost to us, will never hear it;  just as those who already know every word attributed to Jesus “must be” authentic, will be unable to hear the other voices laid over his.  Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses.  And one must carefully weigh their merits, one saying at a time, teasing apart the accrued layers, when present.

Yet, provided we listen carefully, I do believe we may hear the voice of Jesus through these accrued layers.  But I also acknowledge it takes most of us some time to acquire that ear.
So how might we begin to train our ear to hear Jesus’ voice?  

One approach is to contemplate the various characterizations of Jesus, as represented in the gospels.  If we read these accounts carefully, what might we discern of Jesus?  What might we discern of the author who wrote the text?  Or of the audience to whom it was directed?  What were the completing religious-political concerns of ancient Palestine?

Each of these are useful interrogations of the text.  But in this essay I wish to discuss Jesus.  Some observations about Jesus are almost obvious, while others are quite complex and variously debated even among professionals in the field of biblical and New Testament studies.  So if we become confused at times, at least we are in good company!

Jesus the Jewish Mystic

Jesus was clearly a Jewish mystic.  “Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. … As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God; that was its foundation”  (Marcus Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pgs. 89-90).

Jesus spent long hours in private prayer, which I suspect we would today understand as periods of deep contemplation and meditation.  We might even think of his 40-days in the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest.”  God was an experiential presence in Jesus’ life.  He spoke of God as his father, and even more affectionately as his Abba, which we may translate as Daddy or Poppa.

This speaks to a profound closeness Jesus felt with God.  For Jesus, God was not some distant sky god like Zeus or Jupiter, nor even a remote, abstract version of the Jewish God.  For Jesus, God was present in a deeply meaningful way;  God was experienced as present to Jesus, both in time and proximity.

Jesus the Jewish Prophet

Jesus was clearly a Jewish prophet.  Like other Jewish prophets before him, Jesus spoke of the God of Israel, the importance of centering one’s life in God, and specifically that a deep change was required of the people of Israel, because they and their nation had lost their way.

Prophets tell us we each face two paths:  we may estrange ourselves from God, and suffer as a result;  or we may return to the proper observance of what is important to God, and live with God’s blessing.

And as Marcus Borg observes, Jesus was specifically a social prophet, in the likeness of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, and “as such he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 91).

Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus was clearly a profound teacher.  He was a master of the aphorism (a short, memorable, insightful saying) and metaphor, often teaching in parables.  Jesus was a travelling teacher, so most likely he used his most memorable phrases and stories frequently, although finessing them to fit specific occasions, which is typical of oral traditions.

“At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process.  It involved dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus Taught “The Way”

In the book of Acts we are told the earliest name for what evolved into Christianity was simply, the Way (Acts 9:2).  And choosing to participate in the Way does seem to me an accurate characterization of many of Jesus’ sayings.

We may further observe that many of Jesus’ stories and parables fit quite well into a well-established mode of teaching, common to many world religions, frequently called “Two Way” teachings.  As Marcus Borg states in “The Lost Gospel Q” (page 18):  “There is the wise way and the foolish way, the narrow way and the broad way.  One way leads to life, the other to death.”

Jesus the Healer

Jesus was clearly a extraordinary healer and exorcist.  We know of other noted healers and exorcists in the New Testament period, but “more healing stories are told about Jesus that about any other figure in the Jewish tradition” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I believe this is one of the hardest choices one must ultimately make about Jesus.  Was he an apocalyptic prophet or not?  It seems pretty clear that John the Baptist was, and many scholars believe Jesus must have been a follower of John.  And the canonical gospels do present Jesus as speaking with an apocalyptic voice (as does Q);  Matthew chapter 24 is a good example;  verse 34 is of particular interest to me:

>  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”  (NRSV).

Which leads me to ask the obvious question of how long does a generation last?  2,000 years or longer?  The old work-around to this troubling question is that it is merely metaphoric language, and generation means humankind.  While I do consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to be highly metaphorical ―in the richest meaning of that term― in this case I’ve never found that argument convincing.

A far better explanation to my mind, is this language is reflective of the apocalyptic voice in the 1st century, which was common roughly 100-years before and after the life of Jesus.  In the Jewish apocalyptic movement, there was widespread belief that God was going to overthrow Rome and put in its place a kingdom ruled by God, through his emissary, the Messiah (the Christ, as it comes to us from the Greek, Χριστός).

So the question we have to answer to our individual satisfaction, is to whom shall we attribute these sayings of Jesus?  Did the historical Jesus really make apocalyptic prophecy?  Or did a later author put these words upon the lips of Jesus when writing his gospel?

I will not presume to answer for you, but I will state that I do not believe one may simultaneously hold Jesus to be an apocalyptic prophet and a divine incarnation of God.  Incarnation, means in the flesh, so if one posits that Jesus became divine after his death, this dilemma may resolve itself.

The Kingdom of God

This is a phrase we hear throughout the canonical gospels with some frequency.  Do these words reach back to Jesus?  If so, what might Jesus have meant?

To my experience, main stream Christianity predominately teaches the kingdom of God is referring to a heavenly existence to be experienced after our physical death, or a future second coming of Jesus on earth.  I however, disagree with these views.

The kingdom to which the authentic Jesus spoke, I firmly believe is to be found right here on earth, within each of us, and is found in our loving interactions with others, expressed through such actions as shoeing children, helping to feed the hungry, and providing winter clothing to homeless persons.

This is what Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg sometimes call the participatory model of Christianity.  They use this phrase to mean that the kingdom of God is only going to come about through our personal investment and actions to bring it about, directly into the communities in which we live.

I find this to be both an interesting and practical perspective which holds a lot of merit.  It may be that God could “invade” earth and establish his kingdom forcefully;  but I also think that would defeat the entire point of doing so.  What good would it be to artificially force such a kingdom upon persons who were not sufficiently evolved spiritually to sustain it?

The point is this:  our very natures are changed if we invest ourselves in the process of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth during our lifetimes.  And it is that very process of spiritual transformation that I believe may very well be the critical point.

Which is to say, it really does not do us any good to be “given” the kingdom;  we really only undergo personal, internal spiritual transformation if we mature ―evolve― to the point that we *desire* to help bring that kingdom into existence.  And I believe *that* is the point to which Jesus was trying to open our hearts.

Luke 17:20-21  Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among-within you” (NRSV).

The Jesus Movement

Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee.  Jesus’ followers were primarily Jews, and Jesus primarily ministered to his fellow Jews.  This is the Jewish Jesus Movement which predates Christianity.  A few years after Jesus was crucified, Paul began to teach his understanding of Jesus’ ministry to the Greeks.  Used in this way, to be a “Greek” simply means one is a gentile ― a person who is not Jewish.

Thus, we may also speak of a Greek (or Gentile) Jesus Movement.  As greater numbers of gentiles entered the Jesus Movement, it evolved from a Jewish Jesus Movement, into a predominately Gentile Jesus Movement, and later into various forms of early Christianity.

Identifying the Authentic Voice of Jesus is Far from Obvious

I hope the above discussion allows you to see we may find a number of ways of understanding and characterizing Jesus.  And we may do so while remaining rooted within the canonical texts.  This is an important point.  One may arrive at a number of ways of seeing Jesus, while supporting one’s view entirely from a biblical point of view.  One need not introduce non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, I happen to like the Gospel of Thomas, and take the late Prof. Ron Miller’s lead, and that of The Jesus Seminar, and suspect that perhaps a third of it may reach back to the authentic voice of Jesus.  And for this reason, I do make use of the Gospel of Thomas;  but thoughtfully, and with deliberation.  After all, if we hold the position that about 1/3 of the Gospel of Thomas may be the echo of Jesus’ voice, we are also observing some 2/3 of it fails to capture the voice of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a fellowship of a biblical scholars who have spent decades attempting to identify the authentic voice of Jesus in the ancient texts available to us.  They do include the Gospel of Thomas as viable source material.  Their work has determined that approximately 20% of the “red letter” words of Jesus may be properly attributed to Jesus.

Q Hypothesis

Q is a hypothetical early text of the sayings of Jesus.  No surviving Q manuscript is known to exist.  This is the weakest link in the Q Hypothesis argument.  Supporters will however, point to the recent (mid-1900’s) discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is an authentic sayings gospel.  Where one such gospel was written, so too a second may have been written.

But what is Q?

Q is short for Quelle, from the German, meaning “source.”  It is alternately known as the Q source, the Q document, the Q Gospel, and the Q Sayings Gospel.  But most frequently it is simply called Q.  It is primarily composed of the sayings attributed to Jesus which are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

Scholars who find this hypothesis of value believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote without knowledge of one another, so there must have been a source for the sayings which they share, which are not taken from Mark.  Since both are known to have drawn extensively from the earliest gospel, Mark, it is a natural deduction they may have similarly drawn from another, as yet undiscovered, source document (Q).

Incidentally, the Gospel of John does not enter into such debates because it is clearly, dramatically different than the other canonical gospels.  John was written in the 90’s, after the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and is often referred to as the Fourth Gospel.  (And the Gospel of Thomas is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel, even though it is non-canonical.)

Detractors of the Q Hypothesis often have great difficulty with the invention of an undiscovered document.  Supporters of Q point out there may have already been such discoveries, but we cannot identify them.  Does this sound like a strange claim?  Their point is that if we discover a small scrap of ancient manuscript that only contains a portion of a saying which is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (a partial definition of a Q-saying) we cannot determine whether that scrap originated from Matthew, Luke, or the proposed Q.

Thus, the only way to provide evidence of Q is to find a much larger, much more rare, document fragment which contains at least large portions of two proposed Q-sayings.  Anything less, and detractors simply assume the small fragment originates in either Matthew or Luke.  This logic cannot prove Q ever existed, but it does demonstrate that proving Q will be very difficult.

How Might One Begin to Hear the Voice of Jesus?  

First and foremost, recognize that it is up to each of us to discern our own interpretation.  We may avail ourselves of a great deal of critical scholarship over the last 150-years which may greatly inform our investigation, but ultimately, we each have to come to terms with difficult and sometimes contradictory information.

>  Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?

>  Was the historical Jesus divine?  If so, when, and to what extent?

It is up to *us* to answers these and other difficult questions to our own satisfaction.  Through the process of resolving such questions, our apprehension of Jesus, and his role as the Christ, will progressively be revealed to us.

With the goal of informing our search for the voice of Jesus, I highly recommend studying each of the following books, which discuss Q, Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas.  “The Lost Gospel Q” and “The Gospel of Jesus” may be read quite quickly ―over the course of a quiet afternoon or evening― because the actual text of the ancient documents in each case is quite short;  but do spend time reading their introductions and appendixes.  Ron Miller’s book on the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat longer, but I find it to be superlative (as are all his books and lectures).

>  “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (Marcus Borg)

>  “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar” (Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar)

>  “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice” (Ron Miller)

I always welcome opportunities to mention the talks the late Ron Miller gave to the Theosophical Society.  And since I suspect many readers will not have these three books immediately at hand, I would like to recommend Ron Miller’s talks, which you may immediately access on-line:

In reference to this essay, I would begin with his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas:

For those who enjoy trying to discern the voice of Jesus, I would recommend another book published by The Jesus Seminar:

>  “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Guided by these books, authors such as bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, Ron Miller’s wise counsel, and time spent in quiet contemplation, I believe I have heard an echo of Jesus’ voice, reaching to me across 2,000 years.  My hope is that you too encounter the voice of Jesus.  And that through hearing, you are able to discern a variety of layers which have accrued upon Jesus’ words, as they have come to us in the Christian New Testament.

Upon attuning your hearing to Jesus’ voice, I suspect you may very well apprehend the Way of which Jesus spoke.  Once you do, you cannot help but to begin reading the New Testament with a heart born from above.



Marcus Borg

Book: “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

Book: “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus”

The Jesus Seminar

Book: “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar”

Book: “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Ron Miller

Book: “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice”



Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

O God, who taught the whole world
through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,
draw us, we pray, nearer to you
through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,
and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.
    (Roman Missal)

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.  It is also the first anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  So I thought it appropriate to say a few words about Paul.  I find Paul to be a very complex and interesting person.  His writings are sometimes confusing, sometimes polemic, sometimes mystical.  Paul can both challenge one’s mind and inspire one’s heart.

By happen stance, in recent months I have revisited my studies of Paul, and found a deeper appreciation for his writings than I had previous felt.  If one accepts that Paul wrote all of the books and letters of the bible once attributed to him, he wrote half the New Testament.  If one accepts only those letters which the vast majority of biblical scholars consider Paul to have written (the “authentic” or “uncontested” letters of Paul), then he still authored about one quarter of the New Testament!  So whether we believe Paul wrote 7, 13, or 14 books of the New Testament, we can certainly agree his influence upon the early development of what was to become the Christian Church was quite large.

A rather indirect way of reading Paul, is as a means of better understanding some of the changes that took place within the early church.  Although, calling this the early “church” is somewhat problematic, as this presumes a Christian perspective was in place at that early date.  (This is doubtful at best, and it certainly would not be anything we would recognize as today’s orthodox Christianity.)  Jesus, was of course Jewish, as was Paul.  In fact, it seems safe to say that the vast majority of persons following Jesus would have been Jewish.  In this sense, it is very correct to observe that this “Jesus Movement” took place within Judaism, and was another means of understanding and expressing Judaism.  I am reasonably convinced that Paul must have died thinking of himself as Jewish.  And more specifically as a Jewish Christ Mystic (more about that shortly).

I do not wish to become bogged down in details, but a few chronological markers may be useful.  Jesus was executed by the Romans circa 30 ce.  Paul’s earliest surviving letters were written between 50-67 ce.  Paul was martyred circa 67 ce.  The first gospel (Mark) was written circa 60-75 ce;  Matthew and Luke/Acts circa 75-85 ce;  and John circa 90-95 ce, about the same time frame as Revelation (although written by a different John).  The late letters in the New Testament are usually dated by biblical scholars to between 75-125 ce.

A closer examination of the questions of dating the texts of the New Testament, and proposing a chronological ordering of them, took place in a pair of my previous posts:

There are a few primary touch points to pull out of that string of dates:

  •   Paul is our earliest author of the New Testament.
  •   Paul’s authentic letters pre-date the four gospels.
  •   Among the last texts of the New Testament to be written are the Gospel of John and Revelation.
  •   Also among the last texts to be written are many of the letters found in the New Testament.

We may also observe there is an apparent difference of character of texts written in the 50’s vs those written in the 90’s.  This allow us to read parts of the New Testament against others, to obtain a sense of how the early church was changing, and how its understanding of itself evolved during the first 100 years following the execution of Jesus.  We may most clearly see this in the various letters of the Pauline school.  We may see some of this influence in the Johannine school as well, although they are all later understandings of the church, by which time I believe we may properly speak of a Christian Church.

Which underscores another set of touch stones for better understanding the organization of the New Testament:

  •   The “proto-church” prior to the 50’s is best understood as a Jesus Movement, taking place within Judaism.
  •   The “proto-church” of the 50’s and 60’s may be understood as developing into a schism between the Jewish and Gentile Movements.
  •   Both of the above are best understood as separate movements, stemming from a common Jewish Jesus Movement.
  •   The church of the 90’s is best understood as having by that date developed a distinctive Christian Church self-identity.
  •   It is often useful to think of the proto-church of the 50’s and Christian Church of the 90’s as distinctly different from one another.  To use round numbers, I sometimes speak of these as the proto-church of the 50’s and the early Christian Church of the 100’s.

So what has this to do with Paul?

The collection of Pauline writings are understood by the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians as ranging chronologically from the early 50’s to the 90’s, and in some cases even later.  Clearly, if this is true and Paul died in about 67 ce, he cannot be the author of all the letters written in his name.

It is fair to point out this is hotly debated in some circles.  One may find opinions ranging from Paul wrote all of Paul’s letters, to Paul only wrote the seven uncontested/authentic letters.  I number among the second group.  Therefore, I see several “Paul’s” as contributing to the collection of Pauline texts.  In fact, there are at least three or four different Paul’s.  And given Paul’s character plays such a large role in Acts, I think it is appropriate to count that as the fourth Paul.

The first is the “authentic” Paul who wrote in the 50’s and 60’s.

  •   First Thessalonians     (c. 51 ce/AD)
  •   Philippians                   (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   Philemon                      (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   First Corinthians         (c. 53-54 ce)
  •   Galatians                      (c. 55 ce)
  •   Second Corinthians     (c. 55-56 ce)
  •   Romans                        (c. 55-58 ce)

The second Paul is the author (or authors) of the “disputed” or “contested” letters of Paul.  Scholarship is roughly evenly divided on these letter, as to who wrote them.  It is possible that by this time there was a “school of Paul” which produced these texts, either with the authentic Paul as a contributor, or after his death, but still close enough to feel a close kinship with most of Paul’s central teachings.

  •   Colossians
  •   Second Thessalonians
  •   (Ephesians, which is a “circular” letter, is sometimes placed here.)

The third and last group is the Pseudepigraphic (forgeries) Paul.  Almost no one thinks Paul wrote these letters.

  •   Pastoral epistles (letters) of 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus
  •   Ephesians (unless one places it in the second grouping)

The fourth Paul is the character represented in Acts.  This is clearly not actually Paul, in the sense that when “Paul” is speaking in Acts, the author is writing as all ancient historians did, placing on Paul’s lips those words which the author thought Paul would have spoken in those or similar circumstances.  Acts is a secondary source, and we should bear this in mind when Acts is at odds with Paul’s own letters.

These are the various Paul’s.  I find this to be highly instructive as Paul is a complex figure, and often misunderstood and even, I feel, sometimes misrepresented.  This is one of the reasons “Paul” presents such a divisive bone of contention among some Christians.  How are we to read Paul?  Did Paul teach we are all one in Christ, or was Paul a misogynist?  Are we to seek freedom in this life, or remain slaves?  Engage in an active sexual life (within marriage) or should we remain celibate?  Do we love Paul or revile him?

Each of these competing views of Paul have an answer.

In some cases the apparent dichotomy is illuminated by understanding Paul better.  Paul was an apocalyptic Jew.  Among other things, this means he believed in a future bodily resurrection.  Not only this, he believed Jesus’ resurrection was best understood as the First Fruits of the wider general resurrection, and that the general resurrection was soon to come.  Therefore, it is best to remain celibate and concentrate upon the dawning Kingdom.  And for those unable to remain celibate, to marry.  Therefore, if a slave it is best to remain a slave.  If already married, remain married.  What these views have in common is that the end is soon to come (Paul fully expected to be alive for the general resurrection), so there is no point in changing your mundane life;  one should instead focus upon the sacred.

I believe we can be certain had Paul known that “soon” meant 2,000-years or more, in some ways his teaching would have been quite different.  This is a valid point to my mind, and one of which we should be cognisant.

But all of the above, as interesting and instructional as I personally find it, is not really the most vital and important aspects of what I feel Paul was trying to teach us.  I feel the most vibrant and deeply meaningful way of reading Paul is as a Jewish Christ Mystic.

Jewish. Christ. Mystic.

Each of these words is important, and draws us into a closer understanding of Paul.  He was Jewish.  In fact, he was a pharisee.  Pharisee’s have gotten a bad reputation over the centuries.  But most basically they were extremely concerned with keeping the laws of the Torah.  So much so, for fear of breaking these laws, they developed an even more strict interpretation!  But Paul was also an apocalyptic Jew.  This meant the end of the present era was to come to an end, and God would bring about a new world.

And what of Christ?  Paul himself states he initially prosecuted Christians!  (Although that specific term may be anachronistic.)  Why?  I think the most reasonable explanation is the claim that Jesus had been resurrected, and was therefore the Jewish messiah.  This would have been categorically unbelievable to Paul, a skilled Jewish pharisee.  Jesus was crucified, and that alone would preclude him from ever being any kind of Jewish messiah.  Jesus would have been cursed by God, not raised into glory by God!

But then Paul had his conversion experience on the road from Damascus.

Paul either saw and/or heard the raised Jesus, and this experience totally and completely changed him for the rest of his life!  This is when Paul came to understand that Jesus *had* been raised, and this understanding was framed by his apocalyptic world view.  Thus, Jesus becomes the risen Christ and is the First Fruits of the impending general resurrection.

And this is where Paul begins to develop his mystical understanding of what role the Christ plays in our lives.  I would say this is one of the central tenets of Paul’s mission, as he saw it.  This is also my favorite aspect of Paul’s teachings.  Central to Paul’s teaching is experiencing the risen Christ in our lives.  This may happen in a variety of ways, some identified by Paul and some not.

As a mystic Paul was all about the *experience* of being in the Presence of the Divine.  Paul himself had a number of such experiences.  This is what I find so appealing about Paul.  Whatever we may make of his letters, we can appreciate that he had a number of experiences of Divine Communion.  And this is something to which we may all aspire!

Within Paul’s mystical teachings there are two themes which run hand in hand.

The first is of personal transformation.  We must put on the mind of Christ, and allow the Christ to live in us, through us, for us to become one in the same with the Christ.  The second point is in having this experience of personal connection to the Divine, and experiencing the personal transformation that comes from such an experience, to effect transformation of the world!

*Both* points are very critical to Paul.  And I think it is fair to read Paul as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, yet it is each of *us* who must do what we are able to bring this Kingdom into our world.  It is a participatory event, in which we are integral members, not inactive hanger-ons!

Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”  (1 Cor. 13:13).

This is the light by which I read Paul.  When I find a passage which conflicts with these aspirations, and which conflict with his two central teachings of personal transformation and transformation of the world, then I feel confident either Paul did not write that, or we misunderstand Paul’s meaning.

Recommendations for further study of Paul.

I wish to leave this feast day message with two recommendations for the further study of Paul.  One is a lecture series about the apostle Paul given by Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk, and offered through The Great Courses web site.  The second is a book written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, entitled “The First Paul.”

Prof. Johnson holds a very different view of Paul than do I, as he reads all of the Pauline material as being directly or indirectly authored by the apostle Paul.  He offers a wonderful and stimulating lecture series which I highly recommend.  One of the points I find most interesting turns on a widespread misinterpretation of the original Greek in one of Paul’s letters.  He explains this much more fully in his lecture, but the issue concerns faith *in* Jesus or the faith *of* Jesus.  As many Christians will recognize, one of these views forms a cornerstone of Christian Faith for a great many Christians!  Yet it is based in a misinterpretation of the original Greek.

This is a subtle and to my way of thinking very important distinction.  Having faith *in* Jesus really removes us from the process.  We cast our “faith” upon Jesus, and therefore we are saved.  Simple to understand.  But for many, not such an easy thing to accomplish!  I think it is fair to say Martin Luther struggled with this greatly in his life!  Marcus Borg says he did too.  And so have I.  (I’m in good company at least!)

Having faith *of* Jesus may be read a number of different ways.  In part I believe this is because it is born of a mystic interpretation, and such interpretations are always at least a little misty, if not down right foggy!  First, we recognize that Jesus had a tremendous and deep faith in God.  In this light, the path to God is not through faith *in* Jesus, but in having the same quality of faith *of* Jesus *in* God!  See the difference?  *We* are active participants in this process.  As I think we must be, if personal transformation is one of the vital keys (as I do).

I relate this to the theme of theosis which is so important to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but which has been largely lost here in the West since the Great Schism in the 11th century.  And I also relate this to putting on the mind of Christ, as Paul spoke of so often.

The book authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offers a wonderful collection of insights to Paul!  I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both refreshing and instructive.  One of the main themes they paint is that of Paul the Jewish Christ Mystic.  I really do think this grabs a hold of something vital in Paul.  And I do not think we can really understand Paul without seeing him in this light.

This book is a mixture of solid scholarly historical research, and of developing a sincere appreciation for the Mystical Paul.  And we need both.  We need to understand as well as we may the world of the 1st century, and we need to read Paul as a mystic, trying to reveal to us what he may of his experience of the Divine, and how we might take part in the spiritual transformation of the world.

“The greatest of these is love.”

If we don’t get that -until that hits us on a gut level- we are missing the whole point of the New Testament!

Offered with blessings,
On my first anniversary as priest,
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

May the Lord Bless you and Keep you,
Father Erik

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts

This is a follow-up to an earlier blog, “Chronological View of the New Testament.”  Once I begin thinking about the New Testament chronologically, one of the next questions which comes to my mind, is what are the dates of the surviving New Testament manuscripts?


Download PDF,  Table & Chart:  Earliest Fragments of the New Testament


We may think of this in the form of a two-part question:

  1.   When were the books and letters of the New Testament originally written?
  2.   What are the dates of the surviving documents?

As it turns out, these are in fact two very different questions.  The first question I dealt with in the earlier blog, along with the question of *who* wrote these books and letters (in most cases we simply do not know).  I also presented a chart of this information, which I suggest may be useful in one’s study.

This blog will open the examination of the second question, that of dating what early Christian texts survive.  To begin with, there are no known surviving *original* texts (or even fragments) of the books and letters of the New Testament.  Those long ago wore out, were destroyed, lost, or turned to dust.

In fact, even the first several generations of copies are thought by most scholars to be lost to us.  These were “working” documents, by which I mean they were used as communication devices.  As such they would have been read out loud to gatherings of people on an on-going basis.  They were *not* holy books and letters carefully hidden away and cared for;  they were hand-written documents used to conduct the “normal business” of worship, liturgy, and instruction.

This means the first copies, and copies of those copies, and likely copies of those copies, simply wore out from use.  As a copy became too worn to be used, it was copied again.  When another group wished to have a copy of one of your letters, or you of theirs, a copy was written out by hand.

I think it is useful for us to understand this point.  These books and letters only became “holy scripture” at a later date.  At first, they were just normal tools of communication.

How do we date the early Christian texts which do survive?

Answering the questions surrounding the dating of these texts quickly becomes quite complex.  Scholars differ in their opinions.  Prof. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace have had a number of debates on this topics.  I find their discussion quite interesting, and perhaps you may as well.  If you are not familiar with Dr. Wallace I would suggest first watching his solo presentation, and then the debate between Ehrman and Wallace (both were offered on YouTube when I published this blog):

  •   Wallace, 45-min. presentation
  •   Ehrman-Wallace Debate, 2-hours
  •   (In the event these links are no longer valid, I suggest simply doing an Internet search of their names, Ehrman Wallace, and and you should find links to their debates as well as supporting information for both their positions.)

In discussing this information, a few points should be made.  The obvious point is this subject is still debated by recognized scholars who are expects in this field.  We must expect differences in opinion.

Another point is there are several ways of categorizing these documents and fragments.  We should begin by understanding that when the word papyrus is used, so far as I have been able to determine, this always means a relatively small piece of ancient “paper” (made from reeds).  Often these are only small fragments the size of a postage stamp, credit card, or index card.  When we speak of manuscripts these are larger documents, the average length of which is 450-pages according to Dr. Wallace.  (There are several subcategories of these, but we need not address such points in this blog.)

Scholars seem to be in wide agreement that a small credit card sized fragment, called P52 (P for papyrus;  52 for the 52nd officially catalogued papyri), is the earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament and dates to 100-150 ce.  The earliest complete copies of individual books and letters of the New Testament date to about 200 ce.  And the earliest complete New Testament bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (a codex is a “book” as we understand it, leaves of paper sewn together on one edge) dates to circa 350 ce.

  •   (In the debate, Dr. Wallace states new discoveries will advance the earliest fragments into the 1st century ce, but until the evidence survives peer review, it seems too early to speak to this question.)

Thus, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament dates to about 100-years after the death of Jesus, and our earliest surviving complete edition of the New Testament dates to about 300-years after the death of Jesus.

It is also worth recalling the canon was not yet agreed upon even in 350 ce.  In 367 ce Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, authoritatively published the first known list of the same 27 books found in our modern canon.  However, we should recognize he published his list specifically so that churches under his control would cease using other books and letters in their liturgy.  It stands to reason he felt he had to do so exactly because other books and letters were being so used.

Authorities differ in their opinions, as they always do, but it may have taken another 50 or 100 years for a wider consensus to be reached.  Even so, debate among the church leadership regarding the proper canon continued into the 1500’s, and even into the 1600’s.

  •   Canon of Trent (1546, Roman Catholicism)
  •   Gallic Confession of Faith (1559, Calvinism)
  •   Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, Church of England)
  •   Synod of Jerusalem (1672, Greek Orthodox)

New Manuscripts Are Still Being Discovered

Dr. Wallace offers an interesting slide during his solo presentation.  He shows us how many manuscripts were available to those who compiled the King James Version of the bible (1611 ce), and how many are now available (as of 2012, the year of his presentation).  The change is very large!  Also note the year of the earliest available manuscript.  This too is interesting.

YEAR      Number of MSS      EARLIEST MSS
1611                    7                       11th Century
2012             5,800+                      2nd Century

As one can see, we are approaching 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  (Dr. Wallace’s count is about 5,900 and slowly increasing as new discoveries are catalogued.)  And some of the earliest are dating to within 100-200 years of the death of Jesus.

While there are differences between each one of them, even those most closely related to one another, the vast majority of these differences make no difference at all.  Some are spelling errors, some use an unnecessary word (such as “the Mary and the Joseph”);  other differences are so small as to only be apparent in the original Greek, and are not even translatable into English.

Dr. Wallace offers the opinion that less than 1% of the differences are significant, and may also alter the reading of the verse in which they take place.  On the other hand, he is of the opinion none of these alterations are significant enough to be considered primary challenges to core theological concepts.  Interestingly, Prof. Ehrman agreed.

I find this interesting because elsewhere I have understood Ehrman to hold the opinion some of these alterations could be considered significant to one’s theology.  However, I will have to do more research investigating this question before writing about it.

“Differences that make a difference” (Ehrman)

So what then, are the “differences that make a difference” which these two experts discussed?  And how is it that a difference may make a difference, but not a theologically significant difference?  Especially when, according to Ehrman, such differences include questioning the nature of the the following theological points:

  •   Trinity
  •   Full divinity of Jesus
  •   Full humanity of Jesus
  •   Atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death

Ehrman and Wallace did not answer these questions in their debate.  I will point out for whomever may be interested, that one may wish to examine the Nicene Creed.  By carefully examining this Creed one is able to determine that various church leaders were in heated debate with one another over the proper interpretation of scripture and church tradition.

However, close examination of the Creed is not the purpose of this blog.  One may conduct an Internet search on this topic, should one find it of interest.  The history of its formation is quite involved, and it ultimately forced the split of the Eastern and Western Church – called the Great Schism.  (Ultimately, the Great Schism took place over the splitting of a single letter, in a single word of the Creed.  But many decades of argument led up to this final straw of dispute.)

Read from a certain point of view, the Creed is an exclusionary vehicle.  The words were chosen with great care both to affirm a certain understanding of Christianity, but arguably even more importantly, to specifically exclude other understandings of Christianity.

I am one who reads the Creed as an exclusionary vehicle.  I am also personally much more motivated by a unifying form of Christianity, than by a divisive form.  This is why I prefer the inclusionary Act of Faith.  Jesus is reported to have considered all of the Law and Prophets to have stood on Love:  Love of God, and Love of all others.  With this thought in mind, I offer for your consideration, the text of the Nicene Creed and the Act of Faith:

The 1979 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Act of Faith

We believe that God, is Love, the Power, the Truth, and the Light.
That all, shall one day become, One with the Divine.
We hold, the Grace of God, is the Unity of humanity.
We know, we do serve the Lord best, as we best serve, our brothers and sisters.
So shall Christ’s blessing rest upon us, and peace for evermore. Amen.

Sweating Blood

Ehrman cites Luke chapter 22 as an example of differences which make a difference.  He refers to the story of Jesus sweating blood prior to his being betrayed and turned over to the Romans for execution on the cross.

Ehrman makes the point this sweating blood is *not* found in the earliest and best manuscripts of Luke.  So we know there has been a change made by the scribes who copied this text.  The question is in which direction:  was the sweating blood added or removed?  when?  why?

The argument which Ehrman offers (and to which I agree) is that the Gospel of Luke was seen as being too passionless.  It is sometimes called the “passionless Passion of Christ.”  It is also sometimes pointed to in order to argue that Jesus was so fully Divine as not to be human (and thus had no fear of his “Passion”).  This idea did not sit well with later scribes, so they changed the text so that it included Jesus’ sweating blood, demonstrating both a human condition and a man very much concerned with his coming Passion.

This is a difference that makes a difference, to be sure.  But how theologically significant is it, really?  I’d suggest this depends if one reads Luke to be portraying a non-human Jesus or not.  If one reads Luke’s Jesus as already being human and Divine, it is not a theologically significant difference.  However, if this scene is the pivotal scene which changes one’s understanding of Jesus to include being very much human, and of suffering his Passion, it makes a very, very significant theological difference.

How might these insights change how one reads the New Testament?  

It is not my place to try to tell you how to interpret this scene, or any other, in the New Testament.  But I would ask you to consider the ramifications of scribes altering the text of the New Testament, and doing so intentionally.  Erroneous mistakes are a given, easily forgiven and usually quite easy to detect:  no harm, no foul.  But making intentional changes are of an entirely different category.

What I take from this line of enquiry is that the New Testament is a very human work, and demonstrates a series of attempts to understand the life of Jesus, and what he reveals to us of the Divine.  Something profound took place 2,000-years ago, and it took persons decades, hundreds of years, to work through what happened.  And 2,000-years later you and I are still working through what that life of Jesus means to us.

No doubt, the initial stories of Jesus were carried forth in an oral tradition.  As time passed, these stories began to be written down.  But first, a mystic experienced a life-changing conversion, in which he was confronted by the risen Christ.  He began travelling city to city, forming small house churches where he could.  When these churches experienced internal difficulties, he preferred to re-visit them personally to clarify their understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.  When he was unable to re-visit them personally, he sent his representative to sort out these difficulties.  And when this was not possible, he wrote letters addressing the specific concerns of churches he formed.  That person was Paul, and a number of his letters survive.

As these various texts were held in increasing regard, they were copied and spread from one group of Christians to another.  And the only way to copy a text in the ancient world was for someone to sit down and copy the book or letter one single character at a time, word by word, line by line;  hopefully making as few errors as possible.  And as these cherished texts were worn out they were copied;  and copied again;  and again.

This is how the early manuscripts, which were ultimately to become scripture, came to us.  They were deemed to be important documents, to be sure.  But initially they were not understood to be “scripture,” although in time they were seen in this light.  So am I certain many scribes took great care in copying the texts which they encountered.  And I am equally certain some scribes were some combination of tired, careless, or less skilled, and as a result, errors creep into the texts.  (And, sadly, some just did not like what had been written before them, and changed the text to better fit their own theological understanding.)

Making errors in this environment is unavoidable.  Anyone who doubts this can test it for themselves.  Open you bible to the Gospel of Mark and copy it out in its entirely onto sheets of paper.  If you can find a willing partner, have them produce their own copy from your copy.  If you want a more accurate test, you need to find five or ten willing partners, and each copy a letter or book of the bible and re-copy them amongst yourselves.  Then compare these copies one to the other, and then to the bibles from which each of you started.  I fully expect you will find errors.  And the odds are you are better educated than most scribes were 2,000-years ago.

I for one, do not see an obvious answer.  

Errors did take place.  We have the ancient manuscripts which document this took place.  Some scholars claim the differences are really more or less insignificant.  Other scholars think there are at least some significant differences.

By and large, I suspect we do have something pretty close to the “original” texts (although, we can never be certain this is true).  On the other hand, I also know no two ancient texts were identical, and I know in some cases intentional changes were made.  Therefore, I know I am dealing with altered documents.

I also know that I do not fluently read Greek, therefore I am likely to miss shades of meaning at times.  And most of us cannot read any Greek, so we are at the mercy of those who interpret from Greek into English.  There must be times meaning is lost or changed, because that is the nature of translating across languages.  Some words and ideas do not translate perfectly.  And is the translator to make his translation as literal as possible, or to fit the meaning of the source text as closely as possible?  (Frequently, it is impossible to do both;  all translations are a series of such compromises.)

So I know I am not dealing with a pristine text, and I know I am dealing with a human text.  I am not reading the Hand of God.  I am reading copied and translated thoughts another human being had of their impression of the Divine;  or farther removed from the source, of an impression of another person’s experience of the Divine.

This is far from simple to sort out.  It requires subtlety.  It certainly requires subtlety if one is inclined to mine into the space between the written words.  But I also believe there is an underlying Truth which is still conveyed to us through the text, despite all the difficulties.

There are levels of understanding and personal revelation at work.  

There is the initial revelation which one might be struck by as a new Christian.  I view these as more basic and broadly stated concerns which impact our lives.  But by “basic” I do not lacking vitality, these often strike a person with profound life-changing strength.  By “basic” I mean one may be able to organize one thoughts around them sufficiently to write them down on a piece of paper.

Other apprehensions are more subtle, more abstract, and frankly, more confusing insights that one must puzzle through to one’s own spiritual satisfaction.  Some of these are even paradoxical, and we cannot presume to ever discover an answer.

But perhaps we are not supposed to feel *that* certain in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ?  perhaps we are supposed to leave an opening for Divine Mystery in our lives, and in our interactions with others?

My heart-felt suggestions for you are:

  •   Do not simply believe everything you are told.
  •   Read the New Testament prayerfully, mindfully, with discernment.
  •   Read the New Testament with both an open mind and open spirit.
  •   Embrace holding your mind open, and strive to see from alternate points of view.
  •   Open your spirit to intuition.
  •   Truth speaks to those with ears to hear.

Offered with blessings, on Christmas Eve 2013, when our thoughts turn to the meaning of Jesus, the Christ, and how our lives are impacted by his life, some 2,000-years later.


The following are a collection of additional links of interest for those who enjoy getting lost in library stacks!



Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Vaticanus:

Codex Alexandrinus:

Which Version of the Holy Bible is Best?

Anyone who knows me, knows this is a rhetorical question;  if you have been reading much of my blog, you may well have come to the same conclusion.  There is of course a point to the question.  At least three points, in fact!

  •   Which bible?
  •   Which version?
  •   “Best” for what?

Which bible?  

“Bible” derives from the Greek, βιβλίο, or biblio, and it just means “book.”  Any book.  Of course, in the United States most think of the Christian bible if you just say “the bible.”  But we still might wish to know if we are speaking of a Protestant bible or a Catholic bible, as there are some differences between the two.  And some Eastern Orthodox bibles include a few books not found in Western bibles.  Beyond these considerations, we might also ask about the differences between the Hebrew bible and the Christian Old Testament.

As we quickly see, even this simple question can become somewhat complex.

The first point I think important to appreciate is that the Christian bible is comprised of two parts.  The first part is the Hebrew bible;  the second part is the New Testament.  Both of these are anthologies, a collection of ancient books and letters written by a variety of persons.  The Hebrew bible was written across many hundreds of years, while the New Testament was written in roughly a 100-year span, beginning about 30-years or so after Jesus was executed by the Romans.

It is always dangerous to make simplified statements in this area of study, but *essentially* the Christian Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew bible, although arranged differently.  The Hebrew bible was revised in the first century of the Common Era, removing those books for which Jewish tradition says there could be found no copies written in Hebrew.  The assumption was if they could not find any copies written in Hebrew, these books did not belong in the Hebrew bible.  Christians too have historically held some differences in opinion as to which books should be included in their Old Testament (and still do).  Martin Luther felt a number of books should be removed, and most Protestant bibles observe this form to this day.  From this stems the differences between the Protestant and Catholic bibles.

This is only a very rough sketch of the long and complex (and on certain points, still debated) process of determining the canon of Hebrew and Christian bibles.  A great deal more research may be done on the subject, and for those who find this of interest, it is quite an intriguing area of study.

The main point I wish to make for this blog, is simply to alert the reader there are several different authorized versions of the “bible” with which you may wish to be familiar:  the Hebrew bible;  the Christian Protestant bible;  the Christian Catholic bible;  and the Eastern Orthodox bibles.  All hold equal claim to being “the bible.”

The next question is:  Which version?  

At this point I will drop the Hebrew bible from the conversation and refer to only the New Testament.  More specifically still, I will only refer to either the Protestant and Catholic bibles.  Even with these limitations we have a dizzying array of choices before us!  The Biblical Archaeology web site ( currently offers a very useful PDF guide, highlighting the major differences between 33 versions of the Christian bible.  I found it quite interesting and helpful in determining which bible one may prefer:

Beyond this, I would also like to point out there are a number of “study” bibles one may purchase.  Many of these are quite good, and provide useful introductions to every book within the bible.  Reading these summaries are a wonderful way to begin reading a given book of the bible, and is a very good place to start when looking up a particular verse.  It really adds a lot of depth and dimension to one’s studies.  Critical understanding of the bible is strongly effected by context:  context of that particular book or letter to the rest of the bible;  context of the author to his audience;  and the context within history.  As these considerations are better understood, we may turn to the context of a given passage to the text in which it is embedded.  Among my favourite study bibles are:

  •   “Harper-Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version” (with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books)
  •   “The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation” (edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane)

What about interlinear bibles?

A useful study tool is an interlinear bible.  These bibles provide several languages, one written above the other, line by line, so you may make direct comparisons in your bible study.  These tend to be more expensive bibles, and they are offered by fewer publishers, however there are online versions, one of which is:

If you take a look at the page for Genesis chapter one, you’ll get an idea how an interlinear bible is arranged.  Note that Hebrew reads from the right to the left, so when reading Genesis 1:1, for example, you must start reading at the right edge of the screen, and work your way to the left.  Below the Hebrew, the English translation is displayed.  Sometimes Hebrew words have no corresponding word in English, and sometimes several.

The numerals above the Hebrew typically correspond to Strong’s lexicon, which allows you to look up words by their assigned number.  Why would one wish to do that?  You will discover that the number for a given word always is assigned to the same word in the original language, however, it may be assigned to several words in the language into which it is being translated.  This allows us to see that the original word carries multiple meanings, and this helps us understand which may be the better translation for a given passage, yet be better understood differently in another passage.  And, importantly, this allows us to work with the source language and verify the translation appear to be accurate;  or perhaps we will discover some subtle shades of meaning which would otherwise remain hidden to us:

Which leaves us to answer which is the “best” version of the bible?  

This is impossible to answer, because it depends upon one’s needs and preferences.  For myself, there are some passages which simply only “sound right” to my ear when spoken in the King James version.  On the other hand, I know there are hundreds of words used in that version of the bible which no longer mean what they did when it was written, some of which are now extremely misleading.  Furthermore, I know it was originally sourced from what are now known to have been inferior copies of the manuscripts (this was unintentional;  at the time they made use of the best, or only, copies to which they had access).  So for these reasons, I do not use the King James version when I am critically reading the bible.  But when I want beautiful, poetic prose, I do tend to prefer the King James version.

Of the modern translations, my favorite is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  I also enjoy the New American Bible (NAB) translation.  But realistically, all modern translations are on par with one another, and for the most part make good use of modern biblical scholarship.  Personally, I like to have several translations at hand.

A very useful online study tool is the Bible Gateway web site ( which offers a large number of translations, and the ability to compare them side by side.  This is usually where I begin my bible study, because it is so fast and easy to cross compare multiple translations:

If one is really wishing to get into the thick of working out a translation, one should explore the source language.  In most cases, that is going to be Hebrew for the Hebrew bible, and Greek for the New Testament.  One of the areas I especially enjoy this line of enquiry is when names of God appear in the Christian Old Testament.  This is one case where we who do not speak Hebrew lose a lot in translation.  And I suspect those of us who are not Jewish usually fail to appreciate the depth of tradition in how the various names of G-d are used.

(When speaking from a Christian perspective, I’ll type out “God” but I feel this inappropriate when speaking from a Jewish perspective because they consider this blasphemous;  hence the use of “G-d.”)

It is all really quite interesting!  Words may mean different things in the same language, change in meaning across time, and we even debate the proper definition of certain words to this day!  Surely, this has always been the case.  Add to this the difficulty in translating from one language to another, and dealing with the many decisions in so doing, such as whether one should be translating as literally as possible, or for as similar a meaning as possible, and we can see a great deal of work goes into making a given translation of “the bible.”

And I hope you also see why it is not possible for there to be any “one” or “best” translation of the bible.

Offered with blessings,

Chronological View of the New Testament



A number of points may be made about this topic.  One, which I’ll only briefly mention, is the effort to edit and publish a “chronological” bible, or alternately to offer a chronological study plan.  Closely associated with these ideas is an approach to biblical study which some scholars call a “horizontal” reading of the bible.

To understand what it means to read the bible horizontally, first consider how one might read the bible vertically.  In fact, this is what most of us do all the time.  We pick up a book, start at the beginning and read through to the conclusion.  This is top-down, or vertical, reading.

Should we decide to read the gospels, most of us will read them in the order in which they are found in the bible, and start reading each book from chapter one.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and then John:  top-to-bottom, sequential, vertical reading.

While this makes a great deal of sense when reading a novel, it may or may not be the most practical way of reading an anthology such as the bible, or of trying to make sense of reports filed by witnesses.  When multiple persons are presenting their testimony of an event, it often makes more sense to compare testimony at each important development during the event in question.

We seem to intuit this when speaking of a court case, but for some reason many of us have a blind spot when considering the testimony surrounding the events of the life of Jesus.  I suspect this is because many of us do not take the time to make a careful study of the gospel accounts.  Among those who do, many find a “horizontal” reading of the gospels provides new insights.

I personally find a horizontal reading of the bible offers valuable perspective.  But we should be aware there are both advantages as well as potential disadvantages in reading the bible horizontally.

I find one of the largest advantages in a horizontal reading of the bible is that we are able to contrast and compare specific commentary concerning the same event.  Consider for example, the birth narratives of Jesus.  Why do they differ?

(Or, at the very beginning of this investigation, one discovers the gospels *do* differ on this point.  This can be quite a surprise!)

Perhaps one of the most simple observations is found by examining the two (yes, different) genealogies of Jesus.  (This is an irreparable break in the inerrant argument, by the way.)  In one case, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back to Abraham (see Matthew chapter 1), and in the other all the way back to Adam and then to God the Creator (see Luke chapter 3).

But why the difference?

I fall into the camp which suggests that in one case Jesus’ ancestry was traced back to Abraham to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish roots, and in the other case to emphasize Jesus’ ancestry as common to all humankind, and related in such a way as to make sense to a pagan of the 1st century.  The author of Matthew largely directs his account to those sharing a Jewish-centric view of the world, and is the most closely tied of the gospels to the Jewish bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  The author of Luke-Acts, on the other hand,  seems to be addressing a pagan or Roman audience, and wishes Jesus to be understood as closely related to all of humanity.

  •   One point which I hope everyone takes from the above observations, is that each book and letter in the bible is written to make a point.  And, most importantly, these points differ one from the other.  This understanding is really important to grasp.

Returning to the birth narrative, reflect upon our traditional Christmas stories.  We typically find a manger scene, three kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and shepherds in attendance.  Yet it never happened;  it is a conflation of the various stories found in the bible.

Conflation becomes a problem when we no longer appreciate the differences in each account;  it becomes a problem when we fail to understand there were a number of ways of struggling with the meaning of the life of Jesus, and instead we just blend all the stories of Jesus -or the entire New Testament, let alone both the Jewish and Christian bibles!- into one averaged-out, homogenized account.

A single story, the bible is not!

To fall into this misunderstanding, is to misapprehend the unique messages each author of the bible is attempting to relate.  However, once one is aware of this potential downfall, there is much to be offered by horizontal readings of the bible.  Below are two resources one might consider if investigating this manner of reading/studying the bible;  I am certain there are many others:

  •   NIV Integrated Study Bible: A New Chronological Approach for Exploring Scripture by John R. Kohlenberger III
  •   Reader’s Guide to the Bible: A Chronological Reading Plan by George H. Guthrie

A Chronological Ordering of the New Testament

Next I’d like to offer a simple listing of the books and letters of the New Testament, in chronological order.  Note that I said “a” chronological ordering, and not “the” chronological ordering.  There is always debate about when to date each of these texts.  I have offered a rough approximation which I find useful.

Be advised, that for my own use and concern, I care less whether 3rd John pre-dated 2nd John, or whether 2nd Thessalonians pre-dated Hebrews.  To my mind these are more scholarly debates, and of less practical importance to most persons.  Myself included.

However, I find it very important to know that a number of the letters attributed to Paul may very well have been written long after his death!  And I find it important to know that Mark was the earliest gospel, that Mark was followed by Matthew and Luke-Acts, and that all of these were followed much later, a generation or two later in fact, by the Gospel of John.

Furthermore, I find it very useful to know that Luke-Acts is in fact, Luke-Acts:  as in Part 1 and Part 2.  I also find it very important to know that Paul’s (authentic) letters are the earliest Christian writings we have (although perhaps some of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas may be even earlier), and that these pre-date the gospels.

For that matter, it is useful to understand that Paul does not seem to be aware of the gospels, nor the gospel writers of Paul’s letters.  And we certainly should know that some scholars date the Pastoral Letters well after Revelation (written around 90-95 c.e. by most estimates), and that the Pastoral Letters may be the oldest texts found in the New Testament.

At the other extreme are the earliest letters of Paul, written in the 50’s, approximately 20-years after Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Paul was himself executed about 67 c.e. so any letter written by “Paul” after this date must be a forgery (a point we will soften by identifying them as pseudepigraphical – more on that below).

This is all helpful in developing our understanding of the bible’s contents.  We should know that when we read Paul’s uncontested letters, there was no church structure in place.  And we should know that by the time the letters of John, the Pastoral Letters, and Revelation were written, there was an established, structured church, at least in a number of cities.

And beyond this scope, we should realize all of the writings found in the bible represent proto-church structure.  The formation of what we today think of as The Church came about in the 4th century, along with an accepted canon of which books and letters would be included in the New Testament.  This is one reason why New Testament authors cannot refer to one another’s texts to determine what belongs in the New Testament:  the New Testament did not exist until some 300 years after they were individually, and frequently independently, written.

This means nearly 400 years of practising Christianity took place before there was wide adoption of the same New Testament canon!  As late as 180 c.e. (aka A.D.) even which books were to be considered as the only gospels was still being debated.  The Church Father Irenaeus offers the earliest surviving assertion that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are the only legitimate gospels.  As Bart Ehrman observes, I’m not certain we would all agree with Irenaeus’ reasoning today (“Against the Heresies”):

  •   It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.

And it is not until the 367 c.e. Easter letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, that we find the same list of books that are in our New Testament authoritatively presented as having been “canonized.”  Several ecclesiastical councils were later held between the years 393-419 c.e. which seem to affirm this canon selection.  But these councils did not settle the matter.  Up to the 16th century debate continued in some circles regarding the letters of James, Jude, Hebrews, and the book of Revelation.

These are some of the reasons I find an objective, historical-critical study of the bible is important in helping us form a more clear and effective understanding of the bible.  I don’t take the critical view so liberally as to say there is nothing definitive in the study of the bible, but I cannot take such a conservative view as to say it is all unbiased, factual information;  and certainly it is not the Word of God, to be taken literally, as if the New Testament dropped out of heaven as Jesus ascended into the heavens.  The truth is far more complicated, and is to be found somewhere between these extremes.

As I indicated earlier, one can find other datings for all of these books and letters.  Do not assume the list I am presenting is “gospel.”  Some alternate arrangements offer logical arguments to support their view, and one should consider their opinions, and weigh them against others as you become familiar with the arguments.  After all, no one really knows with certainty who is right.

But there are some general guidelines that one comes across so commonly that these raise red flags when you see them lightly ignored.  Some of the “things that everyone knows” (everyone who has attended a modern seminary, in any event) would include:

  •   Dating Mark as the earliest of the gospels.
  •   Dating the authentic letters of Paul earlier than the gospels.
  •   Recognizing there *are* authentic letters of Paul!
  •   Recognizing the Pastoral Letters were not written by Paul.
  •   Recognizing those letters which presume a structured church hierarchy are very late.
  •   Being aware the differences between the gospels offer valuable insights.
  •   Knowing the assumption the gospels all say the same thing, obscures their message.

These are just a few of the important topics one might assume any one serious about their study of the New Testament must be able to answer thoughtfully.  I am not saying they have to agree with me.  I am just saying they ought to have considered questions such as these, and come to some logical conclusion regarding how they organize the structure of the bible.  After all, the New Testament must have a structure.  What is it?  Why?

And I strongly recommend developing your own set of guide posts, by which you may be able to gauge the level of basic knowledge others have about the New Testament.  The point of this is to help you assign some measure of reliability to those who are asking you to accept their understanding of the bible.  If they think the same guy wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation, you might want to take note of that.  If they think Paul wrote everything with his name assigned to it, you might want to bear this in mind when they offer their theological opinion.  (Especially, when they are telling women they cannot speak in church, or women must be subservient to men!)

So with these words of caution, I offer what I find to be one of the useful chronological arrangements of the books and letters of the New Testament.  I first list the title of the text, in parenthesis note the range of years in which most scholars date the text, and end each line with an average of this range.  All dates are Common Era (C.E. aka A.D.):

  •   1 Thessalonians…. ( 50.9 to 51.5 ) 51.2 c.e.
  •   Galatians…………… ( 50.9 to 52.3 ) 51.4
  •   1 Corinthians…….. ( 55.0 to 55.5 ) 55.2
  •   2 Corinthians…….. ( 55.8 to 56.2 ) 56.0
  •   Romans…………….. ( 56.7 to 57.2 ) 56.9
  •   Philippians………… ( 60.1 to 61.1 ) 60.6
  •   Philemon…………… ( 59.9 to 61.2 ) 60.6
  •   Ephesians………….. ( 60.8 to 62.2 ) 61.5
  •   Gospel of Mark…. ( 59.0 to 64.3 ) 61.7
  •   James………………… ( 52.1 to 69.3 ) 60.7
  •   Gospel of Matthew ( 62.1 to 69.0 ) 65.5
  •   1 Peter……………….. ( 63.2 to 65.9 ) 64.6
  •   Gospel of Luke…… ( 64.1 to 68.4 ) 66.3
  •   Hebrews……………. ( 64.6 to 70.4 ) 67.5
  •   Acts………………….. ( 66.7 to 68.1 ) 67.4
  •   2 Peter……………….. ( 67.2 to 69.6 ) 68.4
  •   2 Thessalonians….. ( 51.2 to 90.0 ) 70.6
  •   Colossians…………. ( 60.2 to 90.0 ) 75.1
  •   Jude………………….. ( 68.1 to 90.0 ) 79.1
  •   Gospel of John…… ( 83.5 to 100.0) 91.8
  •   1 John……………….. ( 85.8 to 98.0 ) 91.9
  •   2 John……………….. ( 86.0 to 98.0 ) 92.0
  •   3 John……………….. ( 86.5 to 98.0 ) 92.3
  •   Revelation…………. ( 90.0 to 97.0 ) 93.5
  •   1 Timothy………….. ( 62.9 to 150.0) 106.5
  •   Titus…………………. ( 63.2 to 150.0) 106.6
  •   2 Timothy………….. ( 65.1 to 150.0) 107.6

(While the Pastoral Letters are possibly dated later than Revelation, I suspect 150 c.e. is too late.  A more likely dating is no later than 130 c.e. and still within roughly 100-years of the death of Jesus.  Then again, perhaps I am biased toward dating all of the New Testament with this 100-year range, as it has a nice ring to it.)

There is a small point which some may find of interest.  There are four styles of literature found in the New Testament:  Gospel accounts;  Letters (Epistles);  one Historical account (Acts);  and one Apocalyptic account (Revelation).

It is important to remember that when describing Acts as a “historical” account, we do not understand history in the same way as in the ancient world.  For one thing, they did not have audio and video recorders so quoting people exactly was not possible.

What I find to be a useful parallel is the change in the reporting of television news in the United States.  News agencies used to pride themselves on presenting unbiased and balanced reports (whether or not they met this standard is a separate question);  whereas, newscasts are now first and foremost entertainment, and their main objective is obtaining viewer ratings (for the advertising income).

We might think of our apprehension of history as the former, and the ancients as the later.  Not that they meant it as entertainment, but meaning there is a very different standard of accuracy and objectivity in the last 100 years as opposed to the 1st century, when writing historic accounts.

The question of forgery.

We really do not like hearing that any of the writings found in the New Testament are forgeries.  Scholars too are sensitive to this point, for the most part, so there is a $20 word that essentially means the same thing:

  •   Pseudepigraphical

Meaning in the Greek, falsely inscribed, or bearing a false title (pseud- false, pretending, or unauthentic; epi- upon, on, over, near, at, before, after;  and -graphos (something) drawn or written).  In our context this means that an author of an ancient book or letter claimed to be a person they were not, someone famous, in the hopes their work would be read and afforded serious attention on the strength of the claimed authorship.

Some make the argument pseudepigraphy (forgery) was common place and accepted in the ancient world.  There are certainly many ancient claims to the contrary.  The ancient Roman physician Galen found the practice objectionable enough he wrote a book on how to tell if a book claiming to have been written by Galen actually was written by Galen.

My opinion is that forgeries were not widely accepted as harmless, desirable, or a means of attributing affection.  This last case is sometimes an exception.  There are students of famous philosophers who are known to have written in their teacher’s names, claiming their ideas really were born of their teacher rather than themselves.  Perhaps.  But outside this small circle, forgeries would seem to be undesirable.

In an entirely different category are anonymous works.  In such writings the author never makes a claim to be any specific person.  All four of our canonical gospels fall in this category.  A hundred years or more later these writings were assigned by Church tradition to have been authored by the famous persons whom we now commonly associate with them (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John).

The book of Hebrews is also an anonymous work;  it is our earliest surviving example of a Christian sermon.  There was a lot of debate about whether or not to accept Hebrews into the canon, but since it was thought to have been written by Paul, it eventually made it into the New Testament.  Almost all scholars now accept Paul is clearly not the author.  But it is not a forgery (pseudepigraphical) because the author never claims to be Paul.

Then there is the case of John, the author of Revelation.  He claims to be John, and there is no reason to think otherwise.  However -and this is a big however- there is no reason to think he is John the Apostle either.  Modern scholarship now assigns the authorship of this apocalyptic text to a man named John of Patmos.

(Apocalypticism is another fascinating subject we may visit in a future article.  This is a style of writing popular in the centuries immediately before and after Jesus, and they are intended as messages of hope.  No matter how bad thing get -and they are pretty bad!- things will get better, so just hold on a little longer!  In Revelation, it is pretty clear the whore of Babylon is Rome, and the beast is the emperor Nero.  Perhaps the most important point to remember about apocalyptic texts, is they have nothing to do with predicting the future;  they are messages of hope for those suffering right now!)

With these cautions in mind, I present the following list.  I first list the book or letter, followed [in square brackets] by the authorship as assigned by Church tradition, and finally the authorship as determined by the majority of modern scholars:

  •   1 Thessalonians..[Paul]………………………………………… Paul the Apostle
  •   Galatians………… [Paul]………………………………………… Paul the Apostle
  •   1 Corinthians…… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   2 Corinthians…… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Romans…………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Philippians………. [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Philemon…………. [Paul]……………………………………….. Paul the Apostle
  •   Ephesians………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Pauline Community
  •   Gospel of Mark.. [Mark the Evangelist (John Mark)]… Petrine Community
  •   James……………… [James the Just (Jesus’ Brother)]…. Disputed
  •   Gospel Matthew… [Matthew (Disciple)]………………… Author Unknown
  •   1 Peter………………. [Peter (Disciple; Simon Peter)]….  Petrine Community
  •   Gospel of Luke….. [Luke the Evangelist]………………… Unknown
  •   Hebrews…………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Unknown
  •   Acts…………………. [Luke the Evangelist]………………… Unknown
  •   2 Peter………………. [Peter (Disciple; Simon Peter)]…. Petrine Community
  •   2 Thessalonians…. [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community
  •   Colossians………… [Paul]……………………………………….. Pauline Community
  •   Jude………………….. [Jude (Brother, James & Jesus)]… Disputed
  •   Gospel of John….. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   1 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   2 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   3 John………………. [John the Apostle]……………………. Johannine Community
  •   Revelation………… [John the Apostle]……………………. John of Patmos
  •   1 Timothy…………. [Paul]……………………………………… Pauline Community
  •   Titus………………… [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community
  •   2 Timothy…………. [Paul]………………………………………. Pauline Community

There are a few observations I would like to make regarding the authorship as assigned by modern scholars.  The first point is a reminder these assignments are debated.  Some more so than others, but one must understand nothing is 100% certain in this area of study.  Unlike the study of physics, we cannot run empirical experiments to determine who wrote which books, and have these results repeated and verified by other researchers.  This is why physics is a “hard” science and the study of religion is a “soft” science, like philosophy and psychology.

Paul the Apostle

Paul wrote seven (7) undisputed letters.  Three more are disputed, while almost no credible scholar believes Paul wrote the remaining “pastoral” letters.  Personally, I only consider Paul to have written the uncontested letters, as I find the arguments against his authorship of the disputed letters to be convincing (vocabulary, structure, etc).  And, as mentioned previously, very few scholars believe Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.

Uncontested Letters of Paul:

  •   1 Thessalonians
  •   Galatians
  •   1 Corinthians
  •   2 Corinthians
  •   Romans
  •   Philippians
  •   Philemon

Contested Letters of Paul:

  •   Ephesians
  •   2 Thessalonians
  •   Colossians

Pastoral Letters of Paul (Pseudepigraphical):

  •   1 Timothy
  •   Titus
  •   2 Timothy

Paul is obviously a very important influence in the early Christian church.  He certainly wrote 7 of the 27 books of the New Testament (fully one quarter of our New Testament).  And his “school” of thinking clearly influenced another three books, and possibly three more in the Pastoral Letters.  However, I would discount the Pastoral Letters because I believe the argument may be made these are of such different character they are better understood to be authored by a different school of thought.  At best it is a much later development in the Pauline school.

But no matter how one divides the authorship and rates the relative importance of this collection of writings, it remains one of the largest contributing influence upon the New Testament anthology.

Johannine Community

I view the collection of writings attributed to the school of thought surrounding John to be of two sources:  the Gospel of John, and the letters of John (1st, 2nd, and 3rd).  The Gospel of John was written anonymously, although attributed to the “most beloved” disciple;  most scholars offer John as the most likely candidate.

Modern scholarship finds it highly unlikely that John, or any of the other disciples, wrote any books or letters in the New Testament.  While it is theoretically possible John lived long enough, and became rich enough, to afford a classical education and learned to write Greek, and to write it poetically, it remains extremely doubtful this is the case.  However, many scholars do believe there is a person around whom the writings attributed to John relate.  So in this sense, the Gospel of John and the letters of John, are assigned to the Johannine Community or the School of John.

The Gospel of John offers some of the most beautiful poetry in the New Testament.  It also presents the highest Christology – Jesus Christ as Divine before the foundation of the earth itself.  This is the source of Jesus’ “I Am” statements.  I personally find this gospel to carry a flavour which reminds me of the Hindu Upanishads, and I find these to be some of the most appealing and spiritually moving passages of the New Testament.

However, there are also darker passages.  I am speaking of those occasions when “the Jews” are spoken of in a negative, accusing manner, giving the reader the impression the “Jews” were against Jesus.  I have two main difficulties with this presentation:  Jesus was himself Jewish!;  and clearly, a number of “the Jews” sided with Jesus!

One theme seen in the Johannine collection is that of separation.  I find the best way of understanding this collection, is as a reflection of the times (of the late 1st century).  I see the polemic speech in the Gospel of John as indicative of a change in the population of the Jesus Movement, away from the Jewish population, to the gentile population.  In the letters of John, we see a break within the Johannine community itself, where certain persons form their own church, because they hold a different understanding of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus.

But holding different understandings of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus has always been present in the New Testament.  In the authentic letters of Paul we see an early separation from the Jewish Jesus Movement, toward the gentile population.  A decade or two later, and independently, we find differing understandings of Jesus are struggled with in the early gospel accounts.  A few decades later, the letters of John, and the (pseudepigraphical) Pastoral Letters of Paul, are representative of the continuing proto-church development in late 1st century.

As I read this progression, we see the earliest shift in the authentic letters of Paul, and the latest shift in some of the Johannine collection and the Pastoral Letters.  I personally find these late letters as more informative of these changes in perceptions of self-image of the developing proto-church, and less critical from a theological perspective.  But I am biased, of course.  I find it difficult to take theological instruction from authors who denigrate women and label those who disagree with them as antichrists.

John of Patmos

As mentioned earlier, the book of Revelation was in fact written by “a” John, but this is now understood to be John of Patmos, and not the John who is the author of the Gospel of John (and neither of these authors is John the Apostle).  This is a reminder that Revelation is best thought of as in its own category of writing, and not group in with the writings of the Johannine school.

Synoptic Gospels

The synoptic gospels are collectively one of the most important collection of books in the New Testament.  For obvious reasons – they offer the earliest testimony of the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus.  They are called the synoptic gospels because they relate very similar stories about Jesus and his ministry.  Synoptic means seen or viewed together:  from the Greek, syn “together” and opsis “view.”  They share a great deal in common with one another, and are quite different than the Gospel of John.

According to the best modern scholarship, none of the gospels are thought to have been written by the person to whom they are attributed.  As is normal, some people disagree, of course.  But for the most part, such persons either have not attended seminary, or attended a seminary which does not teach the biblical discoveries of the 150-years or so.

Most scholars place Mark as the earliest surviving gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke-Acts.  Whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts;  as observed previously, these may be thought of as Parts 1 and 2 of the same account.  Most scholars also believe that Mark was a primary source for Matthew and Luke-Acts, in addition to a lost text named Q (short for Quelle, which is German for “source”).  The authors of Matthew and Luke-Acts added their own material to their respective text, but they also heavily borrowed from earlier writings.

There are other theories, but the Q-theory and the derivative nature of Matthew and Luke-Acts is the most widely accepted.  All of these, in turn, later impacted the writing of the Gospel of John, but to a lesser degree.

Because Mark, Matthew, and Luke are so closely related to one another, they receive most of the attention of those reading the bible horizontally.  However, there are similar comparisons which are made between the authentic letters of Paul and Acts.  Acts, as compared to Paul’s authentic writings, would seem to sometimes attempt to smooth over the image of Paul and how closely he worked under the authority of the disciples, such as Peter.  In cases of discrepancies, I tend to side with Paul’s account.
How might one make use of the chronological view of the New Testament?

The very first thing I would suggest is to just sit with it for a while.  Print the chronological list, and stick a copy in your bible.  Reflect upon the story of Jesus, and specifically what each book and letter considers most important.  Note what changes take place over the 100-years or so following the execution of Jesus.  There is an underlying progression, and distinct changes, both in geography (Paul and the author of the synoptic gospels did not know of one another’s writings;  the Jewish Jesus Movement was more important near Jerusalem, and Gentile Jesus Movement more important elsewhere) and in their understanding of how Jews and Christians relate to one another, and of the ontology (essential nature) of Jesus’ Christology.

  •   The term “Christology” refers to the study of Christ.  (The word Christ, derives from the Greek, christos, meaning “anointed one.”)  This area of study investigates questions of theology surrounding the Christ-hood of Jesus:  preexistence;  eternality of Christ;  Hebrew prophecies about the messiah (which in Hebrew, also means “anointed”);  the ontology of Christ’s humanity & deity;  incarnation;  temptation;  sinlessness;  death;  resurrection;  ascension;  ontology of the Trinity;  and more.  “Low” Christology relates to Jesus as primarily or entirely human;  “High” Christology relates to Jesus as primarily or entirely Divine.

Such are the highlights of my thoughts regarding the chronological study and reading of the New Testament.  I feel we must be careful when doing so -so as not to conflate what should otherwise stand on its own- but for the most part, I do find this to be a valuable approach.  In many ways it is part and parcel of adopting a modern historical-critical review of the biblical texts.  And for my part, I find this clearly adds to my understanding of the texts;  and I like to believe it also adds to my apprehension of the meaning underlying the texts.

As the famous saying goes:

  •   Where you read black, I read white.

But first one must discern the black from the white.

Offered with blessings,