The Newer Testament

Introduction to the theme

We are following a programme called Holy Habits over the course of this year. The programme studies 10 aspects of life in the early church. The early years of the church were characterised spiritual renewal, incredible dynamism and above all growth. These appear to be lacking in contemporary Western Christianity and the the hope is that by recapturing some of the habits of the early church we may also to be able to reinvigorate ourselves with some of that dynamism. We are asked to study how the early church lived and contrast it with how we live today. If what we do differs form what the early church did then we are invited whether there is a better way for us to live now. This month we have been thinking about scripture in this context. Did the early church relate to scripture in a different way to how we do today?

The answer is an answer of two halves – the Old Testament and the New Testament. As far as I can see the attitude of the early church to the Old Testament is very similar to ours today. They saw it as a sacred document that had been written in the past collating a wide range of literature that was regarded as the primary record of how their ancestors had experienced God. The relationship with the New Testament was entirely different to ours. Put most succinctly – while we read the New Testament the early church wrote it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage preaching in the fifth of this series of services as for one reason or another I’ve not been present for any of the previous four. I’m not sure what the other preachers have covered but I assume that there has been some reflection on how the Bible was written. There have been considerable advances in our understanding of this in theological colleges over the last fifty years, and it sometimes surprises me how little of this understanding has been passed on to congregations. At least some of it is finally filtering through. To recap:

No one set out to write the New Testament – in a sense it just happened. It is a collection of letters of early church leaders, accounts of activities of both Jesus (the Gospels) and the leaders of the early church (Acts) and a book of apocalyptic poetry (Revelation).

What we know of how the Bible was written is largely inspired guesswork. While there is general agreement amongst biblical scholars on the general principles,very little of the detail is known for certain and different scholars, at times, hold quite radically different views about those details.

There is general agreement that the letters (particularly those attributed to Paul) were the first documents to be written. We can guess the dates of these by correlating what is written with the stories of Paul’s journey’s in Acts. First Thessalonians may have been the first to be written but was still written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The other letters from Paul were probably written over the ensuing 10 to 15 years. As I’ve said they were not written in order to become part of the Bible they were written in a particular context generally to support the growth of churches Paul had established and then moved on from. they are a mix of thanks and encouragement for the good things that Paul has heard about their acts and chastisement for the bad things.

It looks as if stories about Jesus’ life circulated in the early church by world of mouth and were only collated into what we now know as the gospels much later on. Mark is regarded as the earliest but appears to make references to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple so cannot have been committed to paper (or papyrus) before 70 AD. The others probably followed in later decades. Recent scholarship shows how many of the stories we read as prose today where written as quite exquisite poetry and have obviously been amended and polished as part of this process but nobody knows when or by who.

The other letters in the Bible (Peter, John, James and several others) were written later. 2nd Peter which may have been written as late as 120AD. Somewhere in the middle of this the Book of Revelation, which is quite different to anything else in the New Testament was written. Acts of the Apostles was also added as a history of the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The other thing that modern scholarship has taught us is that what we know as the New Testament is just a small selection of documents that were revered by the early church. We now know of the existence of over 50 Gospels including a gospel of Thomas and of Mary. There were also many other letters including a third letter of the Corinthians, a letter form the Corinthians and letters of later church leaders such as St Clement. There were other records of miracle stories and other apocalyptic visions.

There was quite a long period where different churches in different regions revered different texts. It was probably sometime in the 3rd century that a consensus began to emerge on which of these were most important but it was not until 367 that we have the first record of the 27 books we accept today. It was until after the reformation that an official list was declared.

So there you are the Bible is now closed. It is not particularly clear when it was closed but it was an awful long time ago. What I want to explore this morning is what  Christianity would be like today if the Bible had not been closed, if we had continued to add to it, if we were still adding to it today. If we are to live as the early church lived, as our Holy Habits programme would suggest, then we should be continuing to write scripture. Let’s assume that as well as an Old Testament and a New Testament that there was also a Newer Testament then what would we include within it?

Following the early church it would be made of a variety of documents. None of the books of the Bible were written with the intention of becoming the Bible so we need documents that have been written for other purposes. We need to scavenge around for documents from a range of sources which we believe inspire, encourage of correct us. It’s clear that only a small number of people actually wrote these documents so we should perhaps be looking for pieces that other people have written. The Bible includes history,. poetry, religious songs, letters, visions and prophesy (at least) so we should look for literature of range of different types. At the time the early church was living the only option to record anything was to write it down but now we could include music or video or pictures of works of art. Above all we wouldn’t put it in a book would we we’d put it on the Internet. This opens up a wonderful possibility of the Newer Testament changing over time to reflect the world we live in. New material would continue to be added and older material, if it was felt to be losing relevance could be deleted.

Following the early church we would collate a wide range of articles that appealed to a wide range of people. Having done this, however, we would sift through this as a group to select the items that spoke most powerfully to the Christian community as a whole.

Have a think. Reflect on what you have read over the last couple of years, or heard on the television or he radio, or seen in an art gallery or stumbled across on the Internet. Of all that rich experience, which items would you propose for the Newer Testament. Do more than think, e-mail me your ideas and I’ll collate the suggestions for the Church web-site. If you are savvy with a computer then cut and paste links and send them to me. If you are not then leave a message on my answering machine and I’ll pop around and make a copy of what you have to offer. Try and keep things recent and I suggest limiting passages to something that can be read in three or four minutes at most. Other than that break free -there are no rules – there don’t appear to have been any particular rules in the early church.

To get you started here is a piece I would include. It is a video from Meg Cannon a young Christian woman telling the story of an even younger African girl. To me it merges the telling of a story as in one of the gospels or Old Testament history with the sense of inspiration and urgency that we find in many of Paul’s letters.

Hymn

Enemy of Apathy is one of the range of modern hymns that I would add to the Newer Testament. You can here a clip of it at this link (though I’m not sure how legit this is).

Readings

Rather than select two Bible readings I’ve chosen an excerpt from the Pope’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (full text here) which is another document I might submit for the Newer Testament.

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology”, is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”.

and the second reading is an example of something that is written in the Bible but I believe requires very cautious interpretation in the modern world:

2: 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Sermon

I think everything I talked about earlier in the service, the history of how the Bible was written by the early church, is pretty much accepted by most theologians. There may still be debate about details but generally speaking we now have a reasonable picture of how the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was written. It was written by a variety of people writing for a variety of different purposes, but none of them, as far as we know, was intending to write a book of the Bible.

If the Church, or at least its theologians, has come to accept this view, however, I’m not convinced that it has yet faced up to the implications. For most of the life of the Church there has been an assumption that the Bible is the infallible word of God – a belief that every word that has been written in the Bible must take equal weight and that the messages its conveys are valid for all time. Our current understanding of how the Bible was written must challenge that view. The Bible may be inspired by God (as the Bible itself claims in the 2nd letter to Timothy) but it was written by men (and we should note is was written by men, there is no evidence of any female involvement in the writing of any of the books of the Bible). It was written by men who were struggling to come to terms with how God was manifested in their lives. It had its origins in the memories of disciples who had lived through the pain of the Jesus’ execution, who had experienced something completely beyond their understanding in the resurrection, and were now inspired and emboldened by a new power in their lives. They were struggling to understand what all this meant and the writings that now form the New Testament are the record of that struggle. When we read what they wrote we have to read it with this understanding of how it was written.

We also need to remember that these men were products of their time. They had a very different worldview to the one we have today. Paul was brought up a strict Jew and trained as a Rabbi. He had only ever experienced worship in which the men stood at the front and worshipped and the women stood at the back and watched. Paul had clearly never met a woman like Meg Cannon, a women with uncovered hair and a message as powerful as that of any man. Similarly, the early church just assumed that slavery was a part of the natural order. When Paul instructed a runaway slave to return to his master in Philemon it was because he could not conceive of the world being any other way. Going further it is virtually certain that Paul had never met a gay or lesbian person in a committed, faithful and loving relationship. The only homosexual practices he had any knowledge of where those of the e prostitutes in a variety of pagan temples in the ports around the Eastern Mediterranean.

We also need to read the Gospels with an understanding of who wrote them and when. They were written by men who didn’t distinguish between religious poetry and fact-based journalism in the way we do today. If we are concerned that we are moving in the current world into a post-factual era we should remember that the New Testament was written in a pre-factual era. The Gospels were also written by men who had no understanding whatsoever that the way the world behaves is governed by the immutable laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They lived in a society in which people were far more willing to believe in a miraculous happenings and supernatural explanations than we are today. Their purpose wasn’t to write historically and scientifically verifiable journalism, it was to embed the truth of their lived religious experiences in the words that would best convey this to their contemporaries.

I don’t see that any of this would be a problem if the Bible had remained open (as far as writing is concerned) but it didn’t, it was closed in  practical sense about 150 years after Jesus’ death. It means that the only scripture we acknowledge today was written by people with very different world-views to ours.

The way the church has got around this over the years is to invent theology. This means that we read one thing in the Bible and then we interpret in the light both of our understanding of how the Bible was written and of our knowledge from other spheres. Thus although the Bible remains constant and unchanging how we interpret it has developed considerably over time.

For centuries references to slavery within the Old Testament and Paul’s letter to Philemon reinforced the general view that slavery was an inevitable consequence of how society was structured. It wasn’t really until the Enlightenment and the emergence of the concept of the human rights of all individuals that this began to be questioned. As with many societal changes, the church was quite slow to respond but eventually Christians came to realise that slavery is an abomination in the eyes of God and to campaign for its abolition. No one in today’s church would follow Paul in advising an escaped slave to return to his master.

Attitudes to women within society have changed and the churches theology has followed. We now recognise that Paul wrote at a particular time, in a particular context and from a particular background. Very few people within our denomination are now prepared to take what he wrote in Corinthians at face value and it continues to be a source of considerable pain that our Carholic brothers and sisters (and to a lesser extent the Anglicans as well) continue to struggle with these passages.

So how do we deal with these issues? At one level the sensible approach is to continue what the church has always done and develop a theological framework through which we can interpret the Bible in the light of our current worldview. I’m not however, convinced that this is enough. It satisfies us within the church, but it is extremely confusing to those outside the Church. They see us revering the Bible as the word of God and then choosing to reinterpret those sections that we don’t like. although some people do,  I would be extremely unwilling to give a non-Christian a Bible and just leave them to read it. Whilst we do hear some stories of people doing this and individuals coming to faith I’m sure that a much more common response, in the modern world, is for people to be put-off by what they find written in its pages. Imagine giving a Bible to a non-Christian woman and her opening at random to read the words of Paul we have heard read out this morning.

So is there an alternative. I think there is, or rather that there are things we can do as well. What we can do, as well as revering the Bible, is to revere contemporary writings and video and music and art that speaks to us of our ongoing relationship with God. I think we should revere videos like those produced by Meg Cannon, I think we should revere the rich variety of modern Christian songs whether they be from the Iona Community or the Rend Collective, I think we should revere the speeches that made by our leaders to make take the Christian message to the contemporary world.

So this morning I encourage you all to think about what you think we should revere in the contemporary world. Which writings and songs and art works speak most powerfully to you of your relationship with God? The idea of collating this material on a web-site is of course a bit of a gimmick, but I hope that it is the sort of gimmick that will get you thinking and change the way you look at the world.

John saw Christ as the Word. Let’s see the Word of God not as something that was entombed within the Bible 2,000 years ago but as the living Word unleashed through the Resurrection to speak to all people for all time.

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One comment

  1. Thank you Richard for sending this mail to me, I find it very powerful.
    I was unable to be at Church on Sunday……wasn’t well………..so am really glad to catch up with your service in my own time here at home
    I find myself agreeing with so many of the points you have raised!
    Gill

    gill.oldham@hotmail.co.uk

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