aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On NT origins

Been having quite the discussion on NT origins over on catheolog. Not quite sure what to do about it.

The author, goldhands has been laying out some very well-prepared stuff, very publishable. But he was trained in form criticism, which I think is a crock, and I told him so. He is shocked that there is anyone out there who doesn't buy this load. Thinks I must not be understanding him because something is wrong with his English. But, no, I understand very well. I just don't buy it.

Which puts me in an uncomfortable position. If what he is posting is for discussion, then the hammer and tongs is de rigeuer, and we ought to be enjoying it. On the other hand, if he envisions this particular LJ as a place to instruct others, then I'm being a pain in the patoot, which I don't want to be.

One commenter challenged me to explain my theory of NT origins, if I thought that form crit had it wrong. Well, there wasn't enough room in the LJ style to do that. But I thought I probably ought to. So, without doing any serious research (my library is all packed away in boxes), here is where I'm coming from on the subject.

I. Objections to Form Criticism

Form Criticism views the Gospels as a mass of pericopes, or snippets -- quotes, parables, whatever, which arise from the experience of the early Church. NOT from Jesus, mind you, about whom, it is assumed, nothing certain can be known. Form crit takes as its starting point a disconnect between the actual Jesus of Nazareth and any of his followers. Form Crit has a strong bias against the historicity of the NT and especially against the miraculous. Form critics talk about "resurrection faith," NOT "faith in the resurrection." How a group of mostly orthodox Jews decided to apostasize and come up with such a tale on the basis of their inner experience (I feel all fresh and new inside, therefore Jesus is risen from the dead -- in my heart) is never explained. It is assumed to be a normal way for people to behave -- assuming (there's that word again) sufficient time to have elapsed for it to have mutated so.

Form Crit has led to Redaction Criticism, which views the final authors of, say, the Gospels as mere editors. People used to view Beowulf this way, as if the actual author had merely stitched together (rather clumsily) a bunch of monster stories and half-remembered history; no credit was given to the poet as a poet, until J.R.R. Tolkien's great lecture "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics."

Other "higher critics" see documents such as the Gospel according to John as a product not of a single author (John the Apostle, John the Elder, or some other "John,"), but of "the Johannine community" -- a group for which there is not a shred of evidence beyond the assumptions of the critics, not to mention no evidence that any community ever composed a major work in this way in the real world. Secular critics used to think poems like the Niebelunglied were just composed by "the folk." That theory has been abandoned.

In short, only biblical scholars continue to treat their work in this non-scholarly way. Other scholars dealing with other ancient texts -- folklorists, historians, translators and critics -- have long since abandoned such tendentious foistings of prejudice upon the texts they study.

II. From Jesus to the first NT writings

From the actual life of Jesus of Nazareth to the first NT documents is less than twenty years. That is astonishingly contemporary. Paul's Letter to the Galatians and the Letter of James are probably among the earliest to be written, about the time of the Council of Jerusalem (c. AD 50). That Council was attended by those who actually knew Jesus in the flesh. To suppose otherwise, or to impugn the historicity of the Council requires one to begin with the assumption that nobody there had known him.

Not only that, but the NT documents -- especially Paul's writings and Luke's writings -- constantly appeal to contemporary witness. "These things were not done in a corner," Paul tells the Roman Governor and King Agrippa. The risen Christ was seen by five hundred witnesses, "most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:6). Paul dares anybody to prove him wrong -- and nobody in his day takes up the challenge.

But what did they use for Scripture before the NT was written? They used the Scripture they had -- what we call the Old Testament, principally in the Greek translation called The Septuagint (LXX). The first Christians met in synagogues, some exclusively Christian and others not, where they read and discussed the Scriptures and how they pointed to Jesus being the Christ (Messiah). Those Scriptures plus the contemporary witness of people still living in society was sufficient to form the core of Christian teaching. As baptism and eucharist took their current forms, and as Christians began to separate out into exclusively Christian churches (especially after the Gentiles starting coming in numbers), you had the emergence of a community formed in a slightly different form from Messianic Judaism.

Paul's writings are the earliest and fullest examples we have of primitive Christian doctrine. But all except the Letter to the Romans were written ad hoc, to address various needs in the many churches he had founded and continued to guide. Romans is the only systematic exposition of the Gospel he left.

III. The origins of the Synoptic Gospels

Paul and Peter are both supposed to have been killed in the Neronian persecution, c. AD 66. By that time, the entire Pauline corpus had to have been composed. But also by that time, The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles had been written. Luke was a companion of Paul (only form-critical assumptions can prove otherwise, and must ignore substantial evidence to do so), and the Acts break off before Paul's death, which is usually taken to mean that they were in circulation before the persecution. But if Acts -- the sequel to his Gospel -- was written before the middle '60s, then his Gospel had to have been written then, too.

is one of the synoptic Gospels, together with Matthew and Mark. Their similarity has led many scholars to assume that they copied from each other. Other material has been posited as coming from a source called 'Q' (German Quelle, "source") -- although no evidence that this document ever circulated among anybody has ever been found. Most scholars today assume Mark was written first, since it is the shortest and least detailed. Traditionally, Matthew was supposed to have been written first. You pays your money, and you takes your choice; but if the first of them were written by the middle '60s, and all of them circulating by, say, the middle '80s, then all three were available for refutation by those still alive who knew the principal characters -- not only Jesus, but the apostles.

is traditionally supposed to have been the helper of Peter in his later days, and have derived his material from Peter. Matthew is traditionally supposed to have been Matthew the tax collector, an apostle of Jesus. Luke is traditionally supposed to have been the companion of Paul. Form critics attack all these traditional designations, but they do so primarily by assuming from the outset that nobody writing these things ever knew Jesus or his original followers. Concluding what one assumed a priori is what is called "begging the question." There are arguments that can be made in each case for and against the traditional authorship, but merely pronouncing upon one's assumptions doesn't win any of them.

The three Gospel writers all tell much the same story, though they have -- as writers -- very different styles and techniques. Matthew organizes most of his material in a series of discourses, such as Jesus would have preached over and over to his hearers. He is concerned with preserving as much of the actual sayings of Jesus as he can. Mark is very short and direct, an action-packed summary of the ministry of Jesus. Luke pays particular detail to people and relationships. He is much the most modern, almost writing as a historian of today would.

IV. The Problem of John

The Gospel according to John presents many problems to the biblical scholar. Its chronology differs somewhat from that of the other three Gospels, for example. But the biggest problem is that it presents itself as having been written by John bar-Zebedee, himself -- and if anybody can claim that he knew Jesus of Nazareth, John is that man.

As a result, many critics have said that this gospel was written by another John, "John the Elder" of Ephesus or somewhere, despite internal evidence that the author claims to be John the Apostle. Other critics say that the Gospel was not written by John himself, but by a "Johannine community" that had developed in isolation from other Christians and had a different view of Jesus; they are supposed to have compiled this Gospel collectively and pseudonymously. And they are supposed to have done so very late -- even into the Second Century. This gives sufficient time for it to have been composed after the lifetime of anybody who could have objected, and for people to shape memory of events by folk tradition -- which are all assumptions, once again, not conclusions that have been reached by objective inquiry.

offers the most intimate portrait of Jesus himself of any of the Gospels. It provides much detail where others have none. Traditionally, John is supposed to have been the only apostle to have died of natural causes, about AD 95-100. If he had been a teenager (James's younger brother) of, say, sixteen, when he met Jesus c. AD 27-30, that would make him 85 or so at his death, the last major witness to Jesus's ministry. (Polycarp, martyred in AD 155 at age 86, was said to have been a personal disciple of John, so there's a link that adds plausibility to this account.) According to tradition, John wrote his very personal account after the other Gospels were in circulation, as a supplement to them.

V. The End of the NT period

By AD 100, Clement of Rome is quoting much of the NT in 1 Clement. In fact, by tracing quotations by other ancient Christian writers, most of the NT can be shown to be in existence within the lifespan of the first generation of Christians.

In the final reckoning, as the Church was debating what was authentic and what not, some very fine minds applied some very sharp thinking and rejected a mass of Gnostic and other materials. They also dropped out some very fine, orthodox Christian writings, such as 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas as being non-apostolic and derivative.

Of the documents that were finally accepted as of apostolic origin, only a few minor pieces were accepted with reservations: 2 Peter and the Letters of John, for instance. Of the major pieces that made it into the canon over the objections of some, only the Letter to the Hebrews and The Revelation to John present serious problems.

is anonymous, but obviously in the apostolic tradition. It is not derivative, but presents our best example of early Christian exegesis of the OT. Another problem was, it says it is addressed to a congregation in Rome, but the Church at Rome never seemed big on it. It is primarily an Alexandrine sort of work, and was enthusiastically received in the East.

was ostensibly sent to seven Churches in Asia Province (modern-day Turkey). It didn't get much play in the East; however, it was enthusiastically received and studied in the Latin West. So it was long debated, too. Whether it was written by John the Apostle, "John the Elder," or some other John has also been a subject of great discussion.


I believe the Bible is an Old Book. It ought to be treated as just another Old Book would be. Determinations of date, authorship, etc., should be sifted from both internal and external evidence -- NOT made to fit some Procrustean bed of theory and assumption. Form criticism was developed by (largely Protestant) scholars in Germany, who had been raised upon an extreme form of Protestant reverence for the text. Their reaction was to "demythologize" the text (in Bultmann's expression) -- in other words, to show that the NT was written long after the facts it discusses, and for polemical purposes. This is always assumed, never tested.

I have always been surprised at Catholic scholars who swallow this whole, but I have come to see that form crit poses no problems for them. Following the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics defined themselves over against their common center: Protestants derided Catholic claims for the Church's authority to interpret the text, and became hyper-biblicists. But Roman Catholics went beyond anything the Medieval Church had ever claimed for itself or the pope in constructing a theory that put "the Church teaches" over anything "the Bible says." The ultimate expression of this is Papal Infallibility , finally defined at Vatican I in 1870. (The ultimate expression of Protestant hyper-biblicism is Biblical Inerrancy.)

Radical Protestants debunk the NT in order to say, "see, there is no Wizard -- just a man behind the curtain." But Catholics don't mind a debunked NT, since the faith is "what the Church defines." But I came to the Bible from a largely secular background. What I know of ancient literature I applied to the Bible, as I found it. I don't want a NT without foundations or a Church that can declare anything, whether it's Scriptural or not. I want to treat the Bible -- especially the New Testament -- with the respect and scrutiny to be applied to any work surviving from antiquity, and I want to be able to trust what I learn from that study -- and, indeed, from that text itself.

"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17).

"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

  • Location, location, location

    English has these sets of location-words, which are distinguishable by their initial sounds. HERE means “at this location.” THERE means “at that…

  • More on clergy education and credentialing

    My Annual Conference is meeting this weekend. It's a time to think about those awe-ful words said to each new ordinand, "Take thou authority to…

  • Too much of a good thing

    In the Sixteenth Century, the Kingdom of Spain controlled most of Central and South America as well as the Philippines. They looted the natives and…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.

  • Location, location, location

    English has these sets of location-words, which are distinguishable by their initial sounds. HERE means “at this location.” THERE means “at that…

  • More on clergy education and credentialing

    My Annual Conference is meeting this weekend. It's a time to think about those awe-ful words said to each new ordinand, "Take thou authority to…

  • Too much of a good thing

    In the Sixteenth Century, the Kingdom of Spain controlled most of Central and South America as well as the Philippines. They looted the natives and…