The Bible #4: 'Til Death

A series of emails and podcasts about reading the Bible well.

This is a long series on the Bible. Here are all the previous parts, that you really need to check out in order if possible to get the full picture of what I’ve suggested about the Bible thus far.

Please Note: There is a podcast version of this series available as well.

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The Bible is central to the Christian faith but it is not the center. The center is occupied by the Trinitarian God whom Jesus reveals.

Jesus revealed that the true heart of God is immeasurable love for humankind and the whole cosmos. We will look more at that in future parts of the series with greater detail, but by now I’ve more than betrayed my bias. The Bible doesn’t belong as the Point of our faith or the Center of it.

We are part of a Movement called Christianity and the Bible tells the story of how it all got started. We are people of the Movement of Jesus, with and for Jesus; not people of the Book alone.

By the latter part of the first century, a few decades after the Jesus Event, a gospel attributed to Luke came into being. Just like Paul and John, who we looked at before, Luke hands down an account of the Jesus Event:

Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. 3 Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. 4 I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received.

Luke 1.1-4 (CEB)

Luke’s main point of emphasis as he gets started is that he aims to write down something that happened. Events were fulfilled among his contemporaries which needed accounting for so that new followers of Jesus would understand the Movement they had joined.

Luke claims to have access to “original eyewitnesses” who “handed down” the stories that make up what we have called the Jesus Event. He’s not simply going from his own memory but openly relies on the words and witness of other people.

Luke’s gospel was no solo project.

Luke’s gospel also didn’t come down from heaven on a golden tablet of perfection.

This gospel was part of an unearthing process for the writer. He likely drew from other gospel traditions such as Matthew and Mark. He likely had access to first hand witnesses who also gave him insights not reflected in other gospel stories about Jesus.

But here’s an important point to make: Luke tells the Jesus Event story so that those who come after him (even Theophilus [perhaps a patron?]) will be able to trust that the movement they have joined is rooted in reality.

This isn’t an “ordered account” so that we can get on with systematic theology debates. This is an “ordered account” that brings about “confidence in the soundness of the instruction” that has been received.

This instruction has to do with what it means to follow Jesus as a member of his movement. Luke often emphasizes the outcasts of society and the calling of disciples to be Jesus’ hands and feet of generosity, mercy, and justice. It’s like Luke is setting his patron up: Theophilus, you’ve done well by worldly financial standards. Make sure you hold on to that loosely. Following Jesus means opening up your hands a bit.


A Compelling Movement

The story Luke tells about loving enemies, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering piety through prayer, and so on combine to give us a picture of why the Jesus Event kept on propelling the Jesus Movement.

The Jesus Movement was different. Love was at the center of their communal life because Jesus himself was the center of their devotion. Although conflict and compromise existed in the earliest generations of faith, so did miraculous and merciful things that the Roman Empire could never offer it citizens and slaves.

The movement was compelling, even ‘til death.

Something happened that was so compelling that it divided the world for the next 300 years.


Two Reactions to the Jesus Event

Perhaps you remember earlier in this series where we looked at 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul gives his own “ordered account” of the Jesus Event. Not only does he emphasize the story and witnesses of the event, but he keeps his rising spiritual authority in check by remembering the past.

Paul states that he doesn’t “even deserve to be called an apostle because, I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 1.9). His life shows two of the major reactions to the Jesus Event and subsequent Movement (that gave rise to the New Testament documents and eventually led to the formation of the completed Bible).

  • Reaction #1: this event that happened was so compelling that it is worth dying for.

  • Reaction #2: this so-called event that some say happened was so destructive that it must be stopped.

None of this led the earliest followers of Jesus to stop and say: Wow, we should really get together and make sure we have our Bible all put together in a coherent way. Nope: it led them to suffering and death. It led them to follow Jesus when it was hard.

They didn’t first and foremost follow a book. They followed a person and the teachings that had been handed down as a result of the Jesus Event.

No Jesus Event—no resurrection—then no movement and eventual Bible. It is Jesus that was, from the beginning, the sole reason people gave their lives to keep the Movement going.

So, then, when did the Bible finally come together?


The Basic Flow of Events

To move us forward, here’s a reminder of the basic flow of events:

  • Jesus Event: his life, teachings, death, resurrection (the most important from an ‘event’ perspective), appearances, ascension, and future return.

  • Jesus Movement: the ongoing gathering of communities committed to worshiping the Triune God and living in the power of God’s Spirit to represent God’s Kingdom (or party, or other image for God’s values coming to bear among us)

  • New Testament Documents (or, as I said previously, “Jesus Documents”): various documents that are recognized as being Holy Scripture, although not systematically organized throughout all the churches.

  • Compiled Bible: This is finally put together in the fourth century, in continuity with what the churches throughout the known world already affirmed about a particular set of 27 documents (along with the Hebrew Scriptures).

Keeping that flow in mind, let’s go back to the Apostle Paul. He gives us an example of the two reactions to the Jesus Event that become significant for the next 300 years.

Of course there are more, but these two will do for now: either you believe the Jesus Event and give yourself to the Jesus Movement or you don’t. The worst of those who didn’t believe were glad to kill Christians for a variety of reasons since it was an unsanctioned religion according to Roman law.

And kill they did. Here are some “highlights” from those 300 years:

  • 64 CE: Several Christians in city of Rome killed by Nero after the fire

  • 66-70: First Jewish revolt in Judea; Jerusalem destroyed. Many Jewish followers of Jesus forced to flee and end up in places like Asia Minor.

  • 95: Executions under Domitian (but not directed only, or perhaps not at all, against Christians)

  • Date?: Killing of the “witness” (martys) Antipas of Pergamum (Rev 2:13)

  • 112: Execution of some Christians in Amastris, Bithynia by the governor, Pliny the Younger

  • Exact date?: Ignatius of Antioch taken to Rome and executed

  • 132-135: Bar Kokhba Revolt

  • ca. 150: Execution of teacher Ptolemaeus and of Lucius in Rome (reported by Justin Martyr)

  • ca. 156-57?: Polycarp and 11 others executed in Smyrna

  • ca. 162-68: Justin and 6 others executed in Rome; Killing of Carpus, Papylas and Agathonice (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 4.15.48; and Acta); Bishop Publius in Athens is killed (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 4.23.3); Killing of Sagaris in Laodicea (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 4.26.3)

  • ca. 177: Executions of almost 50 Christians in Gaul (Lyons and Vienne)

  • ca. 180: Executions of 12 Christians from Scilli (Acts of Scillitan Martyrs)

  • ca. 180-185: Beheading in Rome of Christian philosopher Apollonius (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 5.21 and Acta)

  • 202-206: Around this time there were arrests and deaths of Christians in Carthage (Perpetua, Felicitas and others in 203), Rome, Corinth , and Alexandria (father of Origen, Leonides and several others)

  • 206 – 235: Relatively few major incidents against Christians

  • ca. 236: Political oppression under the emperor Maximinus I

  • 238 – 249: A Decade of Relative peace under the next two emperors

We haven’t even made it to 250 CE yet and look how long this list is already!

Here’s the big idea: Christianity spread, even under persecution, without a compiled Bible.

Something happened that was so compelling that over and again, Christ-followers were willing to suffer and even die rather than forsake the Jesus they had come to know and follow.

The Bible, although it is wonderful, isn’t the primary motivation for this sort of faith commitment.

Very few people will die for a book alone, but many people are willing to lay it all down for a Movement.

For these early, and many modern Christians throughout the world, when they joined the Jesus Movement they were saying: ‘til death.

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