The Bible #2: Why the Bible?
A series of emails and podcasts about reading the Bible well.
|Kurt Willems||Oct 17, 2019|| 4|
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.
Part two of our series on the Bible needs to begin with a core motivation of mine: I’m not trying to deconstruct or degrade the Bible in any way. I love the Scriptures (and the way they point us to Jesus) too much for that!
So, I invite you not to look at one part of this series as though it represents the whole, there is too much to build to put down in one reflection. See totality of this series as the ‘whole argument’ or reflection, if that makes sense.
The hope is to carve out a path forward for honoring the Scriptures as our witness to the teachings of the Apostles which preserved the teachings and overall Event of Jesus. Then, we will know what we are stepping into when we read the Bible.
When the Bible is framed like that, it sounds like a big deal (because it is). But if we’re honest, when it comes to motivation to read, the Bible isn’t always an always an easy sell for modern people.
But we convince ourselves that we are supposed to read it.
We read it because…
We’re supposed to so that we can know what we need to know to grow.
It’s inspired. (What does that even mean?)
It’s our Christian duty.
It’s the answer book for life that we all need.
It’s the only way we truly can hear from God personally (Lots of issues here: #HolySpirit. Also, what about the 1500 years or so before the printing press when Bibles weren’t available for personal use?)
Insert your own reasons (especially if you disagree with them now) in the comments!
None of these really get to the heart of the matter.
Why the Bible? Something happened. They wrote it down because it was worth passing down.
Something happened that launched a movement.
Documents were produced and distributed among the earliest Christian communities. They came, early on, to recognize that although these were very human documents that in some unique they had been inspired by God to preserve the core truths of the Jesus Event.
These documents eventually become the complete Bible (with the Hebrew Scriptures). But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Let’s take the time to notice the sorts of things the New Testament claims about itself. We won’t find anything in these 27 documents about a theory of Divine Inspiration. We won’t find words like “inerrant” or “infallible” as though the New Testament stands or falls based on just how non-human it is.
Why not? Because the New Testament documents aren’t theological treatises. They aren’t systematic theology books. They are documents written as a response to something that happened. They were important to the life of the Jesus communities of the late first century and beyond.
The 27 documents in our Bibles were utilized in the churches early on (it isn’t like they used to utilize “Thomas” or other sensationalized gospels (thanks Da Vinci Code) and then in the fourth century forced them out). The New Testament wasn’t available as a collected whole in the earliest of times because the Movement was scattered and under-resourced for such a task. Some may have had Matthew and Luke. Others had Corinthians and Revelation. And in a few cases, some communities had access to larger collections as time went on (especially leading into the third and fourth centuries).
But it wasn’t the collected Bible (Hebrew Scriptures plus New Testament documents) that came first. They were a witness-bearing response to something that happened. Simplifying some, we can say:
First the Jesus Event.
Then, the Jesus Movement. (And no, not that post-hippy thing that happened in the 70s when it was finally cool to wear sandals to church again. Think resurrection/Pentecost forward.)
Then, the individual documents that come to be recognized as Holy Scripture.
Then, the compiled Bible, readily available to local church communities throughout the Roman Empire.
When we get this order wrong, we get all messed up.
In short: Jesus Event —> Jesus Movement —> Jesus Documents —> Bible
In part #1 we briefly described the Jesus Event. Here I want to sketch out a few thoughts on the earliest Jesus Movement.
The Jesus Movement that Existed Before the Bible
Perhaps the best place to start the conversation is from Paul’s first letter to the Jesus Communities of ancient Corinth. In that letter, he says the following:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
1 Corinthians 15.3-9 (NIV)
Something happened that was so earth-shattering that two basic responses emerged in the early days—especially among Jewish people.
For those who passed on this message to Paul, they believed that Jesus had risen from the grave after being executed by the Roman Empire (elsewhere he says that his revelation about Jesus was directly from Messiah [Galatians 1], but in this instance he is likely alluding to an early Christian liturgy or creedal summary that he would have received).
These followers of Jesus may have been eyewitness to his resurrection. Paul states that at least 500 people saw Jesus—alive!—after he had experienced the torments of capital punishment on a torture device that we now wear around our necks for show.
The other reaction, of course, was that of Paul.
Hatred. Violence. Zeal.
Paul, and those like him, believed that God had judged Israel for their lack of exclusive devotion to God. This is why they were occupied by Rome. The proper response to bring about the future deliverance and glorification of Israel was corporate piety.
In other words: if Israel would be more perfectly Torah observant then God would reestablish the throne of David. Thus, zeal was the response to anyone who threatened that vision.
The Movement Paul Joined
As we know, even from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s change of heart leads him to becoming recognized as an apostle. He spends the latter half of his life as both a model and voice for the movement he hated.
His letters, and the writings of other leaders and apostles, quickly become recognized as more than authoritative: but somehow as new sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.
But something needs to be clear at this point: These early Jewish followers of Messiah Jesus were not joining “Christianity” because a book convinced them (although the Hebrew Scriptures certainly were being read in light of the Jesus Event). No, those who joined the early Messianic Jewish movement joined because of what Paul formulated in 1 Corinthians 15.
As time went on the Jesus Documents became more important for preserving memory and as a rule of faith and practice. But the Event is what both made the Movement happen and the Documents valuable.
They joined the Jesus Movement based on eyewitness testimony and oral traditions about a Messiah who showed them how to be fully human, how to love even enemies unto death, and how God has acted in the world afresh by raising Jesus as a signpost pointing towards a renewed heaven and earth.
Being a Christ-follower was the result of a movement that proclaimed the most irrational-yet-beautiful event in the history of the cosmos since the first explosion of God’s creativity eons before when the universe first began to emerge.
First the movement, then the Bible.
Why the Bible? Something compelling happened.
In fact, it was so compelling that many in the Jesus Movement would willingly lay down their lives for King Jesus than give into the pressures of zealots like Paul or the madness of the Roman Imperial system.
Paul would eventually face the same fate that he helped bring upon other Jesus-followers in the early days: He would be persecuted and eventually executed because of his experience with the Jesus of the Movement.
Paul didn’t die with a Bible in his hand. Paul died convinced of the Jesus Event and how that Jesus had transformed his life.