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A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY

Term Paper by Brian Tubbs

Whose values? Who has authority? For Bishop John Shelby Spong, the now-retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (New Jersey), achievement of a satisfying and dynamic faith living religious tradition, requires setting [the old] structures aside, finding a new starting point, a new place of entry into whatever religious truth is, and being willing to explore that new terrain openly, honestly, and courageously.1 Such an open-ended exploration is what early church leaders wanted to prevent. The only guard against spiritual confusion or heresy as well as moral anarchy was submission to God and Scripture. GOD: THE ONLY CREDIBLE SOURCE OF AUTHORITY The existence of an intricately complex universe, complete with tangible, verifiable laws of science as well as a planet that is home to billions of sentient, multifaceted creatures, begs a fundamental question: How did this all come about?
1

Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of

Scripture (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 107-108

Scientists and philosophers have long grappled with this issue of origin, and the answers have been interesting, to say the least. Yet most of them share a common characteristic: an appeal or reference to some Higher Power. Those that reject the possibility of any elevated, external Power being the source of existence are typically in the minority, for such a position is virtually impossible to sustain in the face of logic. For example, one of the scientific laws widely recognized in governing the universe is the Law of Causality. According to Sproul, the Law of Causality is especially important to the natural sciences and has enjoyed great respect throughout the history of Western theoretical thought.2 Citing Aristotle in particular, Sproul argues that, ever since the ancients tried to figure out the world around them, humanity has long recognized that the existence of a supreme being was necessary simply because events require a cause, and there needs to be an uncaused (or first) cause in order to make sense of the world.3 If there is a Higher Power, it makes little sense that He would create humanity and then ignore them. Surely, He would want to reveal Himself to the human race He created. The very act of creation requires a cause or purpose behind it. It is altogether logical that the Creator would reveal that purpose. THE REVELATION OF GOD Origen, the great third century Christian thinker, took this logical premise to its next step, arguing that the Scriptures were a revelation from God, and that the discussion

2 3

Defending Your Faith, p. 49 Ibid, p. 50

and resolution of great and special matters cannot depend on human senses, but rather in subordination to divine Scriptures, which are inspired by the Spirit of God.4 Origen lived on little food or sleep, studying those Scriptures for hours every day until he knew most of them by heart. For him, Christians must rely on great zeal and effort so that each reader may with all reverence understand that he is pondering words that are divine and not human and that have been sown into the holy books.5 Since, as Origen argued, the words of God are necessary to understand the ways of God and the nature of God, it made sense that God would insure the accurate transmission and preservation of His revelation. All three of the worlds primary religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) accept the logic and reality of God revealing Himself to the human race through written Scripture. In the case of Judaism and Christianity, in particular, there is a recognition that at least part of that revelation took place by the end of the first century with the confirmation of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. WRITING THE NEW TESTAMENT The writing of the New Testament represented the efforts of first century evangelists and apostles to complete Gods written revelation to the human race. In their case, they wished to show how God fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, namely through His Son, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, had the early church gotten ahead of itself?

Origen. Translated by Rowan Greer. Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, First Principles:

Book IV, the Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979),
5

p. 171

Ibid, p. 193

It is one thing to accept that God revealed Himself through Scripture. It is quite audacious, though, to write Scripture. After the resurrection, when Jesus commissioned his disciples to the work ahead, He told them to go out and make disciples of all the nations, to baptize them, and to [teach] them to observe all things that I have commanded you.6 Note that Jesus clearly referred to the content of what He had taught, charging His followers to make disciples and teach based on that content. Jesus promise of a Comforter was fulfilled at Pentecost, where, according to the book of Acts, tongues of fire descended on the Christians gathered. Peter stood before the crowd to explain what was happening, and his message cited the words of Jesus Christ, as well as the writings of the Old Testament (known still in that day simply as Scripture, from which he quoted the prophet Joel as well as King David). Many Christians consider this the birth of the church. According to Acts, the church grew with conversions and baptisms. Its members continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.7 It is clear then that the Hebrew Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of the apostles were what guided the early church. As early as the 50s A.D., the apostles, starting most famously with Paul, began putting their teachings into written format, normally letters. Paul was the most prolific. The apostles obviously believed their teachings were authoritative. Since Jesus had ascended and the apostles were mortal, the only practical means to insure the survival of

6 7

Matthew 28.19-20 NKJV Acts 2.42 NKJV

their teachings was to put them in writing. The writings then would carry the same level of authority as an in-person appearance. If the teachings of the apostles warranted written transmission, certainly the life and teachings of the Son of God did as well. Within a few years, accounts of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ joined letters from the apostles, such as Peter and Paul, in circulation throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. By the end of the first century, all of the present books of the New Testament canon were in active circulation. The evidence is clear then that the earliest believers in Jesus Christ universally accepted the existence of God, embraced Jesus as the Son of God, and acknowledged the disciples and apostles as authoritative spokesmen for God (in much the same way the ancient peoples of Israel regarded the prophets). Moreover, the early church considered it logical to put the teachings of Jesus and the apostles into writing, and apparently did so sincerely and accurately. The New Testament, often referred to as the Christian writings of the Bible, is a collection of accounts and letters written by men sometime between the death of Jesus Christ and the close of the first century A.D.8 Nevertheless, say evangelicals, this human authorship stemmed from and was subordinate to divine inspiration. Noted evangelical scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix define this process of divine biblical inspiration as that mysterious process with which God worked

Some critics claim the Gospel of John as well as some of the disputed epistles were written in the

second century, but this paper presumes the mainstream timetable is correct. (Also, this paper will use B.C. and A.D., instead of the more fashionable and politically correct B.C.E. and C.E.).

through the human prophets without destroying their individual personalities and styles to produce divinely authoritative and inerrant writings.9

THE GOSPELS UNDER FIRE Saying the apostolic writings of the New Testament are inspired by God is not difficult, since, in each case, there were just one or two authors penning an epistle to a church or community.10 It is easy to make such a claim. Mohammed made a similar claim of inspiration with regard to the Quran. The Gospels are another matter. A historical record exists against which one may evaluate and measure the claims made by the Gospel authors. There are four accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The prevailing view of modern New Testament scholarship, thanks primarily to B.H. Streeters famed Two-Source Hypothesis, is that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written, with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke serving as revisions and extensions of Marks work.11 For many biblical critics, the fact that there are four Gospels undermines their credibility. The Gospels, to them, were essentially an effort by the early church to create a mythological account of Jesus of Nazareth. The presence of four Gospels reflects four attempts to get it right. According to one such critic, Randel Helms, the Gospel of Mark was inadequate to convince early Palestinian residents of Jesus divinity, so additional Gospel narratives were called for. For example, Mark wrote
9

Geisler, Norman and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, p. 39 Sometimes there is an assistant author or scribe cited in the epistles. Fiensy, David. The College Press NIV Commentary: New Testament Introduction. (Joplin:

1986),
10 11

College Press Publishing, 1997), p. 128.

nothing of Jesus birth. This limited scope, however, was no hindrance to the firstcentury Christian imagination, according to Helms, since it churned out two, and ultimately three, additional Gospels to add to the mythical and legendary character to Jesus Christ.12 Spong goes even further, taking the assumption that later evangelists used the Gospel of Mark to write their own as evidence undermining any early Christian belief in an inerrant Bible. [Matthew] did not regard Mark as either Holy Scripture or as literally inerrant, for Matthew altered Marks text frequently to suit his agenda, his writing task, his audience, and his theological perspective.13 Spong cites several examples where Matthew allegedly expanded or enhanced Jesus statements or claims in relationship to God. Whether Mark was the first Gospel or not, there is no evidence of the kind of hand-wringing in the early church over Mark alleged by Helms, especially not to the extent that fraudulent exaggeration would be needed to confirm a preferred view of Jesus. Whats more, early Christian tradition points to Matthew, not the Gospel of Mark, as being the first Gospel.14 Therefore, this paper does not automatically grant the theory of Markan priority, although this author acknowledges its grammatical and literary evidence. Regardless of which Gospel came first, the early church, by the end of the first

12 13 14

Helms, Randel. Gospel Fictions (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 44. Rescuing the Bible, p. 150 Eusebius cites Papias as the main source of evidence on this point. Modern conservative scholars,

in an effort to merge early church tradition with the Streeter Hypothesis, argue that it is possible Matthew wrote essentially a rough draft Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, and that Mark used it as well as input from Peter. Then, when Matthew composed his final Greek version, he drew from Mark. There are so many theories that conclusiveness on this point is impossible to reach.

century A.D., had four in circulation, each of which regarded as an accurate and reliable record of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.15 Gospel critics also allege that the authors likely embroidered their accounts to provide the basis for the Christian movement. This claim of embellishment, known as Redaction criticism, rests primarily on two suppositions. First, critics believe that first and second century Christians wrote and published the New Testament (including the Gospels, in particular) to bolster the credibility and authority of the organized church. Scholars from the noteworthy Jesus Seminar are among those articulating this accusation. They assume that the memory of Jesus [was] embellished by mythic elements that express the churchs faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.16 The second major premise of these redaction critics is a rejection of any supernatural dimension in the writings. Absent divine intervention, critics point to the extreme improbability, if not impossibility, of late first century writers sufficiently remembering the events and teachings of Jesus Christ in order to pen accurate Gospel accounts. Bishop Spong asks: With no written words or tape recorders, with a significant gap in time before the spoken words were written down down, and with

15

There are so many scholars available to confirm this statement that it would be a pointless exercise

to footnote it. The citations would take up the entire paper. The most credible witnesses to this observation, of course, are the early church leaders and historians themselves, including Eusebius.
16

Funk, Robert W., Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really

Say? (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 5

translation from the spoken Aramaic to the written Greek, just how authoritative or secure can one be in claiming for the New Testament a literal truth?17 This assumption, however, assumes that the ancients were careless and spotty in their oral and written traditions, especially religious ones. The evidence does not support this assumption. Moreover, the criticism completely ignores or dismisses the possibility of divine inspiration, which would include the Holy Spirits assisting the memory of the author. The most important challenge to the authority of the Gospels, of course, is that which tries to undermine the portrayal of Jesus as the Christ. The Jesus Seminar does just this. In fact, one of its core rules of evidence, guidelines that dictated the terms of their historical investigation, is quite simply: Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the messiah.18 Never mind that none of the scholars (or Fellows) of the Jesus Seminar was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus Christ, in contrast with two of the Gospel authors who claim to be. Bolstering this puzzling conclusion, disguised as a premise, the Jesus Seminar scholars argue that Jesus urged humility as the cardinal virtue, and therefore it is difficult to imagine Jesus making claims for himself I am the Son of God, I am the expected One, the Anointed unless, of course, he thought that nothing he said applied to himself.19 It would seem that a more obvious unless statement has escaped the notice of these credentialed historians and theologians, namely this: It is difficult to imagine Jesus making claims for Himself as the Son of God, unless they were true. If Jesus was the Son

17 18 19

Rescuing the Bible, p. 79 The Five Gospels, p. 32 Ibid, p. 33

of God, then not making such a claim would be the most perplexing and unfathomable enigma of all time, since it would leave forever unsatisfied the reason for His coming in the first place. Given the fact that there are four canonical Gospels, which report Jesus as making the claim of divinity, and that this claim was embraced by first century Christians (in many cases, right up until the martyrdom), it is rather easy to refute this outlandish and nonsensical rule of evidence provided by the Jesus Seminar. Most of the other rules of evidence postulated by the Jesus Seminar are just as easily rebuffed. CANONIZING AND PRESERVING THE NEW TESTAMENT The assembly of a closed list of authoritative first century writings, including the four Gospels, involved a process known as canonization. The word canon is a Greco-Jewish word that came to mean measuring reed.20 The early church soon coopted this word to refer to the standard by which certain books would be judged as worthy of inclusion in the Bible. This process of formally closing the list of writings deemed authoritative was completed in the fourth century.21 Criticism of the canonization process as being political or flawed is expected. Nevertheless, the number of Christians involved in that process, one that ranged (in some respects) from the late first century up through the end of the fourth century, took their task very seriously. They knew they were evaluating writings already in circulation according to their degree of divine authority. As Geisler and Nix make clear: Canonicity

20

Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. 487


21

The canonization process is discussed at length and in depth in A General Introduction to the

Bible.

is determined by God. A book is not inspired because men made it canonical; it is canonical because God inspired it.22 While the early church recognized its task was to discover the canon and not determine it, how did it go about doing so? Three questions drove this process. First, did the writings in question conform to the rule of faith? Second, which writings held apostolic authority? This question included those documents written by the apostles themselves or by those in immediate and subordinate contact with apostles. An example of the latter would be Mark, who based his Gospel on his association with the Apostle Peter. Third, which writings were in verified and widespread use by the church already as authoritative teachings? Answering these questions required the early church to substantiate the claimed authorship of the New Testament books. After all, how can books lay claim to apostolic authority if an apostle or disciple did not write them? The greatest debate surrounds the first four books of the New Testament, all of which chronicle the life of Jesus Christ. Officially, the Gospels were written by two eyewitness disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew and John) and two second-generation church leaders (Luke and John Mark), who based their accounts largely on the actual testimony and teachings of others who were eyewitnesses. That is the traditional view. Not surprisingly, more than a few modern New Testament critics point to the lack of tangible, surviving evidence that confirms the attributed authorship of the Gospels and many of the apostolic epistles. Archaeology and history journalist Jeffery Sheler concedes this point, acknowledging the lack of tangible, direct evidence that Matthew,

22

A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 221

Mark, Luke, and John wrote the gospels that bear their names.23 However, such a lack of direct evidence does not refute the indirect evidence of early attribution. The assumption of false attribution to enhance a books standing does not fit with the Gospels of Mark and Luke. After all, if this were the case, why choose John Mark and Luke, the physician? These men were not eyewitnesses to Christ, nor were they giants of the early faith like the Apostle Paul. If attribution of the Gospels to these evangelists was indeed fraudulent, it was a poorly conceived deception. Notwithstanding modern attacks on Gospel authorship, early church affirmation of the Gospels is emphatic in this regard. Eusebius, the famous church historian, wrote of the Gospels formation as follows: [O]f all those who had been with the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us their memoirs, and tradition has it that they did so of necessity. Matthew at first preached to Hebrews, and when he planned to go to others also, he wrote his Gospel in his own native language for those he was leaving, his writing filling the gap left by his departure. Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, but John, it is said, had used only the spoken word until he finally took to writing for the following reason. The three written Gospels in general circulation also came into Johns hands. He welcomed them, it is said, and affirmed their accuracy, but noted that the narrative lacked only the account of what Christ had done at the beginning of his mission.24 Sheler argues quite logically that the early church tradition is persuasive. According to Sheler, there is no evidence from the first two Christian centuries that the gospels ever were circulated without the names of the authors attached.25 This is strong evidence in favor of traditional ascription.

23 24 25

Is the Bible True? p. 31 Eusebius, p. 114 Is the Bible True? p. 33

Those involved in the canonization process took seriously the question of authorship as they did the other questions, and did not rush the process, which is why it stretched (formally) from the middle of the second century to the end of the fourth. This process incorporated the input of a wide array of Christian leaders and councils, including giants of the faith, such as Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, Augustine, and Eusebius.26 The stubborn fact remains, however, that the world today is without the original Gospels or epistles contained in the New Testament. The Bibles printed today are translations of copies, not originals. Does this lack of original autographs undermine the reliability of the New Testament most Christians carry with them to church every Sunday? When churches made copies of the Gospel accounts and apostolic letters, it was not a case of one scribe copying out a letter from Paul and then a future scribe copying from that copy when the first copy began to deteriorate. Instead, these congregations made numerous copies right away and put them into wide circulation. This wide usage was due to the habit of local congregations gathering every week to read from the Scriptures. Church meetings, says Professor Paul Barnett, led to the proliferation and therefore the preservation of the Scriptures.27 Consequently, there exists today more manuscript credibility for the New Testament than any other piece of ancient literature. The sheer volume of surviving New Testament manuscripts dwarfs those of other classic works.28

26 27 28

Ibid, pp. 277-295 Barnett, Paul. Is The New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 44 Thoroughly discussed in a number of sources for this paper, including Is the New Testament

Reliable?

CONCLUSION A person contemplating the credibility of the New Testament should respect the plausibility of God and the likelihood that He would reveal Himself to the human race (a likelihood embraced by all three of the worlds major religions). Moreover, Christians and Jews alike universally acclaimed the Old Testament as Gods revelation, and early Christians accorded the teachings of Jesus and the apostles the same degree of authority. It was a therefore logical and appropriate for the early church to put those teachings, already recognized as inerrant and authoritative, into writing. The process of collecting, confirming, and preserving those writings has been marked by scrupulous attention to detail and integrity. Critics sometimes hold the early church to an unfairly high standard, placing upon them the full burden of proof for everything associated with the New Testament. If these first, second, or third century Christians are unable to provide modern, tangible proof to answer twenty-first century questions or attacks, then their claims are dismissed as mythmaking or dubious. This is how modern scholars cavalierly dismiss the early church tradition concerning divine inspiration, human authorship, or scriptural authority. This reflects an arrogance on the part of modern scholars and researches that they would know more about the first century than those who lived much closer to it (and sometimes within it). In fact, the reverse is more likely. As Sheler argues, The authority and authentic origins of the Bible, though often perceived today through the haze of intervening centuries as largely obscure and unknowable, were seen much more clearly in the first generations of the Christian era.29

29

Is the Bible True? p. 254