For the early Christians there was no bible. We should ask how they managed to define themselves as Christian and were able to be Christian since Jesus was long dead. Even Paul, who often seems to write so authoritatively, had never met him. Instead they all relied on the Jewish bible and stories that were passing around word of mouth. Stories that almost certainly changed, became embellished and, as we can see in the gospels, were consciously modified to express different theologies and concerns of different Christian communities.
The development of the New Testament was a gradual process. Although oral traditions were the main means of transmitting stories about Jesus, manuscripts were circulating. Out of the many texts, it appears that the ones we now know as the New Testament were starting to be accepted by 2nd century Christians with minor disagreements. By the 4th century there was general agreement, although it wasn’t until as late as the 16th century that the first official declaration (by the Council of Trent) formalised the texts that make the New Testament.
Throughout the bible its many writers write of their changing concepts of God and the relationships they feel they have with Him. The Gospels and Acts present differing pictures of Jesus. What this tells us is that these early Christians had a dynamic relationship to their faith. Through ambiguities, stories, contradiction and poetry, we see their journey to find meaning in a world that was often unpredictable and unexplainable in those pre-scientific times.
In the light of this, it seems unhelpful (!) that some are treating the bible as a set-in-stone dogmatic set of criteria to define who is and isn’t a true follower of Jesus. Some believe they can find the “truth” through long hours of bible study and, when they arrive at it, their journey is over.
Rather, what we see is a guide, a set of opinions and coloured perspectives (e.g. the “according tos” of the Gospels) of a people that wished to express their desire to have a relationship with their God and found language inadequate. But some have arrived at a non-reading of the bible, worshiping the bible as an idol and reading every word as literally true.
Arising from this, they shun those who do not conform to their dogma, demonise those of us who cannot believe and attempt to impose narrow understandings of morality on our society. They are people who cannot see because they believe their search has ended; who cannot hear because they believe there is nothing else worth knowing; and have forgotten how to feel because their idolisation of a book has overpowered their compassion.
It is not possible to change the idol worshipers. Instead, we have to appeal to those with ears, to argue for diversity and inclusivity; for many faiths and interpretations of those faiths, and for those that do not believe. We all demand our role to play. Knowledge is collective but belief should be personal.
- The Religious Right Has Always Been Wrong (voices.yahoo.com)
- A chronological New Testament: 9-20-12 (billtammeus.typepad.com)
- How to Read the Bible: A Progressive Christian Guide (www.patheos.com)