Rev. Scott's Letter August 1
Delivered By
Rev. Tom Scott
Delivered On
August 1, 2020
Attached Document
august_1.pdf
Description

 

 

August 1

In our gospel readings this summer we are given several opportunities to observe Jesus “at work” with his disciples and a wider range of people. From time to time, we are told that someone spoke to Jesus or raised a question. On occasion, the person is named.  Have you ever wondered how anyone remembered who asked or said or answered whatever was said?

It’s an important point, if you think about it, because it leads us to ask about the accuracy and reliability of the gospels, and by extension, the New Testament itself. Many scholars over the years have made this subject their life’s work. It will not surprise you, therefore, when I say at the outset that any position I take or point of view I adopt will not find universal acceptance. I believe it is fair to say that I am in the mainstream on most points, so what I have to say is neither new nor shocking to scholars or my fellow clergy. You can find discussion of what I say on-line at Britannica.com or in popular book form (a little dated) in Lee Strobel’s book, In Defense of Jesus (a newer edition of The Case for Jesus). For the more academically inclined, Richard Bauckham’s, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (second edition) or other of his works will serve, as will N. T. Wright’s book, Jesus and the Victory of God.

Some things virtually everyone will agree on: Jesus really lived, and he had brothers and sisters; he was executed by crucifixion for sedition by the Romans in 30 CE. He was renowned as a teacher and healer, and had quite a few disciples, including an inner circle known as the twelve. A number of his disciples (and some of his family) were completely convinced that he had been raised from the dead, including one person (Paul) who never knew him in the flesh but encountered him after his resurrection. For these people, the resurrection demonstrated the truth of his teaching and marked the opening of a new era. 

The events of his ministry, and the account of his last days, were told and re-told, and soon wide-flung communities of believers were established—not least by the new believer, Paul. In time, there developed a sense that having the stories and teachings of Jesus gathered into a written form was a good idea—not least because the eyewitnesses were dying. This was done, beginning perhaps as early as right before the revolt of 68 CE and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE—and substantially completed by about 95 CE. In the case of Paul’s letters, they have been reliably dated from approximately the mid-50’s to about 64 CE ( his martyrdom).  That is, our resources about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the early days of the Christian faith and community, come from people who were contemporaries of Jesus and some actually knew him personally. Other material included in the New Testament was finished within another couple of decades. The gospels were composed using contemporary ideas about what events would be most valuable to remember in a biography, as well as current standards for information gathering. Letters served many purposes, one being to act as a way of representing a person when he could not be there in person—as was also true of messengers—see/hear the message, see/hear the man himself.

These writings—our New Testament—were widely distributed and regarded as authoritative from the beginning.  So well known and relied upon were our 4 gospels, etc., that, had some terrible event destroyed all of those documents, the entire New Testament could be reconstructed for us from the extensive quotations of scripture found in the writings of Christians in the next 100-125 years (that is, by about 200-225 CE). So widely known, used, quoted, trusted, were the New Testament documents that everything we read on Sundays from the NT  can be found independent of the four major (largely intact) copies we have of the New Testament itself. The Christian texts were quickly and widely spread out. That is absolutely extraordinary.

No other document from that era—poems, plays, scientific studies, history—has come to light with so many copies and near-to-the-events authority as the New Testament possesses. Jesus is literally the best attested person of his time. Moreover, the archeological evidence for matters cited in the NT only continues to grow.  In short, the NT is both accurate and reliable. 

Two questions crop up, as they should. When a story is told again and again, especially by a string of people, we wonder how accurate the last telling is compared to the first? And, when it comes to writing things down, we know that people interject their own viewpoint and concerns into their version of events. So, how do we assess the veracity of what we have received?

If you look again at the little list of agreed on facts up above, consider this: no one at the time within the community seriously questioned those facts, and centuries of scholarship, pious imagination, and creative skepticism have not undone them either. If anything, the research and archaeology have only further confirmed what we have received in the New Testament.

But what if someone should ask, “What about Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting married? Or Jesus traveling to India after he escaped from the tomb where his disciples put him after giving him drugs to fake his death? What about all those other gospels and teachings that the nasty church authorities suppressed?  And what about Jesus saying he was only a humble teacher but being declared God by Emperor Constantine for political purposes?” (I will stop the baloney questions here, though one can make a much longer list.) My answer is, show me any evidence for these claims that has the same claim to being as old, as close to the events, and as coherent with what we know already, and I will listen. It just isn’t there.

Now back to my initial question: what was the mechanism, the tool, the linkage between the lived experience of the disciples and Paul and other contemporaries, and the written version of things we call the New Testament.  The key point is that when the written material was being composed, the writers consulted with the eye witnesses, heard from reliable sources about eye witness experiences, or perhaps were actually witnesses themselves.

Three brief examples will illustrate: Paul says in I Cor 13, “I passed on to you what I received from those who were there what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and if you don’t believe me, believe them; when I tell you about Jesus raised from the dead, you can doubt me, but there are still hundreds of people--including his brother who originally thought he was crazy—whom you can talk to about it.“; Luke opens his gospel saying the he was writing things down in an orderly way, relying on first-hand testimony, so that a written record would be available for anyone to read; the four gospels are quite different from each other in many respects, but where they agree most is in the events from the arrest if Jesus to his being laid in a tomb, and also in the practice of often recording people’s names when events or teaching are described (in distinction from parables, for example), and that fact is itself very important indeed. 

The last point—the similarities in the passion story and

including names—suggest that the events of Jesus’ death were well known, and the names of people were included because they were a reality check, a source of confirmation, a voice of authority in the gospel tellings of Jesus’ ministry. Think of it like this: the stories get told, and the questions start. Yo, Simon of Cyrene, did you truly help carry the cross for Jesus? Hey, Joseph of Arimathea, did you really donate your tomb for Jesus body after you got permission to bury him?  Hey, Bartimeus, were you really a blind beggar who was healed?  Hey, Jairus, was your daughter really on her death bed? Hey, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, did it happen like the story says? Hey, so and so...

Now none of this is meant to diminish the significant questions that exist about the composition and sources for New Testament material, but I hope I have been persuasive about one thing: the gospels are not made up, feel good stories, they are records (literary documents also, to be sure) meant to be read as testimony, arguments from evidence about the person, purpose, and ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers.

Thought about this way, (which I admit skips over some rather dry research and skims the cream from the rest), our New Testament is more like a collection of public records than it is a bunch of private diaries or some elaborate fictional composition;  and that fact, I hope, will encourage you to read the New Testament as testimony.

 
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