Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Canonical Gospels: Community as Author Part 1


Skeptics make much of the fact that there is no clear evidence as to who wrote the four Gospels. This argument is almost used as an excuse to virtually write the Gospels out of existence as authoritative historical documents. Most skeptics on the net assume that the Gospels offer nothing in terms of understanding the situation of the early church, much less the events depicted in their pages. But why should the lack of knowledge as to the authors present such a barrier to knowledge of other things? We do not have to know the exact identity of the authors, because the original material comes from the community itself. Scholars no longer look to one individual as the author of any of the Gospels; instead they see the Gospels as the product of a process in which the whole community was involved; oral history, original writing, redaction (see Luke Timothy Johnson, Early Christian Writtings)


March 7 1997, "researchers say Coptic Fragments reveal lot gospel"

UK (University of Kansas) public relations site

Sayings attributed to Jesus and other figures often use metaphors of fire, nearness and life in various combinations with other images, Mirecki said. "The question is not if these are the actual words of Jesus," Mirecki said. "That's a question that can never be answered, as even the biblical Gospels contain the teachings of diverse early communities rather than the direct teachings of Jesus. All such texts have gone through the interpretive filter of early Christian editors and scribes."

Of course we have no records of those communities, no documents such as membership roles, but we can make some educated conjectures as to the character of those groups, and thus peice together an idea of the kinds of communities and what is meant when we speak of "the community as author." The upshot is that these communities, school/communizes, contained eye witnesses who bore witness to the original events of Jesus ministry and who could have check mistakes and embellishments upon the story.

I.Nature of Community

What do we mean by "community?" Surely most the early Christians lived near each other in Jerusalem. Do we mean a close nit village? Or do we mean in our modern sense of a loose collection of people who agree on something, such as the "beer drinking community" which has nothing to do with where they live? In the sense in which I use this term it is meant to imply a closely knit group, those who live in close proximity, who cares good in common, who perhaps live as a community almost like hippies in the 1960s; but in any case a group of people who live near one another, share wealth, work, hardship and belief. A grope close knit enough that they could expel those who did not agree, or who would not give in to the community rule.

The early believers formed such a community in Jerusalem, the embryonic Jerusalem church, is exclitply stated in the book of Acts.

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. 43 Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46 And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added those being saved to them.

To this communal like setting the Apostles added teaching about the events of Jesus ministry and his resurrection.

Acts 4:32-37

32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles' feet. This was then distributed to each person as anyone had a need. 36 Joseph, who was named by the apostles Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

Who were the people in the community? It's clear from Luke's Account of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) that people form all over the known world heard the message. But many of them were no doubt form Jerusalem. we have a clue in the book of Luke, the final chapter, and the first Chapter of Acts where we see the fledgling community form. It is quite probable that they were made up of both disciples already following Jesus at the time of the crucification/resurrection, and the community of Bethany. The whole community of Bethany had the opportunity to become eye witnesses, and these probably make up the 500 that Paul mentions. Skeptics always ask who were the 500, this is who they were, they were the community of Bethany.

II.Eyewitness in Community

In the final chapter of Luke (24) two deiciples are walking toward the town of Emmaus, Jesus joins them but they do not recognize him. One, name Cleopus, has been thought by some to be a cousin of Jesus,' but be that as it may, they were apparently disciples because latter they realize it was him, so they do eventually recognize him. After that point they go find the eleven in Jerusalem and Jesus appears to them all while they relate the story. Then all of them march out to Bethany. why they are going to Bethany we don't know, but it was the home of the little family of Lazarus, Mary of Bethany and Martha who were Jesus' friends. So perhaps he was going to say good-bye. It is from that point that he ascends into the heavens and is gone. An angel comes and says he will return in the same the same way. The curious thing is, as they leave to walk to Bethany, there are 14 of them, the eleven, the two men (Clops and friend) and Jesus. When they get back there are 120.

Acts 1:12-15

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olive Grove, which is near Jerusalem--a Sabbath day's journey away. 13 When they arrived, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 All these were continually united in prayer, along with the women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers. 15 During these days Peter stood up among the brothers--the number of people who were together was about 120--

Of course all 120 could have been with the Apostles before they walked through the streets of Bethany.

Luke 24:33-52

33 That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, 34 who said, "The Lord has certainly been raised, and has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they began to describe what had happened on the road, and how He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 36 And as they were saying these things, He Himself stood among them. He said to them, "Peace to you!" 37 But they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. 38 "Why are you troubled?" He asked them. "And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself! Touch Me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have." 40 Having said this, He showed them His hands and feet. 41 But while they still could not believe for joy, and were amazed, He asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" 42 So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish, 43 and He took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then He told them, "These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46 He also said to them, "This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what My Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high."

50 Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. 51 And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven. 52 After worshiping Him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they were continually in the temple complex

The point is, there were a large group of eye witnesses already with the Apostles who formed the basic community. It is these same people who were together on the day of Pentecost, just a few days hense, who were overcome by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, who started the church, who made up the first Christian community. As we see, Jesus led them through the streets of Bethany,as the risen Christ, and was transmogrified into heaven in front of all, thus making the entire community of Bethany a witness. We can only surmise that people saw him, but as they were not in their homes wathcing tv they probably did, that is very likely.

Of cousre it could be that a few more, such as Jesus mother (who we are told was there in Acts 1) were there and not mentoined with the 11, but who were all the others?

Quite probaly these others were picked up as walked to and from Bethany, after all they had to walk through the street. So the whole community of Bethany saw them, they were all witnesses. So all the people of Bethany could then testify to the fact tha they saw Jesus alive again, they saw him to up to heaven, they saw an angel come and promise his return.

Is Luke Reliable?

Of course skeptics will argue that Acts is the New Testament and the NT can't verify itself, so we cant' use it as evidence. Of course this si stupid, because any document can tell us something about itself. It can tell us about who wrote it, how they thought, what they believed and what conditions were like when they wrote. Luke is very well known for his god historicism. He includes the place names of obscure places, and the names of magistrates not known to exist otherwise, but whom archeology has borne out. He gets the titles of the magistrates right which is a small but important detail, because it is usually one of the things that those not on the scene get wrong.

Moreover, the author of Acts has no idea about a community as author argument. He could not have designed the narrative with this in mind. Of course he might have exaggerated to put all the eye witnesses in one place. But it only makes sense that among the first community would be those whom first heard Jesus preached and who followed him, and the first to hear stories of the risen Christ.

This would explain why there is only one version of the story. Myth always proliferates. There are two versions of Hercules death, about 14 versions of Inanna and Tamuz but only one Jesus story.Why? because the facts were known from the eairlest period and the eye witnesses helped to keep them straight. It's also becasue the peroid of eye witness oral transmission was only about 18 years.

the group that produced the Gospel of John calimed eye witnesses among them:

1 John 1:1"What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed, and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life."

Group Proliferation

This initial group which was together after the ascension became the same group together on Pentecost and thus started the original Christian community which was filled with eye witnesses. The first chapter of Acts ends with that same group of 120 praying. The Second chapter beings "2:1 When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place." From the day of Pentecost on they become the original church. So the original church was full of eye witnesses. It was these people who passed on the

Obviously these people did all sit with pen in hand to write the actual first draft of each Gospel, but they did form the basis of the story telling mechanism which passed the story on from one person to another. They were available to check the story if it got off track. Now that means if some tried to change the outline of the story, the whole group has 120 eye witnesses who could say "no, we saw him risen, we saw him ascent into heaven." This doesn't mean, of course, that we can prove every miracle or every event, but it means that we can trust the Gospels for the basic outline of the story. That's why there is only one essential story of Jesus, and there are no competing versions where he dies in other ways and in other places.

The communities multiplied, the fragmented and become multiple communities. The original community spread itself out and the growth of the movement was hap hazard. But we can see the likelihood of witnesses in other communities.

L.T. Johnson (The Writtings of the New TestamentFortress Press 1986)

"Christianity was a movement of Social groups. The social setting for the tradition is intrinsic to the nature of the movement. Acts shows how rapidly the message spread across vast geographic areas. Within seven or eight years separate communities existed in Jerusalem,Judea, Sameria, and Syria. In 20 years there were communities in Cyprus and Asia Minor; after twenty five years communities flourished throughout Macedonia, Achia, possibly Dalmatia.Thirty years after Jesus as killed there was a Christian community in Rome."(117)

Probably each one of the four Gospel represents a community. The original group that went to Bethany that day formed the basic core of the oral tradition. By AD50, just 18 years latter, there were many communities, there was a proto-Gospel being circulated which included the empty tomb story (see Koster--Ancient Christian Gospels) and by AD 70 there was a Gospel of Mark beging to circulate, and this Gosple would be fragmented into more than one version. By the end of the century the basic outline and structure of the Gospels were set in stone.


tinythinker said...

If I got a profound piece of wisdom or insight that altered my orientation to existence from a fortune cookie, would I have to find out who wrote the fortune to find it meaningful?

We know that the Way spread rapidly and that such communities represent living traditions that reflect the spirit as well as the letter of the teachings. There is no good reason to assume the writings weren't faithful to either.

Like so many of these debates, the core of what you are challenging is all about the literalist Biblical fundies who claim the Bible is a memo dictated from God and the subset of atheists seeking any angle to discredit Christianity.

J.L. Hinman said...

exactly! You are and I are look at the Gospel similarly to the way an archaeologist looks at an artifact. We are going "what does this pot shard tell us about the people who lived here?"

The fundies are looking at it like a factory shop foreman looks at a memo from the head office.

Atheists are looking at it like a snake oil salesman looks at the local doctor.

Loren said...

tinythinker, Xianity is not Buddhism. Not even early Xianity was Buddhism. So projecting Buddhism onto Xianity makes no sense.

The more philosophical sort of Buddhists, at least, don't spend much of their time arguing at length that there was a historical Buddha, certainly not as much as our host does for the historicity of Jesus Christ. Could it be that the don't feel that their belief system depends on the existence of a historical Buddha?

tinythinker said...

I didn't say anything about Buddhism here. The Way is the name given to early Christians, who ironically were categorized as atheists/non-believers by the Roman authorities. I think Meta sums it up well when comparing early Gospel texts to artifacts and asking "What does this tell us about these people?"

Anyone can label themselves anything they wish, and there is no use going through the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. I don't know who these "philosophical Buddhists are supposed to be.

tinythinker said...

Nuts, I hit publish rather than preview. Now I don't know what I was going to say since comments don't appear right away.

J.L. Hinman said...

Nuts, I hit publish rather than preview. Now I don't know what I was going to say since comments don't appear right away.


tinythinker said...

Oh, OK, there are my comments...

I don't know who these "philosophical" Buddhists are supposed to be. Buddhism, like all sacred traditions, is a shift in our orientation towards existence, a fundamental change of how we understand and approach the world. If one is merely philosophical about it, it would be like talking about what they teach in med schools and then sitting in an ER pondering the state of health care.

In Buddhism in general, the idea is that there would be no Buddhism without a Buddha. Did it have to be Siddhartha Gautama, i.e. Shakyamuni? Possibly not. Theravada Buddhism allows for and Mahayana Buddhism is rooted in the existence of many Buddhas and Enlightened Beings, of which Shakyamuni is but one. Yet only a Buddha has the insight of a Buddha, so if not him then someone else would be honored for such insight. Does Buddhism suggest others have gained part of the same insight the Shakyamuni did without being Buddhist? Absolutely, it is possible for all to eventually do so. Did later people of insight add to the Buddhist canon? Yes, of course.

As far as proving the existence of the historical Buddha, if there were an informal cottage industry devoted to questioning or denying the existence of Shakyamuni as part of an attempt to discredit Buddhism, you would see a definite reaction in the Buddhist community. While it is true that Shakyamuni's existence isn't as explicitly central to the core Buddhist teachings as Jesus is to Christianity, it has been central to faith in the validity and worthiness of such teachings, as is the community that has sustained the tradition.

Without the Buddha as mentor and guide, then one can easily question whether there is more to his wisdom than a superficial experience can verify. Why not chop up his insight according to what is easy or covenient or which flatters our expectations? Is the cessation of suffering really possible if the person who claimed to have experienced it is bogus? If we really think someone had the level of insight and awareness attributed to the historical Buddha, we can go by the rule of trust but verify and move deeper into the practice.

Let's put it this way. Let's say someone uncovered later journal by Einstein in which he predicted some of the flaws in his own theory and even anticipated some modern debates in string and membrane theory. So at the end he has drawings and some short-hand and a few formulas. Even though we may have no idea what it means at first, or even if it is something other than gibberish, we would spend time investigating the possibility of some groundbreaking insights because of what we know of the person who left the journal. If there hadn't been an Einstein with the reputation of an Einstein, or if some ordinary Joe had written it, we wouldn't decypher the journal or benefit from the wisdom it contains.

Nazorean said...

When you claim that the gospels were written by an early Christian community you are, at this late date, still falling for the ploy utilized by the Romans to deceive the masses into believing that the scriptures in the NT are those of the original Nazorean sect. They emphatically are not. If you do your homework you will uncover this plot. The scriptures you read were created by the Romans to subvert the Messianic Jewish Movement whose kabbalistic religion known as 'The Way' had become the fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire. To learn more about how the Romans usurped the scriptures of Yeshu and the Nazoreans visit: http://www.nazoreans.com

Metacrock said...

When you claim that the gospels were written by an early Christian community you are, at this late date, still falling for the ploy utilized by the Romans to deceive the masses into believing that the scriptures in the NT are those of the original Nazorean sect. They emphatically are not. If you do your homework you will uncover this plot. The scriptures you read were created by the Romans to subvert the Messianic Jewish Movement whose kabbalistic religion known as 'The Way' had become the fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire. To learn more about how the Romans usurped the scriptures of Yeshu and the Nazoreans visit: http://www.nazoreans.com



I've disproved your crap before. what a joke!

is it the Illuminati? Maybe it was the liberals, it was the Pizo family right? what a farse.

why can't you crack pots get a serious idea in your heads?