Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What about the Apocrypha?

The first record of the process of writing the Old Testament is God writing the 10 Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20. But only a few chapters later, in Ex 24:7, Moses has something which is described as the “book of the covenant”, which is probably Exodus 20-23, written down by Moses. From then, the Old Testament grew, through a process of editing and compiling various accounts, and people writing down messages given by God to inspired prophets, and so on. There's lots of detail, but it's very dull and the kind of thing boring academics argue about. It's far more interesting and helpful to talk about what the text means than try to come up with novel theories for how it came to be the way it is.

Peter sums up the overall process well:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:20-21

The result, over a period of 1000 years or so, was the Tanakh. Tanakh is the Hebrew name for Torah (law) + Naviim (prophets) + Khetuvim (writings), and is pretty much exactly the 39 books of the Old Testament in most modern Protestant Bibles, but in a different order. It's written in Hebrew, with a few bits in Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. It's possible a few bits (Daniel?) might have been written after the Greek conquest, but if so they were written in the old language, for the old culture and set before the conquest.

After the Exile to Babylon, the Jews gained a degree of independence under the Persian Empire, the beginnings of which are seen in Ezra and Nehemiah. But the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 332BC, and over time Greek rule transformed Israel. Tensions occasionally rose as high as violent revolt, especially the one led by the Maccabees in 164BC, which led to an independent Jewish state until it was swallowed up by the Roman Empire.

However, most Jews lived outside Israel, in what is now Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, they spoke Greek rather than Hebrew as a first language and were heavily influenced by Greek culture in a way that the Palestinian Jews had largely resisted. These Jews translated the Tanakh into Greek, so they could read and study it more easily, with the result being the Septuagint (usually abbreviated to LXX). The LXX isn't quite a straight translation though. Some books (Jeremiah) are a bit shorter in the LXX. Others (Daniel, Esther) are a bit longer, with the addition of new stories to Daniel and explicit references to God and prayer in Esther. Some new books were added too - some stories (Tobit, Judith), some history (Maccabees), and some which fit the Greek/Jewish culture, like Wisdom of Solomon, which says how wonderful Greek philosophy is, then points out it's all there and even better in the Tanakh. The books were also in a different order, with the LXX closer to the order you'd find in most Bibles today.

That meant there were some striking differences between the Hebrew Scriptures, used by Palestinian Jews, and the standard Greek translation of it, used by Grecian Jews.

What about Jesus and the apostles?

Jesus and the first apostles were Palestinian Jews and therefore used the Hebrew Tanakh. Paul was at home in either culture – he was brought up in Turkey, but studied in Jerusalem – and although he quotes from the LXX when writing to Greek-speaking Christians, he only quotes from the bits which were translations of the Hebrew/Aramaic original.

By the end of Acts, however, the majority of Christians didn't speak Hebrew or Aramaic, only Greek, and this was stronger still after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. After that, the early church almost exclusively used the LXX for their Old Testament.

And the Jews?

Meanwhile, the Jews met to discuss the problem at the council of Jamnia, which is often seen as the start of Rabbinic Judaism (i.e. after the temple and the destruction of Israel). They agreed that the Hebrew Tanakh was indeed Scripture, but the extra bits in the Greek LXX weren't.

St Jerome

During the centuries of persecution, the LXX seems to have been fairly readily available. Judaism wasn't persecuted in the same way that Christianity was, and most churches seem to have owned and used the LXX as Scripture. When St Jerome was commissioned to translate the Bible into Latin in 382, he found the problems, and argued against the use of the extra bits in the LXX. Augustine countered, arguing that the LXX itself was inspired by God, even where it got the translation of the underlying Hebrew wrong. Jerome made some compromises and his translation (the Vulgate) became the standard translation in the Latin-speaking world. The Vulgate:

  • Translated the Hebrew text of the books in the Tanakh, but noted where the Greek disagreed.
  • Where there were extra bits in the LXX, translated them too but mostly tagged them on at the end of each book.
  • Kept the LXX book order, including the extra books.

And so it stayed for 1000 years.

The Reformation

In the 1500s, the Reformers rebelled against the established Latin Church. As part of this, they looked again at the question of which books should be in the Bible, and almost all of them concluded that the Old Testament we use should be the Hebrew Tanakh, not the Greek Septuagint. Luther, for example, translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into German, and relegated the books that were only in the LXX to an appendix to the OT entitled “Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read”. Luther's idea was widely copied. In the Church of England, the policy was (and remains) as follows:

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.

Over time, the Apocrypha was dropped from most Bibles to save on printing costs and to make it clear that they aren't on the same level as Scripture.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church met at the Council of Trent to decide how to respond to the Reformation. One of the items on the agenda was which books should be in the Bibles, and Trent ruled that all the books in the LXX were Scripture.

The Situation Today

By and large, the situation today is as follows:

  • The Protestant Old Testament is the Hebrew Tanakh, but with the Greek order of books.
  • The Catholic Old Testament is the slightly weird Jerome-compromise of a combination between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments, but all held to be authoritative.
  • The Orthodox Old Testament is the LXX, with various slight variations among different groups.

And for those who are interested, the order of books in the Hebrew Tanakh is as follows:

  • Genesis – Deuteronomy (the Torah)
  • Joshua - 2 Kings, but missing out Ruth (the Former Prophets)
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (the Major Prophets)
  • Hosea – Malachi (the Minor Prophets)
  • Psalms
  • Job
  • Proverbs
  • Ruth
  • Song of Songs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Lamentations
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra - Nehemiah
  • 1& 2 Chronicles

(And that was the simplified version!)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Where did the New Testament Come From?

“prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Pet 1:21

Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead in either AD 30 or 33. By AD50, the church had grown enough that some of the leaders of the church needed to write to other bits of it (Galatians written in 48, 1 Thessalonians in 51, James maybe even earlier). The churches found these letters so valuable that they made copies of them, and circulated them to other churches as well, and reading them alongside the Old Testament. Even by the time 2 Peter was written (mid-late 60s?), people were evidently reading Paul's letters as Scripture (2 Pet 3:16).

Also in the 60s, the apostles started to realise that they were probably going to die before Jesus returned. Some of the apostles who had known Jesus (Peter, via his friend Mark; Matthew; John) wrote down accounts of what Jesus had done and said. They'd already been preaching this for 30 years; it's like writing an account of the Falklands War today, using the accounts of soldiers who fought there – the same sort of timescale. Books weren't in common use yet, but the early church very quickly created a scroll of the four gospels, which almost every early Christian church seems to have had access to, along with another scroll of the Letters of Paul.

For the next few hundred years, Christianity was illegal, and often persecuted. Printing, of course, hadn't been invented, and so churches tended to have a collection of scrolls of New Testament writings which they used. Besides Paul and the Gospels, they might well have some of the other NT letters (Hebrews-Revelation, especially 1 John), and maybe some other books like the letters of Clement, Bishop of Rome in the 90s.

In the 100s, lots of false teachers arose, just like Jesus said they would. Some of them (e.g. Marcion) tried cutting bits out of the Bible because they wanted to cut off any hints of Jewish roots. Others (e.g. the author of the Gospel of Thomas) wrote fake “gospels” to try to add things into the Bible which fit their own agenda. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in about 180, wrote about them and pointed out that the church had always had the 4 gospels and that they shouldn't accept any of the new nonsense. [If you want to, why not try reading some of these fake “gnostic” gospels – they're very different to the real thing, and can be quite funny in an awful way. They tell us far more about what the authors liked (secret knowledge, petty magic tricks) or didn't like (women) than about Jesus though.]

When Christianity eventually became legal, in the early 300s, the church started to compare notes on which books they had, and which ones were Scripture. Interestingly, they didn't discuss it at the Council of Nicea, which was the first big Christian get-together after Christianity was made legal – there were more pressing things to discuss like Jesus being God and the date of Easter. It wasn't so much a process of deciding which books were Scripture as recognising. If I pick someone out of a police line up, I'm not deciding that that person robbed my house; I'm recognising the person who did it.

The criteria the Church used were roughly:

  • Is it either by an apostle (leader of the early church personally commissioned by Jesus – Peter, John, Paul, James, etc), or was it approved of by an apostle (Luke, Mark)?
  • Does it fit with the rest of the apostolic teaching? (“Acts of Paul” was ditched as it clearly wasn't by Paul because it didn't fit with the rest of his teaching.)
  • Has it been used by a lot of Christians, and tested to see that it has the effects that we expect Scripture to have?

Using these criteria, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote the list we've got today in his Easter Sunday letter of 367, and this was ratified by the Council of Carthage in 397. It's easy enough to find copies of the books that they decided to leave out – Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, the Didache, and so on. They don't add much.

There's a different question, about how sure we can be that the New Testament we read today is what was originally written. Ian Paul, who knows more about these things than me, has some helpful comments.

As a consequence of all this, we can be very sure that what we have as the New Testament now is pretty much exactly what those who knew Jesus personally were saying and teaching about him in the Early Church.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Whom do you serve?

We all serve someone or something, whether we intend to or not. The weird thing is that we sometimes get to choose who.

So the stereotypical career-obsessed man is actually serving his career, sometimes even becomes a slave to his career. Perhaps a clearer question is “Where do you seek fulfilment?” The person who seeks fulfilment through sporting achievement serves their sport – they give their energy, their time, their effort to their sport, sometimes to the exclusion of other things in their lives.

The Romans used to personify these ways of seeking fulfilment – the person who looked for it in wine and feasting was said to serve Bacchus; the person who looked for it in sex or war served Venus or Mars.

Against that background, God's first commandment to his people cuts like a knife. “You shall have no other gods in my sight.” Sure we can do sport, drink wine, work hard at our jobs, but we should seek our ultimate source of fulfilment in God alone.

For those of us who seek to serve God, there is, however, an even bigger danger. The second commandment begins “You shall not make for yourselves an idol...” The danger warned of in the first commandment is the danger of false pretenders to God's throne. The danger in the second commandment is of imposters pretending to be God.

How do we decide who God is? There are three choices. Either we listen to others, or we see what he has revealed to us, or we make something up for ourselves. When we follow others, there's a danger that we're just following what someone else has made up about God. When God says “You shall not make for yourselves an idol...”, he's telling us to avoid making our own pictures of what God is like, and to follow the picture he has already given us in the Bible and in Jesus, as described in the Bible.

Saying “I like to think of God as...” is pretty stupid anyway. Why should there be any relation between the way we like to think of God and the way he actually is? Since when is our personal preference a reliable guide to the nature of the one who created the universe? That isn't much that works like that in the world, is there? (And for any pedantic not-yet-Christians out there – yes, I realise this isn't arguing for Christianity, only against self-constructed images of God and towards ones which come from plausible sources of revelation).

It seems to me that there are three quite different pictures of God going round in the church at the moment, only one of which comes from the Bible.

There's the picture of God as grumpy judge, defender of Victorian morality and condemner of those sins which we're more likely to approve of now than the Victorians were such as sexual promiscuity. For some reason he seems less bothered by the sins which we're more likely to be against now, such as wife-beating. This picture of God doesn't have much room for a Jesus who was criticised for hanging out with tax collectors, prostitutes and other known and notorious sinners.

There's also his opposite – God as the personification of the Spirit of the Age. This God doesn't judge or condemn people, except maybe those who do violence against children or who condemn others. He is open to changing and evolving morality, and in fact isn't overly keen on being described as “he” at all. This picture of God doesn't leave room for a Jesus who is fully divine and yet began his ministry by calling people to repentance, or who died to take God's just punishment on sin on himself.

Neither of those is the real God. Both of them are idols, spirits of this age or of the previous one that we transplant onto God and then blasphemously claim to be the real God.

The real God is far too uncomfortable for either of them. He commands us to be discerning but never condemning, to be in the world but not of it, to genuinely love the sinner and genuinely hate the sin, to serve him whose service is perfect freedom, to give everything to take hold of what is freely offered, to lose our lives for his sake and so to find them, to worship the one who is fully God and fully man, who died for us and lives and reigns forever. To him be the glory, now and forever!