Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Scriptures

Every year as I get to the history of Christianity in the first and second century in class  I run onto those who object to the books that are the New Testament. They point out that there were other books written, other gospels. And they ask why were these not included. I find that an interesting but easily answered question.

Yes. There were other books and other gospels. Early historians of the church such as Irenaeus and Eusebius  both remark about them and quote from them at times. But both are clear that the books which we have now and have had for 1700 years in the canon of the New Testament are the books chosen almost from the beginning, certainly from the second century.

So, what of the others?  Did Constantine choose the books of the New Testament selecting those that would agree with the theology affirmed in the Council of Nicaea, the theology that declares that Jesus is equal in essence in every way to God the Father?  Did he have the others destroyed? Those are the rumors drifting around the Internet. The answer is no.

The churches collected and sifted through the writing of the first and second centuries. And they agreed in time - certainly by the end of the second century - on the writings that were genuine and inspired.

It was not hard to do. You can read many of these "other" writings for yourself. Early Christian Writings  has them nicely collected, at least those for which there are copies or fragments left. I've done that. I've even had high school students do that. And even they can tell the difference.

The most obvious difference is that the writings, especially the gospels, in the New Testament have a sober, realistic tone. Yes, some of the things reported are incredible, walking on water, for example. Yet they are reported as actual events. They are not fantasy. They are not myth. Even high school students can see the difference when they are placed side by side with any myth.

 They are also clear. There is no "secret messages" only the initiated can understand. Yes. Jesus used parables, but those are different from the secret knowledge spoken of in the Gospel of James or the Gospel of Thomas. Parables are stories intended to teach simple truths. The secret knowledge of the other writings is intended to separate the so called spiritually wise from the ignorant. That is never Jesus' objective in the canonical gospels.

So when I  get to the place in history where the modern scholars find some kind of conspiracy afoot, I find myself smiling -wryly.  It is true what Jesus said about revealing these things to children and hiding them from the self-proclaimed wise and learned.

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