First the Church, then the New Testament
- The New Testament was not, any more than the Old, all written at one time, or all by one man. At least 40 years passed away between the writing of the first and the writing of the last of its books.
It is made up of the 4 gospels, 21 letters, the Apocalypse (or Revelation), and the Acts of the Apostles. Some of the letters were written by Paul, and we do not know who wrote some of the others. The book called the Acts of the Apostles was written by the same person who wrote the third Gospel. So we have works written by several different writers, and from the year that the earliest book was written (probably the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians in about 51 A.D.) to the year John’s Gospel was written (between 90 and 100 A.D.), nearly fifty years had passed.
Christ himself never, as far as we know, wrote a line of Scripture. Certainly none has been preserved. He never told his Apostles to write anything. He told them to “go and teach all nations”, “preach the Gospel to everyone”, “the one who hears you, hears me”. In other words, he told them to do exactly what he had done himself – that is, deliver the word of God to the people by the living voice – convince, persuade, instruct, convert them by addressing themselves face to face to living men and women, not entrust their message to a dead book which might be destroyed or misunderstood and misinterpreted and corrupted. He gave them a safer and more natural way – presenting the truth to them by word of mouth, training others to do the same after they themselves were gone, and so by a living tradition preserving and handing down the word of God as they had received it, to all generations.
- This was the method the Apostles adopted. Nothing was written till nearly twenty years after the death of Christ.
Do you see what follows? The Church and the Faith existed before the Bible. That seems a simple fact which nobody can deny. Thousands of people became Christians through the work of the Apostles and missionaries of Christ in various lands. They believed the whole truth of God as we believe it now. They became saints and died for their faith before ever they saw read a single sentence of our New Testament. (Most could probably not read anyway.)
How, then, did they become Christians? In the same way that people are converted today, by hearing the truth from the lips of Christians and seeing that truth lived out in their lives. When the Apostles set out, how did they intend to evangelize? By distributing copies of the New Testament? Such a thing did not exist, and, we may safely say, was not even thought of. Why did Our Lord promise them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and command them to be “witnesses”? Why did the Spirit come down upon the Twelve and endow them with the power of speaking in various languages? Only so that they might be able to “preach the Gospel to all people”.
- The books of the New Testament were called forth by special circumstances that arose. No-one had the idea of composing works that would be collected and put in one volume to make the Christian Holy Book. We know that many letters must have been lost. We can see from St. Paul’s letters that nothing could replace the authoritative teacher: “How shall they hear without a preacher? How shall they preach unless they are sent? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”. The fact is that no religion has ever been effectually spread except by word of mouth, and certainly neither the Apostles nor the Jews would have understood the spread of the faith by means of a written word.
The first work of the Apostles was to deliver in living words a personal testimony to the facts of the Gospel – the Ministry, the Death, and the Resurrection of Our Lord. It was only in the course of time and under the influence of circumstances that they committed their testimony, or any part of it, to writing. Their special duty was to preach.
- Will you then say that we are belittling and despising God’s word? No, not at all. We must simply put it in the place God intended it to be – the fruit of the Church’s preaching.
It is easy to see how the Gospels came to be. As long as the Apostles were still living, there was no necessity for written records of the words and actions of Our Lord. But then it was good that there was some correct and reliable account of the work of Christ should be left. This was all the more necessary because there were being spread abroad incorrect and unfaithful Gospels. Look at Luke 1:1, where he says he considers it right to set down in writing reliable information from eyewitnesses.
But remember that all the Gospels are incomplete and fragmentary, giving us certainly the most important things to know about our Saviour’s life on earth, but still not telling us all we might know. For much, Christians have always depended on the teaching of the Church. Without the Church we might well have not understood that Jesus Christ is both perfectly God and perfectly human, for the Bible alone will not teach us these things.
If we look at the other writings of the New Testament, we see that they were called into existence at various times to meet pressing needs and circumstances. Most were addressed to particular individuals and communities in various places as problems arose in those communities. So we find Paul writing to his converts in Thessalonica, or Ephesus, or Corinth, or Philippi. For what reason? Either in answer to communications sent to him from them, or because he had heard from other sources that there were some things that required correction in these places. All sorts of topics are dealt with, sometimes in the most homely style. It might be to advise the converts; or reprove them; or to defend himself from false accusations. It might be a letter about a private person, like the letter to Onesimus. But whatever the letters deal with, it is absolutely clear that they were written just at particular times to meet particular cases that occurred naturally in the course of his missionary labours. It is therefore certain that neither Paul or anyone else intended these letters to set forth the whole scheme of Christian salvation, any more than Pope John Paul II intended to do when he wrote his latest letter to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church last year.
True, Paul was an Apostle and therefore inspired, and his letters are a final and decisive authority on the various points he deals with. But that does not alter the fact that they nowhere claim to state the whole of Christian truth, or to be a complete guide of salvation to anyone. They are written to believers. In other words, the Church – the people of God – existed and did its work before these letter we call “the Scriptures” existed. It would have done so, even if these letters had not been written at all!
I repeat. We are not undervaluing the word of God. We are simply recognizing the place it was meant to occupy. It was written by the Church, by members of the Church. It belongs to the Church and it is her job, therefore, to say what it means. It is intended for instruction, meditation, encouragement, devotion, and serves as a proof and witness of the teachings of the Christian people. But it was never intended to be, and could not be, a complete guide to truth in the hands of anyone who cares to pick it up and read it. The Bible is part of the tradition of God’s people, what they hand on with reverence and pride and love. And these people (the Church) are the writers and interpreters of the Bible, their greatest treasure.
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How we got the Bible copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson. For more about Fr. Francis, click here