Monday, November 12, 2012

Whose gospel? Which version?


Does any remember the hubbub in the news a couple of months back about the ancient papyrus that was discovered that seemed to refer to Jesus having a wife? That was all the rage in the media for a week or so. I think one or two church-goers asked me about it before we all collectively forgot it ever happened.

Frankly, this sort of news is hardly new. In the decades after Jesus was crucified and resurrected and the church emerged on the scene, the gospels we know well--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--were written. A few decades later, John was written. For the New Testament, that's the end of the story, but the gospel-writing industry was really just getting started. The second century AD (the 100s) saw a host of extra gospels that were to be rejected by orthodox Christians, like the 'infancy gospels' that describe Jesus as a child, the "Gospel of Thomas," or the "Gospel of Judas" that made its own splash in the news a few years back.

This mess of non-canonical gospels that has turned up over the years gives some people the jitters. After all, who's to say which ones are more accurate? Maybe some of these other writings give us a truer picture of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings than the gospels in the New Testament--however different the picture may be. A lot of people will argue that, and the folks covering it in the news eat this kind of thing up.

Well, like my pastor growing up used to say, there's a Greek word for that: bologna.

Philip Jenkins, a well-respected church historian, has written a great, short piece on why this is bologna. Jenkins offers a quick discussion of why the early Christians acknowledged the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but slighted these other writings about Jesus.
I'll give you a hint: it's not because they were trying to cover up the fact that Jesus had a wife.

Check it out over at The Anxious Bench. Here I'll just leave you with a bit from Jenkins:

[T]hese early Christian texts vary enormously in authority, and in date... the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

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