Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Understanding “The Gospel”: Why Authorship Claims Matter Dramatically – Part 2

English: By Rembrandt.
English: By Rembrandt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Part 1 of this two-part article, we looked at a few basic facts about authorship of books which eventually (after roughly 3 centuries) coalesced, out of a broader group of “contenders”, as our “New Testament” (NT).  We began showing how key aspects of what became core Christian dogma and bases of authority were directly tied to claims about who wrote or commissioned various of the NT books.

Even in a two-part article, I will have to stay brief and primarily on the surface of issues that, of necessity, require extensive scholarly learning to grasp in real depth.  (I haven’t gone into the full depths of that myself, as it is very specialized and detailed.)

A quick aside: As with any area of controversial views, it is critical for any non-specialist to follow some key “rules” of lay learning if one hopes to gain a realistic view with at least a good chance of being “right”… or not seriously flawed.  Just a few are these:

  • Choose resources (or authorities) carefully.
  • Look for scholars with the least theological or other bias (some, such as Bart Ehrman, work mainly as historians, though a good background in Bible content and theology is helpful if held off “to the side”).
  • DO hear from qualified people with a “position”, but equally from those who take the opposing position. (As I’ve learned in couple-counseling and in scholarship, there is no substitute for hearing from “the other side” directly.)

Now, for those who aren’t likely to pursue these authorship issues on their own, and as a quick guide for those who are, here are a few of the crucial things affected by authorship claims.

  1. The likely date-range of the writing of the books with uncertain authorship (the large majority).  Particularly critical here is whether the four Gospels (or some of them) were written before or after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
  2. The personal, leadership and theological relationship between Paul and Apostles from among “The Twelve”, particularly Peter and John along with the Jerusalem “Church” leader, James, the brother of Jesus.
  3. The apparent rapid evolution (within 50-70 years) of church organization, particularly as it impacted gender roles and women in church leadership and teaching.
  4. The development of concepts of salvation itself, and of key related concepts about just who Jesus was and what his death and resurrection were for.
  5. How Christians should expect “the end times” to be…. Will there even be an “end times” or was Christ’s coming to be only once and implementation of his Kingdom ideal fully up to us? Will there be a supernatural “second coming” at virtually any moment?Will it come nonviolently or violently? If violently (as graphically depicted in the book of Revelation), should we expect and/or be prepared for that to include a typical international war, perhaps WW III? (Such a violent “second coming” is generally seen, by traditional Christians, as involving the coming “Armageddon” [war centered on the Valley or Plain of Megiddo, Israel] that is both somehow geopolitical and spiritual.)

That “short list” is a lot to deal with itself.  I cannot reasonably here make a detailed case for a different authorship view than has been traditional (especially from about the 4th century, but with challenges to it beginning seriously in the 18th century and getting detailed in the 19th and since).  So let me try to tie a few matters to this list in what is hopefully a meaningful way… one that will at least create some curiosity and motivation to look deeper.

The great dividing line for two religions and the relationship between them is the period of 66-70 CE, which ended in the destruction of both Jerusalem and the great “Second Temple”.  For Jews of the time this destroyed the political, economic and religious organization of Israel…. Provoking basically “starting over from scratch” in that Temple commerce and politics, along with religious observance, had been central for most of the country.  Judaism had been, as well as continued to be, a major influence throughout the Roman Empire.  However, the Empire had basic control over Israel economically as a “colony” like so many others.  But its need to reorganize resulted in what is now called “Rabbinic Judaism”, begun promptly after the destruction  of lives (horrific and massive in fatalities), buildings and institutions culminating in 70. (Technically finalized in 73 at Masada.)

No doubt there were tensions before 66 between the Jesus-followers among observant Jews (yes, still observant, particularly in Jerusalem – see Acts) and the big majority who either didn’t know about Jesus or couldn’t see him as the prophesied Messiah.  The book of Acts indicates what seems corroborated elsewhere, that many (or most) Jesus-followers left the city because of these tensions or being too threatening to Roman control.  We cannot tell, historically, how large a role these Jesus-followers may have had in fomenting the revolution Rome so brutally put down.  It is highly unlikely they had the major influence and may have consistently followed Jesus’ non-violent resistance (though not entirely other-worldly) approach to freedom from Rome’s control and paganism.

Whatever the case, there are indications throughout the Gospels that at least locally Jews did ostracize and/or persecute Jesus-followers.  In the view that although Mark may have been written as early as 69 or 70, the Gospels are basically post-revolution, we should not be surprised that everything socially and religiously, along with politically and economically, would show signs of being seriously shaken up. However, such signs are kept mostly aside in that the Jesus story had happened in a relatively more peaceful time, though one of building tensions, with some armed resistance.

Jerusalem (Photo credit: swallroth)

Paul was clearly gone from the scene before 70 (never having spent much time in Jerusalem or been in close contact with “Church” leaders there), but his influence emerged stronger than ever precisely because of the shaking up of systems and people’s thinking.  It can be seen particularly in Luke (both the “Gospel of Luke” and “Acts”).

In an “early dating” of the Gospels —  some or all before the Roman War (which is a small minority view now) — one can interpret statements attributed to Jesus as prophetic about the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple.  This is important to many, as a bolster (vs. a ding) to his messianic and divine stature and to the likelihood of direct Apostolic authorship or supervision of the Gospels.  Otherwise, these statements appear clearly to be a coded way of addressing the trauma of so much loss and change by the year 70.  (Otherwise, the War and its effects are not directly discussed in either the Gospels or the rest of the NT, probably to minimize any alarm by Roman “eves-droppers”.)

Leaving aside other important points for now, a final one I will make about the importance of getting authorship right is one dealing with the book of Revelation.

Incidentally, it was one of the last to be determined to belong in the canon of the NT, and not without controversy over its inclusion for many centuries.  There are some understandable reasons for this.

But it has become a highly influential book that, as implied above, helps foster wide-spread Christian views about not only “end times” but also geo-political assumptions about the present nation of Israel and its neighbors.  This is added to by the way the Gospels show a progressively anti-Jewish sentiment re. the trial and crucifixion of Jesus… one indicative of their likely non-apostolic authorship.  There are some serious, serious problems in both cases.  Though the viewpoints seem opposite in one sense, they do not cancel one another out.

If Revelation was indeed a “Revelation of Jesus” (the Lion-Lamb) to the Apostle John, then it gains a sense of divine authority and validation of the wrathful, violent crushing of human evil systems (that “evil systems” label may be right!) and the literally billions of “ordinary people” done in by plagues, plus the millions expected to be slaughtered at Armageddon.

Here is the question begged: How did John, a direct and perhaps the “most loved” disciple of Jesus, legitimately receive the message that God would shower such broad and indiscriminate violence in setting up an ultimately peaceful Kingdom? That the same sometimes-forceful but clearly non-violently-resistant Jesus of the Gospels was also the violent warrior and Judge of The Nations?

The violence theme here is one of many such threads throughout the Bible which portray an angry, vengeful God.  However they are interwoven with the other biblical idea that God’s concern for justice, fairness and tolerance, and a determination for peace will non-violently bring about the peaceful Kingdom.  It is generally only the mature or the flexibly-minded who can hold these opposing themes in tension, realizing the emotional human element involved, and “emerge” affirming a non-violent path to peace.

What are your thoughts or observations?

Read Part 1 Here

Read Part 2B Here

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