How To Read the Bible part 6 – early Christians

I finished off part 5 by saying that the arrival of Jesus and the birth of the early church marked a radical change in how the Bible would come to be read and understood. What had started as a collection of origin stories, poems, laws and records of God’s dealings with a tiny agricultural ancient people group had developed as the priests, rabbis and interpreters unpacked the ‘sense’ of the texts. Now it would take on new meaning again as the early church began to look back in search for prophetic relevance, and forward to add new writings to what would eventually become the New Testament.

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The New Testament itself emerged quite a long time after the life of Jesus and wasn’t written in the order we read it. The church developed and grew initially around people telling and retelling the stories about Jesus, before later on parts of His life were documented and the beliefs and practices of the early church were formalised in the letters and teachings we find in the Bible.

In ‘Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books were Written’, Marcus Borg explains a bit about the basic structure of the New Testament:

  • ‘The earliest documents are seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul. There is universal agreement that these seven were written by Paul in the 50’s. They are earlier than the gospels.
  • The first gospel is Mark, written around the year 70. Matthew and Luke both used Mark when they later wrote their own gospels.
  • Revelation (probably from the 90’s) is not the last book of the New Testament to be written.
  • Second Peter is almost certainly the latest, from near the middle of the second century.’

He explains that recognising the order the books were written can help us have a window into the world of early Christian communities, and how their understanding of who Jesus was and how that impacts Christian living developed over time. He makes a thought-provoking note too, that ‘the process, however, is not intrinsically about improvement. Later does not always mean better. Rather… some of the later documents in the New Testament reflect a domestication of the radicalism of Jesus and early communities of his followers’.

The books of the New Testament emerged from a context of shifting powers and influences. I’ve picked a couple to have a look at, to help us see into that world of the early church: Jewish, Greek and Roman.

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Firstly, you can’t read the writings of the first Christians without appreciating their Jewish-ness too. Writers like Peter, Paul, Matthew and John had grown up emerged in a culture that approached the Bible with those four assumptions I described in part 4. Around that time a Jewish community in Alexandria was also creating waves in the way they read the Bible. They were a Greek speaking community and were reading the Torah translated into Greek. As they brought their Jewish and Greek mindsets and cultures together, a new way of looking at stories in the Bible came out.

To the ancient Greeks, there was no greater example of literature than the writings of Homer. The problem was, when teaching it to their kids, they felt there were some problems with the sex, violence and awkward questions the text raised. So, they introduced the idea of allegory: that the things written in the text actually all represented something else. The Alexandrian Jews found that this was a great tool to help them tackle some of the tough material in the Bible. What if those things actually represented something else? That way, long and detailed passages about ancient farming practices now left behind could well be a kind of image to tell us how, like farmers, we ought to tend the ground of our heart, pulling out the weeds of sin, tending the shoots of faith and producing good fruit, as the writer Stromateis put it.

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For early Christians this became the way to look back to the Old Testament. Reading this way, they found clues, or types, foreshadowing Christ woven into every prophecy, story and even in the law. The story of Abraham and Isaac that we looked at in part 5 became a ‘divine prediction of the crucifixion hidden in ancient Scripture’ – Kugel writes, ‘after all, if Jesus was the son of God, then God must have known that His beloved son would be killed and yet did not intervene to spare him, just as Abraham had accepted that his son be killed and did not withhold him… a sacrifice of the “Lamb of God” to expiate sin once and for all… Moreover, Isaac, as he proceeded to the designated place, carried the wood for the sacrifice (Gen 22:6), just as Jesus was reported to have carried his own cross (John 19:17). Even the ram that Abraham eventually sacrificed in place of Isaac reminded interpreters of the crucifixion: Abraham had been able to sacrifice the ram because it was “caught in a [thorny] thicket by its horns” (Gen 22:12), whereas Jesus had been mocked with a crown of thorns before he died.’

This typological way of reading the Bible has had a massive influence on the writers of the New Testament, and on to how we approach scripture today. It began as a way to explain passages that the readers couldn’t identify with –they described God in a way that they didn’t feel comfortable with, or the passages no longer seemed relevant to them, and they were searching for a deeper truth that would somehow make the story of Abraham become a story about them. Were they twisting the stories to put their own meaning there, or simply revealing what had been there all along? The site Biblical Training (set up by J.I. Packer as a free online Bible School) describes that ‘it was not (…) until the time of the Reformation that the allegorical method was seriously challenged; reformed theologians generally rejected it, subscribing instead to the principle “do not carry a meaning into but draw it out (of Scriptures)”’.

But the fact is, it’s not that simple: you can’t ignore allegory and typological reading of the Bible, because that is the way the writers of the New Testament approached it themselves. If they were divinely inspired to write the New Testament, then surely, they can’t be all wrong in the way they read the Torah and applied it in the letters and gospels. In fact, Jesus is even quoted as taking parts of prophecies from the Old Testament and applying them to himself (Luke 4/Isaiah 61 for example). If it was OK for him, perhaps it’s OK for us.

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The final cultural influence on scripture I wanted to look at is the Roman culture. A big part of the Roman system of domination was to use religion to justify and explain its legitimacy as an empire. Around the time of Jesus, a major power struggle was going on. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, then Mark Anthony and his rival Octavian had a massive civil war to decide who would take over from him. In 31 BC Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and in celebration changed his name to “Augustus”, which means “he who is to be worshiped and revered”. Marcus Borg describes how he went on to promote himself: ‘he was heralded not only as “Augustus”, but also a “Son of God” and “Lord”. He was called the “saviour of the world” who had brought “peace on earth” by ending the civil war that was tearing the empire apart. His birth was the beginning of the “gospel”, the “good news” … stories were even told about his divine conception: he was the son of the god Apollo… the gods had chosen Rome to rule the world’.

If you’re familiar with the language of the New Testament, it’s not hard to see how the context of Rome’s claims became the starting point for the writings of the gospels and letters in the New Testament. They ‘use the language of imperial theology but apply it to Jesus. Jesus is the “Son of God” – the emperor is not… Jesus is the “Saviour” who brings “peace on earth” – the emperor is not.’ Borg continues, ‘The contrast is not just a matter of language. The contrast is also about two different visions of how the world should be. The world of the domination system is a world of political oppression, economic exploitation, and chronic violence. The alternative is a world in which everyone has enough, and no one needs to be afraid… the heart, as the gospels proclaim, of Jesus’ message.’

Viewing the New Testament as a window into a developing and evolving community might be an unfamiliar way to some readers of the Bible, who feel uncomfortable with the apparent contradictions and moving goal posts that it reveals. Like the ancient interpreters found, there will probably always be a way to explain away these apparent ‘mistakes’ in the Bible and make it a bit more comfortable to read. But looking at it as a still-forming, ongoing discussion between the believers can also bring a lot of extra depth as we realise they were processing the meaning of all the things Jesus said and did in the context of the changing world they found themselves in.

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