31 October 2017 = 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses
This is why the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were included, as well as
the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, John’s Revelation and the letter collections of individual churches.
The authentic letter of Paul to Philemon and the inauthentic 3rd letter of John were included and are included in the canon because they emphasise the unity of the whole church from the social point of view (Philemon) and in questions of faith (3 John).
The four Apostolic church’s contributions to the canon:
church Gosp. Acts Letters Revelation
James Matthew James, Judas –
John John 1-3 John John
Peter Mark 1-2 Peter –
Paul Luke, Acts Paul’s letters, – Hebrews
The Bible can be so exciting, if we approach it with an enquiring mind instead of accepting the papal interpretation. As Martin Luther wrote in 1520 (in his open letter To the Christian Nobility…): Bible interpretation should not be the sole privilege of the (Pope’s) church with its priests and professors; on the contrary, all Christians, even lay people, should interpret the Bible.
I withdraw nothing, as Martin Luther stated on 18 April 1520 at the Diet at Worms, unless the Holy Scripture or rational argument prove me wrong.
The dominant master narrative about the origins of the New Testament canon states that in the first half of the 2nd century AD,
there were so many Gospels and Apostolic letters circulating among the communities that the churches had to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The only texts they adopted into the canon of significant texts for the Christian religion were those that they considered were written by one of the twelve Apostles or the Apostle Paul, or that were authorised by one of the Apostles; e.g. Luke’s Gospel, written by Paul’s companion Luke (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Philemon 24), was authorised by Paul.
The new theses about the origin of the New Testament canon:
The New Testament canon was formed from writings from the three Palestinian Apostolic churches of James, John and Peter and the Gentile Christian church of Paul.
The criterion for the acceptance into the canon was the balance between the origins in the individual churches and the extent to which the writings supported the church’s unity.
Anyone in classical times who took part in a violent rebellion aiming to kill the representatives of public order
forfeited his life if the rebellion failed. To that extent, all those who took part in Jesus’ rebellion were guilty and faced death when Pilate conquered them.
However, Pilate only crucified Jesus and a few other leaders; most of the simple participants were able to go home. In that sense Jesus (and the other leaders) did indeed die on behalf of his many followers.
The statement of faith died for us is based on this historical experience of people who took part in Jesus’ movement.
This experience of the actual representative death of the noble, therefore godlike, Jesus was interpreted in different ways in the early Christian groups. One version was the Persian interpretation of God’s self-sacrifice as known to the groups in the Mithras cult.
This interpretation is expressed in the words explaining the Last Supper in Matt 26:26-28par; This is my body, this is my blood.
Paul and his tradition put it in a similar way: Christ died for us, for our sins: Romans 5:6-8; 1 Cor. 15:3.
Paul was not a missionary. Wherever he travelled, Christian communities already existed. He was
a visitor, organiser and theologian. Paul gave structure to the organisation and theology of the Gentile Christian communities that were joyfully full of the gifts of the Spirit, but lacked theology, cultic practices and organisation.
We owe to Paul the Jewish basis of early Christian theology that is reflected in the New Testament.
For Paul, Christianity was no longer a political movement
as it was for the Christians in Palestine, but simply a religion that applied to individuals and their personal lifestyle.
The core difference between Jewish and Gentile Christians was not related to any Jewish cultural rules. It concerned the recognition of the state government. Paul makes this clear in Romans 13:1: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.
For James, John and Peter the Messianic message was eminently political and Romans 13:1 was not acceptable. This approach cost them their lives. For Paul and the Gentile Christians, Romans 13:1 was the prerequisite for the civic existence of their Christian communities.
Paul did not consider Jesus to be a political Messiah; the idea that Paul (like the Palestinians) aspired to succeed to Jesus as a political Messiah is absurd.
Paul saw Jesus as a religious Messiah, and the kingdom of God as an ideal or future factor. The anticipated transformation of the political world is solely God’s business and cannot be influenced by Christians taking political action.
As a former slave, Paul was the first person to make the slave punishment, crucifixion, respectable in Christianity.
When James and Peter were crucified in 46 AD, the oral tradition altered the means of death into beheading (with the sword): Acts 12:2. In the case of Jesus, too, the oldest sources only refer to his execution, not to crucifixion: Acts 7:52.
Elymas/Paul was previously a Jewish Christian (Bar-Jesus = son, i.e. follower of Jesus). He was converted to Peter’s Christianity by Barnabas.
The following characteristics indicate that Paul was a freedman (continued):
4. Paul transferred the freedman’s duty of loyalty to his former master to Jesus, whose message gave his life meaning.
5. Paul referred to himself as a slave, Romans 1:1 – but only in the metaphorical sense.
6. His modesty: 1 Cor. 15:8.
7. The lack of confidence shown in his personal behaviour, in complete contrast to his letters where he is extremely convincing.
8. His name, Paul: Paulus is a Roman name, strange for a Jew in Asia Minor. In the case of a slave, the Apostle’s name has an natural explanation:
Paul took his former master’s name: compare Josephus the historian’s surname. Josephus, a prisoner of war, called himself after the family of his Roman master Flavius. Luke refers to Saul as Paul in Acts only after the Cyprus pericope (Acts 13:9).
Elymas/ Paul was a former slave, a freedman of the Roman governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus; he took the name
of his former master, Paulus. The following characteristics indicate that Paul was a freedman:
1. His mania for work: only slaves and freedmen worked so hard in classical times: 1 Cor. 15:10.
2. His pride in earning his own living, 1 Cor. 9:6: freeborn men in classical times lived off the work of their slaves or from their wealth; the intellectuals had rich patrons.
3. The high value he placed on freedom, both his personal freedom through his own work and religious freedom from the Jewish law. Paul gets very angry when someone wants to enslave him again: Gal. 5:1 and several other texts.
The dominant master narrative about Paul states that Paul was an opponent of the Christians and persecuted them. He had
a vision of the risen Jesus near Damascus and became an Apostle to the Gentiles. His work and his missionary journeys are on the whole correctly described in the Acts of the Apostles.
The new theses about Paul:
Paul is Elymas Bar-Jesus, a magician living at the courts of the governor Sergius Paulus on Cyprus. The historical facts are that Paul did not go with Barnabas and John together as missionaries to governor Paulus’ court; Barnabas went with John only.
Barnabas met the magician Elymas Bar-Jesus there and converted him. As a freed slave, Elymas took the name of his master, Paulus. That is the historical core of the narrative in Acts 13:4ff.
Cephas, the later leader of Peter’s church, is not identical with Simon Peter. It was Cephas, not Peter,
who attended the Apostolic Council. Paul never met Peter personally; he only met Cephas. Paul differentiates in Gal. 1f precisely between the Jewish Apostle Peter and Cephas, one of the three pillars (Gal. 2:9) whom he personally met.
Unification of the Palestinian Jesus Groups: in the years after 70 AD the Jesus Groups separated from their original movements
and the confessional churches merged with the Gentile Christian church. The rebels were branded traitors (Judas’ betrayal in the Gospels, not yet mentioned by Paul) and were excluded from the united church. Judaism, the Baptist movement and the Gnostics went their separate ways.
The traditions of the Jesus Groups are reflected in the Gospels that were written at this time and later gathered in the New Testament. The religious authority shifted from the spiritually gifted Apostles to the local churches and the Christian tradition as it was handed down.
The end of the traditions handed down by individual churches: after 135 AD the writings of the individual churches were gathered together in the New Testament canon, each church being represented in proportion. The texts handed down by the Jesus Groups finally merged in the tradition of the whole church.
In place of the friction between the old Jesus Groups, new conflicts arose.
The temple in Jerusalem was finally completed in 64 AD; two years later the Great Revolt against the Romans
started. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture the Jewish mission in this period. The Jews linked the completion of the temple with their hopes of the Messiah, since it was a condition of his coming that the Jews comply with the religious laws.
In this situation what is known as the Antioch Incident occurred (Gal. 2:11ff): the Jewish Jesus Group in Antioch insisted on compliance with the Jewish dietary laws and refused to share meals with the Gentile Christians. Cephas, the leader of the Gnostic Jesus movement, initially ate with the Gentile Christians but then joined the Jewish Jesus-supporters in refusing to share meals with them. As a result he became the target of Paul’s anger.
The Jewish mission was not a permanent conflict lasting decades; it was only explicable in the specific situation just before the Jewish war. Paul was right to be angry, because the situation threatened his core concerns, freedom from the law and unity of the church.
An ecumenical movement: between 62 and 64 AD the Apostolic Council took place in Jerusalem, where Paul and Barnabas,
the Apostles to the Gentiles, met the heads of the Palestinian Jesus Groups of Peter, James and John.
Reports about the Apostolic Council show that the Jesus Groups in Palestine still existed as separate organisations but that they worked together, and that Paul and Barnabas were recognised as representing the Gentile Christian church, but their work was also viewed with distrust.
The Apostle Paul experienced his conversion between 48 and 50 AD and began his apostolic activities in
about 50 – 52 AD. Paul was not really a missionary: wherever he went, he usually found that Christians were already there. Paul’s defining characteristics were his thorough theological education, his organisational talent and his eye for what the new religion needed most in terms of theology, cult and community life.
He took the idea of a unified Christianity directly related to Jesus from the church in Antioch.
The Resurrection: like the ancient mystery cults, the baptismal sect believed in the death and resurrection of people
and celebrated this in baptism. Death in baptism signifies laying down the old person and the resurrection in baptism signifies the transformation into a new person.
Jesus had not only undergone death in baptism symbolically, like the others who had been baptised; he had really died and was raised to life again by God, due to his merits. In other words he was transposed into the new creation that everyone anticipated.
The Easter resurrection narratives are later literary illustrations of the belief in the resurrection; the resurrection formulae quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 are statements of faith, not accounts of actual experiences.
The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection describe an interpretation of his death; they do not describe a historical fact, nor can it be claimed that they give historical proof of God’s existence.