Redacting the Bible: A Case Study in Historical Criticism

02/25/2012 06:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2012

Let's look at an example of how science understands sacred scripture by taking a closer look at historical criticism of the New Testament. What I present is very much the academic consensus after more than a hundred years of research in a variety of cognate fields -- linguistic analysis, archeology, radioactive dating and more.

First, the authors of the four Gospels are not actually known, though tradition attributes them to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the oldest, probably written in the mid- to late first century C.E., long after the death of Jesus and the ministry of Paul.

Note that the language of the Gospels is Greek, while Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic and presumably read and prayed using biblical Hebrew within the larger context of a Greco-Roman-dominated Mediterranean civilization.

The Gospel of Matthew was written by an unknown author who apparently borrowed and elaborated from both the Gospel of Mark and an unknown source the scholars call Q. Matthew's Gospel was written in the late first century, perhaps a generation after Jesus' death. The Gospel of Luke has a similar ambiguous genealogy. The Gospel of John is thought to have been written by someone who had no direct connection to the historical Jesus.

Paul, who should be credited as the real founder of Christianity, had no direct knowledge of the historical Jesus. His letters, and the letters attributed to Peter, James, John and Jude, were written before the Gospels and make almost no reference to the Gospel accounts and sayings of Jesus. Many of the letters are thought to be pseudepigraphal, meaning that they were written by others and falsely attributed to Paul. And while history has passed along Paul's letter to Priscilla of Ephesus, we do not have Priscilla's letters to Paul. What is preserved, included, and excluded -- and why -- are profoundly important questions in the evolution of the Christian movement.

Many ancient manuscripts were discovered in the late 20th century in Egyptian Coptic churches. These ancient manuscripts, sometimes just fragments thereof, are known as the Gnostic Gospels and include the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Judas. These were presumably excluded from the redaction of what we now call the New Testament for political and theological reasons, the details of which do not matter now.

The redaction of the New Testament was a politically and theologically charged affair that began in the fourth century in a series of synods, most notably the Synod of Hippo in 393 C.E. The churchmen -- at this point, they were all men -- met to choose the canon some 350 years after the death of Jesus in what had by then become the imperial church of the Roman Empire. They selected the texts to be included, and they resolved discrepancies between different copies of the same text, remembering that these manuscripts were all hand-copied over many generations. The result thereof, an anthology touched and transformed at many stages by the hands of poets, philosophers, partisans, and politics, is now immortalized, widely translated and mass-produced.

The New Testament is not a history textbook. Indeed, by contemporary historical standards, there is precious little independent corroboration to establish even the existence of the historical Jesus. It seems more likely that Jesus is a composite personality, one of many such rabbis at the time -- just as Christianity is a mixed movement, drawing from multiple cultural sources, including Jewish mythological and Greek philosophical overlays in the context of first- and second-century Roman civilization.

It was not until the Protestant Reformation, the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages, and the mass reproduction of the Bible with the new printing press that reading and interpreting the Bible became a central dimension of Christian piety. For most of Christian history, the Bible actually played a minor role in Christian faith and practice.

These insights from historical criticism are not necessarily a showstopper for thoughtful and committed Christians. In terms of traditional Trinitarian belief, theologians have argued, the historical Jesus is not all that essential. In this view, the Father is too transcendent to be known directly, and Jesus, the incarnation of God, bridged that gap and effected a cosmic reconciliation between the transcendent Father and humanity. After Jesus' death and Resurrection, the Holy Spirit stepped in as the primary relationship that Christians have with God. So it is only by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that one can understand the Bible or come to know Jesus and the Father. It is also sometimes argued that the Church, the collective of Christians, is understood to be the Body of Christ.

Most university-educated Christian clergy could just as easily write this essay from within their confessional standpoint and embrace this historicized understanding of the New Testament. Historical criticism from within a confessional perspective is motivated by a recurrent search for authenticity.

It is not my purpose to delve deeply into a single tradition and engage in reconstructive theology or modern apologetics. Others do so today to varying degrees of satisfaction. At this stage, we need only point out that every sacred text from antiquity, at least as we work from the bottom up and the outside in, is the product of human minds, human hands, and human societies. In many cases, these texts have been passed on in oral tradition before they were committed to writing. The Pali Canon, the earliest Buddhist manuscripts, was passed on orally for some 300 years before it was committed to writing. The Qur'an and the Hadith were passed on orally in a single generation before they were committed to writing. The Book of Mormon was apparently invented whole cloth out of the imagination of Joseph Smith Jr. in 1830. Any or all these sacred scriptures may be inspired, but they are selectively remembered, transcribed, interpreted, and passed on by humans.

Though we disagree about which sacred texts to read, our ancestors and most contemporary humans today understand these sacred texts to be powerful and profound. These stories are woven into our cultural heritages and personal identities. They speak also to the storied nature of human nature.