I was taught my first prayers by my mother, learned to sing carols in harmony around the family piano, and pondered over words I half understood. I was thrilled to be taken to church in the dark on Christmas Eve and to early service on Easter morning. From Palm Sunday onwards (called Sűl y Blodau - flower Sunday in Welsh), the graveyard of Ystrad Mynach Parish church was a sea of daffodils. I associated their colour with the awesome claim that Jesus came back to life from the grave. Our junior school class learned to recite by heart for morning Assembly, the Beatitudes and Psalm One. Long before I realised the full meaning of what I said, or heard in stories and sang in hymns, the Bible was shaping my way of seeing and thinking about the world. As an adult, I questioned my basic beliefs, but could not deny my indebtedness to the Bible in shaping them.
The story of Jesus, and his impact on those who knew him and continued his work, is contained in the twenty seven documents of the New Testament. Twenty one are letters. Some were addressed to individuals, some to Christian communities, and some to an unspecified general audience. There is an account of the first decades of the spread of the Good News beyond its place of origin (the Acts of the Apostles). There is a book of messages, oracles and visions from an exiled Christian seer (the Revelation to John). Most importantly, there are the four Gospels. The very title, meaning ‘good news’ describes what Christians think of their content.
The Gospels tell us about Jesus in a general but not strictly chronological order. They are neither straight biography nor history. Each was written in a different place for a different audience, though much of the material they use is held in common. Their aim is to persuade the reader or listener to believe in Jesus the Son of God. Nothing in literary history compares with them. They convey far more than the life of a wise man and miracle worker. They propose an approach to life which challenges all who read, whether for the first time, or after a lifetime of familiarity with the text.
The Gospels recount the life and death of Jesus; his deeds, his sayings, his way of teaching and relating to people. Two bear the name of apostles, two of first generation members of the church, but nobody knows for sure how they came to bear their names. Historians and literature analysts reckon the Gospels originated with the itinerant story tellers of the early Christian communities in Palestine and Western Syria. They were written down, for the sake of audiences remote from the events in time and place. Stories about Jesus were told to win disciples for his way of living for God. They are not detached or impartial accounts, nor are they narrow propaganda. Their aim is to get the reader to think freely about who Jesus is in God's purpose for the world, and to open up a fresh understanding of life's meaning and value in the light of his story.
The Gospels were written in the confidence that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was put to death, though innocent, then raised to life by God's power in a way without precedent in human history. They are offered as evidence (from their record of eyewitness testimony) to enable readers to consider and decide who Jesus is for themselves. They contain a radiant certainty of conviction combined with great openness. The reader is neither threatened nor blackmailed, but questioned and invited to respond. In the New Testament books, the predominant attitude is one of persuasion and appeal, respecting any doubts and questions a reader may have.
A vital pre-condition of Christian discipleship, is a free response to the Gospel message. It is, among other things, good news of the freedom God offers his children. We are less free, and more conditioned in our responses than we realise. False ideas, attitudes and habits have to be unlearned by disciples of Jesus. Proper study of biblical teaching is important in shaping an understanding of freedom that would be recognisable to him. Political regimes of all shades, even religious leaders have been known to misuse the scriptures to legitimise their authority, and reinforce their dominance over people rather than serving them. It is no accident that many tyrants of this world have regarded the Bible in the hands of their oppressed subjects as subversive literature.
It is inevitable that some of the presuppositions we bring to Bible reading do not originate in the life of the church. The scriptures have been studied by non-Christians as well as Christians over the centuries, with attitudes ranging from devotion to antipathy. A wide variety of scholarly disciplines have been brought to the task, to the benefit of all. Varied and even divergent perspectives can greatly enrich understanding, but which gives a reliable guide to the spiritual path of Jesus?
Churches understand themselves as recipients of scripture down the generations since the time of the Apostles. Others may borrow them for serious study, or even misappropriate them for bizarre quasi-magical purposes, but the scriptures originate in and belong to the church, understood in the broadest sense as the company of believers in Jesus Christ the Son of God. The church, in this sense, exists to testify to the truth of scripture. Its authority to teach the message of Jesus and interpret its meaning is unique.
The idea that the truth contained in scripture can somehow be abstracted from its source and retain its integrity (i.e. as a perennial philosophy) is attractive but limiting. The church proclaims belief in the divine sonship of Jesus. It understands that in him, God takes into his being the fullness of human existence. Christians call this 'incarnation', from the Latin meaning 'to become flesh'. Divine spirit and created matter meet, and are united in Jesus. His teaching has full vigour in the setting of his existence in world history. The church, the community made by his disciples in his spirit, is now the setting in which he and his teaching continue to live in the concreteness of everyday life.
For this reason, it is impossible to separate belief in the teaching of Jesus, and engagement with the church. This fact remains for many a stumbling block. In the modern 'supermarket of religions', where beliefs may be selected and combined to suit the consumer, the church's full package deal is unattractive to many. The widespread decline of church attendance bears witness to this. The question of what kind of engagement with the church's life is appropriate to disciples of Jesus, merits serious reflection in every generation. There will always be aspects of commitment one might not freely choose - they seem to choose you instead. Consumer freedom of choice in religion, however promising, is no guarantee of attaining that desirable fulfilment expressed in 'shalom-salaam'. We are not always immediately attracted to what ultimately proves beneficial to us.
A vital part of discovering the spiritual path of Jesus is learning to read scripture with understanding which comes from sharing in the life and prayer of the church. This does not mean censoring out other views and opinions, but learning to be aware of what is most beneficial in building confidence in Christ. The place to begin reading scripture is the Gospels. If they are unfamiliar, or only certain texts are familiar, a helpful way to get an overview of their content is to read Mark in one sitting. It is the shortest Gospel, and can be read in less time than a short novel!
After this, it is good to spend longer reading John, for contrast, then Matthew and Luke, noting the impressions they leave. Large sections of Mark reappear verbatim, or adapted in Matthew and Luke's Gospels. Mark represents possibly the earliest written record of oral material used by Christian preachers and story tellers. Matthew seems to have been written with an audience of converts from Judaism in mind. Luke writes for a public official, with a wider Gentile audience in mind. John is in a class of its own. He tells the same story in a different style altogether. The other three evangelists invite the reader to consider who Jesus is and whether they agree that he is the Son of God. John tells the reader uncompromisingly from the outset that Jesus is God's Son, the divine Word in human flesh. His narrative unfolds, asserting this conviction against those who dispute it. Attitudes of some characters in John's story typify the ignorance and the hostility which surrounded Jesus and the early church.
How the four Gospels came to be selected and authorised for reading in public worship is obscure. Evidence available from the first hundred and fifty years is sketchy. The first definitive list of New Testament writings known as the Muratorian Canon is dated to Rome circa 180AD, though the four Gospels and most of Paul's letters were being mentioned together in Christian literature (and in the same basic order) forty years earlier. They were certainly not the only Gospels in existence. We have substantial text fragments of Gospels, dating back at least to the second and third centuries, which are attributed to Peter, Mary Magdalene, James and Thomas, amongst others. They are interesting to set alongside the four Gospels retained for use in worship by the church.
Some modern controversialists speak of ancient church authorities suppressing these so called 'apocryphal' writings by not authorising them for use in public. It seems that some were used for personal devotion, becoming neglected with the passage of time. They did not appear on lists of banned books until the Middle Ages. Examination of content shows that their origins are not as ancient as the selected four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were authorised because they were regarded as the best, the most original record available to support what the church taught.
Apocryphal writings were the fruit of philosophical, magical and mystical currents of thought circulating in and around early Christian communities, alongside the teaching received from the apostles. They contain fantastic elements, bizarre miracles, obscure ideas and tales, that make the four Gospels look reserved and simple in comparison. Sometimes, as in the second century Gospel of Thomas, they contain ancient sayings, possibly of Jesus, not found elsewhere. These may have been retained by oral tradition, escaping being written down until much later. Most of the content of the apocryphal writings comes from the four Gospels however, and propagates an understanding of incarnation inconsistent with theirs. This is why they have received so little attention for so long.
In addition to apocryphal Gospels, other texts survive from the second century of the Christian era, including homilies, letters, oracles, and accounts of the death of martyrs. Among them there is a distinction between those containing teaching in the same vein as the New Testament, and those which do not. Those early Christian communities read, puzzled and debated carefully which writings were trustworthy. Some were confusing and of little use for building faith. A reading list for Christian disciples and their teachers was the inevitable result. This is came to be called 'the Canon of scripture'.
Except in the groups where they originated, it is likely that many apocryphal writings were already of minor interest long before their reading was formally discouraged. Today they are studied to illuminate the setting in which New Testament and early church teaching developed. They are evidence that communities existed whose beliefs about Jesus and his teaching diverged from the main stream of the church from the earliest times. They corroborate what certain New Testament passages say in criticism of beliefs held by groups and members, thought to be pursuing false spiritual paths.
In understanding why the teaching of the New Testament and the Church about Jesus is worth regarding as authoritative, knowledge of contemporary background is important, because their world is so different from ours. Jesus was a man of Jewish religion and culture. His message was rooted in teachings he inherited and grew up with. Christians cannot make sense of the New Testament without referring to that small library of Jewish books which they call the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. It embraces mythology, history, politics, wise sayings and stories, oracles and material used in worship. Christians call these books the Old Testament, reflecting belief that they are the legacy of God's dealings with the Jews since the dawn of history. The New Testament is the legacy of the coming of Jesus and his teaching, for which the Old Testament prepared the way.
In seeking to understand the Jewish background of Jesus and early Christianity, it is not helpful to read the Old Testament straight from beginning to end. It is not presented in the order in which it was written. Pre-historic myth and legend are followed by the story of the birth of the nation in the Exodus story, and an account of its sacred law, but these were written down later than some of the other books. There is an 'official' history of the nation's rise and fall; wisdom literature, Psalms and other poetry; then finally the writings of the prophets dating from different times over a five hundred year period.
To get started on reading the Old Testament, it is enough to explore the use of the Psalms and the prophecy of Isaiah, which feature in the teaching of Jesus, and its interpretation by the earliest evangelists. It can be useful to work backwards from the references to Old Testament stories and characters appearing in New Testament books. Christian ideas of God owe much to ideas which evolved in Israelite and Jewish religion over a thousand years before Jesus. It helps to read a version of the Bible with footnote commentary and cross references to illuminate ideas and practices which are alien to our modern culture. These explanations are a support which scholars of the Church offer to readers who want to understand the story it exists to tell.
A study of the New Testament and its historical background reveals characteristics typical of the culture and religious ideas of that era. Its unique character is due to the personality of Jesus, and the impact of his ministry, teaching, life and death, upon his disciples. This gives it the capacity to make the story relevant two millennia after the event, to people all over the world.
If Christianity has things in common with, as well as distinctive from other religions and spiritual paths, if it is in some way relevant to them, dialogue between different religious traditions and cultures is bound to be mutually beneficial. Its focus will be the issue of who Jesus really is, and what difference this makes to the way the world can be understood.