Author Archives: Derek A. Olsen

New Version of the St. Bede’s Breviary

Here is the new version–here within this site:

It’s fully functional, but I’m still finalizing features and aesthetics…

In the original version, a preference code would produce a tailor-made page with only your options. I’ve gone away from that in this version, and use interactive buttons and toggles to show or hide content. At the moment, there is no simple mechanism for saving your preferences, but there are some ways to accomplish this functionality that I am exploring.

There are also a few less options. In the first version, I wanted to enable you to pick anything rubrically allowed. With the growth of other Episcopal Daily Office sites, I feel less of a need to implement everything, and instead am focusing on the sort of traditional enrichments (antiphons for psalms and canticles, hymns, marian material, etc.) that you won’t find in those other places.

That having been said, if there is an option that you are really missing from the original version, leave a comment, and I’ll see what I can do.

Since there’s a fair amount of new code and some new database tables driving things, there will inevitably be some errors. When those pop up, please do let me know and I’ll get them fixed as soon as I can!

On the Canon of Scripture

On the Canon of Scripture

Following on the previous post, after I did the presentation on Inspiration, M taught on the Canon. We worked on that together, me serving as her Tertius, scribing her words. Since then, I’ve taken that and re-worked and expanded it a bit. Thus, this is a companion of the previous post and where it spoke in generalities of the writing and collecting of the Scriptures, this one expands and hopefully clarifies what was said there.


The word “canon” means reed or ruler. By extension it means the thing by which other things are measured, and that’s the sense in which we mean it in the church. The canon both defines the collection of books that sit at the heart of the Church’s experience of and conversations about God, and also contains the apostolic faith against which all else is measured. That is, this canon contains the Old Testament—the writings of the Hebrew Bible (and some documents written after that point by Jewish authors sometimes called “Apocrypha”) that the Church received through their Greek translation, and the New Testament—the written records of the lived faith of the Church as it was practiced in the first few decades after Jesus, directed by the teaching and proclamation of the apostles and disciples. It’s those folks—the inner circle of Jesus’ companions (the apostles) and those who heard and followed both his preaching and theirs (the disciples)—that orient us to the authentic practice of the faith revealed in, through, and by Jesus.

Writing of the Old Testament

Literacy & Writing

The first thing to remember is that we take literacy and writing for granted. We are used to everyone knowing how to read and write, and the constant presence of reading material whether its books or magazines or emails or websites. That’s not the way literacy worked in the ancient world. Very few people needed to read, let alone write. As mentioned in the discussion on Inspiration, the Old Testament was written gradually over a series of centuries and was edited into the books that we have today—and one of the best ways to understand this is to understand in what circles and in what jobs reading and writing were important.

Desert Bedouins who raise sheep and camels, and herd them through the wilderness from place to place don’t use guidebooks. They read the winds and the stars to help them get from oasis to oasis—not a set of written words. The patriarchs and their extended families were just these kinds of people. Literacy in the Ancient Near East went hand-in-hand with the monarchy and with agriculture. Our very earliest texts from the region are records of containers of grain, jars of oil, and slaves, things that had been paid as taxes or received as tribute by kings. Literacy, then, first tends to show up around royal courts as they developed in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. The second place we see it is in temple complexes where we find hymns and stories about the gods. So it’s these two places—royal courts and temples—where we first find the written word.

The other things is that when we go back that far, you also have to consider what they were writing on… If you were in Egypt, they did process the papyrus reeds into a form of paper, but it was fragile and outside of the dry climate of Egypt didn’t keep real well. Instead, the palace and temple records that we have from the Babylonians to the Hittites to the Canaanites are all preserved on clay tablets.

Now—can you imagine the Israelites wandering through the deserts on the way to the Promised Land with a string of donkeys entirely loaded with clay tablets? And yet, that’s what you would have to imagine with the model of Moses writing the first five books of the Old Testament!

So—how did this really work?

The Israelites wouldn’t have been going through the deserts with bags and bags of clay tablets—instead they would have taken stories, songs, and likely some epic poetry. As you’ll see when we read through the historical books of the Bible, some of them will make a few scattered references to some ancient histories. One of these, mentioned in the book of Numbers (Num 21:14), is called “the Book of the Wars of the Lord,” and the fragment we have of it is poetry. Immediately after mentioning it, two other poems appear (Num 21:17-18 and Num 21:27-30). These tantalizing glimpses of a poetic past suggest that it might have been an epic poem that was later written down (just like the Iliad and the Odyssey) and then used as a source when our books were collected. The lost “Book of Jashar” also contained histories and songs (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18) or was perhaps a history in poetic form.  The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob probably were all transmitted this way—stories handed down by the campfires through long generations.

The Monarchy

There wasn’t a monarchy in Israel until Saul, but when we talk of establishing Jerusalem and building palace and temple compounds, we’re really talking about David and Solomon. To have a nice round number that’s easy to remember, David becomes the second king of Israel somewhere right around the year 1000 BC, and then Solomon becomes king around 960 BC. Solomon, of course, was the great builder who was in contact with the other monarchies of the Ancient Near East, trading with them, bringing in craftsmen, and forming alliances through marriage. Solomon’s reputation for wisdom is no doubt connected with the scribes who would have been essential to keep track of the trade, commerce, and all the building activity that he did, so this is probably when we can confidently talk about the first Hebrew texts—which were probably tax records and building orders.

As long as there was a court, scribes would have been needed to keep records, write laws, and handle diplomatic matters. As we read through the books of Kings, we’ll occasionally see references  to “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29). Our text assumes that these books are still around—but they have been lost to the ages. That’s the kind of thing the scribes would have been doing, though: keeping the records of the kingdoms. But that’s not all they did; in the book of Proverbs, chapter 25 begins with this notice: “These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied.” King Hezekiah ruled for about 30 years right around the year 700 BC, or some 250 years after Solomon. So, if nothing else, there is clear biblical evidence that there was a group of scribes at the court, interested in collecting wisdom sayings of this kind in 700 BC as well as keeping the chronicles and the tax records up to date!

When the kingdoms split after the reign of Solomon, two different courts kept records, the northern one in Samaria, the city that was the capital of Israel, and the southern one in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. As a result, when these groups of scribes began writing the ancient histories of their kingdoms and collecting the old oral traditions, two different sets of stories about the ancient patriarchs sprang up—those recording traditions in the north, and those set in the south.

The Temple

As well as building the royal compound, Solomon is also the guy who built the first Temple in Jerusalem. As a result, we can imagine that the earliest religious writings would have been specifically for use in the Temple and would have been hymns, instructions for conducting the sacrifices and other rituals, and instructions on how to reckon and keep the calendar.

The Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t the only place worship happened, though; there were important shrines at Shiloh, Gilgal, Beth El, and other high places that would have done and recorded things in their own way. They would have had their own stories and ways of worshiping. As worship began to be centralized in Jerusalem, though, these different ways would no doubt have been collected. Perhaps some of the ritual details hidden away in Leviticus and Numbers that don’t entirely agree with one another, reflect different collections of materials from different locations.

The Prophets

During this time there were a variety of prophets, some connected with the Temple in Jerusalem, some connected with some of these other shrines, and some who weren’t part of the formal religious system at all. Their proclamations and actions were written down by people who heard them speak and who became their followers. The earliest that we have is Amos, preaching in the North in the eighth century BC. Through the seventh and the sixth centuries prophets of various kinds responded to various current events, bringing words from God to comment on the social and political doings in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. 

We can get a picture of how prophetic words were preserved, circulated, and received by their audience through the story recounted in Jeremiah 36. God tells Jeremiah to write down everything he’s been told; Jeremiah calls Baruch, his scribe, and tells him everything which he dutifully writes down. Jeremiah—who’s been banned from the Temple at this point—has Baruch go and read it aloud there. Some government officials hear it, take the scroll, and tell both Baruch and Jeremiah to hide. They then take the scroll to the king who has it read to him. Clearly he wasn’t a fan, for the king hacks off sections as they’re being read and tosses them into the fire. Jeremiah and Baruch then must go back and recreate the scroll, writing down all of Jeremiah’s previous words  “and many similar words were added to them.” It’s this sometimes haphazard process of organization and collection that causes interesting anomalies like the dual appearance of Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon in both Jer 7:1-15 and Jer 26:1-6ff.

Again, an issue with the traditional “Mighty Man of God” model of inspiration and composition is worth mentioning here. Notice something that the prophets both do and don’t do… Some of them seem to be riffing off of psalms. Like, it’s hard to imagine Isaiah, chapter 5—his song about God’s vineyard—without Psalm 80 which uses that same image as a setup for it. But notice what they don’t do; none of the prophets quotes Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy—that’s because they haven’t been written yet! While they may engage with some traditions that may be incorporated into those books, the Law as we know it now, has not been fully collected together.

The other thing to remember is that the prophets that we have are probably only a few of all the prophets who existed. We hear the names of several who did not leave writings behind in the Books of Kings, but there were undoubtedly others whose words were either not recorded or not collected for posterity.

Religious Reforms—Hezekiah & Josiah

Shortly after the fall of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, to Assyrian armies, King Hezekiah took the throne of Judah and reigned for many years. One of the things he did was to institute a religious reform, centralizing worship in Jerusalem at the Temple instead of all of those other shrines and places of worship. This was probably an important point when some of these diverse records were gathered together.

Hezekiah’s grandson Josiah also launched a set of reforms based on a book that was found in the Temple when he ordered it to be cleaned out. The many things that Josiah did sound a lot like what we read in Deuteronomy, and many scholars believe that the core of Deuteronomy was that book which was either found or written at that time. It’s quite likely that the first steps towards writing several of the books of the Bible—like the editing of the historical books, may have happened in this period. Unfortunately, Josiah died an untimely death in battle, and before too long the Babylonians were at the door.

Sack of Jerusalem

In the year 596 BC, Babylonian armies captured Jerusalem, and took the top 10% of the population into Exile in Babylon. This included the political and religious leaders—basically anybody they thought could start another revolt against them—like the prophet Ezekiel who had been a priest in the Temple. However, Judah did revolt again, and in the year 586, the Babylonians responded to this second revolt by leveling Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. This is one of the most important events in the religious history of the people of Israel. They could easily have joined the large number of groups in the ancient world who arose and then passed away without a trace. Instead of passing away, the exiles in Babylon made the momentous decision to remember who they were, to collect the many various writings that they had brought with them, and to edit and organize them into a coherent set of books. It was at this time that the majority of the books of the Old Testament were put into the form in which we know them.

Ezra’s Books

We know this act of collection occurred at this point in history for certain because of what happens after The Return. The Persian king Cyrus unexpectedly conquered the Babylonians, and one of the things that he did was send home the many people the Babylonians had captured as hostages. Thus in the year 515 BC, the people from Jerusalem, by this time their children and grandchildren, were allowed to return home. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return and of the rebuilding of the Temple which was accompanied by a great public reading of the books of the Law. This is the first time that we hear of something like this—a large public reading of the religious books, probably because this is the first time that these books existed in a definitive and fixed form.

The End of Hebrew

With one exception, this is the point—the years right after the return from Exile—where the books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, end. And I’d say there are two major reasons for this.

First, the books that the Exiles collected, edited, and finished during the Exile and in the years after the return from Babylon clearly communicate to their descendants their vision of what the relationship between God and the people of Israel is. These were the foundational books for how the Second Temple would be run, and how the faith of the Children of Israel would be remembered and taught from that point on. These were not the only books or the only traditions—but these were the ones that they decided gave the shape of the relationship as they understood it and chose to pass it on.

Second, this is also the period where Hebrew stops become the normal spoken language of the people of Israel. While in Babylon, the Exiles began to use Aramaic which was the common and official language of the great empires of the Ancient Near East including Babylon and the Persian Empire that replaced it. When they returned, they didn’t go back to speaking Hebrew, but continued using the Aramaic that they had learned in Babylon. And that’s one of the signs that alerts us that they’re something odd about the last book written that would be included in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Daniel which is set in the days of the Exile is actually from a much later time, the 2nd century BC. One of the ways we know it is because the book starts in Hebrew and then slips into Aramaic between chapters 2 and 7.


 So, to sum up, the Hebrew Bible was, in fact, written by a great cloud of witnesses. From people who told stories around campfires to court scribes who copied histories, to followers writing down the preaching of prophets to editors in exile in Babylon, a whole community of people put together the books we have now, collecting over a thousand years of relationship between the children of Abraham and God. Some major historical events spurred its collecting, the most important being the Exile into Babylon.

The Septuagint

As we turn towards the New Testament, though, we have to pause for a moment, because the first Bible of the Christian Church was not the Hebrew Bible, but rather the Greek translation of it—and that’s important. In a process that probably began in the 3rd century BC and went until the first century BC, the large Jewish community in Egypt began translating the Bible into their own native language, Greek. There are some differences between the Hebrew text and the versions that got translated into Greek, but not a lot; what would be different is the order of the books and the fact that the Greek version would contain some extra books—including some that had originally been written in Greek rather than Hebrew. It’s these extra books, most written in the 2nd and 1st century BC, that make up the Apocrypha, the disputed books like Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letter of Baruch.

The order of the books in the Septuagint is where we get our order of the Old Testament books today. It’s worth noticing that this is a different order than what the modern Jewish community uses. Rabbinic Judaism, just like Christianity, came out of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile of the Jewish people from the province of Judea. When the rabbis sat down to hash out what books they would read in the synagogues, they collected the books into three categories: The Law, the Prophets and the Writings. As a result, their order is a little bit different from ours.

We can see signs of this way of ordering the books, in both the New Testament and, ironically, in some of the books that were in the Septuagint. The New Testament writings will often refer to “The Law and the Prophets” as a shorthand for the Hebrew Bible. The apocryphal book, Wisdom of Sirach has a prologue from its translator that begins like this: “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the Others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom” (Sir prol). Indeed, the Bible is referred to as the Tanak in Judaism because this word is an acronym for the three sections of their canon: the Torah (or the Law), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Kethuvim (the Other Writings). The main surprises for Christian readers is that the books of Chronicles and Daniel are placed in the Other Writings rather than among the Prophets.

Collecting and Selecting the New Testament

The Church Produced the Bible (not the other way around)

Turning to the New Testament, the very first point I have to make is that the Church existed before the New Testament did. The Bible did not produce the Church, the Church produced the Bible. This matters because at the heart of our faith is an organic community that has existed from the time of Jesus and the Apostles down to the present day. Because this community of believers exists, it has the right and the responsibility to determine what its own canon is.

That matters because the reason we even started talking about a canon was because of controversies about what the faith was and wasn’t.

First Focus on the Bible (2nd century): Canon, Creed, & Apostolic Succession

There were two major periods in the early centuries when the Church spent time thinking about what was and wasn’t in the canon of the New Testament, the 2nd and the 4th centuries. The problem in the second century was about what was the content of the apostolic faith. There were a lot of religions and religion-like philosophies in the first century AD. Some of them had no problem pulling in a figure like Jesus and fitting him into their system. The problem here is that they were using him in ways that he would never have intended or approved of! As a result, the church had to begin deciding who they were as a community—what things they did and didn’t believe and what the church had believed and taught from the very beginning.

The solution that they came to involved not just one but three things that worked together and would be known as the three marks of the Church: Canon, Creed, and Apostolic Succession. The Canon was the books that we agreed to read together in church as the Word of God. The Creed was a set of beliefs that would guide our reading and interpretation. Then, knowing that texts and rules can never fully settle human disputes about human problems, Apostolic Succession means that the clergy who guard and teach the faith are part of an unbroken line back to the apostles. On a simple level it means that I know who your teacher was; you had learned from a reputable source. On a mystical level, it means that you had received a share of the Spirit that the apostles received at Pentecost through the laying on of hands. These three things used together could ensure that what churches heard were properly part of what the church had always taught and believed.

The canon, then, was selected following a few basic criteria. First, the writing had to be from the apostolic age, preferably the work of an apostle. Second, many church communities had to agree that a particular writing was useful and taught the apostolic faith. The best way to think about it is that the New Testament was not written as Scripture. Instead, works that the Early Church were reading and using were collected and selected to be Scripture—because those were the ones that best represented what the apostles thought and taught. These were the books that best taught the Church how to recognize and follow Jesus. We have letters from bishops asking other bishops about certain books—is this one you guys have heard of? What do you think of it? This is the way canon formation really happened—identifying what communities found useful.

By the end of the second century, around the year 180, a bishop named Irenaeus of Lyon wrote a book that laid out the teachings of a number of strange and unusual groups that proclaimed that they were Christian,  explained where they got off track, and taught the three marks of the church. He reveals that by this point the core books of the New Testament had already been fixed: the four Gospels and Acts, the Letters of Paul, and several other letters like Peter and the Letters of John.     

Second Focus on the Bible (4th century): Deciding the Edge Cases

It wasn’t until the fourth century with the legalization of Christianity and imperial support that Christians from across the Roman world could gather and discuss what their various communities had been reading and saying. These were largely arguments over edge cases. Some like 2nd and 3rd John, Hebrews, and Revelation were widely accepted and regarded as Scripture. Others like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were not regarded as Scripture. It didn’t mean that these weren’t widely read—because they were—they just weren’t part of the group designated as Scripture. While various church leaders drew up various lists, the first one that we have that contains all of our books in their current order is from St. Athanasius’s festal Easter letter from the year 367. Many of the early ones are very close and are just missing a book or two, or have one or two extra.

Now—there is a conspiracy theory out there (promoted in no small part by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code) suggesting that the Emperor Constantine essentially invented Christianity, including his establishment of the New Testament Canon. Here’s the reality: Yes, Constantine supported Christianity; yes, he was very interested in Christian communities agreeing in order to be a unifying force in the Empire; no, Constantine made none of the decisions. The only thing we have regarding the New Testament, are requests made to Eusebius of Caesaria and Athanasius of Alexandria of volumes of the Scriptures. Eusebius tells us that Constantine ordered (and presumably paid for) 50 copies of the Scriptures which were duly delivered (Eusebius, VC 4.36-7). However, Eusebius probably would have left out James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and probably Revelation as he classes these as “disputed,” with Revelation even getting lumped into the “spurious” pile! (Eusebius, HE 3.25)  

Order of the New Testament

The order of the books of the New Testament that we have follows the chronology of the story being told in the texts, not the order of their writing. Thus, the New Testament opens with the four gospel accounts of Jesus, then goes to Acts, then the letters of Paul (the main character of the second half of Acts), Hebrews which feels like Paul but doesn’t say it’s by him, then the other apostolic letters, and then finally the Book of Revelation which ends the narrative by telling of the end of time.

There are a few surprises tucked in here when we look a little closer. First, it’s significant that the books of Luke and Acts are separated from one another because they were written by the same author and were intended to be read together. Second, one of the things that everything after Acts has in common is that there was apparently a tradition of circulating collections of letters to 7 churches. And we have three of these collections here. Paul’s letters are put in order not chronologically, but in order of length, and together we have letters to 7 churches: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossia, and Thessalonica. (And then also four letters to individuals). Then the Catholic or General Epistles consist of seven letters by James, Peter, John, and Jude. Finally, the Book of Revelation itself begins with letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

If these books were arranged in the order of writing, Paul’s letters would probably be first as he was writing in the 50’s, starting just 20 years after Jesus; the first three Gospels were likely written around the year 70, with both John and Revelation probably finished around the year 100.    

The Canon—Closed & Open

So, the reason we have a canon is to clarify the core books that our organic community of faith has identified as the ones that best communicate our relationship with God and that can bring us into connection with God. On one hand, these are the books that define us. These are the books that the church has chosen to wrestle with through the ages. On the other hand, we also don’t say that these are the only books in whose pages God can be found. The canon doesn’t define or restrict inspiration or revelation. Indeed, an important part of our faith is that God’s inspiration is still an important part of what it means to participate in the community of faith.

As the Early Church discussed its books, it began to make several categories. What ended up as the New Testament were the books that were apostolic in character and widely read throughout all the churches. But they also kept lists of other accepted books, whether or not they were by apostles. There were disputed books that they were on the fence about, and then rejected books—those that did not communicate the faith handed down by the apostles. When you hear sensational stories about lost gospels like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, these fall in the last category. They were lost because they weren’t copied, because the churches did not find them usefully, usually because they were very late creations that had no historical value and were usually gnostic in character. (Gnosticism was a heresy that taught that the material world was bad and was created by an evil god, a teaching condemned in the very first line of our creeds.)

Are there good books, inspired books and revelatory books not found in the New Testament? Of course! And that’s where we get into the writings of the Church Fathers. Teachers like Origen and Augustine and Athanasius wrote books and sermons and treatises that help us understand the Scriptures and the faith. While they’re not in the New Testament, they are part of the teaching that the Church holds as sacred tradition and are well worth reading if you haven’t encountered them.

However, at the end of the day, the canon contains those books that the Church has chosen and treasured from the earliest days. These are the books that most clearly reveal the faith of the Church. These are the only books read in worship that receive the response, “The Word of the Lord.” These are the books we have read together, argued over, disagreed about and incarnated for the past two thousand years—and that will form the Church for, perhaps, thousands to come.

On the Inspiration of Scripture

On the Inspiration of Scripture

M’s church is starting the Bible Challenge (another wonderful Forward Movement product!), and in doing so has invited a number of speakers to help give context to Scripture, ways of encountering it, and information around it. Somehow, I got to kick things off, so what follows is a gently edited version of what I presented to them for your reading pleasure… (And, yes, the Blunt posts have been leading up to this!)

As we begin reading the Bible, I think it’s important to take a big step back and examine some of the questions around why we read the Bible, and how this thing that we have here in our hands came to us. I’m only going to be able to tackle a very small piece of that today, but I do think it’s one of the more important ones. So—we’ll be wrestling today with the inspiration of the Scriptures, what that means for their writing and what it means for our reading.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a topic that gets talked about a whole lot. I’m of the opinion that if things like this don’t get talked about, it means that we are relying on our assumptions, or what’s filtered in through our culture. Thus it’s not because of deliberate faith formation or careful attention to why we think the things that we do. There’s a lot of “religious knowledge” that seeps into our heads through American culture that is just entirely out of step with what we believe as Episcopalians and what has been believed by the vast majority of Christians through time. Don’t even get me started on the idea of dead people becoming angels… That’s just—no; it’s completely analogous to the time when she was three or so when Hannah informed me that she wanted to be a triceratops when she grew up … Entirely different orders of being… But that’s the kind of thing that we somehow absorb and believe unless we take a good hard look at it. That’s what we’re doing today: stopping and taking a good hard look at our theology of Inspiration.

I’m going to suggest that most of us have absorbed a default model that I’m going to call the “Mighty Man of God” model. We’ll talk about that, sketch it out, and then I’d like to propose an alternative that I’ll call the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model.

Now, I don’t like to argue against straw men so I was looking around for an example of this model where everything is clearly laid out. I didn’t find a perfect one, so I’m going to make reference to a work by an English priest and professor named John Henry Blunt who wrote a series of books on basic Anglican theology for school children and adults, and one of them was entitled A Key to the Knowledge and Use of the Holy Bible, published in 1868. This work was intended to be a basic textbook on the Bible that would teach young people everything they needed to know. He’s great for our purposes because he gives us some key chapters at the beginning on the “Old Testament Writers and Writings”, “New Testament Writers and Writings”, and “The Revelation of the Holy Bible and the Inspiration of its Writers”. Notice—not, “the books of the Old Testament” but “the Old Testament Writers.” And for the sake of time and your attention I’m just going to summarize what all’s in here.

The model that Blunt operates from is that there is a special and significant man who inspired by God through a particular application of the Holy Spirit to write divine revelation. This man writes a book of the Bible, and that book now becomes divine word. Usually, that’s the end of the story. Sometimes, Blunt will make special allowances like in the case of Joshua writing in the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, but it’s always one of these guys we know who does the writing. So who wrote 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings? Well, it’s a combination of Samuel, Nathan and Gad (just like it says in 1 Chronicles 29:29), and then Nathan, Jeremiah, and Ezra. And that’s good, because it’s all guys we know…

Blunt teaches that since God inspired each author directly and specially, everything in the Bible is literally and historically true. He says at one point that if a scientist or historian presents something as fact that is contrary to the Bible, well, they’re probably wrong, and that if the matter is investigated more fully it’ll reveal that the Bible was right all along. Because the Bible was spoken by God, and therefore, if God spoke it, it is right.  Now. Can there be mistakes in the Bible? Well, he’s a little cagey about this, but suggests that things could have been added in that are wrong, but he assures his readers that anything written by an inspired man as a revelation of God’s truth is true.  

Thus, we can sum up the “Mighty Man of God” model like this:

  1. The various books of the Bible were written by discreet, identifiable men
  2. These men were specifically inspired by God for the purpose of writing God’s revelation
  3. God’s revelation is true
  4. If there is something in the Bible that is not true, it is an addition by an uninspired man

Now—while John Henry Blunt was an Englishman writing from a High Church perspective at the mid to end of the nineteenth century, I’m going to suggest that this model is remarkably similar to what many present American Christians believe. Blunt was writing right at the time when the discipline that would become Biblical Studies was in its infancy in Germany and was starting to come into the Church of England. In fact, in one of his other writings he has some very harsh words for Benjamin Jowett (regarded now as the Father of Biblical Studies in England) who advocated that the very same questions that a scholar would ask of Homer’s Iliad could also be asked of the Bible, questions like: where did it come from? when was written? who wrote it? does the world depicted in the text match the world of the time or show marks of a later age? 

This is important because with the rise of Biblical Scholarship, churches tend to fall into one of two camps. One that said, “Hey, yes, let’s use science and history to study this”, and another that pushed back and said, “Nope, we believe what we believe, and you guys are all just a bunch of closet atheists who are trying to ruin the Bible.” Those positions in America became very rigid around the year 1930—remember the Scopes Monkey Trial litigating the scientific accuracy of the Genesis creation account occurred in 1925. Broadly speaking, most of the Mainline Churches—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, some Lutherans—said “yes, let’s use science and history” and the Baptists, other Lutherans and the various ancestors of the Evangelical and Fundamentalists movements said “no.” Significantly, the Roman Catholics said, “no” initially, but then flipped in the 40’s and 50’s to “yes.” Because views like Blunt’s undergird that “no” movement, you still find logic like Blunt’s from the 1800’s running around today especially in more conservative circles.

 One of the ironies here, is that I believe that this “Mighty Man of God” model was largely stolen from Romanticism. So, Romanticism was a philosophical/literary/artistic movement in the 1800’s that was a reaction against the intellectualism of Rationalism, that championed beauty and feeling over and against science and gave us the idea personified by writers like Keats and Shelly that the true artist is a solitary tortured genius who taps into the Spirit of the Age to produce profound works of art that the teeming masses are going to misunderstand and ultimately water down until they’re vindicated by other genius-types after their sad and untimely death, usually caused by either consumption or syphilis. Which feels a lot like the Mighty Man of God model! (Except for the syphilis.) So this isn’t necessarily a biblical model we’re working with here, but very likely a view consciously or unconsciously picked up from European Romanticism.

Ok—so, before we move on, it’s really important to stop and say what’s at stake. What matters. Humans use models because they’re useful, they’re doing something for us. So here are a few reasons why I think people find this model attractive, compelling, or important.

First, this model is all about authority. There’s one guy. We can put a name and a face to it. We know who’s responsible. Matthew wrote Matthew. Jeremiah wrote Jeremiah. Moses wrote Genesis. That provides a feeling of control.

Second, this model is also all about certainty. We know who wrote it, and we know God liked them, so we know that this is all God. We can trust that there’s only one degree of separation between God’s mouth and the page. God said it, dude wrote it down, and now we’re reading it.  End of story.

Third, this model agrees with Tradition. This is what’s been handed down. This adds to the certainty piece. How do we know Matthew wrote Matthew? The text never says, “Hey, I’m Matthew, I wrote this book…” Well, the tradition tells us. Eusebius, writing in the early fourth century, wrote the first history of the Church’s early years and incorporated a lot of excerpts from older primary sources going back to the eyewitnesses who learned at the feet of the apostles, collecting information of this kind. That’s how we know what we know about Matthew or Luke or John—we know what Eusebius learned from the sources he had.

Alright. So, that’s one model. It’s not the only model and that’s important.

When it comes to narratives, we can characterize two general approaches: there’s a small universe style and there’s a big universe style. These are an obvious oversimplification, but a useful one. Small universe stories are ones where no matter how huge and vast the world might be, the same few folks are always running into each other. This is anything written by Charles Dickens. So, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, we’re consistently running into the same cast of secondary characters over and over again. Or, Star Wars. Yes, small town boy, the princess you saved is actually your sister. And the scary guy in black is your dad. And your mentor is your dad’s boyhood best friend, and the robots you met used to belong to your dad. And your sister. That’s small universe. The huge advantage is that, narratively, we know everyone we need to know. There’s a limited number of people.

Big universe is very different. Think Tolkien. Elves will be name-dropping Beren and Luthien like they expect you to know who these people are and you don’t and you probably never will. There are so many names and so many different characters scattered through this vast history that trying to remember if Fingol was a good guy or a bad guy is really hard.  Plotted on this spectrum, the “Mighty Man of God” model is definitely small universe, because you get the feeling—whether it’s accurate or not—that you know all of the important players. The model we’re going to next is definitely big universe.

Here’s the way we’ll start this one out… I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Romans—the most iconic of all of Paul’s letters—was not written by Paul. It was written by Tertius. And I’m quite certain of that because that’s exactly what it says in Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Don’t get me wrong, Paul composed Romans, but he didn’t write it, because like most folks in the ancient world, books were written by dictation. You talk, and the scribe who had way better handwriting than yours and was literate in a least a handful of different languages would write down what you said. This is why literacy didn’t matter nearly as much in Antiquity as it does now: your scribe handled literacy matters for you!

Not only did Paul not write Romans, it’s a pretty sure thing he didn’t write First Corinthians or Galatians either because the last section of both of these is, “I Paul write this greeting with my own hand; See what big letters I make when I write myself.” If you were reading the actual piece of papyrus these letters were written on, you would have seen a shift in handwriting at that point. It’s like signing a typed letter.

The key point here is that letters were a communal event in Antiquity. Paul is sitting there composing the letter. Tertius is the one writing it down. Gaius, who was his host, might throw in a comment or ask a question. Or maybe Lucius or Jason or Sosipater who were also hanging around. Tertius might do a little bit of wordsmithing when Paul said something awkward. Maybe Achiacus and Fortunatus are the ones who are going to carry this letter like they did to one to the Corinthians, or Tychicus who carried Colossians. Because, if there are questions raised by the letter, the person who carried it very well may have been there at the time of its composition and may be able to clarify exactly what was intended by the words on the page. (And, yes, person who carried it, because if you weren’t a government official it’s not like you could just drop letters in a box and wait for the mailman to take them away.)

Indeed, Romans 16 itself is a fascinating passage. Remember, Paul had never been to Rome. The whole point of Romans is that he’s laying out how and what he teaches because he’s hoping that the Romans will agree to have him go there and will help foot the bill for the expense. Romans 16 lays out the extensive social networks that already existed between Paul’s organization and the church in Rome. Aside from Timothy and Prisca and Aquila, we don’t know anything about the other 34 people mentioned. Yes, some people do try to identify Rufus as the son of Simon of Cyrene mentioned by Mark, but that’s literally like suggesting that Ginger Rogers and Ginger Baker could be the same person, because they have the same name that means “red.” This is the big universe reality of early Christianity.    

So—if Paul is talking and other people are chiming in, and Tertius is writing it down, and Tychicus is read out the letter in the church it’s going to and clarifying its message—who’s the one inspired guy here? Or is that a question that even makes sense? And if you’re wondering, I’m going to suggest that it’s not really a question that makes sense because that’s not the only way or even the best way that the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit is that which binds us together. When Paul writes in First Corinthians “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” You have to remember two things. First, all of the “yous” in this passage are plural. So, it’s better rendered, “Don’t y’all know that all yall’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” Second, this means it is the Spirit’s operation that pulls the community into unity. The Church is the body; the Spirit is what binds the various disparate members together into a single whole. The Spirit’s work is binding us together one to another across time and space uniting us all into the one great mystic body which is the Body of Christ. That’s the ordinary operation of the Spirit—not just zapping famous guys every once in a while.

Where’s the inspiration here? It’s not just locked into the single act of writing. Instead, it both precedes it and follows it; it’s not a single act or moment, it’s all of the moments in the life of the community that build to a text’s creation and then are bound up in its transmission, communication, and reception.

Moving out of the New Testament for a moment, let’s just glance at the Psalms. Who wrote the Psalms? That’s easy—David wrote the Psalms. But when we actually look at the text, the text shows us something that says something very different. The superscriptions or headings of 73 of the Psalms mention David; then there are 2 groups of another 16 psalms attributed to the Sons of Korah. And 11 psalms attributed to Asaph. 2 others mention Ethan the Ezrahite and one has Heman the Ezrahite. And then one mentions Solomon, and another Moses and then there’s a whole chunk of 15 just labeled “songs of ascent.” But when we pull back a little bit, we start to notice groupings, and it almost looks like what happens when you take three or four different hymnals and combine them together. You get certain songs that overlap. Like how Psalm 14 and 53 are basically the same, or the end of 40 and Psalm 70; or that Psalm 108 is a mashup of Psalm 57 and 60. Perhaps the names are less about the specific authors and more like titles of collections that were grouped together.  

When we get less tied to people we starting noticing things like the fact that psalms 74 and 79 are two similar but different responses to the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 586 BC. Which would have been some four hundred years after David. Is it more realistic and more edifying to think that David had some kind of prophetic dream about what that would be like and wrote it down or that we hold the work of two different people processing a traumatic experience in song? And that’s not even plumbing the depths of Psalm 137. That’s the one that starts off so pretty about sitting by the waters of Babylon and hanging our harps to weep when we thought about Jerusalem and then gets real dark at the end. Some people question whether something like that is appropriate in Scripture—it’s not about appropriate, it’s about a community in pain wrestling with what it all means and where God was when it was happening. If we pass it off to David—four hundred years earlier—who never had and never would see Babylon or the brutal sack of Jerusalem, then we lose something truly important about what this collection of texts means.

We will never know the names of the three poets who wrote those specific psalms. But that’s the way it goes in a big universe. Because it’s not about the few and the famous. It’s about all of us who were here and participated in the process. This idea that God talks to one guy who spits out a book and then we pick it up is pure fantasy. Because the only way a book gets from then to now is by generation after generation of people copying every letter of it. Running from hand to hand. Going from papyrus scraps to scrolls to bound codices, with somebody having to heat up the ink because it has frozen again in the winter weather to the ninth century Irish scribe who wrote at the bottom of the page, “my hand is tired—I need a drink” to the twelfth century cat who walked across the page as it was being written, leaving a little track of paw prints behind.

This is the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model of inspiration. This model isn’t about a few famous guys getting the word directly from the Spirit and handing it off cleanly. Instead, it’s a model that sees the Scripture as a tangible aspect of a community’s long-term engagement with God and with one another. Stories originally told around Judean campfires were mashed up together with rules first written for how to do liturgy right in Solomon’s Temple, combined with narratives about who we were and where we came from. Because that’s how we get something like Leviticus. Not by Moses sitting down in the desert 500 years before the Temple was even built, but by a wide collection of disparate materials getting welded together into a something that mostly makes sense with ritual instructions interspersed with stories. Yes, there’s a messiness here, but we should expect that: Incarnation is inherently messy.

Look at the haphazard character of the New Testament. We have four different versions of one’s guy life. And all four of them manifestly don’t agree on a whole bunch of things. There was a fight in a big parish and one group went behind the backs of the others to tattle to the former pastor about the crazy things the other guys were saying and so, poof—1st Corinthians. Paul didn’t sit down at his desk, crack his back, pick up his pen, and whisper, “Let me say a little prayer for God to inspire me as I write this next section of Scripture…” Instead, he’d be squinting at the list of complaints from Chloe’s people, yelling down the hall for Sosthenes, Timothy, and Tertius to get their butts back in here while telling Achiacus he doesn’t have to keep mentioning what that one guy’s illicit relationship was really like.   Because—this is about real communities going through real life together in the presence of God.

The end result, as I see it, is a set of documents that are in conversation with one another—because they’re products of on-going community conversations about who God is and who we are in light of God. These documents are revelatory texts that, however imperfectly, reveal God’s actions, intentions, hopes and dreams for his creation. As a Christian community, bound into the life of God through Baptism and the Eucharist, our job is to conform our own hopes and dreams to those of God which are fundamentally about love and life lived abundantly in ways that enable justice and flourishing for all of God’s people and the whole created order.

To try and sum up this “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model in a comprehensible way would go something like this:

  1. Scripture is a collection of books written by faith communities for faith communities.
  2. The inspiration and action of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to one point in the process, but informs and shapes the whole life of the community of faith and therefore also the creation and the accumulation of all the things that would go into the writing that happened and also in its editing and copying and transmission and reception.
  3. God’s self-revelation to humanity occurs in the midst of community and conversation.
  4. Scripture is less a fossilized or crystalized moment of revelation in the past, but a catalyst for a living faith community now to encounter the Living God now.

So—what’s at stake here? Why does this matter?

First, this model is all about reality and about truth. We can’t say that we care about truth and then shut our eyes when we find it inconvenient or when it calls into question the stories we tell about ourselves. Incarnation is inherently messy. As a result, it doesn’t shy away from hard questions raised by history, archaeology and literary analysis. These methods don’t—and can’t—disprove anything about God; rather they help us clarify our understandings about the stories we have told and continue to tell about the community’s relationship with God. St. Augustine, the great 4th century African theologian, suggests that when you get right down to it, any passage of the Bible is, at the end of the day, doing one of four things: 1) encouraging us to live God’s love; 2) discouraging us from not living God’s love (he uses the language of encouraging virtue and restraining vice—but the meaning’s the same); 3) teaching us truths about God; or 4) teaching us truths about humanity. And it’s that last one that can be the kicker—recognizing the half-truths and the untruths that communities tell about themselves in the face of God can be just as revealing as the truths. Because these can show us what our true wishes, our aspirations for ourselves are, even when our lived reality falls short.

Second, this model doesn’t restrict inspiration or God’s revelation but compounds it. Revelation and inspiration aren’t part of a single act—writing—but are part of the lives of living communities as we strive towards faith and living out the truth of the Gospel to which we have been called. God’s self-revelation is a continuous and on-going process as we wrestle with these texts and our understandings of them.

Third, this model sees the biblical texts as grounding points in an on-going process. These are the texts that we have identified as revelatory. These are the texts that we collectively have agreed to respond to with—”The Word of the Lord.” Even when we may be having a hard time seeing it… These are the texts we wrestle with because these are the texts that we have been wrestling with and have been shaping us lo these past three thousand years.

In fact, that’s one piece that can make this model harder to reckon with than the “Mighty Man of God” model. Because if you really don’t like a piece of Scripture, with that model you can figure out some way that it wasn’t really written by a mighty man of God, and then you can safely ignore it. I think that’s part of what’s going on with discussions around whether some New Testament letters were or weren’t written by Paul. For the “Mighty Man of God” model, that matters; for the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model, it doesn’t change a thing—they are still texts that have formed and shaped us that we need to encounter again with our eyes watchful for the presence of the Living God. And before we wrap up, that’s where we need to move to—how do these two different models influence the way that we read and interpret?

So—the “Mighty Man of God” model. Again, that’s the model where one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people, end of story. What’s interesting here is that in Blunt’s book, his chapter on interpretation is about the importance of guides to help us read Scripture rightly. And while he mentions Christ and the Apostles and Councils of Bishops and individual bishops, the place he arrives at is that the best source for and truest guide of biblical truth is your priest who, in his ordination—because only men are priests in 1860’s England—has received special gifts of the Spirit to be able to interpret better and more faithfully than you.

Did you catch that?

The model for revelation is that one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people whose job is to receive it; and his model for interpretation is that…one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people whose job is to receive it.

Do you notice the parallel there?

It’s almost like the model for revelation is reinforcing the model for interpretation and the current status quo…

How about the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model? Well, I think given what I’m arguing here, it’s only fair to let someone else speak. One of my New Testament colleagues, Dr. M Adryael Tong, tweeted something the other day and I immediately warned her I was going to steal it, and here it is: “The more I teach and research the Bible, the more convinced I am that there is no right way to read the Bible, and really only one wrong way to read the Bible, which is, on your own. The text was preserved, defined, and translated in community and it should be read in community.” And she’s absolutely right.

What we do when we sit down to read, is to seek an encounter with the Living God. Bringing to the Bible all of us, all of our baggage, our realities, our anxieties, our hopes and dreams, and we read the text in front of us comparing it to and reading it through God’s ultimate self-revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ. And we discern as best we are able. But we’re not done until we have brought that experience to the community and shared it and conversed about it and talked through it and the community has discerned it together. Because I may think I have uncovered the most profound truth about God and I bring it into conversation with my people and they say, “Sorry, no, that’s your own self-deception at work. Because here’s what we see…”  Or, more likely, you get one of the two classic conjunctions from comedy improv: “Yes, and” or “no, but”. Because true discernment occurs in the presence of God in the gathering of the Body of Christ, for Jesus himself has promised to be present when as few as two or three gather in his name.

Nor are our conversations merely limited to the people we see around us. The power of the Spirit doesn’t just unite us to our present company but to all those baptized into the Body of Christ—and that’s where the Tradition comes in. The faithful of the past were just as flawed and messed up as we are—but they’re messed up in different ways! As a result, they can sometimes help us see beyond the current conflicts we get stuck in, and show us new avenues for reading and faithful living.

Given the questions following the presentation itself and the ones I was asked the following week, perhaps the best way to close is with a reflection on the notion of certainty.

One of the chief differences between the two models lies around the concept of certainty. On one hand, the “Mighty Man of God” model—as I indicated earlier—foregrounds both authority and certainty: You can trust the Bible because it is the Word of God delivered through a known and trusted source. On the other, the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model not only does not claim that level of certainty, but places so much in the hands of communities and people. Is there any certainty here, or is the meaning of the Bible simply what some group decides that it is?

I submit that neither of these initial impressions are accurate.

The “Mighty Man of God” model offers certainty, but further investigation reveals that it is merely an illusion of certainty. I can stand up and declare that something is true as loud as I like—but my declaration does not make it true. The assertion of truth is not the same thing as a guarantee of truth. The certainty here is the same as the splendor of the emperor’s new clothes.

While the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model appears overly contingent, its greatest strength is that its certainty is grounded in the life of the community of faith. It draws its strength and its certainty from the evidence of lives made holy, lives lived in love. It is proof of the pudding. At the end of the day, the question is this: do our Scriptures and our means of engagement with them reveal us as a community of faith becoming more holy, more joyful, more fully the instruments of God’s love and justice? Is the Body of Christ behaving, day by day, more like the Body of Christ? Because that—not assertions or right thoughts or the submission of others—is the true measure of a community’s connection to and immersion within God.  

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 6 (Interpretation)

Blunt’s sixth chapter is entitled “The Interpretation of Holy Scripture.” However, a more accurate title would be “Hierarchies of Guidance with regard to Holy Scripture” as that is what he presents here.

This will be (should be??) a fairly short post, because Blunt’s presentation here is simple and straight-forward. He begins out of the gate with a flat denunciation of the notion of the perspicuity of the Scriptures, that is, the idea championed in the Reformation that Scripture is clear and simple enough to be read and understood by all:

It is sometimes alleged that this true meaning and sense becomes evident to pious and humble minds at once by a kind of instinct; but however correct such an allegation may be to a small extent, it is contrary to fact when made as a statement applicable to the Bible in general, and to pious and humble minds in general. It is perfectly certain, for instance, that the Song of Solomon, the prophecy of Ezekiel, and the Book of Revelation are not capable of interpretation by instinct. It is also clear that many various interpretations of nearly every part of the Bible will be given by different good men who have no other guide; and that some of these interpretations will be so utterly inconsistent with, and even contrary to each other, as to make it certain that they cannot all represent the truth. Hence, although piety and humility are the proper foundations for a penetrative insight into the meaning of Holy Scripture, external guides to its interpretation are also necessary.

Blunt, 106-107

So—to clarify the argument—Blunt’s two principle proofs for the non-perspicuity of the Scriptures are 1) the really hard books, and 2) a diversity of interpretations even among the well-meaning.

While I agree with Blunt generally in this chapter, this initial establishment of the reasons makes me squirm a little. Perhaps it’s my Lutheran upbringing that emphasized the importance of everyone reading the Scriptures for themselves, perhaps it’s his assumption that a diversity of interpretations is an inherently bad thing. However, I’ve also heard and seen enough very bad biblical interpretation to agree with him that flat, unmediated, unbounded, undirected Bible reading can frequently do more harm than good.

I do want to highlight his second point, though: it’s not what he says explicitly, but implicitly he appears to be arguing for a restricted range of “correct” interpretations if not a single true reading of every passage of Scripture. (I’d like to know if he, like some at the time, would argue for a single right reading of every passage, but he seems too catholic to fall into that particular trap.)

So—guides are required for right reading. The guides Blunt will identify next are ecclesiastical and hierarchical. He begins his discussion of guides with Christ himself, followed by the examples of the apostles from Acts from which he proves his prior point:

In fact, we can hardly open a page of the New Testament but we find the writer of that page guiding us to some interpretation of Scripture which not one person in ten thousand would have found out for themselves; and thus showing the general application of the words spoken by a humble and pious man to Philip, when asked if he understood the mysterious Scripture about the death of Christ, “How can I, except some man guide me?” [Acts 8:31]

Blunt, 108.

(The way he keeps repeating “humble and pious man” makes it clear to me that he is citing some source [likely Calvinist?] that uses that phrase defending the perspicuity of the Scriptures, but I don’t recognize it off the top of my head…)

The move to the post-apostolic age brings with it the first mention of the Holy Spirit which I find both purposeful and deliberate. Note here the context and caveats connected with the Spirit and its interpretive gifts:

It is clear that these interpretations of the Apostolic age were made by those to whom the Holy Ghost had been given for this among other purposes. In some cases it is mentioned that the interpreter was “full of the Holy Ghost;” and in every case it will be reasonable to suppose that our Lord’s promise, “He will guide you into all truth” was fulfilled.

But this province of guidance by the Holy Ghost was not given solely to the Apostles. The represent the Church of all ages, and especially the ministers of Christ in the Church; and as our Lord promised his own perpetual Presence in the words, “Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world.” so He promised the perpetual Presence of the Holy Ghost, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he made abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth.” Thus the Holy Ghost has been always believed to guide the solemn assemblies of Bishops which are called Councils, whenever they have sought His Presence in a humble determination to abide by his guidance; and it is not difficult to distinguish such Councils from those in which questions have been prejudged or decided from secondary motives instead of humble desires for the Truth.

And as this guidance is given in its highest degree to Councils of Bishops, so in a lower degree, it is part of the ordination gift which is bestowed on all priests and Bishops when the words are spoken, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”

Blunt, 108-109.

Thus, in the hierarchy of guides, Blunt establishes:

  • Jesus
  • Apostles
  • Councils of Bishops
  • individual bishops
  • priests/clergy

Blunt gives particular attention to the clergy piece in discussing their interpretive status:

And although it cannot, of course, be maintained that these authorized interpreters [the clergy] are infallible interpreters, it cannot be doubted that those of them who wish to use the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their expositions of Scripture will receive that guidance, and be preserved from error to the extent to which they submit their studies and ordinary means of knowledge to His benediction. One purpose of their office is the instruction of the laity. It is an universal rule that such instruction shall be founded on Holy Scripture. Hence it is one purpose (and many regard it as the chief purpose) of their office that they shall be the ordinary interpreters of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Blunt, 109-110.

Thus, Blunt pretty bluntly states that when we’re talking about interpreters guided by the Spirit, it ought to pertain to the clergy rather than the laity. He does get to the laity in the next paragraph, acknowledging they are part of the Church and also guided by the Spirit “so far as it is needed for the purposes of their own Christian life” (Blunt, 110). However, he sees it as a different an lesser order of interpretation than what the clergy receive—else why should the clergy be charged with instructing the laity on the Scriptures? Logically, then, the priestly comprehension is greater than that of the laity.

Finally, Blunt takes up the idea that the Holy Spirit cooperates with natural gifts and acquirements. Thus, he argues that of two devout men, one very learned and the other very ignorant, “the learned man is infinitely more qualified by God to become and interpreter of Scripture than the other” (Blunt, 111). Furthermore, there are great troves of wisdom in the history of the Church, and again—following the previous example—Blunt states:

and of two equally good men, the one of whom has used these treasures and the other has not, the best and most reliable interpreter can very easily be discerned. It is in these treasures, then, that we find the TRADITION of the Church as to the sense and meaning of Holy Scripture; the results of the co-operation of God’s Spirit with man’s learning in searching the Scriptures through many hundreds of years.

Blunt, 112.

Thus, both intellectual development and learning the teachings of the Church create far better interpreters than the “humble and pious man” with which Blunt began.

Blunt concludes the chapter with the acknowledgement that the Scriptures still need to be read, searched, and studied because time is always drawing us into new circumstances which can draw out “hitherto undiscovered meanings” and, indeed, “a special message to the nineteenth century may be found there, of which there would be no perception, because there was no need of its perception, in the ninth century or the third” (Blunt, 112).


Obviously, Blunt is very interested in making the argument for an educated priesthood as the central and local arbiters of the meaning of the biblical text. That makes perfect sense and, largely, I agree with that. I can’t agree that ordination gives an inherently richer/better interpretation of Scripture than the Basic Package Holy Spirit given in Baptism. I also think this argument lands more soundly if you envision Blunt’s target audience as school children in an English village where the vicar is the only man who’s been to university. That’s certainly not my context!

I also can’t help but see a certain symmetry between the model of inspiration and the model of interpretation, that strikes me as structurally suspicious… The notion that the Bible was written by a few specific set-apart men and that its interpretation should be likewise reserved for a few specific set-apart men (because of course they were all men in Blunt’s day) seems like a mutually reinforcing paradigm that is as much about maintenance of the present power structure as it is about the past…

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 5

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 5

Blunt’s fifth chapter is “The Object of the Holy Bible.” This is where he is talking about object and purpose. At first, this seemed to me an odd detour between chapter 4 on Inspiration and chapter 6 on Interpretation—why not just move directly from Inspiration to Interpretation? On further review, Blunt uses this intermediary chapter to make some good and useful points that might otherwise be overlooked about the character of the biblical texts. He gets at intention in some interesting ways. But enough prolegomena, let’s just get in to it…

Initial Section

The opening of the chapter is a strong appeal that Christians who read the Bible should come following Anselm’s famous dictum of “Faith seeking Understanding” (neither using that phrase or mentioning Anselm by name, of course). And the heart of that faith is its purpose:

That purpose,—so pervading Holy Scripture from beginning to end—is THE REDEMPTION AND SALVATION OF MANKIND BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. The History, Prophecy, the Poetry, the Teaching, of the Bible all look towards this one object; and thus the Cross of Christ is the true “Key of Knowledge,” [Luke 11:52] the “Key of David,” [Rev 3:7, viz. Isa 22:22] and of all other treasuries of divine mysteries. By this Key the most secret pages of Holy Scripture may be unlocked, and the Personal Word revealed by the written word:— “Him first, him last, Him midst and without end.” [Paradise Lost, Book 5]

Blunt, 84-85; small caps in the original; parenthetical brackets listed sources added by me

As a practicing Christian and an academic student of the text, I have to say “Yes, but” at this point. Yes, as a Christian, I agree with him that Christ is at the heart and center of the Scriptures. However, to say that Christ is the only true object of the purpose and writing of the OT texts is problematic from both an inter-religious standpoint and an interpretive one. Christ as the center of the OT is not self-evident. If established as a hermeneutical framework, projected from the NT back on the OT text, it works—but it is far from the only acceptable hermeneutic for understanding these texts, their contents, and the through-line that holds them together. I do believe that there are some strong fundamental themes encoded throughout the OT that shape and encourage a messianic reading of the text of the OT as we have received it, but many of the messianic expectations are quite unlike the figure of Jesus.

(Always remember: the idea that Jesus is Messiah and the idea that Jesus is God are two distinct ideas fused in the NT and Christian thought; the messiah of the OT is chiefly portrayed as a restoration and continuation of Israel’s political power embodied in an heir of the Davidic line. Hence the many disagreements from readers of the OT past and present that Jesus is a perfect fit for the role! Again, it’s a clash of very different hermeneutics [frameworks for making sense of the texts].)

Blunt then sets forth proofs of his argument by stepping through a variety of genres of texts in the following arrangement:

  1. The object of the Bible illustrated from Old Testament History
  2. The object of the Prophetical Books of the Holy Bible
  3. The object of the Poetical Books of the Old Testament
  4. The object of New Testament History

Blunt on OT History

Blunt’s first section focuses largely on the book of Genesis. Thereby neatly bypassing in silence the 7,000+ verses from Joshua to Esther that speak (sometimes in excruciatingly genealogical detail) about the political events of Israel and Judah for a period of roughly 800 years. But—ok—we’ll give him Genesis… And he makes four main points about what we find there, talking about Creation and then—his topic categories, not mine—mysteries, prophecies, and types.

Essentially in this latter portion of his history section, Blunt gives a brief primer on allegorical and figural interpretation of the Bible without using either of those words! Mysteries he uses largely as references to the trinitarian character of God (the creative plural in Genesis 1, the 3 men at the oaks of Mamre, etc.) but also the sacrificial system which cannot be strictly literal but points beyond itself to Christ with the sacrifice of Isaac as the central representative. Prophecies are the many passages that will be interpreted in relation to Christ (God’s words to Eve at the casting out, God telling Abraham all nations will be blessed in him, etc.) Types are the “persons,…events, and…material things” “by which the Redeemer and his work are set forth in the course of this first historical book of the Bible” (Blunt, 91; rearranged for clarity).

It’s fascinating to me that these three are presented in basic, factual terms. He doesn’t argue for them, he doesn’t put forth a schema of levels of reading (literal/allegorical/moral/tropological), they just are the way that Scripture is read.

Before moving on, I must loop back to where he starts this section and therefore the main bulk of the chapter, because he uses it to make a very instructive point that I agree with and that is frequently overlooked in discussions of Scripture and its content. He’s talking here about Creation, and very specifically draws our attention to what is and isn’t described by the text. Because this is important, I’ll quote this at some length:

The history of THE CREATION is the only such history that we possess; but the fact that it is contained almost entirely in the first chapter of Genesis, while the family history of Abraham occupies forty times as large a space, shows that it is not intended for the purpose of setting forth an account of Creation such as would satisfy the mind which wishes to inquire into its various details. What is narrated must have been known to the writer from information communicated by God, who only, of all living beings, witnessed it; and therefore it must be entirely true. But the object of the narrative is to assert, (1) that God was the Creator of all things, (2) that when He created them there was no evil associated with them; and (3) that the whole earthly creation was bound up with man, to whom the sovereignty of it, under God, was given.

Thus the account of Creation is incidentally a history, and as such it is of the highest possible value as being communicated by the all-knowing Creator Himself; but its real object is to show that God created a kingdom on earth, of which he appointed man to “have” the “dominion,” and that this kingdom was committed to his trust in a condition of perfection, even including himself [i.e., that humanity be perfect too…].

Blunt, 86; emphasis & small caps in the original, bracketed section added by me for clarity

The very important point Blunt is making here is that creation specifically and biblical narrative more broadly is selective. It doesn’t say everything that happened—it says what is relevant to its story and purposes. I actually totally agree with Blunt that those are three foundational points that the author of Genesis 1 is trying to communicate through the narrative. Where we part ways is that, for me, that’s the take-away and the point. The narrative doesn’t have to accurate for those points to be real and true. That is—contra Blunt—I can discard the historical and scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation because the author who scribed this creation myth from Ancient Israel was communicating these three points as fundamental and foundational. (And, as a modern Christian, I can fully embrace the author’s points 1 & 2, while feeling that point 3 is entirely too anthropocentric and has had devastating consequences regarding how humanity has impacted creation…)

For me and my reading, myth is just a legitimate vehicle for truth as history which is a place where Blunt and I diverge broadly and about which more ought to be said—but won’t be in this post as I’m already slipping off topic…

Blunt on OT Prophecy & Poetry

I’ll treat these two together, as largely, Blunt does what you’d expect, with only a few points worth noting.

With regard to prophecy, Blunt has an admirable section at the start where he uses the general structure of prophetical proclamation to both see it in its historical context and to use it more broadly for Christian purposes:

The Old Testament prophecies were all written at times when the Jews were going through some national sorrow, as in the time of Hezekiah, at the close of Josiah’s reign, the times immediately preceding and during the Babylonish Captivity, and the sad return to the Holy City. The immediate purpose of most of the prophecies, was that of warning against the sins which had brought calamity on the nation, and of denunciation against all those who set themselves up as the enemies of God. But beyond this immediate purpose there was another, that of pointing to a glorious future, when the reign of the Messiah would more than compensate the nation for all past woes.

Blunt, 94

Naturally, the messianic promises point to Christ.

With regard to the poetic material—Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes—Blunt goes full-on prosopological. That is, we read these texts best when we hear them (properly discerned, of course) coming from the mouth of Christ himself. It’s both interesting and telling that a large portion of this section is Blunt plagiarizing himself: fully a page and a half (pp. 97-99) is a quotation ripped straight out of the section on the Psalms from his Annotated Book of Common Prayer.

Blunt on NT History

Here we get again Blunt’s important reminder of the reality and importance of specificity:

When we open the New Testament, and come upon the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, we still move in the same track as we have done all through the Old Testament. For these five books all form part of the same History of the Redeemer and His work which is contained in Genesis, or the Psalms, or the Prophecies.

This explains why it is that the Gospels do not contain a complete Life of our Blessed Lord. As the history of Creation is narrated only so far as it is part of the history of Redemption, so the Life of our Lord is set forth only so far as it is necessary to illustrate His position as the Redeemer and Saviour of mankind.

Blunt, 100-101

Thus Blunt speaks of the Gospels & Acts portraying Jesus as Teacher, Healer, Light-giver, and Liberator in straight-forward terms.

And by “Liberator”, he does clarify what he means by this at the head of that section: “It is not any where recorded that [Jesus] [set captives free] literally (at least among living captives), and so it must be concluded that spiritual captivity is referred to” (Blunt, 105). A footnote here acknowledges that Jesus does refer to the healing of a woman “bound by Satan these many years” [Luke 13:16]. Despite this, he recommends that Liberator be equated with Absolver. So, Blunt sees it, but is not a proto-liberation theologian by any stretch of the imagination!

Final Thoughts

I see this chapter chiefly as Blunt teaching the art of interpretation and establishing hermeneutical principles. Of course, he’d never use that language, but this is the framing of thought that enables a person to see Scripture from a particular interpretive perspective. I never would have guessed it from the title, though! Using the term “Object” cloaks his actual purpose. Having said that, “cloaks” implies a deceptive intent that Blunt lacks; he’s not trying to smuggle it in, it just comes across like that from my own later perspective. Seeing the chapter for what it is does help clarify the logical progression of the chapters as being Inspiration – Hermeneutics – Interpretation.

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 4 (Inspiration)

Introduction to the Chapter

After completing a 3-chapter sweep of the Bible itself, its languages, translation, and contents, Blunt now embarks on a 4-chapter theological arc that deals with how Christians should regard and use the Bible. The first chapter in this section is our present focus: “The Revelation of the Holy Bible, and the Inspiration of its Writers.”

No. I don’t know why he felt the title needed a comma in it, but then—I do feel his repeated use of the semi-colon in his prose is odd to the modern eye as well.

This chapter is one of the key reasons I wanted to go in-depth on this work: to see without prejudice (or pre-reading) how a High Church Anglican of the 19th century would describe the mechanisms of revelation and inspiration. I have theories about the default assumptions that I find in American Mainline congregations, and I’m curious to see if his treatment confirms or challenges my hypotheses. In a nutshell, my hypothesis is that his portrayal of these mechanisms will be very much informed by Romanticism, its critique of empirical science, and the image of author as genius in a Kantian mode… (Fair warning: I’m not a philosophy guy, so I’m working with an educated laymen’s sense of Kant and Romanticism, not an expert’s!)

Now—there are two ways to work with a chapter like this; one is to walk through the argument and logic, using his words and headings, with points clarified by means of quotes from the text, the other is to convey a general impression, and then discuss the interesting bits that stand out. The first approach is helpful for clearly displaying the author’s thought (greatly increasing comprehension of the actual argument and reducing the author to a straw man) but is much less readable especially for those looking for a pay-off; the second is the reverse, more readable but less thorough. In a spirit of compromise, I’ll provide both: Up front, I’ll provide my thoughts and reflections, after that I’ll provide a full walk-through (here’s a link if you want to read that first!).

My Thoughts and Reflections

I must state up-front that, as an author, this has got to be a daunting chapter to write! Blunt approaches it from a different angle than I would—presenting it as a simple explication of objective truth—and this decision very much characterizes his approach.

Fundamentally, I agree with Blunt on the majority of his teaching—that the Bible is the revelation of God to humanity, the Word of God written by inspired humans. In the main, he does not attempt to nail down a specific mechanism of inspiration; specifically, there is no reference to verbal inspiration, and no declaration of an infallible text.

That having been said, Blunt presents a number of assumptions with which I do not agree. First, his model of inspiration very much appears to be that the Bible was written by a discrete limited set of named men writing directly what the Spirit inspired them to write. This assumption is supported by his careful attention in the previous chapters to authorship supplemented by which men made additions to which earlier works (usually in the case of historical documents). Additionally, he uses a vague couple of sentences to cover the possibility of factual errors within the histories, worth quoting here:

It is possible that errors may have crept in among the truth; but this is another question, to be answered by careful inquiry and criticism. Of one thing we may be certain, that when we have found reason to be assured that any thing in the Bible has really been revealed by God, or written by men whom He has inspired for the purpose of writing it truly, then we may also be assured that what is so recorded is removed beyond the range of all reasonable doubt, and is absolutely true and certain.

Blunt, 79-80.

With one hand, then, he acknowledges that some (few) errors might have crept in amongst the truth, however he does not make any reference to how or by whom this might have occurred. The next statement doubles down on the principle that whatever has been revealed or has been written by an inspired man is to be believed, free from doubt. The unspoken wiggle room in the middle suggests 1) there may be some additions to the texts, 2) these additions are presumably made by uninspired men, and therefore 3) these additions may contain errors. To me, that’s significant: the unspoken assumption that all inspired text must be the production of a discrete limited set of inspired named men.

Second, I believe that Blunt errors in painting Scripture with too broad a brush in terms of its genre and intention: for him, everything within the historical books is intended to be objective literal history. To me, this reflects an overly simplistic approach to genre, but also an overly simplistic approach to human purposes in writing. Blunt’s clearest statement on the authors’ role in biblical composition appears in this passage at the end of his discussion of unity within diversity:

Thus we find the first traces of a Divine as well as a Human Element in Holy Scripture: the HUMAN ELEMENT in the natural powers of the penmen who wrote its component books, the DIVINE ELEMENT in the supernatural influence by which the penmen were controlled.

Blunt, 69.

There is no sense here that human authors may have ulterior motives or purposes in their writing. I have most fully in mind the reality that histories written and promulgated by a certain regime at a certain historical point are hardly neutral products; they are written with intent to make certain things look good and others less good. To deny the presence of these within the biblical record is difficult and here I’m thinking very specifically of the way that Samuel’s speech in 1 Samuel 8 echoes Solomon’s reign (especially with regard to 1 Kings 9:22; 10:26-29; 11), or the casual dismissal of certain monarchs like Nadab (1 Kings 15:25-6).

One accounting for the discrepancy between the way Blunt and I read is in the very complaint Blunt levies against Jowett and Semler and others: I presume that the Bible is to be read as any other ancient text and is thus open to questions of intent and the presence of ancient propaganda. Blunt’s perspective appears to preclude this.

Third, Blunt’s hermeneutics (theory of interpretation) of Scripture determine his assessment of the content of Scripture. Thus, his discussion of both the Historical Unity of the Bible and proof of its Inspired Prophecy center on the person of Jesus to a degree I simply cannot agree with. Are the histories presented in the OT selective? Yes. Are they selective in order to point solely at the person of Jesus? No. Nor is Jesus the focus of all prophecy in the OT; unless Blunt reads the destruction oracles of various Ancient Near Eastern cities in Isaiah and other prophets more creatively than I, there is a lot of prophetic material that is fairly silent on Christ. That’s not to say I disagree with his broader point, that the New Testament and Church find types, antitypes, and figures of Christ within the history and prophecy of Israel, but to say that Christ is their central focus is not accurate.

Finally, the image with which I disagree the most is likely the one wherein he characterizes the separation between the authors of Scripture in order to emphasize the surprising unity and thus the inspired source of their messages:

Forty men writing at different times, in different languages, in different countries, mostly unacquainted with one another, often not knowing much or any thing of what predecessors among them had written, having no intention of working their writings into the system of those predecessors, and not knowing that their writings would form part of a collection—such a series of writers would not have written in this consistent manner if they had been left to themselves.

Blunt, 69.

This reads far more like the legend of the translating of the Septuagint from the “Letter of Aristeas” than it does a description of the Old and New Testament! I do understand Blunt’s rhetorical purpose, but in his exaggeration he has undercut the fundamental concept of the intertexuality of the Scriptural witness—that many of the writings we have are not only cognizant of one another but are intentionally participating within a dialogue on and through Scripture that grounds and establishes the interpretive process of the Church. I think he believes this has been covered by referring to the Holy Spirit as the author of all Scripture, but in emphasizing the separation of the authors, he fails to grasp what I see as a fundamental mechanism of the Spirit’s authorship itself: the facilitation of a theocentric conversation across time and place and language.

With regard to my initial hypothesis—that Blunt represents a Romanticism-shaped model of inspiration which I refer to as the “Mighty Man of God model”—I believe I am correct, but he largely leaves it at the level of assumption rather than being fully explicit. Truthfully, I was hoping he would be much more explicit on the matter, but nevertheless the assumptions that he makes are telling. Perhaps the most important thing I can draw from this source is the level of implicit assumptions that govern the conversation that I think a lot of modern American Christians also hold.

Full Walk-through

Blunt lays out his argument in this chapter with a clear, formal structure of points to explicate. He presents his central thesis at the start with definitions of his two key terms:

The Holy Bible has been universally received by the Christian Church as a REVELATION made by God, and a volume written by men who were under the influence of His INSPIRATION.

The plain meaning of these two terms is as follows: Revelation is an unveiling of something previously concealed. Inspiration is a breathing into the mind of knowledge which it could not naturally possess.

Hence the Holy Bible has been received as so directly coming from God that men have even ventured to call it by a Name Divinely given to our Lord Himself, The Word of God, the Word spoken by the Father through the Inspiration of human persons by God the Holy Ghost.

Blunt, 65-66.

From this point, Blunt proceeds along this outline:

  1. The grounds on which the Bible is received as an inspired book (in ascending order of importance).
    1. The uniform purpose and impulse despite the diversity of authors
      1. Historical Unity: “Their works were all written with reference to a central subject, the coming and work of Christ, the Messiah-King of the Old Testament, the Incarnate God of the New” (Blunt, 67).
      2. Moral Unity: “God is universally represented as holy, as hating sin, as being a just Judge, as rewarding the good and punishing the evil. Man is as generally represented as being in a lower moral condition than he might have been, aiming (in his better moments) at something higher, and as capable of recovering his original moral condition in a future life” (Blunt, 68).
      3. Spiritual Unity: (“constant representation of man as needing a Saviour; by the sacrificial system…ever-recurring references to the Mercy of God…idea of God as Supreme Spiritual Head of all mankind” (ibid.).
    2. Nature of its Contents
      1. Revelations
        1. Facts of Creation: “could be known only by those who were then in existence to observe them; and as man was the last of all created things, he could have observed none of them” (Blunt, 70).
        2. Person of God: “His Nature is continually spoken of from the days of Adam and Cain, all through the the long line of holy men and holy writers down to the last page of the Bible. … Such revelations all reached their climax in that made by our Lord’s words and work” (Blunt, 71).
      2. Prophecies: “Examples may be found in almost every page of the Bible; for, in reality, the whole Bible revolves around one central object, the Person and work of the Redeemer” (Blunt, 72).
      3. Moral Teaching: “No writings which are not plainly moulded after the pattern of the Bible in this respect make the faintest approach to its purity and its elevation above the ordinary thoughts and rules of men…their very nature reveals them to us as a reflection from Divine Holiness and Perfection” (Blunt, 73).
    3. Direct Assertions that it is a Revelation made to and through Inspired Men
      1. Paul (2 Timothy 3:16)
      2. Peter (2 Peter 1.21)
      3. “many passages throughout the Holy Scriptures in which the writers speak of themselves or their predecessors as speaking or writing that which had come from God”
        1. Moses
        2. David
        3. Prophets
        4. New Testament
    4. [Concluding summary] “And thus there are three distinct lines of evidence which all lead to the assurance that the Holy Bible is given by the inspiration of God:—(1) The wonderful unity of its contents, though written by many men in many ages; (2) the nature of its contents, which are such that they could only be known by revelation from God; and (3) the solemn assertions of the writers that they were speaking and writing what God had put into their minds” (Blunt, 78).
  2. The authority belong to Inspired Writings
    1. God speaks as One who is Omniscient, and who is absolute Truth: “Certainty and Truthfulness are, consequently, qualities which are inseparable from God’s word; and no inspired writing can possibly be untruthful or of doubtful authority: a principle which we may apply to inspired history, inspired prophecy, and inspired doctrine” (Blunt, 78).
    2. Inspired History
      1. [Haters gonna hate]: “Almost every section of these records has been made the subject of controversy and doubt. . . . But there is little or no consistency in the opinions of such sceptics, and the only thing in which they agree is their disbelief” (Blunt, 79).
      2. [No better alternatives offered]: “No more probable history has ever been substituted for the history contained in the Bible; and many of the things which have formerly been doubted by sceptical men have afterwards been proved to be true from independent testimony (such as the Assyrian sculptures) by men of deeper research and fuller opportunity for investigation” (ibid.)
      3. [Possibility of errors?]: “It is possible that errors may have crept in among the truth; but this is another question, to be answered by careful inquiry and criticism. Of one thing we may be certain, that when we have found reason to be assured that any thing in the Bible has really been revealed by God, or written by men whom He has inspired for the purpose of writing it truly, then we may also be assured that what is so recorded is removed beyond the range of all reasonable doubt, and is absolutely true and certain” (Blunt 79-80).
      4. [It’s not you, it’s me]: “Hence we may conclude that when we fail to recognize the perfect truthfulness of the Bible we are in fault, not the word of God” (Blunt, 80).
    3. Inspired Prophecy
      1. Truth of some prophecies proved by their fulfillment
      2. All others to be equally credited [even if some ideas of their fulfillment are wrong]
    4. Inspired Doctrine
      1. Many doctrines unintelligible, but not therefore to be disbelieved
  3. Divine and Human Care of the Scriptures: “How far the preservation of the Holy Scriptures has been owing to Providential care, and how far to the care of Jews and Christians, cannot be defined; but the fact is clear, that they have been handed down from one generation to another in a substantially unchanged condition that is quite marvellous, and all the more so because it would have been the interest of many sects to have altered portions of the sacred volume to meet their own views” (Blunt, 82).

Back to My Thoughts and Reflections

Conversations with Scripture: Blunt, 3

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 3

Having dealt with New Testament dating stuff in a previous post, I’ll head into Blunt’s third chapter on the New Testament.

His opening paragraphs introduce an interesting set of stats:

The books of the New Testament are twenty-seven, the writers eight, in number; the greater part being written by St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John, who are the authors of three-fourths of the whole. The writings of St. Mark and St. Matthew to nearly one-fifth, and those of St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude to one twenty-third part of the whole. Or, more exactly, supposing the whole New Testament to consist of 186 pages,

St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude wrote 8 pages,

St. Matthew and St. Mark wrote 38 pages,

St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John wrote 140 pages.

Blunt, 54.

Or, in pictures:

Blunt’s bird’s-eye view of the NT page counts thrown into an Excel chart

The point he’s making here is that there are five major authors (at least as measured by page count) and three minor. (Of course, as he’ll explain, he’s lumping Hebrews with Paul and Revelation with John the Evangelist.) What he doesn’t say, but clearly implies, is that these eight men represent our fundamental conduit of Christian truth. Furthermore, of those eight, three provide the bulk of the material. This is an interesting fact that I’ll say he leaves at the level of an assumption. But—I want us to notice what he’s doing here. We’ll come back to this in a post or two…

Then, Blunt provides a paragraph explaining the ordering principles of the NT. I didn’t want to quote this one in full, but after wrestling with it, I think we do need to see this two sentence paragraph in its entirety so that we can tease out a couple of observations with the assistance of some bracketed numbers inserted for later reference:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

Whenever I teach an Intro to Bible/Exegesis class (and quite frequently when doing a forum or similar sort of biblical talk), a central source of confusion for the students/participants is around order and chronology. Here are two key things to remember:

  • Order implies chronology especially when disparate texts are assembled beginning with a chronological order.
    • In the OT, Genesis begins with creation, and the following books of the Bible maintain a narrative historical order through Esther (with a recapitulation for 1 and 2 Chronicles)
    • In the NT, Matthew begins the story of Jesus (which the other gospels recapitulate), Acts picks up the narrative thread, letters to churches follow, then time and history conclude with the end of the Book of Revelation
  • A distinction is necessary between “time in the text” and “time of the text”
    • “Time in the text” refers to the time period that the text is about.
    • “Time of the text” refers to the time period when the text was written/achieved the form in which we have received it.

When I talk about this stuff, I frequently refer to “the time referred to in the text” or simply “time-in” versus “the time when the text was written” or simply “time-of.” Keeping these two concepts distinct is especially important when talking about narrative material. Yes, the Gospel of Mark is describing the events of the year A.D. 33 or whatever year we decide Jesus conducted his main ministry in. But Mark was written in A.D. 65 or so. These are two different dates that represent two different things: when events happened vs. when the version of the events recorded achieved the form in which we encounter them.

Why does this matter?

Without any external cues, we tend to collapse these two mentally. Matthew is first; Revelation is last. If Paul mentions something about Jesus, we can just look earlier in the book to what he was referring to. Ah—but wait… In a single-author book you can totally do that… In a collection, it’s a totally different story (so to speak).

Thus, for one example, even though Paul is located after the gospels and is writing to churches established after the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Paul’s writings were written before the gospels as we have them. Indeed, if we want to look at what Paul’s reference to Jesus might mean, we should look to Luke as—if we take the Acts narrative as reliable (which I think it largely is)—Luke himself was Paul’s student and the Gospel he leaves us, written a decade or two after Paul’s letters, gives us the Jesus-content of Paul’s proclamation.

While Paul was chronologically later than Jesus, his letters were written before the gospels were. 1

For another, I’ll throw in an OT example. When working with students wrestling with Psalm 8, they will often point to the fact that it references the creation story. Specifically, Psalm 8 has some parallels to the Genesis 1 account. (I’d say strong thematic parallels; the verbal parallels are actually less strong in the Hebrew than most English versions make it appear). They fail to appreciate that saying “the psalm quotes Genesis…” has some serious dating implications! The Torah as we have received it appears to have come together in and around the Babylonian Exile, and the Genesis 1 section appears to be from a Priestly source writing around that general time and possibly in deliberate contrast to a Babylonian/broader Ancient Near East creation-through-conflict narrative (which pops up in some of the older psalms!). To then say that “the psalm quotes Genesis” is not just an intertextual statement but also a dating argument that must place the composition of the psalm after the composition of Genesis (or at least that part of it which appears pretty late in the book’s history overall). This gets even more tangled if David (who lived roughly around 1000-960 BC) is identified as the author of the psalm!

[For more on all of this OT stuff, I refer you to the most excellent find by long-time friend Barbara in a comment below, the free full and complete open source text of John J. Collin’s Introduction To The Hebrew Bible And Deutero-Canonical Books, Third Edition (2018)]

Ok… Having said all of that, let’s pick up the Blunt thread again. Rather than forcing you to scroll up, I’ll put Blunt’s paragraph here one more time:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

With regard to [1], Blunt does not clarify between time-in and time-of; however, [2] makes it clear that he is talking about time-of—at least, as he sees it. Therefore [3] refers to placing the various NT books in strict time-of chronological order which—given his dating scheme—would intermix Epistles and Gospels in a most confusing combination. [4] presents his thesis on gospel order, but fails to note the time-in/time-of hiccup represented by Acts. Thus, following the order of composition popularized by Eusebius and Augustine, Blunt will date Matthew at 61, Mark later in 61, Luke (and Acts) in 63, and John in 97. The reason for the canonical gospel order, then, is the chronology of their writing. (But—don’t forget—this is not the only order possible; the pre-Vulgate Old Latin Gospels that circulated in the fourth through seventh century followed the order Matthew-John-Luke-Mark which reflected the frequency of use in the lectionaries of the day.)

Following this introductory material, Blunt follows the pattern established in his OT chapter, providing a marginal date notation, then giving a quick summary of the content of each work. The notes on the gospels are largely about the evangelists, passing on the traditional material from Eusebius that was collected into the standardized prefaces that appeared in the medieval manuscript gospel books. Thus we’re told of Matthew’s Hebrew gospel, Mark being the deacon of both Peter and Paul but preserving Peter’s remembrances, and Luke being the disciple of Paul. His John section is different. Following Augustine’s lead he tells his readers that it:

…is chiefly a theological, and not a historical work, only so much narrative being introduced as is necessary for setting forth the particular truths to be proved and illustrated, and the whole of it being comprehended within broken periods, amounting altogether to only thirty-one days. His purpose was not to teach the history of our Lord, but the mysteries arising out of that history.

Blunt, 57-58.

Unlike the preceding Synoptics (and, no he certainly does not use that term!), he provides a brief guide for John:

Chapter 2Divine Nature of the Man Christ Jesus.
Chapter 3Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Chapter 6Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Chapter 8Eternal existence of the Son. His equality with the Father. Doctrine of Plurality in Unity.
Chapter 10Pastoral work of Christ in the visible Church.
Chapter 11Power of Christ in the invisible world.
Chapters 14-17Various mysteries connected with Christ’s perpetual presence.
Blunt’s drive-by of John (Blunt, 58)

After noting the limited focus of Acts on Peter and Paul, Blunt heads into the Epistles and provides brief summaries of each, identifying the location from which it was written, the addressees, and—in a sentence or two—the chief arcs. He does attribute Hebrews to Paul. He places James in A.D. 61 (same year as Matthew and Mark) basing his date on the death of James following (here explicitly name-checking) Eusebius and Josephus. 1 Peter is dated to 49, becoming the earliest of all the NT writings. The writing of the Johannine epistles is correlated with the destruction of the Temple, but he places Revelation either in 67 (Nero) or 96 (Domitian), preferring the earlier date (pleading confusion based on the longer name “Nero Domitianus”).

As in the previous chapter, this one ends with the summary of Revelation with no concluding verbiage.

Again—despite my issues with his dates and some authorship matters, I think Blunt does provide a solid overview of the content of the NT, suitable for providing readers used to encountering the Scripture in pericope-length chunks (whether from the Eucharistic lectionary or the Daily Office one) a big picture view of the NT. I do find his opening paragraphs intriguing, less for what he actually says and more for what I think he is assuming and will build on in the next chapter.

Because…the next chapter is one of the key reasons I’m interested in working through this book: “The Revelation of the Holy Bible and the Inspiration of its Writers.” But that’s for next time…

  1. I was tempted to talk about the Jesus vs. Paul narrative you sometimes find in the church at this point, but that would have taken me completely of course! Another post, perhaps… [back]
The Gallio inscription

Scripture: NT Dating Sucks

Before turning to Blunt’s chapter 3, I need to rant about how scholarship attempts to date the various books of the New Testament.

The honest truth is that dating the writings of the NT is really, really, hard. We have no solid external evidence about when they were written. Church tradition (i.e., whatever scraps Eusebius collected in the 4th century from 2nd/3rd century sources) assigns authors but little in the way of dates, and in a couple of key cases (looking at you, Matthew), those externals go against the much stronger internal evidence. Additionally, there is very little internal evidence, because the writers were—largely—not intentionally writing for posterity, but were giving specific advice to specific communities around the growing Christian world! We have no “In the year that King Uzziah died” a la Isaiah for any of the NT writings.

What we are able to do is to peg the Synoptic Gospels using Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke. The situation described in Mark 13 seems to describe the Roman armies massing around Jerusalem shortly before the destruction of the Temple but it hasn’t happened yet; Matt 24 and Luke 21 seem to describe the situation after. That’s the best we’ve got for the Gospels… Internally, we can say definitively from the Greek that there was direct literary borrowing with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The vast majority of scholars agree that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used him. My own perspective is that Luke used both Matthew and Mark, and I’m not sure that we need to theorize a hypothetical document (Q) that Matthew and Luke knew but Mark didn’t.

We’re better off with Paul because we do have external evidence nailing down one particular point in time. Acts 18:12 tells us that the events described occurred “when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.” This Gallio was Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, brother of the Stoic author Seneca, and was proconsul across the years 51-2. Thus, trusting the Acts narrative and using 51 as a date around which to revolve, we can assign some general dates to Paul’s letters.

When it comes to 1 Peter, 1 John, James, etc. we’re pretty much in the dark. These authors are completely uninterested in giving us any information that we can use for dates.

In the absence of actual evidence, various schemes of guesswork have been constructed following a variety of scholarly theories. Unfortunately, these are usually communicated as far more solid and factual than they actually are. Furthermore, the origins of this industry was not a neutral one. NT Studies began in Germany, spearheaded by Lutheran scholars guided by an anti-Catholic agenda. One of their primary early concerns was to “scientifically” foreground what they considered the heart of the Pauline writings due to emphasis on “justification by grace through faith” (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) over and against parts less focused on that message (Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastorals). This program of Sachkritik (content criticism) led to the uber-parsing of Paul that gives us the category of the Deutero-Pauline designation. That is, the notion that some of the Pauline letters—oddly, the ones the Lutherans thought were squishy—are not actually by Paul and therefore(?) less important/useful/Bible.

The older I’ve gotten, the less compelling I find the Deutero-Pauline arguments. The problem is that most of the arguments tend to assume two things: 1) a single author writes within a single form or genre, and 2) a writer uses vocabulary and theme consistently throughout their writing career. Looking across my own publications, I feel quite certain that any one of these classical Pauline scholars would be able to definitively prove that the author of Inwardly Digest could not possibly be the author of Honey of Souls and that it’s obvious (obvious!) that the sanctoral section in chapter 2 is a clumsy insertion by a later author. [Clumsy, I’ll grant, but not “later” as I was there when it happened…]. The idea that Paul “couldn’t” have used terms differently across works and genres (i.e., a specifically directed occasional letter like Galatians vs. a general letter like Colossians) does not ring true to me.

One of the related, and more pernicious, dating ideas is that the Christian message started simple and got more complex over time. Therefore, simpler writings must be earlier and more complex ones must be later. This fit a Lutheran model of a simple proclamation of justification by faith that was overcome and overburdened by the descent into “early Catholicism”—which is the Hegelian model put forth by F. C. Baur (writing in the early 1800’s) who determined that the only “real” Pauline letters were 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians, and that all of the others were part of a “catholicizing” tendency that trailed through the 2nd century.

One of the popular forms of this argument that I’ve found floating around the Episcopal Church is the idea that the idea of the Trinity is a “late” development, and that anything Trinitarian must be either late or an addition.

Here’s the key problem. Everyone agrees that the earliest writings we can accurately date are Paul’s letters, written in the 50’s. Read Romans. Read Galatians. Then come back and tell me that this faith was just a simple set of beliefs that would get complexified only later. Read the start of Romans 5 and tell me with a straight face that the Trinity is a late, 2nd century development. Same with the end of Romans 15.

Now—we’ve been talking about Paul, the one guy for whom we have dates. You can see the evidence and dating difficulties when we have a large collection of letters and a biography of the author (Acts). Now imagine cases when we have none of those things—and you have the rest of the NT epistles. When was 1 Peter written? Or James? Really hard to say. We can say that 2 Peter does quote Jude and likely references a scene from a written gospel in 1:17-18. Revelation does appear to be speaking from the time of Domitian (d. 96). But other than that, there’s a lot of guesswork involved, to the point that you’re working with a dartboard helpfully labelled with decade names.

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 2

Blunt’s second chapter entitled “Old Testament Writers and Writings” contains just that: a survey of each of the Old Testament books after an initial discussion on the shape of the whole.

The introductory paragraph begins with the opening words of Hebrews to remind his readers that the the multiplicity of books are guided by a single mind and purpose: “these many writers were inspired by One Divine Mind to write with one purpose, that of setting forth the work of redemption and salvation by Christ” (Blunt, 30). The principle of the Unity of Holy Scripture is very important to him. He will not, however, trace the through-line in all cases which is good as identifying and bolstering this single purpose does get challenging in certain of the Minor Prophets.

Organizationally, Blunt notes the Jewish division of the Law and the Prophets, but denies that this division denotes a sacred character—certainly not one the English Bible recognizes. That is, the Law has no preference or precedence over the Prophets from a Christian perspective.

He can’t resist a potshot at Colenso and the German schools when he asserts the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch: “…and although elaborate guesses at a different authorship have been made by a few writers in recent times, such guesses are worth nothing in comparison with the weight which must belong to the testimony of so many nations and so many ages” (Blunt, 31). Following the 1650-4 dating scheme of James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armaugh, Blunt places the composition of the Pentateuch between 1450 to 1490 B.C.

Blunt’s pattern going forward is to briefly introduce the author, assign a date of composition, then to describe the main theme of the book in a paragraph-sized synopsis. When necessary, he will provide a brief narrative outline like the one offers for Genesis:

The contents of Genesis are (1) [Chap. i. ii. (marginal notation)] an account of Creation, given, not as a full History of Creation, but with reference to the fall of man: (2) [Chap iii.] an account of the Fall: (3) [Chap. iv.-vi.] some few particulars respecting the history of the world between the Fall and the Deluge: (4) [Chap. vii.-viii.] an account of the Deluge: (5) [Chap. ix.-xi.] a few particulars of the history of the world between the Deluge and Abraham: (6) [Chap. xii.-xxv.] a rather full history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, with which particulars of many other persons are interwoven. The last event recorded is the death of Joseph, which occurred about 1700 years before Christ, about 2300 years after the creation of Adam, and thus more than 3500 years from the present century.

Blunt, 32.

(Sharp-eyed readers will note that Blunt’s outline was summarily curtailed. I would guess he intended to break out the patriarchs separately since Genesis 25 wraps up the Abraham narrative, but either he or his editors decided to mash them all together and neglected to fix the margin notation! )

As seen at the conclusion of the quote above, Blunt concluded each synopsis with a description of the time elapsed within the events of each book and where that places them with respect to the timeline. For example, the summary of Leviticus emphasizes the brief timespan: “These laws were delivered by God to Moses during the first months after the dedication of the Tabernacle, at the beginning of the second year from the departure of the Israelites out of Egypt. To this month, therefore, the whole of the Book of Leviticus belongs” (Blunt, 34).

I really like his pattern here. The basic scheme looks like this:

  • Brief comment on the name of the book
  • Identification of the author (if needed)
  • Brief outline of the major movements/sections of the book
  • Relation of the book to the overall temporal narrative and the length of time encompassed

I attempted a video form of something like this in my now-defunct “Liturgical Look Forward” series, hoping to provide context for the Daily Office readings through Years 1 and 2, but was never satisfied with the results.

Before leaving the Pentateuch, I must call out his words on the conclusion of Deuteronomy; section 5 describes “the account of the death and burial of Moses, added by an inspired person at some time later, probably by Ezra” (Blunt, 35). This is him grappling with one of complications of Mosaic authorship: did God inspire Moses to write of his own death and burial, or did a later writer add it? Blunt goes with “addition” but assures his readers that it was an inspired author, likely one from a short, well-known, list.

The pattern above holds through the Histories, at least up through 2 Samuel. Blunt apparently despairs of offering a sufficient synopsis of 1-2 Kings, appropriately given its 400 year span, and summarizes each in a sentence (“in the first book the reign of Solomon and the building of the Temple are the most prominent subjects: in the second book the prophetic history of Elijah and Elisha, with the reign of Hezekiah, and the final destruction of both kingdoms” [Blunt, 38]). With regard to authorship, Blunt follows Talmudic tradition in assigning 1-2 Samuel to Samuel, Nathan and Gad; 1-2 Kings go to Nathan, the prophet Jeremiah, and Ezra. (And if the inclusion of Jeremiah makes you think of modern discussions around the editor of the Deuteronomistic History, well, you’re probably not wrong!)

Moving to the Wisdom portion, Blunt transmits the tradition assigning the Book of Job to Moses, suggesting that he might have learned of it or met the participants during his 40 years in Midian.

By far the longest section apportioned to any book of the Old Testament is that of the Psalms. Blunt describes the many authors, issues a caution on the accuracy of the superscriptions, describes the five books within the Psalter, addresses the numbering differences between the Hebrew/English text tradition and the Greek/Latin, explains the two chief English versions (the 1540 Coverdale in the BCP and the 1611 from the KJV), then enumerates four classifications: The Great Hallelujah (113-118), The Psalms of Degrees (120-134), The Passion Psalms (2, 22, 38, 59, 69, 88), and The Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Finally, he concludes with a paragraph-length encomium on the Psalms worth quoting in full:

The Psalms, as a whole, form the central portion of Divine Revelation. They contain the words in which the Church of God has spoken to Him in public offices of praise day by day for 3000 years without intermission. They have formed the devotional utterances of individual saints innumerable during the same 90 generations—half the age of the human race; and they are supposed by some to be embodied in the praises which are being offered in Heaven.

Blunt, 45.

Moving to the prophets, Blunt connects the Major Prophets with sections of the Historical Books where they properly appear or to which their words pertain. By the time we get to the Minor Prophets each receives basically a paragraph. These sometimes mention Christological themes that can be found in these books or where they are used in Prayer Book services.

At the conclusion of Malachi, the chapter abruptly ends with nary a summary statement.

For my own conclusion, while I disagree with his assignments of authors and dates, the intention behind this chapter is both good and necessary. A quick, at-a-glance, summary of the OT books locating them in time and in the narrative/historical sequence remains a really good idea. Based on my reading of Blunt’s text, I can envision a spiral-bound guide of a similar fashion with bright color-coding to group thematic relationships, and including a variety of timelines and maps. Especially for those of us who encounter the Bible chiefly at the level of the pericope in liturgical services, this kind of overview is very helpful. I’d be shocked if such things don’t already exist—my only question is whether such things reflect the current state of biblical scholarship; Bible helps of this sort that I’m familiar with tend to be dominated by very conservative perspectives. A key difference in the kind of thing I’m envisioning vs. Blunt is that rather than one timeline at least two would be needed (and profitably superimposed at points): one to track the historic through-line, the other the track our best guesses on the composition of various sections of various books and editorial efforts.

(And if you are aware of a decent Mainline resource of which I speak, please add a shout-out in the comments!)