Monthly Archives: October 2022

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.