How the Second Testament Came to Be

Let’s engage in a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the Apostle Paul suddenly materializes in the midst of a Christian worship service today. We somehow are able to recognize who he is, and he miraculously has the ability to speak and read English. After all the worshipers (and Paul) recover from the initial shock of this singular event, the pastor tells the Apostle that he is their honored guest and asks him to be the lector for that service and then preach.

Paul agrees. He receives the passage to be read and begins—then hesitates, stops, and says, “But this isn’t Scripture.”

“Yes, it is,” the pastor says. “You wrote it.”

“I know I wrote it,” Paul responds. “It’s from one of my letters to the Corinthians. But that’s not Scripture.”

Paul receives another passage, this time from one of the Gospels.

“This is wonderful material,” Paul says enthusiastically. “I wish I had had something like this on my missionary journeys. It would have been a great evangelistic tool. But it’s not Scripture either. Scripture is the Law and the Prophets.”

We may draw two morals from this experiment. First, the earliest Christians, who produced the Second Testament, didn’t have that resource to inform their faith as Christians do today: the only Scripture they had was the Jewish Scriptures, the First Testament. Second, those first Christians, like Paul, who did write the books that came to be a part of the Second Testament, did not know they were writing Scripture—that is, books that would become authoritative for Christian belief and practice.

So how did the books constituting the Second Testament come into being? Why were they written, who wrote them, and how were they transmitted and preserved?

I want to make some chronological assumptions that will simplify our discussion of these questions. Let’s assume that the crucifixion occurred in 30 CE and that the latest date for the latest book of the Second Testament is 130 CE. (We might quibble over the precise accuracy of these dates, but for our purposes they will be sufficient.) So, unlike the First Testament that took around 1,000 years to come into being, the Second Testament took about 100—though this period covers only the writing of these books, whose explicit acceptance as Christian Scripture would only come gradually in the second century. In some ways, this makes it easier to study the formation of Christian Scripture than that of the First Testament, since it is such a short time frame. Furthermore, the history of the first-century CE Mediterranean world is well documented by Greek and Roman sources (both written and archaeological), so we have a good idea of the main events and circumstances of that time. Still, we have to deal with the problem that for the first hundred years of the Christian movement, we have virtually no external evidence to appeal to in verifying a Christian claim. Our primary source for the writing of the Second Testament is the Second Testament itself, and that raises the question of the reliability of these writings. Since the Second Testament was written to persuade people of the truth of the Christian message, shouldn’t we be suspicious of its claims?

If we reject something in the historical record, we can do so only because we trust something else in that record as demonstrating its unreliability. That is, the correction of false or inaccurate memory is another memory in whose truth we have confidence. Second, there are sensible historical questions we can ask that, when applied judiciously to the sources we do have, can yield reasonably reliable answers. Historians have many methods by which they can uncover a reasonable picture of what happened in the past, even with limited resources. Let’s take, as an example of such methods, the “principle of negative attestation.” If an ancient source, for which there is little external evidence, contains elements that reflect negatively on its subject, we may presume (everything else being equal) that it’s an accurate report. Our assumption is that the negative account is so well known to be true that everybody would know if it had been omitted or changed. Nothing—to take the best example of this from the Second Testament—reflects more negatively on the Christian message than the crucifixion of Jesus. Romans reserved this type of execution for the lowest elements of society, and it was deliberately designed to humiliate and debase its victims. It is the last sort of story Christians would make up to promote their cause, and it was one of the biggest obstacles Christians had to overcome in preaching their message. If we can be certain of any fact from ancient history, we can be certain that the Romans crucified Jesus.

We must also remind ourselves that history never attains complete certainty, such as what we find in mathematics. “Well-established” historical conclusions are always subject to later modification and change, as new evidence and new methods of investigation become available. Some people seem to believe that the doctrines of their faith must have absolute certainty or their faith has no basis. Since Christianity is based on historical events, the certainty desired for belief is extended to the history on which belief is based, and if some part of the historical record turns out to differ from the way the Bible presents it, then the belief system based on that record is undermined as well. However, to demand absolute certainty from the Bible’s historical record in order to shore up doctrinal claims is to make history do a job it is incapable of doing. This demand courts disillusionment and undermines the very authority that such a demand wants to establish.

Though we do not have much in the way of external attestation of the first generations of the Christian church, we do have some references falling within our 100-year time frame for the writing of the Second Testament. These shed some light on this history. The Roman historian Suetonius in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (ca. 120 CE) wrote that during the reign of Claudius (42–54 CE) the Jews were expelled from Rome because they had “been continually stirring up trouble under the influence of Chrestos [sic].” If we assume the crucifixion occurred in 30 CE, then this citation means that within twenty years or so, Christianity had spread from Jerusalem as far west as Rome, and it supports the picture in the book of Acts that Paul and other Christian missionaries used Jewish synagogues in major urban areas as a base for preaching the Gospel. (It also demonstrates that, for Suetonius, Christians were simply one sect of Judaism.) The second reference is from the Annals of Tacitus (ca. 115 CE). Nero, Tacitus writes, persecuted Christians for burning Rome (64 CE): “Their name [Christian] comes from Christus, who in the reign of Tiberius as emperor [14–37 CE] was condemned to death by the Procurator Pontius Pilate.” These sources confirm two basic facts that the Second Testament claims: that Jesus was crucified by the Roman Procurator of Judea Pontius Pilate (around 30 CE) and, again, that the Christian faith had spread as far west as Rome within a couple of decades of his death.

These facts generate one of the most important historical questions we can ask about the development of early Christianity: how could a small Jewish sect, based on the death of a crucified criminal in what was essentially a backwater of the Roman Empire, have spread throughout at least the eastern half of the empire in only twenty years? While the answer to this question involves several complex factors, the one I want to stress here resides is another well-attested fact from the Second Testament: the first Christians believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, giving him a new kind of life (which they believed they themselves were beginning to experience), thereby vindicating Jesus and erasing the stigma of crucifixion. The first Christians believed that Jesus was the Savior of the world, that after the resurrection he had ascended into heaven, where he sat at the right hand of God, and that he would soon return to judge the world. Because they believed that Jesus’ return was imminent, they also believed they had a responsibility to tell the world that this was about to happen, so people could choose whether to become a part of this coming kingdom. The imminent return of Jesus and the new kind of life this faith promised gave an urgency to their mission that indifference, persecution, and even martyrdom could not suppress.

So the most basic claims we can make about the rise of Christianity, based on the Second Testament itself and our meager external sources, are (1) Jesus was a Jew, crucified by the Romans; (2) Christians believed that God had raised him from the dead, vindicating his life and investing him with divine glory; and (3) this belief helps explain the rapid spread of the faith. Such basic facts are the ground from which the Christian Scriptures grew.

This post originally appeared in chapter 7 to “This is the Word of the Lord”: How the Bible Became Text and Why It Matters by Bill Thomason.

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