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Created and Compiled by Dr Nancy Heisey
The following are materials created by Nancy Heisey, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Church History at EMU, for a School for Leadership Training workshop of the above title. You will find an introduction to the topic, a brief bibliography and two worksheets she handed out at the workshop. To download this material as Word document click here.
Introduction I Bibliography I 10 Statements of Fact I 6 Suggestions
In the past 60 years, several important manuscript discoveries have had a great impact on our understanding biblical texts and the early years of the Christian movement. First, what is called the Nag Hammadi library is a collection of 12 codices (ancient book-like documents, including 52 different shorter writings). This “library” was discovered in 1945 by Egyptian peasants. The manuscripts date from the fourth and fifth centuries (300s and 400s A.D.) and are in the Coptic language. They have been translated into English and extensively studied by scholars of ancient Christianity. They tend to reflect perspectives that are generally known as “gnostic.” In this world view, knowledge (gnosis) is the way for a few to be freed from the evils of the material world and to reach the world of the mind or the spirit. Such perspectives were shared among some Christians, Jews, and pagans of that time.
Scholarly debates have raged over what period of the Christian movement these documents originally represent. Some have claimed that they come from a period as early as the gospels of the New Testament canon. The recently discovered (published by National Geographic in 2006) Gospel of Judas seems to belong to a similar category of literature as the Nag Hammadi documents.
The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of papyrus and parchment scrolls, and thousands of fragments, found (beginning in 1947) in 11 caves around the upper west side of the Dead Sea. The scrolls of Cave 1 were published and translated quickly. However, a great deal of controversy swirled around the discoveries of Cave 4. Conflicts broke out among the scholars working on the scrolls, between them and other scholars who did not have access to them, and with the Israeli government. This led to long delays in publication and translation of many of the fragments. In the process, rumors circulated: the texts revealed that the Qumran community was a group of early Christians; the Vatican (several of the scholars were Catholic priests) was trying to hide information that would damage the church, and so on. But by the late 1990s, several English translations were finally available. The scrolls show the early importance of the biblical texts of the Hebrew Bible—parts of all the books in the Protestant canon except Esther and Nehemiah were found. They also reveal the importance of different ancient textual traditions of Scripture—some following the Masoretic text on which our Old Testament translations are done, some closer to the Septuagint version—and some that reflect no tradition that we know. And they give a picture of a Jewish community that existed during Jesus’ own lifetime that had some similarities to Jesus and his message (but not a community of Jesus believers).
The book and movie “The Da Vinci Code” build on the curiosity and suspicion that has surrounded the work on these ancient manuscripts. Both claim that in texts from Nag Hammadi we find truths about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that were suppressed in the canonical gospels. They further claim that the Emperor Constantine enforced this suppression, and ruled—against all earlier opinion—that Jesus was God, through decisions made at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. In fact, however, the Nicene Council did not decide that Jesus was God. Rather, the bishops there debated how to describe the relationship between Jesus as the “Logos” (as used in John 1:1) related to God the Father. Further, no decisions were made about the “Gospel of Philip” or the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” at Nicaea. In contemporaneous writings of the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, we learn that Christians in the fourth century did have some debates over New Testament scriptures, but those debates had to do with the books of Revelation, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The primary issue of concern according to Eusebius was whether those books had legitimate claims to being by one of the first apostles.
The attached list of books includes the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Gospel of Judas. It also provides suggestions of contemporary authors who offer useful perspectives on those ancient documents. See also the bibliographies in those works.
Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Translated by Florentino Garcia Marquez. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996.
Elledge, C.D. The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospel. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Gospel of Judas. Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and Gregor Wurst. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006.
Miller, John W. How the Bible Came to Be: Exploring the Narrative and Message. New York: Paulist Press, 2004.
Nag Hammadi Library in English. General Editor James M. Robinson. Revised Edition. San Francisco: 1988.
Nancy R. Heisey
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Church History
5 February 2007
1. The Bible has a history, and so does the church. The Bible did not drop out of the sky, and there was no “golden age” of the church. Each generation of believers has had to struggle with the meaning of faithfulness and with how to tell the story of God’s work in the world.
2. The Bible of the first churches was the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus-believing Jews differed with other Jews over how to interpret these Scriptures. The Christian interpretation became the New Testament; the Jewish interpretation became the Talmud. This process was accompanied by a slow splitting of the Gentile Christian community away from the Jewish roots of their movement.
3. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed knowledge about the manuscript tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures back from the 10 th century A.D. to the second or first century B.C. They showed that at the time of Jesus, some manuscript traditions were well fixed, such as Isaiah, and some had several important differences, such as Jeremiah.
4. The New Testament documents come from the first century. Although our earliest NT manuscripts come at the earliest from the second century, there is little debate that the NT documents reflect realities of Jesus’ own century.
5. Early Christian writers used genres already familiar to readers, such as prophecy, history, apocalypse, and letter. They also developed a new form, the “gospel.” While this genre term is also applied to second century writings about Jesus and the apostles, the NT gospels are different because they include a continuous narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings, death and resurrection. Their view of what Jesus came for is also different: to proclaim the Reign of God, rather than to show an elite few special knowledge about how to escape this world.
6. Christians continued to write about their faith and their questions, including a wide diversity of documents from the second century. These writings included theological discourses, philosophical speculation, stories and reflections about biblical characters, devotional instruction and martyr accounts. These writings have much to teach us about what mattered to Christians of those generations. Some scholars suggest that they are based on earlier, first-century, sources, but there is little evidence to support this claim.
7. The first Jesus believers were humans just like us, but their worldview was very different from ours. They did not distinguish material from spiritual, and they expected the physical return of Jesus Christ in the very near future, if not in their lifetime.
8. The biggest debate of the first century church was about whether/how to admit Gentile Jesus believers into the community.
9. Second-century Christians settled in for the long haul, since Jesus had not returned. Important debates considered whether and how to accommodate to the demands of the Roman authorities, how to describe who Jesus Christ was in terms that would communicate to their pagan neighbors, and whether the fundamental nature of the world they lived in was good or evil.
10. God was at work in the shaping of the Christian church, and its story, throughout this entire time.
1. Be curious, but not gullible. Expect that you may learn something that will add depth to your understanding of the biblical/early church story.
2. Avoid extreme positions, such as: “This movie/book/interpretation/discovery is demonic,” or “This movie/book/interpretation/discovery is a threat to the heart of our church/faith.”
3. Get informed. Avoid radio/TV preacher analysis and tabloid Christian journalism. Look for trustworthy articles in Sojourners, Christianity Today, Christian Century, and for books from publishers such as Fortress, Eerdmans, InterVarsity, and Paulist. The Believers Church Bible Commentary (Herald Press) volumes are also helpful.
4. Learn about biblical scholars who are frequently quoted in the media (go ahead—Google them!). Do they belong to faith communities? How open are they about their own faith (or lack of faith) convictions? Just because they are not believers does not mean you cannot learn from them. Recognize that some scholars “lost their faith” because they grew up in rigid and anti-intellectual church settings, and later faced historical reality about the Bible and the history of the early church.
5. Create spaces for discussion. Invite congregation members and your neighborhood to explore the significance of newsworthy stories about the Bible and the church. Who knows, such discussions may be an important opportunity for sharing the good news!
6. Bank on the trustworthiness of the testimony of Scripture about who Jesus was/is. Trust in and teach the centrality of his life and teachings, death and resurrection, to empower people for truly human and godly ways of living
Nancy R. Heisey
Eastern Mennonite University
15 January 2007