Dennis the Short (470-544 CE) or Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk who worked in Rome, came up with the idea of dating everything from the birth of Christ, instead of the Roman counsels who had held office. In 525 CE, he developed his Christocentric calendar, but he was off by a few years in his calculations, since Jesus may have lived from 6 BCE-26 CE. His dating system was known as Anno Domini, the year of Our Lord. This AD system did not become popular until the Carolingian Reform of the 9th ninth century and the promulgation of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. Since then, all world events have centered on the birth of Christ. At the 2000 millennium year celebrations even non-Christian countries such as China and India celebrated the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. In the twentieth century, Jewish and Christian scholars adopted the term CE, or Common Era, showing a neutral stance towards Christ. Now practically every country dates things from the birth of Christ, whether they consider themselves Christian or not. 2018 CE means 2018 years since the birth of Christ, the Common Era. The time before Christ is called BC, before the Common Era, BCE.
The New Testament references the Hebrew Bible that came to be known as the Old Testament. The New Testament books were not referred to until the second century of the common era. Consensus on its contents did not occur until the late fourth century. There is nothing wrong with different points of view or inconsistencies. The first two chapters of Genesis are not contradictory. The synoptic gospels give different versions of the Baptism of Jesus. Most of us just say “so what?” We understand different points of view. The Bible had different authors over a considerable amount of time. The Old Testament took hundreds of years to complete. The New Testament took thirty to sixty years to finish. Very few could write, so that oral tradition dominated in that society. The texts themselves were rewritten, so that we say that the texts we have, with all its corrections, is the one that God wants us to have.
There are many ways to study the Bible since it is a great book of literature, one of the most studied books of all time. There are a number of technical ways to study the biblical texts.
(1) Textual criticism is where you study variants in the original Hebrew or Greek texts that are all from the third century on.
(2) Source criticism has been an attempt to trace the oral traditions before it was written down so that the practically every story is older than its written text.
(3) Redaction criticism is the study of how the manuscript editions of the texts have changed, which is especially true in the four centuries before Christ, and the first and second century after Christ..
(4) Comparing the biblical writings with writings from the same era is known as comparative literature study since there are not that many writings to compare.
(5) Also the finds of Biblical archaeology sites has intensified our knowledge of Biblical times, especially in the Israelite territories.
There were different literary forms that came under the various cultural human influences. Originally, many thought Moses wrote all the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Bible scholars of the last century have been able to locate four distinct strands:
(1) the Jahwist (J), (950 BCE)
(2) the Elohist (E), (850 BCE)
(3) the Deuteronomist (D),(650 BCE)
(4) the Priestly (P) sources. (600-400 BCE).
The Priestly source put it altogether after the exile around 458 BCE, long after the death of Moses. Scholars have developed documentary hypothesis with source criticism and careful analysis.
Dating an ancient document is never an exact science. However, general scholarship about the New Testament books holds that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest Gospel. The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is the oldest document, around the year 50 CE. Mark, with a hypothetical other source (Q = Quelle), that is now lost, became the source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John is generally considered to be the latest of the gospels, around 90 -100 CE.
The books of the Bible were formed gradually. They are the product of Jewish and Christian religious communities that was 95% illiterate. These stories were first word of mouth, then later in writings. Moses did not write all the books of the Pentateuch. Paul did not write all the letters ascribed to him. Matthew and Luke partially rewrote Mark with other sources.
History versus story
In what sense are these books literal interpretations of what is happening? History means different things to differ people. The idea of footnoting has become a general practice that was not known over a thousand years ago. History sometimes refers to a good story. Even in our own lifetime we can still argue about the events surrounding the deaths of President John Kennedy, the victims at the OJ Simpson house, or Trayvon Martin. Thus, it does not seem out of place to question events that supposedly took place either pre-historically or thousands of years ago. They did not have to happen exactly as detailed by men hundreds of years after the events.
These myths are not lies, but stories. Story telling is an important human activity and essential to the life of any society. Myths awaken and maintain an experience of awe in the face of the ultimate religious mystery. Myths explain where the world came from and where it is going. Myth promotes virtues and a certain social ethical order. Myth gives individuals a role and identity much like our modern psychology. Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) have shown that myth is not a negative but a positive part of life. If we do not have religious myths, people create their own secular myths in sports, like baseball and football.
Christian Reflection on the Bible
The Bible, particularly the Christian New Testament, represents the source and foundation of any Christian reflection. Scripture alone (sola scriptura) sounds easy enough until you realize that there is always an individual human interpretation or an established communitarian way of interpreting the Bible because it is a ‘living document.’ Layers of understanding continue to develop with each new reading. Thus various biblical passages have served as the source of theological conflict for many centuries.
The Old Testament Hebrew Bible raises questions of interpretation for a Christian. To what extent am I projecting Christian views and values on the children of Israel, the people of Israel, or the Israelites? These are the various terms that translators have used to describe the slowing forming group of Yahweh believers of over three thousand years ago. Yahweh was their God and intervened in their lives and they had a special relationship or covenant with him. The Hebrew sacred writings were incorporated into Christianity because all the early Christians were Jewish. However, the writings were not originally meant for Christians but for the Hebrew people. Can I really fully understand the Semitic thought process of three thousand years ago? Will I be able to appreciation how important the promised land of Israel is to Jewish people? How the exodus from Egypt, the Temple, the exile and the various codes played an important role in their lives? I can try, but I doubt if I will be fully successful.
The New Testament language is important for any further Christian theological development. Twentieth century linguistic analysis has shown the importance of communicative word structures to express realities. Words are human expressions of reality, but words convey meaning and feeling only within an understandable shared grammatical linguistic social structure. The authentic meaning of an utterance does not lie in a dictionary, but within the mind of the expression’s originator. Words exist in a specific historic time and place. However some words endure and transcend spatial temporal limitations, while other words get lost in a particular misunderstood context. We now know the importance of the post biblical history of the scriptural texts, the Wirkungsgeschichte, the reception and the interpretation of the biblical texts in a historical context with their variegated meanings.
The study of words and actions, written about and by people who lived many years ago in a far away land with a different language and symbol structure, has inherent difficulties as has been shown by biblical hermeneutic research. To understand the origins of Christianity, I must be cognizant about first century Palestinian Jewish cultural condition as well as my own biases. I need to avoid projecting my own experiences and prejudices upon documents written thousands of years ago. Can I ever really fully understand the men and women of the Mediterranean area who lived over two thousand years ago? I can try. Fortunately, a few of these early followers of Jesus, among the elite literate well educated of their time, left some sparse written evidence. Their cosmology, their economics, and their sociology are not mine. I must be aware of this from the start.
The traditional canonical Greek bible, the standard collection of twenty-seven books of the New Testament, centers on the good news about Jesus the ‘Christ’, literally ‘the anointed one’, and his followers. The collected canon of biblical books during the first four centuries is in itself an indication of how the value of these texts developed slowly and emerged over time. These diverse inspired authors of the second half of the first century of the Christian era provide a basic insight into the thought and practices of the primitive Christian communities. Our shared sacred documents also reveal information about the perceived role of the Holy Spirit in the activities and expectations of the newly forming Christian communities.
The New Testament was written in Greek, so I must be even more cautious when dealing with the meanings of English or Latin terms derived from the Greek biblical texts. How did the early followers of Jesus Christ understand themselves and their symbolic activities?
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. God saw that the light was good. God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
This first line of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, Genesis, the beginnings, reminds us that we are all created. This fifth century BCE priestly source talks about a clear structure to the world. There is poetry in this story as each day begins with ‘And God said,’ the powerful creative God speaks and it happens, after which it was good. The ‘logos’ theology will develop from this idea. God lights up the dark void of waters. From the beginning we have a flat earth concept of a lighted heaven as above and a dark watery earth as down here. Opposition is everywhere, light and darkness, day and night, water and earth.
“And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome sky or heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
The dome separates earth from heaven or the skies. The further evolution of life on earth appears at each mythical day.
“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky or heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.”
Seeds are very important as the source of future life. The world, and everything in it, is wonderful with a very ecological biological evolutionary approach to life. In this evolutionary creation mythical week story, first water, then earth emerge from the nothingness or empty abyss, followed by vegetation and later by animals, and then finally humans.
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.”
The heavenly lights were the sun for the day and the moon for the night. This seven day week idea can be traced to the Babylonians and their lunar speculation of a month, about 700 BCE. The establishment of the seven day week as opposed to a five or ten day week did not dominate until late in the fourth century BCE. The idea of seven days and seven nights is a difficult concept since the sun and the moon do not fall or set as envisioned by these ancient authors from 2500 year ago. Thus a literal day and night is impossible, because this is a human perspective, but humans only appear on the sixth day.
“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.”
After vegetation appeared, the growth of living animals on land, sea, and air developed. Organic biological life began to expand with the various species of animals. In fact, God speaks to them as if they could hear. Living creatures seem to have more value than vegetation.
“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.”
Interesting enough, there is not a special day for the large animals, whether they are domestic or wild. Instead, they are bunched in with the creation of humans as if they are somehow related.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
At the pinnacle of creation, God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Both men and women were created equal in God’s image. Thus, we humans are in charge of this earth to dominate all that lives here. All is available as our food. Every society has its own creation story. This story may have some resemblance to ancient Babylonian creation stories. Anyway, no one was there to record this activity and man does not appear on earth until nearly 50,000-100,000 years ago, while the earth is millions of years old.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and their entire multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”
The work of creation was done. Now humans must continue it as co-creators. As the institution of the Sabbath was common to these authors, they made God rest on the seventh day, just like themselves.