The Anonymous Scholarly Paper of an Early Follower of Jesus

Sermon for Sunday, October 3, 2021 || Proper 22B || Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Our readings today are pretty intense. We  started with Job, an ancient morality tale that begins with an imaginative, and pretty distressing, exchange between God and Satan. But I’m not going to talk about that today. We read Jesus’ teaching about divorce and fidelity in the Gospel according to Mark. I’m also not going to talk about that today, but if you’re curious, I did preach about this Gospel lesson six years ago, and you can find it here on my website.

And finally, we have a few pieces from the Letter to the Hebrews, which, for my money, is the most complicated writing in the entire New Testament. This is what I’m going to talk about today. We’ll be hearing snippets of Hebrews for the next six weeks, and I know this writing is hard enough to understand after reading it a dozen times. Hearing it read aloud once just won’t cut it if we want to encounter the Letter to the Hebrews in any way beyond just letting its words sail over our heads. So today I’d like to set the Letter to the Hebrews in context and then dive into one of the elements in our confusing reading from this morning.

Continue reading “The Anonymous Scholarly Paper of an Early Follower of Jesus”

Viral papyri (Bible study #10)

In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.

Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.

papyrusThe viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*

Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”

At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.

With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.

Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.

The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.


* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.

Getting lost in the stacks (Bible study #5)

One of the easiest missteps people make when sitting down to study the Bible is mistaking the Bible for a book. I know it looks like a book — it has folios stitched together and a cover enclosing the whole bound volume. But whatever its resemblance to a book, it is not one. It is many. The word “Bible” began its career as the Greek phrase ta Biblia which means “the books.” Therefore, the Bible — all visual cues to the contrary — is, in point of fact, a library.

Here’s what I mean. What we call the Bible is a collection of all sorts of writing: transcribed oral tradition, history, prophecy, poetry, gospel, correspondence, sermon, song, vision, law code, genealogy, novella, advice column, propaganda, shopping list, architectural schematic. And these are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head. The history of how the particular collections of what I will from now on rather lamely refer to as “texts” came together to form our modern day “Bible” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that from history down to shopping list, each text somehow relates an encounter between God and God’s people. God’s people found the particular encounters that make up the texts revelatory and important, and they, in many a Spirit-filled decision, collected those texts together into the library that has become the Bible.

So, what’s all this have to do with studying the Bible? After picking your pericope, figuring out what type (or genre) of writing the passage comes from can help you begin to unpack it. You’d expect to find dialogue in a Gospel because the genre of Gospel is narrative.* You’d expect to find poetry in the collection of psalms because psalms were originally liturgical song. (Indeed, attached to many psalms are directions for the accompanying instrumentation.) But what if you found poetry in the Gospel. What would that tell you? Perhaps, the writer is reaching back to an earlier tradition and putting that liturgical song on the lips of a character. Check out Mary’s song in Luke 1, influenced clearly by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Check out Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew and Mark, which come from Psalm 22.

Being sensitive to the various genera found in the biblical library gives us the opportunity to compare the myriad ways biblical writers explored their encounters with the living God. One writer finds God in the proportions of architecture, another in correspondence with the churches he has founded, another in the list of the generations of God’s family going all the way back to Abraham and before. Putting these different experiences in conversation with each other shows us the wonderful range of expressions of the life of faith.

So delve into the library of the Bible. Get lost in the stacks of the Hebrew Scriptures. Run your fingers along the volumes of Paul’s letters. Find one of those rolling stepping stools and reach the dusty top shelf of Revelation. Be aware of the different kinds of writing in the Bible, the various encounters of the people of God. And remember that you, yourself, are part of the greater story still being written, still being added to those last, unfilled shelves.


* Actually, as far as scholars can tell the form of “Gospel” as narrative is unique to Christian literature. Other ancient texts call themselves “gospel” but they tend to be something closer to news reports about various glorious victories for the Roman Empire. The fact that Mark calls Jesus’ message “Gospel” could be an ironic coopting of Roman phraseology — a literary “nah-nah-na-nah-nah,” if you will.