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History's Bestseller - Part Three


Ted Schroder, February 6, 2005

June Taylor, a San Antonio friend, on a mission trip to East Africa took some R & R at the Safari Beach Hotel on the Indian Ocean in Mombasa. In a letter she described an experience: "One day I left my little snapped, leather-bound Bible and devotional books on the lounge by the beach, and just didn't miss them until the next morning. Happily, the books were turned in but not returned to me until we had a long discussion about them. The security man had read them all night, copied down the frontispiece of each one and inquired about the cost of buying such treasures. I saw quite a few 'helpers' at different places reading a dirty, tattered, paperback version of the Bible late at night by some dim kerosene lamp or feeble solar fixture after their work was finished. A day later a friend was called into the office of the housekeeping supervisor, who in the course of her room inspection, had come across those little leather-bound Bibles in our room! She also wanted to know about them and where she could get one. All this behind the walls of one of the large ocean-fronted resort hotels in Mombasa."

Why is the Bible so desirable to those who do not have one of their own? Why is it considered so valuable? What are the characteristic features that mark it as special? Books have to be written by authors. The Bible is authored by writers who were especially qualified to write about their subjects. What were their qualifications? What makes their writings unique? Let me take as an example the person of Peter the apostle.

At the end of his life, he is writing a letter to the Church. "I know that I'm to die soon; the Master has made that quite clear to me. And so I am especially eager that you have all this down in black and white so that after I die, you'll have it for ready reference." (2 Peter 1:14,15 The Message)

As a collector of old books I would very much like to have a first edition of what Peter wrote. Imagine how valuable it would be. We are told that Clement of Alexandria had this letter in his Bible and wrote a commentary on it in the middle of the second century. It is included in a third century papyrus found in Egypt. Peter's testimony is also included in Mark's Gospel, which was written between 60 and 70 A.D.

His purpose in writing is to ensure that we might always remember the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He underlined the importance of what he was writing by emphasizing its facticity from his own first hand experience.

"We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses to his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came from the Majestic Glory saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain." (2 Peter 1:16-18)

He was referring to the first-hand experience he, with James and John, observed when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light." (Matthew 17:2) As if that blazing vision were not enough, two other figures appeared, whom they identified as Moses and Elijah, the towering leaders of the Old Testament, representatives of the Law and the Prophets, talking with Jesus. Peter is recorded to have blathered out in his excitement that he would build three shelters for the trio, but was stopped in his tracks by a bright cloud that enveloped them, and a voice that urged him to listen to Jesus. That was enough for Peter and the other disciples, they were terrified and fell facedown on the ground. You would never forget such an occasion in your life, would you? Jesus cautioned them not to tell anyone about what they had seen until after the resurrection. So now he was telling them.

The apostles, and those whom they authorized, were chosen to convey the Gospel in written form, because they were eyewitnesses, and could authenticate the truth of what they wrote. This guaranteed the reliability of the revelation. They were written at a time when others were still living to give credibility to their narrative. If they had been false then the other living eyewitnesses would have criticized their veracity.

While eyewitness accounts cannot prove that Jesus is whom the apostles claimed he was, they can be witnesses to what those who were there heard and saw, and are the condition for believing what they said was true. Historical testimony, such as we have in the New Testament, is necessary for faith. It provides us with the material through which we are confronted with the need to believe or not. We must make a decision about what the historical record claims.

Being a Christian necessitates believing that God has appeared in time in the person of Jesus. Our faith begins with believing that God came in history in Jesus. If this is so then some true historical beliefs about Jesus are necessary to faith. We each must have some knowledge about Christ. This knowledge is transmitted through apostolic testimony in the New Testament. A particular historical event is presented as a means of divine revelation, to which every individual must respond: either by assent, or by denial. What is required for faith is assent to a fact of history from the perspective of the writer - the faith of the apostle - "we were eyewitnesses to his majesty." The trustworthiness of the writer is essential. The hearer/reader must trust that the apostle's confession of faith refers, not merely to some imaginative construction, but to the concrete description of Jesus.

That is why some books about Jesus were rejected from being included in the New Testament. Their trustworthiness was in question. Their historical description of Jesus was of dubious value. They were considered fanciful, and mythical, rather than factual. Elaine Pagels, historian of religion at Princeton University, in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, uses the discovery of manuscripts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt to argue that these other books about Jesus were suppressed by early church leaders. Amongst them were the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter. They had circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, but were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century. Irenaeus of Lyon in 180 wrote a five volume refutation of their teaching "to show how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements."

Professor Pagels maintains that if these Gnostic Gospels had been incorporated into the New Testament instead of the Gospel of John, Christianity would have developed differently. Dan Brown uses similar material for his bestseller novel, The Da Vinci Code. They both make a case for a different description of what Jesus did or said, that would include him denying his "majesty" and instead getting married to Mary Magdalene, siring children and proclaiming God in more feminine terms. They were rejected, not, as Professor Pagels asserts, because of power politics, the desire of men to dominate the new church, and an intolerance for diversity of knowledge, but, we believe, because the Holy Spirit led the church to reject such material as being fictional, and at variance with the rest of the apostolic, eyewitness testimony.

Their rejection authenticates the process by which the New Testament was formed: they were scrutinized by others who could verify the truth of what was written by their own experience of the apostolic testimony. J.N.D. Kelly wrote, in one of the most widely regarded scholarly books on the early church, Early Christian Doctrines, "Unless a book could be shown to come from the pen of an apostle, or at least to have the authority of an apostle behind it, it was peremptorily rejected, however edifying or popular with the faithful it might be." (p.60) In order to be given credence teachers of novel ideas found that they had to claim a secret tradition of an apostle.

Many deliberate forgeries of Gospels and Acts under the name of apostles were made to promote the ideas of the Gnostic movement. Some were written to satisfy curiosity on matters on which the New Testament says nothing, e.g. the silent years of the childhood and youth of Jesus. Some were packed with wonders and anecdotes, and served as popular Christian fiction in their day, much as The Robe or Quo Vadis in ours. There are dozens of these manuscripts which have been researched by many scholars in order to understand the process whereby the canon of the New Testament was established. The reason for renewed interest in them today is the same as it was in the early church: they serve to advance the views of those who wish to alter the picture of Jesus and his teaching to their way of thinking.

Why was the identity of the author so important for its authenticity? Because the apostles were regarded as witnesses uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God. Consequently what they had to communicate would provide illumination for the journey of life. The Psalmist had written: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (119:105) Jesus promised that those who followed him, the light of the world, "would never walk in darkness but would have the light of life." (John 8:12) They would never walk in darkness because they would have his word to guide them. Peter understood that what he was passing on to the church was this word.

"We couldn't be more sure of what we saw or heard - God's glory, God's voice. The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You'll do well to keep focusing on it. It's the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the morning Star in your hearts. The main thing to keep in mind here is that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private opinion. And why? Because it is not something concocted in the human heart. Prophecy resulted when the Holy Spirit prompted men and women to speak God's Word." (2 Peter 1:19-21)

There are many books written about God that claim to be purveyors of light and truth. There are many private opinions about Jesus Christ. There are even some religions that are concocted in the human heart. There are many false prophets who claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. How can we distinguish between the genuine and the spurious?

We must consider the eye-witness accounts to see whether they ring true. Peter claims that he, along with the other prophets and apostles were 'prompted' or 'carried along' by the Holy Spirit. These words convey the thought of the winds filling the sails of a ship, or wind-surfer, or the current, sweeping you along the river to the destination of God's choice. The human author, brings his personality, his literary style, and his experience to his writing; but it is God's involvement with the author and his words that makes Scripture unique. It is claimed that God has spoken in the words of the Bible. If so, we need to pay attention to what he has to say.

The reason that the Bible is so desirable, so sought after, so much a bestseller, is that when it is read with the eyes of faith, when so much else in life is full of confusion, it provides a reliable light in the darkness. It gives us authentic testimony about Jesus Christ by those who were there. And the Jesus Christ they write about is the Savior of the world, the Light of the Nations, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of human history, the fulfillment of the hopes and desires of those who seek salvation.

Amelia Plantation Chapel

Amelia Island, Florida

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