Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Early “Christian” Prophets in Pauline Gatherings

There is no end of people today willing to tell you God's opinion on whatever issue is on the table. Few, if any, of them would claim to be officially recognized as prophets by a religious organization. In the ancient world, however, there were many who were called prophets and believed to speak God's words. This was also true among the early followers of Jesus.

The early Christian prophet was an immediately-inspired spokesperson for God, the risen Jesus, or the spirit who received intelligible oracles that he or she felt impelled to deliver to the Christian community or, representing the community, to the general public.1

The earliest reference in Christian literature to early Christian prophets in the assemblies of the Jesus-gatherings is found in 1 Thess 5:19-20. Here Paul speaks approvingly of the utterances of such figures—meaning that he apparently regarded them as divinely inspired by God's spirit; there were many such figures in the religions of the ancient world.2 Paul, however, had reservations about such figures even in his own tradition:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. (NRSV)

In other words, listen carefully, for not everything the prophet says may be helpful. So, discriminate in and among the prophetic utterances and hold onto what is profitable. I detect a healthy skepticism in Paul's statement about the utterances of early Christian prophets.

Prophets, who were believed to be channels for the words of a God, were endemic to his social and religious worlds (Israelite, and Greco-Roman traditions). The matrix and stimulus for such prophets and prophetic utterances in Jesus-gatherings likely came from both reading the Bible and pagan traditions. Prophetism was in the Greco-Roman air, as it were. In such a social environment, it was simply the way Gods were reckoned verbally to communicate.3

In the gathering at Corinth Paul acknowledged that God had given the gift of prophecy to certain people in the fellowship (1 Cor 12:10; Rom 12:3-8) and appointed them prophets (1 Cor 12:28-29). What the prophets were believed to bring was a direct revelation from God (1 Cor 14:29-32) for the encouragement, consolation, and benefit of the community (1 Cor 14:1-6). He did, however, continue to have reservations.

            The prophets in the community apparently could not control themselves and, like Jeremiah (20:9), the Word of the Lord was a "burning fire shut up in their bones," and they could not restrain it. So, they all prophesied at the same time (1 Cor 14:26-31), creating general confusion. Paul insisted that "the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor 14:32). So, they should all prophecy but only one at a time (1 Cor 14:30-31).

            Nevertheless, he still had reservations about the utterances of the prophets (1 Cor 14:29). Whatever they said must be carefully evaluated or judged (diakrinetōsan). Why is that? Because different spirits inspire prophets (1 Cor 12:3). And that is the reason why some in the assembly had the spiritual gift of discerning between spirits (1 Cor 12:10).

            It is interesting that in the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Colossians, Ephesians) and the Pastorals epistles (1, 2 Timothy, Titus) prophets are no longer a vital force in the Jesus-gatherings.4 Itinerant prophets are, however, found to be a problem in the Didache (11:3-12).5 Among other things, the writer says "do not test or examine any prophet who is speaking in a spirit" (11:7), but recognizes that not everyone speaking in a spirit is a "true" prophet. The true prophet can be distinguished from the false prophet by his behavior (11:8-12). So, the writer of the Didache also had reservations about the prophets.

            When someone claims to know the mind of God and assumes to tell you what God requires of you—prophet or not, exercise a healthy dose of Pauline skepticism. Be an adult in your thinking (1 Cor 14:20). Evaluate and judge carefully what you are told, for who really knows the mind of God (Rom 11:33)?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1M. Eugene Boring, "Prophecy (Early Christian)" in D. N. Freedman, et al., The Anchor Bible Dictionary New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5. 495-502; the quotation is on 496.

2See Boring, "Prophecy."

3David S. Potter, "Prophecies," and Robert C. T. Parker, "Prophētēs" in Hornblower and Spawforth, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1259.

4Boring, "Prophecy," 500.

5Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 1965), 325-27. The date of the Didache is not settled, but a consensus seems to be gravitating toward the end of the first century or beginning of the second. See Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache. A Commentary (Hermeneia; trans. L. M. Malony; ed., H.W. Attridge; Minneapolis, MN, 1998), 52-53.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Why is the New Testament a Postscript in the Christian Bible?

My beginning question is: why are the Christian Holy Writings attached footnote-like to the end of the Jewish Bible? I suppose one could reasonably argue that the two collections are gathered into the Bible in the historical sequence of their dates of authorship. That is a reasonable thought, for the dates of the Hebrew Bible texts predate those of the New Testament (NT). But why doesn’t the same rationale apply for the order of the books within each collection? For example, the NT texts are not printed in historical order. If that were so, First Thessalonians would be the first text in the NT, followed by the rest of the undisputed Pauline letters, and the next few would be in this order: Mark, Matthew, Luke, Hebrews,1 John…and second Peter would be the last text in the NT.

A more basic question now occurs to me: why do Christians use Jewish Holy Scriptures as Word of God and put the Jewish Scriptures first in the Bible? The answer seems to be they were “grandfathered” in, as they were the first canon of Christian Holy Writings. Here is the reason: The earliest followers of Jesus were Israelites, people of the Covenant God (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 17:1-14), whose holy writings were Israelite religious texts.2 When the Jesus movement later moved out into the Gentile world, capturing the imagination of Greeks and Romans, these later Gentile followers of Jesus continued to use the Bible of the Israelites (in its Greek translation), because the Israelites and these later followers of Jesus believed it to be “God breathed or inspired” (2 Tim 2:15-16).3

Those who wrote the NT searched their religious texts and found therein “prophecies” that supported their belief that Jesus was the Anointed One, who would come (Micah 5:2, for example), and applied the prophecies to Jesus. These prophecies, and the fact that they believed the Israelite writings to be Word of God, locked-in the Israelite writings as Holy Scriptures for Orthodox Christianity and secured their first-place position in the Christian Bible.

One notable exception to this “mixed” collection of Israelite and Christian texts was the biblical canon of Marcion that appeared around the middle of the second century. Nothing is preserved of his writings except refutations written by his Orthodox opponents. Marcion rejected The Israelite writings and published an abbreviated NT containing a shortened gospel (Luke) and ten letters of Paul (minus the Pastoral Letters and Hebrews). Marcion rejected the Israelite writings and their God, whom he regarded as a God of Justice (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). The God of Jesus, on the other hand, was the God of Mercy. Marcion’s NT was the first attempt to form a distinctive collection of “Christian” writings.

The biblical canon of the Christian communities of the first 400 years in the evolution of Christianity retained the old covenant books (which they came to know as the Old Testament [OT]) and added to them the new covenant/testament books (now known as the NT).4 Both collections are named for covenants God is believed to have made with humankind. The covenants are briefly alluded-to in Heb 8:6-12, where the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah (31:31-34; Heb 8:8-12), who anticipated a “new covenant” with God. The author of Hebrews adds the following statement to the end of Jeremiah’s quotation:

In speaking of a new covenant, he [Jeremiah] treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).

This “prediction” (toward the end of the first century), making the old covenant obsolete or useless, never happened. Christians are still using Israelite writings, and these old “obsolete” writings continue to hold first position in the Christian canon. The connection with the old covenant, although “obsolete,” will likely never “disappear.” For example, when the two different collections are discussed in dictionaries of the Bible under the entry “Canon,” the editors reverse their usual alphabetical listing of entries by listing Old Testament before New Testament. Their alphabetical order would have been NT before OT.

            The tradition of individual churches decided the order of the contents in papyrus NT manuscripts, which was largely determined on the basis of interest and what could be gotten into a papyrus codex (i.e., book). The surviving papyrus fragments of NT texts do not include OT books. In the papyrus manuscripts of the second through fourth centuries, which are mostly fragmentary, there are few differences with the order of today’s NT, which is also traditional.

            The large parchment uncial Bible manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), surviving from the fourth century CE, however, contain both OT and NT with NT texts tagged on at the end of the OT texts. Why is that do you suppose? Two reasons occur to me: The OT was considered Word of God long before Christians began writing what eventually became NT texts, and it took around 200 years, or so, for these “postscripts” to achieve Word of God status. Hence, the OT/NT order is simply traditional.

            Isn’t it time that some enterprising ecclesiastical scholar reconsidered that arrangement and recommended putting the NT books first? It just seems rather odd to begin the Christian Bible with the Jewish Scriptures!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, 246. John was written in the last decade of the first century (90-99). Hebrews is earlier “probably written between 80-90” (p. 403).

2There was not at the time of the public career of Jesus (around 30 CE) a collection of religious texts that all members of the Israelite religious community agreed upon. The Hebrew Bible, as we know it today, is thought to have been formed by the surviving group, the Pharisees, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans.

3The comment in Second Timothy does not refer to the Christian Bible but rather it refers to what are today the Jewish Holy Scriptures.

4Covenant in Greek is diatheke; in Latin it is testamentum. The words mean the same thing.

5See note one above. The critical date for the writing of Hebrews is earlier than the writing of John.