|Which Came First: Epistle or Gospel?|
|Recent Articles - Churches|
|Monday, 07 March 2011 02:44|
There seems to be an unnecessary division between those who claim to follow Paul and those who claim to follow Jesus, which, I believe, fails to appreciate the historical interaction between the material included in the teachings of Jesus and the material contained in the writings of the Apostles. It is a little like the argument over which came first in creation: The chicken or the egg? However, the implications of the answer to this more theological question have farther-reaching effects.
The general impression one gets from so much that is taught in the churches today is that the Apostle Paul (and perhaps some other New Testament writers) were attempting, in their epistles, to correct or moderate the extremes of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. As the New Testament is laid out (and as the incidents occurred historically), it is easy to make such an assumption. After all, the four gospels come first in the layout of the New Testament, and then we read what Paul had to say to the early followers of Jesus. The idea that Paul is challenging what we have just read in the gospels is an easy one to accept. Added to that, we also know that Paul came AFTER Jesus historically, persecuting Christians after the resurrection, and then converting to Christianity himself, before rising to a position of high esteem amongst the Christians, and writing his many letters.
But in reality, most experts agree that the Gospels were not written until AFTER the epistles. When the two classes of New Testament scripture are seen as having been written in that order, it could be argued more easily that the Gospels were compiled as an attempt to alter misconceptions associated with the writings of the apostles, rather than the other way around.
Even though the gospels were written after the epistles, there is compelling evidence that there was a deep interest in the teachings of Jesus before and during the time that the epistles were being written. I would like to consider the implications of this with regard to things Paul and others wrote in those epistles.
Word for word similarities in the various gospels are taken as strong evidence that early Christians memorised literally hundreds of the sayings of Jesus and regularly tested themselves on their knowledge of these teachings. It was only possible, decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, for people to record with such accuracy what Jesus had taught, because they had, through all those decades, been diligently repeating those same teachings and incidents over and over again. Just as we might read the Bible as part of our religious discipline, they would recite passages from the Bible that had not yet been written down, with those recitations serving as the repository for the construction of the gospels when the decision was later made to put them into writing.
If that was the case, then it would not only help to explain the incredible consistency in what the first three gospel writers in particular had to say about the life and teachings of Jesus, but it would also explain why the writers of the epistles did not take the time to reiterate what it was that Jesus taught. With the exception of James, who addressed his epistle to those who had been "scattered abroad"... possibly so much so that they had not received the oral traditions of the other more established local churches, the other epistle writers were more inclined to make general theological statements with regard to what those memorised teachings of Jesus meant for us as believers. They would remind us about such things as forgiveness and eternal life, adding that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus served as further evidence of his authority to make the demands that are contained in his teachings.
When it became clear that the original eye witnesses were dying out, and that Jesus was not likely to be returning in the immediate future, THEN the early Christians started to compile (in written form) narratives incorporating the teachings of Jesus as well as important incidents in his life. It may even be possible that they were motivated to correct distortions that had come in from things that people had heard Paul saying. Peter commented that there were many who had twisted the things Paul had said, to their own destruction. (It sounds so much like what we see being done with some of the teachings of Paul today.) The appearance of not just one, but FOUR versions of the life and teachings of Jesus, steered the early Christian communities back to a greater emphasis on the Cornerstone, which Peter had noticed many builders foolishly setting aside.
Some epistles dealt with specific pastoral problems as well, suggesting that they were not written with the same sense of eternal and universal authority that went into the writing of the gospels. When Paul says something like, "Don't forget to bring the cloak that I left there when you come," he was writing very much like we ourselves would write to one another (or even to a group of people) today. If such a letter was lost or destroyed, it would not represent anywhere near the disaster that would have happened if they had lost their official record of what it was that Jesus taught and, by implication, what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. One was just some very powerful (albeit "inspired") comments from a great religious leader, while the other were the words of eternal life, spoken by the only begotten Son of God.
With this concept of the relationship between the two classes of biblical writings, it makes perfect sense that Paul would say, as he did in the opening chapter of his letter to the Galatians, "If I, or an angel from heaven should teach you contrary to the gospel which I [previously] delivered to you, let them be accursed." That "gospel" which he had previously delivered to them was not the epistle that he was only just starting to write at the time, nor was it the four gospels exactly as we have them in writing today. However it would probably have been an oral tradition which was very similar to those four gospels, given that the teachings of Jesus (when transcribed onto parchments) were referred to as "the gospel" by the leaders of those same early churches.
So, in answer to the question about which came first: The epistles seem to have been the first bits of the New Testament to have appeared in writing; but the gospels apparently preceded the epistles in oral tradition, and, in addition, they followed the epistles in official writing. This before-and-after emphasis on the teachings of Jesus is, in my opinion, vital to our understanding of the subordinate role that Paul's comments would have played, sandwiched as they were, between the teachings of Jesus as studied both before and after Paul wrote his epistles.
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