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The myth of apostolic succession

Let's talk about the traditional story of how we got the news about Jesus -- technical people like to call this the story of "apostolic succession." Remember that term, sometime you may use it at a cocktail party and look really smart -- or am I thinking of "smart-ass"?

Then we'll look at how that story held up to the last 250 years of critical scholarship.

The set up is about Jesus. The story itself is about how Christianity got from Jesus to the New Testament. You maybe learned all this in Sunday school, but even if you aren't a believer, this is probably history as you know it.

The set up Christianity was founded by Jesus, who saw Himself as God's son. Jesus was a powerful figure who amazed people, gathered disciples, taught, did miracles, and was killed by the Romans, after which he appeared to his followers then ascended to Heaven.

The story After Jesus' death, the history of his life and message was kept alive by the "apostles," who were mostly people who knew Him personally -- disciples, guys like that. Paul, who never met Jesus, was also an apostle.

By and by some of the apostles who knew him, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, wrote books, "gospels," that are histories of Jesus' life and resurrection. Luke stretched out his gospel with Acts of the Apostles, which includes the history of the early church. Paul and other apostles wrote letters.

Finally the gospels, Acts, and the letters were put together into a book, the New Testament, an authoritative history of Jesus' life and ministry and of the earliest Church.

The great thing about this story is that it guarantees the New Testament is authentic and accurate. We got the story of Jesus from the pens of the people who knew him.

Leaving aside the miracles and resurrection business, which some people don't swallow, it's a good story. It's simple. It's clear. It's internal logic makes sense. It hangs together.

It's also a myth. Let me explain.

Modern scholarship
For starters, the guys who wrote the gospels are not the guys with their names on the cover. Mark did not write Mark. Matthew did not write Matthew. Ditto John and Luke.

There are lots of reasons behind this, including the fact the earliest papyrus gospel manuscripts (the earliest ones date to about 200 AD) don't give the names of the authors, and we know the authors' names were actually first stuck on the gospels by a Catholic priest generations later. And of the four gospelers, the priest said only Matthew ever met Jesus -- yet Mathew copies extensively from Mark, who never met Jesus. Everyone agrees that's silly.

What's more no early Christian writers quote or even mention the gospels until the middle of the second century AD. There is no evidence they existed before then! Many scholars guess these gospels existed before 150 AD -- but a scholarly guess is still a guess. And if our four gospels did exist within 120 years of Jesus death, there is no evidence they contributed to first century Christianity -- no one mentions them, no one quotes them, remember?

What's more the idea of a single early Church, close to Jesus and his teachings, doesn't square with the facts. Standard modern scholarship is that the first followers of Jesus -- scholars call them "Jesus people," in "Jesus movements" -- did not even see Jesus as the Christ, the resurrected Son of God! I am not making this up.

And there wasn't one early Church, there were many.

Modern scholarship says the myth of apostolic succession developed this way: the people who knew Jesus didn't need a written record, they knew Him. They did pass on a record of Jesus' sayings, first as an oral tradition, eventually written down in a book modern scholars call The Synoptic Saying Source, aka Q. For a couple or maybe several generations, that was enough.

Then as different Christian theologies developed and lots of of mutually incompatible gospels were written in the second century, the various new Christianities each looked for ways to validate their own version of the faith. One standard technique was to invent a chain of authority back to the founders of the faith. To invent the myth of apostolic succession.

That's modern scholarship.




Good Books for this section:

Ancient Christian Gospels Their History and Development
by Harvard Professor Helmut Koester

Do you know the oldest surviving manuscript for John? How about Mark, Matthew, Luke? When were each of the gospels first mentioned by another Christian writer? What is the evidence about who wrote them?

A well written, readable, but extremely technical scholarly analysis of the early Christian writings. Too detailed for beginners, but a fascinating read for advanced students and an excellent reference.


Available at Amazon .com.