The following is a transcript of part one of Gayle Trotter’s podcast interview with Dr. Mark Olson, president of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Falls Church, Va.
To listen to the interview, click here.
Gayle: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m sitting in the offices of Mark Olson, president of the John Leland Theological Seminary in Falls Church, Va., and we’re here today to discuss a couple of topics. Mark, welcome.
Mark: Glad to be here, Gayle. Thank you for inviting me.
Gayle: Well, we’re so excited to be discussing these topics with you, and I’d just like to find out a little bit more about you. What do you do as the president of the theological seminary?
Mark: Well, I give general oversight to the seminary; I work closely with the academic dean. I also have to do of course fundraising, and I go out to many, many churches – mostly Baptist, but some Christian churches of other denominations – and do a lot of preaching, meet pastors, meet laypeople and quite frankly, recruit students.
Gayle: And what led you to this position at Leland?
Mark: Well, it’s a longer story than we can go into today, but I would just say that the seminary was looking for a president, and I was available. They wanted to have somebody who had some academic background in theology – or Biblical studies – but also someone who had been a pastor for a long time and understood what the local church ministry is all about.
Gayle: And what is your educational background?
Mark: I did my undergraduate degree in history at Wake Forest University. My Master of Divinity, which is the standard seminary degree, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Early Christianity at your alma mater, the University of Virginia.
Gayle: Always love a fellow Wahoo.
Gayle: And so you have been at Leland for how long?
Mark: Three years.
Gayle: And prior to that you were pastoring different churches?
Mark: Yes, I’ve pastored five churches over 26 years; four of them in Virginia, one in North Carolina.
Gayle: And one of them was in the town that my husband was born in.
Mark: That’s right: First Baptist Church, South Boston, Va. I was the pastor there from ’90 to ’96.
Gayle: We have a lot of connections over the years. And I will also add that you grew up at Columbia Baptist Church, which is where I was also raised in the faith, so we connect on that too. The first topic we’re going to talk about today in part one of this conversation is the development of the Bible. I’ve had a lot of people asking me about how the Bible developed, and since I don’t have a Ph.D. in this, I thought it would be good to go and talk to someone who has really studied this carefully and looked at the primary sources and considered all the arguments. And specifically today we’re going to talk about the development of the New Testament. Could you tell us just a little bit about the development of what we would call the New Testament, and what exactly is the New Testament?
Mark: Sure. Of course the Old Testament – the books of the Bible written prior to the life of Jesus – and they point forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was born and lived in the early part of the first century AD, actually most scholars think born about 4 to 6 BC. And his crucifixion and resurrection approximately AD 30. Scholars debate that a year or two, but approximately that time period. And then the early Christian movement after the resurrection spread rapidly through the Roman Empire. Paul of course became a convert and took the gospel all through the Roman Empire. Peter, other apostles took the gospel more to the Jewish people in Palestine, in Galilee, and in Judea.
Gayle: And when you say “gospel” what do you mean by gospel?
Mark: I’m talking about the four sort-of biographies of Jesus that we find in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And we know actually from the beginning of Luke’s gospel, he says, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of things that have been fulfilled among us.” He’s talking about the fact that in his day, many people – many Christians – had tried to write down some of the sayings of Jesus or activities of Jesus. Many biographies – or biographical sketches – probably a more accurate way to describe them. And Luke knew about many of these, that’s his own quote. But as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written from the middle to the end of the first century, and began to be then spread and copied. And as one Christian would visit a church that had a copy of the Gospel of Matthew, they might say, “I’m going to collect some money so we can afford a scribe and buy some papyrus, and we’ve got to send someone from our church to copy that Gospel of Matthew down so we’ll bring it to our church.”
Gayle: And why did they think those particular accounts – there were many accounts…
Gayle: So why did they think those particular accounts were, for lack of a better word, authoritative, or more descriptive?
Mark: I’ll put it on two levels. From the God-level, I’d say because God ordained that this would happen. And I truly do believe that. We also must speak from a human level as well. From a human perspective, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John won out over lots of other written accounts because the great majority of Christians found them to be helpful. And found them to convey enough information about Jesus Christ and to be consistent enough with one another that they helped create what I call “orthodox Christianity.” And there was no list that God send down to all the Christians saying, “These are the ones.”
Mark: So, the process took a while. Certainly decades went along. Probably the earliest of those gospels written in maybe AD 60. Most scholars think Mark was first written, but probably all of them written before 90. There’s debate about exact years, but close enough for our purposes.
Gayle: In the range, in this range.
Mark: In this range. And as the gospels were copied and spread and quoted from one another, and especially as the eye witnesses started to die out.
Mark: Then you needed to have a written account. When Peter was coming to town every few months; or Paul came and spent time, or some of the other apostles from time to time would travel through and you would hear them. You were hearing people say, “well I was there in the Sermon on the Mount,” or “I was there when Paul” or “I was there when Jesus healed the woman with the crooked back” or something. You didn’t really need to have the written account so much, but as people start to – original eyewitnesses start to die out – you begin to realize we need to have this stuff written down.
Mark: And so there’s a need for the gospels to share the story. And so Christians began to make copies of these gospels. They try to do their very best; they’re not Xerox machines, but they, by hand, make copies of these gospels, a very expensive proposition in the ancient world.
Gayle: They didn’t have printing presses back then.
Mark: No printing presses, everything is done by hand. And at first putting these on scrolls, just as Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah when he stood up in his synagogue to preach.
Mark: Pretty quickly though, Christians began to use a new form of literature – physical form – called a codex, looks a lot like a modern book. So instead of a scroll that you unroll, it would be a book with pages.
Gayle: Is that similar to – I have been to I think the British Museum, and there’s the Shakespeare Codex. Is that kind of a similar type of…
Mark: Yes, it is. But the Christians are the ones who for the first time began to use the codex form – book form – for serious literature. Before them, the closest thing you had was little tablets that kids would use for school – that might be sewn together with pages – but all serious literature was written on scrolls. Christians began to put their important writings – and eventually judging to be holy writings – into codex form very quickly.
Gayle: And what was the motivation for that change?
Mark: Well, it’s easier to get more material in one book that you can carry around, rather than a whole series of scrolls. And it’s also easier to find pieces when you can just flip through multiple pages very quickly and point to a passage, rather than having to unroll the entire scroll looking for a particular passage.
Gayle: Right, right. And do you think the writers of these books understood that what they were writing was going to join Scripture?
Mark: No. I don’t think they thought that at all. I do think they believed that they were writing something very important. And that they believed that God was – they might have even said inspiring them – but I don’t think any of them consciously were saying, “I bet my book gets added to Isaiah and Jeremiah.”
Mark: I don’t think there was a consciousness of that. It was more, “This is the story that I need to tell, the Messiah has finally come. I’m going to write this story down of all these sayings of Jesus, and all the miracles that he did, and I’m going to tell the story, and then his crucifixion and resurrection, I’m going to put that together in the story. What I’m doing is very important. It’s then as churches form, and as Old Testament writings are read as Scripture. And then they say, “we have a letter from Paul also. And somebody’s cousin visited Ephesus and made a copy of the letter that Paul wrote to the Ephesians.”
Mark: “And now we’re going to have that read right after Isaiah.” And it’s as these books – the gospels and Paul’s letters especially, and the book of Acts – are read in worship, side-by-side with Old Testament scripture, that Christians begin to say, “well I think God speaks to us just as much through Paul’s letters or through the Gospel of Luke or through the Gospel of John, as much as they do Isaiah and Genesis.”
Gayle: And was that controversial at that time, when they started adding Paul’s letters or the gospel accounts?
Mark: Given the wide range of early Christians, and that they’re scattered geographically; that you don’t have an internet; that you don’t have an easy means of having everybody communicate with each other…
Mark: I’m sure there’s a wide range of different reactions. And I’m certainly – I’m positive – that every Christian in every church didn’t think the exact same way about which books really were Scripture in the whole process.
Gayle: Right, right.
Mark: But a great consensus emerges by the early to mid-second century. The great majority of Christians – can’t say all of them – but the great majority of them, are using four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And the Book of Acts is pretty widely used, and 13 letters from Paul are pretty widely accepted.
Gayle: And do they communicate this with each other? Are they circulating lists of…
Mark: We don’t have any reference to say early second century Christians circulating lists, so I’m not saying they didn’t.
Mark: I just don’t have any proof that they did. But my bet is, that at least orally, they would talk to one another. I’m pretty sure the first pattern was: wherever Luke was when he wrote his gospel, the church in that town probably only had Luke’s gospel for a couple of decades.
Gayle: Ah, yes.
Mark: And then eventually somebody said, “well I’ve heard another gospel called “According to Matthew,” Kata Mattya. “You know, I’ve heard about this, and I’ve got a friend who’s in that city, and we ought to send someone to make a… get a scribe, hire a scribe, or send a scribe of our own to make a copy.”
Mark: “And so we can have that one also.” And then as Christians compare, they discover a commonality between these four. Now later, other gospels are written. And of course early on I told you there were writings that may be smaller, biographical sketches of Jesus and so forth. Perhaps, some scholars think there was a “sayings source” that scholars call Q.
Gayle: Yes, yes.
Mark: May or may not have existed, but it certainly could have existed. But then later you have a proliferation of gospels that are less and less historical. And then the Church begins to work on this list idea.
Mark: Not so much to get Matthew, Mark, Luke and John “in” but to say there’s other gospels that don’t seem to us consistent with those, and we’re going to exclude those. We’re going to say they are not considered “canonical.”
Gayle: And those are some of the gospels that are coming up, like I think Discovery Channel did a program on the Gospel of Thomas.
Gayle: Or Judas.
Mark: Gospel of Thomas is probably the oldest of the other gospels that we hear about. The Da Vinci Code book and then movie put a lot of emphasis on the Gospel of Philip, which was certainly not by Philip and not even from the first century AD. My doctoral dissertation has a chapter on the Gospel of Philip; I wrote an article, my doctoral dissertation deals a lot with the Gnostic Christians – heretical Christians.
Gayle: Right, right.
Mark: Who wrote the Gospel of Philip and some other gospels.
Gayle: So there were writings contemporaneous with all of this development in the Church that were rejected by the Church as not being part of this – a term that’s used frequently is “canon.” So can you describe that term and how it’s used?
Mark: It’s a Greek word. It originally meant “reed,” and then the reeds get used as a measuring stick. And so then any sort of a measure, even a list of appropriate items, is called a “canon.” And so that word gets applied to this list of what books really are going to be in the New Testament Scripture. And you referred to “the Church,” and I think there is an invisible “church,” but it would be a little more historically precise to just talk about the wide range of churches, because there were Gnostic Christians who said, “well no, Philip; we like Philip.”
Mark: Or “we like the Gospel of Truth by Valentinus,” or “we have these other gospels.” So there were plenty of people who called themselves Christians who didn’t agree with just Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Mark: There were certainly debates about them, and there were churches which would have had different lists. But the largest proportion of Christians end up saying “no, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, those are the Gospels, and that’s what we’re going to use as our Scripture, and not the others.”
Gayle: And by what – relatively what – date would you say that this canon is pretty much set?
Mark: The Orthodox Christians, by the mid-second century, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Paul’s 13 letters and Acts are very widely accepted among Orthodox Christians. But there are other groups – there’s a man named Marcian, who was in Rome for a while – he says only Luke. He doesn’t like Matthew, or Mark or John. He only takes Luke, and he only takes 10 of Paul’s letters, and he rejects the entire Old Testament.
Gayle: Right, right.
Mark: And he’s got some followers. And then there are these Gnostic Christians that have a whole wide range of very – most Christians, I think even most moderns would just say – very different from our New Testament literature. That really mixes in Greek philosophy and some of the mystery religions with certainly some Christian elements, and they stir it all together and come out with Gnosticism.
Gayle: Would the Manicheans fit into that group?
Mark: That’s another group. And so you really have – today we sometimes hear Christians say, “oh it’s a shame we’ve got all these different Christian denominations, couldn’t we go back to the early church when they were all together?” They were never all together on all the issues. There were always a wide range of different Christians. The bulk of them become what we would call “Orthodox Christians,” eventually developing into the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox churches in the East. Those are the inheritors of what I would call “Orthodox Christianity” in the second century.
Gayle: Well that makes me also think of the Reformation in the Catholic Church, and Luther was such a prominent figure in that. And this brings up the question of whether the canon, once it was settled, is open or closed. And in that sense, not just open to adding new books – documents – but also to taking away books or documents.
Mark: In the Reformation there is a big debate about actually Old Testament canon. Protestants end up saying the books of what they call the Apocrypha – I think the Catholic Church calls Deuterocanonicals – are rejected by the Protestants as not really at the same level as Scripture. These are books that what a lot of people call “intertestamental period” after the end of Old Testament documents and before the time of Jesus. That’s the biggest debate in the Reformation. Luther does make an off-hand comment about the Book of James, because he’s in debates with Catholic scholars after he has launched the Reformation and has broken with the Church. And he’s emphasizing salvation through faith alone, and emphasizing Paul’s letters, and they’re beating him up somewhat with James. A quote from James, “A faith without works is dead,” and how important works are. And so Luther – in an emotional time – says well, “James was a straw, epistle of straw, a letter of straw.”
Gayle: A man of strong words.
Mark: He is. He’s pretty fiery. But Luther does not make any systematic attempt to eliminate James from the canon. When he translates his New Testament he does not eliminate James, as he translates it. And he doesn’t try to have all of his churches cut James out of their Bibles.
Mark: As Thomas Jefferson cut out a lot of the miracles – all of the miracles – of Jesus from his Bible.
Mark: Luther does nothing like that. He accepts the New Testament, and so do all the Protestant reformers. And indeed Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox – all three major branches of the Christian church – are all agreed on the 27 books of the New Testament. Although individual people may call for an opening of the canon, I think after 2000 years there’s no way that’s going to happen.
Gayle: Well that’s great; that’s a great point to end on. And thank you so much for your time and we’ll come back to part two in a few moments.
Mark: Thank you, Gayle.
First published in First Things in October 2010