Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
So far so good. It’s been more than 2000 years and Jesus’ words have not passed away. Although the world was anxious to get rid of him, they were committed to keeping his message alive after his death.
For the first 40 to 50 years the story of Jesus was kept alive by word of mouth. The things that Jesus said and did were eventually written down and four of these accounts were chosen to be included in the Christian Bible. These are the “Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are the only books that document the words of Jesus. All of the rest of the New Testament relates to the development of the institutional church.
There were actually many “synoptic Gospels” that told the story of the life of Jesus in a narrative form. These included the works of Epiphanius, Jerome, Thomas, Judas, James, and others. Peter’s Gospel was thrown out because it was particularly hostile to the Jews. Historians believe there was another super important document referred to by historians as “Q” that was a collection of the sayings of Jesus. They believed that “Q” was used extensively by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This document has never been found. By the end of the 5th century the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were chosen as the official Gospels that would be used by the church and that was that.
Matthew and John were two of Jesus’ original 12 disciples (apostles). Mark knew Jesus and was believed to be one of the 70 who were sent out by Jesus on the original mission trip (Days 83-84), and after Jesus’ death he was Peter’s close companion. Luke didn’t actually know Jesus. He was a follower of Paul. Historians question whether these people were the actual authors of these texts, but most agree that they represent the oral and written testimonies of the people to whom they are attributed. I chose to do my blog using Matthew because he had the benefit of Mark’s book (which presumably included a lot of information from Peter), as well as some of his own material. And maybe “Q” as well!
There are a couple of different views about the sequence in which the gospels were written. The generally accepted theory is that the Mark was the first gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke. Another theory is that Matthew wrote his book first, followed by Luke, then Mark. Both theories are in agreement that John was written last and that it bears little relationship to the other gospels. There is quite a bit of disagreement about the dates, but everyone seems to agree that all four were completed before the year 100.
Writing the Gospels wasn’t easy. The words of Jesus were all subject to interpretation and translation because Jesus spoke in Aramaic (which is now a dead language) but the Gospels were all originally written in Greek. There weren’t any video or audio recordings to rely on. Jesus didn’t have an official autobiographer who followed him around, documenting his every word and act. The writers had to rely on their memories and the testimonies of others. Matthew apparently had some little scraps of notes that he had written down to work with. Maybe some of those special sayings that he wanted to be sure he remembered. For Luke, it was all second-hand information. Everything he wrote was the result of interviews with people who knew Jesus. The Book of John is decidedly more mystical and allegorical.
None of the original Greek manuscripts still exist. Over the years ancient scribes copied and re-copied the early manuscripts with their own notes in the margins whenever they suspected an error (for example, the accidental omission of a word), which led to some confusion over the years about whether the additions and corrections should be included. They say that the accuracy of the Bibles improved considerably after the invention of eyeglasses in the 1300s. Eventually different versions began to emerge, and each of those got copied with new notes and questions in the margins.
Unfortunately those scribes weren’t as reliable as today’s photocopiers. But no photocopier would be able to reproduce the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts that monks began to create in the latter part of the first millennium. Often commissioned by wealthy patrons, these handmade illuminated manuscripts were highly ornate artistic works with decorative initials, borders, and illustrations. Representation of the Gospels in this manner continued into the Renaissance era.
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized Biblical reproduction, and the first Gutenberg Bible was produced in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies still exist, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world. As printing presses became available Bibles were mass produced and the world no longer had to rely on the labor-intensive process of creating hand lettered copies.
And then there are all the translations. About 400 AD the Romans put their mark on the Gospels by translating them into Latin, while the eastern Orthodox churches continued to use the original Greek versions. Martin Luther’s famous translation of the Bible into German was completed in 1534. The King James translation of the Bible into English was completed in 1611. Today the New Testament has been translated into about 1200 languages. For most languages there are several (sometimes many) translations from which to choose. I use the “TEV” or “Today’s English Version” simply because, for the purposes of this blog, it’s the one I prefer. Today replication is no problem. The Bible is widely considered to be the best-selling book of all time. About 100 million copies are sold each year, and free digital copies are all over the Internet.
Some Christians don’t like to think about all of the complications that were involved in the creation of the Gospels when they pick up their Bibles. They would prefer to believe that their Bible was magically created, that they fell out of the sky or that it was handed down to the church like the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses. When people blithely say that the Bible is inerrant because it is divinely inspired they fail to appreciate all of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the preservation of the story of Jesus. People agonized over every detail of it. It was a tremendous responsibility. The misinterpretation of a single word of letter could change the entire meaning of what Jesus said or did. There was conflicting information and people had varying interpretations. There were endless debates about inclusion and omission and interpretation. And even more debates about nuances and minutiae. It may have been “divinely inspired” but it wasn’t easy. It required a lot of dedication, commitment, cooperation, and hard work. Kind of like building the Kingdom of God.
I really appreciate everything that those who went before us did to keep the words and deeds of Jesus alive so that, like Jesus prophesied, his words have not passed away. It goes to show what people unified by a cause are capable of doing. To me it is inspiring that humankind has been committed to faithfully preserving this knowledge for thousands of years. I am very grateful to everyone over the millennia who had a hand in preserving Jesus’ message and his legacy. But I wish I could get my hands on that “Q” book that supposedly contained all of Jesus’ sayings. I bet there were some little gems in there that didn’t make it into the final cut. Yes, I could love to get my hands on that. Maybe it will turn up some day and they will have to rework the whole thing. Probably not. They probably destroyed it because it said something that offended someone in power. That’s what they did to Jesus, so his full collection of sayings probably suffered the same fate.
What does this scripture say to you?