Centre Of Gravity

It seems the merest truism to announce that Jesus of Nazareth is the uniting element in these diverse works from the early Christian movement. It is a statement which, nevertheless, requires some refining. For example, the Letter of James notoriously lacks all reference to Jesus apart from the formal opening greeting and one single passing remark (2:1). The Third Letter of John makes no reference to Jesus whatsoever, and some other epistles coming from the latter part of the period (i.e. the late first or early second century) can scarcely be said to be consumed with interest in him and many of their statements about him seem largely formal (e.g. 2 Timothy and Jude). Moreover, certain early Christian writings which did not find acceptance in the canon, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Epistles of Ignatius have much to say that relates to the understanding of Jesus in the early Church and is in some ways different from anything in the canonical writings. We may be left with the rather banal statement that the New Testament writings centre on Jesus in the sense that their impulse in every case ultimately springs from him and the movement that derived from him. That is of course a 'lowest common denominator' way of putting it: the central writings are full of imaginative, often brilliant perceptions of Jesus and attempts to articulate his supreme importance.

That leads to the further reflection that if Jesus is put forward as the centre of gravity in the New Testament, then it is Jesus as (however it is expressed) saviour. None of these writers is interested in him in a spirit of historical detachment. As we have seen, even the most historical-looking books, to the modern observer, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, are theological writings through and through, whatever use they make of historical reminiscence or tradition. In that sense, Jesus the figure of history is hidden behind, quite as much as he is disclosed within, the central New Testament writings. If he is the source of the Christian tradition, then he is its concealed source, visible only indirectly through the testimony of those who wrote about him and gave accounts of their beliefs about him. For an understanding of the character of the New Testament and indeed of the Christian religion, it is of profound importance that Jesus the founder left behind no writings of his own whatsoever: that in itself gives an undeniably indirect quality to the New Testament's role in Christianity, however great the importance that may be ascribed to it. Christian faith cannot appeal to the direct legacy of the founder, with its potentiality for claims to fixity of belief and teaching. Of course, our current sensitivity to the apparently infinite capacity of interpretation to shift and develop would still apply, but 'the words of the founder' would nevertheless carry enormous weight and put a burden of proof on those who would wish to point to the role of interpretation, with its propensity to change from one time and place to another according to need and cultural circumstances. True, many still act as if the Gospels did indeed give us a complete compendium of the ideas of Jesus and as if their record had the directness of a tape-recording of his words or a film of his actions; but it is not hard to show that selectivity has been at work and that the evangelist inevitably acts as a screen or a filter between the life of Jesus and our perception of it.

The realization of this secondariness of even the Gospels (it is easier to see in relation to the other New Testament books) leads to the promotion of another candidate for the position of centre of gravity or unifying factor in the New Testament; that is, the life and mission of the early Church. Again, there is an element of mere truism: where else would anyone suppose these books to have had their origin? But it draws attention to their character as products of a specific community or set of communities making up the early Christian movement. At the very least we are surely right to suppose that none of them stems from the reflection of some isolated sage considering the meaning of Jesus from afar. This is not to say that they are necessarily to be seen as 'community products'—quite the contrary: we see more clearly than ever the coherence and power of many of the individual minds that produced these works. All the same, they are the minds of people deeply involved in particular (and very diverse) Christian groups, aware of their needs and subject to specific pressures of a local and transient kind.

Think for example of the prologue of the Gospel of John. Every reader is struck by the contrast between the sublimity of the greater part of John 1:118 and the seemingly intrusive fussiness of the references to John the Baptist (verses 6-8, 15). There are various ways of demonstrating that these verses are integral to the flow of the whole passage, but the initial impression lingers. Without these verses, one could well embark on this Gospel in the conviction that it was the product of detached contemplation of the significance of Jesus, far removed from the everyday life and concerns of any such thing as a Christian church. But the references to John the Baptist give pause to such a view. Whatever the reason—perhaps controversy over the role of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus, perhaps unclear relations between surviving followers of John the Baptist and the Christians involved in the writing of this Gospel—it seems that 'real life' impinges, even in this most reflective of the early Christian writings.

Similarly, the Letter to the Hebrews consists to a large degree of highly wrought and interwoven analogies between leading figures in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus, and there can be little doubt that the author revels in the working out of his patterns of fulfilment—he has an ingenious mind. Yet from time to time he turns aside from his intellectual pattern-weaving to utter moral exhortations that surely have specific situations in view (e.g. 5:11-6:12). The Revelation of John too, chiefly devoted to elaborate literary textures formed out of visionary material in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah (chiefly), comes right down to earth in the seven letters to the churches which come near the beginning (chapters 2-3) and whose situations seem to represent the actual occasion for the book. And in this perspective the writings which scored badly as significant testifiers to the centrality of Jesus come fully into view. Even if the Letter of James is not greatly concerned with Jesus, it is much concerned with the Christian mission and Christian community life, including the difficulty of uniting rich and poor and adopting a moral policy with regard to wealth. Looking at the matter in this way, we may even say that though of course the strong impulse of Jesus' life, death and resurrection was the main driving force in the Church's life, there were circles and occasions towards the end of the first century when the Church could function on its own momentum and deal with its own concerns without always turning to Jesus, either as living lord or as traditional teacher.

Neither of these possible centres of gravity in the New Testament (Jesus as saviour and the life of the Church) in fact applies exclusively to the writings which achieved canonical status. The other surviving early Christian writings (Staniforth and Louth 1968), some of which have been referred to, can be assessed under precisely the same headings. And if what we seek in a scriptural canon is the literary deposit of earliest Christianity, then the actual collection in the New Testament needs to be fortified by the works usually referred to as the Apostolic Fathers and the Gospel of Thomas.

If we ask why the twenty-seven books of the eventual New Testament attained a status denied to the others, there appear to be two likely answers, as suggested earlier: supposed authorship by or association with an apostle, and actual reception and use in sufficiently wide areas of the Church. It is now generally supposed that the beliefs of second- and third-century Christians (i.e. in the crucial formative period of the canon) about the former matter were mostly mistaken, just as their determination to father as many of their institutions as possible on immediate followers of Jesus led them into much legend-making.

It is likely that widespread use (itself partly dependent on believed apostolic source but also on usefulness) was perhaps the most powerful practical factor in determining the eventual bounds of the canonical collection. In that way, the life and mission of the Church as the unifying centre of the New Testament come into play in another way. However, it is important not to overstate the role of the Church in the sense that this suggests. It is not the case that only writings that were congenial or agreed with developed Christian ideas survived and uncomfortable documents were laid aside. Though they might strive to arrive at acceptable interpretations of them, Christians quite soon came to feel under the sway of their Scriptures. Not all Christians found the strenuous Gospel teaching about the renunciation of property and family particularly congenial, and in the settled circumstances of congregational life after the lifetime of Jesus, it was virtually unworkable. Nevertheless, Christian teachers set about finding ways of doing some justice to it, either easing it or applying it with uncomfortable rigour to the regulation of Christian marriage. They did not feel free simply to abandon books which said hard things.

It has already been hinted that something of this process was already at work in the period of the writing of the New Testament books themselves. Matthew's Gospel is, in part, an adoption yet, at the same time, an amending of the Gospel of Mark; and the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and Ephesians combine reverence for Paul with a readiness to adapt his teaching to changed circumstances.

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