I view knowledge and faith as two methods of thought which emphasize different factors. Knowledge asks about facts and data. Faith asks why something is important. Knowledge can be observed and repeated (scientific process). Faith gives meaning to events. Knowledge without purpose is irrelevant information. Faith that lacks supporting facts and data is wishful thinking.
Thus, when I find my opinions in conflict with someone else’s, I ask myself, “Have we drawn different conclusions because we have different data sets?”, or, “Are we coming from different assumptions about what is meaningful?” To have an open mind in a debate, I must be willing to learning new information, and to, at least temporarily, set aside my assumptions about life to learn why someone else might consider this or that important. Upon opening E. Bruce Books’ book, Jesus and After, The First Eighty Years, these thoughts crossed my mind.
Brooks’ premise for the book was what caught my attention. In my religious upbringing, the Baptist tradition viewed scripture as inspired by God, unchanging, infallible, and to be interpreted literally. Even in my adolescent obedience I questioned these ideas as rigid and dogmatic. If the above beliefs about the Bible were true, then by the knowledge criteria only one data point that challenged the claims would be sufficient to toss out the inspired-unchanging-infallible-literal hypothesis. Given that the last few paragraphs of Mark are not contained in some versions of ancient Gospel manuscripts, how could the Gospel of Mark be unchanging if somewhere along the line two versions exist. Ouch.
Rather, I gravitated to the belief that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures had meaning from a literary perspective. This fit into my larger philosophical belief (e.g. faith) that stories exist for decades, centuries, millennia, not merely for containing verifiable facts but because they convey meaning for civilization. Thus, stories, poems, histories, prophecies, and metaphysical events persist because they can guide us.
Brooks asserts his assumptions about the early generations of Jesus followers: religious sects often start within the structure of established groups, they emphasize reform and purity, then they spin off into separate factions, denominations, and religion(s) as they move further from the prior organization. Brooks uses what I will call textual analysis of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, along with a few Roman documents, to demonstrate the progression that he views of Jesus followers being a fringe and fervent group of Galilean Jews, to zealot evangelizers of the Gentiles, to a separate religion called Christianity. One of his primary assertions is that the Gospels and Epistles were written over an 80 year time period, with subsequent writings being informed both by the earlier writings, and current issues within the church. This also resulted in passages being inserted into earlier texts to update-revise the texts as the religion developed (hence those last few paragraphs of Mark, which are not in some of the versions of Mark).
Brooks’ objective is not deliberate all the facts and data in this format. Rather, he states his conclusions and directs the readers to his reference list for those details (oh, my, there is another shelf of books to digest). Jesus and After is more a series of readings and reflections based on his method of analysis. Each of the 66 chapters contains a few sentences, paragraphs, or possibly a whole epistle, presented in Brooks’ chronology of when they were written, or revised with inserted text. He then discusses issues that developed between what he terms Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Christians. Again, his point is not to argue how he determined these definitions, but to put the texts into that sequence for a better understanding of the church development.
Briefly, Alpha churches were those what mostly identified with Judaism. They did not see Jesus as advocating a new religion, but a purification of the existing organization. Their emphasis tended toward right behavior, namely the two major commandments of love God and love your brother (or neighbor). Many members of this group had direct interaction of Jesus or at least fewer than six-degrees of separation from him.
Beta churches were those which strongly affiliated with Paul, or visa versa. They tended to be in Jewish Diaspora communities outside of historic boundaries of Israel, and Gentile communities which had accepted Christian beliefs and rituals. Their emphasis was on believing that Jesus was God come to atone for sinful behavior. Salvation and doing good was a result of that faith. Few of these people would have direct knowledge of Jesus.
The Alpha and Beta church leaders were those who primarily wrote the Gospels, Epistles, and Prophecies which have become canonized as the New Testament (even though that process would be a few hundred years after their writing, revision, copying and circulating). The Gamma churches mostly developed in Northern Africa, what have become called Gnostic teaching and Coptic Christian communities. Their writings developed separately from the Alpha and Beta texts and mostly in the second century ACE. The Gamma text tend to be about knowledge and abstract understanding of Jesus, various historical accounts of Jesus’ activities, and sayings.
If that glazes you over, think of the Alpha texts as being “Everything I Ever Learned about Life, I Learned in Kindergarten” (mostly moral tales), the Beta texts as Shakespeare’s history plays (entertaining and enlightening, but of dubious historical details), and the Gamma texts as “Poor Richard’s Almanack” (practical knowledge and proverbs).
I do not have sufficient data to challenge the information which Brooks’ uses to build his thesis about how the Christian scriptures developed and reflect the progression of Christian churches (anyone into conjugating first century Hebrew or Greek verbs?). For this reading, I will accept his assertions to better understand their implications. As to his assumptions, some I may agree with (e.g. organizations develop; individuals may take on different importance, especially after they are gone, such as Jesus, Peter, and Paul; other people may co-opt what those named people may have done or said to promote an agenda which may or may have not been intended), and other assumptions I may not (e.g. later writings or revisions are fabrications merely because someone later on thought that they were useful to inset into prior versions of the text).
I think if one used Jesus and After to foment more friction in the contemporary church, or to dismiss Christianity all together, one would be missing Brooks’ point. Rather, I found his chronology an interesting way to get back into the scriptures which are so easy to fade out during the Sunday morning readings, or the daily devotions. I would recommend keeping your favorite translation of the Bible nearby, in order to read Brooks’ selected texts in their larger context (plus he uses the American Standard Bible translation which readeth less easily then most of Shakespeare’s history plays, though Brooks believeth it hath the verb tenses correct).
“We today are not the end of history. Future ages, if they think of us at all, will find us just as quaint as we not find our cultural ancestors. Perhaps, then, that impetus from an important idea of the early centuries still has a place to go, a way in which it can be more completely realized.”