A personal account by a noted classics scholar

Nearly nineteen hundred years have passed since John added the last words to the New Testament; a little over nineteen hundred have slipped into history since the first words of the same book were written. Until recently I should have said without hesitation that those first pages were the first letter to the Corinthian church. But in 1972 a fragment of Mark’s Gospel was deciphered that was dated before identification, at A.D. 50. It came from Qumran on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, from one of the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and, if the date is sustained, it antedates the Corinthian letter by two years and takes the second Gospel back fourteen years nearer to the time of Christ. Before this discovery I should never have claimed a date earlier than A.D. 64.

So fresh and continually expanding is biblical scholarship. John’s Gospel provides striking illustration. It is thirty years since, in strong reaction against Bultmann and his school, A. G. Olmstead insisted that the narratives of John could be the oldest part of the gospel tradition, going back to Aramaic narratives earlier than A.D. 40, and a long sequence of small archaeological discoveries have all, since the Second World War, pressed toward that same conclusion. To list a few of them: First, John, much more frequently than the Synoptists, uses the term “rabbi.” This was thought to indicate a second-century origin for the Gospel, when the term “rabbi” began to be used in the synagogues. However, in 1930 E. L. Sukenik discovered an ossuary in an ancient tomb that was certainly much earlier than the second century. These earthenware or stone containers for the bones of the dead bore names and titles, and Sukenik’s find bore the title of Rabbi Theodotion.

This was two years before the Nazareth Decree was published, that strange slab of stone from Nazareth bearing a decree of Claudius that throws vivid light on the story of the empty tomb. And in 1935 G. H. Roberts found a fragment of papyrus in the collection in Manchester’s John Rylands Library that may be dated to before A.D. 130. It contained a portion of John’s text. In 1935 two other scholars published a larger papyrus fragment of slightly later date containing a harmony of the Gospels, including passages from John. Books, in those days, were not rapidly multiplied or rapidly worn out, so tattered remnants from a thousand miles away from Ephesus, where the book was written, and dating to something near a generation of John’s last activities, support with great strength the authority and historical worth of the Gospel.

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Ossuary inscriptions also bear the common names of John’s Gospel, which was irresponsibly dismissed as fictional—not only Mary but also Martha, Elizabeth, Salome, Johanna, and others. The name Lazarus, a form for Eleazar, is common. Topographical allusions have similarly been under strong attack, on the allegation that the writer did not know Palestine. Father Vincent has uncovered and identified Gabbatha, or The Pavement, a fine Roman stone floor under the Ecce Homo Arch, 2,500 square meters of it. It was the court of the Tower of Antonia, headquarters of the Jerusalem garrison, a rocky elevation above the surrounding terrain, very properly called Gabbatha, “an elevation.” The importance of this identification is that it takes the tradition back to a date before the Great Rebellion of A.D. 66 to 70. When the city fell, the Pavement was lost under fallen masonry. Other names and places—Aenon and Sychar, for two examples out of many—have been similarly identified, and in like fashion point to a pre-rebellion tradition.

Recent archaeology has destroyed much nonsense and will destroy more. And I use the word nonsense deliberately, for theories and speculations find currency in biblical scholarship that would not be tolerated for a moment in any other branch of literary or historical criticism. Alfred Loisy, the French modernist scholar, suggested that John, or whoever wrote John (Loisy held the theory of mid-second-century origin) added five colonnades to the pool of John 5 simply to remind the reader of the five books of the Law, the Pentateuch, which Jesus came to fulfill. Israeli excavations have quite recently shown that before A.D. 70 there was, in fact, a large rectangular pool with a colonnade on each of the four sides, and one across the middle.

But all this is in long illustration of what I remarked about the vitality and progress of biblical scholarship. John’s Gospel, which I chose for illustration, matters. Much depends on those first eighteen verses, on the words said to Nicodemus, on the vivid story of the dawn race to the tomb of Peter and John. Since 1927 I have lectured almost every year on John’s Gospel and written on John’s writings, but there was much I did not know as sharply as I do now from recent studies.

Again let me illustrate. In May, 1972, I chanced upon a sculptured panel of stone in the Athens Archaeological Museum. It depicted the myth of the worship of the Earth Mother, Demeter, the ruins of whose temple stand at Eleusis, now an industrial suburb of Athens. Kore, daughter of Demeter, had been carried off by Pluto, god of the underworld, to be his bride, and in desperate search for her daughter, the legend said, Demeter was hospitably received by the king of Eleusis. She was entertained by him until Zeus, the chief god, forced a compromise by which Kore stayed in the underworld for six months and returned to earth to her mother for the remaining six months of the year. Hence winter and summer, the reflection of the Earth Mother’s grief and withdrawal, bounty and joy.

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Hence, too, a religion, not ignoble, whereby each year specially prepared and purified initiates were received into the cult, and were said to share Kore’s resurrection and be “born again.” This was the sort of myth that C. S. Lewis thought had some premonitory significance of future truth. The exact nature of the ceremonies of initiation that took place at the Eleusis temple is a mystery, for the “born again” were not allowed to divulge what took place, but we know that the climax, when the great spiritual renewal was thought to take place, was marked by the uplifting of an ear of corn, the symbol of death and resurrection.

The ritual arose from the fact that, according to the legend, when Demeter left the king’s house, in return for the hospitality she had received she gave to the little prince Triptolemos a grain of wheat. She told him it had to be planted and to die, and if it died would bear much fruit. This is how corn came to man, and since Demeter was also called Ceres, we perpetuate the old story whenever we eat cereals.

But in the Archaelogical Museum I came much nearer to reality before the scultpured panel. It showed Demeter presenting the grain of wheat to the prince. I did not lack a text when I spoke next day to the Athens Evangelical Church: “And there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the festival, and they came to Philip and asked him, saying: ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’ And Jesus said: ‘Truly, I tell you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains a corn of wheat. If it die, it brings forth much fruit’ ” (John 12:20 ff.). The Lord was telling the visitors that they had an inkling of truth in one of their own cults. How Paul picked up the thread (1 Cor. 15:35–38), obviously aware of Christ’s saying, which John was not to write down for another forty years, is another story. He was writing to Corinth, and the road to Corinth from Athens, which he trod, runs through Eleusis.

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The month of May, 1972, was indeed for me a month of new awareness, especially about John and Paul. Round the seven churches of Asia, and in John’s own Ephesus, I saw illustration of what I knew, that the Word of God is alive and relevant, continually opening new vistas of understanding. Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae, lying in a triangle in the great, wide, green Lycus valley, seemed alive with the words of the apostles. “And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of Laodicea,” writes Paul to Colossae (Col. 4:16), and the words echo strangely up the ten-mile-wide valley plain between the two walls of hills. I stood on a pile of stones in a wide mass of crops—oats, wheat, and barley—and read aloud the letter John wrote to Laodicea. The ground is scattered with worn stone, and rough with the buried remains of the most affluent town in Asia Minor, so rich that it refused relief from the Roman senate after the great earthquake. It was “rich and increased with goods and had need of nothing” (Rev. 3:14–18). And on the ridge a few miles away one could see the cliff of silica terraces running in gleaming pools of thermal water from the springs of the spa which is Heliopolis. The people of both rich and easy-going towns, where the spirit of the town had invaded the church, knew what John meant when he said: “You are neither cold nor hot, and because you are lukewarm I will spit you from my mouth.” That soda-laden water, in view of Laodicea, invites precisely that rejection.

We went down to Ephesus where Paul’s and John’s paths tangled, took ship, and crossed to Patmos, where all the words of Revelation were vividly real. The conviction came to me that John was in protective custody, sent out of Ephesus for his safety, as the authorities sent Paul, and that the aged bishop in exile had the run of the island. From the top one can look down on the little white town and the two harbors that almost cut the island in two. The sun was sloping and turning the sea to a flat sheet of gold. It was John’s sea of glass, the sea that is never absent from sight or sound. “His voice was as the sound of many waters.…” My granddaughter and I climbed down, cutting through scree and thicket, a Byzantine churchyard, steps and lanes, pursued all the time by a vast uplifted mass of cumulus, shot with lightning and rumbling with thunder. One could imagine John writing, as great gouts of rain fell like bullets: “Round the throne was a rainbow like an emerald and from the throne came stabs of lightning and voices of thunder” (Rev. 4:5, 6).

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Paul, that great and vastly intelligent man, has become especially real and new to me. In Corinth last year I sat where Gallio, the governor of Achaia, sat, on the stone platform in the ruined Corinth marketplace, and read aloud in Greek and English the speech of that very noble gentleman, Seneca’s respected and admired brother: “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or crime, Jews, I should have reason to listen to you. But since it is a matter of quibbling about words and names, and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to adjudicate on these matters” (Acts 18:12–17). It was one of the few occasions in his life when Paul had not been able to say a word, but I think he never forgot the scene. Down at the other end of the marketplace still stands part of the temple of Apollo that survived the Roman sack of the city in 146 B.C. I can imagine Paul had the picture vividly in his mind when he wrote to that unruly congregation a year or two later. “You are the temples of the Holy Spirit, for God has said, I will live in you.…” There stands the ruin, windswept, clean, with the sky and the purple gulf showing through the eight Doric columns.

I have followed Paul through Acts and the Epistles, and back to Acts, and on to the pastoral letters, getting to know his ardent nature, his burdens for the church, his anxieties, his tenderness, his love, his friendships, his strife and pain. I have been with him in the home and on the road, in the pulpit and on shipboard. I once sailed along the length of Crete, below the southern coast, where the Alexandrian grainship sought to edge westward out of the wild wind blowing from the steppes of Europe as the rising air above the hot Sahara sucked in the chill of the Black Sea. It was in A.D. 59 perhaps, about the beginning of November, when sailing was considered dangerous. The ship-owner was anxious to get his cargo to Rome, and risked it. The western end of Crete rises mountainously into a clump of snow-capped peaks, and those high valleys and slopes take the northerlies, twist and funnel them and hurl their strength down on to the sea. This is what happened in November, 1912 or 1913 years ago. The lumbering galley was caught and hurled blindly west, the captain fighting not to be driven into the great oblong bay on the north African coast where a thousand wrecks in the shallow waters now make a paradise for underwater archaeologists. They jettisoned the cargo and put ropes round the hull to bind the straining timbers. It is a superbly told story; Paul’s gifts of leadership and dauntless courage stand out.

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They were flung ashore on Malta and one almost breathes with relief, for Colossians, Philippians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Titus had not been written yet. They were the work of the years in protective custody in Rome, and the period of release and freedom that followed. Add also the first letter to Timothy. The second letter came in Paul’s second imprisonment, a darker and harsher experience that ended in death. It was about A.D. 67, and Paul was taken in Troas, so hastily that he left his books and cloak behind him—or perhaps he was arrested in the street and did not wish to incriminate his host by returning to fetch them.

Another deep and illuminating recent experience has been the study and exposition of the second letter to Timothy. I have caught the urgency of that book, its uncompromising stand for an unpolluted Gospel, its stem insistence that there is no other task for the Church. “Preach the gospel, when opportunity comes, or when you have to make the opportunity.… All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting false ideas. It straightens out a man’s life, and trains him for upright living” (2 Tim. 4:2, 3:16, 17).

I have felt that inspiration. Listen to earlier words in that third chapter and feel it too. “Timothy, grasp the fact in the last days there will be difficult times. Men will be utterly selfish, greedy for money, braggarts, contemptuous, profane of speech, rebels against their parents, without gratitude or religion or natural affection, implacable, slanderous, uncontrolled, untamable, hating the good, traitors, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, with a form of religion which denies religion worth and reality.” Rome of A.D. 67 or the Western world of 1973? But into this devil’s brew of moral breakdown with faith unconquerable, Paul sent the Gospel and the Word. He had left Timothy, a timid and not very robust young man, in Ephesus, in charge of the little band of Christians there. John had not yet arrived, it seems. With sublime optimism Paul thus attacked the evil world.

For such a world what hope is there save in rediscovery of the Bible? The old greatness of the English people was built round the Bible. That famous old classic Green’s Short History of the English People is still worth reading. In his eighth chapter, which covers the twenty years from 1583 to 1603, J. R. Green tells of the great moral reformation that swept over Britain. “England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible. It was yet the one English book which was familiar to every Englishman. It was read in churches and read at home, and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not deadened, kindled a startling enthusiasm.”

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Four centuries ago it was quick and powerful. The narratives, the parables, the cutting edge of the prophets’ voices, the appeal of the Gospel, the indictment of sin, prayer, song, psalm, the stern commandments and the warnings of judgment, came to a land denied such treasure, and transformed it. The Bible molded English prose and inspired great poetry. We think of Milton, who was born in 1608, and Bunyan, born twenty years later. The Bible shaped and fashioned the nation’s character and made England a free man’s haven. “One dominant influence,” Green continues, “told on human action. A new conception of life and of man superseded the old. A new moral and religious impulse spread through every class. The whole temper of the nation felt the change.”

The Times of London recently carried the obituary of a distinguished classical scholar, Dr. E. V. Rieu. I had known him as a translator for many years, for he was the scholar who rendered Homer into very modern English for the “Penguin Classics.” Rieu was sixty, and a lifelong agnostic when the same firm invited him to translate the Gospels. His son remarked: “It will be interesting to see what father makes of the four Gospels. It will be even more interesting to see what the four Gospels make of father.” The answer was soon forthcoming. A year later Dr. Rieu, convinced and converted, joined the Church of England.

In a radio interview with J. B. Phillips, Rieu confessed that he had undertaken the task of translation because of “an intense desire to satisfy himself as to the authenticity and spiritual content of the Gospels.” He was determined to approach the documents as if they were newly discovered Greek manuscripts. “Did you not get the feeling,” asked Canon Phillips, “that the whole material was extraordinarily alive?” The classical scholar agreed. “I got the deepest feeling,” he replied. “My work changed me. I came to the conclusion that these words bear the seal of the Son of Man and God. And they’re the Magna Carta of the human spirit.” “I found it particularly thrilling,” Phillips concluded, “to hear a man who is a scholar of the first rank, as well as a man of wisdom and experience, openly admitting that these words written long ago were alive with power. They bore to him as to me, the ring of truth” (J. B. Phillips, The Ring of Truth).

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And that, of course, is what the writer to the Hebrews (4:12) said nineteen centuries ago. Let me give it to you in the Living Bible rendering, an appropriate version for such a word: “For whatever God says to us is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest sword, cutting swift and deep into our innermost thoughts and desires … exposing us for what we really are.”

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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