Quaker Universalist Conversations

The Universalist Core of Christianity

Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years, by E. Bruce Brooks – A review

Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years, by E. Bruce Brooks (Studies in Early Christianity Series, Warring States Project, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 2017)

Is the Christian scripture a moving text which changes with time? E. Bruce Brooks, author of Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years, witnesses to such changes through an episodic philological analysis of Christian scriptures.

Brooks divides Christianity into three periods:

  1. Alpha Christians, who followed Jesus’s teachings during his lifetime and after.
  2. Beta Christians, who followed the teachings of Paul, with the addition of the doctrines of the resurrection and the atonement.
  3. Gamma Christians, who identified the importance of usually secret knowledge of their divine origin (gnosis).

The history of Christianity, in Brooks’ view, is the conflict of ideas among these three views, as reflected within the scriptural text of the second (“new”) testament. He indicates a similar structural understanding of conflicts within Judaism during this period.

"Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years," by E. Bruce Brooks (2017) Brooks writes that the text of the Christian scriptures includes changes made as Christianity developed and became more universal. He emphasizes interpolations (those phrases or verses which were added to the scriptures before they were formalized). In effect, these scriptural texts are persuasions and affirmations, telling people what to do and strengthening what they already believe.

The author argues that the national Jewish ethical insight was broadened by Christian writers to reflect a universal good news that applies to everyone. This universalization of the text reflects a gradual change in the development of the scriptures.

Brooks accepts the chronological priority of the gospel of Mark, followed by the gospels of Mathew and Luke, and finally the gospel of John, all written in the century following Jesus’ death. Each gospel was subject to interpolations of passages to persuade and affirm then current beliefs.

According to Brooks, the core of scripture for Christianity and Judaism is a response to the question of what to understand and to do for a good life: namely, to do justice, to do kindness, and to traverse your time humbly. The Catholic Worker Movement expresses this universalism similarly: to live out the works of mercy and the works of justice as part of the mystical body (community) of Christ. Quakers affirm the same.


Jesus and After offers a series of philological analyses of selected second testament scripture, primarily from the time of Jesus’ death through the end of the first century. It adds some related analyses of first (“old”) testament passages. Each analysis is preceded by a statement of the historic context in which the chosen scriptural passage is embedded, with a reflection on that passage.

Brooks’ tone is familiar and chatty, making the reading easy and clear. His analysis of relevant first and the second testament passages supports an implicit conclusion: Christianity is universal in its core and its application when directly focused on Jesus’ teaching and example, rather than on the doctrines of the atonement and resurrection that were added subsequently.

The book includes helpful footnotes for the reader, a chronology between 28 CE and 100 CE, a list of books and articles cited in the text, a list of the passages subject to the author’s philological analysis, and a short general subject index.

E. Bruce Brooks is a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a specialist in Asian languages and culture.


Quakers: Quakers include people with diverse views of the flexibility of Christian scriptures, just as Jews today reflect a variety of views on the transformation of Jewish scriptures over time. The concept of changing scriptures is helpful to people of diverse theological viewpoints.

By “changing scriptures” we mean the continuity of the interpretative process. The meaning of scripture for its readers evolves to conform to the experience and reason of the day. In this sense, then, our scriptures will be much changed in another thousand years. This is the reality of the human condition, and it applies to all scriptural tests of all religions and ideologies.

Quakers implicitly affirm the view of the universal applicability of scriptures. They affirm the universal nature of the truth that arises from right understanding of scripture. The difficulty lies in deciding what constitutes “right understanding.”

In this regard, Quakers have confidence in the human discernment process. Tradition (including scripture), experience, and reason each have a role in that process. However, Quakers know that the heart of discernment lies in the living experience of silent meeting for worship, or in the liturgical worship of Protestants, Catholics, and other faiths. Wherever it is that people bring their scriptures to life in community.

Quakers also hold belief in the role of tradition (including scripture), experience, and reason. They have confidence in the human discernment process, whether with the help of silent meeting for worship or of the protestant liturgical model.

Questions:

  • Did scripture change over time after the lifetime of Jesus?
  • Does scripture change over our lifetimes?

Comments

My understanding of scripture has certainly evolved over my lifetime. A rich topic for reflection and discussion.

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