Red Letter Living

Many of us have “Red Letter Edition” Bibles.  These editions have all the words of Jesus printed in red.  The idea is that, even though all of scripture is important, we need to pay particular attention to what Jesus had to say.

I think that it is more important than ever for us to reemphasize the words of Jesus in our Christian lives.  He gave us pretty clear teaching on how we should live our lives — more about who we should be and what we should do than what we must believe.  Most of the heavy doctrinal burdens and issues that we bear today did not originate with the Savior.  They were added later by various church leaders.

I found two interesting blogs that focus on this perspective:

I plan to read through the gospels again, using my red letter edition Bible this time.  I will also look at some of the accounts of Jesus’ sayings that were not accepted into our Bibles (the New Testament apocrypha) to see what they have to add.  And finally, I plan to augment my reading with the Aramaic New Testament (see  Since it is almost certain that Jesus spoke to his Jewish followers in Aramaic (not the Greek from which our English translations have been derived), this should provide an improved rendering of the words that Jesus actually said.

I have been reminded that we call ourselves Christians, not “Paulians” or “Peterians” or “Augustinians”.  The teachings of Christ himself must certainly receive our primary attention.


I also touch on some of these topics in my other blog at


The Canon

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”.  A biblical canon is a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture.  Because the Bible is considered by most believers to be the ultimate authority on questions of Christian doctrine and practice, I think that it is very important to understand its development over the centuries following the life and death of Jesus.  This will be the main focus of my study and blog posts for a while.

Along with the study of the documents, it will be important to consider the people who were most instrumental in bringing us our modern day scriptures.  I was just reading about  Irenaeus, who was a church leader in the second century.  He was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, which is now Lyons, France.  He was a disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself was a disciple of the original apostles.  His writings, with those of Clement and Ignatius, are taken as among the earliest signs of the developing doctrine of the primacy of the Roman-centric church hierarchy.

Irenaeus is the earliest church leader known to recognize the canonical character of all four gospels.  This is important, because prior to that time many Christian groups recognized only one or two of the gospels as authoritative.  Many did not accept the Gospel of John as authentic until it was declared so by Irenaeus.  It is also important to understand which writings were rejected by Irenaeus, such as the Gospel of Thomas.  Many of the rejected writings were ordered to be destroyed, so it is often difficult to recover the history of any Christian thought for that era that was outside of the mainstream church doctrine.

The amount of information on the development of the Bible is staggering, but I will do my best to sort through it and share my findings as I go.

Here is a link to a useful summary timeline of the development of the scriptures:

I found two other links that will get us started.  There are many, many others.

I have two books that I will use to begin my studies.  One is Early Christian Writings, published by Penguin Classics.  The other is The Journey from Texts to Translations, The Origin and Development of the Bible,  by Paul D. Wenger.

You can always check the Bibliography and Related Web Sites pages on this blog for additional resources.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

My recent study of the history of the scriptures naturally led me to  the topic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I found that I had been confusing the discoveries at Nag Hammadi with those near the Dead Sea in the same general time frame.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 at the site known as Khirbet Qumran.  They were apparently produced by a group called the Essenes.  The Essenes were one of three leading Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as flourishing in the second century BC., the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  They were a hybrid sect with both Jewish and pagan traditions, and they had pretty much disappeared by the end of the first century AD.  Among the cache of scrolls are three distinct types of material. There are copies of the actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures, commentaries on the biblical texts, and writings about their own sect’s beliefs and practices.

The documents discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in late 1945 were very different.  The authors were Gnostic Christians, and the writings were in codex form (books) rather than in scrolls.  There were written in Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians.  They date back to the second century AD.  The most famous of the discoveries is the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.  It was bound into the same codex as the Gospel of Phillip, which is the Gnostic gospel that I purchased last week.

Most of the Nag Hammadi writings use Christian or Jewish terminology, but they usually offer a somewhat different view of Jesus than what the Church has established.  The writers are called Gnostics, which is a term derived from the Greek word “gnosis” (meaning experiential knowledge).   Something I read recently about the Gnostics referred to them as one of the three main branches of Christianity in the first centuries.  I have not yet discovered the names or descriptions of the other two branches.  Do any of you know what they were?

I expect that I will be writing more about the Gnostics in future posts.  There is much information about them and their writings and beliefs on the internet.   Author Elaine Pagels has written extensively on the Gnostics and the Church, but be prepared for controversy if you read her books.

All of the surviving 52 texts (1200 pages) found at Nag Hammadi have been public since 1975, and are available online.  The originals are currently conserved at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The Peshitta (Aramaic New Testament)

My previous post made mention of an Aramaic New Testament.  This has turned out to be an interesting side trip in my studies.  The assertion I mentioned is that the original gospels were written in Aramaic rather than Greek.   However, regardless of whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote in Greek, it is important to note that the actual verbal sayings of Jesus to his disciples were almost certainly in Aramaic.  So the “original Greek texts” that we refer to so often in modern times can only be translations at best.  It seems to me that reading a transliteration of the New Testament in Aramaic would be the closest we English speakers can get to receiving the actual words of Christ.

Some years ago I was given a copy of the The Peshitta on CD ROM.  The Peshitta is the official Bible of the Church of the East.  The name Peshitta in Aramaic means “Straight”, in other words, the original and pure New Testament.  The Church of the East believes that the Peshitta is the only authentic and pure text which contains the books in the New Testament that were written in Aramaic, the Language of Mshikha (the Messiah) and His Disciples.

In reference to the originality of the Peshitta, the words of His Holiness Mar Eshai Shimun, Catholicos Patriarch of the Church of the East, are summarized as follows:

“With reference to….the originality of the Peshitta text, as the Patriarch and Head of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East, we wish to state, that the Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in the Aramaic original, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and that the Peshitta is the text of the Church of the East which has come down from the Biblical times without any change or revision.”

The above information is from an excellent web site:  This website includes the full Aramaic text of the four gospels plus Acts, along with an interlinear English translation.  I keep finding new things to study much more rapidly than I can keep up!

More Books

I love bookstores.  I discovered a nice little bookstore in Cottonwood, Arizona yesterday.  Their inventory was pretty unusual, and I found a couple of books (at half price!) to add to my collection.  That is one reason why I entitled this post “More Books”.

The other reason that I chose that title is that are many more books and writings that were written in the early years after Christ than those which are included in our Bibles today.  They are sometimes called the New Testament Apocrypha.  Many are similar in form and content to the gospels and epistles that are in our Bibles, but they were not judged suitable to be included with the canonical books of scripture.  The names of these books could lead one to believe that they were written by apostles or other prominent figures of Jesus’ day.  However, actual authorship is often questionable.

The two books that I just purchased are text and commentary on The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Judas.  I already had a book on the New Testament Apocrypha which includes a large number of early writings, including The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Bartholomew and The Gospel According to Mary.   I have a lot of studying to do!  Even if we accept that the early church leaders were correct — or even divinely inspired — in their selection of the canonical books, these writings of the first centuries after Christ can inform us on what the earliest Christians thought was important.  They are part of the history of Christianity.

Another subject for my future studies and future blog posts will be the history of how we got our Bibles.  The selection of the books to be included is one major aspect, but there are also issues surrounding the identification of the earliest/original texts, the accuracy of the copies made by scribes, and the accuracies of the various translations.  For example, I came across some information a while back that theorizes that the original gospel writings weren’t in Greek at all.  That theory is based on some textual analysis plus the idea that the Jewish apostles would almost certainly have written in their native Aramaic language and not the Greek trade language.  In that case, what we consider “original Greek” texts today would actually be early translations from Aramaic.  The more I dig into the earliest Christian history, the more I learn that those formative first centuries were much more complicated than I thought!