The Religious Education Committee asked me last night to talk with the teen group on a Sunday I'm not preaching. The teen group has been studying Jesus this year, and their curriculum goes up through crucifixion and resurrection, but their question is: how did we get here (modern Christianity) from there (Easter morning)?
It's an excellent question, and one that many people in our society have never bothered to consider. The (mis)understanding that, I think, many fundamentalist Christians hold is that the disciples immediately sat down and wrote out the story and bound it together. The words they wrote were either dictated by God or somehow inspired, endorsed, or edited by God. That Bible was handed down through the generations (with each translation being similarly divinely edited), and we have it in exactly that form today.
Nothing, of course, could be further from what those who study the historical Jesus believe to be the truth. Of course, there are different schools of thought as to what was exactly the case, but those who search for the historical truth rather than looking to bend history to match a preassumptions, come to some very different conclusions.
Here's what I've come to understand: The gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus. The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were only some gospels among many. They won out to be canonized (put in our Bible) because they were popular, and, particularly, favorites of those in power. Mark is the earliest gospel, and the others used Mark as a source, as well as a sayings gospel we call "Q" for "quelle" or "source." Mark was written around 70 CE (AD). The latest gospel of the four New Testament ones is John, which is not one of the synoptic gospels. John, therefore, I believe, is less reliable. The much of the material in John is not found elsewhere. John may be as late as 100 CE. The process of deciding which books went in the Bible was not divinely inspired. Rather, it was a political process. There's no reason to believe that these texts have particular divine inspiration or religious import more than any of the other early Christian writings.
All this leads me to believe that there is no reason, based on what we know of how the Bible was created and put together, to accept any sort of literal understanding of the Bible as the word of God and inerrant. Rather, they are particularly human writings which contain some spiritual insight, but which are also full of contradiction and error. However, unlike what some people I've encountered believe, I do believe that there is reasonable proof that Jesus lived and was crucified. There are a couple of texts which are not from the Bible which corroborate this.
So that's how I see it... at least in a very brief way. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to talk about all of this 2000 years of history to 6-12 graders in 45 minutes or less without being incredibly dull.