A lot of religions and denominations these days claim to speak with a spiritual authority that comes from studying some certain book or books that are supposed to be divinely inspired. The most famous of these books is, of course, the Bible, but there are other books as well, such as the Book of Mormon and the Koran. Many people follow the practice of claiming spiritual authority on the basis of some ancient book, but not as many people know the full history of how this practice came about.
In the old days, a few millenia ago, if a man wanted to claim spiritual authority, he had to claim to be a prophet. This approach had its drawbacks, however, because people tend to have higher expectations for prophets, due to their claimed direct connection with God Himself. With prophetic authority came prophetic responsibility, not only to prove that what they said was really true, but to live up to a higher moral standard as well. Few men were willing or able to live up to such high standards, and those whose predictions failed to come to pass were not uncommonly executed as punishment for being a false prophet.
Still, despite its drawbacks, prophetic authority was very attractive to religious teachers, and prophets continued to arise among the people until around the time of the return from the Babylonian Captivity. At that point history was changed forever by a small innocent-seeming development that made prophecy almost unnecessary. Ezra, one of the leaders of the returning Jews, began to teach religion to the people by reading and interpreting to them the sacred writings.
It was not immediately apparent to them, but the school of Ezra had stumbled onto ingenious way to claim prophetic authority without assuming the heavy burdens of prophetic responsibility. By switching the focus of authority to a collection of “inspired” books, one could claim to be a scholar who understood what the books were saying, and could thus claim prophetic authority for one’s “Scripture-based” teachings, without directly claiming to be a prophet oneself.
Over the following three or four centuries, there arose a whole class of people who set themselves apart as students and scribes of the Scriptures, and who claimed spiritual authority on the basis of their studies. They became known as “The Set-Apart Ones” or “The Separated Ones,” which in their native language was the name “Pharisee.” Strange as it may sound today, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the scribes and Pharisees who were the first Bible-based believers.
The problem that soon became manifest is that the text can be seen to support more than one interpretation, depending on who does the reading. In the absence of a true prophet, there was no way to determine authoritatively whose interpretation (if any) was correct. The “correct” interpretation wound up being whatever interpretation was being preached by whoever happened to be the most persuasive, and even then different people had different opinions about whose views were the most persuasive.
Inevitably, the Pharisees fell into endless theological argument and self-serving interpretations, as well as the belief that their study of Scripture made them spiritually and morally superior to those whose understanding of Scripture was (in their eyes) inferior. Eventually one young man, though raised to believe the teachings of the Pharisees, became so disgusted by all the hypocrisy and self-righteous bigotry that he went back to the older approach, and began teaching “as one who had authority, and not like the scribes” (Mark 1:22).
This man, of course, was Jesus. Possibly in reaction against the Bible-based faith of the Pharisees, he wrote no Scriptures, nor did any of his disciples–at least, not until after the conversion of a Pharisee named Saul. Saul, better known as the apostle Paul, wrote many epistles, and sponsored the writing of other books, eventually penning or sponsoring over half of what is now the New Testament. Soon people were referring to Paul’s writings as Scripture, and identifying Paul’s teachings as being Christianity. Eventually, other writings began to appear, written by (or in the name of) some of Jesus’ other apostles. But the ones who were closest to Jesus were the last to put their teachings into writing, and often expressed a certain reluctance to do so, preferring oral, personal teaching rather than written traditions.
Still the books were eventually written, if not always eagerly. Many of these early writings did not make it into the canon of the New Testament, yet most of them enjoyed a wide reading within the early church. It may seem surprising that the church didn’t do more to reject the “fakes,” but you have to realize that in the early church’s view, authority rested with those who had been personally appointed to spiritual authority. Following Jesus’ lead, the early church regarded the authority of a book as being derived from the authority of the person, and not vice versa. Early Christians freely quoted whatever books helped to illustrate or corroborate or interpret the teachings of the church, whether they were “canonical” books or not.
For many hundreds of years, the church followed the precedent set by Jesus regarding personal authority versus Bible-based authority. With the writing of the apostolic books, however, the seeds of Bible-based Christianity were sown, and the number of those who claimed personal prophetic authority rapidly diminished after the time of Christ. For the most part, church leaders claimed only a lesser personal authority based on being ordained to the clergy, and in their teaching they supplemented their personal authority with quotations from the sacred writings, thus borrowing a certain spiritual authority from the books themselves.