Goldeneye from the Daism Forum requested some background on the history of Christian Scripture, based on some posts I did a while back on the topic. It's good timing, because I just got a book from Amazon called "From Jesus To Christianity" that delves into this very topic. I haven't started the book, but as I do I'll post some thoughts about it.
Before that, it would be a good idea to look at this website on "The History of the Gospels":
The author of this site makes a chronological list of the actual historical references to Jesus, and early material written about Jesus. It's very sparse, indicating that there just isn't a lot of historically verifiable information about Jesus or his tradition until around 200 A.D. And by that time, the material that has begun to emerge, such as the four Gospels, is commonly criticized by contemporaries as mythic in orgin or just plain invented.
My sense of the history of the Christian scriptures is that nothing was written down during the time of Jesus' lifetime (presuming he lived). The only tradition that survived his death was an oral tradition. It is likely that this oral tradition had many threads to it, many sources, but the main ones would of course have been Jesus' direct followers, such as his brother James. What is revealing about other sources, such as Paul, who appeared on the scene only 10-15 years after Jesus' death and became the most prominent exponent of Christianity in his time, is that even though one must presume that Paul knew people who had known Jesus directly, and was intimately connected with the entire Christian movement, Paul seems to know almost nothing about Jesus' life. In fact, none of the apochrypha seems to know much about Jesus. They mention teachings such as "love thy neighbor" but they do not attribute these teachings to Jesus. Many of them, such as James, Jesus' brother, do not seem to regard Jesus as a Divine Incarnation, and do not seem aware of, or place any importance upon, most of the details that later appear in the Gospels. Prominent Christians writing about Christian doctrine do not mention the four Gospels until late in the 2nd century A.D.
I would gather that at some point after Jesus' death things began to be written down by his followers, but only some of that information would have been historically accurate. One or several "book of sayings" attributed to Jesus were circulated, and some of these sayings found their way into the four Gospels, but many did not. The criteria for inclusion did not seem to have much of anything to do with historical accuracy, but for how it served the agenda of the authors, and the various factions of Christianity that had developed in the interim. Christianity had in a fairly short time fragmented into numerous sects with competing views and interests. Each of these sects supported certain texts and sayings and stories attributed to Jesus, and many were in conflict with one another.
The four Gospels would appear to be an attempt by one particular branch of Christianity to codify these sayings and stories in a manner that suited their purposes, and to exclude those views that did not. In the process, the notion of "heresy" became intrinsic to the Christian movement, declaring some views, sources, and material officially sanctioned and others officially banned. The Gospels were written with the intention not so much of organizing the historial record in a true fashion, as organizing the Christian movement itself around a single, streamlined message, and purging Christianity of elements that "didn't fit" that message. Whether Jesus himself would have "fit" into this organized message is questionable, but whatever the case would have been, Christianity created scriptures to shape the organization, rather than building an organization around the existing record. It did so out of necessity - at least in their view. The existing record was by that time utterly confusing and contradictory, and not amenable to a centrally organized religion. Jesus himself had not made any effort to codify and organize either his teachings or his following into an official religion, and so it was only natural that it did not follow that pattern until over a century after his death.
When the Gospels were finally written, therefore, the organizing principle was not one of historical accuracy or fidelity to the original teachings of Jesus. The organizing principle was one of creating a scriptural record which could serve the purposes of an organized religion. This meant creating scriptures which would 1) hold a community of believers together, and 2) provide the best tools for missionary purposes. This meant that the complex and esoteric teachings of Jesus had to be simplified into the simple message: believe in me and be saved. The life of Jesus had to be simplified into a simple sacrificial ritual of birth, teaching, crucifixion and ressurrection. The Gospels are a conscious literary creation, not a passive gathering of texts, sayings, and stories. They are a work of genius in that respect, but they are not a trustworthy account of either the life or the teachings of Jesus.
Part of their genius is that the Gospels do in fact purport to be historically accurate. In this respect, they emphasize the mimesis element of tragic drama in a fashion that had never been fully implemented before. Aristotle wrote that tragic drama requires three elements: 1)identification with the hero, 2) mimesis, the creation of the illusion of dramatic reality, and 3) catharsis, or the sacrifice of the hero, which brings about the greatest emotional purging in the audience. Each of these elements has to be present to produce what Aristotle considered the beneficial experience of dramatic tragedy.
What we see in the Christian Gospels is an attempt to reformulate the Christian scriptures into a profound form of dramatic tragedy. First, we have Jesus transformed from a spiritual teacher into a tragic hero. Second, we have the story retold in a manner which dramatically accentuates its purported reality. Third we have a dramatic catharsis of universal import. And fourth, we have a happy ending, which is essential in giving the audience a reason to keep coming back.
In writing the scriptures as if they were an historical document, the Gospels create the illusion that this is how it really happened. This is essential for setting up the emotional impact of the final catharsis of the crucifixion. If we thought the story was simply a metaphor, or a myth, Jesus' death fails to have the necessary tragic impact that it does if Jesus is made into a real, flesh and blood character, a God tragically appearing in human history, and then dying for real also. Previous stories of the life and death of Gods, tragic as they often were, never seemed entirely real. But the Gospels use the mimetic device of appearing to be written not as myth or drama, but as historical fact in order to make their dramatic conclusion so powerful. And it works. The crucifixion achieves its lasting emotional power because the Gospels insist on our believing that it actually happened exactly as written. The scriptures are made into the "infallible word of God" in order to immortalize this mimetic device. This is why Christian fundamentalists cling so powerfully to the reality of the scriptures. Because without that mimetic reality, the dramatic story and conclusion fail to achieve full catharsis. And it is this experience of catharsis that Christians equate with the feeling of being saved.
The death and ressurrection of Jesus are made into a spiritual experience by the belief that it really happened. The scriptures build that belief by various literary devices, the chief of them being the use of a narrative voice purporting to be an eyewitness historian merely recording facts, rather than a canny storyteller spinning a good yarn. This leads to a cathartic experience of death and ressurrection in the emotional being of the believer, the audience, the reader, because he has been led to identify so strongly with Jesus, which is not possible with a mythic God. Thus, the cathartic experience of hearing or reading the Gospels leads to the sensation of Jesus being born in one's own soul. The Christian feels saved by his cathartic experience, and he relives that catharsis every time he hears the story retold. It achieves an incredible missionary power, and is able to bind together a community of believers who have achieved the same cathartic experience. This is the evangelical power of the Christian message.
So that's my view of how and why the Christian scriptures were created. They are literary creations of a high order, but that doesn't make them true in any but a literary sense. I seriously doubt that Jesus' actual spiritual teachings were about experiencing this cathartic release that comes from meditating on the story of Jesus' life, crucifixion and ressurrection as presented in the bible. When Mel Gibson experiences his great catharsis in his movie The Passion of the Christ, he is not experiencing a spiritual state that Jesus would have recognized and taught as having anything to do with his teachings about God and heaven. That experience of dramatic catharsis is essentially a pagan experience that is found in all kinds of sacrifical drama in the ancient world, from the Greeks to the Egyptians to the Persians. The difference is that the Christians pumped up the element of mimesis to such a height that the cathartic experience of the Gospels is much greater. Likewise, the billing of the hero is much greater, in that Jesus is presented not just as one God among many, but the only true son of God, and the consequences of his death and ressurrection are nothing more than the fate of the entire universe. And as mentioned, because Jesus is presented as a flesh and blood human being, it is much easier to identify with him. All of these are great dramatic devices which keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and keeps them coming back for more and more.
These devices are all very effective. They just have nothing to do with a genuine spiritual path of any kind, either of the type Jesus probably taught, or any other legitimate spiritual realizer. These are the kinds of devices used by charlatans, frauds, con men, and hucksters of all kinds. They are harmless enough when used for purposes of simple entertainment, but incredibly dangerous when used for serious purposes. They lead to an emotional arousal which supercedes rational understanding and insight, and which leads people to abandon their innate intelligence and follow instead a course of action which is emotional unstable and subject to indoctrination and control by authority. These are the emotional devices used to mount religious wars and pograms of racial and ethnic purification around the world. And that is why Christian scripture has been used so frequently and successfully for just that purpose. It's designed for that very use, not specifically, but at least generically. One can't use the Lankavatara Sutra, for example, to motivate people to launch a crusade, but one can use the Gospels very effectively for that purpose, because that is their purpose: to emotionally arouse people into a state of cathartic release, after which they are emptied of self, and can be reprogramed according to a new agenda. Many religious groups employ similar methods for "brainwashing" their members. Examine Adidam thoroughly, and one sees the same principle at work.