Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.

This entry was posted in Faith and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Comments

  1. Dana Ames
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Scott,

    Ben Witherington has an interesting book review today, right up your alley.
    http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2011/01/ancient-readers-and-manuscripts—-william-a-johnsons-take.html

    Dana

  2. Posted January 7, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! It was a really interesting review. Makes me want to go buy the book, but I’m not sure I want to spend $55 for it.

%d bloggers like this: