Saturday, 12 February 2011

The New Testament - A critical introduction

1.  What is the New Testament?

The New Testament is the collection of religious literature that goes together with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament to make up the Christian Bible.  It consists of 27 separate books, which have traditionally been divided up as follows:

The Gospels

The Gospel according to St Matthew (GMatthew)
The Gospel according to St Mark (GMark)
The Gospel according to St Luke (GLuke)
The Gospel according to St John (GJohn)

The Acts

The Acts of the Apostles (Acts)

The Epistles (Letters) of St Paul

The Epistle to the Romans (Romans)
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians)
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians)
The Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians)
The Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians)
The Epistle to the Philippians (Philippians)
The Epistle to the Colossians (Colossians)
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians)
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians)
The First Epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy)
The Second Epistle to Timothy (2 Timothy)
The Epistle to Titus (Titus)
The Epistle to Philemon (Philemon)
The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews)

The Catholic (General) Epistles

The Epistle of James (James)
The First Epistle of Peter (1 Peter)
The Second Epistle of Peter (2 Peter)
The First Epistle of John (1 John)
The Second Epistle of John (2 John)
The Third Epistle of John (3 John)
The Epistle of Jude (Jude)

The Revelation

The Revelation [or Apocalypse] of St John (Revelation)

A considerable number of early Christian texts did not make it into the New Testament. These include various miscellaneous Church documents which still survive: a letter written by the leader of the church at Rome to the church at Corinth, for example, and a manual of teaching called the Didache. They also include the ‘New Testament apocrypha’ - documents written some time later than the canonical NT books which were influenced by or set out to imitate them. These include a number of apocryphal gospels, such as the famous Gospel of Thomas.

When were the NT writings first recognised as the NT - as sacred scripture? There is evidence that the NT books were already widely known and regarded as a body of religiously authoritative works as early as the first half of the second century AD: the early church leader St Polycarp of Smryna, for example, quotes from nearly all of them in his writings. By the end of the second century, there is undeniable evidence that a rough, unwritten canon (authoritative list) of NT texts had evolved, though there continued to be disputes about the status of some of the minor books. Most of these disputes had been resolved by the early 300s, and the first ‘official’ lists of canonical works were drawn up and approved by church leaders in the second half of the fourth century (though controversy over the status of Revelation rumbled on for several hundred years afterwards).


2.  Different theological views of the New Testament

The traditional teaching of the Christian church has been that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, is both infallible in its theological and ethical teachings and inerrant in its historical narrative.

It is well known that conservative Protestants typically hold to a ‘high’ doctrine of biblical inspiration: indeed, it is one of the defining features of their faith. Suffice it here to quote from the well-known 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches…. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching…. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

For an earlier and rather more rhetorical attempt to affirm the same doctrine, we may turn to a passage from a sermon delivered in 1861 by an Anglican preacher from the University pulpit in Oxford:

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the throne. Every book of it, every chapter of it, every word of it, every syllable of it (where are we to stop?), every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High. The Bible is none other than the Word of God, not some part of it more, some part of it less, but all alike the utterance of Him who sitteth upon the throne, faultless, unerring, supreme. (Cited in J.Estlin Carpenter, The Bible in the Nineteenth Century, 7)

On the Catholic side, the last great papal affirmation of the traditional view of biblical inspiration was Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, issued in 1893:

[I]t is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred…. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church….

Leo XIII’s pronouncement was followed in the early years of the Twentieth Century by a series of highly conservative pronouncements by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Modern theories about the composition of the different books of the Bible were censured, and Catholic theologians were forbidden to teach them. The thaw began only with Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spritu (1943), which was followed by the Second Vatical Council’s decree Dei Verbum and the explosion of liberal Catholic exegesis that followed it.

It hardly needs to be said that modern mainstream and liberal Christians take a rather different view of biblical inspiration from conservatives. In his acclaimed Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown sums up their position:

They accept inspiration, deeming it important for the interpretation of Scripture; but they do not think that God’s role as an author removed human limitations. In this approach, God who providentially provided for Israel a record of salvific history involving Moses and the prophets also provided for Christians a basic record of the salvific role and message of Jesus. Yet those who wrote down the Christian record were time-conditioned people of the 1st and early 2nd century, addressing audiences of their era in the worldview of that period. They did not know the distant future. Although what they wrote is relevant to future Christian existence, their writing does not necessarily provide ready-made answers for unforeseeable theological and moral issues that would arise in subsequent centuries. God chose to deal with such subsequent problems not by overriding all the human limitations of the biblical writers but by supplying a Spirit that is a living aid in ongoing interpretation. (30f)

As a side comment, Fr Brown is (or rather was) a living example of how sharply Christians can disagree on biblical interpretation. A Catholic priest, he was reviled by conservative members of his own church for being too modern and liberal while at the same time coming under fire from the real liberals for what they perceived as his unwarranted conservatism.

Further to the theological left, we find radical Christians who fiercely attack the idea that the Bible is to be regarded as authoritative and infallible - it is, they claim, nothing of the sort. Nor, indeed, is it inherently superior to the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist scriptures or any other religious text. Some would even deny that God reveals himself to humankind at all except through the natural world. Interestingly, radical Christians are often every bit as critical of their conservative brethren as are anti-religious atheists. A famous example is Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong:

[H]ow long could the educated folk of the twentieth century continue to be literal about such things as a conception that occurred for a couple when both were well beyond menopause, the visit of the angel Gabriel, a pregnancy without a male agent, an angelic choir that sang in the sky, a star that roamed through the heavens, shepherds that had no trouble finding a baby in a city crowded with people called to a special census, and a king named Herod who would rely on three men he had never met before to bring him an intelligence report about a pretender to his throne who was said to have been born just six miles away?... Does Christianity depend on a grave that was empty, on a body that has been resuscitated, on angels that descend in earthquakes and roll massive stones away from the mouth of a tomb, or on a figure who can disappear into thin air after the breaking of bread? (Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, 18f)

One curious feature of liberal Christian thought deserves particular mention. Conservative Catholic apologists often maintain that the Evangelical view of Scripture is untenable because it is a fact of history that the books of the Bible were compiled and declared to be authoritative by the Church. In other words, the Church existed before the Bible and gave itself the Bible: it is hence logically problematic to claim that the Church is founded on the Bible or to set the Bible over the Church. This argument, which is traditionally followed out to the conclusion that we can only be sure what to believe if we listen to the Pope and his bishops, is put to rather different use by liberals:

[T]he Christian Church comes before the Bible and itself established its extent and composition. The Bible and the creative Word of God are not the same thing, though people of faith claim that the Bible contains the Word of God, or is one of the places where we encounter God…. [T]he Bible is not definitive for Christians in the way that the Koran is definitive for Muslims. The Bible is part of the tradition of the Church, it is one of the ways in which the Christian experience of God has been provisionally expressed. This is why Christians claim that their faith is based upon a living word, the man Jesus, not upon a written word, though the written word does bear important witness of him. (Bishop Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge, 51f)

Distinguishing between the Bible and the word of God; understanding the witness of the Bible as provisional rather than absolute; referrring to Jesus simply as a man, albeit a man who reveals God to us - all these are commonplaces of modern liberal theology, just as ‘hard’ inerrantism and a high view of biblical inspiration are characteristic of Evangelical and conservative Roman Catholic thought.

I now want to look briefly at some of the fruits of the last two hundred years of New Testament scholarship - at some of the insights which this work has provided into the composition of the documents which we find in our Bible.


3.  The authorship of the New Testament

A considerable number of NT books are pseudonymous: that is to say, they were not written by the people by whom they claim to be written (this is the more narrow or technical sense of the word ‘pseudonymous’) or by the people whom later generations believed had written them. It seems that members of the early Church attached the names of famous Church personalities to their own compositions in the belief that they were propounding those people’s teaching and/or in order to ensure that their writings were treated with respect and attention. In addition, some later Christians assumed or deduced that certain texts were written by ‘big names’ when in fact they were not.

It cannot be denied that these false ascriptions played an important role in winning the texts in question a place in the Bible. For several centuries, a small number of scholars have been proposing that some or all of the pseudonymous books should be removed from the Bible. It is safe to say that this will never happen.

The following NT books were probably written by the writers by whom they claim to have been written or to whom they have traditionally be ascribed:

GLuke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon (9)

The following were probably not:

GMatthew, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude (11)

There are seven slightly difficult cases. GJohn, 1-3 John and Revelation all claim, or have been claimed, to be the work of ‘John’, and this ‘John’ has traditionally been assumed to be St John the Apostle. Though this assumption is mistaken, there is reason to believe that they were written by someone else called John - probably an early Christian leader known as John the Elder - or by members of his circle. Likewise, there is no reason to doubt that GMark and James were written by men called Mark and James (both very common names), but these may not have been the particular Mark and James assumed by later Christians to be their authors (i.e. John Mark the companion of St Peter and St James the brother of Jesus).

Of course, saying that a text is or is not the work of a particular person is something of a sledgehammer statement, and scholars have (for example) intelligently disagreed over the authorship of GLuke and Colossians. My statements above must be nuanced in other ways too: though (for example) GMatthew is very unlikely to be the work of St Matthew the Apostle, it is possible that the gospel came to be ascribed to St Matthew because some of the material which its author drew upon ultimately came from the Apostle.


4.  Dating the New Testament

To put it simply, large and very important parts of the NT have traditionally been dated roughly a generation earlier than they were actually written. It is instructive to compare the datings given for the various NT books by older and more recent reference works. Here are the datings given in the original and new editions of the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, in the original and new editions of the Jerome Bible Commentary, and in Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament:


CCHS (1953)
JBC
(1968)
NCCHS (1969)
NJBC
(1989)
REB
(1997)
GMatthew
40-50
after 70
66-100
later 80s
c.80-90
GMark
58
64-70
65-75
60s
68-73
GLuke
60
70-80/85
after 70
80-85
85 ±5-10 yrs
GJohn
c.100
90-100
before 100
c.90
80-100
Acts
?64
80-85
c.90-100
80-85
85 ±5-10 yrs
Romans
58
57-58
57-58
57-58
57-58
1 Corinthians
54-57
57
53-57
54
56-57
2 Corinthians
54-57
57
57
55
57
Galatians
49
54-55
49
c.54
54-55
Ephesians
63
?
63
80-100
90s
Philippians
59-61
56-57
56-57
54-58
c.56
Colossians
61-63
61-63
61-63
70-80
80s
1 Thessalonians
50-52
51
50-52
50
50-51
2 Thessalonians
50-52
?51
50-52
90s
late 1st cent.
1 Timothy
66
c.65
?
c.100
late 1st cent.
2 Timothy
after 66
c.67
?
c.100
late 1st cent.
Titus
66
c.65
?
c.100
late 1st cent.
Philemon
61-63
56-57
?
54-58
c.56
Hebrews
65
before 70
late 60s/80-90
before 70
80s
James
61
before 62
40s/after c.100
early/mid-60s
80s-90s
1 Peter
62-64
c.64
62-64
65
70-90
2 Peter
65-66
c.100
late 1st cent.
c.100
130 ±10 yrs
1 John
late 90s
?
?
c.100
c.100
2 John
late 90s
?
?
c.100
c.100
3 John
late 90s
?
?
c.100
post-100
Jude
62-67
after mid-60s
c.80
late 1st cent.
90-100
Revelation
?
early/mid-90s
?
95-96
92-96


It will be seen that the datings of a number of books have moved forward literally by decades. This goes equally for crucially important books such as GMatthew, GLuke and Acts, middle-ranking texts such as Ephesians and James and less significant compositions like 2 Peter and Jude. Note, however, that the datings of the genuine letters of St Paul have remained quite stable.