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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The New Testament

Margaret Davies

The New Testament in Its Familiar Form

How did our New Testament come into being? This apparently simple historical question soon unravels into many other questions. Our New Testament is the second and much shorter part of contemporary printed editions of the Christian Bible in vernacular translations. These we find in the libraries, bookshops, churches, and homes of people who live in countries where the various denominations and sects of Christianity are tolerated, approved, or supported. The English word ‘Bible’ derives from the ancient Greek word biblia which is plural and diminutive, used for little papyrus books or scrolls, or the place where they are kept. In other words, ‘Bible’ suggests that this is a collection of writings. How and why were just these writings collected together, and when, where, why, by whom, and for whom were they originally written? Moreover, how did it come about that the Jewish scriptures, the first and much longer part, came to be designated ‘the Old Testament’, and the second, shorter part ‘the New Testament’? ‘Testament’ is also derived from an ancient word, but this time a Latin word referring to the expression of a person's wishes. Apart from its use as titles for the two parts of Christian Bibles, it is most common in contemporary English for written documents which express people's wishes about the inheritance of their property after their deaths. Do these titles therefore suggest that these writings are expressions of someone's wishes, and is that someone to be identified with the Christian God? And, if so, why are there two different testaments, two different expressions of this God's wishes, and why is one designated ‘old’ and the other ‘new’?

We have now noticed that two key English terms in regard to our topic are actually borrowings. This gives us a sense that the Bible is understood as a collection of writings brought together and given titles at times when Greek or Latin was used by Christian communities, or rather by the literate élite of those communities. Why are two ancient languages involved? In the fourth century BCE, the Macedonian Greek-speaking warrior Alexander conquered Greece, Asia Minor, and the Middle East, including Syria, Palestine, the Persian empire, and Egypt. After his death, his Greek-speaking successors ruled these areas, and founded Greek cities. Hence, Hellenistic Greek, a later development of classical Greek, became the common language of diplomacy, commerce, and élite literature in these eastern Mediterranean regions. Of course, peoples in these areas continued to speak or write in their own languages—Aramaic and Hebrew in Palestine, for example—but educated people and merchants would also learn to speak and write in Greek. Most New Testament manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries CE which have survived are written in Hellenistic Greek. Most of the New Testament books, however, contain some expressions which seem to be Greek translations of idioms more at home in Semitic languages, the indigenous languages of the Middle East; for example, ‘the son of the human being’ or ‘a son of a human being’ which occurs in New Testament gospels (e.g. Matt. 8: 20; Mark 8: 31; Luke 21: 27; John 5: 27 ). This Greek expression is found in no Greek writings uninfluenced by either Greek versions of the Jewish scriptures, where the phrase occurs without the definite article (e.g. Ps. 8: 4; Ezekiel 2: 1; Daniel 7: 13 ), or Greek translations of other Semitic languages like Aramaic or Syriac. How far particular Semitisms in the New Testament are to be explained as conscious or unconscious imitations of the style of Greek versions of the Jewish scriptures, or as translations into Greek of earlier Aramaic or Syriac oral or literary traditions, is matter for debate. What is remarkable is that those books which now comprise the New Testament were originally written in Greek, not in Aramaic, probably the language in which Jesus taught. That they were in Greek suggests that they were written by and for people who lived in the small urban centres of the eastern Mediterranean world, rather than for peasants who lived in the countryside, where they would speak indigenous languages.

During the first century BCE Latin-speaking Roman generals began, from their base in Italy, to conquer and bring under Roman control countries bordering the Mediterranean to the east, west, and south. For example, Jerusalem was captured by Pompey in 63 BCE. In the eastern Mediterranean, however, Greek continued to function as the language of diplomacy, trade, and élite literature, while in the west Latin came to serve the same purposes. Codex Bezae, a fifth-century codex of the New Testament Gospels and Acts, contains both Greek and Latin versions.

We should also notice that we have inherited another word for titles of the two parts of the Bible: ‘the Old Covenant’ and ‘the New Covenant’. The word ‘covenant’, however, is not a direct borrowing but a translation into English of the Greek word diatheke. ‘Covenant’ refers to an agreement, bargain, or compact between different parties. It is used, for example, in the ‘National Covenant’ of 1638 which sought to defend Presbyterianism in Scotland. Today, ‘covenant’ refers most commonly to a legal agreement either to do some specified action or to provide some benefit for a named person or institution. Do the Old and New Covenants therefore signify a compact between God and a community or communities of people, or between the creator and creation? The ancient Greek word diatheke, however, like the ancient Latin word ‘testament’, can refer to expressions of a person's wishes, as, for example, in some manuscripts of Galatians 3: 15 ; but it is also used in New Testament contexts, like those relating Jesus' last supper with his associates (Matt. 26: 28; Mark 14: 24 ; some manuscripts of Luke 22: 20; 1 Cor. 11: 25 ; and in Luke 22: 20 and 1 Cor. 11: 25 the adjective ‘new’ occurs), where ‘covenant’ seems a more appropriate translation. Similarly, some New Testament quotations from the Jewish scriptures in Greek (e.g. Rom. 11: 27; Heb. 8: 10 ) also use the word in this sense, perhaps suggesting that New Testament references imitate and interpret those already known from Greek versions of the Jewish scriptures. In the fourth century CE the Church History of Eusebius (265–340 CE) uses the term endiathekos to refer to a collection of writings considered of prime importance to Christians (III. 3.1; XXV. 6; VI. 14.1).

Our contemporary vernacular versions of the New Testament are printed on paper in the form of a book. Printing dates from the fifteenth century in Europe and electronic printing from the twentieth century. Before that, and even into the nineteenth century, official and important documents were written manually by professional scriveners who could write in a neat, legible script, either copying or working from dictation. Paper, made from compactly interlaced fibres of rags, straw, or wood into thin sheets, was increasingly used as Western printing developed and expanded. The manuscripts of our New Testament books, however, were not written on paper but on carefully prepared animal hides or on papyrus manufactured from the papyrus plant which grew abundantly in Egypt and less plentifully in other parts of the Middle East. Since it took much human effort to prepare papyrus and parchment, these materials were far more expensive than paper is today.

© RMN-Hervé Lewandowski.

Moreover, the form of modern books which we take for granted, with their thin pages, printed on both sides, sewn or glued together, and bound between protective covers in easily portable sizes and weights, is also a modern convenience, developed with the spread of literacy. Papyrus and parchment were thicker, so literary artefacts were bulkier and heavier. The forms of ancient texts, the time and expense needed to produce them, and the relatively small number of people who could read or write (most people would come to know texts from hearing them read) meant that collections of manuscripts were made under the patronage of rich rulers in cities like Athens, Alexandria, and Pergamum, or in cultic centres where priests could read and write, as in the temple at Jerusalem. Other religious communities could acquire and preserve texts with the help of patrons, but only very rich individuals would own texts and keep them at home.

Two forms of texts were used in the early Christian era: the scroll, written in columns along its longer extent on one side only and rolled up when not in use (see Rev. 5: 1 ), and the codex, a larger and heavier version of our book. We should notice the different effects of these two forms. Manageable individual scrolls could not have included the whole New Testament; each would have contained no more than a single narrative or a collection of short epistles. These individual scrolls were probably kept together but it is unclear whether users could distinguish those which now comprise our New Testament from those which now comprise the Christian Old Testament and from other writings valued by Christians. Codices, on the other hand, could contain a number of narratives or epistles. For example, the two codices of the third-century Chester Beatty papyri contain the four gospels and Acts in one volume and Pauline epistles addressed to communities in the other, and the fourth-century CE Codex Sinaiticus contains an Old Testament and all the books now comprising our New Testament, as well as two other early Christian works, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The form of the codex determines what is included and what is excluded, as well as the order in which individual books are presented. Whether for this purpose the codex was deliberately promoted by Christian leaders until it became the universal form of Christian scriptures is yet another debated question. Some scholars have suggested, for example, that a collection of Paul's letters to seven communities could be preserved most effectively in a codex. Jewish communities continued to favour the scroll form for their scriptures.

By permission of the British Library.

Our form of the New Testament, bound in a book, therefore, indicates the contents of the New Testament and the order in which its individual components appear. We have become accustomed to these features, but they are puzzling in a number of ways. There are four separate gospels, each presenting a theological appreciation of aspects of Jesus' life, public ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, but they differ in detail and are sometimes contradictory. For example, the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus' last meal with his disciples as a Passover meal, eaten during the evening after the Passover lambs had been sacrificed in the Jerusalem temple, and go on to relate Jesus' crucifixion on the following day; but the Gospel according to John presents Jesus' crucifixion as coinciding with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. Again, the Gospel according to Matthew locates the resurrected Jesus' appearances to his disciples in Galilee, the Gospel according to Luke in Jerusalem, and the Gospel according to John in Jerusalem (ch. 20 ) and in Galilee ( ch. 21 ). Why were four gospels included instead of one, or why were they not combined into a single version, as was attempted in the second-century CE Diatessaron of Tatian? By the second half of the second century, Christian apologists like Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, found it necessary to justify the collection of four gospels, no more and no less, by appealing to cultural constructs like the four corners of the world to suggest their universal significance (Against Heresies, III. ii. 8). The Acts of the Apostles, probably the second volume to the Gospel according to Luke, may owe its inclusion to recognition of common authorship. Much of that work relates the missionary activities of Saul or Paul, and if we read the New Testament in the order in which it is now presented, the portrait of Paul in Acts may influence our readings of the epistles attributed to him which immediately follow, in spite of tensions which scholars discern between Acts and the Pauline letters in terms of their theologies, christologies, church organization, and Paul's companions and itinerary.

The collection of epistles attributed to Paul now forms the second longest series of texts after the four gospels. Again their preservation may seem surprising, since they address particular topical concerns which, at first sight, preclude them from more general interest. Why were they preserved and how were they collected? In our present New Testament there are thirteen separate epistles which explicitly name Paul as the sender, nine addressed to seven communities, and four addressed to three individuals. But there is also the Epistle to the Hebrews, which some used to attribute to Paul; the text itself does not claim Pauline authorship, although the reference to Timothy (13: 23 ), mentioned as a companion of Paul in other epistles, can be read to suggest Pauline authorship. If we consider this corpus as a whole (including Hebrews), however, fourteen is two multiplied by seven, and seven can be taken as the perfect, complete, and indivisible number, doubled to suggest the importance of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, that is, to all the non-Jewish peoples of the world (compare the seven letters in Rev. 2–3 ). Some contemporary scholars have argued, for example, that 2 Corinthians is a combination of two original epistles (chs. 1–9 and chs. 10–13 ), or have given reasons for supposing that some New Testament epistles attributed to Paul were not originally written by him. Whether or not these arguments are convincing in their own terms, the present arrangement of fourteen epistles into a corpus suggests a deliberate attempt at intimating their significance through numbers.

There then follows in our New Testament another collection of epistles, attributed to individuals, one to James, two to Peter, three to John, and one to Jude. In other words this collection consists of four writers' seven epistles, the significance of which has already been suggested. The New Testament now ends with John's visionary narrative of God's final judgement and the new Jerusalem's descent from heaven, a text which is structured through the number seven. It is appropriately placed because it looks forward to the end of human wickedness and suffering, and a new beginning.

This New Testament also seems to mirror the Old Testament in many respects, especially if the book of the twelve Minor Prophets, from Hosea to Malachi, is placed before those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel, as it was in some versions of the Christian Old Testament, so that it ends with the eschatological visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. Then the New Testament Apocalypse of John, which develops imagery from Ezekiel and Daniel, would mirror the ending of the Old Testament, and the other eschatological language and visions of the gospels and epistles would make better sense as a continuation of an Old Testament arranged in that way. The four gospels could also be understood as reflecting the Torah in their presentations of Jesus as a second Moses and as a faithful Israelite; and the Torah looks forward to Israel's entry into the promised land as the gospels look forward to believers' entry into the eschatological kingdom. The Acts of the Apostles, which relates a theological history of the early churches, including depictions of their leading prophetic figures' preaching and miracles, could be seen as mirroring the Old Testament theological histories' depictions of prophetic preaching and miracles, especially in 1 Samuel to 2 Kings. The New Testament epistles attributed to named individuals also seem to correspond to the prophetic books attributed to named prophets, and some of the New Testament authors refer to themselves as ‘slaves of God’ in the manner of Old Testament prophets (e.g. Rom. 1: 1; Phil. 1: 1; Jas. 1: 1; 2 Peter 1: 1; Jude 1: 1 , cf. 1 Kgs. Septuagint 21: 28 ; Ps. 105.26; Zech. 1.6 ). There are no entire New Testament books in the form of the poetic Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, although there are short expressions of poetry and proverbs within New Testament books. Once we begin to notice these features, we realize that the present form of our New Testament is neither arbitrary nor entirely accidental.

Moreover, the whole Bible has been read as a grand all- encompassing narrative, a divine comedy, according to which human beings are created by the generous God to live in a beneficent world, but human ‘hardness of heart’, expressed in neglect of this creator, violence towards others, and greed, led to their alienation from God, each other, and the rest of creation, until God's messiah and God's holy spirit inspired and transformed human hearts to live in hope of a renewed physical, political, and social world, from which all forms of evil would be excluded. It is this kind of reading which assumes a division between the Jewish scriptures and the following writings through the use of the terms the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’.

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