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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Idea of the New Testament.


It is natural to suppose that the NT is virtually as old as Christianity itself. It is equally natural to assume that the NT has always been part and parcel of Christianity, integral to its very being. It is refreshing to the mind to recognize that the truth is not so simple. We shall list some of the facts that cast doubt on those assumptions about the NT.


But first we should identify what we have in mind when we think of ‘the NT’. Most people will visualize a slim volume containing twenty-seven writings from early Christianity, or else think of the second part of the Christian Bible, most of it occupied by the OT. These writings vary in type (though most are either gospels or letters) and in length (from the 28 chapters of Matthew's gospel and Acts to the few lines of the 2nd and 3rd Letters of John). Though there are connections between some of them, by way of authorship (e.g. the letters of Paul) or in a literary way (dependence among the first three gospels and common material in Colossians and Ephesians), each is in origin a separate work, composed in its own time and place for its own particular purpose.


These writings differ also in accessibility: we are likely to feel most at home with the gospels and Acts, with their strong story-line, much less at home with some of the letters and the Revelation of John; and when we survey the list, there may be some titles that we have scarcely heard of. It is interesting then how rapidly diversity among these writings forces itself on our attention, even though we are attending to the NT as a single entity. Clearly this is not a single entity at all in some senses of that term, either in itself or in our awareness of its contents.


The NT we think of is probably in the English language. But every bit of it began in the Greek language of the first century of our era (apart from a handful of words taken over from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin); so what we have is a translation, never a simple operation and always involving decisions that amount to interpretation. Until fairly recently, it would have been overwhelmingly likely that the NT in our hand or in our memory was the translation issued in England in 1611, usually known simply (and confidently) as ‘The Authorised Version’, or sometimes as the King James Version, after James I in whose reign and by whose authority the work was done.


In the last fifty years, however, a plethora of different translations has appeared, each attempting the task in a particular way or even looking at the NT from a particular doctrinal standpoint. Most aim to give a more modern English version than that of 1611: old words have changed sense or gone out of use, new ways of putting things have come in. Some recent versions do their modernizing in a way that stays close to the old version (e.g. the RS Version), others break right away from it (e.g. the NEB and the GNB). In a determination to make the NT speak today, they may go so far as to amend the strong masculine assumptions of former times, embodied in the Bible, by producing gender-neutral renderings simply absent from the original. Churches, using the NT in worship or for study by their members, take varying views about new versions, some favouring the resonance and familiarity of traditional language, others seeing it as an obstacle to the use of the NT by modern people.


It is not just a question of modernizing the English or not, though often the subject is discussed as if it were. There are also issues of accuracy. For one thing, because of the discovery since the seventeenth century of numerous very old manuscripts of the NT, some going back to within a hundred years or so of the original writing, we have a better idea of the NT authors' precise wording than was available to our ancestors (Metzger 1964; Birdsall 1970 ). (Never lose sight of it: until the invention of printing, every copy of the NT was made by hand, with all the inevitable slips and blunders, and even the alteration of the text to bring it into line with what the copyist believed the scriptural writer ‘must’ or ‘should’ have put.) Despite this opportunity for a better informed judgement about the text itself, however, there remain numerous places of disagreement; and translations differ as they reflect differences of judgement in what are often nicely balanced decisions. All this is in addition to unavoidable variations of style and emphasis as translators view the text before them. Again, the NT is far from the stable entity that it appears at first sight.


And there is more to come. Look at the NT historically. Only gradually did these writings come to be accepted in the Christian churches in such a way that they could begin to be seen as a single book with a name of its own. This is not the place to go into details of the process whereby this came about (von Campenhausen 1972; Metzger 1987 ). Suffice it to say that a collection of Paul's letters was probably made before the end of the first century; that the idea of Christians needing both a gospel (i.e. the story of Jesus) and Paul's letters caught on soon after; that the end of the second century saw the acceptance in a number of major Christian centres (e.g. Rome, Alexandria) of something close to the present collection (four gospels, Acts, Paul's and other letters; but that it was four centuries before most churches accepted more or less the set of writings that have remained to this day as those authorized for official use—it is a list that has survived (despite occasional marginal hesitations) all the great divisions of the church, the same for all. The negative corollary of this progressivist way of putting things is of course that the church, viewed as a whole, managed for four centuries or so without the NT as we know it.


Again it cannot be our concern here, but it is worth recognizing that there was no discernible inner drive towards the production of such a thing as the NT: that makes it sound much too purposive. Historically speaking, it was all more haphazard. It is more realistic to look at it this way: the Christian communities, widely scattered around the Mediterranean within a few decades of Jesus' lifetime, had certain needs that had to be met if their life and mission were to flourish and if they were to have any coherence as (despite their plurality) a single phenomenon—the Christian church, or even ‘Christianity’. They needed first to communicate with each other and to profit from one another's experience and wisdom, not to speak of bringing one another into line. Hence the early importance of letters. Even if these originally addressed passing situations and had no eye on the long term, they might profitably be preserved against future crises or simply for encouragement and edification. Inevitably, they would be circulated and acquire authority, both forming and buttressing church leaders in their work.


The Christian communities also needed to have ways of recalling Jesus, both in his time on earth and in terms of present relationship with his heavenly reality. The content of the letters (e.g. of Paul) might often help with the second, as did the eucharistic worship and prayers of the church; the gospels were essential for the first. There is a question about how early this need came to be strongly felt; but soon the gospels were used as tools for teaching and, from at least the middle of the second century but probably earlier, as an element in the Christian gatherings for worship, where extracts were read to the community and were no doubt the subject of preaching. In this way, the parts of the NT were prior to the whole—that is, in the church's use of these writings. The more one looks at the matter from the point of view of use, the more the final production of a single entity, ‘the NT’, appears to be an afterthought, a tidying up.


That it was more than this is to do with the fact that an element of selection entered into the matter. The NT is far from containing the whole of early Christian literature (Schneemelcher (ed.) 1991, 1992; Staniforth and Louth (eds.) 1987 ). We know there were numerous other writings, from the second century if not from the first, because copies of them have survived, often in fragments and extracts. Some of them indeed are as old as at least the later of the writings included in the NT itself. It is apparent then that the authorized collection did not come together simply on the basis of antiquity—it was not just the early church's archives. It looks as if a number of factors played a part: simply, popularity and usefulness on a sufficiently wide scale; but also the attachment of an apostolic name, that is the name of one of the earliest Christian leaders, increasingly venerated as authorities, perhaps as martyrs, certainly as close to Jesus. These two factors were not wholly distinct: indeed it looks as if a bid could be made for the authoritativeness of a writing by attaching to it an apostle's name, whether Paul or Peter or John. It is not clear how far this was done in what we should regard as a deliberately fraudulent way and how far it was a matter of claiming the revered figure's patronage—this is what he would have written if he had been in our shoes. Both strategies can be paralleled in the relevant parts of the ancient world. It is not even wholly clear whether it is legitimate to draw a sharp distinction between them (‘Pseudonymity’, in ABD 5). However that may be (and modern literary ethics are surely inappropriate), there was a Christian literature far larger than the NT itself that failed to win general endorsement.


In any case, it is evident that the NT grew piecemeal, both in its parts and as a whole. Evident too that it is an instrument of the church, which for all the authority that, in whole and in parts, it came to have in the church, came into being within the already existing life and work of the Christian communities. In so far as the church had a Bible from the start, it consisted of the Jewish Scriptures, eventually designated by Christians ‘the Old Testament’, which it interpreted in the light of the career and person of Jesus, seen as its fulfilment. More will be said about this at the end of this section.


If the church managed without a fully formed and authorized NT for its first few centuries, it is equally true that, in a contrary movement, the NT has undergone a disintegrative process in the last three or four centuries. This has not occurred primarily (often scarcely at all) in the official life of the churches, but in the realm of scholarship, itself church sponsored (especially in mainstream Protestantism) if not church endorsed in many of its results (Houlden 1986; Carroll 1991 ). During that period, the NT writings have been subjected to all kinds of analytical procedures. Almost all of these have involved treating them as separate units, often indeed identifying possible sources behind them (notably in the case of the gospels) or possible earlier units that have gone to form them as composite wholes (some of the letters, e.g. 2 Cor). Mostly, it has been a matter of attempting to suggest the original form, setting, and intention of each of the writings by the use of informed historical imagination and literary observation. Nearly always the effect has been to break down in the reader's mind the sense of NT as a whole, which was so laboriously built up in the early centuries. The NT comes to be seen very much as a collection of independent, or semi-independent, works, each to be examined in its own right as well as in relevant wider contexts.


The upshot is that, in the strict sense, the heyday of the NT as a compact entity (the book within the covers) was in the middle millennium of the church's 2,000-year history; even then, its most characteristic use, the form in which it was mainly experienced, was in bits—sometimes as little as a few words, that would support a doctrinal or ethical point, more often a longer section recited in liturgy or, especially in the later part of the period, used in private meditative prayer. It is interesting to note that for much of that middle period, Christian imagination was filled not only with material derived from Scripture but with legendary stories that the church had specifically rejected from the authorized canon. In for example, the sequence of windows at Chartres Cathedral, details of Jesus' family, birth, and childhood drawn from the Protevangelium of James (2 cent.) figure alongside those drawn from the gospels.


At the same time, in whole or in substantial parts, ‘the NT’ played a recognized part in Christian life. The NT as a volume came in medieval times to carry the sacred weight of an icon, as did the gospels, bound separately—to be reverenced, viewed with awe, even feared, as charged with numinous power. The ceremonial carrying of the book of the gospels in Eastern Orthodoxy and (much less often now) in the Western eucharistic liturgy retains this sense. So, at a more mundane level, still sometimes tinged with superstition, does the use of the NT in courts of law in some countries for the swearing of oaths. More grandly, the British coronation ritual includes the monarch's oath-taking on the fifth-century NT manuscript (actually far from complete), the Codex Bezae. In these residual uses, ‘the NT’ survives in a way that our medieval ancestors saw as wholly normal: and notice, this use of it did not necessitate its being opened or read at all. Of course, for the many Christians who remain immune to the analytical endeavours of scholarship, the NT, in whole and in parts, retains its verbal authority, speaking to the reader as God's very utterance, with Paul and his fellow-writers as no more than instruments. There are of course many intermediate stages between such literalism and the recognition of variety within the NT, understood in the light of the diverse settings of the various writings (Houlden (ed.) 1995 ).


This brings us to the final recognition that tends towards the breaking up of the NT as we may now read it. Once we attend to the likely origins of the various writings, we find that they do not all sing the same tune. Certainly, we must abandon any idea that they were the result of some kind of collaborative exercise—an impression that the single, tightly bound volume easily creates. It may be retorted that divine inspiration—the idea that, through the various human agents, the one divine ‘pen’ is at work—implies a transcending singleness of mind. But it is not wholly transparent that, even on such a strong view of inspiration, God necessarily favours singleness of statement at the expense of (for example) the emergence of truth by way of dialogue or controversy, even in early Christianity whose memorial the NT is. At all events, a candid historical view of the NT writings, while recognizing their overall unity of purpose and interest, is bound to recognize that they represent different viewpoints in the early church, and even that some of them look as if they were written to correct and refute others. For instance, it is likely that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were designed, not simply to amplify but rather to improve on the Gospel of Mark, eradicating what were seen as its inadequacies. The formal opening of Luke, the first four verses, seems to suggest as much. And the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Tim, Titus) and perhaps Ephesians (as well as the latter half of Acts) were probably designed to put Paul in a different light from that in which his letters had come to place him: they smooth out the sense of him as a strident and pugnacious figure, ready to take on esteemed church leaders when in his view the gospel dictated it. The Letter of James seems to subvert one of the crucial emphases of Paul's teaching. The NT does not support the view that the early church enjoyed harmonious unanimity of opinion or homogeneity of teaching. Their disputes may often have related to issues long since dead, so that we tend to discount them, but the battles were real enough in their day, sometimes have modern counterparts, and in any case caution us against over-ready adoption of a particular idea or teaching as the NT view of the subject in question. On almost every topic of importance, there was diversity and conflict.


There is one more important point. Throughout this section we have had in mind the NT as a self-contained work, bound in its own covers, albeit a collection of twenty-seven distinct writings. But more often that not, we encounter the NT as the second (and much the smaller) part of the Bible: in sheer prominence, it can even look like a sort of adjunct to the OT. From the fourth century, Bibles have been produced by Christians consisting of these two parts, and both parts have been in constant use in Christian worship and Christian study. This combination of the NT with the OT compels us to consider the relation between the two. It is impossible here to detail the many different ways in which that relation has been seen. But, despite the comparative brevity of the NT, Christians have always seen it as the climax and goal of the Bible as a whole. Most commonly (as was hinted earlier), they have seen the NT as fulfilling the OT; or, more precisely, Jesus as fulfilling the old Scriptures and the NT as commenting on the manner of that fulfilment. In the NT's own terms, the fulfilment was expressed by way of OT images and themes which were taken up and applied to him (e.g. king of Israel, son of God, lamb), often with startling paradox and originality; also by way of statements in the OT which were read through fresh eyes and seen as relevant to some aspect or detail of Jesus' life or teaching. Most NT books, most obviously the Gospels of Matthew (e.g. 1–2) and John, contain many such applications of OT quotations to Jesus (Lindars 1961 ). The modern reader who looks up the original OT context will often see audacity (or even fraudulence) in many of these applications—a difficulty removed or at least alleviated once it is understood that the NT writers are using techniques of scriptural interpretation current in Judaism at the time, and applying them creatively to their own subject-matter. Again from a modern point of view, it is necessary to recognize that they were reading Scripture as sheer words, God-given, with only a minimal sense of historical context such as modern scholarship has so vigorously pursued. So words that originally related to the birth of a child in the royal house in Jerusalem in the late eighth century BCE (Isa 7:14 ) are applied to the birth of Jesus many centuries later and taken to illuminate its character (Mt 1:23; Brown 1993 ).

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