Lecture 01: Why and How Should You Study the New Testament?
Course: Understanding the New Testament
Lesson 1 ■ Why and How Should You Study the New Testament
Welcome to this survey of the New Testament which we will divide into twelve messages of approximately fifty minutes each and introduce readers around the world to what at the very least has been almost universally viewed as one of the great collections of literature in this world’s history, but for Christian believers is far more – being their sacred book, or collection of sixty-six books, believed to be God’s very word to humanity and thus making it crucial for followers of Christ to understand it, to apply it, and to obey it.
WHAT IS THE NEW TESTAMENT?
We begin in this first lesson with some general introductory comments that will apply to any portion of the New Testament that one might be studying. Our first question is an appropriate place to start, namely, what is the New Testament. By giving it a single title it is easy to think of it as one individual book, when in fact the New Testament is a collection of twenty-seven different books, which have come to be accepted by Christians as sacred and as authoritative.
We will talk briefly in a later lesson about the process through which those convictions emerged, the process that is called the canonization of the New Testament, that is to say of coming to understand this collection of works as uniquely inspired and God-breathed.
But for now let us note that it is a collection made up of four literary genres or forms. Some people often come to the Bible and simply learn or hear or read individual verses or stories and are unaware of the larger context and the kinds of books in which they appear. Without this information it is easy to take passages out of context and interpret them in ways they were never initially intended to be interpreted.
We need to understand that there are, to begin with, four Gospels, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” itself comes from a Greek word that meant “good news.” It was a term often used in the Roman Empire of the ancient Middle East into which Jesus and Christianity were birthed. The term euangelion, the Greek word for gospel meaning “good news,” was often used by imperial edicts announcing the latest victory of the Roman Empire over its enemies, the establishment of peace on its borders, and other similar events. Jesus and his followers used this same term to suggest that their message was good news of at least a comparable if not even greater scope.
The four Gospels all describe selected events from the life of Christ according to the particular interests of their authors and particular needs of their audiences, and again, in a later lesson we will come back and outline some of these details at greater length.
The reason for including four rather than simply one was because each told the story of Jesus in a somewhat different, though not contradictory, fashion. Those Christians who came to supremely value these four documents above any others that claim to record information about Jesus believed that their record of the story of this founder of their religion would be incomplete, would be impoverished, if they did not have the information and the prospectives of all four of these Gospel writers.
The order in which the canon of the New Testament, the collection of these twenty-seven books, believed to be uniquely authoritative, was finalized may have corresponded to the order in which some Christians in the early centuries of the faith believed that the Gospels were written. Today most scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel and then Matthew and Luke came shortly thereafter with John being the last and the latest. There is some evidence that some early Christians believed this as well, but it is not entirely clear.
At any rate, what is clear is that Matthew is by far the most Jewish of the four Gospels, probably written to the most Jewish Christian of the audiences of the four Gospels and certainly filled with all kinds of quotations, illusions, and references back to the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians now call the Old Testament. It made sense, therefore, whether or not someone believed Matthew to have been written first, to put his Gospel first. As a collection of books the New Testament was being added to the existing collection of Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew clearly formed the best bridge, or connection, or transition, with those Old Testament books.
After the four Gospels, understandably was placed one book that is known as the Acts of the Apostles. It too reflects a historical genre, though, whereas the Gospels all clearly have one central character, Jesus of Nazareth, and thus may be thought of even more as biographies than as simply general works of history, the Acts does not as clearly have a single leading character. We may think of it, therefore, more along the lines of the broader history writing of the ancient Mediterranean world. And because it describes selected events believed to be of particular significance in the first generation of the life of the early church, it was natural in the process of canonization to place it immediately following the four Gospels because its events chronologically come after the life of Jesus as described in the four Gospels.
The third category, or literary form, or genre that the New Testament contains involves letters, epistles, as they have come to be called. Thirteen of these are attributed to the Apostle Paul, that towering figure of the first generation of Christian history who next only to Jesus himself was responsible for molding the initial faith of Jesus’ followers into the forms that would endure over the centuries. The thirteen letters attributed to Paul include in their canonical order: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Again, the order is probably not chronological. We will attempt to put these letters in their chronological order as we survey them in coming lessons in order to understand some of the historical connections between them.
But as was the custom in a variety of collections of documents in the ancient world, it would appear that their order in the sequence of the New Testament is simply that of decreasing length; first with letters written to entire churches, followed then by letters written to individuals, though, those individuals did form important parts of the churches of which they were members. Thus, Romans through Thessalonians are addressed to churches, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon to individuals. Within each of these two sequences, the longest letters are placed first proceeding to the shortest, although Galatians is ever so slightly shorter than Ephesians if one counts individual lines in the ancient scrolls, but it may be that no one was computing things quite this precisely.
The exception to this overall pattern was, of course, when two letters were written to the same church, even if the sequence of decreasing length was broken, they were kept together as with 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 and 2 Timothy. In fact, most of these letters were actually written by Paul before the written form of the Gospels and Acts appeared. But it made sense to keep the historical and biographical material grouped together. To have produced a New Testament in strictly chronological sequence would have required interrupting the book of Acts at numerous places and inserting various letters of Paul, which then would not have permitted readers to read the book of Acts as Luke undoubtedly intended it to be read, namely from start to finish. Paul’s letters are placed before the letters of other early Christian leaders in the New Testament no doubt because he came to be viewed as the most influential of the letter writers in the first century.
The so called General Epistles, or Letters, because they were at one time believed to have been written to more than one single church, and some of them indeed were, include Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, and Jude. To speak a bit more precisely, the letter of Hebrews does not have an attribution, is not attributed to anyone in the oldest manuscripts or many centuries that we have. There was, thus, debate very early in the history of Christianity as to who wrote it. Some argued for Paul, many for a number of different other options all of whom were followers of Paul at one time or another. Hebrews then, technically, is not part of the General Epistles but forms a transition or bridge between those letters that have Paul’s name attached to them on all of the manuscripts that we know of and those who have someone else’s name attached to them, namely, the writings of James, Peter, John and Jude.
We have the least certainty as to why the letters of these four early Christian leaders were arranged in the order that they were, but the best guess perhaps is that it corresponded to their order of importance in the earliest stages of the Christian faith. For listeners to this series used to thinking of Peter as the later bishop of Rome and the predecessor to the line of Catholic Church leaders who eventually would be called Popes, this may come as a surprise.
But if one reads the Book of Acts closely, we see that James is described, particularly after Peter leaves Jerusalem and begins to minister in various parts of the Roman Empire, James is described as the leader of the church based in Jerusalem and the chief elder there and it is his word when there is a council in Acts 15 in Jerusalem bringing together representatives of numerous wings of the early church for important theological debate, it is James who makes the final and decisive determination of how Christians are to proceed.
Peter is, of course, clearly a key church leader and head of the group of the twelve apostles, so it is natural for his letters to come next. John is frequently described in the Book of Acts as Peter’s right-hand man. He was also the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper and who is called, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is placed then naturally third and Jude the half brother of Jesus and full brother of James, the half brother of Jesus is clearly the least well-known of these four early church leaders and understandably comes last.
Finally, the fourth genre of the books of the New Testament is altogether different, the Book of Revelation with which the canon closes is above all an apocalypse. In fact, the English word revelation merely translates the Greek title of this work apokalypsis from which we get the English word apocalypse. The book is also a letter and contains seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor or Western Turkey. It describes itself in 1:3 as prophecy referring to things that will happen in the future as well as explaining God’s intentions for the churches in the present time to whom the Apostle John writes.
But it is above all apocalypse, that is to say a highly symbolic description of present and future events in light of questions about the way the world will end. Thus, one of the worse things one can do if one wants to correctly interpret an apocalypse is to take what is intended to be symbolic as if it referred to the literal characters or figures described. To read that there is a great dragon, for example, in Revelation 12 does not commit Christians to believing in dragons, after all, that chapter goes on to explain that the dragon is a symbol and the visions that John is describing that he received, a symbol for Satan.
WHY STUDY THE NEW TESTAMENT?
More on all of these categories of Christian writing later, but let’s ask a second introductory question. Since this series of tapes is being transmitted around the world and people from many different backgrounds and even faith commitments may well at one time or another be listening, what if one asks the question, not from a distinctively Christian vantage point, but simply from the perspective of someone who wants to be more educated and well-trained in significant developments in the history and understanding contemporary events of our planet earth – why study the New Testament? Let me suggest six answers very briefly.
The Literary Reason
First, there is what may be called the literary reason. The Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, contain great literature and people throughout the history and cultures of the last two thousand years of this planet who have read and studied the New Testament in any depth, whether or not as Christian believers, have regularly come to the conviction that there are large stretches of text that when translated accurately into the language of the readers impress them with the profound nature of their thoughts, with the elegant way in which they are phrased with moving impressions that are created along the lines not nearly of other religion’s sacred literature but of the great poetry and prose of all of the world’s major cultures.
The Historical Reason
Secondly, there is a historical reason for studying the New Testament. It is the central book of Christianity, the religion of almost one-third of the world’s population and the book which has been published and distributed, both sold and given away free, and translated into more languages, in more editions, and with more copies than any book or collection of books in the history of the world, bar none. A book or collection of books that has been this much in demand and has had this much of an impact is surely worth knowing about whatever nation one lives in, whatever culture one forms a part of, whatever worldview one may have been brought up with.
The Contemporary Reason
Thirdly, there is what we may call the contemporary reason for studying the New Testament. The effect of this book is not diminishing in the world today, even if in certain cultures Christianity does not have the impact that it once had, in many others it is growing rapidly. As churches grow and spread, as media and the internet make available an explosion of information never conceived of, never dreamed possible by previous generations, as persons with or without religious faith try to understand the beliefs that motivate people for political action, for humanitarian aid, for educational purposes, and countless other features of our societies throughout the world, an understanding of the New Testament and the many ways it has been interpreted proves crucial.
The Academic Reason
Fourthly, we may speak of an academic reason for studying the New Testament. Whether one is listening at the most elementary levels of learning to read and write or whether one is studying in the highest degrees that a given university may offer, the New Testament makes claims which thoughtful, growing, educated people should know, understand, and evaluate, to examine, to see if they are true, and these claims center around the identity, the person and the work, the teachings and the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not one chooses to become a follower of his, his claims and those of his followers are of such central significance to the meaning of life and human identity that one surely should examine them in some detail and make an informed choice as to whether one is going to accept them or not.
The Personal Reason
This reason leads closely to the fifth reason, the personal reason for studying the New Testament. Some of the claims of Jesus and his followers require a personal response to this self-styled, Jewish rabbi of the first third of the first century in Israel. The New Testament is not just a book of history, not just a great work of literature, but it is a work of theology. It is a work of making claims about God and humanity and their relationship. It appeals to its audiences to acknowledge and serve Jesus as the human expression of the Living God. It also is a book of ethics, teaching people how to live a God-pleasing life, one of love of God and fellow humans in ways that are alleged to be of benefit for humanity individually and as a whole. Even if someone is not striving to be educated in the formal sense of going to school, personal identity, integrity, and destiny demand some awareness and assessment of the New Testament.
The Professional Reason
Finally and sixthly, we may speak of the professional reason or the vocational reason. Many listeners to this series of audiotapes will be in one form of Christian ministry or another, whether as a lay-person or as a professional. Part of what they regularly do more so than most people in the world will involve teaching and applying the Bible to themselves and to others and so obviously they will want the best possible understanding of the New Testament documents.
HOW SHOULD WE STUDY THE NEW TESTAMENT?
Let’s turn to a third introductory question. How should we study the New Testament? If one were to glance back at all the many things that Christians and many others have done with books of the Bible over the centuries we would hardly be able to limit our remarks to a series of twelve lessons of approximately fifty minutes each. We still will have to be highly and enormously selective, but we can at least explain up front what some of those criteria for selection will be.
When we have finished our various introductory remarks and set the books of the New Testament in their historical context, we will want to look at each of the twenty-seven books ever so briefly and ask four kinds of questions. One will be questions of introduction. Who wrote a given book – to whom, when, under what circumstances, and for what purposes? These are crucial questions for helping us to rightly understand each book.
Secondly, we will ask questions of exegesis or interpretation. How should the book be outlined? How do we understand its structure? What are the main points, section by section? What is clear? And what have proved some of the most controversial or disputed parts of the New Testament books? And what might be some of the best solutions to some of those controversies?
Third, we will ask questions of theology. What are the key themes overall that the book wants to teach and convince its readers of? Is there a unifying or central topic? Is there a single sentence or paragraph that seems to express the main idea of the writer in a nutshell and are there any problems created by these main themes because they seem to be different from the central emphases of other books of the Bible?
And then, fourthly, questions of application. What might be one or two key areas of contemporary life in the twenty-first century where the key lessons and themes of the book take on particular significance?
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE VIEWPOINTS ON THE NEW TESTAMENT?
Let’s turn to a fourth introductory question. What are the possible viewpoints or presuppositions or understandings or faith commitments or lack thereof that we employ or should employ in coming to study these texts? Obviously there will be differences if one comes as a believing Christian with some predisposition, some bias, if we want to call it that, in favor of reverencing the text as containing the very words of God meant to be believed and obeyed compared with those who might come from a more skeptical perspective persuaded of another religious viewpoint or of an irreligious viewpoint such as atheism – believing that there is no God and therefore believing one of the many philosophies or perspectives that follow from atheism such as that all we have is this material world and that when people die they cease to exist and have no more conscious awareness of anything.
It comes as no surprise that this series of lectures represents a distinctively Christian worldview, not because we want to impose it on others in any heavy-handed or coercive fashion, but simply because in a short series like this it would, again, be impossible to go through each part of the New Testament and examine how it has been understood from Christian and non-Christian perspectives alike, though, we will address a handful of some of the most crucial issues that skeptics have raised over the centuries.
But even within the community of the people who use the label Christian for themselves there is great diversity. One very important divide in the twenty-first century is along a spectrum from those who would see themselves as more conservative or evangelical in their perspective, believing that the Bible contains accurate historical information, normative theological truths that we are meant to believe and obey, and timeless applicable concepts, ethical practices that were not just good suggestions for one culture or collection of cultures, but are binding on all humans whether they accept that fact or not as presenting the best possible way for people to live.
Or those who take a more liberal perspective that treat the Bible as a collection of documents written by first Jews and then Christians, but, at least for people today, not to be viewed as uniquely authoritative, but to be analyzed carefully and accepted only to the extent that what humanity has learned down through the centuries through science, through philosophy, through all of the various areas of study that schools and universities have addressed over the years can today allow us to accept.
Within both of those broad divisions of the Christian faith there are then further denominational divisions. There are the three, broad, large categories of Eastern Orthodox, of Roman Catholic, and of Protestant Christianity. There are smaller groups that do not always identify with one of these three main branches of Christian faith and which those branches do not always identify as fully Christian, but who claim Jesus of Nazareth as their Lord, nevertheless.
One thinks, for example, of sectarian groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, more popularly known as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or other somewhat unorthodox offshoots of the main branches of the Christian faith. One can then also take those three main branches and subdivide them with Eastern Orthodoxy dividing particularly along cultural lines of the various Eastern European churches, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Bulgarian, and so on and some of the countries go as far as North Africa with the Coptic Orthodox Church having originated initially in Ethiopia.
Roman Catholicism is institutionally unified worldwide, but there are branches of the Catholic Church that have rejected the authority of the Pope in Italy and Rome over them, and then, of course, Protestantism worldwide has subdivided into perhaps the greatest and into undoubtedly the greatest number of denominational perspectives as well as today increasingly people who in the name of the unity of the church do not align themselves, and churches that do not align themselves with a particular denomination.
This series and this lecture identify broadly with the Evangelical, Protestant, Christian perspective, though, wherever possible we stress agreements with all of the branches of the historic Christian church. Nevertheless, there will be times when we will be forced into a choice of perspectives, and while not aligning closely with a particular Protestant denomination for these short lectures, we will clearly be reflecting perspectives that have been prominent and typically have been dominant within Evangelical Christianity more broadly.
SHOULD WE EVALUATE THE NEW TESTAMENT FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE?
A final introductory question – does it make a difference if we do our best to bracket or put to one side all Christian faith or any commitments to religious or philosophical perspectives that may guide our lives and try to read the New Testament or any other great work of religious literature with as open a mind as possible with what some have called a blank slate? Or, should we come with all of the beliefs and education and convictions and commitments that have made up our lives to this present moment making us who we are and then evaluate the New Testament from that perspective? Throughout the last two millennia of world history there have been thinkers, Christian and non-Christian, who have argued vigorously for both of these perspectives and often arguing that only one of them is the correct approach.
I would like to humbly suggest that there is truth in both approaches and that, in fact, however much one might want to limit oneself to one approach it is virtually impossible to do so anyway. What do I mean by that? In the case of trying to be as objective as possible, and there is no question that there is great merit to this, if I simply allow my prejudices or pre-understandings or predispositions to make me willing without much critical thought, without much analysis to accept these words no matter how unusual, strange, silly, or unbelievable they appear, then I will seldom be able to share my faith and persuade others with much success.
On the other hand, if I try as hard as possible to read the New Testament as if for the first time with no prior understanding or commitment to the text, I will find myself over and over again subconsciously, perhaps even unconsciously and thus in ways that I am barely aware of, if at all, reading in perspectives that I have heard before, that I have never heard challenged, that I am not aware of alternatives to, and I will fool myself into thinking that I am being objective.
What we need is a balance or a mediating approach between the two positions and I would suggest this is what we should do in reading sympathetically the literature of any authors who claim to be telling us true things about the world, about its creation, about humanity and for those who believe in a Creator, about the nature of that God.
We put out on the table for ourselves and others very clearly everything we have come to believe about life, but we hold nothing as so perfectly determined that no amount of evidence could ever convince us to change our mind. Some things we may believe quite firmly and we admit honestly it would take a huge amount of new evidence and a very different approach to thinking to change our mind, but if such should appear we will be open to it.
In other cases, on other issues, where we are not at all sure even of our own beliefs we can come to be persuaded much more readily. It would be my hope and prayer that readers would approach this series of lectures from that vantage point. I would hope that no Evangelical, Protestant, Christian, however much they may have reason to respect my perspectives, would accept them simply because I put them on a tape, but go back to the Bible and go back to every resource that you ever have had and ever will have access to by which to measure and test the truth of what you hear in these lectures.
Be like those Jews in Acts 17 at Berea who searched the Scriptures daily to see if the things the Apostle Paul was teaching them were true, or like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who even after she received an angelic revelation, we are told in Luke 2, kept all these things in her heart (Luke 1 and 2) pondering them.
But for those who are not Evangelical, Protestant Christians listening to this tape series my prayer would be that you not come with a hostile or overly suspicious approach, that you enter sympathetically and empathetically into the possibilities that I will trace, not gullibly, testing them even as the other group of listeners tests them, but open to the possibility of learning something new that might in fact change your mind, your behavior, your commitments in little ways or even in big ways. Let’s ponder on all of these introductory thoughts as we bring this first lecture to a close.