Perhaps an important way to get the big picture of the Christian message is to treat the New Testament as a book, and review it in a manner that the typical book review does. The following post conveys the usual overview of the salient points in a book review and how it “all hangs together.” This article is actually taken from A BIOGRAPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE. This is my most recent book and focuses on its composition and transmission. If you don’t believe the Bible to be trustworthy, you would do well to read the book. You might come away with an appreciation for the fact that no other ancient book has the authenticity that the Bible does. We know that what we have is what was written by the original authors. Enjoy the article.
As we zero-in on the message of the New Testament, first, we should understand that the Christian faith, established and supported through its 27 books, is aggressively evangelistic. Therefore, the first four books, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are all “polemical” (some would even call them “propaganda”) as they intend to convince the reader that Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the promised Messiah from the Old Testament, spoken of by Moses to Malachi. The gospel writers are known as “evangelists” because they present the story of Jesus the Christ in a manner seeking to convince their respective audience that the anointed one of God, the Messiah, (aka the Christ which means “anointed”) had come as a Jew in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, the “outback” if you will, in Judah.
We must point out its essential that each of the gospels was directed to a particular audience when it was written. These choices influenced the narrative of each Gospel.
Matthew seeks to appeal to Jews by citing many messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. He supplies a genealogy to demonstrate that Jesus was from “the House of David” and therefore was of the right lineage to become the King of all Israel in fulfillment of ancient prophecies. Matthew presents the story of Jesus on “five mountains” such as the location for the Sermon on the Mount, the Olivet Discourse on the Mount of Olives and Christ’s ascension from the same, with the Mount of Transfiguration in Northern Israel where Jesus foreshadows the future Kingdom joining with Elijah and Moses in front of the dumbfounded disciples.
Mark (aka John Mark) targets a less sophisticated audience, perhaps the Romans. He pictures Christ with strong human emotions, and he has Jesus using Aramaic in many situations. His account emphasizes the servanthood of Jesus. For Mark, Jesus came to serve humankind – not to be served – but “to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Mark’s gospel may have been taken from sermons preached by Peter as Mark traveled with him on missionary journeys. Most scholars believe Mark’s gospel was the first of the four. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the “synoptic gospels,” suggesting that they provide a summary or synopsis of the story of Jesus. The word, however, comes from two Greeks words, syn and opsis, meaning “seen together,” suggesting that these three gospels “see things similarly” and build upon Mark’s gospel first.
Luke, however, gives a view of Jesus different from the first two synoptic gospels. He traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam, indicating he wishes to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. In a pagan, Hellenistic world quick to make him a divine figure, Luke attempts to balance what would become a cornerstone of Christian theology – that Jesus was both human and divine. This relationship between these two aspects of Jesus’ person would become the lightning rod that split the Church after the Chalcedon Creed in 451 A.D., as the Church simply could not reconcile to everyone’s satisfaction how Jesus could be equal to God the Father and yet fully embrace a bodily existence incarnated in human flesh. Luke’s gospel also emphasizes the viewpoint of women, with emphasis on the worlds and thoughts of Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus. We discern this from the stories Luke relates, incidents that would have been known only to these women.
John’s gospel is quite different. It is the last of the four. Today, it is the most read and popular gospel. It is recommended more for evangelistic purposes in the modern world than any other. It places itself firmly in the Hellenistic world of Alexandria and Philo (the Jewish Philosopher), beginning with the notion that Jesus was the Logos, the Word of God, through whom all creation was made. This notion of the Logos had been initially developed by Philo (the Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria, Egypt) who took the LOGOS down a divergent path. But John clarifies that Jesus was not a demiurge or an intermediary in the gnostic sense. Instead, He was co-eternal and the very creator of the universe. He not only “was at the beginning with God, but He was God.” And “all things came into being through Him,” and “without Him, nothing came into being that had come into being.” (John 1:1-3) John provides a series of miracles and a repetitive framework of sequential Passovers (four and perhaps five) through which Jesus presents Himself ever more clearly, year-by-year. And only John gives us the post-resurrection stories. So why did he do this? John was battling Gnosticism as the first century ended – a view which denigrated the humanity of Jesus. That’s why, in one poignant instance, John tells us that Jesus made a fire on the beach where the Apostles were fishing and consumed a fish caught by the Apostles. By doing this, Jesus emphasized that he was not a ghost. He was a physical being, yet one that had been transformed so much they hardly recognized Him. John provides a unique understanding of the afterlife in the Christian faith: Christians will not be bodiless spirits but will enjoy corporeal existence although it will be without pain, suffering, and death.
Acts and the Epistles of the Apostles
The Book of Acts could be grouped with the gospels as part of the history of the faith. However, it bridges the New Testament accounts of Jesus with the ministries of the Apostles. It provides the necessary background to appreciate the letters written by the Apostles that will appear in the NT following Acts.. Those Apostolic “epistles” interpret the “Christ event” of the first century A.D. in light of the Old Testament, and the new revelations given them, especially to the Apostles, Paul and John.
Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts (of the Apostles) begin with the salutation, “To the most excellent Theophilus” which means lover of God. Consequently, Luke and Acts are “books one and two,” telling the Christian story as Luke tells it. (Luke is much like an investigative journalist providing the narrative based on the many interviews he conducted with the story’s witnesses). The stars of the show in Acts are Peter and later Paul. Indeed, Peter commences the evangelistic activity for the Church with his grand sermon recorded in Acts 2, at the so-called birth of the Church reaching and convincing the Church’s first 5,000 converts. Soon afterward, Peter provides a necessary bridge enabling Gentiles to join the Jewish movement. In a dream during an afternoon nap, Peter encounters Christ who commands him to eat unclean animals. Peter objects, but Christ reassures him. Upon waking, Peter interprets the images as proof that God wants the Gentiles to hear the gospel and become part of His new ecclesia, or church. This watershed moment lays the groundwork for the story of the Apostle Paul, the most dynamic evangelist ever, who converted from Judaism to Christianity after having led persecution against the Christian “sect.” (His conversion resulted from a dramatic vision while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus).
Paul would soon proclaim himself, “The Apostles to the Gentiles.” Born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus (in Asia Minor) and trained as a Pharisee – the most stringent sect of the Jews (studying under the renowned teacher, Gamaliel), Paul took the gospel across the Middle East from Damascus to the critical city of Antioch, the third most vital in the Roman Empire, superseded only by Rome and Alexandria. The energetic and irrepressible Apostle crossed over from Asia to Europe, creating numerous churches including Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Colossae, Galatia, and Thessalonica. Later he composes letters to all these churches, (plus the central church in Rome traditionally seen as founded by Peter), as well as protégés Timothy and Titus, and lastly to a friend by reputation, Philemon.
Therefore, the NT’s backstory is how a Jewish movement became a global phenomenon of religious “inclusiveness.” Judaism could have easily been accused of being exclusive to its race. Christianity would transform what had been a racial religion into an independent ideology open to everyone. Indeed, a good deal of the story of the NT is how the new religion would become comfortable with opening the door to every race without insisting its adherents follow the demands of the Mosaic law that were directed to the Hebrews.
Paul’s Book of Romans stands apart from the others, however, becoming one of the most important of all New Testament books. It triggered several revivals in the history of the Church; most notably Martin Luther during the Reformation of the sixteenth century as well as Karl Barth and the Neo-orthodox movement early in the twentieth century. In both cases, with Luther and Barth, we hear from Germans who were inspired by the teachings of Paul, citing Habakkuk 2:4, that “The just shall live by faith.” Paul begins his epistle to the Romans
highlighting this statement as the primary means to salvation in Christianity (Romans 1:17) in contradistinction to the Law of Moses, which Paul teaches was merely a “custodian” taking us by the hand to escort us to God. Paul states this in Galatians 3. Furthermore, for Paul, the work of the Holy Spirit resides at the very heart of our faith. His carefully argued treatise from Romans 6, 7, and 8 concludes by exalting the indwelling Spirit of Christ through which are set free from “this body of sin and death,” and the condemnation that comes with the Law. “Therefore, there is no condemnation to those that are in Christ.”(Romans 8:1)
In his epistles, Paul addresses issues in everyday life of the Church and how believers should live out their faith. He also discusses the resurrection of the body, and the rapture of the Church, a “mystery” hidden in the Old Testament, but revealed to Him personally that predicts a future generation will not taste death but be instantly translated from a mortal bodies to an immortal beings. His teaching on the second coming of Christ, aka the Second Advent, had set off controversies he attempts to correct (even as it does today!) While Paul never mentions Hell (although Jesus does 11 times), Paul is often regarded as the inventor of a variant form of Christianity, harsh and analytical. In reality, Paul had a profoundly sensitive spiritual impulse, leading to his most cited teaching concerning faith, hope, and love from 1 Corinthians 13. He tells us that while all these virtues are essential, “but the greatest is love.” Paraphrasing with modern-day lingo: “Without love, nothing we do matters. Indeed, even if we do great things for the Kingdom but do them without love as our motivation, we are nothing at all, but a clanging gong and loud rimshot on the snare drum.”
In contrast, the Book of James (a brother of Jesus) is somewhat of an enigma. Its emphasis on “works” rather than grace springs from the struggle to distinguish what was central to Judaism from what was the priority for Christianity. Some speculate that this composition might have been the earliest of the epistles. It is not a favorite for many. Martin Luther called it, “an epistle of straw” since it seemed to place obedience to the law ahead of professing faith as the attribute we must exhibit to obtain salvation. This assessment is somewhat unfair as James appears to be arguing for a balance between having faith and demonstrating such faith by doing “good deeds,” or as Paul stated – the champion of salvation by grace through faith, “We are His workmanship, created for good works prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). James message might have been “taking the first crack” at reconciling the directives of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, Paul’s statement constitutes a more sophisticated way to state the necessity of living out our faith that plainly demonstrates we must embody the gospel message. God’s forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit compel us to be emissaries for the gospel through three stages of salvation: justification, sanctification, and finally in the life ahead, receiving our glorious inheritance – the divine nature itself as we take on an immortal body. (Romans 8:18; cf. 2 Peter 1:4)
Peter and Jude will write letters that follow Paul’s epistles, reinforcing that Paul’s letters are viewed as scripture, and interpreting apocalyptic visions that were a part of the Church, most notably the pseudepigraphal 1 Enoch. Perhaps two decades later, John the Revelator (conservative scholarship affirms he is John the Apostle) will experience the grandest of all apocalyptic visions in the Bible, the Revelation. While often called the Revelation of John, it actually is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. This “macro-epistle” provides messages to seven Churches in Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Likewise, the Apostle John will write several letters to his followers, the first regarded as a vital epistle stressing orthodox beliefs (countering Gnosticism) by emphasizing the reality of sin and the incarnation of Christ in human flesh. (2 John 1:7) The New Living Translation makes this clear: “I say this because many deceivers have gone out into the world. They deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body. Such a person is a deceiver and an antichrist.” The issue of how this Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine is the greatest mystery expounded by the NT and has remained a fuse that has set off explosive controversy within Christendom down to our day.
The only book not mentioned thus far is the Book of Hebrews. No one knows who wrote it. And yet, it escaped being thrown out of the New Testament canon because it was beloved and revered by so many in the early church. Given that its authorship was uncertain, it could have been regarded as pseudepigrapha. But since it doesn’t falsely claim it was written by a prophet or apostle, which pseudepigrapha does, being an anonymous epistle may have aided its cause. Nevertheless, many consider Paul to be its originator for several reasons:
- First, Hebrews was usually “packaged” with the Epistles of Paul when it was circulated by the churches in the first century. Thus, tradition had it that he was its author.
- Secondly, Pauline authorship was plausible since the book is constructed by someone having in-depth knowledge of Greek philosophy, i.e., Plato’s notion of “ideas” dwelling in the heavenly realms that are more perfect than earthly replicas. Additionally, we encounter comprehensive knowledge of the traditions of Judaism, the rituals of the Temple, and what might be termed the “secrets” of the Old Testament such as his teaching about Christ being worshipped by angels and being the founder of a new priesthood – the priesthood of Melchizedek. The writer to the Book of Hebrews proclaims Christ superior to the Law, to Moses, and to angels. A pharisee which expert knowledge of the Old Testament certainly would known how to argue this highly divergent point of view.
- Thirdly, Hebrews chapters 11, 12 and 13 can be summarized as chapters addressing “faith, hope, and love” – the Pauline triad presented in 1 Corinthians 13, providing a “Pauline outline” as the crescendo capping off the book’s teaching.
New Testament Timing and Authorship
Two of the most intense debates about the New Testament have to do with who wrote the various New Testament books and when the books were written. Such is the stuff of textual criticism. It seems the first two centuries of the Church were captivated with the Apostolic message while the most recent two complete centuries (nineteenth and twentieth), have been rife with skepticism. The subject matter revolves around whether the New Testament books had authentic authors that participated in its early history along with how far scholars could separate the date of composition from the dates of actual events during the first century. To be sophisticated and accepted in academia today, it seems scholars must be skeptics, surely a deadly path for all professed Christians. That’s why we could summarize the situation with this aphorism: While “the just shall live by faith;” the successful academic, “shall excel through doubt.” Make note: this author rejects the excessive critical attitude so prevalent among those who spurn the Bible’s history and its proclaimed claims of God’s saving acts. The proper theological word, Heilsgeschestiche, is often used to encapsulate “God’s savings acts.”
The gospels are often thought to been written toward the end of the first generation of believers who lived during the time of Christ’s earthly life. Mark may have been written as early as 50 A.D. The other Synoptics were all likely written and in circulation by 70 A.D. before Rome seized Jerusalem from the Zealots and destroyed Herod’s Temple. We can easily guess the timing of the Acts of the Apostles since it did not include the death of Paul, the featured Apostle whose ministry was detailed by Luke, his trusted traveling companion. And since Paul was beheaded in Rome before the destruction of the Temple, the conventional view has few challengers. Scholarship argues Paul was martyred circa 65 A.D. Consequently, Luke’s gospel and Acts were completed sometime just before then, likely about 63 A.D. Additionally, Peter writes his first letter predicting suffering that will soon come upon the Church and seems to anticipate the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. while it also appears that Peter is aware of Paul’s martyrdom. Therefore, Peter’s first epistle can be dated to 68 A.D. or thereabouts.
The apocalyptic books of 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation were likely written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and during a fearful time when the Church was unsure what the future would hold. John’s letters and his gospel were likely written late, near the end of the first century. John would have been approaching 90 years of age. But John was the youngest Apostle, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as he self-identifies himself with a humble pseudonym (Jesus loved all his disciples, but John, being the youngest might have been Jesus’ favorite.) That he outlives the other apostles is not a surprise. Given that he was the only disciple who dared to stand at the feet of the cross when Jesus was crucified, his longevity was possibly a reward for his faithfulness and courage. He also was assigned the task by Jesus to look after Mary, his mother. The Lord didn’t want Mary’s trustee to disappear from the scene before she did.
The Book of Revelation was either written around 65 B.C. or 95 B.C. The timing is crucial for those that argue over whether Christ’s return comes before or after “the Great Tribulation” that Jesus mentions in Matthew 24; and whether or not there is a 1,000-year period when we have “heaven on earth” known as the Millennium. The early date satisfies the Preterist view which believes all prophesies pertaining to “tribulation” and “second coming” were fulfilled before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. However, if the Book of Revelation was written late (closer to Domitian’s persecution at the end of the first century rather than Nero’s persecution circa 68 A.D.), then the prophesies and apocalyptic vision of the Revelation, tells of future times – not the past. Hence the late-daters are known as “Futurists,” and the early-daters are known as “preterists.”
In my opinion, I’ve always felt that the early date makes no sense since it would have been written and circulated only a few years before the Temple’s destruction. Assuming the first composition date of 65 A.D., and since we know the destruction of the Temple transpired in 70 A.D., the Revelation would have had a shelf life of only two or three years. The math: Subtract the time for its distribution (2-3 years), and the prediction seems irrelevant for the targeted Asian audience. Plus, the conditions existing in the seven churches in Asia addressed by Jesus through the author, were unlikely that early in the first century. Regardless of how the reader chooses to date Revelation’s composition, the second advent of Christ constitutes an enormous aspect of New Testament faith. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God – and the reversal of fortunes. He was genuinely an apocalyptic preacher. As I have said elsewhere (see my book Blood Moon), Christianity remains an apocalyptic faith, with every generation to treat each day as a day of decision and judgment – with the following day, the day of Christ’s return.
In summary, most theologians are skeptical about authorship, discounting tradition, believing instead that Paul didn’t write to Timothy or Titus, and likely didn’t write Ephesians and Colossians either. Likewise, they doubt Peter wrote 2 Peter. And John the Apostle didn’t write the gospel that bears his name, nor the Revelation, nor did he compose the three letters attributed to him. Lying behind academicians’ doubt looms the supposition that the Apostles were illiterate fishermen, barely able if at all, to express themselves in Greek. Of course, the opposite view (which I hold) insists they were literate and educated. Scholars overlook the fact that the Jewish religion which all Jews were taught from their early years on, demands they learn the Law of Moses in order to keep it. Along the same line, it seems to be no accident that the first phonetic alphabet was invented by a Jew living in Egypt. [This is discussed earlier in A Biography of the Christian Bible.] An alphabet was a precursor to Yahweh delivering the Law to Moses, and literacy would be necessary if Moses was to deliver the Law to every Hebrew.
In fact, this marvelous invention endures. This alphabet remains the basis for our alphabet today in the Western world. Just consider the first few letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, and D in Roman letters. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta in Greek. And finally: Aleph, Beit, Gimmel, and Dalet in Hebrew. The similarity and sequence are telltale signs of a simple and shared beginning. Plus, the first four pictures in the proto-Sinaitic script were a bull’s head that became an “A,” a house with a front door that morphs into a “B,” a crooked shepherds hook that becomes a “C,” and a door that becomes a “D.” Even the pictures hearkening back to Egyptian hieroglyphs show Egypt was the birthplace of our alphabet.
Therefore, assessing the New Testament as a book, one is captivated by the fact that its message served as the foundation for the Western World. Beginning in a backward country from an oppressed people, its story conquered the mighty Roman Empire at its zenith. As Paul said, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Its impact speaks volumes – and it has – for two millennia strong. The central character could hardly be more exalted than being the subject of the world’s most published tome. That is why he continues to reign today in the hearts of his followers.
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
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