T HE N ATURE OF THE N EW T ESTAMENT P ROLOGUE T HE S TRUCTURE AND M EANING. Structure

Full text

(1)

1

T

H E

N

AT U R E

O F T H E

N

E W

T

E S T A M E N T

The New Testament consists of twenty-seven early Christian writings that with the Old Tes-tament, the Bible of Judaism, constitute the Christian Bible. Although the New Testament is thus comparable to the Old, there are significant differences. The Old Testament is more than three times the length of the New, and the material in it was written over a period of nearly a thousand years. The New Testament was composed in a mere fraction of that time. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel; the New Testament, in Greek, the language of the ancient Mediterranean world.

T

H E

S

T R U C T U R E A N D

M

E A N I N G O F T H E

N

E W

T

E S T A M E N T

Structure

The structure of Anatomy of the New Testament reflects the structure of the New Testa-ment itself, but is not identical. Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation stand in the same general order as in the New Testament. The structure of the New Testament is keyed to the centrality of Jesus. Thus the Gospels stand first. In Part One, “The Gospels and Jesus,” Mark is treated before Matthew, because, for reasons that will become evi-dent, Mark is generally believed to be the earliest of the Gospels. Also in Part One “Jesus the Messiah” is treated last. Obviously, the Gospels are about Jesus, who lived and died before they were written. Yet the character of the Gospels, which are interpretations rather than simply records of Jesus, must first be taken into account.

(2)

2 PR O L O G U E TH E NA T U R E O F T H E NE W TE S T A M E N T

Something similar applies in the case of the Book of Acts and the Epistles, taken up in Part Two, “The Apostles and the Early Church.” Jesus is their basis, but the focus is on the life of the church, the Christian communities. This is true of the letters ascribed to the Apostle Paul, as well as of those ascribed to other apostles (or followers) of Jesus: James, Peter, Jude, and John. It is possible to discern a chronological order among Paul’s letters reflected in Anatomy’s order, and therefore to observe how Paul’s career, thought, and practice developed. The other letters were probably written later than Paul’s; thus they are treated after Paul’s, as they appear in the New Testament. The Revelation to John, the last book of the Christian Bible, is fittingly positioned. Based on an event and person of the past, the faith of the com-munity that produced the New Testament looks to the future, as does Revelation.

The story of how and why these books were written and at length gathered into the collection we now call the New Testament is a long and complicated one. Each book originated within a particular historical situation. The individual books were preserved, circulated among early Christians, and gradually brought together because most every-day Christians deemed them useful and authoritative in the church. By the beginning of the third century, the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters attributed to Paul were widely regarded as scripture. Probably Paul’s letters had also been collected and were being read even earlier (see 2 Pet. 3:15–16; cf. Col. 4:16).

Not until the late fourth century, however, did canonical lists appear containing exactly the twenty-seven books of our New Testament. Christians and churches got along for turies without the New Testament in exactly the form we have it, and for more than a cen-tury without anything approximating our complete collection of Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation. That they were able to do so testifies to the fact that early Christianity’s vitality and strength lay in its enthusiastic faith and community life—two factors much in evidence in the writings of the New Testament themselves.

At first, the early Christians used as their Bible what they later came to regard as the Old Testament: the scriptures of Israel and contemporary Judaism. From the begin-ning, synagogue and church have appealed to the same scriptures; at times they have heatedly debated their proper interpretation. Christian faith and church life have there-fore never been without an authoritative book. The great fourth- and fifth-century

man-uscripts of the New Testament (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus) are complete

Bibles, containing the Old and New Testaments. Thus the scriptures of Christianity con-sist of both testaments. The New Testament is, and always has been, not only incomplete but inconceivable apart from the Old. Even the structure of the New Testament is grounded upon the foundation of the Old Testament.

Meaning

None of the individual writers knew they were writing for a collection of books that would be called the New Testament and compiled centuries later. One speaks of the canon of the New Testament and of the New Testament books as canonical. The term “canon” is a Greek word (kan n) meaning “rule” in the sense of norm. The New Testament was formed as a rule of faitho¯

(3)

and practice for the followers of Jesus. Thus the New Testament as a whole developed along the lines of the major books that became a part of it. For example, the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy, thereby adopting an Old Testament genre or form. The biblically knowl-edgeable reader would understand that Matthew is intended to be scriptural, that is, a norma-tive guide for believers. Similarly, Luke begins with canticles or songs written in a biblical language and cadence. The Acts of the Apostles extends the story of God’s dealing with a peo-ple beyond the narratives of the Old Testament and the Gospels. Although the New Testament as a whole obviously developed later than its individual writings or books, it stands in continu-ity with them. Like the major writings that compose it, the New Testament is intended to be normative, that is, canonical. It defines who Jesus Christ is and how the believer may follow him. The issues and needs of the church or churches that produced the New Testament over a period of a couple of centuries were not the same as those that led to the writing of the various New Testament books. Between them, however, lies a continuity of purpose and function.

At the same time, neither individual New Testament books nor the New Testament as a whole was ever intended to function as the sole source of authority for Christians or the church. The New Testament itself developed alongside creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which also were authoritative canons or norms, as well as an ordained ministry that watched over the churches’ faith and practice. (Episkopos, the origi-nal Greek term for bishop, literally means “overseer”: a supervisor, one who watches over.) In the case of individual New Testament books, their authority functioned together with that of the apostles and their successors, as well as the Spirit, often called the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, as in 1 John, we see evidence of the meeting or collision of these different sources of authority: for example, right confession and the Spirit in 1 John 4:1–4.

T

H E

T

R A N S M I S S I O N A N D

T

R A N S L A T I O N O F T H E

N

E W

T

E S T A M E N T

Transmission

Available technology fundamentally affects people’s access to knowledge, what they read and whether they read. There were no printing presses in the West until the middle of the fifteen century. After that, the Bible was the first and foremost book printed and eventually became readily available to the general public. Without printed Bibles, the emphasis of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century on sola scriptura, scrip-ture alone, is hardly imaginable. Prior to that time, most people heard scripscrip-ture in church liturgies rather than reading scripture privately—even if they were able to read. None of the original copies (autographa) of the New Testament books survives. They were written by hand and then copied. Because of the needs of churches, rather than of indi-vidual readers, they were copied frequently. Probably books were copied indiindi-vidually at first (e.g., the Gospel of John). Gradually, as the New Testament developed, they were copied and bound together, at first in papyrus, similar to paper, later in codexes that were sewn together like books, ultimately on more permanent vellum (leather). In Christian usage the codex

(4)

4 PR O L O G U E TH E NA T U R E O F T H E NE W TE S T A M E N T

displaced the scroll on which the Jewish scriptures were written. (Thus one speaks of the Jew-ish Dead Sea Scrolls.) Christian use of the codex, instead of scrolls, may have been ahead of its time. In due course, however, codexes replaced scrolls even in general, secular usage.

A codex could accommodate four Gospels bound together, in which one could easily refer to a particular Gospel. This practice would have been much more difficult if scrolls were used. It may well be that the use of the codex accelerated the acceptance of a fourfold Gospel canon, which the church has used since the second century.

There are far more copies of the Greek New Testament than of any other writings or documents from antiquity. Over five thousand ancient manuscripts of some part of the New Testament are known to exist, together with several thousand copies of ancient trans-lations into such languages as Latin, Coptic, and Syriac. The existence of this wealth of material is reassuring to the modern reader or scholar, but it also presents problems. No two manuscripts are exactly the same: there are many differences in wording, readings, or even content. For example, our most ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark do not contain the so-called longer ending (16:9–20), found in the King James Version and long recognized as a part of the Christian scriptures. Rather, according to these manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly with the reported fear of women fleeing from Jesus’ empty tomb (16:8). Similarly, John 7:53–8:11, the well-known story of the woman taken in adultery, was not part of the earliest known manuscripts of that Gospel. The question arises: Which ancient authorities are to be followed? To side with the majority seems rea-sonable, but that solution presents problems: most of the extant manuscripts are relatively late, dependent on the earlier ones, and therefore less reliable. Generally speaking, the most ancient manuscripts are more trustworthy, although this may not always be the case. An early and possibly original reading may be found in later manuscripts.

To assess the relative merits of manuscripts and readings and to decide what stood in the most ancient or original text is the task of textual criticism. Such work is demand-ing, sometimes tedious, and often uncertain in its results. Nevertheless, the work of tex-tual critics across the past two centuries has produced a text of the Greek New Testament that is certainly much closer to the original than that used by the translators of the fa-mous King James Version, which though published in the early seventeenth century is still widely used, largely because of the grace of its English prose and poetry. Since the in-vention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, manuscripts are no longer copied, so the creation or reproduction of variant (i.e., differing) readings has ceased. Neverthe-less, the task of refining the text goes on, and even in the twentieth century hitherto-unknown manuscripts have been found. That any subsequent manuscript discoveries will produce a radically different New Testament is, however, highly unlikely. Were all the thousands of New Testament manuscripts destroyed, most of the corpus could be reconstructed on the basis of patristic commentaries on its texts, which, again, approxi-mate the New Testament as we now have it. One can be confident that what we read in a responsible modern translation represents substantially what the ancient authors wrote. Yet there remain numerous, significant cases in which the exact wording remains in doubt. SPIVMC00_001-009hr 27/6/06 9:19 AM Page 4

(5)

The Most Ancient Manuscripts of the New Testament

The Bodmer papyri (p66, p75), housed in Cologny/Geneva, partially preserve texts of the Gospel of John dating from the beginning of the third century. Rylands papyrus 457 (p52), a fragment of John 18 housed in Manchester (U.K.), dates from the second quarter of the second century. The fragment labeled p52is, to date, the oldest surviving remnant of a New Testament manuscript. The most ancient full manuscripts of the New Testament are Codex Vaticanus, now housed in Rome’s Vatican Museum, and Codex Sinaiticus, now in the British Museum in London.

Translation

Probably more people have read the New Testament more frequently than any other writ-ing or collection of documents. Among different Christian churches or traditions, there are some differences in the definition and contents of the Old Testament. Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain the so-called Apocryphal Books (Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, among others). Since the Reformation Protestants have not recognized these books as canonical; their Old Testament consists only of the books in the Hebrew Bible. Generally speaking, such differences are not widespread with the New Testament, where the same twenty-seven books are read and regarded as authoritative by almost all churches and Christians. Among most of them, the New Testament is read in translation rather than the original Greek. Scholars and serious students read the New Testament in Greek, as do mod-ern Greeks, for whom the Hellenistic Greek in which it was composed is still intelligible. Significantly, this state of affairs is different from the Qur’an within Islam. Many Mus-lims learn Arabic in order in order to read the Qur’an in its original language, for only that is authoritative. The Christian practice of translating the New Testament assumes that the

revelation of God resides first of all in the events proclaimed rather than in the words used

to articulate them. Accordingly, the New Testament has been translated into thousands of languages, beginning in antiquity. Such ancient translations are called versions, the most prominent of which is the Latin. The ancient Latin translation known as the Vulgate was preeminent in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. Nowadays, however, Roman Catholic scholars and theologians work with the original Greek text, and translations based on the Greek are widely read by members of the Catholic Church.

Of the many English translations, or versions, of the New Testament, the King James, or so-called Authorized, Version (KJV; 1611) still stands as a monument of the Eng-lish language, despite the fact that its Greek textual basis is now known to be seriously flawed. Without doubt the Revised Standard Version (RSV; 1952), which preserved much of the cadence and style of the King James in modern dress, provided a good com-promise between faithfulness to the syntax of the original languages and the modern English idiom. With good reason the RSV has been called the final revision of the King James, though it too has now been revised as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV; 1989). The NRSV incorporates gender–inclusive language, as well as a number of other

(6)

6 PR O L O G U E TH E NA T U R E O F T H E NE W TE S T A M E N T

changes or improvements. For this reason Anatomy now follows the NRSV except where the authors find reason to disagree with its translation. The RSV and NRSV are official translations, authorized by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the Unit-ed States of America. In Great Britain there are now comparable, official translations done in the latter half of the twentieth century: the New English Bible (NEB; 1970) and its successor, the Revised English Bible (REB; 1989). Although such translations are not sectarian and are used by Roman Catholics as well as others, they are basically Protestant in origin. A good, modern Catholic translation is the New American Bible (NAB; 1970). There are other reliable translations, though some recent popular paraphrases of the Bible (like The Living Bible, 1962) are quite tendentious, theologically or in other ways.

He, She, or It? Gender in Translation

The sixth edition of Anatomy of the New Testament is again based on the NRSV, which makes a serious and laudable effort to avoid sexist—androcentric or masculine–oriented—language.

That effort is occasioned by differences between the biblical languages and English. For example, in English the word “man” has traditionally been used to refer both to a male human being and to humanity generally. When the Psalmist asks (8:4 RSV), “What is man that thou art mindful of him, / and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” the NRSV changes this to “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, / mortals that you care for them? ” This is done to avoid using the word for a male human being, though “man” also has stood for humanity generally, and thus to avoid presumably sexist language or inter-pretation. To that end, the NRSV also uses the plural noun “human beings” and substitutes “mortals” for “son of man, ” thus departing considerably from the original text.

The original Hebrew of this psalm’s verse uses enosh and ben adam, both terms signifying humanity generally rather than a particular male or female, for which the Hebrew words are

ish, ishah (man, woman). Similarly, in both places the Greek Septuagint (LXX)reads anthr pos

(“man” in the sense of human being; cf. “anthropology”). There are also specific Greek words for man and woman (an r, gyn ). Ancient societies may have been patriarchal, but their lan-guages reflected the need for a single word to designate a human being or humanity in gen-eral, as distinguished from a particular man or woman. Modern English lacks this capability, although German, for example, possesses it (Mann, a male; Mensch, a human being). The NRSV might have translated Psalm 8:4, “What is a human being that you are mindful of one, / or the offspring of a human being that you care for such a one?” It would thus have been closer to the original, though such a translation obviously borders on the ludicrous.

All translation involves interpretation. There are, however, significant degrees of inter-pretation and here, as frequently elsewhere, a much higher degree in the NRSV than in the RSV. Communication by spoken (or written) words involves what is heard (or seen), as well as what is intended by the speaker (or writer). The NRSV translators, in order to prevent “What is man . . . ?” from being understood as “What is a male human being?”—or perhaps to avoid any connotation of male dominance—resorted to “What are human -beings . . . ?” Yet in avoiding the danger of sexist misreading, a rhetorical price was paid. As social and cultural situations evolve, language will continue to change, as it always has. The rhetorically eloquent “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” may someday make a reentry in subsequent biblical translations.

¯ e ¯ e ¯ o SPIVMC00_001-009hr 27/6/06 9:19 AM Page 6

(7)

The task of translation is a demanding one and must continually be redone. Lan-guages grow and change, so that certain words disappear or change their meanings. Thus 1 Corinthians 13 in the KJV the Greek word agap is translated “charity,” but in modern ver-sions it is quite properly rendered “love.” “Charity” now connotes benevolence or gifts to the poor. Words in one language rarely have exact equivalents in another. For example, the Greek logos, translated “word” in the prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1–18), has a much broad-er range of meanings in Greek, whbroad-ere undbroad-er varying circumstances it means “statement,” “discourse,” “reason,” or even “reckoning.” Moreover, the punctuation of an English translation—for that matter, of modern Greek editions—has been introduced by modern editors to aid reading. Ancient manuscripts had little or no punctuation. Likewise, the chapter-and-verse divisions of the Bible are later, medieval additions. Conventional chapter divisions often accord with sense or narrative divisions remarkably well. Yet the reader and interpreter must remember that they are later impositions upon the text. They may not accord with how the author, or earlier readers, intended or perceived the text to be divided.

R

E A D I N G T H E

N

E W

T

E S T A M E N T

A major principle of modern biblical criticism and interpretation is that the Bible should be read like any other book. Of course, different books are appropriately read in differ-ent ways, and the Bible itself has been read quite differdiffer-ently by various people or groups. That the Bible should be read like any other book has usually meant that individual bib-lical books should be read with appreciation for who wrote them, under what circum-stances, and for what purpose. Thus the reader must pay attention to the history, character, and literary genre of the writing in question.

Still, the overall purpose of the scriptural canon, to define Christian life and faith, is very much in accord with that of the New Testament books. Therefore, it is entirely necessary, indeed proper, to read them with a view to understanding their claims about God and God’s relationship to individuals, the human race, and the world. This way of reading does not mean that one has to accept the New Testament’s claims in order to understand it. Our approach to the New Testament, and that of modern exegesis generally, is based on the premise that the reader can understand what the New Testament and its constituent books are about and can appreciate their claims upon human life and allegiances without a prior commitment to belief in them. At the same time, like all culturally important literature— whether Shakespearean drama or the United States Constitution—this scripture rewards a se-rious and sympathetic reading.

Our situation, however, is quite different from that of antiquity. Although the New Testament was copied frequently, as its thousands of surviving manuscripts attest, these copies were made for churches rather than individuals. Doubtless more Christians heard the New Testament read aloud than read it for themselves. The New Testament itself indicates that these writings were read in church. In 1 Thessalonians (5:27) Paul commands that his letters be read to the congregation. Similarly, in the Letter to the Colossians the readers are told that, when the letter has been read in their congregation, it should be read in the church

¯

(8)

8 PR O L O G U E TH E NA T U R E O F T H E NE W TE S T A M E N T

of Laodiceans and that the Laodicean letter should be read in Colossae (4:16). “The public reading of scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may imply that some Christian writings were so regarded; in 2 Peter, probably written after A.D. 100, Paul’s letters are lumped with “other scriptures” (3:16). Even in the Gospels there is a word directed to readers (Mark 13:14), probably those who would read the Gospel aloud in church. The author of Revelation expressly states that he expects his book of prophecy to be read aloud so that members of the church will hear it (Rev. 1:3). At mid-second century Justin Martyr, who refers to the Gospels as “the memoirs of the apostles,” speaks of their being read on Sunday during worship (Apology 67, 3)— apparently an established practice that reflects an even more primitive usage. Although pri-vate reading of scripture as a devotional act is now common, probably more Christians still hear the New Testament read in church than read it for themselves.

Thus, reading the New Testament intelligently requires an understanding that these books were originally read and heard within Christian churches, as they still are today. Although the New Testament does not have to be read for religious purposes with-in a religious community, its character demands that it be read with an understandwith-ing and appreciation of those purposes and communities.

The task of reading the New Testament is at once simple and complex. It is simple because one can be confident of the New Testament’s general purpose, which is not dif-ferent in principle from that of its individual books. Yet it is complex, because each book’s specific situation and purpose are different.

Therefore, in Anatomy we encourage a slow and careful reading of the New Testament. In twenty-first century culture, even that may be a lost art requiring discipline to recapture. As one reads, one stops, ponders, and considers different interpretive options. What ques-tions should I put to this text? What quesques-tions are inappropriate, thus unfruitful? In the case of a parable of Jesus—for example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37)— one appropriately asks what point is being made or what sort of conduct is encouraged. One need not ask whether that particular Samaritan ever existed. Perhaps he did; perhaps he did not. Either way, his existence is not germane to the parable’s purpose.

Meaning is led out of a text. There is a Greek word for this, ex g sis. This is the cog-nate noun for the verb ex geomai, which literally means “lead out,” is commonly used to refer to an informed “explanation” or “interpretation.” In reading texts and interpreting them, first of all to ourselves, we are engaging in exegesis: drawing meaning out of a text. Exegesis is the specific mode of interpretation that deals with written texts.

In discussing specific texts at some length, the authors of Anatomy are engaging in exegesis, interpretation appropriate to texts, and inviting the reader to join with us in this task. Limitations of time and space obviously prevent us from dealing with every word of the New Testament. In the case of major New Testament books—the Gospels, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians—a number of typical and representative texts have been chosen, and for every book at least one such text. The overall purpose of Anatomy of the New Testament is to assist others in the reading of the New Testament, which mer-its a sympathetic hearing accompanied by critical awareness.

¯ e ¯ e ¯ e SPIVMC00_001-009hr 27/6/06 9:19 AM Page 8

(9)

How to Study the New Testament

The authors of Anatomy of the New Testament recommend the following procedure in study-ing each New Testament book. After familiarizstudy-ing themselves with important issues concern-ing the origin of the work in question by readconcern-ing the background comments in Anatomy, readers should then look at the brief outline of the entire biblical document, to gain some prior conception of what it is about. Then, the New Testament book should be read in its entirety, preferably in one sitting. Only then is one adequately prepared to dig into the representative texts with which this book mainly deals. In following this procedure, the reader should find the appropriate section of Anatomy both a guide and a help in understanding. These exegetical sections, which constitute the greater part of the book, will make little sense unless they are read with the New Testament in hand. The questions posed at the head of interpretive sec-tions are intended to provoke thought and to engage the reader with the New Testament’s subject matter. Used in this way, students have found Anatomy a helpful inducement and guide for studying New Testament. The bibliographies at the end of each chapter, and at the end of the book, offer guidance for continued reflection and study.

Figure

Updating...

References

Updating...

Related subjects :