Scholars usually refer to the religions of the New Testament world as Greco-Roman cults, commonly called “Paganism.” I want to begin by defining three key terms: The term “Greco-Roman world,” the term “Paganism,” and the term “cult.”
The Greco-Roman World
This first term will take a little bit of time to unpack. When scholars use the term “Greco-Roman world,” they’re referring to the lands around the Mediterranean from roughly the time of Alexander the Great, who lived around 300 B.C., to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine who lived around A.D. 300. Alexander the Great was born in the year 356 B.C., the son of Philip of Macedon, who was the ruler of Macedonia. Upon his father’s execution, Alexander took over and engaged in a military campaign in which he conquered most of the Mediterranean area, from his native land Macedonia, down into Greece and then further east, including Egypt, Palestine and Persia. Alexander had, as a youth, studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Under Aristotle, he had acquired an appreciation of Greek culture, Greek religion. As he conquered lands around the Mediterranean, Alexander promoted the adoption of Greek culture in these various lands. He built Greek cities, cities according to the Greek model in which there would be gymnasia and temples and various other Greek institutions. He urged the adoption of Greek language among the elite of these various cities. Generally, he tried to propagate Greek culture so that he was not only conquering places, he was trying to subdue them culturally so as to unify the areas that he conquered under one common Greek culture. This is significant, of course, for the New Testament. As I’ve pointed out already, the New Testament itself was written in Greek. Well, why in Greek? Because Palestine and the lands around the Mediterranean where these various books were written were already under the influence of Alexander’s Greek culture. The Greek word for “Greece” is hellas. The “Hellenistic” world is therefore the world that had adopted Greek culture in the wake of Alexander’s conquests.
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The Romans eventually conquered most of these lands a couple of centuries after Alexander. Originally, Rome had been a kingdom, and started off as a small village that was eventually ruled by kings. By the time of the New Testament, it had been a republic for 500 years, meaning it had been ruled by a senate. And just before the New Testament period, it had become an empire, ruled by an emperor principally, rather than the senate. The first century B.C. had been a time of significant upheaval within the Roman world: Several wars, including such things as the assassination of Julius Caesar, whose adopted son, his nephew named Octavius, some years after Julius’ assassination quelled the civil wars and, as a great general, brought peace and prosperity to the Empire. He himself, in fact, was proclaimed then as the first emperor Octavius, renamed Caesar Augustus. Under Caesar Augustus, there was a time of peace and prosperity within the confines of the Roman world. This was a world that eventually stretched all the way from England in the west to Syria in the east, and stretched from North Africa in the south and Egypt, on up into what would be today the central states of western Europe. The countries throughout the area were brought under Roman rule and were forced to pay tribute to Rome in exchange for services rendered. Roman troops guarded the borders on the frontiers.
The Roman economy was agrarian. There wasn’t much industry. The way people in Rome maintained their wealth and attained their wealth was through owning land. The Empire itself was supported by requiring tribute from its subject’s states, tribute usually in the form of crops and taxes then that would buy the various things that Rome wanted. Rome itself, of course, the city of Rome, was a magnificent place which had been funded by the provinces who were forced to pay tribute to them.
It’s a mistake to think that the Romans had their armies throughout the entire Empire; they had their armies situated on the frontiers to guard against invasions from other places. This was a time begun by Caesar Augustus of peace within the Empire. On the borders of the Empire, of course, there continued to be wars. There was a significant war I’m going to write about later in this series within Palestine itself, in which there was a Jewish uprising against the Romans that led to the destruction of the capital Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem. But for most of the Empire for most of the time, there was relative peace. Caesar Augustus inaugurated what people have since called the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” a 200-year period of peace and prosperity within the Empire. I tell my students, by the way, that if you have a perfectly good English term for a concept, that you’re much better off using the Latin to show that you’ve been through university. So we don’t call this the “Roman Peace,” we call this the Pax Romana.
There were a number of benefits associated with the Pax Romana. Throughout the entire Empire, people could speak the same language. Rather than promoting the adoption of Latin, which was Rome’s own language, the Romans continued the use of Greek throughout the Empire so that people could travel the entire expanse of the Empire and make themselves understood by speaking Greek, much as today people can speak English in large stretches of Europe. There was a common coinage throughout the Empire, so that one didn’t have to have a currency exchange whenever one crossed over a boundary. There were roads that the Romans built for their armies that made travel possible. There was relative safety throughout the Empire, and peace. These were all benefits brought to that part of the world through the Pax Romana. They were benefits that helped, eventually, Christianity to spread throughout the Empire, because Christians could take advantage of the situation in order to propagate their faith.
Paganism and Cults
If Christianity starts with Jesus and his apostles in the first century, they did not have a huge impact on the Roman world for several centuries, as we’ll see in a later essay. The first emperor to convert to Christianity was the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Prior to that time, virtually everyone in the Roman world, except for the Jews and of course the small group of Christians, adhered to local and state religions or cults. These people (the non-Jews and the non-Christians) are often called “pagans” by modern scholars. I need to be clear in this context that the term “Pagan” when used by historians does not have derogatory connotations. It doesn’t mean the same thing as I mean when I call my next-door neighbor a pagan. A “pagan” in this context was simply somebody who subscribed to any of the polytheistic religions found throughout the Empire. These religions are often called “cults,” not because they were dangerous and marginalized. The word “cult” itself is short for the Latin term cultus deorum, Latin for “care of the gods.” Just as in English we have the term “agriculture,” which means “care of the fields,” you can have cultus deorum, care of the gods. These are cults, then, because they are concerned with caring for the needs of the gods. How is that done? Principally through sacrifices and prayers.
One way to understand the religious cults scattered throughout the Roman Empire is to contrast them with what we might think of as religion today. For most people today, it only makes sense to say that there’s one god. If there’s any god, there’s one god. For most ancient people, that common sense, in fact, was nonsense. Most ancient people couldn’t understand at all the idea that there would be only one god. Most people throughout antiquity (in fact, virtually everybody throughout antiquity, except for the Jews and then the Christians), were polytheists, believing in many gods. There were of course the “great gods,” known to us today through ancient mythology, Greek gods like Zeus and Aries and Aphrodite. Or the Roman equivalents: Jupiter and Mars and Venus. But there were lots of other gods; gods who were local deities, who protected and cared for cities or towns and villages. Even less powerful gods who were in charge of even smaller places; gods in charge of a forest, or of a river, or of a road. Families had their own gods, gods who oversaw every human function and activity: the crops, the cupboard, the hearth, the personal health of the family member, childbirth. Gods in charge of virtually every function. These ancient religions, then, first of all differ from ours in that they subscribed to polytheistic views.
Second of all, most people today think that only one religion can possibly be true. If one religion is true, then others have to be false. Ancient people simply didn’t see it that way. Since there were lots of gods, there was no reason to think that one god was any better than any other god, or that only one god was to be worshipped and praised. They were all gods, and so they all deserved to be worshipped. For this reason, the religions of the Greco-Roman world were far more tolerant of one another than most religions are in our world today. We might think of Roman religion as being intolerant because of what we know happened to the Christians who were persecuted by Romans. I’ll say some things about that in a later essay. By and large, a more striking feature of Roman religion was that it was highly tolerant precisely because it was so widely polytheistic. You could worship any gods you wanted to in any way you wanted to, and nobody else really much cared. Everyone was, of course, expected to worship the state gods. These were the gods that had made the Roman Empire great, and so of course they deserved to be worshipped. And if you refused to worship them, then you must have some ulterior motive for refusing. In other words, it was seen to be a political offense not to worship the state gods. These gods were often worshipped at major state festivals, which were looked forward to and enjoyed as a time of vacation from work and a time with family and friends, a time to feast and to drink. Christians, of course, refused to participate in these state cults, because they thought to worship these other gods was to compromise one’s commitment to the true God. Most other people (in fact virtually everybody else) though, didn’t see a problem with worshipping the state gods along with their local gods and along with their family gods.
So, first point: ancient religions were polytheistic. Second point: they tended not to look upon one religion as true and others as false. Third point: for most people today, religion is a matter of constant devotion to God. For ancient people, on the other hand, religion was a periodic matter; not a matter of continual devotion, but a matter of periodic attention to the gods. These gods didn’t demand constant devotion. They simply demanded sacrifices at set times in the calendar and as the occasion arose. Most gods, in fact, in the ancient world were completely uninterested in how people lived their daily lives. This is not to say that ancient people were unconcerned with matters of ethics. Ancient people were concerned about ethics as much as we are today. But in this ancient world, ethics were a matter of philosophy, not a matter of religion. There were very few ethical activities that were considered to be relevant to religion. Religion then was almost exclusively a matter of ritual performances of sacrifice and prayer, not of daily devotion.
Fourth, for most people today, it only makes sense to say that religion is a matter of proper belief. What you believe is what matters about religion. Oddly enough, for most ancient people, this wasn’t the case at all. Far less important than what you believed about the gods was that you performed the proper cultic acts in their honor. Sacrifices of animals and foodstuffs and prayers performed at home, occasionally at the local temple, and on big occasions at civic festivals. Odd as it might seem to us today, in the ancient world it didn’t much matter what you believed about the gods, only how you worshipped them through cultic acts. And so there weren’t set doctrines to be believed. There weren’t sacred books to study. There weren’t creeds to recite. As a result, there was no such thing in these religions as a heretic or a false believer. You either practiced them or you didn’t.
Fifth, for many people today, the question of religion is a question of securing the afterlife. In other words, for many people, religion today is a matter of acquiring proper fire insurance. Most of my students think that if there’s no afterlife, then there’s no point in religion. I mean, if you’re not going to go to heaven if you’re good or go to hell if you’re bad, then why not party all the time? Ancient people, interestingly enough, didn’t see it this way at all. As it turns out, most people in the ancient world didn’t even believe in an afterlife. There is talk about afterlife in some literary texts from the ancient world, but recent studies of inscriptions on tombstones and other material remains demonstrate pretty clearly that most people thought that when you died, that was the end of the story. Why then would you bother to be religious? For most ancient people, religion wasn’t a matter of the afterlife, it was a matter of securing the favor of the gods in the here and now. These were people who lived life close to the edge for the most part. In a world when there are no modern methods of irrigation, when there are not massive possibilities of transportation of goods, when there isn’t any advanced technology or sophisticated machinery, when there isn’t modern medicine, things are very different. This is a world in which getting a tooth abscess will normally kill you. This is a world in which every adult woman of childbearing age has to bear an average of five children in order to keep the population constant. This is a different world from ours, in which life is lived on the edge. The worship of the gods is not meant to secure the afterlife, it’s to secure the present life. By worshipping the gods, you can convince them to help you win your battles, secure the love of the woman next door, keep healthy, grow your crops. You can sustain life in the present.
Sixth, for many people today, God is far beyond us in every imaginable way. God is the Creator above all who has an unbridgeable chasm between where He is and what He is and what we are. The ancients didn’t quite see it that way. The ancients did, of course, think of the divine realm as something fantastically great. But there was not an unbridgeable chasm between the gods and humans. As I’ve already indicated, within the polytheistic system there was a kind of a hierarchy of the gods. We might think of it as a kind of Divine Pyramid, with the most powerful god or gods at the very top. Some ancient pagans did believe in one ultimate God who was over all. Under this Great God there were the other gods, say the gods of Mt. Olympus that we know about from mythology, the State gods, who are far beyond what we can imagine in terms of power and strength. Below these gods, there’s various Local gods who aren’t quite as powerful as the State gods. Below them would be Family gods and various smaller local gods. All of these gods, of course, are far beyond human capacity. But near the bottom of this Divine Pyramid, there’s another kind of layer of divine beings that are a lot more like us. In fact, people who might be called “divine men.”
Divine men: human beings who are born to the union of a god and a mortal, who are more powerful than the rest of us, someone like Hercules or Greek Heracles. Or someone who’s completely awe-inspiring, like the Roman Emperor. Or somebody who is supernaturally wise, like Plato. Ancient people believed that there were in fact divine humans.
I sometimes begin my classes on New Testament at Chapel Hill by talking about an individual we know about from about two thousand years ago who was a remarkable person. Even before he was born, his mother had a visitant from heaven telling her that her son wasn’t going to be a normal human being, he was going to be the son of God. His birth was attended by supernatural signs. As a child, he showed himself to be quite a prodigy, impressing the religious leaders of his own day. As an adult, he left home and engaged in an itinerant preaching ministry, in which he went from village to town trying to convince people that they could give up on the material things of this world and simply be concerned about the spiritual things of life. He acquired a number of followers who became convinced that he wasn’t a mortal, that he was divine. And he did miracles to help them believe what they believed about him. He was able to heal the sick and cast out demons and raise the dead. At the end of his life, his enemies decided to bring him up on charges before the Roman authorities, before whom he appeared. But even after he left this world, his followers continued to believe in him. Some claimed they saw him alive after he had ascended to heaven, that he appeared to them to convince them that there is a life after this death. Some of them later even wrote books about him.
But I doubt if any of you have read the books. In fact, as with my students at Chapel Hill, you probably don’t know who I’ve been talking about. I’ve been referring to Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan philosopher, a worshipper of the Greek gods. Apollonius of Tyana lived at about the same time as Jesus, first century of the Common Era. His followers believed that he was the Son of God. They knew about Jesus; they thought that Jesus was a magician and that he practiced magic and that he was a hoax. Well, the followers of Jesus thought this about Apollonius of Tyana. We have stories like those of Apollonius and like those of Jesus of people who were born supernaturally, who could do miracles, deliver supernatural teachings, who then ascended into heaven. Why? Because these people thought that there wasn’t an unbridgeable chasm between the gods and humans, that in fact there was some commerce between the divine realm and the human realm. These stories about divine men, like Apollonius of Tyana and others, may sound unusual to us. We know only stories about Jesus that sound like this. But in the ancient world, there were lots of people who had stories told about them of this sort. People in the ancient world would make perfect sense about the stories of Jesus, because in fact they knew of other divine men who were widely recognized as having commerce with the divine realm.
And so, let me just wrap this up. In this essay, we’ve seen the importance of establishing the historical context for Jesus and his followers, including those among his followers who eventually wrote the books of the New Testament. It’s important to understand the emergence of the Christian religion within this context of other religions of the Greco-Roman world, religions that were thoroughly polytheistic and, by and large, that were widely tolerant of one another. These other religions focused on cultic acts of sacrifice (in the temples to the gods) and on prayers, rather than on doctrines. They were religions that focused on the activities of the gods in the present, in the here and now, rather than in the afterlife. And they thought that there were divine humans who were manifest among us. Far and away, though, the most important religion for understanding the context of Jesus and early Christianity is Judaism, a religion that stood apart from the pagan religions of its environment. In the next essay, I’ll explore some of the important features of this ancient Jewish religion.
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I’ve been engaged in the academic study of the New Testament for over 25 years, and I must say that even though my views of the New Testament have changed rather drastically since I was a student in college, my fascination for this book has never waned. The New Testament is probably the most revered and the most unknown book in our culture. This series of written lectures is designed for people who want to learn something about it. Both people who don’t know a lot about the New Testament but think that it’s time that they did, and people who have studied the New Testament but want to see what an academic approach to the New Testament might look like. In this opening essay I’d like to explain why a study of this kind is worth our while, and also explain how we’ll approach the New Testament. Indicate what our objectives will be, and provide a few of the major points of background that are necessary to the beginning phases of our study.
So, why is it important to engage in this kind of study? Virtually all modern historians would agree that the New Testament has been the most significant book in the history of western civilization. It lies at the root of our form of culture, and it continues to be an object of reverence and inspiration for millions of Christians today. A book that governs people’s personal lives, that shapes their religious views, that provides them with a sense of hope. If you want to understand our culture, you have to know something about the New Testament. This is true for what we might call “high” culture, as well as low. You simply can’t read English literature from Old English classics like Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood up through the twentieth century, without understanding the imagery drawn from the New Testament. The same can be said, of course, about western visual art.
In addition, the New Testament plays an enormous role in our political and social lives. Whether we like it or not, it’s appealed to by the White House and by the U.S. Senate when trying to debate issues of foreign and domestic policy. It’s used on both sides by people advocating their views on nuclear disarmament and abortion. And it’s been invoked to support causes over the years that most people today would consider to be highly dubious morally: slavery in the south, military intervention abroad, the oppression of women everywhere. Obviously, despite its importance, the New Testament is a book whose meaning is not self-evident. This is perhaps most obviously seen simply on the denominational level. The difference between Greek Orthodox priests, Appalachian snake-handlers, mainline Presbyterians and serious Pentecostals are not related just to geography, culture and history. They’re also related to different understandings of the New Testament. In some, the New Testament has brought a world of good into our civilization through its teachings of love and its promises of hope. And it’s been used to promote evil in a wide range of hideous guises.
The Perspective of the Faithful Believer
For all these reasons, this book is worth our serious and sustained attention, whether we happen to believe in it or not. How, though, should we go about studying it? There are, in fact, several ways that we could approach the study of the New Testament. We could, in theory, approach it from the perspective of the faithful believer, wanting to learn what it says in order to know ourselves what we should believe and how we should act. This kind of approach would probably be appropriate in a church or in a Sunday school, and it would probably be appropriate in a private Christian college. Where I teach, though, at a state university, this is not really an appropriate approach, since I’m not allowed constitutionally (at least as I understand the Constitution) to embrace a particular religious point of view when teaching my students about religion. Also, for this kind of course that we’re doing here, the intention is to introduce the New Testament for all people, not simply for people who happen to be believers. Moreover, I think that there are other equally valid ways of approaching the New Testament that don’t require us either to agree about religion among ourselves or even to agree to believe or disbelieve in the New Testament.
The Cultural Perspective
It’s possible, in fact, to study the book, not from the religious perspective of those who believe, but from a cultural perspective of one who’s interested in the development of western civilization. And so this would be a second way to approach the study of the New Testament: culturally. There can be little question that this book stands at the foundation of civilization as we know it. Whatever you happen to think about Christianity yourself – whether you’re an ardent Roman Catholic, a strong evangelical, a mainline Methodist, a hardcore atheist, an absolute pagan – there can be no question that the Christian church since the fourth century has been the most significant social, economic, political and cultural force in western civilization. And the foundation of the church was and is the New Testament. So, we could see how the New Testament has been used through the ages. For example, during the Crusades or the Inquisition or the Protestant Reformation. Or we could study how it has played such a huge role in western art or in English literature.
As interesting as this kind of study may be, it also will not be the approach that we’ll be taking during this course. For there’s yet another way to approach the New Testament. One that will as a side benefit elucidate both the modern debates over the meaning of this book, and the nature of its historical impact on western civilization. This other way of approaching it has its more direct concern with understanding the New Testament in it’s own historical context. This approach involves studying the New Testament then, from the perspective, not of the believer, not of the cultural historian, but of the ancient historian. This is the approach that we’ll be taking in this study. To approach the New Testament from the historical perspective means suspending our own belief or disbelief in it’s teachings and working to understand how the 27 books that now make up the New Testament canon came into being, to see who wrote them and why, and to determine what they might have meant to their original readers. These are the sorts of questions that will absorb me in my subsequent essays.
There are several pieces of important background information on the New Testament that we need to consider here in this first essay before plunging into our study. One of the things that I’m surprised about continually is how little people know about the New Testament, just in terms of it’s basic facts. This realization comes to me every year when I teach my large undergraduate course at Chapel Hill. This is a class with about 350 students in it, and every year I begin by giving a pop quiz in which I ask students some basic information about the New Testament. Questions like, how many books are in the New Testament? What language were these books written in? When were these books written? I also throw in some curve balls; I ask them who wrote the book of 1 Peter? Who wrote the book of 1 Timothy? And who wrote the book of 1 Andrew? It’s a curve ball because, of course, there is no 1 Andrew in the New Testament, but most of my students don’t realize this. There are 11 questions on this pop quiz that I give to my students, and I tell them that if anybody gets nine out of the eleven right, I’ll buy them a Mexican dinner at a local Texmex restaurant. In my eleven years of teaching (I have classes every year of 350 students) I’ve had only one student who’s gotten nine out of eleven answers right of these very basic questions of background. And I’m afraid, even though they’re just 19 and 20 year-olds, that their lack of knowledge in fact is typical rather than atypical of the population at large, and so I think I should here give some basic background information so that we’re all on the same page about what the New Testament is all about, in terms of it’s basic information about it.
As I’ve already indicated, there are 27 books in the New Testament. All of these books were originally written in Greek. There are some scholars who think that some of these books may have originally been written in Aramaic, but that’s by far a minority opinion. These books, in the judgment of almost everybody who works on them, were originally written in Greek. That’s one of the interesting things about my students. Every time I ask them this question, fully half of my students think that the New Testament was written in Hebrew, which has always struck me as odd. I’ve never quite understood it, but I suppose it’s because they’ve seen enough TV shows on the Bible where they flash up screens with Hebrew texts, that they associate Hebrew with the Bible for some reason. The New Testament books were written in Greek, even though the books of the Old Testament (the Christian Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures) were written in Hebrew.
The books of the New Testament were all written from during the first century A.D. or shortly thereafter. Most scholars would date the books of the New Testament from between the year 50 of the Common Era (50 A.D.), up to about 120 A.D. To put that in perspective, virtually everybody thinks Jesus was born sometime around 4 B.C. and was probably executed sometime around the year 30 A.D. And so the books of the New Testament began to be written about 20 or 25 years after that, and then continued to be written until about the year 120 A.D. These are the earliest surviving books that we have from the Christians. There were other books written by Christians at the same time that have no longer survived, and there are some books written by Christians that were written near the end of the writing of the New Testament books that still do survive but that did not make it into the New Testament. Later on in this essay, I’ll say a few words about how Christians have decided which books to put into the New Testament and which ones not to put in.
I should say, again by way of background, that Jesus himself did not write any of the books of the New Testament and, so far as we know, did not write anything. We don’t know whether Jesus himself was able to write or not, but it is pretty clear that he didn’t produce anything that has survived. Instead, the books of the New Testament are written by followers of Jesus. Some of the books are attributed to Jesus’ own disciples. The word “disciple” comes from a word which means “follower.” The disciples were earthly followers of Jesus, and sometimes the word “disciple” is used in a technical sense to refer to one of Jesus’ Twelve, one of the twelve men whom Jesus picked in order to be his disciples on earth. Some of the books of the New Testament are attributed to some of the disciples. For example, among our gospels we have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John are allegedly disciples of Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector who is referred to as one of Jesus’ disciples. John is thought to be a person known as the “beloved disciple” in the Gospel of John. I should say at this point, as I’ll point out in greater detail later in a later essay, that these books themselves don’t actually claim to be written by Matthew and John. In your English Bibles today, you’ll see a title: “The Gospel According to Matthew.” But that’s not the original title to this book; the author himself didn’t say, “This is the Gospel According to Matthew.” Of course, if he were writing the book, he wouldn’t say, “This is Matthew’s Gospel.” He would simply say, “This is the Gospel,” or he’d say “This is the Gospel of Jesus” or something. He wouldn’t say “This is the Gospel of Matthew.” This is an attribution of the book to Matthew by somebody living later. In fact, this attribution first came about in the second century. So that two of the Gospels are attributed to Matthew and John, even though they don’t claim themselves to be written by Matthew and John. These are two of the disciples.
Other books of the New Testament explicitly do claim to be written by people who were apostles. Now, the word “disciple” means a “follower” of Jesus. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word which means “one who is sent.” An apostle is somebody who understands him or her self to have been sent on a mission. And so there could have been and there were early Christians who understood themselves to have been sent by Jesus on a mission to spread his good news throughout the world. This would include, for example, the Apostle Paul. Paul was not one of the original followers of Jesus (he was not a disciple) but he did understand himself to have been an apostle. We’ll study Paul at some length in this course, because 13 of our 27 books actually claim to be written by Paul. And so Paul, of course, is a very significant figure for the history of Christianity but also especially for our understanding of the New Testament itself. We’ll also see that scholars have come to dispute whether Paul actually did write these books that are attributed to him. Thirteen books claimed to be written by him, but scholars have reasons for doubting whether all thirteen actually were written by Paul or not. We’ll see this later in the course.
The Beginnings of Christianity
And so in the New Testament, we have 27 books written in Greek, from the first century, the books attributed to disciples or claiming to be written by apostles. These 27 books of the New Testament can be organized into four major groupings. The first major group would be the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. The four Gospels are the only books that we have in the New Testament that actually describe the life, activities, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Any stories that you’ve heard about Jesus that sound at all plausible historically come from these four books, probably every story you’ve ever heard; any teaching of Jesus that’s found in the New Testament, any activity of Jesus, any of his miracles, they’re found in these four books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s surprising, as we’ll see later in this course, that the other books of the New Testament say virtually nothing about Jesus’ life itself. The story of his life is found in these four books. Since they narrate Jesus’ life from his birth to his death, these four Gospels can be seen as narrating the beginnings of Christianity, and so appropriately they occur at the beginning of the book of the New Testament.
The Spread of Christianity
The second division of the New Testament consists of only one book, The Book of Acts, or sometimes called The Acts of the Apostles. This is a historical account of the activities of Jesus’ apostles and his missionaries after Jesus himself had died. It’s concerned them, with how these followers of Jesus propagated the faith as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. The book begins after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It narrates his ascension into heaven, and then it shows how the apostles were empowered to spread his gospel throughout the world. And so it’s not about Jesus so much as about his apostles, and it’s called “The Book of Acts.” Rather than dealing with the beginnings of Christianity as the Gospels, then, this second category of book deals with the spread of Christianity.
The Beliefs & Ethics of Christianity
The third group of books in the New Testament are the Twenty-One Epistles, or “Letters.” These twenty-one epistles or letters are actual pieces of correspondence sent by early Christian leaders to other individuals or other communities. Of these twenty-one epistles, thirteen (as I’ve indicated) are attributed to the Apostle Paul. The others are attributed to others of the apostles, including James and Peter and John. These letters are written to address problems that had emerged in various Christian communities, problems having to do with what Christians ought to believe, how Christians ought to behave. Rather than dealing with the beginnings of Christianity and the life of Jesus or the spread of Christianity through the acts of the apostles, these 21 books are more centrally focused on thebeliefs & ethics of Christianity, and are regularly turned to by Christians who want to know what ancient Christian beliefs were, doctrine and ethics.
The Culmination of Christianity
The fourth part of the New Testament again consists of a single book, the book that probably is the source of most fascination by Christians still today, the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is an apocalypse. In other words, it’s a book which narrates events that are going to transpire at the end of time, when God brings all of his promises to fulfillment by destroying this world and bringing in a utopian kingdom. It’s an amazing book, the Book of Revelation. It’s quite unlike anything that most of us ever read. Probably the closest thing to it that we read would be science-fiction novels, because it deals with sort of a supra-mundane reality which can explain the reality here on earth and in which the prophet actually ascends to another world and has encounters with supernatural beings and learns about the fate of earth. This book of Revelation, then, rather than dealing with the beginnings of Christianity or the spread of Christianity or the ethics & beliefs of Christianity, deals with theculmination of Christianity at the end of the age when God intervenes on behalf of his people.
These then are the four major categories of books within the New Testament. I’ve already indicated that these 27 books found in the New Testament were not the only books written by the early Christians. They were simply the books that later Christians decided to include in their sacred canon of Scripture. The word “canon” comes from a Greek term which literally refers to a “straight edge” or a “measuring rod.” It came to be used to refer to a collection of books that would provide or show the measure of a corpus of literature, the extent of a given body of authoritative texts. And so you can have a canon of any kind of literature. A canon of Shakespeare, for example, or a canon of the Hebrew Bible. The canon of the New Testament are the 27 books that Christians at later times decided were sacred books. One of the hardest things for my students at the undergraduate level to understand and to conceptualize is the fact that the 27 books of the New Testament were not always considered to be books of Scripture. Even though today you can go to any bookstore and buy a New Testament, and you’ll get the same 27 books in the same sequence, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, there were long and hard debates about which books should be included within the canon of Scripture. Throughout the second and third and even fourth centuries, Christians debated about the canonical status of books that had been written in the first century. And as I’ve indicated, we have some of these other books that now survive, books that make for very interesting reading.
For example, we have other gospels that are not found in the New Testament that also record Jesus’ words and deeds. Probably the most significant archaeological discovery of the twentieth century for the New Testament was the discovery of one of these other gospels that people commonly know about today, thanks to this discovery, a gospel called The Gospel of Thomas, that some scholars have touted as the “Fifth Gospel.” The Gospel of Thomas is a very interesting book; I’ll say some more about it later in the course. It’s a book that consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, some of which sound like the sayings of Jesus in the New Testament gospels, but other sayings that in fact are quite unlike the sayings of the New Testament. Some of these sayings sound like Gnostic teachings, “Gnostic” coming from the Greek word gnosis, which refers to “knowledge.” These teachings of Jesus seem to presuppose a worldview that says that Jesus was a divine redeemer who came down from heaven to reveal the truth that would set people free from the prison of this material world. Some of the sayings in this gospel sound very strange to our ears today. One reason they sound so strange, though, is because we’re not used to them, because this gospel didn’t make it into the New Testament.
There are other gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament that we’ve known about for a much longer time. For example, The Gospel of Peter. This is a book that actually claims to be written by Simon Peter, Jesus’ own disciple. We didn’t have access to this book until it was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. One of the reasons it’s so interesting is because in this gospel, we have a narration of Jesus’ resurrection itself. In the New Testament, we have accounts of Jesus having been raised from the dead. We don’t have any narration of him actually emerging from the tomb. The Gospel of Peter, though, does give a narration of this event (Gospel of Peter vv. 39-42). A fantastic account, in which we’re told that two angels came down from heaven and entered into Jesus’ tomb, and there emerged from the tomb three individuals. Two with their heads reaching up to heaven, and one whose head reached up above the heavens. And behind the three, there emerges a cross from the tomb. A voice comes from heaven and says, “Have you preached to those who have fallen asleep (meaning those who have died)?” And the cross replies, “Yes.” A terrifically interesting account, that some Christians thought belonged in the New Testament. But eventually it was excluded.
We have a number of books (gospels, acts, epistles, apocalypses) which claimed to be written by apostles and disciples that did not get included. It was not until the fourth century A.D. that Christians came up with our list of 27 books. The first person to come up with the list that we have now was a bishop from the city of Alexandria, Egypt, a bishop who was named Athanasius (297-373). A very powerful figure in early Christianity, who in the year 367 A.D. wrote a letter to his churches indicating, among other things, which books should be read as part of their worship services. He listed our 27 books. This is the first time that any Christian that we know of thought that these books and no others should be part of the Christian Scriptures. Note the date: 367. This is three hundred years after most of these books had been written! Three hundred years later, finally somebody decides these and only these should be among the books. And even then the issue wasn’t decided, because Christians continued to debate for decades which books should be included, until finally everybody pretty much agreed on these 27 books.
The debates ranged over a number of issues. Christians by and large thought that books could be included in the list only if they were written by apostles, or by companions of the apostles. Books could be included only, therefore, if they were very ancient; close to the time of Jesus. If a book had just been written recently, even if it’s a very good book, it couldn’t be included in the canon of Scripture. Third, books had to be books that were widely read throughout Christendom. They couldn’t just have appeal in just one locality. They needed to have widespread appeal to show that, in fact, they were books that were widely thought to have sacred authority. And fourth, most importantly, books that were to be included in the Scriptures were books that had a correct teaching about doctrine. The teachings had to coincide with the teachings of the church at large. Probably the reason that books like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter were excluded was precisely because these books were not thought to be “orthodox,” or correct, in their teaching.
I want to stress that the question about whether these books really were written by apostles or really were ancient, those are historical questions, not theological questions. They have to be decided on the basis of historical evidence. That is the approach that I am going to be taking in this course. Not asking whether theologically it makes sense that yes, Matthew really wrote Matthew or Paul really wrote the book of Galatians. We’re not going to be asking that question from a theological point of view, but from a historical point of view. I am not going to be trying to promote either belief or disbelief in these books. I’ll not be taking a religious point of view, I’ll be taking a historical point of view, discussing what these books say, what their perspectives are, who wrote them, in what circumstances, for what audiences, and for what reasons. This, then, will be a historical approach to the New Testament.
In conclusion, the books of the New Testament are major religious, cultural, historical artifacts, and they merit our careful attention whether or not we happen to be Christian believers in these books. The 27 books of the New Testament are our earliest surviving documents that come from the early Christians, for the most part. These books, many of them which claim to be written by Jesus’ own apostles, came to be regarded as sacred Scripture by Christians. In this series, we will be studying these books for what they can tell us about Jesus and his followers from the first century, and we’ll be approaching them from a strictly historical perspective. I’ll begin this study, then, in the next essay by considering the historical context within which these books were written. Because for a historical approach to the New Testament, the only way to understand them is to situate them within their own historical context.
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