The New Testament: How Did It All Start?

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THE NEW TESTAMENT: HOW DID IT ALL START?

by Andrew Livingston

Quite a lot has been written about the question of who wrote The Bible. Normally, however, this means people are writing about which specific author wrote what. Seeing as I’ve already gone over all of that myself [1] I’d now like for us to take a step back and gain some perspective. Once again we’re going to ask, “Who wrote The Bible?” only this time what that means is, “What kind of people were these authors?” I suppose a clearer way of putting the question would be, “What kind of mindset produced The New Testament?”

I’m going to ask you to try your best to look at The New Testament as though you’d never heard of it until just yesterday. If you do, you’ll see that the idea of the very existence of any second Testament for The Bible is highly odd. Mid-first century Jews had their canon fixed. [2] The Bible, from their perspective, was complete. Yet along comes a second canon—and what’s more, this one gets tacked onto the first, creating some sort of hybrid uber-canon! Imagine trying to explain that to a Jew who hasn’t heard of Christianity. It wouldn’t be easy.

There’s no reason to presume that people who were writing letters or biographies for their own contemporary readers ever intended for their works to be canonized (so that their own writings get compared to Genesis or Isaiah, as different parts of the “complete Word of God”). Nonetheless it can hardly be denied that some of The New Testament’s authors were intentionally writing texts that sounded like The Old Testament. Notice how the book of John starts out with the words “in the beginning” as it describes the creation of the world (c.f. Genesis 1:1). Notice how the book of Matthew consists primarily of five lengthy speeches, wherein Jesus teaches “crowds…astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (chapter 7, verse 28). [3] None of the other Gospels are arranged that way nor follow exactly the same storyline. The point is to make the text reminiscent of the five books of the Pentateuch so as to make Jesus come across like a new Moses. [4] Notice the lengthy genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, written in the formula of those oft joked about “begat” passages which bog down any live reading of The Old Testament.

Even apart from the prose the very content of The New Testament tends to mirror that of the Old Testament. Christians interpret this as the newer narratives “fulfilling” the older ones—even when there’s no Old Testament citation given in the text, and instead a mere similarity of narratives which theologically had no obvious connection before. What the New Testament authors had in mind here was to create a typology. That is to say, they wanted to give the reader a sense of culmination, like everything in prophetic history that had gone on before was coalescing here, in the figure of Christ. It was supposed to show us that The Old Testament as a whole had always truly been about Jesus (or something like that). A good demonstration can be found in one of the oldest texts of The New Testament, 1 Corinthians:

“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (Chapter 10, verses 1-4)

As bizarre as it is that Paul has compared the parting of The Red Sea to baptism and the manna from heaven to Holy Communion what matters is how these comparisons help to demonstrate New Testament typology. We can see that from fairly early on Christians believed that Old Testament history was sort of there to foreshadow Christ. [5] But why did they hold this belief, and why did they spend so much time calling attention to it? Isn’t the obvious answer that they believed all of history was culminating with the time of Christ? In fact this is exactly what we find the authors themselves telling us, time and again. [6] We find it elsewhere in 1 Corinthians:

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (Chapter 7, verses 29-31)

We find it in the book of Hebrews:

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Chapter 9, verses 24-26)

We find it in the book of James:

“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (Chapter 5, verses 7-9)

We find it in 1 John:

“Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.” (Chapter 2, verse 18)

Even Jude, the shortest book in The Bible, devotes time to making this prediction (as with all of these passages bear in mind who the “you” was that the author was originally addressing):

“You, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.’ It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions.” (Verses 17-19)

The New Testament authors even put such words in Jesus’s own mouth—repeatedly. The clearest example is probably from the moment in Matthew wherein Jesus instructs the twelve apostles on how to go out and do their missionary work. During this speech he says:

“When they persecute you [“you” as in the twelve apostles] in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Chapter 10, verse 23)

In the New Testament these failed predictions that Armageddon would be witnessed by the earliest Christians are pervasive and all-important. And what else would we expect but all-importance? If you believe that the world is going to end any day now, chances are this belief is front and center in your theology. That gives us a lot of help with the task of understanding the mindset and motives of The New Testament’s authors. And we need something to help us, because these authors can be awfully confusing. The general approach they take to their writing appears quite self-contradictory. [7]

For one thing, it’s not always clear at a glance who the original intended audience might have been. Are these books meant for Gentiles or for Jews? You’ll sometimes find Gospel authors explaining the most commonplace or widely known Jewish beliefs and rituals—things any Jew would be assumed to already know. (Mark 7:1-4 is a particularly striking example; here the author goes out of his way to inform his readers of something “all the Jews” do.) On the other hand, these same writers frequently quote from Jewish scriptures to make their case, and they don’t always bother or remember to explicitly tell you so either. (Notice how Matthew 10:34-39 doesn’t say anything about Micah 7, nor even contain one of the typical phrases like “as was written in the prophets”.) And then, just to make things even more confusing, the authors will go and define Hebrew or Jewish terms for the reader—including such a common word as “Rabbi” (John 20:16). Were these authors expecting their readers to be Jewish or not??

Moreover, their very attitude looks self-contradictory. The New Testament seems highly Jewish, highly anti-Semitic, and sometimes highly anti-Gentile, all at once. This is probably best demonstrated with the book of Matthew. On the one hand we have passages like chapter 5, verses 17-19, which endorses Judaism to the point of condemning the slightest deviation from it. And then you have passages like chapter 27, verses 24-25 which depict Jewish people as a monolithic entity united in their pointlessly spiteful rejection of the truth. And on top of it all you have places where Jesus is alleged to make nasty remarks about anyone who isn’t Jewish:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Chapter 18, verses 15-17)

The writings of Paul (which date much earlier than the Gospels) share somewhat this seeming self-contradiction. Paul unhesitantly—perhaps proudly—calls himself a Jew (Galatians 2:15); at the same time he hates Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16); at the same time has some strong criticism reserved for Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22). What’s going on with these people? Were the New Testament’s authors a bunch of misanthropes who didn’t particularly like anyone at all? I don’t think so.

Every single thing I’ve showed you makes sense if you assume that these “Christians” (as we would think of them now) regarded themselves as a small, elite group constituting the only genuine and faithful followers of Judaism. The True Believers. Exclusive practitioners of some pure, original doctrine that had become lost in the corruptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees alike (the Pharisees and Sadducees being two rigidly opposed groups whom Jesus spends half of the Gospel narrative yelling condemnations at with equal vitriol).

Think about this: whenever you see a news story about someone publically predicting the exact date of the apocalypse what kind of theological attitude will he always have? Without fail you’ll find him leading or representing a movement of “True Believers” who alone know how to practice their religion correctly and honorably. Indeed, you’ll probably remember such a story from just a few years ago—when Harold Camping, who had repeatedly spoken of the total corruption of the modern Christian church, predicted that the rapture would arrive in 2011. Date setting the apocalypse is a psychological coping mechanism for people who, justifiably or not, feel oppressed. [8]

Given that there was a certain amount of real oppression involved it’s not at all unexpected that Christians began to do this sort of thing within the first handful of years the religion was around. Paul was not the only Jewish scribe persecuting Christians during the early years [9] but he was the first convert to take Christianity to the Gentiles. He had failed to convert sufficient numbers of Jews and so he decided instead to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” (see Romans 11:7-32). And so Christianity began to spread mainly through the conversions of Greek pagans and other such Gentiles. This resulted in a movement full of people who believed in The Old Testament without knowing Hebrew nor much about Jewish tradition. One thing they all understood, though, was that the end was nigh—if not coming any day now then at least any decade. [10] And so, in order to convert more people before it was too late, they wrote narratives about Jesus—narratives which were very up front about their evangelistic purpose:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

“These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Narratives compiled to make it look like the whole of Old Testament tradition was finally coming together in the consummation of all of history.

And then the end never came.

Here’s the thing: there is no reason for a Christian reader to be disturbed by any of this.

Because it is not good news if Jesus died for your sins and will return for you someday. The good news is that no one should ever have to die for your sins. When does forgiving one person ever require punishing another? Why would it require that? Forgiveness doesn’t mean that a debt of sin is transferred to someone else so that he can pay it in your stead: it means the debt is canceled. Just like that. Gone. And that’s what’s so great about God’s mercy. No extra steps need exist between, “Please forgive me,” and, “I forgive you.” This was the attitude Jews held in Old Testament times…

“By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6)

…and it is what we are taught in Islam:

“O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.” [11]

Could any news be any better??

NOTES:

[1] Or at least about the authorship of The Gospels in particular. Located at: https://callingchristians.com/2015/12/30/who-wrote-the-gospels/
[2] In a manner of speaking, that is. There were still different versions of those texts floating around; and variations of the canon as well. You might find some information about this in the introduction to your own Bible translation. (Typically there’ll be a long section at the front of the book which explains how the editors copied and pasted together different manuscripts in an attempt to reconstruct the original text from scratch.) If you want further reading, try the essay “Did Jesus Recognize a Specific Text of Scripture?” by Craig Evans.
[3] All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
[4] Richard Burridge went into more detail about this feature in his speech “Four Gospels, One Jesus?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFVjTo7x6p4

The endless argument over whether Jesus or Muhammad was the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18 is beside the point. I’m merely pointing out what the anonymous author of Matthew believed, and how he then went and expressed said belief through his choices in prose. And most importantly, the question of why he felt any need to write any Gospel at all.
[5] As a Muslim I find this idea distasteful—if not outright offensive. Was Jonah’s suffering over nothing and his repentance meaningless, because the only thing that matters is that the author of Matthew can make a tortured analogy about it centuries later (c.f. Matthew 12:40)?
[6] Indeed, the only parts of The New Testament that deny or exclude the doctrine, such as 2 Peter, are books historians already know (for unrelated reasons) were written either very late or as outright forgeries. With 2 Peter it’s particularly easy to explain. Chapter 3, verses 15-16 contains a very striking anachronism which all by itself proves that the letter is a forgery (and therefore probably written after Peter’s day). Herein the author refers to Paul’s writings as scripture. But again, Paul wasn’t writing scripture: he was writing letters. Those letters became known as scripture only later on, after being canonized. Whenever this canonization may have taken place it wasn’t during Paul’s own ministry—by which point most of The New Testament’s books, including the authentic ones, hadn’t yet been written.
[7] What I’m about to propose about The New Testament or early Christians as a whole is similar to what Mark Goodacre said about the book of Matthew specifically. You can find him explaining the point on the twenty-ninth episode of his podcast, located at: http://podacre.blogspot.com/2010/03/nt-pod-29-matthean-riddle.html
[8] The Scientific American article “Psychology Reveals the Comforts of the Apocalypse” by Daisy Yuhas might prove informative here. Located on their website at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/psychology-reveals-the-comforts-of-the-apocalypse/
[9] “How Paul Persecuted the Christians” by Bart Ehrman clarifies what was happening. Located on his blog at: https://ehrmanblog.org/how-paul-persecuted-the-christians/
[10] As it was the experiences of these early Christians which led to the false apocalyptic predictions Jesus himself therefore is not to blame. In other words he never said in real life what he said in Matthew 10:23; rather, he was depicted as doing so because Christians naturally wanted Jesus himself to have taught the things they strongly believed.
[11] From the translation of the 40 Hadith Qudsi at Sunnah.com. Link: https://sunnah.com/qudsi40/34
nt1

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