Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Why is the New Testament a Postscript in the Christian Bible?

My beginning question is: why are the Christian Holy Writings attached footnote-like to the end of the Jewish Bible? I suppose one could reasonably argue that the two collections are gathered into the Bible in the historical sequence of their dates of authorship. That is a reasonable thought, for the dates of the Hebrew Bible texts predate those of the New Testament (NT). But why doesn’t the same rationale apply for the order of the books within each collection? For example, the NT texts are not printed in historical order. If that were so, First Thessalonians would be the first text in the NT, followed by the rest of the undisputed Pauline letters, and the next few would be in this order: Mark, Matthew, Luke, Hebrews,1 John…and second Peter would be the last text in the NT.

A more basic question now occurs to me: why do Christians use Jewish Holy Scriptures as Word of God and put the Jewish Scriptures first in the Bible? The answer seems to be they were “grandfathered” in, as they were the first canon of Christian Holy Writings. Here is the reason: The earliest followers of Jesus were Israelites, people of the Covenant God (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 17:1-14), whose holy writings were Israelite religious texts.2 When the Jesus movement later moved out into the Gentile world, capturing the imagination of Greeks and Romans, these later Gentile followers of Jesus continued to use the Bible of the Israelites (in its Greek translation), because the Israelites and these later followers of Jesus believed it to be “God breathed or inspired” (2 Tim 2:15-16).3

Those who wrote the NT searched their religious texts and found therein “prophecies” that supported their belief that Jesus was the Anointed One, who would come (Micah 5:2, for example), and applied the prophecies to Jesus. These prophecies, and the fact that they believed the Israelite writings to be Word of God, locked-in the Israelite writings as Holy Scriptures for Orthodox Christianity and secured their first-place position in the Christian Bible.

One notable exception to this “mixed” collection of Israelite and Christian texts was the biblical canon of Marcion that appeared around the middle of the second century. Nothing is preserved of his writings except refutations written by his Orthodox opponents. Marcion rejected The Israelite writings and published an abbreviated NT containing a shortened gospel (Luke) and ten letters of Paul (minus the Pastoral Letters and Hebrews). Marcion rejected the Israelite writings and their God, whom he regarded as a God of Justice (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). The God of Jesus, on the other hand, was the God of Mercy. Marcion’s NT was the first attempt to form a distinctive collection of “Christian” writings.

The biblical canon of the Christian communities of the first 400 years in the evolution of Christianity retained the old covenant books (which they came to know as the Old Testament [OT]) and added to them the new covenant/testament books (now known as the NT).4 Both collections are named for covenants God is believed to have made with humankind. The covenants are briefly alluded-to in Heb 8:6-12, where the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah (31:31-34; Heb 8:8-12), who anticipated a “new covenant” with God. The author of Hebrews adds the following statement to the end of Jeremiah’s quotation:

In speaking of a new covenant, he [Jeremiah] treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).

This “prediction” (toward the end of the first century), making the old covenant obsolete or useless, never happened. Christians are still using Israelite writings, and these old “obsolete” writings continue to hold first position in the Christian canon. The connection with the old covenant, although “obsolete,” will likely never “disappear.” For example, when the two different collections are discussed in dictionaries of the Bible under the entry “Canon,” the editors reverse their usual alphabetical listing of entries by listing Old Testament before New Testament. Their alphabetical order would have been NT before OT.

            The tradition of individual churches decided the order of the contents in papyrus NT manuscripts, which was largely determined on the basis of interest and what could be gotten into a papyrus codex (i.e., book). The surviving papyrus fragments of NT texts do not include OT books. In the papyrus manuscripts of the second through fourth centuries, which are mostly fragmentary, there are few differences with the order of today’s NT, which is also traditional.

            The large parchment uncial Bible manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), surviving from the fourth century CE, however, contain both OT and NT with NT texts tagged on at the end of the OT texts. Why is that do you suppose? Two reasons occur to me: The OT was considered Word of God long before Christians began writing what eventually became NT texts, and it took around 200 years, or so, for these “postscripts” to achieve Word of God status. Hence, the OT/NT order is simply traditional.

            Isn’t it time that some enterprising ecclesiastical scholar reconsidered that arrangement and recommended putting the NT books first? It just seems rather odd to begin the Christian Bible with the Jewish Scriptures!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, 246. John was written in the last decade of the first century (90-99). Hebrews is earlier “probably written between 80-90” (p. 403).

2There was not at the time of the public career of Jesus (around 30 CE) a collection of religious texts that all members of the Israelite religious community agreed upon. The Hebrew Bible, as we know it today, is thought to have been formed by the surviving group, the Pharisees, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans.

3The comment in Second Timothy does not refer to the Christian Bible but rather it refers to what are today the Jewish Holy Scriptures.

4Covenant in Greek is diatheke; in Latin it is testamentum. The words mean the same thing.

5See note one above. The critical date for the writing of Hebrews is earlier than the writing of John.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Amalgamated Jesus

The image of Jesus that functions in the institutional church is a composite drawn from the four canonical gospels that is undergirded by a theological statement of the church. Children are taught the theological statement from the earliest possible age and when the child reaches maturity, s/he fills out the image choosing material indiscriminately from the four canonical gospels as taught in the church’s educational program.

            In the popular ecclesiastical mind, the narratives of all four gospels are regarded as reliable historical documents. The truth is, however, that they are written a generation and more after the death of Jesus. The narratives are based on brief anonymous oral reports of the sayings and doings of Jesus. The descriptions of Jesus, his activities, and his words are the products of impressions on the minds of those nameless persons who transmitted the oral reports, and the impressions the reports made on the minds of the evangelists, who then produced the gospels. The information from the oral reports has been filtered through the faith of each evangelist, which s/he had been taught in the church.1 We have nothing directly from the mouth of Jesus. It is doubtful that anything survived the rigors of the oral period intact.

            Hence the gospels are a collage comprised of historical data, ecclesiastical theory and dogma, quotations and misquotations, and invented plots or story-lines. Critical readers of the New Testament have been aware of many of these problems since the late 1700s. The writing, The Age of Reason, by the American Statesman, Thomas Paine, anticipates “many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship.”2

            Each of the canonical gospels presents to the reader unique portraits of the man.3 A portrait is a unique painting by the artist recording how a particular painter sees the subject, and that is also true of the literary portraits by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are always similarities and differences. At times the differences in their portraits are glaring, at other times subtle. The primary reason Matthew, Mark, and Luke (they are called the “synoptic gospels”) are so similar is because Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, and they also shared another hypothetical sayings’ source, which accounts for similarities in literary structure and in the sayings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke make changes to Mark’s text according both to their own theological proclivities and literary styles. The Gospel of John has little in common with the other three. The images of Jesus in the canonical gospels are not historical photographs but novelistic portraits.

            Here is one glaring example of their contradictory differences. In Mark 4:10, the author we call Mark puts on the lips of his literary character, Jesus, the reason why Mark thinks the historical figure, Jesus, told such difficult-to-understand stories (that is, parables):

So that they may indeed see, but not perceive, and may indeed hear, but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.

Matthew (13:13) and Luke (8:10b) completely eliminate the offensive phrase, “lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” Matthew and Luke reject the idea that Jesus told parables to prevent people from understanding, lest they turn and be forgiven by God. John, on the other hand, does not even use the word parable and does not portray his literary character, Jesus, telling any of the classic parables known from the synoptic gospels.4

            These kinds of differences in the portraits of Jesus in the canonical gospels are lost in the pious ecclesiastical amalgamations of Jesus.

It’s just common sense, folks.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide.

2Hedrick, “Thomas Paine and the Bible,” The Fourth R (September-October 2022), 4.

3Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Hendrickson, 1999; reprint, 2013) 30-47.

4See the description of each portraiture of Jesus in Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 32-46 and “Is John a Revisionist Gospel?” pp. 151-54 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).