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.

No comments: