It must always be remembered that Christianity did not spring from the New Testament but the New Testament from Christianity. Christianity did not begin as a religion of books but as a religion of spirit. There was neither time nor need to write books when the Lord Jesus was at the very doors. Still less was there need of authoritative books to guide men whose dominant conviction was that they had the Mind of Christ, the very Spirit of God, guiding them constantly from within.
But the ancient Christians did write. Situations arose that drew letters from them -- letters of acknowledgment, thanks, criticism, recommendation, instruction, or advice. These letters, like our modern letters, were written to serve an immediate and pressing need. Situations arose which even drew forth books from these early Christians -- books to save people from perplexities or mistakes, or to comfort them in anxiety or peril; but always books to serve some fairly definite circle, in a particular condition of stress or doubt. This practical and occasional character of the books of the New Testament can hardly be overemphasized, for it is only in the light of the situations that called them forth that these books can be really understood. Only when we put ourselves into the situation of those for whom a given book of the New Testament was written do we begin to feel our oneness with them and to find the living worth in the book.
It may be helpful to conceive the writings of the New Testament as grouped about four notable events or movements: the Greek mission, that is, the evangelization of the gentile world; the fall of Jerusalem; the persecution of Domitian; and the rise of the early sects. The New Testament shows us the church first deep in its missionary enterprise, then seeking a religious explanation of contemporary history, then bracing itself in the midst of persecution, then plunged into controversy over its own beliefs.
The New Testament contains the bulk of that extraordinary literature precipitated by the Christian movement in the most interesting period of its development. Christianity began its world-career as a hope of Jesus’ messianic return; it very soon became a permanent and organized church. The books of the New Testament show us those first eschatological expectations gradually accommodating themselves to conditions of permanent existence.
The historical study of the New Testament seeks to trace this movement of life and thought that lies back of the several books, and to relate the books to this development. It has yielded certain very definite positive results which are both interesting and helpful. Through it these old books recover something of the power of speech, and begin to come to us with the accent and intonation which they had for the readers for whom they were originally written.
The short chapters of this book are designed to present vividly and unconventionally the situations which called forth the several books or letters, and the way in which each book or letter sought to meet the special situation to which it was addressed. These chapters naturally owe much to scholars like Burton, Bacon, Scott, McGiffert, Moffatt, and Harnack, who have done so much for the historical understanding of the New Testament. But it is hoped that a brief constructive presentation of the background of each book without technicality or elaboration may bring back particularly to intelligent laymen and young people the individuality and vital interest of the writings of the New Testament.
The purpose of this work is threefold: (1) The book may be used as a basis for definite study of the New Testament individually or in classes. The Suggestions for Study are prepared for this purpose. … The student is advised not to attempt a detailed investigation of specific parts of the various books, but to seek to get the large general aim which controlled each individual writer. (2) It may be read as a continuous narrative ... It will then afford exactly what its name implies, the story of the New Testament ... (3) After each chapter the corresponding book of the New Testament may be read, preferably at one sitting, in some modern-speech translation, and thus each piece of literature may make its own appeal on the basis of the introductory interpretation.
Edgar J. Goodspeed
Chicago November 1, 1915