Toward Understanding the Bible by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1954. Copyright, 1952, 1954, by Georgia Harkness. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter: 4: How the New Testament was Written
In reviewing the steps by which the Old Testament came into being, we dealt with each main type of literature separately and for the most part traced in chronological sequence the appearance of the books, one by one. There it was natural to begin with the history, for while some very early folksongs antedate any written history and the prophecy of Amos was the earliest complete book, an important part of the history found in the Old Testament was written before any other major type of literature emerged. This was not the case in the New Testament.
The historical events around which the New Testament is centered are indeed primary. Christianity is, through and through, a historical religion, and except for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection, and the establishment of the Church as the community of his followers, we should have neither Christianity nor New Testament. But this does not mean that the writing of the record of these events came first. The events took place; the Church was founded; and out of the experience and needs of the Christians of the first and early second centuries the writings came. We are apt to assume that the New Testament produced the Church, but the contrary is the case -- the Church gave rise to the New Testament.
The New Testament was not written to create a sacred literature. Although the early Christian writers had the Old Testament as their Scriptures, not one of them had any idea that he was writing something that would itself become Holy Writ. Nevertheless God used them, as he had used the Old Testament storytellers, prophets, poets, and seers, to write eternal truth that still inspires and quickens our spirits. The New Testament, written by human authors, is not flawless; yet it stands pre-eminent among all the books ever written. To doubt its inspiration would be folly; on the other hand, to take it as literally inspired and therefore all of one level would be to miss the great events and the lights and shadows of experience that brought it into being.
The New Testament is obviously shorter than the Old. It contains only twenty-seven books instead of thirty-nine, but it is even shorter than this would indicate because there is no long book in it and some of the letters are very brief. It is also in simpler form, for it contains only three main literary types: letter, historical record, and apocalypse, all interspersed with spiritual and moral wisdom. The marvel is that this one small book -- a collection of still smaller books -- survived the fires of persecution and the changing patterns of culture to remain, after nineteen centuries, the world’s most significant literature and greatest spiritual treasure-house.
Our procedure will be to (1) trace rapidly the familiar but eternally important events that brought both Christianity and the New Testament into being, (2) examine Paul’s letters, (3) see how the Gospels and the Book of Acts came into being, (4) look at the books emerging from persecution -- Hebrews, I Peter, and the Book of Revelation, and (5) take a concluding look at the other letters. Though there is some disagreement among scholars, this outline follows in general the order in which the books were written.
The Gospel Story
Fulton Oursler has called it "The Greatest Story Ever Told" -- this story of the coming of Jesus to live among men the life of God, to save men from their sins and inner defeat, and to impart new life through faith. So it is, and the story is not ended, for Jesus Christ is still doing it. The New Testament is concerned with that part of this endless story which deals with the earthly life of Jesus and the coming of his Spirit to establish the Christian community and sent his followers out as flaming witnesses of their faith.
The story toes not begin with the birth of Jesus in the Bethlehem stable nor with his conception in the womb of Mary nine months earlier. It begins back in the Old Testament in God’s covenant with his people, in their quest for him, in their apostasies and God’s righteous judgments, in the collapse of their national security, in God’s promise that a remnant of the faithful will survive and that to them a Deliverer will come. Most of the Jews were looking for a messiah who would restore their national greatness and sit again on the throne of David; others were looking for a messiah, as described in Daniel and in the apocalyptic books written between the Testaments, who would descend from heaven with great glory to judge the earth. What they were not looking for was a savior who would be born as a baby in a manger, grow up in a poor man’s home, become a wandering preacher, and finally die on a cross like any common felon. But the ways of God are wiser than the expectations of men.
Jesus was born while Herod the Great was king, and since Herod died in 4 B.C., he was probably born between 6 and 4 B.C. No one knows what day of the year, but ever since the fourth century December 25, celebrated in the Mithra cult as the winter solstice and the sun’s birthday, has been observed by the Christian Church. We are told nothing of Jesus’ childhood or youth except for the one vivid incident of his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. But since Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, and Jesus quotes so often from the Old Testament, we can surmise that he grew up an eager, thoughtful boy, saturated in the wisdom of the Jewish Scriptures. He had four brothers and two sisters, and after Joseph’s death was doubtless the chief breadwinner. The story of these hidden years, if we could recover it, would be of incalculable interest. It was not preserved because the Gospel writers were gripped only by the amazing events of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection appearances, and had none of our concern for general biographical portraiture or the psychological analysis of personalities.
Jesus’ public ministry lasted at most three years, possibly not more than one. He wrote nothing. He died a young man. Into the brief period of which we have a record are compressed his baptism by John the Baptist -- a prophet of the Old Testament stamp -- his time of solitary meditation and temptation in the wilderness, the calling of his twelve most intimate disciples, his going about with them healing and teaching in Galilee and its environs, the journey to Jerusalem and his triumphal entry, the stormy events of passion week, his crucifixion, and resurrection. The surprising thing is not that there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but that we have so nearly convergent and clear a picture as we have. We can doubt this incident or that in the record, for as we shall note presently there was no contemporary written report. But we cannot doubt that Jesus lived, and was the God-centered, loving, serving, forgiving, healing, outwardly-defeated but spiritually-triumphant person that the Gospels bring vividly before us.
Somewhere along the way -- we cannot be sure just when -- Jesus apparently became convinced that he was the promised Messiah. But of quite a different kind from what the Jews were looking for! He had no political aspirations, and while he appears to have shared the common expectation of a coming apocalyptic intervention, he conceived his own mission as one of humble, loving service to all men at the call of God. In faith and love he called men to faith and love, teaching the conditions of entrance into the Kingdom by simple but vivid parables and healing the souls and bodies of people wherever he went. There is little, if anything, in his teaching not found somewhere in the Old Testament, but the unerring insight by which he picked out the important things and the fidelity with which he lived what he taught made people see in him something altogether new. "The common people heard him gladly," but the high priests and rulers were alarmed for fear that their own status was jeopardized, the people were fickle, and together they brought him to his death.
Although we have Peter’s great affirmation at Caesarea Philippi, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," (Matt. 16:16) there is little evidence that before his death the people in general regarded him as the Messiah. Probably his closest disciples, like the people who waved palm branches and cried, "Hosanna to the son of David," as he entered Jerusalem, (Matt. 21:9) did not really grasp this great fact. But, when on the first Easter morning and thereafter he began to appear to them, individually and in groups, as a living Presence, those closest to him were convinced of it. Discouragement then gave way to joyous fervor.
The little company of the Twelve, in this resurrection faith, grew to one hundred and twenty, and after Peter’s great sermon on Pentecost three thousand more were added to the fellowship. Aflame with a faith to which they felt they must bear witness at all costs, these early Christians braved the fires of public derision and persecution. Among them were valiant souls who at great risk and hardship went here, there, and everywhere, preaching the gospel. The greatest of them was Paul, radically converted from a life of persecuting the Christians to be the first great evangelist, missionary, theologian, and administrator of the Christian Church. The story of these missionary journeys is a major portion of the Book of Acts. We glean many incidents also from Paul’s letters to the churches that were founded throughout Asia Minor, in Macedonia, and Greece, and as far west as Rome. These letters were the first written documents of the New Testament.
The Letters of Paul
These letters, like all of the New Testament, were written in the Greek vernacular used throughout that part of the world. (Jesus ant his disciples spoke Aramaic.) Paul was following a common practice of the time in writing letters. They were carried by individuals as they went from city to city. Travel, though slow and primitive compared with the present, was facilitated by the extensive system of Roman roads. Paul’s letters all follow a general pattern: they begin with a salutation and affectionate greeting to the persons addressed, state the message, and end with a benediction. Some were signed with a brief note in his own handwriting, (See endings of I Cor., Col., II Thess.) but in general he appears to have dictated them. There are nine, possibly ten, of these letters to the churches (Ephesians being of disputed authorship); ant three others, I ant II Timothy and Titus, called the Pastoral Epistles, may have been written by Paul but more likely were the work of some unknown Christian toward the close of the first century or even later.
The writing of the letters that we know were Paul’s began about the year 50, during his second missionary journey. Bible scholars disagree as to whether I Thessalonians or Galatians is earlier. Following the usual view, we shall discuss the Thessalonian letters first.
I and II Thessalonians. -- If you will follow Paul’s journey in Acts 15:22 --18:22, tracing it on the map, you will note that he went north from Jerusalem to Antioch; then northwest through Asia Minor to Troas (the Troy of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid); across into Macedonia, where he founded a church at Thessalonica; south to Athens; and then a short distance west to Corinth. It was while he was staying there that Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia and brought such news from the Thessalonian church that Paul felt impelled to write this church two letters. It was probably also at Corinth that disquieting news about the Judaizers in the Galatian churches reached him and prompted him to write a letter to this community.
Things may not have been going very smoothly at the Thessalonian church, for there was a riot at the time of its establishment (Acts 17:1-10), and persecution later (I Thess. 2:13-16). Paul writes to reassure them regarding his leadership and to commend their steadfastness, but most of all to answer a question that had been bothering many. Nearly all the Christians of that time, Paul included, were looking for a speedy second coming of Christ, and the Thessalonians were worried about what would happen to their loved ones who might die before it happened. Although he wisely assured them that God would take care of "those who have fallen asleep," his own picture of the second coming as it appears in both letters shows that his thought regarding it had not progressed much beyond current Jewish apocalyptic ideas. We can reject this and still find great truth and power in such injunctions as,
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus. . . . (I Thess. 5:16-18, A.S.V.)
Galatians.-- Galatia is a province near the middle of Asia Minor. Paul had founded some churches there on his first missionary journey and he revisited them on the second. A great controversy had arisen as to whether, in order to become a Christian, a Gentile must submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision. Both Peter and Paul said No -- a very important decision since otherwise Christianity would have become a Jewish sect. Some who are called Judaizers thought otherwise, and though the matter was apparently settled at Jerusalem (Acts 15), some Judaizers went up to Galatia and made trouble there. The Epistle to the Galatians is a great declaration of Christian liberty. The first two chapters give important biographical data about Paul, and the second makes his position crystal clear. It is summed up in, "A man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Gal. 2:16, A.S.V.) The letter contains some of Paul’s greatest words of spiritual insight, such as:
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. 2:20, A.S.V.)
I and II Corinthians. -- The next letters of Paul that were preserved (for doubtless a number of others after, being read were destroyed) are I and II Corinthians. These were written during a three-year stay at Ephesus on his third missionary journey, probably between the winter of 53 and the fall of 55. The main problems at Corinth were not those of Jew-Gentile relations, but those likely to arise in any big worldly city -- sexual looseness, emotional excesses, church factions and quarrels extending even to a serious attack on Paul’s own leadership. It is practically certain that Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians; first a letter on sexual immorality, lost to us except that a fragment may be preserved in II Corinthians 6:1-7:1 where the train of thought is interrupted by this passage (Read II Cor.6 and 7 without this passage and note how much more smoothly it fits together.); then our present I Corinthians; then a sharp letter, the body of which is probably in II Corinthians 10 -- 13, which Paul says he wrote "out of much affliction and anguish of heart . . . with many tears;" (II Cor. 2:4) then II Corinthians 1-- 9 in a mood of rejoicing after Titus had brought him the good news that the trouble had been settled. Nothing Paul wrote shows his great gifts as a pastor more clearly than these letters, and his words on spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12 and 13 and his ode to immortality in I Corinthians 15 are among the finest things in all literature.
Romans.-- After writing the Corinthian letters, Paul left Ephesus and journeyed to Macedonia and thence to Corinth, where he wrote the letter to the Romans, probably in 56. Paul had never been in Rome, the church there having been founded, so tradition has it, by Peter, though actually we do not know by whom. Paul thought that he ought to carry the gospel to Spain, but he planned to visit Rome on the way, both to encourage the Christians there and to establish a base from which to do his missionary work in the west. It was this anticipated visit that prompted the letter. It is naturally less personal than those written to people he knew, and it is his greatest theological statement -- an exposition of his faith, its foundations, its bearing on suffering, sin, and problems of moral decision. Its primary theme is justification by faith. Neither the wisdom of the Greeks nor the law of the Jews can save a man; it is only as one recognizes his sinfulness and through faith finds victory in Christ that true peace is found. In chapter seven there is a wonderfully vivid description, probably autobiographical, of the futility of good intentions to master temptation, and this is followed by a paean of victory through Christ, in Romans 8, which rivals I Corinthians 13 in beauty and power. Though Paul had no use for what we now call moralism -- the reliance on one’s own good works -- he gave great importance to Christian morality, and this is found at his best in the compendium of ethical injunctions in Romans 12 -- 15.
Paul did get to Rome, but not in the way he had expected. Going to Jerusalem first, to take some relief funds from the churches visited to the Christians at Jerusalem, he there was arrested, kept in prison in Caesarea for two years, and upon appealing to Caesar was sent as a prisoner to Rome. The Book of Acts is tantalizing in scarcity of details as to the outcome, and stops with the report of his living in his own hired house for two years, preaching and teaching unhindered. It is generally believed that he was executed by command of the emperor Nero, probably in the year 64. From this period of Roman imprisonment are to be dated the letters to the Colossians, to Philemon, to the Philippians, and perhaps that to the Ephesians.
Colossians and Ephesians. -- The Epistles to the Colossians and to the Ephesians are much alike, so much so that some scholars believe that Colossians was written by Paul, and Ephesians by someone later in imitation. However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary the Pauline authorship is still a real probability. Do not you and I sometimes write almost the same thing to different persons ? The theme of the letters is twofold: the cosmic significance of Christ, and the duties demanded of Christian wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters. At least in the case of the letter to the Colossians, the occasion was the outcropping of the heresy of Gnosticism by which Christ was made simply one of many intermediate powers between God and man. This church at Colossae, a hundred miles east of Ephesus, was never visited by Paul, but he was concerned about the Christian groups everywhere. The letter to the Ephesians contains not only a tribute to the supreme and unique place of Christ, but also a beautiful prayer and benediction in Ephesians 3:14-21 and a noble passage in the sixth chapter on "the whole armor of God."
Philemon. -- The Book of Philemon, consisting of only one chapter, is the shortest of Paul’s letters, but priceless. It is a purely personal letter from one Christian to another about a third. Onesimus, a runaway slave with whom Paul had become acquainted at Rome, is here commended to his master Philemon with the hope expressed "for love’s sake" that Philemon will receive him "no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.", (Philemon vs. 16)
Philippians. -- The letter to the Philippians is probably Paul’s last. It breathes a spirit of tenderness and of gratitude both for their gifts to him and their fidelity to Christ. But more than all, its keynote is joy. Consider that Paul was in prison, facing death, and this farewell message becomes a deeply moving evidence of his own spiritual triumph.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4, R.S.V.)
General Observations.-- From this brief survey two things must be evident. The first is that Paul, having no idea he was writing Scripture, dealt with whatever situation called forth a letter. It was farthest from his thought that his injunction to the Corinthian women not to make themselves conspicuous, (I Cor. 14:34, 35) or his observation to the Romans that "the powers that be are ordained of God,’’ (Rom. 13:1) would be taken nineteen centuries later as a bulwark of conservatism. Indeed, such a use is quite the antithesis of his observation that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (II Cor. 3:17) Many statements in his letters are situation-conditioned, and can be properly understood only in relation to the situation that evoked them.
Our second observation is the vast amount of permanent truth he expressed. He seems to have had an instinct -- or shall we say, a gift of the Spirit -- for taking any situation however sordid and saying something that would ring through the ages to inspire us. For example, some of the Corinthian Christians were making pigs of themselves at the Lord’s table, and he uses this incident to pen the marvelous words in I Corinthians 11:23-26 which we still use in our ritual. There was a dispute as to what kind of activity in the Church was most important, and he used it as the occasion to give a great interpretation of "the Body of Christ." (I Cor. 12) It is no accident that, through the centuries, so many millions have found inspiration in Paul’s vibrant faith and spiritual wisdom.
The Gospels And Acts
All these letters were written before any of the historical records in the New Testament were compiled. From them we get a good deal of information about Paul and the early Church, but very little about Jesus. Why did not Paul say more about our Lord’s life and teaching? The answer is twofold. For one reason, his own interest was so centered in the new life in Christ through our Lord’s death, resurrection, and living presence as the Spirit, that he did not focus attention on the details of Jesus’ life and teaching. For another, the memory of Jesus was so fresh that the events of his life and his sayings did not seem to need recounting. We may well believe that Paul’s message would have been greater if he had put more of Jesus’ life and teaching into it. But we cannot expect everything of one person.
The earliest of our Gospels is Mark, written between 65 and 70, very soon after the death of Paul. Indeed, the shock of the persecutions under Nero may have prompted a sense of need for a more complete written record, though this is also to be explained by the fact that those who had known Jesus personally were gone or going, and oral tradition was no longer enough. As Paul had put it, "Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more." (II Cor. 5:16, A.S.V.)
But what had been happening in the meantime? The combination of the poetic form in which many of Jesus’ sayings were cast, the vitality of his utterance, and the wonder and marvel of his deeds had caused these teachings and stories to be repeated over and over, not only privately, but also in the services and instruction of the churches. Some of them were undoubtedly written down, here and there, by unknown hands. Then these reports, mainly of Jesus’ sayings but with some narrative material, were compiled into a written record earlier than Mark’s. We do not know its author and it is now lost except as we have it in the excerpts Matthew and Luke took from it; yet it certainly once existed, and we call it "Q" from the German word Quelle, meaning source.
How can we be so sure it existed? Mark’s Gospel is mainly narrative, with Jesus’ teachings incidental to the story. The Gospel of Matthew, which was written between 70 and 80, and that of Luke, five or ten years later, apparently borrowed from Mark, for they follow his general pattern as to the events of Jesus’ ministry. But they contain also a great deal of teaching material, such as the Sermon on the Mount and many parables, which Mark does not give. What they report is too nearly identical to be explained in any other way except that they both had access to a collection of Jesus’ sayings. No New Testament scholar now doubts the existence of "Q" though some believe that still other written sources were drawn upon.
We speak of the first three Gospels as the Synoptic Gospels because this word means "seen from one view," and there are great similarities in them. The Gospel of John, written a good deal later than these, is different in structure, style, and quite largely in content. We must now take a look at what is distinctive about each.
Mark. -- The Gospel of Mark was probably written in Rome shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. The Christian bishop Papias, writing about 140, states: "Mark who was the interpreter of Peter wrote accurately but not in order all that he remembered of what Christ said and did. For he did not hear the Lord or accompany him, but was later, as I said, a companion of Peter. (From The Ecclesiassical History, Eusebius; trans., H. J. Lawlor and J. E. L. Oulton. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927, Vol. 1, Bk. III, p. 39.)
While it is not certain that Mark’s Gospel is thus based on Peter’s memories, it is possible. Peter as well as Paul is believed to have lost his life at Rome in the persecutions under Nero, and it is likely that John Mark, who is mentioned both in the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters as traveling with Paul, Barnabas, and Peter, is the author of this record.
Several things are notable about this earliest Gospel. It plunges directly into the events of Jesus’ baptism and ministry, with no reference to his birth or parentage. This is evidence that the story of a virgin birth was not current at the time, for Mark makes much of the miraculous to attest Jesus’ supernatural power, and he would surely have reported a miraculous birth if he had known of it. The Gospel throughout is characterized by its vigor, its directness -- with many a "straightway" introducing a new scene -- its graphic pictorial touches, its unstudied but powerful drama. It moves to a climax in Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi, (Mark 8:27-34) and on to the tragic events of passion week. Mark’s omission of any reference to Peter’s being given the keys of the Kingdom is again significant. More than a third of the whole is given to the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, which shows what he certainly thought to be most important. All the earliest manuscripts end at Mark 16:8. The original ending has apparently been lost and a spurious one added by some later hand.
Matthew. -- The Gospel of Matthew is generally believed to have been written at Antioch in Syria, the city in which the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:2:6) In any case it was compiled by some Jewish Christian with a strong desire both to show that at every point Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures and that he had a message and mission to the Gentiles because the Jews had rejected him. The writer certainly had access both to "Q" and Mark, and possibly to a collection of the sayings of Jesus compiled by the disciple Matthew, which may be responsible for its being called the Gospel according to Matthew.
What stands out in Matthew, in addition to its Jewish slant, is the orderly way in which the author groups the discourses of Jesus. He gives us five blocks of such teachings: (1) the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5--7; (2) the directions to the disciples in chapter 10; (3) a group of parables about the Kingdom in chapter 13; (4) parables and sayings about Christian behavior in the Kingdom, chapter 18; (5) and more parables about the coming of the Kingdom in chapters 24 and 25. It is unlikely that Jesus spoke all these discourses so connectedly, but the author, with an eye to topical arrangement, intersperses the "Q" material where it seems to fit the narrative from Mark. We owe him a great debt also for his literary gifts, for what might have been a mere piecing together in a unified whole in which one feels that Jesus’ poetic, moving diction has been marvelously preserved.
Luke-Acts. -- Our next Gospel, that of Luke, is half of a longer book often referred to as Luke-Acts, the first part being the story of Jesus, the second of the spread of the gospel and the birth of the Church. Not only are both parts addressed to the same man, Theophilus, with a reference at the beginning of Acts to the author s "first book," but also the style of writing is remarkably similar. Though apparently written in a continuous sequence, the two parts were separated early in the second century so that the Gospel section could be placed with the other three Gospels to form a fourfold story of Jesus. Though both are beautifully and vividly written, Acts is perhaps the more indispensible since it contains our only knowledge, outside of incidental references in Paul’s letters, of those extremely vital events when the Church was coming into being.
Who was Luke? He was the friend and companion of Paul, referred to as "the beloved physician." (Co1. 4:14) That considerable portions of Acts are based on his travel diary is evidenced by the "we" sections toward the end of the book, where the story is told in the first person. (These sections are Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15; 21-1-18, 27:1 -- 28:16. Note how smoothly, with no change in style, the author alternates between "we" and "they.")
For the Gospel, he, like Matthew, had access to "Q," Mark, and possibly other fragments; for Acts, besides his diary and personal memories, he doubtless had some records of happenings at Jerusalem before the missionary journeys started. The story, however, is his own graphic narrative, written probably between 85 and 95, and for the express purpose, he says, of giving an orderly and accurate account of what had happened. (Luke 1:1-4)
Each of the Gospel writers has his own particular merits. What stands out in Luke are the depth of his human sympathies, his sense of wonder, amazement, and joy at the power of the gospel, his poetic insight which led him not only to tell the Christmas story in a way that captivates old and young alike after nineteen centuries, but also to incorporate such lovely poems as the "Magnificat" of Mary, Zachariah’s "Benedictus," and Simeon’s "Nunc Dimittis." (Luke 1 :1-4 55, 68-79, 2:29-35) With a few deft strokes and the inclusion of some apparently minor details, he could tell a story so that we see it before our eyes. as in the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, or Jesus’ first sermon and the anger of his townsmen afterwards, or the death of Stephen, or the shipwreck where Paul is master of the scene. (Luke 2:41:51; 4:16-30; Acts 7:54-60; 27:9-44) A glance at some of the parables found only in Luke shows how deeply we are indebted to him for words of Jesus that go to the heart of human relations -- the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Rich Man and Lazarus. Furthermore, Jesus himself is here portrayed not so much as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy as actuated by divine compassion for the sinful, the sick, the poor, the outcast -- all sorts of people. The glow and marvel of the new life through Christ, whether in Jesus’ lifetime or in the early Church, must have captured Luke, for through his words it captures us today.
John. -- In looking at the Gospel of John we must take a jump ahead in time sequence, beyond the books emerging from persecution which we shall discuss in the next section, into the early second century. It was probably written at Ephesus between 100 and 110, though possibly a little before or after this period. Who wrote it ? We do not know, but there is little likelihood that the author was John the beloved disciple. John 21:20-24 appears to say so. But the book ended originally with chapter 20, and the last chapter is a sort of postscript added by someone who thought that John the disciple wrote it. The most we can be sure of is that it was written by some deeply religious soul, probably a Greek, and certainly one very familiar with Greek philosophy, who wanted to interpret for the Gentile world the spiritual significance of Christ and the Christian faith. Whoever wrote it, its message is undying.
Is the book authentic? This depends on what we mean by "authentic." It is less accurate factual history than is found in the three earlier Gospels. But it fulfills marvelously the author’s purpose as he states it at the original ending in John 20:31, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." As early as the third century Clement of Alexandria spoke of this book as a "spiritual gospel," and this it has been through the centuries as Christians have loved it and been moved by it to greater inward depths.
The Gospel of John has three main sections. The first is the beautiful prologue in John 1 :1-14, in which Jesus is presented as the incarnate Logos, "the Word made flesh" to dwell among us in undying light, "full of grace and truth." The remainder of the first twelve chapters presents incidents from the life of Jesus in which his supernatural powers are evident, and the people, seeing his wonderful works, believe. Chapters thirteen and onward contain the great last supper discourse and the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. In contrast to the Synoptics, Jesus here repeatedly asserts his oneness with the Father. There is no wilderness temptation, no agony in Gethsemane; Jesus without struggle is in command of every situation. This picture doubtless reflects what the Church had come to believe some seventy years after his death. But in any case, the book is a matchless treasury of Christian devotion cast in moving biography, full of such vivifying truth as the meaning of eternal life and the coming of the Spirit, the promised Comforter. To read it is to drink of the Water of Life it proclaims our Lord to be.
The Literature Of Persecution
Practically from the beginning, Christianity met with persecution. There were outbursts from the Jews, such as actuated Paul before his conversion and led to the death of Stephen, and as these subsided the Romans persecuted the emerging sect. We have already said that probably Peter and Paul both died under Nero. But it was not until the end of the century, under Domitian who reigned from 81 to 96, that persecution became general throughout the Roman Empire. He demanded that divine honors be paid to him as a symbol of loyalty, and those Christians who refused to place incense before his statue were branded as traitors to the State. Three books in the New Testament written in the decade between 85 and 95 reflect this conflict: Hebrews, Revelation, and I Peter.
Hebrews. -- We do not know who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, but we can be sure that it was not Paul. It does not "read like him" at all. It is written in a grand oratorical manner, more like a sermon than a letter, though it ends with a personal greeting. Many believe that it was written by a leader of the church at Rome who, while away from there, wrote out and sent by a messenger the sermon he would have liked to preach. It is called Hebrews because Christ is presented as the great high priest "after the order of Melchizedek," (In Hebrews 7 Melchizedek is referred to as contemporary with Abraham but without beginning or end of life. This suggests the eternal foundations of Jesus high priesthood.).and Christianity, as a faith that completes and supersedes Judaism. Its climax is reached in a marvelous roll call of the heroes of faith, and the summons, because we are "compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses," to "run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith." (Heb. 11:1 --12 2, A.S.V.)
Revelation. -- The Book of Revelation (not Revelations, as it is often incorrectly called) is one of the hardest books in the Bible to understand. Though nothing can make it perfectly simple, knowledge of its setting and type of literature can help greatly. It is apocalyptic writing, of which we noted a sample in Daniel and of which there was much in the period between the Testaments. Apocalyptic literature follows the pattern of a vision in which the author receives a call to write, and then describes, with highly cryptic imagery, a series of symbolic events which predict the overthrow of evil and the triumph of righteousness. It often appeared in times of crisis when its author could not speak openly. The Christians of the first century were much more familiar with this type of writing than we are, and hence much that puzzles us was clear to them.
The Book of Revelation is the apocalypse of John -- what John we do not know except that he wrote from the island of Patmos, where he had probably been exiled for his faith. The writing dates from the end of the Domitian persecutions, about 95. The churches addressed at the beginning are seven, near Ephesus, but it is apparently written for the Church at large, as a message of warning but still more of encouragement in the midst of their sufferings. There is vivid dramatic contrast, in the visions that follow, between the terrors that stalk the earth strife, famine, invasion, death, fire, flood, hail, earthquake, drought, pestilence, war -- and the mighty chorus of adoration and worship of Christ, the Lamb who was slain for our redemption. This contrast appears also with great poignancy in the description of the utter destruction that will fall upon Rome, which the author identifies with Babylon, "the beast," a "great harlot" drunk with the blood of the saints, and the blessedness of the new heaven and the new earth which God has in store for his faithful ones. The main motif of the book is summed up for the individual in "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life;" (Rev. 2 :10, A.S.V.) and for all society in
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 11:15, R.S.V.)
I Peter. -- Very soon after, a letter was addressed in quite a different vein to the churches of Asia Minor. This is called I Peter, though Peter the disciple was long since dead. It is a choice gem of practical Christian wisdom. Instead of adopting an antagonistic attitude toward Rome, its author’s counsel is, "Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king." (I Pet. 2:17) But he is well aware of the "fiery trials" his fellow Christians are passing through, and he urges them to remain steadfast, remembering that they are partakers of Christ’s sufferings. There is a lovely suggestion of the difference Christ makes, "who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people." (I Pet. 2:9, 10, R.S.V.) They are so to live that they will be witnesses of their faith.
Other New Testament Books
We must take a concluding, rapid look at the rest of the New Testament books. All are letters but one, the Book of James.
James. -- James is a sermon -- an excellent sermon -- full of Christian moral advice and exhortation. The author picks out exactly the things that tempt us today -- thinking too well of ourselves, showing partiality, kowtowing to wealth, talking too much -- and warns against them. There is little to indicate its date, except that the author seems to blend the Jewish wisdom literature as found in Proverbs with the style of the Cynic and Stoic traveling preachers. It was probably written toward the end of the first century or the early part of the second, after Christianity was well established in the Greek world.
I, II, and III John. -- We noted the devotional qualities of the Gospel of John. The three letters that we call I, II, and III John are so much in the same mood that they may have been written by the same person who wrote the Gospel, though we cannot be sure. (Note how utterly different in style and theme from the John who wrote the Book of Revelation.) Their author writes to warn the churches against false teachings, particularly the claims of entire sanctification and the Gnostic heresies asserting a special illumination, which were upsetting them and causing divisions. His way of doing it is to stress the importance of love and the genuine spiritual illumination that flowers in right ethical living.
Jude and II Peter. -- The Epistles of Jude and II Peter deal with the same problem of heresy as I, II, and III John, but in a very different mood -- denunciatory and unloving. They are so much alike that in all probability the author of II Peter took Jude and incorporated it into his own writing. Second Peter is pseudepigraphic; that is, it is put out in the name of Simon Peter the apostle though not written by him. This was a common practice to secure a better hearing, not considered dishonest any more than the use of a pen name now. These books are historically important because they throw light on the dissensions that emerged as the churches, a century after Jesus’ death, were solidifying into an ecclesiastical system. They do not give us so much in the way of personal inspiration -- not even much positive statement of the faith which, Jude says, "was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude vs. 3, R.S.V.)
I and II Timothy and Titus. -- We have nearly finished. The three Pastoral Epistles, I and II Timothy and Titus, are important but problematic books. Clearly they were all written by the same hand. Was this hand Paul’s? Not only the fact that Timothy and Titus were Paul’s co-workers, but also a number of intimate touches make it seem so. But when the letters as a whole are carefully examined it seems more likely that they were written in the middle of the second than of the first century. They assume not only a settled ecclesiastical system in the Church, but also an established body of orthodox beliefs against which to judge heresy and, what is most significant, a collection of Christian Scriptures. Perhaps some notes of Paul’s were incorporated, somewhat as the Gospel writers drew on earlier sources, but it is practically certain that these letters in their finished form stand at or near the end of the New Testament writings.
Whoever wrote them, they have their own great merits. They deal with the training of leaders for local churches and with the Christian duties not only of these leaders but also of church members. Though some statements here are situation-conditioned, there is much that still speaks to us in our time. Such passages as "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent," (I Tim. 2:12, R.S.V.) we can let pass as a vestige of an earlier day; in such injunctions as "Let no one despise your youth. . . . Do not neglect the gift you have. . . . Take heed to yourself and to your teaching," (I Tim. 4:12, 14, 16, R.S.V.) there is eternal wisdom.
And such a blending we have found throughout the New Testament and the Old. In the Bible is a great treasury of wisdom from God. "But," as Paul puts it in speaking of the light that shines from God in Christ, "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." (II Cor. 4:7, R.S.V)
If this survey of the earthen vessels through which God has revealed himself in the Bible has not made clearer the heavenly treasure, these chapters will have missed their aim.
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