Opinion: How the New Testament came to us

by JOHN COURT –  JANUARY 2023 [ previously in 2018 for Eastwood Uniting’s quarterly magazine, Contact]  

John Court ‘put bread on the family table’ through a 50-year career as a professional engineer in the chemical and environmental industries (BSc & MAppSc).

Raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment, he also undertook tertiary studies in classics (BA major in Greek) and ancient history (MA on Greco-Roman social life) with the aim of deepening understanding of things Christian, in parallel to rather than in concert with the conventional seminary scene.

Not surprisingly, this led John to re-think many aspects of his faith.  For the past 40 years he has found a friendly home and worshipped in the Uniting Church in Sydney.   He has also savoured the worlds of antiquity and early Christianity through some travel in the Middle East, Greece and Italy. But for his wife and himself, both now octogenarians, such adventures are realistically over. With retirement have come opportunities to indulge in eclectic reading and discussion.

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John has kindly given us access to some of his writing on this topic. This is Part 1 of 3 parts.

How the New Testament came to us – 1 Inclusions and exclusions

Our Bible

We tend to take our Bible for granted:  39 books in the Old Testament (OT); 27 in the New Testament (NT); usually bound together; and often in black leather with gilt edges – at least when a book was something we read on paper rather than on our mobile phones.  Many of us have known this format from our youngest years in Sunday school and church youth groups.  But does this give a misleading picture of its origins and its immutability?  We will explore this question in several short pieces.

The old testament

The Old Testament preceded the New, to which it is inextricably linked.  It was composed in the ancient Hebrew language and transmitted orally and in writing by Jewish priests and scholars over a period of more than a thousand years.  When Christians adopted these ‘scriptures’, as they called them, they mostly used a Greek translation made by Jews about two centuries earlier.  Why Hebrew and Greek?  Well Hebrew was the language of ancient Israel.  The Old Testament is often called “the Hebrew Scriptures”.  And Greek because it was the lingua franca of the world of the early Church – a little like English tends to be today in many parts of the world.  That’s why Christian scriptures, of which our New Testament is the prime collection, are also written in Greek, a language which could reach many people.

Were these the only writings held to be ‘holy’ in their time?  Not at all!  In the Jewish world the writings we call the Apocrypha roughly fill the four-hundred-year gap between our Old and New Testaments.  They are not included in today’s Protestant Bibles but are found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.  And there were other writings besides these, as shown abundantly by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls last century.  And we now have many other ‘gospels’, ‘acts’ and ‘revelations’ written in the early years of the Christian church, including the large collection in the Coptic language from Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Choosing what’s in and what’s out

When a community ascribes special status to a set of writings, as when it considers them to be the ‘Word of God’, it becomes important for it to define what it accepts into this collection of sacred writings, the so-called ‘canon’.  Jewish councils basically decided what constituted the Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament, by about 100 CE (AD), although they did not precisely codify this for another eight hundred years.  Church councils had basically decided what constituted the Christian scriptures, the New Testament, by about 400 CE.

Over the last two hundred years scholars of language, ancient literature, history and theology have delved intensively into the way these selections were made and the nature, form, source and circumstances of the writings selected.   They have done this in the context of a plethora of additional ancient writings and archaeological information coming to light from the same environment as the chosen writings. The net result at present is some real divergence in the world of Biblical scholarship as to just what constitutes ‘our Bible’.  This fascinating and growing field of study has raised many questions, including the nature and working of ‘Divine inspiration’ in the original writing and selection of the canon, the transmission of the text and the authenticity of claims of authorship.

My understanding of what the Bible is has changed enormously in my Christian lifetime.  What about yours?  Perhaps you just accept it as a given in our Church without further concern.  Most Christians probably do.  Perhaps you find it all too difficult to sort out and just give up on it.  A lot do.  Perhaps you are inclined to reject it in whole or part, based on what does and does not appeal to you.  Not a few do this.  Does it matter?  I don’t know, but I’m one of those who are intrigued, rather than put off by such questions.  So, with your indulgence, I’ll explore them a little further in three brief pieces.

Two views on the New Testament

In 2017 I attended two fascinating presentations by visiting Biblical experts on aspects of the canon of the New Testament.  They held almost diametrically opposed views.  Professor Darrell Bock of Dallas, speaking at Macquarie University, Sydney, argued that the New Testament as we have it is the authentic Bible for Christians and that the additional early material now available did not come from an alternative, foundational Christianity.  Shortly afterwards Professor Hal Taussig of New York, speaking at Merthyr Road Uniting Church, New Farm, Brisbane, argued not only that early Christianity was more diverse than we had previously believed, but that some of the recently discovered early Christian writings should be included in our New Testament.  In fact, he has published, with support from other scholarly experts, A New New Testament, which includes eleven additional ancient Christian books not in our canonical Bible.

The case for the canonical new testament

Prof. Bock in his book The Missing Gospels[1] has made a close study of these additional Christian writings, many of them classified as ‘gnostic’.  He searches the Nag Hammadi collection for differences from our canonical NT on the subjects of God as Creator, of Jesus as a human and divine figure, of the nature of redemption and on Jesus’ death and salvation. He concludes that Christian orthodoxy is dominantly represented in the earliest strands of the canonical NT.  In summary, he claims that the alternative ideas on these subjects, as found in the alternative writings, are differences which entered Christian circles at a later time and were not part of earliest belief.  One belief in particular, which derives from the Gospel of Thomas, that Jesus was “the ultimate wisdom teacher, a kind of mysterious Jewish Zen master who scandalized his listeners”[2] by his radical teaching, is rejected as not a key part of earliest Christian belief.

I found that Prof. Bock’s book gave a relatively comprehensive and systematic overview of the Christian Gnostic writings, especially those from Nag Hammadi.  But he has an agenda which is apparent throughout.  He sees a trend in some modern scholarship dealing with these new writing to “cull out what fits nicely with our culture”, establishing “a case…for a historical makeover of early Christianity”, which he calls “the Buzz”[3].  He acknowledges that history is written by winners, so that the views which prevailed in the early councils of the Church are the views of those who prevailed.  But he asserts that sometimes the winners deserve to win.

The case for alternative writings in the New Testament

Prof. Taussig, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, has also extensively studied the non-canonical writings of early Christianity.  He is of the view they genuinely reflect the diversity of belief in the early Church, to the extent that he has edited, under the guidance of an eminent scholarly council, A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st century combining traditional and newly discovered texts[4].

The books included, intermixed with canonical books are: The Prayer of Thanksgiving; the Gospel of Thomas; The Odes of Solomon (in four books); The Thunder:  Perfect Mind; The Prayer of the Apostle Paul; The Acts of Paul and Thecla; The letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John. A 100-page Companion is appended discussing the history, environment and some exposition of these new books and their relationship to the canonical material.  It is noteworthy that much material not selected from these new sources is strongly contrary to canonical texts, for example, portraying the god of creation as an inferior and ill-disposed deity.

Prof. Taussig senses a freshness and beauty in the additional material.  But, like Prof. Bock, he also has an agenda beyond the purely academic.  “There are beautiful prayers, stories and proposals to nourish today’s thirst for spirituality that are both grounded in tradition and new to almost everyone’s experience.” “Most powerful…is the possibility of claiming for the twenty-first century new meanings inherent in the first- and second-century Christ movements.”[5]

A question for reflection

The Basis of Union states[6]: “The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word.”

Where do we stand then, when sincere and well-credentialed scholarship is clearly divided as to what is in and out of the Scriptures?  The Uniting Church in the same Basis lays on all of us the duty of reading these very Scriptures[7].  But which ones?

John Court

[1] Bock, Darrell L 2006 The Missing Gospels:  unearthing the truth behind alternative Christianities (Thomas Nelson).

[2] p xxii

[3] p xxiii

[4] Ed. with commentary by Hal Taussig with a foreword by John Dominic Crossan, 2013 (Mariner Books).

[5] p 519.

[6] Section 11

[7] Section 5

oOo

 

2 thoughts on “Opinion: How the New Testament came to us

  1. BARRIE MCMAHON

    John, thanks for that.
    I admit my main reason for replying is the warm feeling I get that you are part of Eastwood UCA..
    So was I (with Dorothy) if you go back 40 years.

    More pertinently – we are challenged, not only by the books in and out of the bible, and by books written about the bible. There are other books worthy of our attention.

    GW – my next sermon (in Warialda Presbyterian church) will be a review of TIM COSTELLO’S –
    A LOT WITH A LITTLE – Hardy Grant Books.

    I am reminded – I also have dirty fingernails as an engineer in the gas industry for 50 years.
    My current project is to promote a BIOFUEL industry in rural NSW – as a better / transitional alternative to Musk’s EVs .

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