Sunday, January 17, 2016

Composition of the New Testament

Jeremiah 31:31-32 NIV
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors

Composition of the New Testament
As we begin talking about the composition of the New Testament, let's begin by looking at our verse for the day, Jeremiah 31:31-21. Let's read it together…

A Story in Progress, but Something Totally New
Do you remember last week how I said when the New Testament story begins we are really joining a story in progress? Well that is absolutely true. But today I want to emphasize that even though we are joining a story in progress as far as history is concerned when we open the NT, there is something basically new that begins with the New Testament over against the OT. The OT was the record of God's saving act for a particular people - Israel - something that took place over a period of nearly a thousand years. Even longer if you go all the way back to creation. But the New Testament takes place and is written over just a few decades. And rather than addressing the salvation of a few individuals and a nation, like the OT does, the NT from beginning to end focuses on one person and one subject that is to be preached and witnessed to  all the world; Jesus of Nazareth for "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." Acts 4:12 NIV.

The earliest Christians believed that the Jewish Scriptures provided a record of God's covenant (testament) with Israel. But these first Christians also believed that God had done something fundamentally new and different in Jesus Christ, and they found the language to describe this in  our key verse of today where the prophet speaks of a "New Covenant." (See also Matt. 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor. 11:25).

Eventually Christians decided that the memoirs of the apostles should be counted as Scripture, and it seemed natural to call these the "new covenant writings," or, simply, the New Testament. We get the term testament from the Latin word testamentum, which the earliest translator of the OT from Hebrew to Latin used in our verse of the day, "I will make a new testamentum…" The words are basically interchangeable and it basically means "contract."

Now that we know where the name comes from, let's take a look at a few facts about the NT.

Fact 1 - Number of Books total 27
Fact 2 - Number of Chapters total 260
Fact 3 - Number of Verses total 7,957
Fact 4 - Number of Words total 181,253
Fact 5 - Number of Letters total 838,380
Fact 6 - Longest book is Acts
Fact 7 - Longest chapter is Luke 1
Fact 8 - Smallest Book is 3 John
Fact 9 - Shortest verse is John 11:35 ("Jesus wept.")
Fact 10 - Most prolific author, Paul 13 of the 27 books
Fact 11 - Written in Greek
Fact 12 - No punctuation

Take a look at this  - it looks like Greek to me! It also looks a little overwhelming.

But please don't get overwhelmed. The books of the NT can easily be arranged in only four categories, let's take a look at a "Table of Contents" of the NT.

1. Four Gospels
The NT starts with four narratives, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that report on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  They are named for the individuals who traditionally have been identified as their authors. The name "gospel" means "good news." Since they are four accounts of the same story, there is a lot of overlap in their content. But like four witnesses to something happening, they also notice different things.

2. One Historical Narrative
The second division of the NT is one historical narrative. I'm talking about the Book of Acts which is the story of the Apostles' ministries in the early church. The book's full name is "Acts of the Apostles", and is actually "part two" of Luke's gospel. Luke wrote both of them and it is traditionally placed right behind the gospels because it's the only book that relates what happened right after the events reported in the Gospels.

3. Twenty-One Letters
Next you will find a third division of the NT and that is twenty-one letters. They are often called "epistles" from the Greek word for letter, "epistole." They were written by various authors, and consist of Christian doctrine, counsel, instruction, and conflict resolution.

The twenty-one Letters can be further broken down as follows:
A. Letters from Paul to Churches
There are nine letters from Paul to churches: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. If you're unfamiliar with the NT you may find some of the names odd and hard to pronounce. The names come from the city or geographical region they were sent to. They are presented in the NT in order of length, from Romans, the longest letter, to 2 Thessalonians, the shortest one.

B. Letters from Paul to Individuals
There are also four letters from Paul to individuals. Two to Timothy, one to Titus, and one to Philemon. These are named for the people the letters are addressed to. These four plus the nine to the churches mean Paul wrote 13 letters, almost half the NT.

C. Letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews is in a class all by itself in that we do not know the author and we don't know who the author sent it to. In the earliest years this letter was attributed to Paul, but when people studied the language and the theological emphases, it was decided Paul did not write it. Since the letter appears to have been written to Jewish Christians, it's traditionally called "The Letter to the Hebrews."

D. Letters by Other People
Still a fourth division of the letters in the NT are those written by people other than Paul. There are seven of these, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. Unlike the letters of Paul that are named for the people to whom they are sent, these are named for their authors. These seven are often referred to as the General Epistles.

The last major division of the NT writings is the Book of Revelation, which is a book of prophecy containing instructions to seven local congregations of Asia Minor, but mostly containing prophecies about the end times. Revelation is like the book of Daniel in the OT in that it is uses incredibly symbolic language to talk about the judgment of God in the last days of earth. The word "apocalypse" means "revelation" or "unveiling"

So there you have it - four gospels, one history book twenty-one letters and one apocalypse.

Some Warnings
A few warnings are in order at this point however.

Not Chronological
First, the books are not arranged in any sort of chronological order. The gospels come first in the NT but they were certainly not the first books written. Al four gospels were probably written after the death of Paul (he never refers to them) and thus they are by necessity later chronologically than any of the 13 books Paul wrote. Many scholars hold the book of James to be the earliest book in the NT, probably written around 40-45 AD. After that, Galatians and the Thessalonian epistles are from the early ministry of Paul which we can date pretty accurately to AD 50 or 51. In contrast to these, the writings of John the Apostle (his gospel, revelation and his letters) constitute some of the last works of the NT to be written. John's work reflects problems being faced by the church near the end of the first century. The earliest gospel was probably Mark, probably written in the sixties, followed by Matthew, and Luke. As I said, John's gospel came late.

This makes sense if you think about it. Jesus was probably born about 4 or 5 BC and he was crucified around 30-33 AD so at first, all the folks who wrote the NT KNEW the story - Jesus was a contemporary of theirs. The stories of Jesus were mainly an oral tradition until folks started dying off. Then it was decided someone needs to write all this down. Thus the gospels.

Names / Authorship Issues
A second warning has to do with the names of the books of the NT. The titles these books now bear reflect ancient church tradition and often do not stand up to closer scrutiny. For instance, the "Gospel of Matthew" or "Gospel According to Matthew" is attributed to Matthew but the Bible itself never says Matthew wrote it and very few modern scholars think he did. Even so, that should not affect our perception of what's in it any more than our not knowing who wrote the Book of Hebrews affects the authenticity of its teaching.

There has also been an ongoing debate about the authorship of some of Paul's letters. Some hold that a few of these were written by followers of Paul and attributed to him. Don't get hung up on that if you see it because all the books we have in our NT today have been deemed authoritative as Scripture as we'll see in our discussion of the Canon.

Development of the Canon
The final thing I want to touch on briefly this morning is the development of the Canon. The canon is the list of books considered authoritative by a particular church or denomination. The word canon itself literally means "rule" or "measuring stick."  The canon was developed through debate (canonology) and agreement by the religious authorities of their respective faiths and denominations. Believers consider canonical books as those inspired by God or as expressive of the authoritative history of the faith community.

In the earliest days Christians simply gathered together writings that they found to be helpful and shared, read and discussed them. Paul encouraged the churches to which he wrote letters to exchange those letters with each other, so that they could share what he had written to other congregations as well as to their own community (Col. 4:16). Likewise, scholars are reasonably certain that multiple copies of Mark's gospel were produced and distributed across the Roman Empire a few years after it was written (both Matthew and Luke appear to have had copies). Since in the earliest days there was a chain of connection to Jesus, Paul and the original apostles, there was little need to decide which of these writings was worthy of being labeled "scripture." Almost from the start, however, there were voices within Christianity that were in tension with that developing tradition. You may recall from many of Paul's letters that people are arguing for competing versions of the Christian faith, which Paul himself rejected. Some of these people probably produced writings themselves, but for the most part their works were not preserved and did not make it into the "approved" list of NT writings.

By the second century two developments occurred which made the question of establishing a canon necessary.

Marcion (and others)
First, there were now Christians who wanted to exclude writings from the apostolic tradition that were not to their liking. The most famous of these was Marcion (110-160) who was influenced by Gnosticism which valued the spiritual but despised anything material or physical. He also wanted to purge Christianity of its Jewish influences and to make it a purely Gentile religion. Marcion urged his followers to reject writings that didn't agree with him. He put out one of the first lists of accepted books of the NT, excluding a few we have today. He even went so far as to edit some of the existing books to remove parts he didn't like.

The second development was there were Christians in the second century who began producing writings of their own and then attributing them to the original circle of apostolic witnesses. Someone would write a letter promoting gnostic ideas and claim it was a newly discovered letter of Paul. Someone else would write a gospel portraying Jesus as a major supporter of Gnosticism and claim that it was a newly discovered work of one of the twelve original disciples.

Meanwhile the churches obviously wanted to use only those writings that could be reasonably be attributed to the original apostolic tradition. So by the end of the second century lists began to appear specifying which writings were thought to be authentic and authoritative.

The first “canon” was the Muratorian Canon, which was compiled in AD 170. The Muratorian Canon included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. In AD 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament (along with one book of the Apocrypha) and 26 books of the New Testament (everything but Revelation) were canonical and to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (AD 393) and the Council of Carthage (AD 397) also affirmed the same 27 books as authoritative. Of course, this didn't stop the arguing. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther  (1483–1546) made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as salvation by faith alone) but this was not generally accepted among his followers. But if you pick up a German-language Luther Bible to this day you will find these books are ordered last.

Today most Protestant traditions look at four things in deciding what is "canonical."

1. Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
2. Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
3. Liturgical Use — read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services).
4. Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.

Talk About It - Discussion Questions

1. What is something you didn’t know that you heard this morning?

2. Does all of this (the background stuff) really matter to you - does it impact your faith?

3. What role do you think the Holy Spirit played in the writing of the NT? What role did the Spirit play in the selection of the canon?

4. What do you think I meant when I said the focus of the NT is on one person - where do you see that?

For Next Week - we will look at some Bible Study tools.

Source Material: NIV Study Bible (Zondervan), ESV Study Bible (Crossway), Handbook of the New Testament by Claus Westermann, Exploring the New Testament by Walter M. Dunnett, Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell.

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