The New Testament Pentateuch: Gospels and Acts

Codex SinaiticusThis one’s from way back in the beginning of the semester, just realised I hadn’t posted it. There’s two on the Old Testament and one on the New Testament still to be posted, too.

Last week in our overview of the New Testament, I suggested that the first five books of the New Testament, the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, formed a sort of New Testament Torah or Pentateuch, being the foundation on which the rest of the New Testament is built, just as the Torah or Law is the foundation on which the Old Testament is built. Today I want to zero in a bit more closely on this foundation.

I also pointed out last week that in the oldest part of the New Testament, the letters of Peter and Paul, we have preserved for us the teaching of Jesus, but not in the actual words of Jesus. In the gospels we have four witnesses to the actual words of Jesus, and the first of them comes almost ten years after the Christian letters we looked at last week. According to the majority opinion, the gospel according to Mark is the earliest, and is generally dated around 70 AD. This is soon after the best known eye-witnesses had died; Peter and Paul were martyred in the persecution in Rome under Nero. Mark, like Paul, was not an eye-witness, but had been a close colleague of Peter, and he wrote down Peter’s eye-witness account. Most scholars date the gospel of Matthew about 10 years after Mark, and Luke/Acts a few years after that. They also believe that the writers of Matthew and Luke quoted Mark in many places, and quoted other, now lost, sources in others; Luke tells us he collected eye-witness accounts, but doesn’t say who the witnesses were. It is impossible be too dogmatic about the exact dates and relationships to the eye-witnesses about these three ‘synoptic’ accounts, but they were all written while there were other eye-witnesses still living who could have corrected the record. They differ in details, as genuine eye-witness accounts always do, but there is no substantial difference between the teaching of Christ in the first three gospels and his teaching according to the letters of Peter and Paul; they’re the same teaching, but in different words.

For instance, Jesus talks about His followers being born again, Paul describes Christ’s followers as a new creation. Jesus says unless you repent [of your sins], you will… perish, Paul says the wages of sin is death. Jesus says render unto Caesar, Paul says tribute to whom tribute is due. Jesus says you cannot serve God and Mammon or money, Paul says the love of money is the root of all evil. Jesus says He came to give His life as a ransom, Paul says Christ died for our sins, and Peter that Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree—and so it goes on. The accusation sometimes made against Paul that he taught a different gospel than Jesus did doesn’t stand up to examination.

John’s gospel came quite a bit later, and while it tells us a lot of things that the other gospels don’t, and leaves out much of what they do, and has some important differences in terms of the events of Jesus’s life, its account of Jesus’s teachings is essentially the same as those of the other gospels, but presented in such a way as to be especially helpful to Jews being cast out of the synagogue, as we’ll see when we look at the Johannine writings later in this series. It’s actually what you’d expect from the last living eye-witness— John is said by many accounts to have lived till almost the end of the first century— John’s highly personal account of what had become a famous story: here’s what they didn’t have room for, or time for, or didn’t think was important, or perhaps didn’t even know. For a long time scholars believed that was all that John was doing, and that while his deeply theological accounts of Jesus’s teachings might be reliable, his narrative of Jesus’s life was not, but many scholars are now coming to take seriously the possibility that its historical information is as important and reliable as the rest of it.

But there still remains the question of how Paul and Peter and the gospels came to be thought of as Sacred Scripture, but other Christian writings from the early period did not. One of the signs that something is Sacred Scripture is the context in which it is read. The Sacred Scripture of the Jews was always read out loud when Jews gathered for worship, and after the reading someone in the congregation would add some encouragement to live by it—a sermon. The Old Testament continued to be treated that way in the worship of the first Christians, only the sermon would be about how the passage spoke about Jesus, or prophesied Jesus. It’s not hard to imagine how the early Christian writings also came to be read in the church service. Paul’s letters were clearly aimed at the whole congregation to whom he was writing, and he expected them to be read to them, although probably not as part of their worship. The way I imagine it on the first occasion is the usual Christian service, with the Old Testament read and someone commenting on it in the light of Christ’s teachings about it, then at the end, just as everyone is about to leave, the leader says wait a minute, we have a bit of business to conduct before we go, and then says I’ve had a letter from Peter or Paul about the problems we’re facing, and then reads it, or extracts from it. That reading would have caused quite a discussion in most cases, and the discussion would likely have continued for several weeks at least, with the letter quoted and requoted each time they gathered. Once the situation was resolved, or at least once it was resolved in the way the letter had encouraged, the letter would have become a fairly precious thing, and it would probably have begun to be quoted by the person commenting on the Old Testament passage, and from there it would only be a short step to reading from it as well as from the Old Testament. Likewise the gospels; since the sermon on the Old Testament reading would have been a report of Jesus’s teaching about it, once Jesus’s teaching was in writing, the comment would soon have turned into a reading of Jesus’s words, with before long a comment and eventually sermons on those words. The development seems easy enough to follow. And once these documents start to get treated like the Old Testament, people began to use them like the Old Testament, ie to look for an encounter with God in them. Remember how we saw that this is how the Jews saw and used their Sacred Scriptures; given Jesus’s strong endorsement of this, the only difference we would expect of Christians would be that they would expect to encounter Jesus in the Scriptures too. And because they naturally encountered Him in His words as reported in the newly written gospels, it wouldn’t be long before they looked for that encounter in Paul’s account of His teaching too.

And when you read the New Testament, it becomes undeniable that it is the same God encountered there as is encountered in the Old Testament. Both gospels and letters are constantly drawing parallels between Christ and the Old Testament. People who say Christ’s God was a God of love, whereas the Old Testament God was not, haven’t read either New or Old Testaments very carefully. Jesus upheld the Commandments as the Torah did, He denounced unrighteousness as the Prophets did, and He spoke of God’s nature in more subtle ways just as the Writings did.

The sanctification of these documents as Sacred Scripture was inevitable, because Christ is in fact encountered in them, whatever their official status. they didn’t have to be ‘declared official’, and at the time they were written and accepted as Scripture, it wasn’t even possible. There was no institutional body that had the authority to approve or disapprove of any additions to the Scriptures. By the middle of the third century, an institutional church was coming into being, and regional councils of local church leaders were developing as a mechanism to settle disputes. But during the 250 years before that, there simply was no mechanism by which official pronouncements could be made. The church as a whole had no governing body. The Emperor didn’t care what Christians believed until the middle of the third century. And by that time, 95% of the church accepted the New Testament as we have it today, plus the Old Testament, as its Sacred Scripture.

Not that there weren’t arguments about it. There was a famous one in about 160 AD, when a Christian in Rome called Marcion argued that the Scripture’s teachings on mercy and grace and its teaching on law and justice were incompatible, and that everything that gave any spiritual status to law needed to be removed from the Scriptures. This was the first occasion we know of when the subject of which writings had authority and which didn’t was discussed. Marcion was expelled from the Church in Rome because he rejected the entire Old Testament, all the gospels except parts of Luke, and all epistles except those of Paul to the churches (ie not the pastorals). He was only in the business of rejecting documents, and it’s interesting to note that he is only concerned with documents that everyone still accepts as the New Testament. He doesn’t mention any of the other early Christian writings that are sometimes claimed to have been alternative Scriptures, either to condemn them or to offer them as an alternative, even though some of them would have met his standard.

It was in the mid-second century that serious persecutions of Christians began, and these provide more evidence about the different status of the growing number of Christian documents. If the authorities suspected Christians were meeting somewhere, they would visit the place and demand all ‘sacred implements and books’ be handed over, and from these would determine whether or not the law was being violated. The common practice was to hide the canonical books, and cheerfully hand over other Christian writings. Most revealing of all is that as far as we can tell, the authorities did not consider these other writings evidence of Christianity. The New Testament was in place, as Scripture, before there ever was an institutional church powerful enough to make a decision about it.

Two final corrections to the record, just because they have become so widely believed despite being completely false: i) the story that the Nicene Council of 324 decided the contents of the New Testament has no truth in it. The Council was mostly concerned with the Creed, although it did address a few other things like the date of Easter. Never said a word about the canon of Scripture, though. The first council that did was the Council of Carthage in 397, which listed the New Testament books—but it wasn’t determining the list, it was ruling that nothing other than the traditional list should be read in the church service, and added the by-then traditional list ‘for information only’. And ii) the Emperor Constantine never gave any orders regarding what should be in or out of the New Testament. He did order fifty Bibles to be produced at his expense for the churches of Constantinople, but showed no interest in the contents.

But let me end by going back to the contents, not of the whole New Testament but of the Gospels and Acts. They give very little of Jesus’s early life; just where and roughly when He was born. They give a more detailed description of the three years that John tells us He spent teaching, and then a very detailed account of His death and resurrection. And Luke completes the story by telling us what His followers did after the resurrection. It’s not an accident that Luke put that together with the account of Jesus, because as Paul says, Jesus’s followers are His continuing presence in the world. Without Jesus’s disciples, He might seem just another character in ancient history. But He sent his disciples with explicit instructions to be witnesses, to tell people what Jesus had taught and how He had died for the sins of mankind, and it’s because He still has followers that people still turn to Him for salvation. The word ‘disciple’ means student, someone who learns. Anyone who has learned what Jesus taught and how He gave His life for the sins of the whole world is a disciple, and is sent as a witness. All of you are, I hope and pray, learning more about His teaching and His work week by week, and are called to be His witnesses here at Pitt (or CMU), and in wherever life takes you when you leave here. You are part of the story that is told in the gospels and in Acts. You are part of the salvation of sinners today.

There are millions of witness now, in every corner of the world. Christianity becomes more and more the majority religion of the whole world every day. That alone should suggest that the God we encounter in His word is the real thing. If anyone wants to know whether the New Testament really is the word of God, all he has to do is to ask God to show him, and then read it with a mind open to that possibility. He shows us in ways that are simply unmistakable, self-evident, and no sceptic will ever be able to persuade us otherwise, because those who have looked for God in His word have seen the truth with our own eyes, and you remember what Jesus says about that. If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

Let those who know the truth confess it together in the words of the Apostles’ Creed on p 5 of the leaflet.

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