I’ve primarily worked with OT Exegetics, but I do know a little about the New Testament as well, though for professional reasons it has always been of less interest to me.
NT is a collection of Early Christian literature, and its birth was a complex process. In its current form it consists of 27 books, the majority of which are the 4 gospels that narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, a collection of letters and treatises written in the letter format. It also includes the Acts of the Apostles, which relates the experiences of the first Christians and Revelation, which belongs to apocalyptic literature. These books have been written in Greek and can be dated to between c. 50-150 CE.
The New Testament in Greek
The NT is written in the Koine dialect of Greek, and fluency varies from writer to writer. Some of the NT books have marked Semitisms, which reveal that the native language of the writer was not Greek, but in all likelihood Aramaic, which was the common spoken language in 1st century Roman Palestine. These are pretty common in some of the Gospels and the Pauline Letters.
The Birth of the NT
The birth of the NT was a complex process. The holy book of the first Christians was the OT, especially its Greek translation, Septuagint. It is obvious that the Gospel writers have used the Septuagint when quoting from the OT, as the writer of Matthew at Matt. 1:23 quotes the Septuagint mistranslation of Isa. 7:14 of the word aləmâ ‘young woman’ as παρθένος ‘virgin’.
In addition to the OT, the early Christians valued oral tradition, which existed in several forms:
- Jesus-traditions were oral narratives about what Jesus had said and done during his lifetime.
- Apostolic preaching consisted of proclamation on the resurrection of Jesus. A person who was considered having been authorized by the resurrected Jesus as a disseminator of the message was called an Apostle. The resurrection was considered as a sign of the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God.
- While the Apostles were preaching the message about Jesus, other followers of Jesus were preaching the message of Jesus. These followers are called by researchers as the Jesus Movements of Palestine and Syria. These preachings of these movements were also centered on the coming of the Kingdom of God and its related call to convert. The belief in the resurrection seemingly was not seen equally important by these movements.
- The early Christian prophets received visions where the resurrected Jesus imparted to them information about God’s will. Part of the sayings of Jesus in the NT are traceable to the teachings of the historical Jesus, another part is based on the proclamations of these prophets. In the early Christian era both sources were considered very authoritative.
As well as the oral tradition, writings and collections of writings were compiled. These are:
- Early Christian Letters and Epistles
- Gospel Literature
- Acts of the Apostles and a number of other Acts
- Apocalyptic Literature
The Dates of the NT Books
- Matthew: c. 80-90
- Mark: c. 70
- Luke: c. 80-90
- John: c. 100
- Acts of the Apostles: c. 90 – the “sequel” to Luke
- Romans: c. 56 – Pauline
- 1st Corinthians: c. 55 – Pauline
- 2nd Corinthians: c. 55-56 – Pauline, likely a compilation of several letters
- Galatians: c. 52 – Pauline
- Ephesians: c. 80-90 – Deuteropauline (written by a disciple of Paul), presupposes Colossians
- Philemon: c. 55-56 – Pauline, likely a compilation of several letters
- Colossians: c. 80 – Deuteropauline
- 1st Thessalonians: c. 50 – Pauline, the oldest book of the NT
- 2nd Thessalonians: c. 80-90 – Deuteropauline
- 1st Timothy: end of 1st century – Deuteropauline
- 2nd Timothy: end of 1st century – Deuteropauline
- Titus: end of 1st century – Deuteropauline
- Philemon: c. 55 – Pauline
- Hebrews: c. 80-90
- Jacob: end of 1st century
- 1st Peter: end of 1st century
- 2nd Peter: c. 150
- 1st John: early 2nd century
- 2nd John: early 2nd century
- 3rd John: early 2nd century
- Jude: early 2nd century
- Revelation: c. 100
The Formation of the NT Canon
At the end of the 2nd century it was becoming clear which texts would be accepted into the NT canon and which would not. There was a controversy in the West about the inclusion of Hebrews and about Revelation in the East. Also the position of the so-called Catholic Letters (Peter, John, Jacob and Jude) was thoroughly considered during the 3rd and 4th centuries. Finally the decision for their inclusion was reached.
A number of texts were left outside the NT canon, even though these were considered authoritative by some Christians. These writings were not directly rejected, but they were not considered to represent teachings of direct Apostolic descent. During the 17th century these texts were compiled into a collection known as The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers.
The extrabiblical Christian literature is called the NT Apocrypha. The term denotes a diverse collection of Christian writings that have been preserved in various traditions and collections. Only the modern research into early Christianity has attempted to systematize this literary genre. Some of the NT Apocrypha was popular during the Middle Ages and they were published already during the Renaissance. Some are known from the writings of the Church Fathers, where they are referred to and cited. The vast majority, however, consists of textual finds made during the last hundred years. Usually these are originally Greek texts that have been preserved only in translations, either Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian or Arabic. The question of their origin and date is generally extremely difficult. However, some of these texts may have been written during the end of the 1st century and several from the 2nd century.
The Forms of Early Christianity
Early Christianity took several forms. This is visible also in the NT, where several schools of thought are represented: Pauline, Johannine and Judaizing forms being the most visible ones. One of the first great schisms of the early church, the so-called Conflict of Antioch, was about eating together. As the Apostle Peter did not wish to insult the Jewish Christians who followed the strict rules of ritual purity, he refused to take his meals sharing a table with non-Jewish Christians. By doing so he insulted Apostle Paul, whose table was the one in question. Paul narrates the incident at the 2nd chapter of the Letter to the Galatians.
The basic reason for conflicts like this was the question of identity. Christianity had been born within Judaism, and when it separated from Judaism there was a period of dissent as different Christians understood what being a Christian meant in various ways. Diverse habits, ideas and symbols were adopted and at the same time old habits, ideas and symbols were reinterpreted in different ways. As a result of this process the writers of the NT differ sometimes greatly from each other and can belong to one of the schools of thought in early Christianity. A classic example of this diversity of views is the difference between Paul and the writer of Jacob. Interestingly enough, even though they disagree completely over whether faith or deeds make a person acceptable to God, both refer to Abraham as authority for their opinions as the model of an acceptable relationship with God. See Romans 4:1, 13, 3:28 and Jacob 2:14, 20-24.
Early Christian Letters and Epistles
The earliest of the Christian textual documents are Paul’s letters from the 50′s. The Apostle was using the letters to guide the congregations he had founded. They were read in the congregations when the Apostle himself could not be present to teach. These letters were compiled into collections. Later, his disciples adopted his method of letters as an instrument of disseminating their teachings. Thus were born the deuteropauline letters, which were written in Paul’s style and in his name. This practice does not mean literary forgery; the writer is invoking the authority of Paul by writing in his name, as was common in that era.
Several other early Christian writers wrote letters, either under their own name or by adopting a name of an Apostle. Essays in a letter format were also produced; these are known as epistles. These were not directed to any definite recipient; the letter format was used simply as a literary device.
The term εὐαγγέλιον (‘gospel’ is a translation of this, meaning ‘good news’) in the NT always denotes an orally proclaimed Christian message of salvation, never its written form. What would be the contents of this εὐαγγέλιον is sometimes clear, at other times less so. Examples of this can be found at 1st Cor 15:1-5 and Mark 1:14-15. The writers of the Gospels did not call their books ‘Gospel’. The name was only given to them much later, probably during the early 2nd century.
The Gospels are compilations of oral traditions about Jesus. There are two main sources: teachings of Jesus were gathered into collections of the sayings of Jesus. These were likely modelled after the Jewish Proverbial and Wisdom Literature. The best known collections of the sayings of Jesus are the so-called Q source and the extrabiblical Gospel of Thomas.
The narrative Gospels are structured depictions of the life and acts of Jesus, culminating in the narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are by no means neutral historiography as they are expressions of faith by the early Christians. Each Gospel writer has adapted the story of Jesus into the situation and current patterns of thought of his own community. All the canonical Gospels and several younger apocryphal gospels are of this form.
None of the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses, as evidenced by the historical and geographical mistakes in the Gospels and only the writer of Matthew may have been a native Palestinian Jew. The writer of Mark was almost certainly a Jewish Christian living in Rome, since his Gospel contains several Latinisms, such as iter facere (ὁδὸν ποιεῖν, “to make one’s way,” 2:23); consilium dederunt (συμβούλιον ἐδίδουν, “to give counsel,” 3:6); hoc est (ὅ ἐστιν, “that is,” 3:17; 7:11, 34; 12:42; 15:16, 42); satis facere (ἱκανὸν ποιῆσαι, “to satisfy,” 15:15); genua ponentes (15:19, τιθέντες τὰ γόνατα, “bending the knees”). Except for ὅ ἐστιν, these occur only in Mark and not elsewhere in the NT or Septuagint. (Smith 2010) The mistakes include Mark having Jesus going to the Sea of Galilee from Tyre via Sidon and the Decapolis. That is somewhat like going from London to Canterbury via Liverpool and Dover. Luke and Matthew place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea; however, recent extensive archaeological excavations spanning 11 years in Bethlehem have revealed a complete lack of habitation strata between c. 500 BCE – 500 CE. This absence of archeological finds reveals that Bethlehem was abandoned during the very period Jesus is said to have been born there!
Q – the collection of the sayings of Jesus
Q comes from the German word Quelle, meaning ‘source’. Q is a reconstruction of a now lost collection that was used by the writers of Matthew and Luke as their source. This reconstruction is based on the so-called Two-Source Hypothesis, which may be described as follows:
Three of the four NT Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke contain plenty of the same material, quite often in the same order. This is why they are known as the Synoptic Gospels. The Two-Source Hypothesis is an attempt accepted by most researchers to explain this similarity. According to this hypothesis:
- Mark is the oldest of the Gospels;
- Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source;
- In addition to Mark, Matthew and Luke have used another written source, Q, mainly comprising sayings of Jesus;
- In addition to Mark and Q, Matthew and Luke have both utilized separate oral traditions.
The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus. It is one of the extrabiblical gospels. The writings of the Church Fathers inform us that the mainstream church rejected the Gospel of Thomas as it was considered heretical. Later, the Gospel of Thomas vanished from history, until there was an important papyri find in Egypt during the late 19th century. This find included fragments of the Gospel of Thomas. The entire Gospel was discovered in Coptic translation in the large Nag Hammadi manuscript find in 1945.
The Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus as a teacher of wisdom and the bringer of knowledge that will lead to salvation. According to the Gospel, salvation is present in the words and teachings of Jesus here and now. It cannot be connected to any concrete place or church, but it is a penetrating, invisible reality:
(3) Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”
(113) His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”
[Jesus said,] “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” (Lambdin, 1990)
The Acts of the Apostles and other early Christian Acts literature
Both the historiography and light reading material of its era influenced early Christian literature. This is especially visible in the narrative of the experiences of the first Christians, the Acts of the Apostles and the later apocryphal Acts literature that imitate it. The canonical Acts is closer to the ideals of the late Antiquity historiography than romantic novels, whereas the situation is reversed with the apocryphal Acts literature.
Apocalyptic literature was common in both Judaism and early Christianity. It was an expression of the very popular millennialistic movements based on the expectation of the Day of the Lord during this era. Apocalyptic literature described heavenly visions where the seer was given hidden Divine knowledge. Usually this knowledge was about the Day of the Lord and the great battle between Good and Evil that would precede it. This was often presented by symbolic images and parables. The earliest Christian text of this genre is the NT Revelation.
Apocalyptic books were written in the name, and from the point of view of, a famous religious person of past: Moses, Elijah, Enoch or – to use an OT canonical example – Daniel, is given a vision in the fictional ‘then’ of the book, thus “foreseeing” the incidents current when the book was really written.
- M. Borg: Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Trinity Press International, 1998)
- E. Lohse, Entstehung des Neuen Testamens (Kohlhammer 1972)
- A. Oshri, Where Was Jesus Born? (Archaeology, Vol. 58 Number 6, November/December 2005)
- B. Metzger & M. Coogan (eds): The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford 1993)
- J. Robinson: The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco, 1990)
- B. D. Smith: Introducing the New Testament: A Workbook (Moncton, NB, Canada, 2010)