Friday, February 19, 2016

A Tour of the New Testament: Where did the Bible come from? Part IV

            Aww yisss. Finally, the New Testament. I know... so far  I haven't written very much on that portion of the Bible which directly has to do with Jesus Christ. But in my defense, it takes awhile to get through the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament is nearly four times as long as the New. Furthermore, its breadth of history and literary development spans over a thousand years. The New Testament (NT), on the other hand, was composed in probably less than a century. Compared to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures look like a weekly newspaper, and, all things considered, the NT was literature in a hurry. But where did it come from?

            We can pretty much assume that Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection probably took place sometime around the year 30 CE. But writings about Jesus did not come about immediately. After the resurrection, the followers of Christ began to spread the Good News of Christ orally, and the movement grew rapidly. I'm rather surprised it grew at all, considering its leader had just died a horrific execution, and it wasn't long before his followers were likewise persecuted. But as the 2nd century Church father, Tertullian, says "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." How this religious movement not only survived but flourished in its first hundred years is a real testament to its credibility (pun absolutely intended).

            One of the persecutors of the early Church was a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, who was later more commonly known as Paul. As the story goes, he was on his way to Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem in chains any followers of the "the Way." The term Christian, by the way, had not been coined yet, and so they were simply called followers of the Way. Seeing a bright light, Saul fell to the ground. Then a voice spoke to him saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Theologically, this is incredibly significant, for the risen Christ had identified himself to Saul with his followers and disciples whom Saul was persecuting. This close association of Christ with his followers (i.e. the Body of Christ, the Church) is central to St. Paul's writings. You can read about his conversion in several passages of the NT: Acts 9:1-19; Galatians1:12-19; 1 Timothy 1:12-14.

Parmigianino, The Conversion of St. Paul (1527-1528), Oil on Canvas
FYI, nowhere in the NT does it say Paul was riding a horse... Mr. Parmigianino.

            Paul became one of the most influential apostles of the early Church, spreading the Gospel (i.e. Good News) throughout the Mediterranean. He kept correspondence with the Christian communities which he either founded or had visited. Thus we have the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, or Thessalonians, or Galatians etc. These funny names simply refer to the church communities to whom he was writing in Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, and so on. I bring up Paul before mentioning the four Gospels because his letters (a.k.a. epistles) to these churches are probably the earliest of the NT Scriptures. His first letter to the Thessalonians was likely the earliest of his epistles that we have in Scripture, making it possibly the oldest of any of the NT writings.

            But things get kind of dicey from here. Scholars are pretty certain that Paul wrote the letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans, and the first letter to the Thessalonians, but they are not so sure about 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, or the letters to Timothy and Titus. The letters that are undisputedly from Paul all had to have been composed before his death in the mid 60s CE. So dang, check that out... hardly 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection and at least seven letters of the NT have already been composed!

            The dating of the disputed letters varies. Some fair arguments can be made that  2 Thessalonians and maybe even Colossians might very well have been written by Paul during his career. In any case, all of these disputed letters were most likely composed before the year 100 CE, the latest probably being the Pastoral Letters, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. If the disputed letters were not written by Paul himself, they were probably composed by his disciples or those who were in line with Pauline thought. Ephesians, for example, seems to have been written by one who was very good at summarizing and getting to the heart of Paul's theology.

            Should this bother us that Paul didn't write some of the letters we attribute to him? Not really. Here's the thing about writings in the ancient world. For one, people back then didn't have the kind of hang-ups we do today about academic honesty. Nowadays we have this neurotic, individualistic obsession with "intellectual property." It's abhorrent not to cite your sources, to plagiarize or forge, to attribute work to someone who didn't do it. (FYI, my last name is spelled B-r-e-m-a-r if you'd like to cite this post in your next term paper.)[1] But for the ancients, writing in someone else's name was not frowned upon like it is today. Back then, wisdom was a communal matter; it belonged to everyone, not to individuals. Secondly, wisdom derived from the past, not so much the present or future. Today our knowledge is oriented toward future prospects. We seek discoveries in technology and the sciences that will advance us even further into the future. Our ancestors of antiquity, however, believed that in order to understand the present and discern the future one needed to understand the past. Not surprisingly, elders were more respected back then than they are today.

            Given this kind of attitude toward wisdom and the past, putting a wise leader's name on your work doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. I only bring this up because there was a lot of pseudonymous literature (writings in another person's name) in the ancient world, and there are examples of it in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many books which never made it into the Bible. Furthermore, this brings me to the four Gospels. Yay, everyone's favorite!

Not quite the Good News I'm talking about. Photo courtesy of

            The first Gospel of the NT to have been written was the Gospel according to Mark. It was probably composed sometime around the devastating destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE – perhaps between 68-73 according to renowned NT scholar, Raymond Brown.[2] It was likely written for a persecuted community of Christians living in Rome. Was it written by the John Mark of Acts who was a follower of Peter and Paul? I don't know; pseudonymous writing was common back then. Does it really matter? Nah, I don't think so.

            The Gospel according to Matthew was likely written next, probably sometime in the 80s. It borrows heavily from Mark as well as from some lost or undiscovered source scholars call Q. This Gospel was perhaps written in or around Antioch to a community of very Jewish Christians. Was the tax-collector, Matthew, the actual author? I doubt it, but that isn't to say some of the details contained within it could not have derived from the apostle himself.

            Next we have the Gospel according to Luke. This is the longest of the four Gospels and the most exquisite in style. It also was probably written in the 80s, and I would venture to say that it was composed after Matthew. It too borrows from Mark and from that source that Matthew used. But some of our favorite Gospel stories, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, are only found in Luke. Since these three Gospels are so closely related due to Luke and Matthew's dependence on Mark, they are known as the synoptic Gospels - synoptic (another fancy-schmancy word you can use to impress your friends) meaning that they can be looked at together. Was it written by Luke, the physician and follower of Paul? Eh. Who can say for certain? What is clear is that the author was a well-educated Greek and an absolutely fabulous writer! Luke, by the way, also wrote the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to his Gospel – the only sequel found in the NT.

            And then there's John. Many Christians who have read (or even haven't read) the four Gospels will tell you that John is their favorite. It was even the favorite of St. Francis of Assisi. Indeed, it's a beautiful Gospel, so don't get me wrong, but I'm more of a fan of the three synoptics. The Gospel according to John differs greatly in style and narrative than the others, but the essentials are all there: Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection. The date of its composition could be as early as the 80s with some parts edited as late as 110. Was it written by John the son of Zebedee? Of all of the names attributed to the Gospels, I have the hardest time believing that John, the disciple of Jesus, actually wrote this one. The author seems to have been someone from a particular community of Christians, referred to as the "Johannine community," which may have been influenced very early on from one of Jesus' disciples. The three letters of John were written after the Gospel, and also derive from this Johannine Christian community. The book of Revelation appears to reflect some Johannine influence, though was not composed by the same authors of the Gospel or Johannine letters. Revelation (not Revelations with and 's', one professor was very adamant to point out) was written toward the end of the first century, probably around 92-96 CE.[3] It's a crazy-fascinating book, and many people have questions about it, so I hope to devote a post to Revelation sometime in the future.

            This leaves us with the Letter to the Hebrews and the Catholic Letters. Hebrews is a curious text, and in fact is more of a homily than a letter. Unlike the other NT epistles, the author of Hebrews does not refer at all to himself by name. Both the author and the audience are difficult to discern. Given its references to Jewish religious practices and the Hebrew Scriptures, it would seem the audience was a very Jewish rather than Gentile Christian community. Debates abound as to when it was written, but it had to be earlier than 95 CE, because St. Clement quotes it in a letter he wrote to Corinth around that year. Brown suggests as early as the 60s but more likely in the 80s.[4]

            The Catholic Letters get lumped under that title, not because they are "Catholic" – as in Catholic and not Protestant or Orthodox – but catholic as in general or universal. They were perceived by the early Church to have been for a more general audience, rather than particular communities. The three letters of John also fall under the Catholic Letters, but I mentioned them once already, and I won't get into them again. This leaves us with 1 & 2 Peter, James, and Jude. Were the authors of these letters the Peter, James, and Jude of the Gospels? Again, I doubt it, but arguments can be made that 1 Peter, James, and Jude were written relatively early and may have very close ties with the apostles. A theory circulates that 1 Peter may have been dictated by the apostle to a scribe. Then again, arguments can also be made that they were composed toward the end of the first century (70 - 100) as well. So we can't be sure either way. 2 Peter is surely the latest, for it references 1 Peter, Jude, and Pauline literature. Brown suggests a date as late as 130 CE ("give or take a decade").[5] The Catholic Letters tend to be easily forgotten, as the four Gospels and the writings of Paul dominate our New Testament imaginations. Nevertheless, they are part of our Scriptures and are sacred. Plus, they're short letters anyway, so they're worth our time to give 'em a gander.

            So there you have it. A whirlwind tour of the New Testament. Whew! I think I mentioned each of the 27 books of the NT at least once. Hopefully this gives you a taste of what all is contained in the NT, who wrote it, and when it was written. Admittedly, aside from the undisputed letters of Paul, the precise who and when of the Christian Scriptures is a little clouded, since many texts were written under pseudonyms. We can at least say, though, that all of the writings were composed within about a hundred years of Jesus' death and resurrection. Next time I hope to clarify a little bit about why these books made it into our canon of Scripture, and why other Christian (or some not-so-Christian) writings didn't get in.

            Since we are just over our first week in Lent, and this is usually the time that Catholics are still kind of scrambling to figure out what they're going to do for for the season, here is a suggestion. Read an entire Gospel, anyone you'd like, from beginning to end. It may seem like a lot, but this isn't just a suggestion for the week. You have all of Lent, though I would recommend trying to read it in no more than 3 or 4 sittings. It's better to get a whole story in context than just snippets here and there. Read it like you would any other book. Get invested in the characters, the plot, the twists. See what surprises you, or puzzles you, or frustrates you. What brings you joy and comfort? What strengthens your faith? What challenges you? Either way, just have fun with it. I haven't written much on the Gospels, but it's good to read them with a blind eye at least once anyway. Still, I like to recommend Bibles with good footnotes, like the New American Bible, to help clarify confusing texts.

            As always, you can send me comments or questions via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or the comment box below. I think I worked out some of the kinks of the comment box, so if you've had difficulty with it in the past, it should work now. And don't forget to take the survey. Until next time...

Peace and all good!

[1] Speaking of citing sources, this post would not have been possible without these texts:

Brown Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Revised ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

And the prefaces to the books of the NT found in 
The Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1992. 

[2] Brown, 127.
[3] Ibid., 774.
[4] Ibid, 684.
[5] Ibid., 762.


  1. How interesting that you say that nowhere in the NT is Paul on a horse (referring to the painting above). I have always been taught that Paul was riding on a horse and a great light struck him off of it. You've intrigued me to want to go back and see for myself! I wonder where those teachings and stories of Paul came from!

  2. Yeah, it's interesting how much artistic interpretation has influenced our biblical imaginations. It's not that Paul could not have been on a horse, it's just that the Bible is silent as to what kind of animal he was riding, if any at all. I'd imagine that horses probably belonged to a wealthier class of people, though, but I can't say for sure. That would be an interesting topic for me to look into: means of travel in the ancient Near East. Thanks for the comment and for reading!