An Introduction to the New Testament
Though the title An Introduction to the New Testament would seem to explain the purpose of this volume, a number of clarifications are necessary for readers to know what is intended.
First, the readership that is envisioned has implications. This book is introductory, and therefore not written for fellow scholars.1 I envision both readers who have become interested in the NT on their own and readers who take NT beginning courses on different levels (e.g., Bible study groups, religious education, college surveys, and initial seminary classes). As part of a Reference Library series, the book must also supply inquirers with general information on the NT. In other words I have attempted a book that the first time one reads intensively parts of the NT can give guidance and later help to answer more specific questions. The envisioned goal and readership has led to the following decisions:
â– Readers of the NT who know Greek, the language in which it was written, can make their own informed efforts to grasp what the authors were trying to communicate. Without a knowledge of Greek, plays on words are often lost; moreover some basic concepts of NT theology (e.g., koinÅnia) defy adequate translation. Nevertheless, the purpose of this Introduction is to encourage, not to discourage. The vast majority of the readers envisioned will not know Greek; but they may be assured that with English as the only linguistic tool, it is possible to have a good knowledge of the Scriptures, even if not a professional one.
â– Only bibliography in English will be cited because those addressed will probably not be able to consult biblical research in foreign languages. Significant ideas from that important scholarship will enter the discussion but without references to works not translated.
â– Because this Introduction is to be used in courses at different levels (in some of which readings or papers will be assigned) the contents of the bibliographies will vary. For example, they will list both elementary and more detailed studies, short and lengthy commentaries.
â– The bibliographies will favor books over journal articles because books are more likely to be available to the general reader. They will also favor more recent literature, although classics from an earlier period will be noted.
Second, this book concentrates on the New Testament, not on â€œEarly Christianity.â€ Why? The study of early Christianity moves into church history and so is a much wider field than biblical research. Only in a limited way is Christianity a â€œreligion of the book.â€ Those who followed and proclaimed Christ existed for some twenty years before a single NT book was written (i.e., before AD 50). Even when the NT books were being composed (ca. AD 50â€“150), Christian communities existed in areas where no preserved book was authored; and surely they had ideas and beliefs not recorded in any NT book. (Indeed some who thought of themselves as followers of Christ probably had ideas rejected or condemned by NT writers.) Furthermore, during the last few decades in which NT books were being penned, Christians were producing other preserved writings (e.g., Didache, I Clement, Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, Gospel of Peter, Protevangelium of James). While I shall mention those works where appropriate and give brief background for them in Appendix II, my concentration will be on the twenty-seven books accepted as the canonical NT.2 Such a concentration is legitimate because they have had a uniquely normative place in Christian life, liturgy, creed, and spirituality.3 Moreover, these books exist, and in that sense are more certain than conjectural, undocumented, or sparsely documented reconstructions of early Christianity.
Let me supply a specific illustration of the approach taken in this Introduction. Many readers of the NT want to know what Jesus was like, what he thought of himself, and what he said precisely; but here the issue of the historical Jesus will be treated only in Appendix I. The concern more central to the Introduction will be the study of the extant Gospels, i.e., portraits of the activities of Jesus written twenty-five to seventy years after Jesusâ€™ death by authors who may never have seen him. We do not have exact reports composed in Jesusâ€™ lifetime by those who knew him. Rather what we are given pertinent to the life and ministry of Jesus comes to us in a language other than the one that he regularly spoke and in the form of different distillations from years of proclamation and teaching about him.4 In one sense that attenuated reminiscence might seem an impoverishment; in another sense, however, the Gospels understood in this way illustrate how Christians, dependent on word of mouth, kept alive and developed the image of Jesus, answering new questions. Did they do so in fidelity to him? The answer to that question is related to the theology of divine inspiration discussed in Chapter 2 below.
Third, this book concentrates on the extant text of the NT books, not on their prehistory. More scholarly attention has been devoted to the NT than to any other literature of comparable length in the world, and this attention has resulted in an uncontrollably large variety of theories about sources (not preserved) that were combined or corrected to produce the books that have come down to us. Such research is often fascinating; a certain percent of it presents plausible results; but none of it is certain. For an introductory book to concentrate on nonextant â€œoriginalsâ€ is to impose on beginning readers too much theorizing. It is far better to devote most space to what actually exists, supplying only brief guidance to the principal hypotheses about what might have been.
Nevertheless, a minor concession will be made to scholarly theorizing by treating the books in a combined logical and chronological order rather than in the order that has become canonical. Over the centuries in various church listings the NT books have appeared in different sequences, so that the canonical order now familiar in our Bibles was not always followed. Some of it is governed by principles that have little to do with meaning, e.g., the Pauline letters to communities are arranged by size from the longest to the shortest. A glance at the Table of Contents will show that I propose to study the NT books in three groups (Parts II, III, and IV). The first group of eight involves â€œthe Gospels and Related Works,â€ with the Synoptic Gospels studied first in the probable chronological order (Mark, Matthew, Luke); next Acts, which was written to follow Luke as a second volume; and finally John and the Johannine Epistles/Letters (since the latter in some ways comment on issues raised by the Gospel). The second group involves the thirteen Epistles/Letters that bear Paulâ€™s name, divided into two batches: the undisputed seven most likely written by Paul himself, arranged in plausible chronological order; then the six deuteroPauline works possibly or probably written by Pauline disciples. The third group involves a somewhat topical arrangement of six works that are hard to date: Hebrews is put first because it has a slight relation to Pauline theology and was often counted as the fourteenth Pauline letter; then four of the Catholic Epistles, beginning with I Peter, which is close to Pauline theology (and sent from the church of Rome, which may have been the church addressed by Hebrews); next James, which, like I Peter, represents the Jerusalem missionary endeavor (but is hostile to a Pauline slogan about faith and works); then Jude (attributed to the brother of James); and II Peter, which draws on Jude. This group ends with Revelation, which deals with the completion of Godâ€™s plan in Christ.
Fourth, the primary goal is to get people to read the NT books, not simply to read about them. Accordingly only one fifth of this Introduction is given over to general or topical discussion (Chapters 1â€“6, 15â€“17, 25). The rest consists of Chapters devoted one by one to the books of the NT, and it is of those Chapters that I now speak. If I were teaching an introductory course, my first assignment in every instance would be for the students to read the respective NT writing. Many Introductions assume that the audience is eager or even required to read the NT; I assume that often the audience needs to be shown how engaging the NT books are and how they speak to peopleâ€™s lives and concerns. Accordingly I shall regularly leave the (often disputed) issues of sources, authorship, dating, etc., to the latter part of each Chapter5 and begin with a General Analysis of the Message designed to accompany the reading of the respective NT book. It will point out the flow of thought, elements that are characteristic of the author, and what is significant and interesting. At times this Analysis will be almost a minicommentary that should help to make the NT intelligible and enjoyable.
The design of my Chapters on individual NT books varies according to a number of factors: the length of the book, its importance, and its difficulty. An estimation of what will best serve the readersâ€™ interests is a governing consideration, for at times the factors play against each other. For instance, the Gospels and Acts are the longest NT books; yet they are narratives and more easily understood than the argumentation in the Epistles or Letters. Among the Pauline writings Romans may be the most important, but its thought is very difficult for the uninitiated. Accordingly, in choosing an Epistle to be featured for special study, I encourage concentration on I Corinthians because most readers will easily see its application to enduring problems in their times and lives. As for the other NT Letters/Epistles, since these are rarely treated in detail in introductory courses, I have tried to offer enough material to encourage readers to study them on their own.
Fifth, religious, spiritual, and ecclesiastical issues raised by the NT will receive ample attention throughout this book. Indeed, in most of my Chapters the last subsection before the Bibliography will be one of â€œIssues and Problems for Reflection,â€ where readers are invited to think about questions raised by a NT book, related to God, Christ, other NT figures, the church, etc. Although it is certainly possible to study the NT from a secular or noninvolved standpoint or from that of comparative religion, the majority of readers will be interested in it because it is supposed to be important for them religiously.
Probably the greatest number of readers will be Christian in background. I am a Roman Catholic, and at times I shall illustrate how NT passages or issues are related to Catholic teachings and observance. Yet I spent much of my academic life teaching other Christians (Protestant, Episcopal, Orthodox), and so the wider range of Christian practice and belief are very much my concernâ€”and should be in this ecumenical era.6 Most of the main NT figures and possibly all the writers were Jews, and NT affirmations have had a major role (often devastating) in relations between Jews and Christians. Their ongoing import (more benevolent, I hope) for those relations must not be neglected. Finally, the NT has had an impact on world society and ethics beyond any religious adherence. I cannot hope to do justice to all these factors, but at least I shall try not to forget them.
Sixth, the book aims to be centrist, not idiosyncratic. Readers should know that this choice is made against the background of disputes in the academic world. An introduction has the duty of reporting where scholars stand today. Yet estimating that stance is not easy. New and bold theses tend to attract attention and may well bring those who propose them academic positions and advancement. In reporting such proposals, the media can give the impression that scholars in general now hold them. To be sure, one or another of these new views may win wide acceptance; but all too often what catches media attention has small following and little plausibility.7 To serve readers best I shall try to judge what most scholars hold‘”even when on a particular point I might be inclined toward a minority opinion. Inevitably, however, judgments about the majority stance are not totally free of one’s own prejudices.
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