In the first episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge examines the origins of the first texts that would form the New Testament and why Christianity moved to texts after years of oral storytelling following the Resurrection of Christ.
Episode 1 – The story behind the New Testament – is available here:
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- Episode 1: The Story Behind The New Testament - Transcript
Episode 1: The Story Behind The New Testament - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome to these podcasts where we will explore the New Testament. That extraordinary text, which is possibly, probably, the most influential text that has ever been written. I say that because when you think of the historical impact or influence of Christianity around the world, for better or for worse. That the engine of all of that influence and impact has been in fact, these texts that we call the New Testament.
So, in these podcasts, we’ll explore how the New Testament came to be. And that in itself is a fascinating question. And it touches upon the equally fascinating question of how the church came to be. Because texts and community are intimately related. So, you can’t explore the text without exploring the community that both generated the texts, produced the text of the New Testament. In that sense, the New Testament is always the church’s book. In other words, it didn’t drop from some pink cloud. We say it’s an inspired text. And in all of my years of both studying and teaching and praying the New Testament. I’ve come to a deeper and stronger sense that it is an inspired text, and we might look at what it means to call it an inspired text.
But it didn’t just drop from some cloud. It is the work of human hands and heart and mind and soul. So, we will explore something of that.
So, in asking the question of how the New Testament came to be, we’re also asking the question of what exactly is the New Testament? Because sometimes the fact that we call the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, and then the Christian scriptures, the New Testament, gives the impression that they’re two varieties of the same thing, but in fact, they’re not. Even if you just consider, for instance, that the earliest texts in what we call the Old Testament. Date from about 1200 BC, we think. And the more recent, the most recent texts of what we call the Old Testament, probably date from about 200 BC or a little bit later than that.
So, it was over a period of about a thousand years that the Old Testament took shape. But now the New Testament is pipsqueak by comparison. Even if you take a Bible and you separate the New Testament from the Old Testament, as I’m doing right now, what you’re going to find is that the Old Testament is much, much longer than the New Testament. Which is a very slim volume indeed, as I look at it now. And that’s hardly surprising. Because as we’ll see, the earliest text in the New Testament probably dates from the late 40’s, let’s say 49 AD or CE. And then the latest texts in the New Testament are about a 100 of the Common Era, or AD, the Year of the Lord.
So here you’ve got the Old Testament that took about a thousand years to compile. And the New Testament by comparison, about fifty. So, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a very slim volume indeed compared to the Old Testament. So, we’re not talking about two very similar or even comparable things. So, the question of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament is inevitably caught up in our question about what the New Testament actually is.
Now, it’s important for us, as we set out on this journey of exploration, to keep in mind that the only Bible that Jesus ever knew certainly, was what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. But this was also true of the early Christians, the first disciples. The only Bible they knew was the Hebrew Bible. And Jesus himself wrote nothing. I mean, was he literate? It would seem so, and highly literate. In fact, it’s a fascinating question to speculate how and where and when did Jesus receive the kind of education that produced the kind of literacy that we sense in him. The figure that comes to meet us in the New Testament. So, it wasn’t until, as I’ve said, about heading towards 50 that we begin to get the texts that will become the New Testament.
And those who wrote those first texts, or it’s one man, in fact, Saint Paul, who will be an important figure on this journey of exploration. Those who wrote those earliest texts had no sense that they were composing the New Testament. So, it’s not as if Saint Paul sat down one day and said, I’m going to start to write the New Testament. It only emerged over time. And again, when I say the last texts were written about 100, but settling the shape and the form of the New Testament took much longer than that. That’s the question of the canon, and I just flag that question for a later podcast in this series.
So, the only Bible then that the first Christians had was the Old Testament, and they didn’t call it that. And just by the way, when we call it ‘Old’, we’re not saying clapped out or superseded. Old simply means former. And in other languages, they use words that do mean former. Sometimes you hear the Old Testament referred to as the First Testament and so on, or the Hebrew Bible. There are various ways of designating it.
But it’s important, as we set out, to keep in mind, that old does not mean clapped out or superseded. Because when we read the Old Testament in our liturgical assemblies, we say this is the word of the Lord, not this was once upon a time, the word of the Lord. It is now. It’s the same God who speaks in both Old and New Testaments. Now, the Hebrew Bible was extraordinarily important for the first Christians, and that was chiefly because it was their prime interpretative resource of the Jesus phenomenon, if I could call it that.
The question is. What did Jesus mean? Who was he? How are we to interpret what God is doing and has done in Jesus? And these were massive questions, and they focused particularly on what does his death mean. And even in the gospel accounts, you can see the early church grappling with this question of, what did the death of Jesus actually mean? It looked like one thing, but eventually the church will come to say, it in fact, is something quite different. It looked like defeat, and the church will come to say, no, it’s victory and so on.
But not only the death, but also the resurrection. What did this mean? When the first disciples, Mary Magdalene, being the very first. They encounter the risen Christ in a way they did not expect. And the question is, what does this mean? What did it mean to see an empty tomb? Had the body been stolen? We have encountered the risen Lord. We’ve seen the risen Lord. Was this mass hysteria? Was it the apparition of a ghost? And they asked all of those sorts of questions. Turning over every possibility. But in that process of asking, what did this mean? Their only real resource for interpretation, grappling with these questions. Was in fact, what we call the Old Testament.
So, they got their heads and their noses over the sacred texts of Judaism in order to interpret the Jesus phenomenon, the Jesus event. And really the fruit of that extraordinary and intense and complex process of interpretation will become what we call the New Testament. So, in many ways, we can say in a preliminary sense, that the New Testament is the fruit of reading the Old Testament. The fruit of that interpretation, most intense and complex process of interpretation over a comparatively short period of time that generates the texts that become the New Testament.
So, in that sense too. The New Testament, we can say in a preliminary sense now. Is simply a how to read the Old Testament. It provides an extraordinary lens. Through which the first Christians could go back to Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form and was void, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the dark waters of chaos. And then God said light. And there was light. Now the first Christians read that text, the very first line of the Bible, through the lens of Jesus crucified and risen. And they saw him as that word ‘light’ that brings light out of every darkness, even the darkness of death.
So, we have to understand the New Testament in general terms as, a how to read the Old Testament.
And that’s why someone like Marcion, who was a heretic in the early centuries. And one of the reasons he was eventually judged to be a heretic was he said, we don’t need the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament is evil. And the God of the Old Testament is a very different God from the God of the New Testament.
The God of the Old Testament is a dark demiurge, a violent and destructive figure. Whereas the God of the New Testament, according to Marcion, is a God of light and love and peace and joy.
So, we have to chuck out the Old Testament and only keep the New Testament. Well, all of that only shows that Marcion didn’t understand either the Old Testament or the New Testament. And I can remember years ago when I think I was a seminarian. I can remember a deceased Australian bishop, a man who was himself quite learned in his own way. But he said to me once, I don’t know why we spend so much time studying the Old Testament. So, I thought to myself, and I think now, well Marcion still lives.
Because there is that sense that, and at school too, we didn’t have a Bible, we had a New Testament. So, you never read the Old Testament. And even in Mass before the Second Vatican Council, you rarely heard the Old Testament. You had the epistle, one of the New Testament letters, and then you had the gospel. So that one of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the liturgy, the mass, was to open up the great banquet of the Old Testament. But part of that was a recognition that you can’t read the New Testament unless you read the Old. I mean, that was the fundamental mistake of Marcion, but plenty of others since then. So, we can’t just talk about the New Testament, even in these podcasts, as if it’s kind of in a vacuum. You can’t talk about the New Testament as I’m suggesting, unless you’re also talking about the whole Bible. You know, the Christian Bible, the Word of God in a text. Starts at Genesis 1:1 and finishes at the end of the Book of the Apocalypse. And you can’t leave any part of that out with in some ways distorting the whole thing.
So, the question is. How did Christianity or why did Christianity move to texts? Because for the first, let’s say, fifteen or sixteen years at least that. After the death and resurrection of Jesus. I mean, if we say, the dates are very hard to establish with any certainty. Let’s for the sake of argument, let’s say that Jesus dies and rises in about the year 33 in Jerusalem. Now, and if it’s true, as I think it is, that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is in fact the earliest text of the New Testament. And was written about, let’s say, 49. The question is, what was happening through that sixteen years where there was no such thing as the New Testament?
Now a number of things were happening. I’ve already suggested that the Christians were getting their head over the Old Testament and using it in all kinds of creative ways to interpret the Jesus event. Both back there and here and now. Because they came to that sense that Jesus risen from the dead, could be encountered here and now seen and heard. And that that experience of encounter, in fact, was Christianity. It wasn’t a system or a philosophy or an ethic or anything like it. It was an encounter, not with a Jesus of once upon a time, but the Jesus who is here and now, or nowhere and never.
So, they were certainly doing that. But also, through this time, before texts emerge. There was this extraordinary process of fermentation where all kinds of oral traditions were emerging and circulating and being refined. What do I mean by oral traditions? Stories about Jesus. Things he said, things he did. What happened on Calvary when he died? What happened on Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead? What happened on Pentecost, fifty days later. So obviously in all kinds of settings, but certainly in settings that were catechetical and liturgical. Teaching, moments of teaching and worship. These kind of oral traditions, not texts, but oral traditions, were beginning to circulate. And eventually those oral traditions began to be written down in collections of sayings of Jesus, certainly they existed.
But if you want an example of how oral tradition becomes text. I can think off the top of my head of no better example than the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now, I think reading that great story at the end of Luke’s Gospel Chapter 24. You can see how it does look back to an actual encounter, an extraordinary encounter on the first Easter Sunday. The encounter of those two disciples heading away from the city of death and darkness, encountering the risen Lord, having their eyes opened. You know the story as well as I do. Now, that said, the story, as we have it in Luke’s gospel, has been so honed in catechetical and liturgical and homiletic situations. That what we get now is a kind of liturgical catechesis in the telling of the tale. So, it’s as if constant repetition in various settings shapes the way in which the tale is told. That’s one of the many examples that I could give.
But you’ve got to imagine this whole process of oral fermentation. Particularly in moments of teaching new Christians, and of worship. Particularly preaching, so, teaching and preaching were both fundamental to the shaping of these oral traditions that eventually became texts. But they weren’t the texts necessarily that we find now in the New Testament. I’ll come to this when we turn to the Gospels. But you see the first texts in the New Testament, these letters of Paul, beginning with 1 Thessalonians. Were not texts written in some kind of ivory tower. They were texts written out of need, urgent pastoral need. Now, let me just give you the background.
Paul had established his own independent mission after the brawl in Antioch with Saint Peter, which led to Paul founding his own independent mission and heading off across what we call Turkey and eventually crossing the Dardanelles. That thin strip of water between the Roman province of Asia and the Roman province of Europe. That fateful leap across that narrow stretch of water into Europe. And the very first place he lands is Philippi. And the next place he hits is Thessalonica, a city that still exists. Now, he founded a community there, that’s certain. And Paul’s whole mission depended upon the survival of those communities.
Everything depended upon, that was the only credential he could ever offer. But look at my communities, because Paul had plenty of critics. And plenty who were attacking him left, right and centre. And in face of all the criticism and all the attacks, all he could say is, well, look at my communities. Now, he gets news that Thessalonica is in trouble. He’s not there physically. He’s gone for various reasons. So, what does he do? Well, ideally, in these situations, Paul would go personally, but there were many situations where he couldn’t go personally.
His second option was to send one of his close coworkers, Timothy or Silvanus or whoever. To try and deal with the problem that had emerged. If he couldn’t do that, the third option was to write a letter, or sometimes he did both option two and three. He sent a letter dictated by him. He never wrote. He sometimes signed, but he never wrote. Dictated by him and then he would give it to his delegate, Timothy or Silvanus or whoever and say, you go and you take this letter and read it to them. I can’t go personally. For whatever reason, sometimes it was because he was sick. Sometimes it was because he was in prison or whatever. He just couldn’t go. So that’s what happened with this first letter to the church in Thessalonica. It was dealing with a pastoral problem. It wasn’t just ivory tower theology, a pastoral problem. So, Paul sits down late at night and starts dictating the letter that becomes 1 Thessalonians. And it’s taken to the community in Thessalonica and eventually seems to have done its work.
So, you’ve got to imagine the texts, the first texts only emerge under that kind of pressure. They are essentially pastoral documents addressing a problem in a community. And they’re not trying to say everything or treat everything. They’re focusing upon the problem itself in the community. And what needs to happen for that problem to be resolved.
So, let’s leave it there for the time being. In the next podcast, we will look at how the letters of Paul unfold as a tradition in the early church. And become then some of the most important texts in the New Testament. And then the other question we’ll turn to is the fascinating question of how did the gospel, how and why did the Gospels emerge? Why didn’t we just get more letters? Why did we get this extraordinary literary form, unique to the New Testament? That we call the Gospels.