In the final episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into the New Testament as a way to read the Old Testament and how the encounter with the Risen Christ gives new eyes to the Old Testament.
Episode 7 – How the New Testament came to be – is available here:
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- Episode 7: How the New Testament came to be - Transcript
Episode 7: How the New Testament came to be - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
The Bible remains one of the most popular books in the world. But what do we know about the creation of its New Testament? In this podcast series, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the leader of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia and a Doctor of Sacred Scripture, focuses on the extraordinary story behind the New Testament. We hope you enjoy The Words that Make the World.
Welcome back to these podcasts that are exploring how the New Testament came to be. And in that process, the question is, what is the New Testament? So, what is it and how did it come to be? This remarkable set of texts that are woven together like a great tapestry. Because in the New Testament, you don’t hear just one voice. You hear a symphony of voices. And the voices are quite different. If you just think of the four Gospels that we’ve touched upon. Each of them is a quite distinct and different portrait of Jesus. And even at times they don’t seem to agree on the facts. But that’s no huge problem.
The Bible at its heart resists a totalitarian approach to just about anything. So that, for instance, at the start of the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis. In the first two chapters of Genesis, you have two quite different accounts of creation. And there’s no attempt to stitch them together and make a nice, neat whole of the two accounts. They’re put side by side. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.
Now, this is because the Bible wants to say without saying it directly. That there’s no one totalitarian account of the great mystery of creation. So, we get two quite different accounts to say that there are many ways of interpreting the creation, the act of creation by God. Keeping in mind that the Bible isn’t just about the facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts. In some empirical sense, the Bible is more about what facts mean. In other words, interpretation.
We call it the word of God. In some ways, it would be more accurate to call the Bible the interpretation of God. Because things can be bewilderingly confusing. Someone once said there’s nothing more ambiguous than a fact. A fact needs to be interpreted. We might see something. But what does it mean is the real question. And it’s that question of meaning. And therefore the question of interpretation that really does interest the Bible.
Now, just as you have two different accounts, quite different accounts of creation at the start of the Old Testament. At the start of the New Testament, you have these four quite different accounts of Jesus, four different interpretations or portraits of Jesus. And they’re just placed side by side. Now they relate to each other in all kinds of ways, seen and unseen. And we’ve seen that in touching upon the four Gospels.
So, they’re not completely separate worlds, but they are quite distinct interpretations. Now, why do we have the four? Why didn’t someone sit down, and again, the biblical authors are capable of this kind of thing. Sit down and stitch together a single gospel that was nice and harmonious and neat to save us all the hassle of trying to grapple with the four different accounts of who Jesus is and what he actually means, what God is doing in sending Jesus into the world.
So, this again, is the New Testament’s way of saying there is no one single right way of interpreting the great mystery of Jesus, God with us, the word made flesh. We’re given four, but there are four million or is it four trillion? There is no end to the possible interpretations of and insights into who Jesus is and what God is doing in Jesus.
So, the New Testament as a whole, therefore not just the Gospels, but the New Testament as a whole, is better imagined as a kind of, a tapestry weaving together all kinds of threads. Or if you prefer another image, a kind of symphony where different voices are heard, but they’re brought together to create a single voice. But a single voice that’s made up of many different voices singing in harmony. And not singing against each other.
So that you find in the texts of the New Testament, the weaving together of different traditions. And this word tradition is important. Because, for instance, you find the Pauline tradition. Paul wrote those earliest texts of the New Testament. We’ve seen that. And they talk about seven letters that are authentic or genuine. In other words, Paul actually did dictate them. But then there are two other layers of the tradition. So, a tradition of apostolic preaching comes to birth in Paul. That continues after he’s had his head chopped off on the road to Ostia near Rome.
Now, it can seem strange to us that later authors writing within that Pauline tradition can claim to be Paul. In the ancient world that produced these texts. There was nothing strange about that at all. It’s a bit like when the Pope speaks. Sometimes we say it is the voice of Peter. Now we all know it’s not Saint Peter himself speaking. But something continues in the successor of Peter, which is one of the titles we give to the Pope and one of the most important.
In the successor of Peter there is a great echo of the tradition of apostolic preaching that continues down to this day. It’s not once upon a time, it’s here and now. You see the same thing in a different way with the Franciscan tradition of evangelical witness that comes to birth in Saint Francis of Assisi. Now, all of those who have followed Francis in the 800 years since he lived and died. In a sense, are incarnations or embodiments. Continuations of that tradition of witness. That traces its origin to Saint Francis. So, it lives on again. Francis isn’t once upon a time. As long as there are those who follow the path of witness that he first traced.
You also find, for instance, in the New Testament a Johannine tradition of apostolic preaching and witness. You’ve got the Gospel, but then you’ve got other texts like the Letters of John and the Book of Revelation, even. Which are the work of a different hand. And that’s quite clear when you read the texts carefully. But they are set within the same tradition of apostolic preaching that looks back to the figure of the beloved disciple, the Apostle John. So, something came to birth in John, just as it did in Paul. And it continued and still continues in many ways beyond the death of the Apostle himself.
There’s also a Petrine tradition that looks back to Saint Peter. And the tradition of Apostolic witness that comes to birth. Now, these different traditions are not at odds with one another. They are quite different. Though, again, in subterranean ways they are also interestingly related. But what the New Testament does is bring them together in a great symphony. Or a tapestry, as I’ve suggested. So, that you’ve got to imagine many voices, as I say, brought together to create a single voice of witness to Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.
Now, if you look at the New Testament, as we call it. It looks very skimpy compared to the Old Testament. And it is. If you look, just to take the Bible and have a look at how weighty the Old Testament is and how slim by comparison the New Testament is. And there’s no surprise in this because they’re not the same kind of thing.
The Old Testament, as we call it, or the Hebrew Bible as it’s sometimes known was composed over a period of, let’s say, a thousand years. The earliest texts dating perhaps to 1200 BC, the later texts, latest texts dating perhaps to 200 BC or thereabouts. So, that you’ve got a very long period of time and an intense millennium really, not only of writing the text, but of editing these texts too and putting them together with a particular shape. So that eventually it becomes the Old Testament. By contrast, the New Testament is put together or produced. In a period of not much more than 50 years.
And when you read it carefully and ask, what is it? In many ways, the answer you have to give is it’s a how to read the Old Testament. In other words, the only scripture that the first Christians knew was what we call the Old Testament. But in the encounter with the risen Christ, they discovered a lens through which they had to go back and read their Bible, the Old Testament, with completely new eyes. That the risen Christ provided a lens which took them back to Genesis 1:1. And they read differently in the light of Easter.
So that in Genesis 1:1 you find, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then in, at the start of John’s Gospel, in the beginning was the word. The word was with God. And what you find at the start of John’s Gospel is the fruit of a rereading of the start of Genesis through the lens of Easter, the encounter with the risen Christ. So how to read the Old Testament is something that lies at the very heart of the New Testament.
Now, there was in early Christianity, there was a tendency to say that the God of the Old Testament was bad news and the God of the New Testament, who’s quite a different God is all good news. That the God of the Old Testament was harsh and violent and forbidding. Whereas the God of the New Testament, the God of Jesus, was all life and love and joy.
And there was a leading figure of early Christianity called Marcion, who said that we should get rid of the Old Testament, chuck it out the window. And go through, also go through the New Testament and chop out all the bits of the Old Testament. Well, in fact, if you do chop out all the Old Testament from the New Testament, there’s not much left. Which again tends to support the claim that the New Testament is in many ways a how to read the Old Testament.
Now, eventually Marcion was declared a heretic. And the Church insisted rightly, that the Old Testament is as much the Word of God as is the New Testament. In other words, there’s one Bible, not two Bibles. And similarly, to say that the Old Testament is all about law, and the New Testament all about grace misunderstands both law and grace. Because the law or the Torah in the Old Testament is itself grace. And there is a law of grace in the New Testament, too. So, the relationship is far more complex than someone like Marcion recognised.
Now, another question that’s important is the question of the canon. How did they decide in early Christianity that these texts would be part of the canon, as we call it, the official texts of the New Testament, and other texts would not be. Because there’s a whole literature surrounding the New Testament. It’s often called the apocryphal literature. Which they’re religious texts and they’re often fascinating texts in their own right. But they didn’t find their way into the official collection or the canon of the New Testament. And the question is, why did they miss out? Or to put it more positively, by what criterion did they decide in the early church that the texts that are in the New Testament now were the ones to find their way into the official collection or the canon?
Now, the answer is that over time, and the canon didn’t happen overnight, by the way, it was shaped over time. That over time it was found that certain texts have a transcendent quality. What I mean by that is this. They were written for a particular purpose. And again, I stress this, as I have through the podcasts. That none of the texts in the New Testament are ivory tower productions. They were written to meet real and urgent human pastoral need. So, they were written in a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular community or communities, usually under pressure.
Now, those texts proved powerful in the community for which they were originally written. But they didn’t prove powerful just in that community because what happened was that they did the rounds. The texts were passed around to other communities that were finding themselves facing similar challenges.
We looked, in the Gospel of Mark we looked at fear and failure as something that the Roman church in the sixties, of the first century, had to grapple with. How to move beyond the paralysis of fear and failure. Mark’s Gospel was written for that purpose. But then every community came to see in time that in its own way, in its own place and time, they too had to deal with fear and failure or whatever else was being addressed by a text that finds its way into the New Testament.
So, in other words, these texts, it was discovered over time, had a power to talk beyond the place and time and circumstances of their production. And that’s what I mean when I speak about a transcendent quality. And you see it now because we still read these texts of the New Testament. Not as texts once upon a time, but texts that mediate to us now in Brisbane, or God knows where in the twenty-first century. That they have a power to speak here and now.
That is one of the reasons why we talk about them as inspired texts. Because this sense of the text as transcendent, transcending the circumstances of its production, relates to the fact that the Holy Spirit is breathing through not only the production of these texts, but they’re interpretation. This relationship between texts and interpretation is very important. The rabbis say that it’s not so much interpretation that is a parasite on the text. But the text itself is a parasite on interpretation because without interpretation that continues, ongoing, ceaseless interpretation the text as it were, dies.
So, not only do the texts continue to speak, but that we continue to listen and interpret those texts in a way that makes the texts live here and now. And that’s why the title of these podcasts is, The Words that Make the World, not once upon a time made the world, that’s true. But makes the world now because these texts still speak, and we hear them. And we interpret them in a way that is powerful for our life, individually and communally now.
So, the texts were chosen because they have that transcendent quality in it. In fact, when you read the apocryphal texts, they are interesting. Sometimes quite amusing, sometimes odd. But the world that you enter is a very different world from the canonical texts. If you think of the apocryphal gospels, what they often do is fill all the gaps that are found in the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The Gospels often don’t satisfy, well usually don’t satisfy our curiosity. They answer questions that are necessary for faith, but there are many, many questions that they don’t answer or things they don’t tell us. And we’d love to know. Our curiosity cries out. And very often it’s those gaps that the apocryphal gospels fill. And they satisfy curiosity in a way that the canonical gospels do not. At times it’s almost like the world of fairy tale. Which is not without its own power, just by the way, the world of fairy tale. But they don’t have the sobriety and the radical focus upon what is required for faith. As the key response being sought by the New Testament.
So, they’re very different texts that have a very different feel. Now, the other thing is why, why the texts that were chosen to be part of the canon, why they were arranged not chronologically, but on other grounds. For instance, the Gospel of Mark, I think almost certainly is the first of the Gospels written. But Matthew is the one that comes first in the canon. Now it’s, there’s no obvious answer to the question of, why is that?
Matthew, it became fairly quickly and early a kind of ecclesiastical Gospel that spoke in particular ways to the life of the church. And that may be one of the reasons. John was the last of the Gospels written. And it does come as the fourth of the Gospels. But if you look at the Pauline letters, for instance, they’re arranged really in length.
There doesn’t seem to be any other criteria. I mean, Romans is the most comprehensive of the letters that Paul wrote, the most sort of reflective and, I suppose, systematically theological. But it’s also the longest. And if you look at the Pauline letters, they’re arranged in length. So, you can’t make too much of the way in which the texts are ordered in the canon. You can’t read too much into that.
Now, the New Testament is like the Bible as a whole, is essentially unfinished. Now, the last cry of the whole Bible, the Christian Bible is the Spirit at the end of the Book of Revelation. The Spirit and the bride say, Come Lord Jesus. In other words, it looks to an end when the Lord will return the second coming. But it doesn’t recount that ending. Because it hasn’t happened.
So, the whole of the Christian Bible is essentially unfinished. But if you look at the Acts of the Apostles too. We’re told there Paul lived for two years quite unhindered at his own expense in Rome. Now, why doesn’t Luke tell us that Paul had his head chopped off? That he was, he died a martyr’s death. So again, it’s unfinished and deliberately so.
Mark’s Gospel has one of the great non-endings of literature. Where the women go to the tomb, and they’re told, to go, they’re given a very precise charge by the angel. Go and tell the brothers. And in fact, we’re told they ran away and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. So, they fail because of fear. And therefore, the Gospel is unfinished. And later on, they added artificially an ending because it was found to be so unsatisfactory. What Mark gave us as the ending or the non-ending.
Now, why is the New Testament and so much in it unfinished? Because the text isn’t finished on the page. It has to be finished in the life of communities, the community of the church, and in individual lives. That’s the true ending. So how many endings of the New Testament are there? Infinite possibilities.
The New Testament in that sense has to be finished over and over and over again in different times, different places, different communities, in my life and in your life. And every ending in that sense is a non-ending. And the end will come only when Jesus does return. Early Christianity thought it was going to happen soon. We’re still crying out, come Lord Jesus. It hasn’t happened yet. What seems to us to be an awfully long time, 2000 years. Perhaps seen with the eye of God, looks to be just a flash in the pan. So, we need a kind of holy patience to deal with the unending and unfinished story.
Words, human words that contain the word of God. That’s what we’ve been reflecting on in these podcasts. And words that are not just empty labels, but which are such power that they can make the world. At least make the world as God wants it to be, not in some demonic mode, but in the divine mode.
And this again takes us right back to the beginning, where God creates with a word. God said light, and there was light. Right from the start therefore, for the Bible, words create worlds. And this is supremely true of the texts of the New Testament that we have been exploring. It’s hard to think of a more potent and creative set of words that have ever touched the planet than the New Testament.
Some of the texts in the New Testament we have discovered historically are what they call texts of terror. If they’re misread and misused, they can be extraordinarily destructive too. As they say, even the devil quotes Scripture. But if read with faith, then these are words that have a ceaseless capacity to create. And to do over and over again what God did in the beginning and does supremely in Jesus. And that is to bring light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and fullness out of emptiness. And all of this looks to the dead man. Who rises from the tomb, his scars shining like the sun.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Words that Make the World. A new episode is released weekly. You can find more podcasts from the Archdiocese of Brisbane from most major podcast providers or from our website brisbanecatholic.org.au