Reading the New Testament with different eyes

When I taught Intro to NT and Intro to Bible, one of the basic questions I had to address was in what order to teach the NT–in the canonical order (Matthew to Revelation), in historical order (Jesus, Paul, later writings), or in the order of the texts’ writing (Paul, Mark, etc.). As a historian, I always came down on the historical order: Jesus, then Paul.

Marcus Borg has recently posted “A Chronological New Testament” that has generated considerable interest. He argues that reading the NT beginning with I Thessalonians is an important corrective to many strands of contemporary Christianity. Among other issues, he cites:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

While there is merit in being clear about the historical contexts of the New Testament texts, Borg is primarily concerned with challenging notions of inerrancy. But it seems to me that to focus to narrowly on the historical dating of the texts, and to read them accordingly, is to place to much emphasis on the texts themselves. The writing of New Testament scriptures began at least two decades after the crucifixion and resurrection, after a two-decade long period of reflection on the meaning of Jesus and the events of his death and resurrection, two decades after Jesus’ followers had experienced, and continued to experience, the risen Christ in their lives and in their communities.

In a somewhat similar way, contemporary Christians bring their experiences to the texts of the NT, the historical contexts in which we live, but also our lived experience of Christ and the community of faith. To ground that experience in the tradition of the church, to interact and wrestle with the deposit of faith located in Christian scripture, is crucial to the development of mature faith. It’s too easy to dismiss writings that are “late” as somehow less authentic or less authoritative, than those closest to the events themselves. Reading the texts chronologically may help us better understand the development of the literary traditions of early Christianity, reading this way may not help us understand the mystery of the Christian faith and the full range of Christian experience that lies behind the texts.

And of course the other problem is that “mainstream Biblical scholarship” is more divided on the dating of the texts of the NT than Borg is willing to admit.

2 thoughts on “Reading the New Testament with different eyes

  1. Interesting. I’d be curious to look at it. But my most useful bible study of late has been to study the readings each week with the help of my copy of Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Zvi Brettler’s Jewish Annotated New Testament. The look at the lessons through the new to me lens of Jewish thought has been exceptionally thought provoking. Especially when they discuss what would have been current thinking at the time when Jesus would have been growing up in Synagogue and during his ministry.

  2. I enjoy Borg — but I very much appreciate your insights on the subject. Certainly the essential basic need is for greater understanding of “our lived experience of Christ and the community of faith”. It seems to me this is related to an ancient discussion/debate. The Roman Catholic church has long held that the magisterium is necessary for the believer to know the “correct” interpretation of scripture, and therefore the correct understanding of what it means to be a Christian. On the other hand, the reformation traditions placed emphasis on the inherited text as the only necessary authority (sola scriptura). In the reformation view, scripture interprets itself, and is complete in itself. Lived experience is to be interpreted almost exclusively through the lens of the text.

    Perhaps if we are to “understand the mystery of the Christian faith and the full range of Christian experience that lies behind the texts” we need to affirm a third source of interpretation/reflection to balance the canonical text and the magisterium – the third source being our experience of Christ in the contemporary Christian community and the larger society, not just “interpreting” our experiences through scripture and/or tradition, but seeing Christ in each other – as you write, “the historical contexts in which we live, but also our lived experience of Christ and the community of faith.

    Thanks for the post!

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