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My Review of the New Testament

Sep 8, 2011 • book-reviews

My review of the New TestamentLast year I wrote a review of the Old Testament. It was an off-topic post that I almost regretted posting, except that I did get a few comments from readers who appreciated my side jog because it showed I think about more than technical writing. This year I've been reading the New Testament, which is much shorter but also more challenging in some ways.

I have a lot of thoughts on what I read, and a post like this is going to be hard however I write it. I also want to make a disclaimer that my thoughts don't have a central theme to them; they're just a bunch of random observations. Also, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know or understand.

As I read the New Testament this year, I started listening to Dale Martin's New Testament course at Yale (thanks to iTunes University), as well as Bart Ehrman's Jesus Interrupted and Peter, Paul, and Mary books via Audible. Both of these scholars argue similar historical critical perspectives. Here are my notes:

  • Critics believe the four gospels were not written prior to the Pauline epistles. This should be obvious, since Paul never references Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (nor even describes much of Jesus' life), yet the way the books are organized, they give the false impression of chronology. Paul's letters are actually organized by length, not date.
  • Many scholars date Mark as the oldest gospel, with John being the most unique (and latest) of the four. Scholars dispute that the authors align with the names of the books -- many times books are given a name so they will have more credibility.
  • The books of the New Testament are a small selection of the many writings about Jesus and the early Christians. With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, many Gnostic gospel texts also came to light, one particular controversial book being the Gospel of Judas. In that text, the writer claims that Jesus instructed Judas to betray him, and explains that Jesus showed or explained hidden mysteries to Judas at the last supper. It also portrays Jesus as laughing during the last supper, or sometimes appearing to the apostles as a child.
  • Many other Gnostic texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi. Gnosticism is somewhat complicated, and I don't fully understand it. But some Gnostics believe this world was created and is ruled by a being who is less than divine, a demiurge. There are various creative powers. Some people have a spark of the divine in them, but you don't know for sure. Many Gnostics believe the spiritual body is trapped by the mortal body, and the ultimate goal is to escape this corrupt, confining existence and reunite with the original creative power, which is not the corrupt demiurge. To achieve this requires a certain knowledge, which is not readily apparent.
  • I sometimes am intrigued by these other gospels, but some are so obscure I can barely read them. For example, the Gospel of Thomas is really cryptic. I'm not sure what to make of that text, and many other scholars shrug their shoulders too. We often don't like to think of Jesus as an obscure teacher; no doubt my lack of Gnostic context makes the texts more difficult. I guess the intrigue with the Gnostic texts is to see how writers who subscribe to a specific cultural belief will infuse the early Christian texts with those beliefs. As a result, one begins to wonder how much other culture is woven into what may have originally been a less creed-heavy text.
  • Contrary to what many think about Jesus' teachings, his parables were often a way to mask his teachings from others. His says this straightforwardly when his disciples ask why he spoke in parables -- he explains that it's to keep others from learning the truth. As a technical communicator who strives for plain, easy to understand writing, I struggled with this for a while. After all, why not make your teachings as plain as can be so that everyone can understand them? There are various reasons I've come across, but the most compelling is that his teachings were too revolutionary to articulate in plain speech.
  • At times Jesus told his followers not to tell others he was the messiah. Some people refer to this theme as the messianic secret. Why might he have told others to keep this a secret? Apparently promulgating it would have certainly raised controversy and led to his early execution by the Romans. This is not merely because the Romans wanted to keep things under control, but because the assertion about his being the messiah would have been particularly controversial among his followers as well -- the Jews assumed the Messiah would be a powerful, Davidic king who sweeps away the Jews' enemies and restores Israel to an independent state of power.
  • The assumption about the king-like role of the Messiah contrasts with Jesus's messiahship in radical ways. It's why his disciples and followers can't understand Jesus when he hints that he'll soon be killed. A messiah who is treated like a criminal and then executed seems contrary to the very definition of the messiah as understood by Jews at the time.
  • This reversal of the idea of the Messiah is just one of many reversals Jesus taught. I think nearly everything Jesus taught turned conventional beliefs on end. Jesus was clearly a radical thinker in his time, almost a deconstructionist. None of his teachings are mainstream; everything he asserts comes as a surprise for his followers. Jesus is the ultimate example of an alternative thinker, one who challenges assumptions and presents unconventional points of view.
  • I find it odd that Christianity, once so predominant in these radical views, now seems to take the opposite track. Rather than praising critical thinking and analysis, the majority follow quietly and obediently (like the sheep in the metaphor). To be christian does not mean turning over every idea to show how the opposite is true. Of course when radical ideas are adopted by the majority, they eventually become mainstream. But Jesus was anything but mainstream in his day.
  • Another peculiar fact is the gap of historical writing about Jesus. Apparently just a few non-Christian sources mentioned Jesus during the first century AD. For a figure that has become the most influential for the next 2,000 years, strangely he didn't seem to make much of an impression on non-Christian historians and writers of his time. However, many writings may have simply been lost, perhaps during the Jewish revolt in 70 AD, or some other events.
  • Scholars say even the gospels were written decades after Jesus' death. Bart Ehrman explains that no one wrote anything down because they all expected Jesus to return quickly. He notes that Paul seemed to believe that the Second Coming wasn't too far off, and that many should wait and be ready for it.  Because this whole event -- when Jesus would return and usher in his kingdom -- was not too far off, Ehrman says recording the many events and stories in his life was not a high priority. (This is hard to understand in today's culture of live blogging and tweeting, where nearly everything is documented almost in real time.)
  • Many of Jesus' stories and teachings were communicated verbally. It wasn't until many Christians started to be persecuted and killed that the community began to feel some teachings needed to be written down. Without a written canonical text, there might be so many variations, embellishments, different retellings, etc., it would be hard to identify exactly what Christians believed. Why were they being martyred, for exactly which beliefs? Paul's letters to the various Christian churches in the area certainly point to a variety of conflicting doctrines and practices, as Paul is constantly correcting and instructing the new churches.
  • Many scholars point out that some of the gospels seem to be a passion play, meaning three quarters of the narrative deals with Jesus's crucifixion and death, or at least the circumstances leading up to it. Perhaps this lends itself to the Christian adoption of persecution. It almost seemed to be a practice that people gravitated to in order to better understand Jesus.
  • After the four gospels, all we mostly have in the New Testament are a collection of letters from Paul. But as Ehrman says, reading them is like listening to someone talk on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, and there's not much context to understand other meaning.
  • Paul is an incredibly controversial figure. Many critics, from Bernard Shaw to Nietzsche, accuse Paul of twisting Christ's message from a focus on the upcoming kingdom that the Son of Man would soon usher in, to an insistence on a belief in himself. I never realized how controversial Paul was (apart from the verses about women remaining silent, etc.).
  • Some scholars say we only know a few things for certain -- that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, that he was crucified by Romans, and a few other details. Nevertheless, most historical critics agree on those points (at least). One criteria for historical credibility is whether a detail goes against what believers would prefer to see. For example, Jesus being baptized by John shows a kind of subordinate relationship to John, which goes against what Christian scribes might have wanted to portray. Hence it has historical authenticity according to their criteria.

After some immersion in the historical critical view for so long, I began to lose interest in the New Testament text. When I hit Revelation, that apocalyptic firecracker, I stopped reading and didn't pick it back up for months. What reignited my interest was to see such an outpouring of attention on religion in the media. With religion affecting politics and plays, new candidates and polls, it's hard to not feel caught up in the discussion, even if my post doesn't relate directly.

Overall, my study of the New Testament leads me to conclude that Christianity is just as strange and mysterious and controversial as any religion. I think any believer would do well to immerse him or herself in scholarly texts (like the Dale Martin and Bart Ehrman sources I described). Too often people slip into a feeling of comfort with absolutes. To many readers, there are few unanswered questions, controversies, or paradoxes in this text.

Ultimately, there seems to be a difference in purpose. The effort of scholarly analysis is to open a text. The effort of clergy-driven analysis is usually to close a text. These two fundamentally opposing points of view don't mix well. However, I don't think the latter mindset is true to the central figure in the book. He's clearly a revolutionary thinker and, as I noted earlier, a table turner on convention. How so many followers fail to catch the same mindset exemplified in the text seems an unfortunate paradox of religious culture.

While I praise open-mindedness, I have to remember that at the extreme, it can lead to relativism, and that might not be a valuable position to take either. Ultimately open-mindedness can challenge belief itself.

In deciding whether someone is open or closed in their thoughts on any text (scripture or not), it's good to remember that people who may be close-minded, that is, favoring simple absolutes, may be quite open-minded about other topics they're more passionate about. One cannot be rigorous and curious about everything, and we should respect that.

While I make these concessions, I clearly enjoy the attempt to open a text rather than close it off. The desire for simple closure leads to a kind of provincialism that gives "Bible readers" such a bad reputation. One should always ask questions and explore a variety of answers to those questions. Such a text as the New Testament lends itself to exactly this kind of exploration.

Even sticking with a specific creed, the New Testament is engaging to read. If you've never read it, I recommend reading Matthew and John. The way the writers weave together stories and teachings to portray Jesus is masterful. If you want to move towards a more critical view, read the gospels against each other, comparing and contrasting the differences between them. These differences give rise to so much of what scholars write about.