New Eyes on the New Testament

Restudying the Gospels and the Letters

I. Fundamental Issues

Introduction:
In my early years as a disciple, I saw the Bible as a debater’s handbook. My preaching was mainly topical and I looked for scriptures that would answer what I perceived to be misinterpretations of the text by others. Years of study and maturity have convinced me that the Bible was not written for that purpose. I realize now that my method of seeking the truths within the text was very shallow. It has not been until more recent years that I have developed a more honest way of understanding scripture. Seeking the truths within the pages of the biblical text has been challenging and is a continuing process. My goal in the next several blog entries is to outline some considerations that have been very helpful to me on my quest. Perhaps they will be to you as well.

A. Inspiration

Initially, I want to emphasize that I choose to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and is the nearest thing to the breath of God I know. Just as I accept but cannot understand how Jesus could be both divine and human, I believe scripture is a result of both divine and human involvement. I am willing by faith to accept the claims of scripture in respect to inspiration, the Holy Spirit’s influence on men of God, and the guidance Jesus promised (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21; John 14:26). But that is the extent of my human understanding. It would be presumptuous of me to surmise how much the divine was involved in the version of the Bible I have today.

B. Translation

The involvement of humans in the construction of our present day Bible presents several challenges. We do not have any of the original texts of the New Testament, but only copies of copies created by scribes. These are called variants. For example, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the writers recorded his teachings in Greek and scribes made copies of their recordings. Later scribes copied the copies they received (1). Sometimes the scribes made human errors, changed wording, and even added materials (Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:8 and possibly Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11). As a result numerous copies of the texts existed in the ancient world. Approximately 5000 partial Greek manuscripts of New Testament text have survived to the present day. Textual criticism is the comparison of these variants to create what is considered the most accurate copy of the original manuscript. It stands to reason that our copies of the synoptic gospels do not always agree on events, chronology, and arrangement of materials (2).

Centuries after their composition the gospels were brought together in one book, the codex. Prior to the Reformation Movement, the Latin version of the variants was used to create other translations. However during the Reformation, Erasmsus combined the Greek variants into one manuscript called the Textus Receptus. As a result, many English translations were produced. The King James Version is a comparison of these different translations. When the Westcott-Hort Greek text was created in 1881, it replaced Erasmus’s work. In 1901 Koine Greek was recognized and during the 20th century numerous English translations were composed. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a new Textus Receptus called the Nestle-Aland was written. In recent times this text has under gone several revisions.

To a large degree the man in the pew is at the mercy of the textual critics who have tried to determine the best Greek texts from the many variants and the translators’ understanding of the resulting texts. With so many variables it can be conceded that no translation is a flawless rendering of the original text. Certainly the deficiencies of the KJV and other translations have created a number of problems (3).

The final result of all the New Testament writings is God’s communication with his creation through fallen and sometimes uneducated vessels. Just as he did with the Torah (2 Tim 3:16) (4) and regardless of the discrepancies, God guided the original writers’ objectives to provide the needed message. In spite of different recordings of the same events, dissimilarities in vocabulary, the lack of eye-witness accounts, the transmission of the synoptic gospels by scribes, and the creation of a proper Greek text and its translation into English, we acknowledge that in some way God used the divine to provide direction to the apex of his creation.

C. Historical and Cultural Background

Because the New Testament was not constructed in an historical vacuum, it is beneficial to consider the Greco-Roman world from 400 BCE through the first century. Having some understanding of this period makes interpreting the textual references to government, customs, religious factions and practices in Judea and the surrounding areas easier. LeMoine Lewis observed the following:

“Each book in the New Testament was produced in a particular historical context and first spoke to that situation and its problems. If the student of the New Testament wishes to receive anything approaching the fullness of its riches, he must master as much as possible of the history that is relevant…the more the modern reader looks back and knows of history, the better tuned his mind will be to catch the message of the New Testament for that time and for this.” (5)

During this time the Jews were not a homogenous group. Several different sects existed among them including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Herodians. Regardless of their differences however, they all the held to Torah and the function of the synagogue. This is seen throughout the gospels and Acts.

The Jews also shared basic beliefs that had sustained them through the centuries. From 722 BCE the Jewish people had been subject to exile and rule of foreign nations. Deeply imbedded in their minds was the hope of freedom. Two ideas controlled their view of the future. (1) They believed they were the elect and chosen people of God, and (2) they believed the one God who controlled the world would save them as he had done in the past history of Israel. This confidence in a redeeming God formed their views of eschatology or beliefs about the end of time. Consider the example of Paul and his view of an imminent return of Jesus. If a new convert in Corinth had read only one letter from him, he would have concluded the Lord would return in his lifetime (1 Corinthians 1:7; 3:13; 4:5; 5:5; 7:29, 31; 15:50-57; 16:22.) Paul’s later letters show a different attitude. In Phil 1:23 he mentioned being with the Lord before his return. References to an early return of Jesus can also be found in writings of John, James and Peter (Jam 5:8; 1 John 2:28; 1 Peter 5:4). (6)

Historically we must also acknowledge that we do not have all the writings by the apostle Paul. Two and possibility three letters by him are missing (Col 4:16; 1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 2:3). (7) We only have hints regarding other communication. His directives regarding marriage 1 Corinthians allude to a present distress (7:27), which quite possibly influenced his response. Historical information confirms the prediction by Agabus (Acts 11:26) that Macedonia area was experiencing a famine during this period of time. If that were the case, providing for a family would be challenging.

Understanding the culture of the Jewish and Greco/Roman worlds is equally important. Consider the following three examples: One, in the Greco/Roman world a couple was divorced if either party walked out of the marriage. No divorce certificate was required unless money was involved. Incestuous marriages were possible. Because the wife was considered the property of her husband in the Jewish world, only the husband could obtain the divorce. Incestuous marriages were forbidden (Lev 20:11-21). Second, Gentiles could eat meat offered to idols because consuming blood and the meat of strangled animals was acceptable. This was not the case in Jewish culture (Acts 15:29). Most Christian activity took place in houses and the Jews regarded eating as an expression of fellowship. Sharing a meal of questionable food was an issue for Jewish Christians (Gal 2:11). Third, Jesus asked a question: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9) Ancient people heated their ovens with hot stones, therefore both bread and stones would be in the oven. (8)

For an extensive examination of the world of Jesus, I would suggest Backgrounds of Early Christianity (third edition)] by Everett Ferguson. In following blog entries I will address the exegetical issues in understanding the gospels and letters of the New Testament.


ENDNOTES:

  1. A scribe helped write at least some of Paul’s letters (Gal 6:11; Rom 16:22). Tertius felt free to add his own greeting to the church in Rome. Paul felt free to insert personal requests (2 Tim 4:13).
  2. Two of the synoptic writers (Mark and Luke) were not eyewitnesses to the accounts they recorded.  The source of their information could have been their own investigation (Luke 1:1-4)  other people (Peter and Paul).

  3. Rom 3:23; Phil 3:9; Gal 2:15-16; 1 Cor 7:28-29; Mal 2:16.

  4. Ps 19:7-9 Torah is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and sure. Ps 19:12-13a.  Humans have errors, faults and willful sins, but without them man can be blameless (Ps 19:13b).

  5. Furman Kearley, Edward P. Myers and Timothy D. Hadley, eds.  Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 244-45.

  6. Jude 24; Heb 12:28; Acts 1:9-11. See Phil 1:6; 3:20; 4:5; Rom 13:11-12; Col 3:4; Titus 2:13; 1 Tim 6:14 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23).

  7. Paul was shipwrecked more times than recorded in scripture (2 Cor 11:25).

  8. Sometimes a literal translation of words does not communicate the accurate meaning of a text.

Comments

  1. Bob Acre says:

    Thank you Jerry for this insightful Blog – beginning. I look forward to more. I too have begun such an endeavor – to a much smaller scale than you – so I will very much appreciate your wisdom in the coming weeks. God bless you and your work…bob acre

    • Jerry Jones says:

      I am glad you liked my blog. Have you read my book on marriage and divorce? It will give you some good insights on how to read the Bible. Please urge others to read my blog.

  2. Bennie-Mae Greene says:

    Thank you for introducing me to your blog, it is more than words it is opening the Bible making me think about my role as a disciple of Christ in obedience to God’s plan for man/woman.

    • Jerry Jones says:

      It was great having you in class. I love your great heart for Jesus. Please urge others to read my blog.

  3. Danny McNeal says:

    Greatly appreciate your heart, your research, and your willingness to share what you learn(ed) with a greater audience, regardless of how said audience would receive it. How others would receive His message was never a consideration by which Jesus determined if He would share something or not, e.g., “sell all you have…”, and “eat My flesh and drink My blood…” But hey, we’re seekers of truth, right? Keep ’em coming and God bless!

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