Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 8: The New Testament

The Four Gospels

The New Testament
     Well, we've done a very quick look at the Old Testament, and now we will move on to take a brief overview of the New Testament. The New Testament contains the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel and to all mankind, and the story of the establishment of the Catholic Church.  The Catechism states:

 "The Word of God, which is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, is set forth and displays its power in a most wonderful way in the writings of the New Testament" (Dei Verbum) which hand on the ultimate truth of God's Revelation.  Their central object is Jesus Christ, God's incarnate Son:  his acts, teachings, Passion and glorification, and his Church's beginnings under the Spirit's guidance.--CCC124

     The inspired authors of the New Testament also tell us why they wrote.  First, because they were commanded by Christ to go into the world and teach the "good news" of salvation:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you;  and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." Matthew 28: 16-20 (emphasis added)

They also wrote so that we could know the true facts of Christ's life:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.  Luke 1:1-4 (emphasis added) 

And they wrote so that we might be confident of the gift of eternal life and have faith in the power, love, and mercy of God:

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 Jn 4:13 (emphasis added)

Let us take a moment to thank God and praise Him for the gift of the New Testament and for the faithfulness of those witnesses to the truth who have gone before us.  Let us pray that we, too, will be faithful witnesses and preserve and pass on the Truth for those who will come after us. 

I.  The Languages of the New Testament

Alexander the Great, Rembrandt
     This is the easiest section, so let's do it first, OK?   Since the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 BC--323 BC), Greek language and culture dominated the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.  This dominance of Greek culture lasted well into the first century; Christ Himself probably spoke at least some Greek. The earliest New Testament manuscript copies that we have are all written in Greek.  Most scholars believe that the originals were also written in Greek, but there are some who have put forth convincing evidence that the Gospels were originally composed in Aramaic, or even Hebrew, and then translated into Greek.  St. Paul, traveling and preaching across the Roman Empire, would have often used Greek and his epistles were written in Greek.
      Another  language that was used in Palestine during the lifetime of Jesus was Aramaic.  Aramaic is a Semitic language that was first used by the Jews during their captivity in Babylon and after they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem around 530 B.C.  It was probably the language that Jesus did most of His teaching in, although there is some evidence that He also taught in Hebrew.  Aramaic was used as an early lingua franca in the areas that had been under Assyrian influence, but was gradually replaced by Greek.

St. Jerome, Caravaggio
     The New Testament would not be translated into Latin until the late fourth century.  This translation was St. Jerome's greatest work.  He based it on original Hebrew and Greek texts (many of which have been lost over the years).  His translation is known as the "Vulgate", since Latin was at that time the common, or "vulgar", language of the people. 

II. The Dating of the New Testament

Oldest NT papyrus
     Now we are getting into troubled waters!  In the last 150 years or so, many scholars began to question the early composition of the New Testament books, some even concluding the Gospels were written in the second or third centuries after Christ!  Fortunately, about 50 years ago, a significant artifact was discovered. This artifact was a very early (and very small) fragment of papyrus which contains text from the Gospel of John.  It has been dated to AD 125.  Allowing time for the copying and circulation of the text,  scholars know that at the very latest John (which is generally agreed to be the latest book of the New Testament) was composed before the end of the first century.  Most scholars today also agree that the books written by St. Paul were the earliest texts of the New Testament, with the earliest one being either the Letter to the Galatians (possibly as early as AD 50) or the First Letter to the Thessalonians (no later than AD 51).  I want to point out that there are scholars, again with convincing arguments, that place Matthew as the earliest text, written in Hebrew, around AD 37- AD 40.  This controversy is ongoing, and as we look as each New Testament book, I will briefly mention a range of dates of composition.

III. Divisions of the New Testament

    To help us understand the organization of the New Testament, we can think of it in three "sections" that correspond to the traditional sections of the Old Testament:

Lindisfarne Gospel
The Gospels and Acts:  These are the books that record the life, sayings and teachings, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.   The Acts of the Apostles  (named in the second century by St. Iranaeus) records the work of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles (focusing on St. Peter and St. Paul) to establish the Church.  These correspond to "the Law" in the Old Testament---they contain the actual words and teachings of God and the history of the establishment of the People of God as a holy community (the Church).
     According to the Catechism, there were three stages in the development of the four Gospels as we have them today. They were:

1.) The life and teachings of Jesus Christ:  The New Testament is based on the historical truth of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The details of His life are recorded accurately in the Gospels.  These Gospels, "whose historicity [the Church] unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up."--CCC 126

2.) The oral tradition:  The Apostles handed on what Jesus had taught and done.  They were able to add to this knowledge the further understanding they had been given by the Holy Spirit of the meaning and significance of Christ's work.

3.)  The written Gospels:  The final stage, during which "the sacred authors...selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches...always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus."--CCC 126 

The Gospels, containing the true words and deeds of Our Lord, hold a unique and privileged place in the entire Bible and are specially venerated during the Mass.

St. Therese of Lisieux

But above all it's the Gospels that occupy my mind when I'm at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful.   I'm always finding fresh lights there, hidden and enthralling meanings.--St. Therese of Lisieux 

Let us remember, too, that we can be certain of the truth of these texts because they have the authority of the Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to testify to their veracity.

St. Augustine

I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.--St. Augustine

The Letters of St. Paul, El Greco
The Epistles:  We can think of these as the New Testament "writings".  They include two main groups of epistles, or letters.  First in the canon are those written by St. Paul.  They are ordered from longest to shortest (more or less). Next follow the letters written by other apostles, or even by unknown authors (Hebrews).
These contain much wisdom and practical help for living as a Christian in the world.

Detail, The Last Judgement

Revelation: This corresponds to the "prophets", in that it contains in a prophetic type of writing information about the Kingdom of God and about the final victory of Christ.  Revelation is also known as "The Apocalypse", meaning "The End".  

IV.  Chapter and Verse

Bishop Stephen Langton
     When the Bible was written, it was written as a prose text, much like a modern book would be written.  It was not divided up into chapter and verse designations.  The chapter divisions were developed by Archbishop Stephen Langton, the (Catholic!) Archbishop of Canterbury, in the thirteenth century. (Bishop Langton was also important in the securing of the Magna Carta...a scholar, bishop, and statesman.) The verse designations were later introduced by Robert Estienne in 1545. The purpose of the text divisions was to make it easier to find references in the Bible and to designate more accurately which passages should be read during Mass. 
Bible references today are written in this format:  

Name of Book (usually abbreviated)  Chapter:Verse(s)

So, for example, Jn 1:1-3 refers to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1 through 3.  It's a very easy system, and we can thank a Catholic bishop for it!

This homework is for the next two lessons (the first will be on translations, the second on study aids):

1.  Check your Bible and see what translation (or version) you have.
2.  Think about what would be most important to you in a Bible:
easy to read, accurate, big type, pictures, maps, study notes, pronunciation guides, red ink for Jesus's words.  What features would you use?
3.  Look in the back of your own Bible and see what study aids it has.  Check out the front pages for a Table of Contents, notes on the translation/text, or other helps.  Look at the bottom of the pages for cross-references and notes.  Does your Bible have sub-titles or chapter titles?

Main idea:  The New Testament contains the story of the life and works of Jesus Christ and the founding of His Church. 

Next lesson:  Translations and Paraphrases

 I want to share a lovely hymn that always brings peace to my heart as I meditate on our Lord's life and labor in that quiet home in Nazareth and how He fills each moment of my daily life with His presence and hope (tune below):

Lord of all hopefulness,
Lord of all joy
whose trust, ever child-like,
no cares could destroy,
be there at our waking,
and give us, we pray,
your bliss in our hearts, Lord,
at the break of the day.
 Lord of all eagerness,
Lord of all faith,
whose strong hands were skilled
at the plane and the lathe,
be there at our labours,
and give us, we pray,
your strength in our hearts, Lord,
at the noon of the day. 

Lord of all kindliness,
Lord of all grace,
your hands swift to welcome,
your arms to embrace,
be there at our homing,
and give us, we pray,
your love in our hearts, Lord
at the eve of the day.

 Lord of all gentleness,
Lord of all calm,
whose voice is contentment,
whose presence is balm,
be there at our sleeping,
and give us, we pray,
your peace in our hearts, Lord
at the end of the day.

Jan Struther (1901 - 1953)

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