Introductory Notes on the New Testament
A Key Distinction
• Bible Studies = devotional or ritual use of the Bible from the
standpoint of committed faith
• Biblical Studies = study of the socio-historical background to,
and the oral/literary formation of, the Bible from the standpoint
of critical rational inquiry
The Long Trajectory of the New Testament
The Jesus Movement(s)
Oral Traditions in Aramaic
Oral Performances in Greek and Other Ancient Languages
Written Texts in Greek and Other Ancient Languages
Complete Gospels, Letters, etc.
Formation of the New Testament
History of Translations into Latin and Modern Languages
Contemporary Reception
Books of the New Testament
27 Books:
Four Narratives of the Live of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and
One Narrative of the Earliest Christian Communities (The Book of Acts)
Seven Letters likely written by Paul of Tarsus to specific communities or
individuals (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon,1 and 2
Corinthians, Romans)
Seven Letters likely written by followers of Paul (2 Thessalonians,
Colossians, Ephesians,1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews)
Two Letters attributed to Peter (1 and 2 Peter)
Two Wisdom Letters: James and Jude
Three Letters attributed to John (1, 2, and 3 John)
One Apocalyptic Work: The Book of Revelation
A Brief Chronology of Christian Origins (1)
1-30 CE:
John the Baptizer, the precursor and mentor of Jesus (died c. 27)
Jesus of Nazareth, a popular prophet and worker of “acts of power” (died c. 30)
30-60 CE:
Paul of Tarsus, chief founder of Christianity among non-Jews (letters written c. 50-60)
Sayings/Discourse Gospel “Q” (first edition c. 50)
Gospel of Thomas (first edition c. 50)
60-80 CE:
Signs Gospel (eventually incorporated into John)
Gospel of Mark, the first narrative Gospel (first edition c. 70)
80-100 CE:
Gospel of Matthew, incorporating Mark and Q (c. 80)
Gospel of Luke, incorporating Mark and Q (c. 90)
Gospel of John, incorporating the Signs Gospel (c. 95)
A Brief Chronology of Christian Origins (2)
100-150 CE:
Oldest fragment of Gospels is papyrus, P52 (c. 125)
Gospel of Thomas, second, surviving edition (c. 120 -- later found in 1945 in
Egypt at Nag Hammadi as one of fifty-two literary works (many previously unknown)
included in thirteen ancient books written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language—
one of the so-called Gnostic (= “secret knowledge or wisdom”) Gospels
150-325 CE:
Emergence of four “recognized” Gospels
Emergence of an official collection of Christian writings ("New Testament")
Under Emperor Constantine Christianity becomes a legal religion (313)
Council of Nicea (325)
First official creeds
First surviving copies of complete “Bibles” (c. 325-350)
Six Anachronistic Assumptions about the Gospels
• Lack of attention to whole story/narrative.
• Separation of religion and politics.
• Religion is reduced to individual faith/belief.
• God is associated with religion but not politics and
• Christianity is supposedly more universal than Judaism.
• Reality is reduced to what is natural and comprehensible by
Three Key Features of the Gospels
• They are full of political conflict.
• Jesus is depicted as carrying out a renewal of Israel.
• They are about a struggle between opposing powers.
An Important Distinction
At the start we must distinguish between historical questions
(Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What did he teach? Why was
he killed by the Romans?) and faith questions (Was Jesus the
Son of God? Was Jesus the Messiah/Christ? Did Jesus rise
from the dead and appear to his followers?)
Relatively Reliable Historical Facts about
Jesus/Yeshua (Joshua) of Nazareth (1)
•born ~4 BCE near time of death of Herod the Great
•spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village
•was baptized by John the Baptist
•was a charismatic Galilean who preached, healed, and exorcised
•called disciples, presumably twelve key figures among them
•taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not in the cities)
•taught in parables about the “Kingdom/Empire of God/Heaven”
•around 30 CE he went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover
•became engaged in a controversy about the Temple and created a disturbance in the
Temple area
•had a final meal with his disciples
Relatively Reliable Historical Facts about
Jesus/Yeshua (Joshua) of Nazareth (2)
• was arrested and interrogated by Judean authorities, specifically, the High
• was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE),
by being crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
• at first his disciples fled
• then they saw him, in some sense, after his death
• as a result, they believed he would return to found the new Kingdom/Empire
• they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in
• him as God’s Messiah (“Christos” in Greek)
• at least some Jews persecuted at least parts of this new movement
The “Four-Source Theory”
of the Composition of the Synoptic Gospels
“The most divine [Lord]…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things.
when everything
falling intoGospel
disorder, he
once more and gave to
whole world a new aura. Caesar, the common Good Fortune of all, …[t]he
beginning of
life and vitality…[A]ll the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar
as the
new beginning of the year….Whereas the Providence which has regulated our
existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us the
Augustus, whom Providence filled with virtue [power] for the welfare of humankind
who, being sent to us and our descendants as our Savior, has put an end to war
and has set
all things in order; and whereas, having become god-manifest, Caesar has fulfilled
all the
hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…; and
whereas the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the
beginning of
the gospel concerning him, [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”
(From Orientis graeci inscriptiones selectae, vol. 2, ed. W. Dittenberger [Leibzig, 1903-5),
no. 458.
Translated and quoted in Richard Horsley, “The Gospel of the Savior’s Birth,” in Christmas
An Example of Judean Resistance to Roman Imperial
“As procurator of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover,
conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused
great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which
meant that their laws had been trampled on—they do not permit any graven image to be set up in
the City—and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They
rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to
respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and
remained motionless for five days and nights.
The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on
the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to
the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The
Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to
pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At
this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting
that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their
religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.”
(From Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 138. Translated by G. A. Williamson, revised by E. Mary
Smallwood. NY: Penguin, 1981.)
Tendencies within First-Century Galilee and Judea
Sadducees = Judeans of the upper classes who were closely connected with a strong
advocates for the Temple cult in Jerusalem; they were largely in charge of the Jewish
Sanhedrin, the council that advised the high priest concerning policy and served as a
kind of liaison with the Roman authorities, e.g., Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor
Pharisees = Judeans who were strongly committed to maintaining the purity laws set
forth in the Torah and who developed their own carefully nuanced laws to help them do
so--for example, Rabbi Hillel was approached by a pagan who promised him that he
would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the entire Torah to him while standing on
one leg. Hillel replied as follows: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done
unto you. That is the whole of the Torah: go and learn it.”
Tendencies within First-Century Galilee and Judea
•Essenes = Judeans who had serious disagreements with both Sadducees and
Pharisees, the former corrupt leaders and the latter too lax in their interpretation of
the Torah; formed monastic-like communities in which they could preserve their own
purity apart from the rest of Judaism and the outside world, were apocalyptic in that
they expected God soon to intervene to overthrow the forces of evil (including evil
leadership in Jerusalem)--possibly John the Baptist was or had been a member-possibly the same group as produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1946-47 in
earthenware jars in caves east of Jerusalem in the wilderness area near the Western
shore of the Dead Sea--an area today called Qumran
•The Fourth Philosophy (among these were the so-called Zealots, as they were
known later during the revolt against Rome) = political radicals who were "zealous"
for the law and urged armed rebellion against the Romans to take back the land God
had promised to his people--fled from Galilee especially to Jerusalem during the early
stages of the 66-70 CE Jewish revolt against Rome, overthrew the priestly
aristocracy in the city, and led armed opposition to the Roman legions that ultimately
resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple in 70 CE
The Parable about the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:3032)
[Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of
God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed,
which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the
seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes
the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that
the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
The Rich Man (Mark 10:17-27)
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and
asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to
him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the
commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You
shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour
your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since
my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go,
sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure
in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and
went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around
and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter
the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But
Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is* to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who
is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to
one another,* ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For
mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
The Question about Paying Taxes (Mark 12:13-17)
“Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him
in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that
you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard
people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or
should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are
you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And
they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose
title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to
the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that
are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.”
The Two Yokes (Matthew 11:28-30)
“Come to me, all who are exhausted from labor and weighed
down with a burden, and I shall give you rest. Place my yoke
(zugos) upon you, and learn from me, since I am gentle and
lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke
is easy and kind (chrestos) and my burden is light.”