The New Testament (Clarity of the Bible VI)

Japan at first just used Chinese characters for all their own writing, which worked – barely. But both monks and nobles wanted something that worked well. Monks devised the katakana alphabet, so that Buddhist Scriptures could be read aloud easily in chants. Even more important was the alphabet of noblewomen, hiragana, which they used to write novels (arguably the world’s earliest) starting in the 10th century. Both alphabets have become standard elements of Japanese writing.

The New Testament also drove changes in the world of reading and writing. Simply put, the New Testament expanded this world as never before. Building on the tradition of synagogues, early churches encouraged broad study of the Scriptures. Oral teaching was huge, but it did not satisfy the demand; vast numbers of Christians were now motivated to read. It drove the shift from scrolls to codices, the earliest form of books.

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament engaged a huge audience on many topics. The genres indicate this. There are letters to churches. From early on, these were not even limited to one church: ‘Have [this letter] also read in the church of the Laodiceans,’ Paul tells the Colossians. As for the gospels, they might be called biography or ancient biography, but this does not mean writing about Jesus’ life as a private hobby. ‘These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,’ says John, and Luke writes in order ‘that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’ says Luke. (Though Luke addresses an individual, Theophilus, he also says he is following in the footsteps of others – probably including Mark – who have written for many.) The exception is that some of the letters are written to individuals. Anyway, these letters also ended up shared around the early church, as quotes in other books show.

In fact, there are many signs of interaction with audiences. Luke, as I mentioned above, gives one example: he says he is joining in an established practice by writing a gospel. Paul’s wish that the Colossians share his letter is another example. The seven churches addressed in the Revelation to John are all meant to read it. Peter, in his second letter, says that a bunch Paul’s writings are shared around, and calls them Scripture. Speaking of second letters, they are very valuable. Reading two letters to the same church gives us a rich picture of its relationship with Paul. Paul can correct misunderstandings and refine his points in detail.

Again, there are a huge range of topics. Christ’s teaching and miracles revisit many Old Testament themes from kingship to holiness – and prophecy: he looks forward to the future as well. So do the letters and, of course, the Revelation to John. Christ’s use of stories, metaphors and debate combine with the more essay-like letters to spell out the same big, detailed picture of a reconciliation with God. The history in the Book of Acts and the instructions in the letters tell us about the effect of truths and teachings on the lives of all sorts of people, individually and together.

As with the Old Testament, this huge array of audiences and topics makes the New Testament amazingly clear. Having an audience, especially a big audience, pressures an author to be clear. A range of topics and genres means each point is made in several ways. Our misunderstandings from one passage are cleared up in others.

Yet (as I also said about the Old Testament) it is good to balance variety with common ground. Common ground makes it easier to see the authors’ relevance to each other. They can actually make useful comments about each other. For the New Testament authors, the common ground was being in the first-century church and being an apostle or having apostolic sources.

The next post will introduce the initial audiences of the New Testament from books outside the Bible and translations of the Bible.

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