How new is the New Testament?

How new is the New Testament?

How is it that the Old Testament (OT) seems to predict the coming of Christ?  Was the OT inspired by the God revealed in the New Testament (NT)?  Could be, but an answer internal to the Bible itself is persuasive.  The Gospel writers looked backward more than they looked forward, reinterpreting the experience of Jesus, which none had firsthand, as the fulfillment of OT prophecy.  Almost any statement about a good man who suffered, such as the suffering servant songs of Isaiah 52-53, was put to this use.

The Gospels were written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Christ.  Mark was written in about 70 CE, John about 100 CE.  Educated men wrote them in Greek.  The apostles were uneducated, probably illiterate, who spoke Aramaic.  The Gospels were written to make sense of the fact that the Messiah, who was supposed to be a mighty warrior who would liberate the Jews, died a miserable and degrading death by crucifixion. 

Even that seems to have been predicted by the OT, which says that if a man is guilty of a capital crime “you hang him on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23*)  Acts refers to this passage three times (5.30; 10.39; 13.29).  The principal goal of the NT was to transform a humiliating death into the liberation of humankind from the grip of death.  The OT provides plenty of evidence for this reinterpretation.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)

It certainly sounds like the prophet Isaiah was talking about Jesus.  But was he? 

Hardly any passage of the Hebrew Bible is and has been of such fundamental importance in the history of Jewish-Christian debate . . . or has played such a central role in it, as has the fourth Servant Song of Second Isaiah.  Nor has any other passage experienced such different and sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations as this one. (Schreiner, p 419)

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A History of the Bible

A History of the Bible

Normally I detest 600 plus page books, but John Barton’s History of the Bible is an exception.  If the story he tells is not always compelling, it is almost always interesting.  I focus on his account of the New Testament.  Barton tells a story familiar to Biblical scholars, but I’m not one, and I assume most of my readers aren’t either.  Mine is not a book review, but I stick closely to his text.

Paul or the gospels?

Paul wrote first, about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The first gospel, Mark, was not written until about forty years after Christ’s death.  Surprising is that Paul has a more developed Christology, a theory of the divinity of Christ.  The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) never identify Jesus with God, and have nothing to say about the Trinity.  The only exception is Matthew 28:19, which most scholars think was an addition by later editors.*  (The term gospels refers to the Synoptic Gospels unless John is specifically included.  They are called that because there is so much overlap in their content.) 

The gospels openly puzzle about who Jesus is.  Jesus himself is not very helpful, claiming only that he is not God. “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18). So, who is he?  The son of God, you say, but this subordinates Jesus to God, which is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that Jesus is God.  The point, and Barton makes it again and again, is that Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, is not supported by the Bible.  The doctrine came later. 

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The Resurrection

The Resurrection.  Many liberal Protestants seem slightly embarrassed about the resurrection, as if it were part of the magical mystery world of the New Testament.  Or at least this is what Wikipedia says.  For most Christians, however, resurrection remains the central doctrine of Christianity (Evans, p 29).  Believing in the resurrection is tantamount to being a Christian.  I suppose I come closer to being a liberal Protestant, but the resurrection is more complicated than reflected by these two categories.

Resurrection in the time of Jesus

Among the elite at the time of Jesus, physical resurrection was abhorrent.  The elite, mostly Sadducees, were Hellenistic (Greek) in their attitude toward the body: that it was the prison of the soul.  Death meant the liberation of the soul from the body, as Socrates and Plato taught.

Among the less cultured Greeks, as well as the Philistines, belief in the resurrection of the body, today’s official belief among most Christians, was more common (Vermes, loc 612).  During the years (forty of them) during which I taught Plato, I thought the Platonists were right.  If there is an afterlife, the soul would be free of the burden, demands, and desires of the body.  Physical resurrection seemed weird.  But the more Christian theology I read, the more sense physical resurrection makes to me.  Not as a statement of fact (I don’t know what the facts are), but as a statement about how humans are fundamentally embodied creatures.  Life without the body would be less, not more, than it is on earth.  Jürgen Moltmann’s argument is particularly persuasive.

Paul states the theological significance of resurrection

It is in Paul that the central theological significance of the resurrection was laid out.  Many readers of the New Testament will be familiar with this passage.

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)

Evidence for the resurrection

The search for historical evidence of the resurrection seems misguided.  The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion is sound. However, it  puzzles me that such a brilliant scholar as N. T. Wright could conclude that the evidence for the resurrection provided by two far from certain facts, the empty tomb, and the posthumous appearances of the risen Jesus, make the resurrection as historically certain as the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, or the death of Augustus in 14 AD (p 710).

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