Origins of the New Testament

Codex-Syriacus

Christianity has been described as “a religion of the book.” Other faiths also share this quality, but Christianity is a bookish religion in two important ways. First, it draws heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures for its history, theology and spirituality. Second, the New Testament books, along with those of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible), are the primary source for all Christian doctrine and practice.

Christianity is unmistakeably a religion of the Book – the Book, Christians affirm, that faithfully reveals God and God’s ways to us. Indeed, internal evidence claims that the authors “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). Tradition, reason, experience, and imagination are also profoundly influential shaping factors, but “the Word of God written” is both formative and normative for those who follow Jesus.

How did this book come to us? What can we know about its origins from a historical perspective? The Christian Scriptures comprise the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible and 27 additional books, written during the first century of the Christian church. No part of this sacred text was written by Jesus, nor is there any suggestion in the Gospels that he instructed or expected his disciples to record his words and deeds. The Bible of the earliest churches was the Greek Old Testament, interpreted from the perspective of Jesus and his mission.

New Testament scholar Eugene Boring argues that the New Testament is not Jesus’ book, nor the apostles’ book, but the church’s book.[1] On the other hand, as N. T. Wright and Michael Bird observe,

The church did not create the word of God; rather, the church itself is a creatura verbum Dei, ‘a creature of the word of God.’ … the church – with all its discussions, debates, and decisions – was the instrument by which the inspired word of apostolic testimony was put into its canonical location, to be seen as an authoritative collection of sacred texts.[2]

Both statements are valid. Boring goes on to identify six activities of the church that, under God, gave us the New Testament as we have it today:

    1. The church wrote what we today regard as the essential “faith statements” of the early Christian community;
    2. The church selected the books of the New Testament from a much larger pool of writings;
    3. The church edited these books, copying the autographs (original documents) for use among the first Christian communities;
    4. The church preserved and transmitted the copies for the benefit of distant communities and future generations;
    5. The church translated the books from the common Koine Greek into hundreds of other languages and modern versions;
    6. The church interpreted the books to suit local needs: no one approaches the Bible “with total objectivity, from some neutral, uninvolved standpoint that transcends the human perspective.”[3]

The editing process was complex. Following the established practice of the time, the original documents were written in capital letters, without accents, punctuation or spaces between words. This did not impair comprehension, as the following text, printed in the style of the oldest available Greek manuscripts, demonstrates:

TWINKLETWINKLELITTLES

TARHOWIWONDERWHATYO

UAREUPABOVETHEWORLDSO

HIGHLIKEADIAMONDINT

HESKY

Early editors of the New Testament documents added accents, punctuation, spaces, titles, and possibly prefaces and conclusions. They arranged the books and letters in their present order, beginning with Matthew and ending with Revelation. Later editors added chapter and verse divisions; the present divisions in English Bibles were first adopted in the 1560 Geneva Bible.

We know of more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that existed in antiquity, and there are also thousands of manuscripts of early versions in a variety of ancient languages into which the original Greek text had been translated. There are also thousands of quotations from the New Testament books in the works of patristic writers.

Christians today are merely the most recent generation in a 2,000-year tradition of writing, selecting, editing, preserving, translating, and interpreting the biblical text. The work of preserving, translating and interpreting the text is a continuing process. What the early church affirmed about the whole Bible – its divine origin, usefulness and purpose – is summarised in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV):

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.


Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. 


References

[1] M. Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 13.

[2] N. T. Wright & Michael Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 867.

[3] Boring, Introduction to the New Testament, 54.

Image source: New York Post