The Story of the New Testament and Christian Origins
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From Jesus to ChristianityHow Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith
By White, L. Michael
The Story of the Storytellers
Books tell stories. No, that's not quite true. People tell stories and write them down in books. Books record those stories and make them accessible to readers. In that sense they are a medium of communication to a broader audience. Communication is easier when author and audience come from a shared cultural background and time; then it is much like hearing the story told orally. Here the burden is on the storyteller to communicate in words and ideas that the audience will find meaningful.
But books also preserve stories and thus make it possible for later generations of readers to encounter not only a story of a bygone era but also the people who once told and heard it. Here the medium of communication is more complex. Now, the reader -- not the storyteller -- bears the burden. In order to understand the story, the reader must negotiate changes in culture, language, and ideas that come with the passage of time. It is a process of translation from one age to another, from one culture to another, in order to hear the story as once told. At this juncture there are two stories at work. The preservation and subsequent history of the book is its own story, apart from the one on its pages, andthe reader must encounter this second story -- the story of the book -- as well. The reading of any story from the past must respect the different layers of history and story, of then and now, that make it up.
This book is the story of the origins and development of the Christian movement as told by the people who lived it. It took place roughly two thousand years ago and covers a span of several centuries. It comes out of the history of Israel and the Jewish people but intersects with the histories of Greece and Rome. The story, at least the best-known version of it, is preserved for us in the book known by Christians as the Bible, and more specifically in the second part, called the New Testament. There are other sources too, but they are not as well known; we shall bring them into the picture as they too begin to reflect the telling and retelling of the story.
Readers of the New Testament today may have a hard time thinking of it as an ancient work. It can be read in English and other languages, and there are numerous "modern" versions that try to make it more intelligible to a contemporary audience. But all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the popular form of Greek often called koine (meaning "common") that was typical of the Hellenistic age. It was assembled over time, copied and recopied, and passed down through the centuries by Christians. In the Greek Orthodox tradition it remained in Byzantine Greek; in the Roman Catholic tradition it was rendered into Latin; and there were other translations -- Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavonic. Translating the Bible into English came much later and, like German, only became widely used as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
When we encounter the New Testament in English, moreover, we may first perceive it as a single book that traces the story of Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and the lives of his first followers. It begins appropriately enough with the birth of Jesus and continues with his life and death, as reported in the Gospels. Next comes the story of the early church as recorded in Acts, followed by a number of letters written, it would seem, by the same cast of characters -- Peter, John, Paul -- who show up in the Gospels and Acts as Jesus's followers. On closer reading, however, we quickly realize that this is not just one story; there are in fact four different accounts of Jesus's life -- the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nor is it just one book; the New Testament is a collection of books, and a collection of stories. It is more like a library, an ancient library that was intentionally assembled to preserve these stories by and for later generations of readers. Given the more complex and ancient character of its contents, how then shall we go about reading the New Testament?
First, because of its composite nature, it cannot be read like a novel, straight through from beginning to end. The various works represent different genres of literature: biographies, histories, novels, letters, sermons, apocalypses, catechisms, and church-order manuals. They were written at different times by different authors; consequently, there is no cohesive narrative. Even though they were all written in Greek, the language, tone, and style are noticeably different from one author to the next, just as in any library. Hence the various works within the collection must be read first on their own individual terms. Points of connection, comparison, and contrast come later, once we understand something of the origin of each work: where it was written, when, and why.
Second, discovering something about the original author and audience is central to this process. In some cases, knowing who wrote a work and who read it can help us understand the when and why. Conversely, discerning the occasion of a work on the basis of its internal form and language can sometimes help us discover more about the author and audience, especially when those pieces of information are not given, and usually even when they are. The nature of ancient literature requires us to deal with all of these questions in order to make sense out of what is going on in "the story." In other words, we have to employ the tools of history in order to read the story, even when the story is about history or is part of the history.
Third, because it is a library and not a single book, we must give some thought to how we ought to "catalog" its contents ... Continues...
Excerpted from From Jesus to Christianity by White, L. Michael Excerpted by permission.
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