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Jensen's Survey of the New Testament
Search and Discover
By Irving L. Jensen
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1981 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
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History of the New Testament Writings
The last words God ever wrote to man are recorded on the pages of the New Testament. The book is that momentous and precious. The purpose of this introductory chapter is to describe what the New Testament is and how it came to be, so that the reader's appreciation of its value will be enhanced. The principle applied here is, "He uses best what he values most."
I. God's Final Revelation
In the Old Testament God had given a partial revelation of Himself, having spoken through prophets and angels, but the full and final revelation came by His Son Jesus. "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Heb. 1:1-2a, NIV). Observe how the two eras are compared in the accompanying diagram.
After Jesus had provided purification for sins, "He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high," because His atoning death was finished (Heb. 1:3; cf. John 19:30). The revelation was that final. The written Word of the New Testament records the story and revelation of this Son of God.
To say that the New Testament is God's final revelation of Himself is not to say that the Old Testament is obsolete. The New Testament was never intended to replace the Old. Rather, it is the sequel to the Old Testament's origins, heir of its promises, fruit of its seed, the peak of its mountain. The ministry of Christ would be an enigma without the Old Testament. For example, it is the Old Testament that explains Jesus' words, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24). The best preparation for a study of the New Testament is to become acquainted with the foundations of the Old.
As God's final revelation, the New Testament records the fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy, the last words and works of Christ on earth, the birth and growth of Christ's church, prophecies of the last times, and clear statements and interpretations of the Christian faith. Every earnest Christian wants to spend much time studying these final words of God.
II. The New Testament from God To Us
There was already a "Bible" when the first New Testament books were being written. Usually that book of God was referred to as the Scripture(s) (e.g., Matt. 21:42). We now call it the Old Testament; it was the only Bible of Jesus and the apostles. Then, a couple of decades after Christ's ascension, the Holy Spirit began to move and inspire chosen saints to write letters and historical accounts that would eventually be brought together in a volume to be known as the New Testament.
Today when we hold a copy of the English New Testament in our hands, it is fair to ask how accurately it represents the original autographs. Involved in the answer is the history of the New Testament — from God (first century A.D.) to us (twentieth century). It is a fascinating story of miracles, involving stages of transmission, canonization, and translation. The starting point of such a history is divine revelation.
Revelation is God's communication of truth to man, without which man cannot know God. The word revelation (apocalypsis) means "uncovering," or "drawing away of a veil."
Before there was any Scripture, God revealed Himself to man through such media as conscience, nature (general revelation), and direct conversation with people (special revelation). But there was need of a form of revelation that would be permanent, explicit, and retentive of a large volume of revealed truth. For that, God chose the written form of human language to be read, learned, and applied by all the succeeding generations. In the words of Gleason Archer,
If there be a God, and if He is concerned for our salvation, this is the only way (apart from direct revelation from God to each individual of each successive generation) He could reliably impart this knowledge to us. It must be through a reliable written record such as the Bible purports to be.
Recall the powerful words of Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV) studied earlier: God ... has spoken to us by his Son. The Son is the Living Word; the Bible is the written Word of the Son.
All the books of the Bible — New Testament as well as Old Testament — came into being by the Holy Spirit's direct ministry of inspiration. Two crucial questions at this point are: How did the human authors know what God wanted them to write? and, Were their writings without error? We cannot explain the supernatural process of inspiration that brought about the original writings of the Bible. Paul refers to the process as God-breathing. (Read 2 Timothy 3:16, where the phrase "inspired by God" translates the Greek theo-pneustia, which literally means "God- breathed.") Peter says the Bible authors were undergirded, or carried along, by the Holy Spirit. ("Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit," 2 Pet. 1:21, NIV.) These verses, along with many others, assure us that when the Bible authors wrote, all their words expressed infallibly and without error the truths that God wanted to convey to mankind. In the original autographs, all the words were infallible in truth, and final in authority. Such accuracy applies to every part of the originals — to matters of history and science as well as to spiritual truths. If the Bible student does not believe this scriptural infallibility and inerrancy, his study of the biblical text will be haunted by confusing and destructive doubts.
As noted earlier, when the New Testament authors were writing their manuscripts, the only complete body of Scripture was the Old Testament. The question may be asked, Were the New Testament writers aware that they were composing works that would eventually become part of the total Scriptures of God? This is a valid question, because not everything the authors wrote became part of the New Testament. We do not know to what extent the writers sensed or discerned the God-breathing or undergirding ministry of the Spirit in their minds and hearts as they wrote. They were surely conscious that they were recording God's truth (see 1 Cor. 14:37), just as they knew they were preaching His glad tidings publicly (see Gal. 1:11,12). Regardless of the nature of their own personal perception that they were authoring uniquely inspired manuscripts at the time they wrote, the truth remains unshakeable, based on the Bible's own statements of its origin, that all the Scriptures were inspired, written by chosen authors who were undergirded as they wrote. Just what New Testament books were among those inspired Scriptures is the subject of our later study of canonization.
C. THE ORIGINAL AUTOGRAPHS
The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written over a period of about fifty years (c. A.D. 45-95), by eight or nine authors. All but a few words and phrases were written in Koine Greek, which was the marketplace vernacular of the first-century Mediterranean world. It was written in that universal language to make it initially accessible to world readership.
The writing material of most of the autographs was paperlike papyrus. (Some autographs might have been written on animal skins, such as parchment or vellum.) Sheets of papyrus, usually about ten inches long, were attached together to make a long, rolled-up scroll, easy for reading. (The paged codex, or book, did not supplement the roll until the second or third century A.D.) The Bible text was written in vertical columns with pen and ink, with no space between words, sentences, or paragraphs, and with no punctuation marks. Verse and chapter divisions were not made until centuries later.
Most of the New Testament books were letters (epistles) written to individuals (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:1-2), churches (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:1), or groups of believers (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:1-2). Luke wrote a gospel and a historical book to share with a friend Theophilus (Acts 1:1), and it is very likely that the other three gospels were written to share with individuals or churches.
The present order (canon) of books in our New Testament is not the chronological order in which the books were written. Chart 1 shows a suggested chronological order of writing for the New Testament books. Study the chart carefully and try to visualize the growing zeal of the saints during the last decades of the first century as the inspired writings began to circulate from city to city. Answer the following questions on the basis of the information supplied by the chart.
1. What was the first book to be written? the last? How many years transpired between the two?
2. Note when each of the gospels appeared. One of the reasons the gospels were not the first books to appear was that much of the content, such as the spoken words of Jesus, was already being shared with the people in oral form, having been memorized precisely.
3. Note the three periods of apostolic literature. Approximately how long was each period? There was a fifteen-year interim of "silent years" between the central and closing periods. The destruction of Jerusalem took place in A.D. 70. Is any connection suggested between that event and the hiatus of writing?
4. The books' ministries to the local churches are identified by what three words (for the three main periods)? What is involved in each of the ministries?
5. Note the three Pauline periods. Scan the lists of books written during those times.
6. The gospel according to Mark is identified as Peter's legacy, because the apostle Peter was a key reporter to Mark of the narrative of Jesus' life.
7. Observe the different kinds of writings authored by John (gospel, epistle, vision).
8. The epistle of James stresses good works in the life of the believer. Why would such a message be the first one to be sent out in written form to the people of God?
9. In what sense was the book of Revelation logically the last written communication to the church?
Transmission is the process by which the biblical manuscripts have been copied and recopied down through the ages, by hand or machine. God caused or allowed each of the original New Testament autographs to disappear from the scene, but not before copies were already in the hands of His people.
Copies of the New Testament books were handwritten by scribes until the middle of the fifteenth century A.D. when Gutenberg invented movable type for the printing press. Scribal errors have been made in the copies, but God has preserved the text from doctrinal error to this present time. Thousands of Greek and non-Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament text, supportive of the text's purity, exist today. Benjamin B. Warfield says that the purity is unrivalled:
Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied, — a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy works, — such has been the providence of God in preserving for His Church in each and every age a competently exact text of the Scriptures, that ... the New Testament [is] unrivalled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use....
So when you are holding a copy of the New Testament in your hands, you may rest assured that it is a wholly dependable translation, which represents the original, inspired autographs of the first century. As divine author, God wrote an infallible book (inspiration); as divine protector, He has preserved the text from doctrinal error (transmission).
Canonization is the identification of a writing as being part of the Scripture. It was not enough that God inspired the writing of each book of the Bible. He also gave to His people, in a collective sense, the spiritual perception to recognize in each of these books genuine marks of divine inspiration and authority. With the Holy Spirit's guidance, they knew what spurious writings to reject, as well as what genuine writings to accept. It was a long human process over a few hundred years, many of the details of which are veiled in obscurity. But it is clear that God's supernatural hand, working through humans, brought His inspired writings into the canon and excluded other writings.
1. Order of the New Testament books. The canon of the New Testament is the list of all the New Testament books that God inspired. Although the last New Testament book was written by A.D. 100, for the next couple centuries questions persisted concerning whether some books, such as 3 John, were inspired. By the end of the fourth century A.D. the canon was solidified, being composed of twenty-seven books.
Five of the New Testament books are historical in content; twenty-one are epistles (letters); and one is apocalyptic (revelation of visions). The order in which they appear in our Bible is this:
History: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts
Epistles: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude
We do not know how or by whom the above order was determined, but the locations of most of the books in the list can be justified or explained in a variety of ways. Refer to Chart 2 and observe the following:
a. Doctrine is grounded in fact, so the historical books (gospels and Acts) precede the epistles (where doctrine is prominent).
b. Revelation stands last because it is mainly about the end times.
c. Matthew, written especially with the Jew in mind, is a link between the Old Testament and the New and so appears first in the canon.
d. John is the gospel with much interpretation and reflection, written at the end of the first century, and so it fits best as the last of the four gospels.
e. Acts is the extension and fulfillment of the gospels, the proof that what Christ said and did was true and efficacious. It follows the gospels very naturally.
Acts can be associated with the epistles without overlooking the historical connection with the gospels. The accompanying diagram shows such comparisons.
f. Paul wrote most of the New Testament books (at least thirteen), and his books were among the earliest to be written (see Chart 1). So his are the first of the epistles (Romans-Philemon).
g. The order of Paul's letters in the canon has various explanations. The first nine (Romans-2 Thessalonians) were written to churches; the last four (1 Timothy-Philemon) were written to individuals. The key opening epistle, Romans, is the classic book on salvation and the Christian walk. The Corinthian letters and Galatians, listed together, treat problems of the churches. Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians are usually kept together because all three were written from prison in Rome, and all three focus on deeper Christian living. The Thessalonian letters are last among the letters to churches; these look into the future, about Christ's second coming.
h. Paul's letters to individuals (1 Timothy-Philemon) appear last. They were among the last letters Paul wrote (see Chart 1). In the canon his letters to Timothy appear first. Timothy was Paul's closest companion and was serving in the key city of Ephesus. Philemon is Paul's shortest letter and contains the least doctrine of all his writings. The message of his letter to Titus is similar to the message of the Timothy letters and follows them accordingly.
i. The last eight letters are non-Pauline. For that reason alone they would be placed after Paul's letters, because the apostle was looked up to as the key writer of Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15,16). They were the last books of the New Testament to be recognized as inspired writings by the church leaders and councils, and that late recognition also would explain why they were placed at the end of the list of New Testament books.
j. Hebrews and James are placed together because both are addressed to Hebrew Christians. If Paul wrote Hebrews it is interesting to observe that it is located next to the other Pauline epistles.
k. The last three epistles (2 John, 3 John, Jude) are short one-chapter books, which is one reason for their little exposure to the early church and hence their being placed near the end of the canon.
Excerpted from Jensen's Survey of the New Testament by Irving L. Jensen. Copyright © 1981 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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