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Ben Witherington first tells how and why the New Testament documents were written and collected and how they came to be known as the New Testament that we have today. He then discusses the main stories and major figures in the New Testament. Witherington looks particularly at the Gospels, examining how and why their stories differ and pointing out what these ancient biographies actually say about Jesus. He also surveys the ways that these stories were told and retold, explaining how this literary development has influenced Christian theology, ethics, and social thought.
At once scholarly and accessible - it really is written in plain English - Witherington's guide to the origins and message of the New Testament is eminently suitable as a text for college and seminary students. With each chapter followed by a section called "Exercises and Questions for Study and Reflection," The New Testament Story will also prove valuable to individual readers and ideal for church classes and group Bible studies.
It is hard for moderns like us to imagine the world before the printing press. Indeed it is hard for some of us to imagine the world before computers, the Internet, TV, or before modern libraries, newspapers, or news magazines. The New Testament, however, was not only written before all such inventions, it was also written before an age of widespread literacy. Furthermore, it was written well before there was any such thing as making an audio recording of something someone said. Ancients seldom expected a verbatim transcript of anything except occasionally when one was dealing with legal or royal proceedings. Even then, it was a new thing during the time of Julius Caesar to have speeches produced verbatim from a trial. Cicero's famous secretary and companion Tiro was lauded because of his adaptation of a "recent" invention - "speed writing" (a sort of shorthand) which allowed him to take down speeches in the courts of Rome verbatim in the first century b.c.
The world of the New Testament was a world where the spoken word was supreme. In fact, the New Testament was written in a largely oral culture where the written word did not have the first or last word. Consider, for example, from before New Testament times the words of Plato, who has Socrates warn against substituting the written word for oral traditions because people will stop using their memories (Phaedr. 274c-75)! The same sentiments are also expressed by authors who wrote closer to the time of the New Testament era such as Xenophon (Symp. 3.5) and Diogenes Laertius (7.54-56). Papias, an Early Church Father who lived at the end of the first century a.d. and into the second century, is famous for his remark on how he preferred the living word and the living witnesses to anything written.
We need to heed the warning of H. Gamble that "a strong distinction between the oral and the written modes is anachronistic to the extent that it presupposes both the modern notion of fixity of a text and modern habits of reading. Texts reproduced by hand, as all texts were before the invention of the printing press, were far less stable than modern printed texts because they were subject to accidental or deliberate modification in every new transcription. Moreover, in antiquity virtually all reading, public or private, was reading aloud: texts were routinely converted into the oral mode. Knowing this ancient authors wrote their texts as much for the ear as for the eye."
These attitudes about and dimensions of orality prevailed throughout the New Testament era, and they simply underscore how remarkable it is that we have these twenty-seven documents called the New Testament at all. So how did we come to have these twenty-seven documents generated in an age before mass production of texts or mass literacy? The story is a remarkable one, and unfortunately we know too little of it. But what we do know is worth telling and, hopefully, telling well.
Those of us who are used to reading the Bible like to use the phrase "in the beginning was the Word." How very true that phrase is will soon become apparent. Before there were any written words that made up New Testament books there were spoken words - thousands of them. The New Testament in all likelihood is barely the tip of the iceberg of verbiage about Jesus that was communicated in the first century a.d. You can almost hear the frustration of the author of the Gospel of John when he says," Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book" (John 20:30).Why were they not recorded? Because a papyrus scroll was only so long, and papyrus was expensive and handwriting and hand copying was a very tedious task. These are limitations we rarely experience in most places in the world today.
Consider the matter from another angle. The Gospels are basically about the period in history when Jesus had a ministry in the Holy Land, roughly a.d. 27-30 or thereabouts. Nowhere in the Gospels are we told about either Jesus or any of the disciples writing anything down while those events transpired. The telling of the story in written form likely came later. Or similarly, all of Paul's letters are written to congregations that had already been founded, who had received the Word orally well before there was any written communication with them. In fact, Paul's letters serve as a sort of surrogate for the oral conversations Paul would have liked to have had with them could he have been present. So much are Paul's letters surrogates for oral communication that they bear the earmarks of such communication - they reflect the techniques of forms of ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric - the oral art of persuasion. In the case of either the Gospels or the Epistles the Word was oral well before it was written. We reverse the process today when we read the text of the New Testament out loud and then proclaim and declaim on the basis of it. Thus, it is fair to say that when we tell the story of the New Testament, we are telling the story of a second-order phenomenon, the story of the literary residue of a largely oral movement which grew on the basis of preaching and teaching, praying and praising, and other forms of oral communication. It was not mainly, in the earliest period of Christian history, the texts that spread the Word, but rather the oral proclamation. The exception to this is the use of the Hebrew Scriptures, or more frequently the Greek translation of them(the Septuagint [LXX]), which are referred to in 2 Timothy 3:16. We must bear these things in mind as we turn now to the New Testament texts, as wonderful and challenging as they are.
The Tools of the Trade and Their Users
Despite the reassurances of innumerable introductions to the New Testament, we do not know very much about who actually wrote some of the books of the New Testament. When I say "wrote," I mean who actually wrote them down. And even when we are very certain who the source was of a particular document, for example, that the letter to the Romans comes from the mind of Paul, we still learn that the actual person who penned the document was an otherwise unknown person named Tertius (Rom. 16:22).
We know then that it required something of a team effort to get some of the New Testament documents written, and we will need to discuss the relationship between authors and scribes, and between passers on of traditions and editors, before we are done. Some documents, such as the first three Gospels, are formally anonymous, by which I mean that the author's name is nowhere mentioned in the actual text of the book itself. Nor for that matter are any scribes mentioned by name in the Gospels. The superscripts of these Gospels reflect later Church traditions about the authorship or primary source of the material.
Then of course we have a document like Hebrews, which is clearly anonymous though there have been many guesses as to who wrote the book. Only when we have the name of an author mentioned in the document itself (such as in most of the letters in the New Testament) do we have a concrete starting point for thinking about who produced a particular book of the New Testament. But what we do know is that whoever produced the actual first copy of each of these documents could read and write in Greek, which is of course the language of the whole New Testament just as it was the lingua franca of the Greco-Roman world. So let us consider the skill and trade of writing Greek in antiquity first.
Since the literacy rate was never above about 10 percent during the time when the New Testament documents were written, it stands to reason that most people, when they wanted something written down, made use of a scribe, a professional writer. Normally such skills would be required for very practical documents - contracts, wills, business letters, marriage documents, and the like. The books of the New Testament are none of these. But in a largely oral culture with much illiteracy it is not surprising that scribes, called amanuenses, were available most anywhere and could take down almost any kind of document for a fee. Yet we must not leap to the conclusion that all the New Testament documents were written by scribes. Why not?
The varying levels of skill in the rendering of Greek in the New Testament shows that it was certainly not always the case that a true professional, skilled in Greek, was used to write a particular New Testament document, but certainly sometimes this was the case, as with the letter to Romans. It is also interesting that the very content of the New Testament documents would have placed them in the category of a sort of literature normally only read by the literate elite. These are not the sort of practical or business documents your average Greco-Roman person had written down or kept copies of.
Beyond the scribal class, literacy was also found among non-elites such as some soldiers, doctors, tradesmen, craftsmen, and engineers. A reasonable case can be made that at least two of the longest New Testament documents, Luke and Acts, were written by someone who was not a scribe and yet was literate because of his trade (i.e., he was a doctor). An equally reasonable case can be made that a document like Revelation was written by someone who had as his primary language Aramaic, and as his secondary language Greek, and so he writes in Greek with some degree of difficulty. The New Testament as a whole is not likely a product of scribal activity, and since most or all of the documents were meant to be read aloud, they were not produced to be pure literature in the modern sense. They were texts with largely nonliterary functions.
How did the process begin then? After a period in which Gospel stories were shared in various settings and ways, and exhortations of various kinds were given orally in the Early Church, the re came a time due to factors of distance in both time and space that produced some urgency to write various things down. In the case of the Gospels, the urgency was presumably that the original eyewitnesses and earwitnesses were dying off by at least the second half of the first century a.d., and there was a felt need to preserve the traditions they had originally conveyed orally.
It is certainly not impossible that in some quarters this felt need came much earlier and may have produced things like: (1) an Aramaic collection of Jesus' sayings made by the Jerusalem church; (2) a collection of miracle stories involving Jesus; (3) an attempt in Aramaic to tell a larger portion of the gospel story; (4) a written-out narrative about the last week of Jesus' earthly life; and (5) a document largely of Jesus' teachings which was available to both the First and the Third Evangelist and which today we call Q.9 These earlier precursors to our Gospels are not today extant, and most scholars do not think that any Greek Gospels were produced or available in written form before a.d. 60. This in turn means that letters, and in particular Pauline letters, are our earliest New Testament documents, chronologically speaking, and letters are the documents in the New Testament most clearly connected to scribes.
It is important to stress at this juncture that in all likelihood we must not think of "books" in the modern sense when we are talking about the New Testament documents. In the first place, they were not manufactured in codex or book form originally; rather, they were written on papyrus rolls. In the second place, they were certainly not mass-produced. Initially only a few copies were likely made due to the time and expense involved, and in some cases, such as with letters, there may have been only one copy originally made.
If we are to speak of ancient book culture at all, we are talking about the small circles of the literate elite in the Greco-Roman world, who had the money to have documents reproduced and the time to read them or have them read, and copy them for their friends. Book culture in the modern sense of publications for the masses did not really exist. Authors in antiquity relied usually on wealthy patrons to meet the costs of writing down their works and having them circulated. It is my conviction that Theophilus, mentioned at the beginning of Luke and Acts, was likely the patron of Luke, and Luke wrote for him and his circle.
But how was the writing done, and on what sort of materials? The standard way to produce a document in antiquity was to write on papyrus. Normally a roll would have been 8 to 10 inches high and up to 35 feet long. Usually, it would be inscribed only on the inside, as papyrus is not a very dense material. There would be two columns 2 to 4 inches wide with about twenty-five to forty-five lines per column. In addition, because of the cost and the space needed, normally there would be no punctuation and no division of words or sentences or paragraphs; it would all be written in capital letters, and so a line would read something like the following: JESUSISNOWHERE. This of course could be read "Jesus is now here" or "Jesus is nowhere." Issues of interpretation already arise just from the lack of separation of letters and the absence of punctuation. Furthermore there were no chapters and verses in these original New Testament manuscripts before the early middle ages!
"Reading in antiquity was customarily done aloud, even if privately. The reason is that texts were written in continuous script ... without divisions between words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, and without punctuation, so that the syllables needed to be sounded and heard in order to be organized into recognizable semantic patterns. Correspondingly, almost all ancient texts were composed in consideration of how they would sound when read aloud." It was only near the end of the first century a.d. that the codex or notebook form of texts came into vogue, and it appears that early Christians were some of the first to recognize its usefulness and employ it.
In an age before copyright was an issue, what happened once a patron received a manuscript was as follows: "Publication ... consisted in giving such a copy to a patron or friend, who then made it available to be copied at the initiative of other interested parties. In this way copies were multiplied seriatim, one at a time. Once a text was in circulation and available for copying, anyone who had an interest in and access to it could have a copy made. Thus books were produced and acquired through an informal and unregulated process."
Most compositions in antiquity were done with pen and ink on papyrus, though sometimes the skins of sheep were used to produce parchment or vellum, a high-quality, highly refined animal skin. The quality of the writing surface, the ink, and the pens all varied. Cicero, writing about a.d.
Excerpted from The New Testament Story by Ben Witherington III Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The tools and the text||3|
|2||The pedagogy and the passion : sayings and passion stories about Jesus||28|
|3||Letters and homilies for converts||48|
|4||All the good news that was fit to print||73|
|5||The selection, collection, and rejection of texts||96|
|6||Borrowed tales from the earlier testament||109|
|7||Stories of Paul and Peter : the trials and tribulations of apostles||143|
|8||Tales of the holy family||183|
|9||Stories of Jesus outside the gospels||200|
|10||Stories of Jesus inside the gospels||222|
|App. 1||Basic acts time line||273|
|App. 2||Chronology of Paul's life and letters||275|
Posted April 24, 2015
Posted June 6, 2004