Why I Am A Christian (#3): The Diversity of New Testament Voices

Folio 27v from the Book of Kells showing the four evangelists symbolized. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Folio 27v from the Book of Kells showing the four evangelists symbolized. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Reason #3: The Diversity of New Testament Voices

“In my (default position) atheist days as a teenager — not, of course, having read any of the Bible at all — I remember holding an ill-formed belief that ‘somebody’ sat down one day and ‘wrote the Bible.’”

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”
Deuteronomy 19:15[1]

In my (default position) atheist days as a teenager — not, of course, having read any of the Bible at all — I remember holding an ill-formed belief that ‘somebody’ sat down one day and ‘wrote the Bible.’

Who this ‘somebody’ was, and at precisely what point in history this ‘somebody’ wrote it, I never bothered myself enough to investigate or to find out.

Maybe Erasmus (1466—1536) wrote the Bible?
Maybe Erasmus (1466—1536) wrote the Bible?

I think in my mind’s eye I imagined somebody like Erasmus (pictured above), the sixteenth-century humanist scholar, sitting down in his study one day and writing out the sacred text.

Oddly enough, if it was Erasmus that I was imagining in my mind, I was almost not far off.

“One of the tenets of the new humanist movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was that we shouldn’t simply accept the correctness of the Latin Vulgate Bible on authority, but should go back to our earliest and best possible sources.”

One of the tenets of the new humanist movement of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was that we shouldn’t simply accept the correctness of the Latin Vulgate Bible on authority (the version which the Roman Catholic Church had used since the end of Late Antiquity), but should go back to our earliest and best possible sources — and for Erasmus, that meant going back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts in which the Bible was written.

And one of Erasmus’ great humanist achievements was to publish in 1516 a new, Greek edition of the New Testament text.[2]

In doing this, Erasmus was not inventing anything new — he was simply applying critical analysis to the best available Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in order to rescue Christian Europe from the imperfections and corruptions that had accrued in the Latin Vulgate text over the centuries.[3]

So, in that sense, Erasmus actually did ‘write the Bible’ or at least part of it.

But, no, in the broader sense of the question, the Bible was not written by Erasmus (or anybody else in the sixteenth century).

Diversity

Picking up a New Testament (a translation is fine, by the way — you don’t need to learn Greek first!) and reading it, one is struck by a number of unmistakable observations:

“This is definitely not a text from the sixteenth century. It’s not even a medieval text — a fact which is so obvious from even a basic reading. The New Testament is firmly and definitely a product of the period of the high Roman Empire.”

  • This is definitely not a text from the sixteenth century. It’s not even a medieval text — a fact which is so obvious from even a basic reading. The New Testament is firmly and definitely a product of the period of the high Roman Empire.
  • There are many and varied writing styles, and even ways of interpreting the meaning of the appearing of Christ on earth, in the New Testament. (This is not to say that different New Testament writers flatly disagree with each other about who Jesus was: as far as it is possible to make out, there is very clear agreement among them that Jesus is the Son of God, who both died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and also rose from the dead as his vindication by God the Father. Rather, this is simply to say that different writers have different theological emphases in their, more-or-less harmonious understanding of Christ. More on this later.)

Let me give you a few examples of how this theological and stylistic diversity works.

Example #1: The emphases of the Gospels

“On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

Deuteronomy 19:15

The four Gospels all have their own unique emphases and ways of understanding the meaning of Christ’s appearance. Very briefly:

  • Matthew’s Gospel has a very Jewish flavour. For example, it quotes Old Testament prophecy more frequently than any of the other three, and consciously avoids causing unnecessary offence to scrupulous Jews by preferring the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ to ‘kingdom of God.’[4] It was almost certainly written by a Jew(ish Christian) for Jew(ish Christian)s.
  • Mark’s Gospel — probably the first one to be written — is very lively and ‘fast-paced.’ In it, Jesus goes quickly from one encounter to the next. It has a strong theme of ‘revealing’ who Jesus is: people repeatedly are amazed and ask, “Who is this man?” (e.g., 4:41) — and who he is is gradually revealed as the Gospel goes on.
  • Luke’s Gospel — probably the only one written by a non-Jew — is very much about Christ the Saviour. So, he is the one who has come to save the lost; the one who came for shepherds (2:8-20), for women (10:38-42), for Samaritans (10:25-37); for tax collectors (19:1-10).
  • John’s Gospel reads very differently from the other three, and does not share source material as they do (although it does record a few of the same miracles). Its emphasis is very much on Jesus the divine Word of God who became truly human.

The Law books of the Old Testament say, “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (see above).

In the four Gospels we have, not two, not three, but four witnesses to the life, teaching, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Example #2: The verb ‘call’ in different writers

“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22:14[5]

“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Romans 8:30[6]

In the two passages above, the verb ‘call’ (in both cases the Greek verb καλέω, kaleō) is used in quite different senses.

“For Jesus, ‘called’ means ‘urged to accept the kingdom of God.’ For Paul, it has a more effective meaning: ‘brought into the kingdom of God according to God’s predetermined will.’”

In the first (Matthew 22:14, words spoken by Jesus), ‘called’ means “urged to accept the kingdom of God.”

In the second (Romans 8:30, written by Paul), ‘called’ has a much more effective meaning: it means “brought into the kingdom of God according to God’s predetermined will.”

Instances like this, of how different writers think differently and use language differently, show us very clearly the diversity of (human) authors of the New Testament.

Example #3: Apparent contradictions!

A more extreme version of the previous example occurs when Paul and James write about how a person is justified. Consider the following two passages:—

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:8-10 (emphases mine)[7]

You see that faith was active along with his [Abraham’s] works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” — and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James 2:22-24 (emphasis mine)[8]

On the face of it, what we have here is Paul and James flatly contradicting each other. Paul says that a person is saved (or justified) by faith, not as a result of works; James says that a person is justified by faith and works!

“On the face of it, we have here Paul and James flatly contradicting each other. Paul says that a person is saved (or justified) by faith, not as a result of works; James says that a person is justified by faith and works! This apparent contradiction has frequently been used to argue that Paul and James were engaged in some kind of ‘literary war’ with one another over the nature of salvation.”

Indeed, this apparent contradiction has frequently been used to argue that Paul and James were engaged in some kind of ‘literary war’ with one another over the nature of salvation.

What is really going on here, in fact, is that Paul and James are using similar language to address different issues.

For Paul, it is essential that Christians rely entirely on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for their salvation, and not (as people throughout history have been tempted to do) on their own righteousness obtained by keeping the Law of Moses. The reason this is so vital is that the former will save a person; the latter will not. Hence Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith as a gift.

James is addressing a different issue. There may well have been believers in his congregation, or within his sphere of influence, who — perhaps misunderstanding Paul’s teaching — were either teaching, or effectively living as if, a person were saved through faith regardless of how they lived. In other words, for them, the mere intellectual assent to certain Christian theological propositions was enough for salvation; it didn’t matter how you lived (which is something that Paul would not have argued).

James therefore stresses the fact that faith in Jesus is only effective if it is accompanied by good works. To put it another way, our good works are the evidence of our (living) faith. (For further analysis, see the excellent article here.)

The fact that you can have two New Testament writers so glaringly (apparently) contradict one another is yet another part of the New Testament’s diversity of voices.

This fact also tells us something important about how the individual New Testament books were brought together into ‘the New Testament’ (a process described here).

When the canon of twenty-seven New Testament books was finally decided towards the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, it was decided by theologians who were confident that the resulting New Testament could stand up to internal scrutiny, in spite of its apparent contradictions.

In other words, they had no problem putting the Letter of James side by side, as it were, in the same canonical writings as Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

And that in turn tells us something further about how the canon of New Testament books came together.

“When the canon of New Testament books was decided, the books included were those which were deemed to have apostolic authority. Which means that the books which were eventually included in the New Testament could contradict one another — at least on the surface — because their inclusion depended on their apostolicity, and not on their agreement with some particular theological viewpoint at the time.”

When the canon of New Testament books was decided, the books included were those which were deemed to have apostolic authority. That is, those books were included which were either written by an apostle of the Lord Jesus, or by those who were closely connected to the apostles.[9]

Which means that the books which were eventually included in the New Testament could contradict one another — at least on the surface — because their inclusion depended on their apostolicity, and not on their agreement with some particular theological viewpoint at the time.

Or put this another way: The New Testament defined the doctrine of the Church, rather than the Church defining the doctrine of the New Testament. (Very important principle!)

The fact that this is so, gives me enormous confidence not only in the theological integrity of the New Testament itself — but also of the (gradual, and sometimes tortuous) process by which the New Testament eventually came about. In all of this I see the guiding hand of the wise and beneficent God, ensuring that his people would never be without the sacred and apostolic writings.

Thus the diversity of voices in the New Testament — far from being a cause to doubt or to scorn the Christian faith — is in fact a powerful (but easily overlooked) piece of evidence in favour of the truth of the Christian faith.

*        *        *

In the fourth part of this series we will begin to consider Old Testament fulfilment as another powerful reason for believing in the Christian faith.

 

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [>>]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+19%3A15&version=ESVUK

[2] ‘New Testament of Erasmus (1516) (The) | EHNE’, accessed 22 January 2019, https://ehne.fr/en/article/european-humanism/cultural-heritage/new-testament-erasmus-1516.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In first-century rabbinic Judaism the name of God was considered too sacred to be pronounced.

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+22%3A14&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A30&version=ESVUK

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A8-10&version=ESVUK

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+2%3A22-24&version=ESVUK

[9] For a good example of this criterion, see Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book IV, chapter 2; and The Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 20. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1997 (henceforth referred to as ANF-03): pp.347-348; 252.

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