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This course approaches the New Testament not as scripture, or a piece of authoritative holy writing, but as a collection of historical documents. Therefore, students are urged to leave behind their pre-conceived notions of the New Testament and read it as if they had never heard of it before. This involves understanding the historical context of the New Testament and imagining how it might appear to an ancient person.
The Christian faith is based upon a canon of texts considered to be holy scripture. How did this canon come to be? Different factors, such as competing schools of doctrine, growing consensus, and the invention of the codex, helped shape the canon of the New Testament. Reasons for inclusion in or exclusion from the canon included apostolic authority, general acceptance, and theological appropriateness for "proto-orthodox" Christianity.
Knowledge of historical context is crucial to understanding the New Testament. Alexander the Great, in his conquests, spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean world. This would shape the structure of city-states, which would share characteristically Greek institutions, such as the gymnasium and the boule. This would also give rise to religious syncretism, that is, the mixing of different religions. The rise of the Romans would continue this trend of universalization of Greek ideals and religious tolerance, as well as implement the social structure of the Roman household. The Pax Romana, and the vast infrastructures of the Roman Empire, would facilitate the rapid spread of Christianity.
Of the four kingdoms that arose after Alexander's death, those of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies are most pertinent to an understanding of the New Testament. Especially important is the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who forced the issue of Hellenism in Jerusalem by profaning the temple. Jews were not alike in their reaction to Hellenization, but a revolt arose under the leadership of the Mattathias and his sons, who would rule in the Hasmonean Dynasty. After the spread of Roman rule, the Judea was under client kings and procurators until the Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Revolt was only one Jewish response to foreign rule; another was apocalypticism, as we see in Daniel and also in the Jesus' teaching and the early Christian movement.
The accounts of Paul's travels in The Acts of the Apostles and Galatians seem to contradict each other at many points. Their descriptions of a meeting in Jerusalem--a major council in Acts versus a small, informal gathering in Galatians--also differ quite a bit. How do we understand these differences? A historical critical reading of these accounts does not force these texts into a harmonious unity or accept them at face value. Instead, a historical critical reading carefully sifts through the details of the texts and asks which of these is more likely to be historically accurate.
The Gospels of the New Testament are not biographies, and, in this class, they are read through a historical critical lens. This means that the events they narrate are not taken at face value as historical. The Gospel of Mark illustrates how the gospel writer skillfully crafts a narrative in order to deliver a message. It is a message that emphasizes a suffering messiah, and the necessity of suffering before glory. The gospel's apocalyptic passages predict troubles for the Jewish temple and incorporate this prediction with its understanding of the future coming of the Son of Man.
The Gospel of Matthew contains some of the most famous passages that both Christians and non-Christians are familiar with. However, Matthew also presents itself paradoxically as preaching a Torah observant Christianity and a Christian mission that seeks to reach gentiles. The figure of Jesus in Matthew is that of a teacher, the founder of the Church, and the model for the apostles and Matthew's own community. Matthew seems to be writing for a church community that needs encouragement to have faith in a time of trouble.
We have known of the existence of the Gospel of Thomas from ancient writers, but it was only after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices that the actual text became available. The Gospel of Thomas is basically a collection of sayings, or logia, that sometimes seem similar, perhaps more primitive than sayings found in the canonical Gospels. Sometimes, however, the sayings seem better explained as reflecting a "Gnostic" understanding of the world. This involves a rejection of the material world and a desire for gnosis, a secret knowledge, in order to escape the world and return to the divine being.
Luke and Acts, a two-volume work, are structured very carefully by the author to outline the ministry of Jesus and the spread of the Gospel to the gentiles. The Gospel of Luke emphasizes the themes of Jesus' Jewish piety, his role as a rejected prophet, and the reversal of earthly status. The Gospel ends in Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles begins there and then follows the spread of the Gospel, both conceptually and geographically, to Samaria and the gentiles. By closely analyzing the Gospel and Acts, we see that the author was not concerned with historicity or chronological order. Rather, he writes his "orderly account" to illustrate the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews and its consequent spread to the gentiles.
The speech that Stephen gives before his accusers in Acts shows how the author of Luke-Acts used and edited his sources. So, also, does the description of the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke, as compared to that in Mark. The major themes of Luke-Acts are 1) the Gospel going first to the Jews and then to gentiles and 2) that of the prophet-martyr, with Jesus as the prophet-martyr par excellence.
The Gospel of John is a gospel dramatically different from the Synoptic Gospels. It is full of long dialogues, it speaks of "signs" rather than exorcisms or miracles, and its narrative differs at many points from the Synoptics. Themes in the Gospel are also repeated throughout--themes such as ascending and descending, light and darkness, seeing and knowing. Johannine literature also presents a high Christology that equates Jesus with God. The Gospel also reflects the sectarian nature of the community to which the author belonged.
The Jesus of the Gospel of John often speaks in riddles so that his dialogues with characters such as Nicodemus appear confusing, rather than clarifying. The focus, however, of the Gospel of John is on Christology. In the Gospel, Jesus is divine. So it is also in 1 John, where many of the themes of the Gospel are echoed. 1, 2, and 3 John possibly present us with correspondences of the Johannine community, a sectarian group insisting on the divinity and humanity of Jesus, against the Docetists and other differing forms of early Christianity.
It is obvious that certain narratives in the New Testament contradict each other and cannot be woven into a historically coherent whole. How, then, do scholars construct who the "historical Jesus" was? There are several principles that historical Jesus researchers follow, which include considering data that 1) has multiple attestations and 2) is dissimilar to a text's theological tendencies as more likely to be historical. Using the modern methods of historical research, it becomes possible to construct a "historical Jesus."
The New Testament and other texts provide us with many accounts of the Apostle Paul, some that contradict each other. Throughout the history of Christianity, Paul has assumed many different roles for different people. For the early Christians he was primarily a martyr. For St. Augustine, and later Martin Luther, he was a man interpreting the Gospel through his psychological struggle with guilt. The historical Paul seems to have been a man preaching an apocalyptic message to the gentiles.
1 Corinthian and 2 Corinthians give us several snapshots of the development of the Corinthian church and Paul's relationship to it. In 1 Corinthians Paul is concerned with controversies that have been dividing the church, most probably along social status lines. The issues causing controversy include whether one should eat food sacrificed to idols, how one ought to conduct oneself sexually, the practice of speaking in tongues, and how Christians will be resurrected from the dead. 2 Corinthians shows that these issues seem to have been resolved. However, 2 Corinthians 10-13 (probably a separate letter) presents Paul in a defensive posture, struggling to justify his position over and against the new "super apostles" that have infiltrated the Corinthian church.
The Apostle Paul's description of the Jewish Law in his letter to the Galatians demotes from being an expression of Jewish faith to an object of idolatry and one that imprisons those who follow it. Paul is careful to nuance this position, however, in his letter to the Romans. In Romans, it seems that Paul is defending himself against charges of being antinomian. Perhaps Paul treads carefully in order to ensure that his deliverance of a donation to the Jerusalem church from the gentile churches is received in a spirit of church unity.
In ancient times, documents that were falsely attributed to an author, called pseudepigrapha, were a common phenomenon. Both the Letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are most likely pseudonymous works attributed to the Apostle Paul. The writer of Colossians assures his readers that they already possess all the benefits of salvation and do not need to observe rules concerning feast days, Sabbaths, and worship of the angels. Ephesians seems somewhat based on Colossians, although it reads more like an ethical or moral treatise. Both letters differ from Pauline Christology in their realized eschatology and high Christology.
Early Christianity presents us with a wide diversity in attitudes towards the law. There were also many different Christologies circulating in different communities. The book of James presents one unique perspective. It seems to be written in the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature in its presentation of sayings and its concern for the poor. James also presents a view of works and faith that seems to oppose Pauline teaching. However, the terms "faith" and "works" function differently in Paul's writings and in the book of James.
In the undisputed Pauline epistles, marriage is seen as a way to extirpate sexual desire - neither as a means for procreation nor as the preferred social status. The Pastoral Epistles, written to instruct in the pastoring of churches and appointing of church offices, presents quite un-Pauline attitudes. In the Pastoral Epistles, the church, rather than an ecclesia, becomes a household, a specifically patriarchal structure in which men hold offices and women are not to have authority over them. They present a pro-family, anti-ascetic message in contrast to the Pauline epistles.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla has a narrative quite similar to those in ancient Greco-Roman novels: Thecla becomes enamored of Paul and they share a number of adventures. However, the Acts redirects eroticism towards a belief in a gospel of purity and asceticism. The Acts of Paul and Thecla present an ascetic, anti-marriage, anti-family message that would break the cycle of sex, birth, death, and decay that was so obvious in the ancient world. Given that Thecla emerges from the story as the true hero (and not Paul), is it possible to read the story as a feminist one?
There are many ways of interpreting the text, and ancient methods of interpretation may seem bizarre to our modern sensibilities. The New Testament offers us many examples of how an early Christian might interpret the text of the Hebrew Bible, which was their scripture. The Letter to the Hebrews, which is not really a letter but a speech of encouragement, structures its argument around the thesis that Jesus' liturgy and priesthood is superior to that in the Hebrew Bible. The author of Hebrews proves this through several interesting interpretations of passages from the Hebrew Bible.
The principles of interpreting the New Testament in this course assume a historical critical perspective. The historical critical method of interpreting a text privileges the intended meaning of the ancient author, the interpretation of a text's original audience, the original language the text was written in, and the avoidance of anachronism. However, for most of the last two thousand years, this has not been the method of interpretation of the Bible. Pre-modern interpreters, such as Origen and Augustine, felt free to allegorize and use the text as they saw fit. It was only through the Reformation and other events in modern history that the historical critical method became the predominant method of interpretation.
The Apocalypse, or the Revelation of John, shares many of the traits found in apocalyptic literature: it operates in dualisms--earthly events contrasted with heavenly ones, present time with the imminent future, and it calls for cultural and political resistance. Its structure is like a spiral, presenting cycle after cycle of building tension and reprieve, so that the reader who experiences the text also experiences crisis and then catharsis. Politically, Revelation equates Rome with Babylon and the empire as the domain of Satan.
The Apocalypse of John showed an anti-Roman, politically revolutionary perspective. This is in contrast with Paul's writing in Romans 13, which calls for submission to governmental authorities - although passages in 1 Corinthians may be said to contradict this. 2 Thessalonians, a pseudonymous letter, also preaches a politically conservative and accommodative message, as does 1 Peter. Interestingly, these letters do not discard or ignore apocalypticism but use it quite differently from the author of Revelation to further their message of political conservatism. 2 Peter seems to be a letter dating from the second century, from the post-apostolic age. In 2 Peter, the apocalypse is no longer imminent and is not used to further any admonition. Instead, it has become simply a part of Christian doctrine.
The Epistle of Jude can be dated to somewhere during post-apostolic Christianity and before the formation of the Canon. It refers to the apostles as representing a prior generation, yet it quotes from texts later excluded (perhaps, for example, by 2 Peter) from the Canon. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch contain evidence of a move toward the institutionalization of early Christianity. It mentions, for example, three different church offices: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. It also heavily emphasizes the authority held by those with these titles. The Didache contains liturgical and ritual instructions for rites such as baptism, the Lord's Prayer, and the Eucharist. All these documents show the change in early Christianity toward greater church structure and institutionalization.
How did a small group following an apocalyptic prophet in Palestine become Christianity - what is now called a "world religion"? This small movement saw many changes in the second, third, and fourth centuries, from the development of different sects, philosophical theologies, and martyrology, to the rise of monasticism, and finally to the ascension of Constantine to the throne and the Christian Roman Empire. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that the term "world religion" came to be used and Christianity was categorized as such.
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