This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
Here's a summary of the New Testament, that I wrote a few years ago. Like many Christians, I tended to turn first to the New Testament as I began serious Bible studies. Leafing now through my old Bible that I've used since I was twenty, I find all my jottings from college and seminary when I studied the Bible (on my bed rather than at a desk), with commentaries to study, too. I can scarcely convey my excitement I felt when I discovered that the gospels contained evidence of early oral traditions, possible antecedent written sources, and intentional compositional ordering of material about Jesus. I poured over the book Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences.(1)
I learned that over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and that the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material. Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. I hadn’t doubted Jesus’ historical existence, but I was fascinated by the shaping of the material, the use of sources of Jesus’ words and deeds to put forward theological convictions. That the Gospels were not straightforward biographies, factual in all chronology and detail, didn’t matter to me in the least.(2)
Gospels and Acts
In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia). Matthew retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15), but unlike Mark, Matthew includes a birth narrative (including the stories of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents). The gospel presents Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46).
Mark opens with, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Hasty, simply written, the gospel contains a key verse, 10:45: “the Son of man …came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Who is this Jesus, though? As the gospel proceeds, Jesus’ friends don’t seem to “get” him. He confuses those closest to him. One of the saddest verses is 14:50, And they all forsook him, and fled. Meanwhile, the people on the “outside” identify Jesus right away: the demons, outcasts, and Gentiles. The first post-crucifixion person to “preach” Jesus is a Roman soldier who participated in his execution (15:39). And yet, for all its darker qualities, the gospel seems written to those already Christian for their guidance and comfort, as I’ve jotted in the margin. Mark’s gospel omits birth stories, devoting chapters 1 through 13 to Jesus’ ministry (chapters 1-9 in Galilee, chapter 10 on the way to Jerusalem, and 12-13 in Jerusalem), and then chapters 14 through 16 for Jesus’ passion.
Luke, the only Gentile author in the New Testament, wrote two accounts, both addressed to person named “Theophilus,” which means “God-lover.” (That was Mozart’s middle name: “Amadeus” is the Latin translation.) In the gospel, Jesus addresses his concerns for the poor and disadvantaged; Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18-19) doesn’t spiritualize the blind, oppressed, and imprisoned, but he proclaims liberty and release to them. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)—not “poor in spirit” which you and I might be able to claim. Unique to Luke’s gospel are the story of the good Samaritan (10:25-27), the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42), the parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son (15:8-32), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), not to mention the stories at the Gospel’s beginning: the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the song of Simeon, the shepherds in the field, the story of young Jesus in the Temple.
How is John related to the other gospels? Is it a different historical tradition or does it assume the traditions of Mark? This is a debated subject; the basic outline and facts of Jesus’ life are there, but the stories are different: the water into wine, the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus. John focuses on seven “sign” miracles, five of which are not found in the other Gospels. John’s is a “high” view of Jesus, a view that helps us understand him theologically. We don’t find parables and pericopes here, but rather long reflections and dialogues. While Jesus’ Synoptic parables do not deal directly with Jesus’ identity, John’s gospel contains numerous “I am” sayings. While the other gospels announce the Kingdom of God, in John, Jesus’ announces the Spirit that will guide Jesus’ followers.
Acts provides stories of the first (approximately) thirty-five years of the early church. Peter dominates the first portion of Acts, Paul the second half. Luke frames the stories of Acts with affirmations about God’s kingdom (1:3, 28:1); Jesus had preached the kingdom, and after his ascension, the life-power of Jesus is given to people through the Holy Spirit, and so for Luke, the kingdom of God exists wherever people accept that ever-available life-power(3). Thus the disciples are instructed not to fret about the signs and portents of Jesus’ second coming, they have what they need for the present time, the Spirit promised in Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21).
In spite of its connection to Luke, I tended to think of Acts as a stand-alone historical account between the gospels and the epistles. But eventually I realized that Acts is as important as the gospels because the book provides the way that we know Jesus today. We’ll never know Jesus in the flesh—and judging from Jesus’ own words, we shouldn’t even long to have known him in the flesh (John 16:5-15). Now, Jesus is now fully present to us through the Holy Spirit.(4) Jesus’ story continues, if not in a scriptural way, in the innumerable book-length stories of us, his disciples (cf. John 21:25).
An explorer of these books will notice the way different gospels accounts are shaped, and how placement of stories and teachings elucidate meaning (4). She’ll learn about God’s love from the many “pictures” of God (Mt. 18:10-14, 35, 19:13-15, Luke 7:36-50, 15:3-32, and others). She’ll try to regain a sense of childlike openness and wonder (perhaps lost in adulthood), which Jesus says is essential for understanding him (Mark 10:13-16). She’ll understand that those who are good, upright, Ten Commandments-following people are often the ones who can’t or won’t follow Jesus, and the sinners and strugglers may get into the kingdom first (Matt. 21:31-32, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 15:11-32).
The explorer should try not to isolate Jesus as a teacher and healer from Jesus as risen Lord upon whom she can call for help and guidance. Jesus’ teachings had characteristics of healing and vice versa. When Jesus taught, he aimed not just at ethical standards but also at the healing of our hearts. When Jesus healed people, he not only showed a concern for people’s physical needs but also wanted to teach people about God’s hope and salvation (Matt. 12:15-21).(5)
The Bible has many different kinds of literary genres.(6) In the two testaments you find history, poetry, legal codes, prophecy, songs, letters, sermons, gospels, and even one book of erotic poetry. Ideally, we should understand the different genres as we read, and genres overlap within books. Ezra contains autobiography, letters, and history; several of the prophets contain oracles and narratives. The gospels and Acts are history, but they’re also preaching. Hebrews is a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (though no epistolary greeting). Of course, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form a long history and contain accounts of individual incidents, but the books also encompass legal codes and cultic (worship) instructions, while ancient Christian catechesis and liturgy, as in the Didache, are later than the canon.
We find very few letters in the Old Testament, but letters form the largest body material in the New Testament. The canon includes letters of James, John, Peter, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and Paul. Paul’s several letters are arranged in order of length, although 1 and 2 Thessalonians were probably the earliest letters, and Philippians and 1 and 2 Timothy seem valedictory. All these letters were written to individuals or churches in order to address particular issues, to deal with needs and problems, to convey information and greetings, and to communicate feelings. Although not intentionally written in an epigrammatic way, we can lift epigrams, slogans, and promises from the letters for our own needs, for within these letters are treasures of biblical proclamation and pearls of wisdom. If I were to give someone a single Bible book to convey the Gospel, I’d tell them to read Romans or Ephesians. Galatians is also excellent for communicating the Gospel, although it was written in frustration and anger; if you’ve a good commentary to help you, Galatians might help renew your faith.
The letters have different purposes and viewpoints. Like the Gospels, they’ve changing facets in which God’s light beautifies, changes, and illuminates. Reading in turn through my various marginal notes and scribbling:
Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to a church he wished to visit soon. He argues that God accounts us righteous by faith rather than works of the law. The righteousness of God is revealed in God’s justification of sinners through the atonement of Christ.
1 and 2 Corinthians is largely Paul’s words of teaching, advice, and reprimand to a congregation swayed by impressive teachers, confident in their own wisdom, and yet lacking in love and spiritual maturity.
Galatians is Paul’s frustrated letter to a Gentile church. Paul points out that the Galatians already evidence of God’s power and acceptance in their lives through the gifts of the Spirit. They must not add anything on to God’s work, including traditional Jewish rites like circumcision.
Ephesians and Colossians are similar letters, written (if Paul did write them) while he was imprisoned. He shows the sufficiency of Christ and God’s free salvation. In Christ we are built up as a church; Christ has removed barriers between God and us.
Philippians, another “prison letter,” is a joyful letter, warm and affirming for a congregation Paul clearly feels gratitude.
1 and 2 Thessalonians concern the second coming of Christ and the need to be watchful, though the first letter is warm and the second letter, though also warm, contains more admonishment.
1 and 2 Timothy concern the qualities of church leaders and provides advice and encouragement to Paul’s young colleague. Titus also deals with church leaders and the need to deal with false teaching.
Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has helped convert, and so Paul writes Onesimus’ master about the matter, hinting strongly that Onesimus should be freed.
Hebrews is an epistolary sermon by an unknown author to an unknown group of people. The title, which is a latter addition, is based on the fair assumption that the original audience consisted of converts from Judaism, who, more than a Gentile group, would have grasped all the many references to the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. Although its supersessionism demands contemporary reinterpretation, the sermon is beautiful, intricate, and argues the sufficiency of Christ compared with the angels, the prophets, and the temple.
James stresses the validity of one’s faith through the good works of one’s personal growth and one’s relationships with others. The book only mentions Jesus twice and is similar in style to Old Testament wisdom literature.
1 and 2 Peter concern the steadfastness of one’s faith in times of persecution and also in regard to false teachers.
1, 2, and 3 John all provide glimpses into the lives of the early church. 1 John, especially, teaches the need to demonstrate one’s faith through love.
Tiny little Jude, which quotes a non-canonical writing (1 Enoch 1:9), is closely related textually to 2 Peter and is concerned false teachers and apostasy.
After these brief epistles, we come to the final book, Revelation, which concerns the final times. It’s actually a letter, too (1:4), to seven Asian churches. John must be a different man than the apostle, for the book’s style is dissimilar from the gospel and the letters, and this author does not identify himself as an apostle. The book chronicles the many signs of the end times and is written in symbolic language that harkens back to Old Testament prophecies.
The letters, like the gospels, aren’t just “about” Jesus but also witness to his living reality. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16. This verse used to bother me; aren’t Jesus’ life and teachings important? They are, but Jesus’ life and teachings can’t be disconnected with his death and resurrection, and his earthly life cannot be disconnected with the eternal life that he now shares with us, And so it is not inappropriate that much of the New Testament deals not with specifics about Jesus’ life and teachings (the letters scarcely quote Jesus’ teachings explicitly) but the grand fact of his salvation and gifts of the Spirit. Now, as readers of this material, we too receive the first-century preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, and our lives, too, become guided and maintained by the Spirit.
We should also be humbled by the way the Bible witnesses to the imperfection of human efforts, including (perhaps especially) religious efforts, and God's compassion for us. The Israelites, in their centuries of life with God, provide example after example of doubt, complaint, loss of faith, idolatry, wrongdoing, and judgment. A knee-jerk Christian reaction might be, “Oh, those faithless Hebrews.” But look closely at the New Testament. Those scriptures reflect a much shorter time period than the Old Testament (fewer than a hundred years, depending on the conjectural dating of some of the epistles, compared to 1600 years between Abraham and Nehemiah), and so we don’t see the same kind of patterns of sin-judgment-repentance in the New compared to the Old. But in the New Testament, the early Christian congregations also struggled with problems: divergence from sound teachings (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the threat of apostasy (Heb, 6:1-8), factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), unchastity (1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Thess. 4:1-8), incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-7), disrespect of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and others. All seven of the churches of Revelation received a scold or a warning or both. Thank God for God's steadfast love and loving kindness!
1. Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., ed., Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973).
When we study the Gospels, it’s difficult not to mentally harmonize the material. For instance, we think of the “seven last words of Jesus,” but no single Gospel contains all seven; we mentally conflate the material. In fact, a second century Christian named Tatian harmonized the content of the four gospels into a continuous life, called the Diatessaron, which we now know through variant versions of ancient copies. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (second edition, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 281-292.
2 I still have some of my favorite seminary paperbacks like Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960); The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977) and Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), all by Nils Alstrup Dahl; and Klee, op. cit. Also Richard A. Buridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1994); Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
3 Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 643.
4 William H. Shepherd, who has published several good books about preaching (CSS Publishing Co.) has also written the book The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994).
5 I make this point in my book, What’s in the Bible About Jesus? for the series What’s in the Bible, and Why Should I Care? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 43.
6 An introduction to the Bible’s types of writings is Margaret Nutting Ralph, And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 2003).