Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
[p.423]The Bible can be read in a variety of ways. There can be little argument concerning its uses for liturgical and devotional purposes. There is no question that sacred literature is sometimes essential to religious ceremony and ritual or that millions of devout persons find consolation, spiritual uplift, and moral courage in reading the scriptures. But too often they are employed to support religious prejudices and established theological beliefs or simply to confirm new and sometimes highly speculative ideas. The Bible is all too infrequently read in the interest of learning what its authors in fact wrote and to understand what they meant by what they wrote.
The problem of establishing reliable texts and ensuring competent translations respecting the language usages of the readers, the textual or “lower criticism,” is a task for expert scholarship. Determining the meaning of the text, the so-called “higher criticism,” is equally a task for experts, as it requires up-to-date and sophisticated linguistic, literary, historical, and archaeological analysis.
Certainly the effort to understand the New Testament is a never-ending task involving the commitment and untiring work of genuinely competent scholars. No one person or group of persons can be presumed to have the last word in a matter of this kind. Every scholar must interpret the text from some standpoint and must run the risk of error, but there is reason for believing that genuine gains in understanding are being made. There will always be differences due to presupposition, method, access to knowledge, principles of interpretation, and perhaps temperament. But all who treasure the Bible owe a lasting debt of gratitude to those scholars who literally expend their lives in an effort to achieve that understanding.
Important Versions of the Bible
The Septuagint or LXX was a Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures begun early in the third century BCE during the reign of the Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The process of translation may have extended into the first century CE. This translation was made presumably for the use of Jews and Jewish converts in the Diaspora and was of major importance for Christianity since it was the version employed by the Diaspora Christians and most of the writers of the New Testament books. It was first printed in Venice in 1518. Approximately 1,800 manuscripts of the LXX on parchment or papyrus are now extant. Manuscript remains prior to 100 CE are fragmentary. The Vatican library has the most important and earliest—fourth century—manuscript, the Codex Vaticanus, which includes almost all of the Old Testament and much of the Apocrypha. Other important but incomplete manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus, fourth century, and Codex Alexandrinus, fifth century, are in the British Museum.
The most important translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, was the work of Jerome (ca. 342-420) in the late fourth century. His work of editing and translating was begun in the 380s. Because there was considerable confusion among the various Latin versions of the scriptures, Jerome was involved in both editing and translating. He was a man of massive scholarship, and although he employed the Greek LXX and other Latin translations in his work, his translation of the Old Testament was based on his knowledge of Hebrew. As in the case of the Old Testament, Jerome employed Old Latin versions of New Testament books but corrected them from Greek manuscripts. The first printed edition of the Vulgate was the Gutenberg Bible, 1452-55.
The Vulgate, which had been commissioned by Pope Damasus, was declared the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church by the Council of Trent in 1546. The holy Synod “ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many ages, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”
The High German Lutheran Bible which included the Apocrypha was published in Wittenberg in 1534. Martin Luther had begun the transla-[p.425]tion in 1522, translating the New Testament from Greek and the Old Testament from Hebrew. Because of his illness, friends of Luther assisted in translating the apocryphal books, employing especially the LXX and the Vulgate. Luther’s insistence on grounding Christianity firmly in the Bible impelled him not only to make the sacred books available in the vernacular but also to employ the most reliable documentary sources available. An earlier German translation published in 1466 was simply made from the Vulgate.
William Tyndale translated from both Hebrew and Greek against difficult official opposition in England. Proficient in Greek and perhaps to a lesser degree in Hebrew, Tyndale was assisted by both the LXX and Vulgate as well as Luther’s New Testament translation. Because of persecution from conservative factions, Tyndale’s New Testament was published in Worms in 1526, with a final revision in 1535. Only parts of the Old Testament were completed and published. Tyndale’s translation, the first to be published in English, was an important source for the King James Version.
English Versions between Tyndale and the King James
After the publication of Tyndale’s testament, several English translations appeared. The Coverdale Bible (1535) was not translated from the ancient Hebrew and Greek sources, but it depended heavily on the Vulgate, Tyndale, and Luther’s Bible. The Great Bible (1539) like the Coverdale, depended, among others, on Tyndale’s translation and the Geneva Bible translated in Geneva by Protestant scholars under John Knox, the Scottish Puritan, and published in full in 1560. The Bishop’s Bible was published in 1568. The main Catholic English version, the Reims-Douai Bible—New Testament published in 1582 in Reims and Old Testament in 1609-10 in Douai—was based primarily on the Vulgate, in keeping with the admonition of the Council of Trent. It countered Protestant versions considered to be erroneous by the Catholic church.
Authorized Version (King James)
In 1604 James I of England appointed a commission to revise the widely used Bishop’s Bible. The revision, done at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster and published in 1611, depended heavily on earlier versions, especially the Geneva and Reims-Douai, and did not have access to the ancient and more authentic texts. It replaced the Bishop’s Bible in official usage and gradually, especially because of the quality of its language, superseded the Geneva in popular acceptance.
[p.426]Changes in English language usage, the availability of more authentic textual materials, and improved knowledge of the biblical languages and style resulted in the Revised Version, the work of British Protestant scholars with American consultation. The New Testament was published in 1881, the Old Testament in 1884, and the Apocrypha in 1895. An American version adapted to American language usage was published in 1901.
Revised Standard Version
Under authorization from the National Council of Churches, the Revised Standard Version was produced by committees of American scholars who had the advantage of the most advanced knowledge of the languages and literary styles, and the most recent text discoveries. This version, which preserved much of the linguistic and stylistic character of the Authorized Version, has been vigorously opposed by many conservatives but is widely employed by biblical scholars. The New Testament was published in 1946, the Old Testament in 1952, and the Apocrypha in 1957.
Other Recent English Versions
Among the many other versions in recent decades intended to update both scholarship and English usage have been the New English Bible, published in England, the New Testament in 1961, the Old Testament and Apocrypha in 1970; and the Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation with a useful new format which was originally done in French but was translated into English from the ancient texts and published in English in 1966. A publication of the Bible in 1845-53 by D. Leeser was popular among American Jews. In 1892 a new translation was planned under auspices of the Jewish Publication Society, but it was not until 1917 that a complete translation of the Massoretic Text was published. A new translation was projected in 1955, and the Torah was published in 1962.
Historical Events from the Exodus to the New Testament
|ca.||1280 BCE||Exodus from Egypt—Moses and the Sinai Covenant|
|1250-1200||Invasion of Canaan—Joshua|
|1200-1050||The League of Hebrew Tribes—The Judges|
|1020-922||The United Monarchy|
|1000-961||David—Consolidation of the Kingdom; conquest of Jerusalem|
|961-922||Solomon—The First Temple, disruption of the Kingdom|
|922-587||The Divided Monarchy|
|922-721||Israel—The Northern Kingdom; Elijah, Elisha, Hosea|
|922-587||Judah—The Southern Kingdom; Amos, Micah, 1 Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk|
|587||Babylonian conquest, fall of Jerusalem|
|587-539||Babylonian Exile—Ezekiel, II Isaiah|
|539||Persian conquest—fall of Babylon|
|539-331||The Persian Period|
|Edict of Cyrus the Great|
|Return from Exile|
|516||Second Temple—Haggai, Zechariah|
|ca.||400||Canonization of the Pentateuch—Ezra, Nehemiah|
|332-31||Conquest by Alexander the Great|
|331-167||The Greek Period|
|331-323||Rule by Alexander|
|323-198||Rule by Ptolemies (Egyptian Greeks)|
|198-167||Rule by Seleucids (Syrian Greeks)|
|167-63||Hasmonean Rule—An Independent State|
Rededication of the Temple
|Rise of the Pharisees and Sadducees; Essenes at Qumran|
|63||Conquest by the Romans|
|The Roman Period|
|63||Roman general Pompey captures Jerusalem; Antipater, adviser to the High Priest, becomes ruler of Judea, 63-43, succeeded by his sons Herod and Phasael|
|48||[p.428]Julius Caesar defeats Pompey|
|44||Assassination of Caesar|
|42||Marc Antony and Octavianus divide Roman Empirebetween East and West|
|40||Parthians invade and conquer Judea|
|37||Herod the Great, with Roman assistance,recaptures Jerusalem and Judea|
|37-4||Herod governs Judea under Roman rule;|
|31||Octavianus defeats Marc Antony; end of Roman civil war|
|27 BCE-14 CE||Octavianus (Augustus) first emperor of united Roman Empire|
|Philo Judaeus, ca. 12 BCE-50 CE|
|ca.||4 BCE||Death of Herod; birth of Jesus|
|4 BCE-6 CE||Herod Archelaus (Judea, Idumea, Samaria)|
|34||Herod Phillip (East of Galilee)|
|39||Herod Antipas (Galilee and Perea)|
An Early Christian Chronology
|Events in Early Christian History||Roman Emperors||Roman Administrators of Judea (procurators)|
|27 BCE-14 CE||Octavianus (Augustus) First ruler of the Roman Empire|
Death of Herod; Birth of Jesus
Coponius, 6-9, Ambibulus, 9-12, Annius Rufinis, 12-15
|20||Tiberius, 14-37||Valerius Gratus, 15-26|
John the Baptist, ca. 27-29; Jesus’s Ministry, ca. 29-30
|Pontius Pilate, 26-36|
Crucifixion of Jesus, ca. 30; Early Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem; Peter and James the brother of Jesus; the “Q” tradition; early Gentile Christianity in Antioch
|Paul’s Conversion, ca. 33||Gaius (Caligula), 37-41||Marullus, 37-41 (?)|
Herod Agrippa I, 37-44; Persecution of the “Followers of the Way”; execution of James the disciple and imprisonment of Peter
Claudius, 41-54 (banishment of Jews from Rome)
|Cuspius Fadus,44-46Tiberius Alexander, 46-48|
|50||Gamaliel, d. ca. 50||Ventidius Cumanus, 48-52|
Paul’s letters, ca. 50-88
Herod Agrippa II,
|Nero, 54-68||Antonius Felix ca.52-60(?)|
Paul in Rome; his execution ca. 60-64
|Porcius Festus 60-62(?)|
|[p.430]Execution of James (Jesus’s brother), 62||Lucceius (?) Albinus62-64|
|66-70||Jewish-Roman War; Josephus (ca. 37-92)||Gessius Florus64-66|
Flight of Christians to Pella, 66
Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, 68
Destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple Fall of Masada, 73
|Vespasian, 69-79 (Judea transferred from a Procuratorial to an Imperial Province)|
Period of Reconstruction, Judaism & Christianity Writing of Mark, ca. 70
Founding of Jewish Academy in Jabneh (Jamniah), ca. 80
Development of a doctrine of the church—New Israel and a New Covenant;
The Gospel of Matthew, ca. 80-90
Collection of the Pauline letters; writing of Luke-Acts, ca. 85-95
The Gospel of John,
Closing of the Jewish Canon at Jabneh, ca. 90
|100- 135 CE||
The Emerging Church—Adjustment
to Roman Rule; Diasporan Jews revolt against Rome, 114-17; Martyrdom of Ignatius, 117
Bar Kokhba Messianic uprising; Judea devastated, 132-35;
2 Peter, probably latest document in Christian canon, ca. 135-50
Major Non-Canonical Christian Writings, 95-430 CE
A. Early Church Fathers
|ca. 70-156 ca.||Polycarp||To the Philippians 100-110;Didache (also known as the “Teaching of the
Six letters to the Churches:
To Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna)
Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia,
|95 CE||Clement of Rome||
|130||Written from Alexandria||Epistle of Barnabas|
Collects Paul’s epistles (excluding
Diatessaron—a synthesis of the 4 Gospels
|ca. 165||Justin called the Martyr||
Dialogue with Trypho
|170-235||Hippolytus||Refutation of All Heresies|
On First Principles
Hexapla (the compiler)
|ca. 200||Irenaeus||Against Heresies|
|200-213||Clement of Alexandria||
Exhortation to the Heathen
|260-340||Eusebius of Caesarea||Church History (10 vols.)|
The Vulgate Translation
Dialogue Against Pelagians
City of God
[p.432]B. Early Non-Canonical Gospels
|Gospel of the Ebionites||
Early second-century Jewish Christian gospel thought to be an abridged form of the Gospel of Matthew; seven fragments are in Epiphanes, Against Heresies, 30, 13-22.
|Gospel of the Hebrews||
Early second century. Probably from Egypt, written for Greek-speaking Jewish Christians.
|Gospel of the Egyptians||
Early second century. Quoted in 2 Clement and in Clement of Alexandria; shows gnostic influence.
|Gospel of the Naassenes||
Gnostic gospel, quoted in Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies, Book 5; considered heretical by Hippolytus.
|Gospel of the Nazaraeans||
Early second century. Apparently used by Syrian Jewish Christians; probably from an Aramaic translation of the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
Gospel of Peter
Middle to late second century. Shows gnostic influence; contains an unusual account of Jesus’s resurrection.
|Coptic Gospel of Thomas||
Written ca. 140 CE. Found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt near the Nile River; a collection of Jesus’s secret sayings strongly influenced by Gnosticism.
|Gospel of Philip||
Second half of the third century. Written and used by gnostic Christians; on gnostic sacramental theology and practice.
|Infantry Gospel of Thomas||
Written ca. 150 CE. Contains popular legends and miracle stories about Jesus from five to ten years of age.