It’s 45 AD and there is simply no New Testament, no collection of books that we now call the New Testament. There is not an authoritative set of documents to which you can go for determining what you believe, no texts that can be read in “public worship.” This Written Text dimension of our faith and our worship is central; in 45 AD it was non-existent. Yet, those Christians in 45 AD were Christians every bit as much as we are.
In the beginning was the gospel itself, not the New Testament. The gospel gave rise to the New Testament not the New Testament to the gospel. Paul outlines the gospel in 1 Cor 15, the Gospels fill in the lines in the four Gospels, and the Acts tells the story of the gospeling apostles Peter and Paul, and the rest of the New Testament contains texts written by gospel-bearing “apostles” as they taught gospeled church communities in the Roman empire.
How did we get our New Testament? Warren Carter, in his Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, examines this question. He dates the NT writings period from appr. 50 to appr. 130. We will get into his ideas but I want to say up front that I personally grew tired of the date-the-books issues in NT studies because there is too much “If I can prove this date as having weaknesses then it must be this date” when that logic can be reversed and the whole thing deconstructs. I hold dates loosely in my hands. I also doubt anyone who knows definitively when a given book was written. Now to Carter:
1. The first written books now in the NT were the letters of Paul. He wrote before the Gospels were written. Paul has 13 letters to his name in the NT. But 1 and 2 Cor (2:3-4) make it clear that Paul wrote others, but the 13 are the only ones that survived in the churches as authoritative letters. Paul’s letters are shaped for a particular context at a particular time, and his letters are interactive communications between him and his churches (and other leaders too).
2. We often think of Paul’s theology, but is his theology one theme (justification, “in Christ”) or a set of ideas (gospel)?
3. Carter believes there are seven secure letters of Paul (Rom, 1-2 Cor, Gal, Phil, 1 Thess, Philemon) and six disputed letters probably not written by him. These were not forged deceptions but a kind of “WWPS” (What would Paul say?) letters by those who knew Paul or who followed Paul. Carter thinks the decisive element in rendering such judgments is theology: does the theology of the disputed letters match the theology of the authentic letters? Carter would help this discussion if he provided a full discussion of the amanuensis, or secretary hypothesis, and there is a really, really good book on this by Randy Richards (Paul and First Century Letter Writing). If Paul composed his letters with a secretary and in the company of others and gave the others a hand in the process … well the whole “theology” thing gets reframed. I’m simply not convinced we can prove “Paul” did not write those disputed letters.
4. Other letters. He thinks 1 and 2 Peter were probably written after Peter’s death. He’s not sure on James; Hebrews is discussed but not much on authorship.
5. Gospels. They tell the gospel through the lens of the whole life of Jesus. Carter sees indications of post 70 AD language in the Gospels (Mt 22:1-10; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:41-43; 21:20; John 11:48). Thus he dates them 70-100 AD. He thinks they are composed in dependence upon one another: Mark and Q and then Matthew and Luke and John.
These books that became part of our New Testament, and we’ll look at this one more time next week, were written over a generation (or two, in Carter’s case). We did not first get the Gospels and then Acts and the Epistles and then the Revelation but the process was a dialectical process of interaction over time.