On getting ready to study the New Testament

On getting ready to study the New Testament January 3, 2019


Lindisfarne Luke
The beginning of the New Testament book of Luke in the Lindisfarne Gospels
(Wikimedia Commons)


Bill Hamblin and I published the column below in the Deseret News for 26 December 2014.  It seems appropriate to repost it now:


In the Bible, the term “new testament” or “new covenant” first appears in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

It’s a glorious vision of the future that hasn’t yet been completely fulfilled. Still, in Christian belief, the advent, atonement and resurrection of Jesus were major steps toward the realization of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Use of the term “New Testament” to describe an anthology of Christian documents from the first century A.D., including four distinct accounts of Jesus Christ’s life, goes back at least to the Latin Church Father Tertullian, who died in A.D. 220.

The process by which Christians agreed on the present New Testament canon is somewhat obscure. Certain books that many early Christians considered scripture (such as the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement and the Diatesseron) were eventually excluded, while, in the end, some disputed books (e.g., the Revelation of John and the so-called “general epistles” of Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John and Jude) were accepted. Today, however, almost all Christians everywhere agree on the familiar 27-book collection. (There is much less consensus on the books to be included in the Old Testament.)

Virtually all the books of the New Testament, if not all of them — there’s been some debate since ancient times about the gospel of Matthew — were written in a “post-classical” dialect of Greek called “koine” or “common.”

This wasn’t the Greek of Homer, nor the “Attic” Greek of the great Athenian playwrights and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Rather, it was the Greek that had been spread across much of the eastern Mediterranean and eastward toward Iran by the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. (It’s no coincidence that the famous Septuagint, the third-to-second-century B.C. “koine” Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was widely used among the earliest Christians, was commenced and largely produced in Alexandria, Egypt.)

Alexander, a zealous advocate of Greek culture, had been tutored as a teenager by no less a teacher than Aristotle, whom the early 14th-century Italian Christian poet Dante, in his great poem “Inferno,” identified as “the master of those who know.”

Koine Greek came to be influenced by local cultures and native languages far beyond classical Athens, and many scholars argue that the influence of Semitic languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) can be detected in some linguistic features of the Greek New Testament.

However, the rapid spread of Christianity soon required translation of the New Testament into other languages, in support of the Christian missionary effort. Syriac, for example, was spoken in both Syria (which included Palestine, where it was known as Aramaic) and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Tatian, an Assyrian, had already created a harmonized Syriac version of the four gospels that is known as the Diatesseron — see above — by A.D. 179.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were also translated into Latin (the official language of the Roman empire, and the dominant language in its western territories) at about that same time, and perhaps a bit later in Europe. These various competing Latin translations were eventually replaced by St. Jerome’s great “Vulgate” version, which he created while living in Bethlehem in the late fourth century. In the 16th century, the Vulgate became the official biblical translation of the Roman Catholic Church.

By the third century, portions of the New Testament had also begun to appear in Egyptian Coptic.

The New Testament is absolutely central to Christianity and has exercised enormous influence on both western and world culture.


Reposted from Cairo, Egypt



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