In Christian verbiage, “The New Testament” is a commonplace for the authoritative writings that bear witness (i.e “testify”) to Jesus’s presence in the first century CE.

But the New Testament is pretty old, right? Strangely enough, the New Testament is older and newer than many people care to realize.

the Jews, “For us it is not permitted to kill
anyone,” so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he sp-
oke signifying what kind of death he was going to
die. Entered therefore again into the Praeto-
rium Pilate and
summoned Jesus
and said to him, “Thou art king of the
a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would test-
ify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”

The images here are the front (recto) and back (verso) of the oldest extant papyri fragment of a text from the New Testament. Dubbed P52, the Rylands Library Papyrus, this ancient paper is the size of a business card. The image to the left (recto) contains pieces from John 18:31-33; the image to the right (verso), John 18:37-38. The bold words represent texts visible on the fragment.

Consider the following…

The image above–P52– is the oldest scrap we have of a writing found in the New Testament. But it actually dates to the 2nd century CE rather than the 1st century CE. When people discuss the Bible in the public square or in churches, they often talk of an original text or an original meaning. The thing is though is that we do not have an original text but fragments of copies of texts that correspond to texts found in the New Testament that you find in bookstores.

This is a cover of The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, ed. and trans. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše (Oxford University Press, 2014). Contrary to popular belief, these writings are not super secret. You can find them at any major book store.

It’s also worth noting that the 27 writings that comprise the New Testament are not the only antique writings that testify to the Jesus movement. We have other gospel accounts and letters that faithful Christians circulated as scripture in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. And lest one be ready to write these people off as peddling late texts, it’s worth noting that generations had passed before the writings associated with the New Testament had the aura of something beyond human-made words (i.e. the word of God). In fact, a 4th century CE Egyptian bishop named Athanasius of Alexandria made a list of approved writings for his church, and these do correspond with the New Testament we know in writings and sequence. But his list actually proves the point that communities were reading all sorts of things to make sense of Jesus. People were and continue to read (and not read) all sorts of things.

This Religion for Breakfast video by Andrew Mark Henry has a description of some key moments in the formation of the New Testament.

And you know how I talked about the New Testament you have in bookstores? Bookstores really do play a part in the formation of the New Testament. For the 27 books listed in the order you see as definitive today were not set in stone–or type–until Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century. This technology mass produced what once was copied by hand. and made the idea of personal Bible reading possible. Around the same time, a social movement called the Protestant Reformation made personal Bible reading desirable … because who needs to hear the Bible read aloud if you can read? (Though that’s a big “if” because literacy was limited to the wealthy elite). The canon (bound list and sequence) was typeset with the printing press into what we take for granted today.

Image of the Gutenberg Bible, open in a New York Public Library Display.
A paper codex of the acclaimed 42-line Bible, Gutenberg’s major work. NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng),CC BY-SA 2.0. Still not a Bible one could tote, but that was on the horizon in the 15th century.

Lastly, the New Testament as we engage it today is:

  • a reconstructed puzzle made of pieces from varying editions…
  • with words in languages in need of translation…
  • coming from a world that is very different than ours…
  • but our picture of that world is informed by all the people who’ve tried to put it together over the last two millennia…
  • and the value and rationale for putting together that puzzle is historically tied to personal preference, social commitments, economic concerns, and political force.

So how do Bible Scholars Do This New Testament Thing?

For your interactive notebook assignment, I’d like you to read this short essay on “How Do Biblical Scholars Study the New Testament.” Then put in your own words the following terms: text criticism, archaeology, social-scientific criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, narrative criticism, rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism, ideological criticism, and deconstruction.

  • Keep your definitions short and easy to understand. (1-2 sentences max).
  • Draw some image that will help you remember/think of each term.

People do all sorts of stuff with the Bible, so we”ll need all the methodological help we can get…

Yeah… there’s a lot we have to talk about…