Why read the New Testament?

By Joseph Manning

Why Matthew?

The Book of Matthew was probably written in or around Antioch and served as the Gospel for that church community.  Notably, Christians began simply as a parallel sub-sect of Judaism alongside the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes.  What’s really fascinating is that the Sadducees and Pharisees had pretty much as many theological differences between them as either did with Christians.  Acts 23:6.  Shortly later, however, Christians began to be viewed as an entirely different religion altogether.  This shift probably first really started taking place in Antioch. “[I]n Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Acts. 11:26.

From the point of view of reading the New Testament as a piece of literature Matthew is the first book.  The first line consciously references the beginning of the Hebrew Bible with the use of the word geneseos.  Matthew also throws in bits of Aramaic so from a linguistic point of view you get Greek and Aramaic in one go.

Wasn’t the New Testament translated and re-translated so many times what we have today is nothing like the original?

The books of the New Testament are the best preserved ancient writings in existence.  There are thousands of extant manuscripts, and nearly all are similar word-for-word.  And, most good Bible translations will have footnotes to note variances. These are often slight differences with only a word or two difference.

The New Testament was written originally in Ancient Greek.  The Greek language has a literary history spanning 3000 years.  The Greeks called themselves Hellenes, their country Hellas, and their language the Hellenic language.  Everyone else was a barbaroi, (a word we derive ‘barbarian’ from) an onomatopoeic word poking fun at the way they perceived other languages — a string of gibberish ba bar ba bar…

The word Greek comes from Latin Graeci because the Romans first encountered a Hellenic group called the Graioi and extended their name to the rest.

Greek is in the Indo-European language group along with other commonly spoken languages like English, French, German, Spanish, Hindi.  (In turn, Indo-European derives from the enigmatic proto-Indo-European language a language spoken by the even more mysterious proto-Indo-European people — what little we know about these people comes from our knowledge of their reconstructed language, for example, we know they had horses, lived in snowy climates, and had the wheel because their language had words describing these kinds of things.)  All told Indo-European speakers number at around 3 billion today.

Ancient Greek is divided into a few dialects: Aeolic, Doric, Ionic, and Attic.  Doric was spoken in the Peloponnesus an island hosting the well-known Spartans.  Of the four, Attic is the form of Ancient Greek best known today; it was the language of Athens, and because of that city’s host of scholarly greats during the golden age of 500-300 BCE, it became the literary language of the Ancient Greeks.

When the Macedonians expanded, a phenomenon known as Hellenization occurred where the conquered peoples adopted Greek custom, language, and religion.  In this way, Attic spread, and by spreading became less and less pure.  Eventually the dialect morphed into what we call Koine meaning ‘common.’  Koine became the common language of the ancient world and as the Roman Empire spread the language remained. A little known fact is that in the Roman empire Latin was used relatively rarely — primarily isolated to the Italic peninsula.  Rather the language of the Roman Empire was Koine Greek.  Christianity was the product of a provincial Roman territory; and so, Koine is the language of the New Testament and the early church fathers.

Weren’t the books of the New Testament written much later than the events they describe and weren’t a lot of books left out?

Contemporary agreement by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria was that the canonicity of the four Gospels was accepted before 200 CE. Tatian and Justin Martyr, writing slightly earlier also accepted the four Gospels as the only authentic and authoritative Gospels. There are other gospels — mostly gnostic writings — but they were  not accepted either because they were written much later or were just too fanciful and weird.  The four Gospels in the New Testament are very old.  A writing called The Shepherd of Hermas written as early as 100 CE already mentions the four Gospels.  All of the Gospels were written between the years 0-100 CE.  While their authorship is unknown they were easily written within the lifetimes of people who could have known Jesus personally.

Isn’t the New Testament just a bunch of myths and fairy tales?

The New Testament does reference a lot of miracles and fanciful events.  But still the 20 to 30 fairly short Greek manuscripts that make up the New Testament have had a great impact on the world and are worth reading if only for their literary and historic impact.  Beyond the religiosity of Christianity, the New Testament offers glimpses into the lives of Roman peoples.  In particular, the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament were probably never intended to reach a wide audience.  And so, unlike the other great classical works, these short letters are windows into personal and daily lives of people 2000 years removed.  On the other hand, the four Gospels and the book of Acts offer a fascinating look at the Roman legal system presenting both the trials of Jesus and Paul.


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