A personal word in advance
I was seventeen when I went into a secondhand bookstore to buy – curiously – a New Testament, Prisma edition. I did not know that “New Testament,” so the reading could be disappointing, but it cost only twenty francs or half a euro; thus the purchase was an acceptable risk. A friend had explained to me that the Bible consisted of an Old Testament and a New Testament. I had always thought it was three books: two Testaments and another Bible on top. That’s what you get when you are raised without faith. As I began to read curiously in my newly acquired acquisition, I soon came to a speech Jesus had given on a mountain: the Sermon on the Mount. What should I say? I was amazed, amazed, delighted, delighted, when I first read Jesus’ statements. I had never encountered anything like this before in my admittedly young existence. I devoured books back then, but now all those other books had to wait; I had discovered something completely new, something completely different, and that now had priority.
I bought myself a whole Bible (New Testament plus the Old, I now knew) and read it completely through a few times, just from front to back. Of course I didn’t understand it all, but still: what a world opened up to me! Ancient histories, bizarre stories, also boring enumerations and genealogies, but then: poetic songs of praise, deeply painful complaints, wisdom, wrathful prophets. Yet it was especially the one person central to the New Testament who made a deep impression on me, especially through his words. The evangelist John wrote of him, “Never has a man spoken like that!” So I felt the same way. It never left me, that Bible, that New Testament. I went to study theology, a master’s degree was followed by a doctorate, and actually I never stopped reading and searching and discovering. This book is a result of that search, of a great curiosity about how that New Testament came into being, who wrote it, and what all those authors wanted to say.
Daniel De Waele
The New Testament seems quite accessible. Yet that New Testament was written in a culture profoundly different from our modern world. A book like Revelation perplexes us, what is written in Hebrews is utterly foreign to us, but neither are Paul’s letters particularly clear even on repeated reading. Even the better-known gospels, when read attentively, still prove to possess their own strangeness and raise the necessary questions. The book you now have in your hands aims to lead you into the world of the New Testament writings.
We start immediately with an examination of the books of the New Testament, keeping the traditional order. First, then, are the Gospels. We will try to find out when they originated and by whom they were written down – because, contrary to popular belief, this is by no means clear. We examine for what purpose the gospels were written, what were the sources of the evangelists, why there are four gospels and not one. We also look for an explanation of the differences between the gospels. Why does Jesus stress the importance of the law in Matthew’s Gospel, while in John’s Gospel he talks about “the law of the Jews,” as if distancing himself from it? Why is it that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus on the cross desperately cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” while in Luke’s Gospel we find no god forsakenness but rather closeness to God, “Father, into your hands I place my spirit? ” And also: why is John’s Gospel so different from the other three? Did John possess other sources? These and other questions are addressed in the chapter on the “Scriptures of the Evangelists.
There are also a lot of letters in the New Testament. We look at how a letter was drafted at the time, what diatribe is, what pseudepigraphs are. Researchers question whether all the letters that are in Paul’s name are his; we get to know the arguments pro and con. We also briefly discuss Paul’s pharisee background. We discuss his letters in chronological order (so we deviate briefly from the usual order), and here and there in an excursion we elaborate on a theme Paul touches on in his letters. A separate letter from an unknown author is that to the Hebrews. Among other things, its author talks about the impossibility of a second conversion. How was this understood in the early church? A question of entirely different order is that of the Platonic influences at play in this letter. Then there are the Catholic letters or general epistles. These are not addressed to a local congregation or a particular person, as is the case with Paul’s letters, but they are addressed to Christianity in general. We will consider who wrote the general epistles – are any of them brothers of Jesus? Does James, with his stressing of works, reject Paul’s doctrine of grace? Does Judas also take his inspiration from pseudepigraphic books such as Enoch and Ascension of Isaiah? What is the antichrist doing in the Church, according to John’s letters?
The New Testament concludes with an enigmatic book: Revelation of John. The book purports to have a view of the future. Does this refer to the near future of the first readers? Does it refer to our future? Does this book actually intend to unlock the secrets of the future, or does it want to communicate something else to its readers? We will examine the characteristics of apocalypticism, which apocalyptic books remain and how the Revelation of John differs from them.
This overview of the New Testament books is followed by three chapters in which we want to go into some specifics. In a first chapter of these, we pay attention to the reliability of the New Testament text. Much research has been done on additions, omissions, changes made to the text over time. We look at the results of that research. Indeed, when manuscripts were transcribed, copying errors were made, corrections were also made, and even – more painfully – changes were made here and there to the text from theological motives. Fortunately, we know which passages were corrupted, usually they were later restored to their original form. But sometimes we can’t quite figure out which was the original text.
In a subsequent chapter, we examine why the New Testament contains the gospels and letters known to us, and not, for example, the Gospel of Tomas, or one of the Jewish gospels such as that of the Ebionites, or the Revelation of Peter. Who determined what ended up in the New Testament? Quite wild stories sometimes circulate about this. Every now and then another book appears in which dark secrets, kept hidden by the Church for centuries, are finally brought to light. The book in your hands is more down-to-earth: no dark conspiracies are unraveled here. Nevertheless, the genesis of our New Testament remains a fascinating story. We examine how the canon developed and what elements played a role in it.
A final chapter deals with the protagonist of the New Testament, the man it is all about: Jesus of Nazareth, referred to by believers as the Christ. For nearly two centuries scholars have been diligently searching for who this Jesus actually was, what his motives were, what he wanted to achieve with his actions. Believers will say that you can just read that in the gospels, but researchers believe that those gospels are not very reliable historically. They apply the historical critical method to the four gospels in order to find out who this man from Nazareth really was, and what was attributed to him. In this chapter, we examine the extent to which these researchers have been successful in doing so, and whether their research has been illuminating for a better understanding of who Jesus was.
This book is not intended for theologians, who already know what is described here. It is intended for the interested layperson, and even the beginning student of theology will benefit from it. But then again, it is not a book that keeps things simple. Difficult things are not avoided, but attempts are made to explain them in a clear way. This book grew out of course material I offered to Religious Studies students. Their questions and feedback helped me tune in to the questions of the average person interested in the Bible. Their comments also prompted me to explain concepts that I assumed were common knowledge anyway. In an index at the back one finds a list of difficult and important concepts with reference to the pages where they are explained. Thus, no – or hardly any – prior knowledge is required for this book. With this book, I hope to provide an answer to the many questions of curious believers and non-believers alike.