Having spent a few days arguing the primacy of a homogenized New Testament narrative to the Standard Hollywood Story (SHS), I received a bewildering number of carrier pigeons from deranged followers of The God Project Dot Net demanding I explain just what this so-called “New Testament” actually was without excessive footnoting or jeremiads in Aramaic. Herewith:
“The New Testament in 90 Seconds”
27 books — all written in Greek, none by an author who met the historical Jesus. 4 are Gospels, 1 post-Easter pseudo-history (Book of Acts), 13 letters attributed to Paul. Content composed between 60 and 120 A.D. — or 30 to 90 years after Jesus’ death. Didn’t assume final form until the 4th century, probably by practical consensus and not committee.
Earliest content are some letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians). Earliest Gospel is Mark, which was used (in some cases copied) by Matthew and Luke, who also shared a lost source of Jesus’ sayings called “Q.” As earliest, Mark is considered closest to historical Jesus; it portrays him as an apocalyptic prophet who did not believe he was God and thought the world would end soon.
Matthew is extremely Jewish — marinated in the Hebrew Bible, most intent on showing Christianity succeeding Judaism. Luke is the cleanest storyteller, most like the Jesus of myth. He also wrote the Book of Acts, describing Pentecost and the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles (sans circumcision). John is very different: later, more anti-Jewish, with Jesus as essentially divine and self-aware.
Paul wrote 7 of his 13 “letters.” (He probably did not write 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Collosians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.) These are real letters, written to communities he had founded, left and is now reprimanding for getting something “wrong.”
1 Corinthians is a treasure-trove of info about early Christian practice. Galatians is a diatribe against those who believed Christians had to be Jews first (remember: Jesus and 12 were Jews). Romans is Paul’s only theological treatise, explaining the tricky matter of how a criminal’s execution actually gets believers right with God (“justification”).
Paul did not invent Christianity — the Gospel writers did. But he was its first intellectual and a tireless missionary, the only real personality other than Jesus to emerge from the New Testament.
Other books include the epistle of James, which Luther hated because it argues for works over faith. The Letter to the Hebrews, really a sermon to non-Jews arguing for the superiority of Jesus to Moses and Christianity (the reality) to Judaism (foreshadow). 1 and 2 Peter, which describes early persecution and suffering as parallel to Jesus’ and a mark of favor.
And the Book of Revelation (singular). An example of a popular genre called apocalyptic in which delicate current political realities were encoded in sci fi-like stories and given triumphant endings. “666” is a numerical code for Caesar Nero, a Christian persecutor, and the book fantasizes about his destruction at the hands of God. It is not about America, kids. Really.