We kick off the New Testament in 40 days reading challenge tomorrow!
I hope you’ve selected your Bible and become familiar with its table of contents, which will help you find the books as we jump around to read in chronological order. Remember you can always access the full reading outline here:
If you’re like me, you’re busy and it may be necessary to read a bit ahead one day, or catch up a bit another day. While I encourage to you stick to the daily format with Sundays off, I recognize each of us will have to make decisions about reading. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Plan ahead; catch up when you need to.
Each day I’ll post a reading reminder and a very short piece covering
•When and Where – scholarly consensus (or Borg’s take) on when the book was written and who to.
•Key Insights – one or two overarching points or themes of the book.
•Big Picture – how the book relates to the rest of scripture and some comments on a Wesleyan approach
As we get ready to start – some additional context and background. (Optional!)
One of the things I like to do with small groups is hold up a Bible. Find the place where Matthew starts (the first book in canonical order (that is, the order nearly every Bible is printed, an order set by councils held during the 4th and 5th Centuries)). Note how much of the Bible is New Testament (NT) vs. Old Testament (OT). The NT is much smaller! Remember that when Paul (and others we’ll read) refer to “the Scriptures,” they generally mean what we now call the Old Testament.
So, when Jesus refers to “the Law and the Prophets” for example, in Matthew 22 or Luke 16 – he’s referring to the Law (or Torah – the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Exodus, Deuteronomy)) and the Prophets (most of the rest of the OT, along with “Wisdom” texts and “Writings”). The New Testament makes extensive use of these materials. Often quoting them; more often invoking the stories.
When Jesus tells a parable about a man with two sons… his Jewish audiences would have heard the echoes of many stories told in Torah – Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. Paul often refers to Abraham and the prophets, foundational stories of Jewish identity. Stories of kingdoms and vineyards would also have been rooted in the fertile ground of the OT texts. Sometimes the OT teachings are affirmed (it is written…) , sometimes they are challenged (you have heard it said… but I say to you…), but that background is always there.
In this study we will focus exclusively on reading the New Testament, but I bring these points up to make clear that the New is not a clean split from or a rejection of the Old, but a continuing evolution deeply rooted in Jewish thought, worship and practice. When Paul sat down to write a letter, I personally don’t think he realized he was writing Scripture. But the early communities kept his letters and wrote more as they sorted out what it meant to follow Christ and how best to share that with others. Eventually those letters, along with 4 Gospels, Acts and the visions of John of Patmos recorded in Revelation became the NT and part of Scripture for Christians.
One of the first great heresies of the Church was led by a man named Marcion who wanted to ignore and reject the OT (in fact, that controversy is part of what led to the councils that set the canon order). While we will focus on the NT in this study, let us not repeat Marcion’s error of thinking the God of the OT was an angry, even evil(!) creator who was then replaced by a loving God in the New. Rather, let us see how our human understanding of God’s revelation has continued to grow throughout all of Scripture, and for we Christians, is now rooted in God’s self-revelation in Jesus, the Word become flesh at a particular time and place in human history, yet that same eternal Word was present, with the Holy Spirit, in the first moments of creation as well.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is eternal.
God is mystery, God is love.
Much like Christianity is today, Judaism during and shortly after Jesus’ human ministry was both unified and divided. All Jews were monotheist, honored the Law of Moses, Circumcision, etc., but groups also disagreed on many other details: what would the Messiah be like; how to practice purity and cleanliness; how to relate to foreigners – particularly in light of political, economic and military domination by Rome, which followed several other empires over the centuries
Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Levites, Zealots, and Scribes all had slightly different understandings and emphases, with the larger Jewish community – and different relationships with Roman authority and power. Into that volatile mix comes the small initial number of Jesus’ followers. The name Christian wouldn’t be used to describe them until well into Paul’s ministry (Acts 11 says it is first used at Antioch). As we read the New Testament, keep in mind that these are the writings of very small communities of Jesus’ followers. They are a minority group among minority groups at the edge of an empire. Because of their differences with Jewish authorities, they are also are at great risk of losing their “home” in the Synagogues.
Many of the texts we will struggle with most show the fear and anger in times of uncertainty and rapid changes as their “sect” is rejected and other visions of what it means to properly worship God seem to be winning the day. Indeed, most were written during or shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70AD. This means it was a time of profound crisis and search for new identity within Judaism. Christians proclaimed we had a new Temple, found in the person of Jesus, the Christ and that even gentiles were now accepted into the faith. Initially, this argument was rejected by most, but eventually Christianity came to be the largest faith in the world, expanding well beyond its origins in small fishing villages and cities on the edge of an empire.
We are the beneficiaries of these early communities faith and perseverance, who conveyed the wonder of their transformative experience that we too might encounter and be changed by the Word become flesh and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is not a simple instruction manual. We will encounter much that makes you uncomfortable, and much that fills you with joy. The point is to enter into these texts, wrestle with them, be changed by them, and encounter God within them, that we might better encounter and share God’s grace, love and compassion in all things.
I’m glad to share this experience with you. Blessings on your reading.