An observation on reading the New Testament

I’m a Christian pastor, so it makes sense that I think quite a bit about what the Bible says. But I also spend quite a lot of time thinking about how I/we read the biblical texts. That is, I’m very interested in hermeneutics.

I’ve been convinced for a long time now that most of the significant arguments (ostensibly) about what the Bible says are actually more about how the Bible is being read. It may be surprising to some, but there is not just one ‘correct’ way to read these sacred texts. I’m convinced that there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ reading strategies, but I think it’s naive to suggest that there is only one ‘right’ approach.

I may have lost some readers already at this point but, if you’re willing to read on, hopefully I can make some sense of these initial statements (both in this post and those that follow).

I want to take a couple of posts to tease out some ideas on these issues, and would like to start in this post by addressing a phenomenon that I think is quite common — and quite mistaken — when it comes to reading the New Testament in particular.

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Here’s a bold statement: it appears, to my mind, that readers of the New Testament (including many pastors and even Bible scholars) often take the New Testament ‘Letters’ as universal, and the ‘Gospels’ as occasional. I think this is precisely around the wrong way.

The New Testament is made up of 27 books/individual texts, taking the form of at least a couple of different genres. Though it’s a bit more complicated than this, essentially we are dealing with ‘gospels’ and ‘letters’. The gospels are probably best understood as something like historical biographies of Jesus, and the letters were (most probably) written by leaders in the early church, including the Apostle Paul (who wrote up to 13 of them), to certain individuals or groups. There are a couple of texts that don’t necessarily fit easily into either of these categories — such as The Book of Acts (which is actually the second ‘part’ of the Gospel of Luke, but focuses on the early church rather than Jesus), the ‘Epistle’ to the Hebrews (which is something more like a sermon), and the Book of Revelation (which is all sorts of things, but basically one long letter which also happens to be a ‘prophecy’ that uses ‘apocalyptic’ imagery) — but these are the two main groupings.

One of the things that I often see/hear/read is people taking statements from New Testament letters and treating them like they are universal declarations. This is weird, because every single one of the New Testament letters were written to specific individuals or groups. They were written by real people, to real people, in a time and place very different from our own. Now, the fact that they weren’t written to us does not for a moment mean that they don’t have a message for us. I happen think that they have quite a lot to say, even now, but we can’t simply take the texts and apply them one-for-one ( that is, they can be instructive for us, but they are not direct instruction to us). We need, for starters, to do the hard work of socio-historical investigation to help us work out, as best we can, what these texts might have been understood to be saying to their original recipients. These texts are ‘occasional letters’. That is, they were written to meet the needs or to speak into the lives of people in a specific circumstance, and we need to try to understand them in all their contextuality before trying to work out the deeper theological foundations on which the specific statements were built. Once we do that, we’re in a much better position to start thinking about what it all might mean for us (and this is where the really hard work begins).

Weirdly enough, when it comes to the gospels, I often see/hear/read people talking about them like they are occasional in nature. That is, the Gospel of Matthew is said to be ‘very Jewish’, while the Gospel of Luke* is much more ‘Gentile’. The Gospel of John is said to be ‘very theological’ (whatever that means), and some scholars have even devised complex notions of ‘dual readings’ of this text, suggesting that it says much more about the ‘Johannine community’ than Jesus himself. The theory goes along the lines of this: the author/s carefully brought together the stories of Jesus which also had direct relevance to their own situation. For example, the story in John 9 of ‘the man born blind’ being healed by Jesus and subsequently ‘kicked out’ by the Jewish leaders is said to mirror the (hypothetical) experience of the so-called Johannine community being expelled from the synagogues in the late 1st century (as part of the ‘parting of the ways’ between Judaism and Christianity). I find this really interesting, firstly, because there’s very little-to-no historical basis for this and, secondly, because the gospels are, by design, an attempt at continuing ‘sacred history’ from the Jewish scriptures. If there are any texts in the New Testament that are self-consciously trying to be taken seriously as ‘sacred’, it’s the gospels (and, on this note, it is a valid question to ask whether any of the authors of the New Testament letters would have ever dreamed of their texts being included in a ‘Bible’, let alone having people pour over the texts looking at each word, verb tense, etc., in order to apply what is said in them to the situation of Christians living in 21st century Sydney, for example). Of course, this does not diminish the need for good socio-historical investigation, but the texts are intrinsically aimed at a broader audience.

The other thing that often happens with the gospels is that people lessen their importance or relevance by saying that they are not ‘didactic’ in nature. This notion is as persistent as it is ridiculous.

Now, at this point, I’m surely going to be accused of ‘prioritising the gospels’, or that I’ve become an Anabaptist. I haven’t, but I think there’s deep value in Anabaptist thought, and don’t mind the accusation at all. I’ll also be accused of devaluing apostolic instruction. I’m doing no such thing.

What I am doing here is simply suggesting that we respect the New Testament texts enough to encounter them as what they are. Treating one of Paul’s letters — yes, even Romans —as some sort of systematic theology divorced from its context does violence to the text. In the same way, treating the gospels as something less than the continuation of sacred history robs them of their value.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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* Of course, it is true that Luke-Acts (1 volume in two parts) is addressed to ‘Theophilus,’ but this is likely the author’s patron rather than the sole intended recipient.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

5 thoughts on “An observation on reading the New Testament”

  1. I am currently reading How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth by Fee and Stuart. It is a great read and is refreshing my memory from college and the skills learnt there. It’s a very practical and down to earth book. Very along the lines of what you’ve written here. It’s very balanced and shows no regard for tradition, just good and principled reading of the bible.

  2. I think it only does violence to a single way of reading the text. A thousand years of early Christian thought took the letters as universal declarations for many situations that were not contextually relevant or even related. Even the way that some of the NT writers, Paul included, use the OT intertextually points to a much more radical way of using “scripture” rather than just in its historical-critical context. I think you’re resonating with Spinoza, Eichhorn, Schleiermacher, and Baur here but not with the early Christian tradition where reading the NT truthfully did not always mean that it was read/used in light of its “original” “historical” situation.

    1. I think it’s certainly true that many early Christian interpreters did all sorts of things with the biblical texts that seem, shall we say, ‘interesting’ to modern interpreters. I’m not convinced, though, that early Christian interpretation was completely void of thought concerning genre expectations, which is essentially what I’m talking about here. Do you have any particular examples/interpreters in mind?

  3. Thanks Josh, I really appreciate the ideas in this post.

    For the very reasons you outline I have tended towards a preference for the gospels as some how closer to the actual words and thoughts of Jesus written by people who spent considerable time with him. Not really sure how helpful such an approach ends up being but I like to kid myself. The process of bringing the bible to its final form of course was very much of its time and contested. I actually sit reasonably comfortably with an open canon – the belief that as God’s spirit inspired the writings and the decision to include them in the traditions of the church as worthy of study and application, in the same way God continues to inspire his people. Practically I am not sure how it works but I am attracted to the principle! Which brings me to a final thought – I mentioned tradition and I guess that is a powerful consideration in hermeneutics which ties us to a historical flow. I don’t think evangelicals have been terribly good at recognising and incorporating wisdom from between about 300-1500AD, almost as if it never happened. But there is something very powerful to be said for a community connected by many thousands of years of experiences revealing more and more of who God is and how we are live, which continues to wrestle with its texts and experiences. That sense of liminality is profound and if we let it, informative of how to live now. I guess the reality is that we can only approximately understand what the original writers saw and meant. We can also only approximately understand our own contexts and somehow have to be wise and trust the spirit to assist us in making all these connections. Also, in a post modern world the temptation to continual fragmentation is a huge consideration.

    Thanks for the posts. I reckon your writing is becoming much clearer and disciplined. Cheers.

    Kind regards, Peter.

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