Sorting the New Testament–a different approach

The New Testament is traditionally described as containing four types of books. These are the four Gospels, one book of history, twenty-one epistles, and one apocalypse. This description is useful because it recognizes the different kinds of literature in the New Testament and because it lists the books in the order they are arranged.

A second approach to the New Testament also describes four types of books, but this description includes one Gospel in each set. The four sets are Hebraic, Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine. The point is not that the New Testament contains different or competing theologies. All the books of the New Testament proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God, fully human, and the Savior of sinful humanity. However, this approach recognizes diversity in the authorship of New Testament books and in the intended audiences of the writers.

The Hebraic books are the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Letter of James. These three books are written with a Jewish audience in mind. They assume literacy in the Old Testament and familiarity with first century Jewish customs. (Other New Testament writers explain customs that these three books simply state.) The word “faith” is not often used in the Hebraic books; instead, James speaks of “wisdom” when he talks about faith and uses “faith” to talk about the content of the faith (the list of things that are believed) rather than the actual relationship of faith.

The Petrine books are the Gospel of Mark, the two epistles of Peter, and the letter from Jude. Peter was a fisherman who was trained by Jesus to be an apostle. The Gospel of Matthew is relatively terse and dry (after all, Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers person), but Mark’s accounts are lively and vivid. Early Church historians say that Mark wrote what he heard Peter preach, so the language of the book is that of Peter. Jude, brother of James (and therefore brother of Jesus), traveled with Peter. His short book is a summary of the second epistle of Peter.

The Pauline books are the thirteen epistles bearing Paul’s name and the two books by Luke: his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. While Paul’s readers included both Jews and Gentiles, the books of Luke definitely have a Gentile readership in mind. Luke is the only Gospel writer who provides a sequel, describing how Jesus and his Spirit worked in the Church during the first generation of Christians. Paul wrote nine letters to seven different congregations–a fact that Augustine of Hippo found fitting, given the number seven often signals completeness, and also given that John’s book of Revelation also is addressed to seven congregations. In addition, Paul wrote four letters to three different individuals. The letters to Timothy and Titus are written in a different style from Paul’s other epistles, leading some Bible interpreters to think they had a different author. Paul’s different style in those letters is caused, not by a different author, but by a different audience with different concerns.

The Johannine books were written by John the Apostle. They are the Gospel of John, the three epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. John, like Peter, was a fisherman trained to be an apostle. John lived longer than Peter and probably wrote these books toward the end of his career, when he had been a leader of the Church for many years. He writes like a pastor. The Gospel and epistles use a very basic vocabulary and grammar, whereas the book of Revelation is written in a far different style. Again, this probably does not indicate a different author, but rather a different subject, a different approach, and a different situation (since John wrote Revelation while imprisoned on the island of Patmos).

This approach to the New Testament helps to clarify some apparent contradictions among the writers. It also provides additional context for each book. Recognizing connections between the Gospels and the epistles may grant a reader of the New Testament new understanding of what it contains.

Tomorrow I will address the so-called Synoptic Problem. J.

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