Saturday, March 01, 2014

What's in the Bible? - Part Three

In part two of this series, I focused on the first four books of the New Testament, the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.  It is now time to turn attention to the remainder of the New Testament.  Following the four Gospels is The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, often referred to simply as Acts.  As I mentioned previously, Acts is a companion volume to the Gospel according to Luke.  Beginning with the ascension of Jesus, it continues with an account of events leading to the formation of the early church.  Pivotal to the story is the conversion of Saul, persecutor of early Christians, into the believer Paul, fervent preacher of the word.  Acts provides details of Paul’s three missionary journeys into Asia Minor and beyond, ending with his imprisonment in Rome.
One of my favorite passages in Acts occurs in Chapter 16.  The narrator tells how Paul chose Timothy to join him in the work, describing their travels.  Verses 7 through 10 read, “When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

Do you see what has happened here?  Up to this point, the story was written in the third person – they had come; they attempted; they went down.  And after Paul’s vision, the narrator switches to first person – we … tried to cross over; God had called us.  Clearly what has occurred is that, in Troas (the city of Troy, famous in Greek legend), Luke has joined Paul’s party of traveling preachers.  Though the book of Acts dates from forty or fifty years after the actual events, this shift in voice is perhaps the best evidence that we have that at least a portion of it contains an eye-witness account.
Following Acts are twenty-one letters, referred to as Epistles.  These are arranged in the following order: first come letters attributed to Paul, and second are letters by other authors.  Within the first group, letters to churches or groups of believers precede letters addressed to individuals.  And finally, the letters within each category are placed from longest to shortest.  Pauline letters are named for the recipient; general letters, with the exception of Hebrews, are named for the author to whom they are attributed.
The usual practice in the Greco-Roman world was to use a secretary, or amanuensis, to do the actual writing of letters.  Sometimes letters would be dictated word-for-word.  On other occasions, the author might give the secretary a general outline of what was wanted and leave the precise wording to the scribe.  We know from references in several of Paul’s letters that he employed an amanuensis, frequently adding a few lines of greeting in his own hand at the end.  For example, in Galatians 6:11, Paul writes, “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!”
Determining which letters ascribed to Paul were actually composed by him is a matter of scholarly debate made even more complicated by this practice.  Are differences of style and terminology an indication that the epistle was composed by someone other than Paul, or simply a consequence of his employing different secretaries?  There is general agreement that Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon are authentically Paul’s.  Of these, I Thessalonians is probably the earliest of Paul’s extant writings and thus the oldest book by date of composition in the New Testament.
Authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and II Thessalonians is questionable or disputed.  And while I and II Timothy and Titus might include some fragments of Paul’s writing, it is most likely that these letters in their current form were compiled by a later author who was influenced by Paul’s teachings.
By the mid-second century C.E. the book of Hebrews was attributed to Paul, though church leaders even of that time recognized that in form, content, and style it was very different from Paul’s other writings.  Today it is acknowledged that internal evidence strongly indicates that Hebrews comes from the second generation of Christians, after the apostles, rather than from Paul.
The general circulation letters employ the common practice of ascribing authorship to a noted and revered leader.  The letter of James, which lacks most of the marks of the epistolary style, can more accurately be termed a Wisdom treatise.  Its author echoes sayings of Jesus that are found in the synoptic gospels.  I Peter reflects issues characteristic of the late first century churches in Asia Minor, while II Peter is even later, perhaps dating from the first years of the second century.  The three brief letters of John appear to have been authored by an Elder in a network of Johannine churches, while the letter of Jude is a tract warning against divisiveness in the church.  All four most likely date from the final third of the first century.
There have undoubtedly been more scholarly and popular books written about The Revelation to John than about any other book in the Bible.  Its dense mystical and allegorical imagery is the subject of endless debate.  Many scholars now understand its vivid descriptions to be coded language made necessary by persecution of the church.  While decoding its symbols is the subject of much study and speculation, it is unlikely that any one system of explanation will ever satisfy the majority of readers.
And perhaps that is just as it should be.  This vast compendium of literature that we name The Bible concludes in wonder and mystery.  May that fact remind us to read the faith story of millions with a certain humility, a recognition that not one of us can understand everything in it, and that there is always more to learn.

Author’s Note: For information about dating and authorship of the books of the Bible, much reliance has been placed on the articles found in The New Oxford Annotated Bible edition of the New Revised Standard Version.

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