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Marcus Borg

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A Chronological New Testament

Posted: 08/31/2012 8:01 am

A chronological New Testament is different from and yet the same as the New Testament familiar to Christians. It contains the same 27 documents, but sequences them in the chronological order in which they were written.

The familiar New Testament begins with the Gospels and concludes with Revelation for obvious reasons. Jesus is the central figure of Christianity and so the New Testament begins with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Revelation is about "the last things" and the second coming of Jesus, so it makes sense that it comes at the end. Revelation and the Gospels function as bookends for the New Testament. Everything else comes between: Acts, 13 letters attributed to Paul, and eight attributed to other early Christian figures.

A chronological New Testament sequences the documents very differently. Its order is based on contemporary mainstream biblical scholarship. Though there is uncertainty about dating some of the documents, there is a scholarly consensus about the basic framework.

It begins with seven letters attributed to Paul, all from the 50s. The first Gospel is Mark (not Matthew), written around 70. Revelation is not last, but almost in the middle, written in the 90s. Twelve documents follow Revelation, with II Peter the last, written as late as near the middle of the second century.

A chronological New Testament is not only about sequence, but also about chronological context -- the context-in-time, the historical context in which each document was written. Words have their meaning within their temporal contexts, in the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul's letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a "window" into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel -- the good news -- of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus' historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
  • Reading the Gospels in chronological order beginning with Mark demonstrates that early Christian understandings of Jesus and his significance developed. As Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they not only added to Mark but often modified Mark.
  • Seeing John separated from the other Gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different his Gospel is. In consistently metaphorical and symbolic language, it is primarily "witness" or "testimony" to what Jesus had become in the life and thought of John's community.
  • Realizing that many of the documents are from the late first and early second centuries allows us to glimpse developments in early Christianity in its third and fourth generations. In general, they reflect a trajectory that moves from the radicalism of Jesus and Paul to increasing accommodation with the cultural conventions of the time.

Awareness of the above matters not just for historical reasons but also for Christian reasons. American Christianity today is deeply divided. At the heart of the division, especially among Protestants, is two very different ways of seeing the Bible and the New Testament. About half of American Protestants belong to churches that teach that the Bible is the inerrant "Word of God" and "inspired by God."

The key word is "inerrant." Christians from antiquity onward have affirmed that the Bible is "the Word of God" and "inspired" without thinking of it is inerrant. Biblical inerrancy is an innovation of the last few centuries, becoming widespread in American Protestantism beginning only a hundred years ago. It is affirmed mostly in "independent" Protestant churches, those not part of "mainline" Protestant denominations. Catholics have never proclaimed the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, even as many have not been taught much about the Bible.

Biblical inerrancy is almost always combined with the literal and absolute interpretation of the Bible. If it says something happened, it happened. If the Bible says something is wrong, it is wrong.

For Christians who see the Bible this way, whatever Paul wrote to his communities in the first century is absolutely true for all time. For them, whatever the Gospels report that Jesus said and did really was said and done by him. So also the stories of the beginning and end of his life are literally and factually true: he was conceived in a virgin without a human father, his tomb really was empty even though it was guarded by Roman soldiers, and his followers saw him raised in physical bodily form.

These Christians are unlikely to embrace a chronological New Testament. It would not only change the way the see the Bible and the New Testament, but also make them suspect and probably unwelcome in the Christian communities to which they belong.

There are also many Christians, as well as many who have left the church, for whom the inerrancy of the Bible and its literal and absolute interpretation are unpersuasive, incredible, impossible to believe. For these Christians, as well as others interested in the origins of Christianity, a chronological New Testament, I trust, can be interesting, helpful and illuminating.

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  • 1 Thessalonians

    "The first document in this chronological New Testament is Paul's letter to a Christ-community in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, a province in northern Greece. It was written around the year 50, possibly a year or two earlier. Somewhat surprisingly, given the movement's origin among Jews in the Jewish homeland, the earliest Christian document is written to a community in Europe, which was largely Gentile." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Galatians

    "Whether this letter should be second in a chronological New Testament is a toss-up. The other serious candidate is Paul's first letter to Corinth, customarily dated around 54. Because some scholars date Galatians as early as 50 and many others in the first half of the 50s, I have decided to put it before 1 Corinthians." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 1 Corinthians

    "First Corinthians is the second longest of Paul's letters. Only Romans is longer, and thus this letter comes right after Romans in the canonical New Testament. But in this chronological New Testament, it comes after 1 Thessalonians and Galatians. According to Acts, Paul created a Christ-community in Corinth in southern Greece around the year 50." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Philemon

    "In the canonical New Testament, Philemon is the last of the 13 letters attributed to Paul because it is the shortest, only 25 verses long, so brief it is not even divided into chapters. But in this chronological New Testament, it comes early, in the middle of the seven letters universally accepted as by Paul himself. Philemon is one of Paul's 'prison letters. From details in the letter, we know that it was a Roman prison. Some scholars think it was in the city of Rome and thus date Philemon to Paul's imprisonment there in the early 60s. But there were Roman prisons throughout the empire, especially in provincial capitals such as Ephesus in Asia Minor. A majority think these two letters were written during an imprisonment in Ephesus in the mid-50s. Because they were written near each other in time, it is arbitrary to place one ahead of the other. For didactic rather than historical reasons, I have put Philemon before Philippians." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Philippians

    "Philippians is the most consistently affectionate of Paul's letters. Philippi was the capital of ancient Macedonia, in northern Greece. According to Acts 16, it was the first city in Europe in which Paul founded a Christ-community after leaving Asia Minor in the late 40s. We do not know if he had visited it in the years since, though it seems likely, given his visits to Macedonia. In any case, his relationship to the community seems to have been uncomplicated. The tone of the letter is not only affectionate, but filled with gratitude. It also contains important and extraordinary passages. Like Philemon, Philippians was written from a Roman prison, probably from the same imprisonment in Ephesus in the mid-50s. Unlike in the closing of Philemon, in which Paul writes that he hopes to be freed, in his letter he is uncertain about whether his imprisonment might end in execution." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 2 Corinthians

    "Second Corinthians is not a single letter, but a combination of at least three letters from Paul to the Christ-community in Corinth. Though there is consensus within modern scholarship about its composite character, there is no unanimity about the extent of each letter. The most common divisions are chapters 1-7, 8-9, and 10-13, though probably not in that sequence. The community in Corinth preserved these letters and later combined them into one letter as 2 Corinthians. That this letter combines several letters is important not only for reading and interpreting it, but also because it provides a vivid glimpse of Paul's continuing relationship to one of his communities. Recall that Paul founded the community in Corinth around the year 50 and spent a year or two there. Recall also that 1 Corinthians refers to a previous letter that he had written to the Corinthians and also to a letter he had received from them. Second Corinthians adds to this correspondence." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Romans

    "Paul's letter to the Christ-communities in Rome is distinctive in many ways. It is his longest letter. Only 1 Corinthians is a serious rival. It is the only letter he wrote to people he didn't know; Paul had never been to Rome. Unlike his other letters, it does not deal with highly specific issues like whether it's acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols, for women to prophesy with their heads uncovered, for male Gentile converts to remain uncircumcised, or for a Christian master to have a Christian slave. Except for a brief section near the end on 'weak' and 'strong' within the community, Romans has none of this specificity. It is probably his last letter. Though a small minority of scholars think that the 'prison letters' -- Philippians, Philemon and Colossians -- are later, most think Romans is the last of the universally agreed upon seven genuine letters of Paul. He wrote it from Corinth around the year 58, just before he began what became his final journey to Jerusalem, arrest, imprisonment, and eventual execution in Rome itself." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Mark

    "Around the year 70, an early Christian put the story of Jesus into written form for the first time. Though the location is uncertain, the best guess is a Christ-community near the northern border of Galilee in the Jewish homeland. We call the document 'Mark,' though it is not certain that somebody named 'Mark' wrote it. The gospel does not name the author; he did not write 'The Gospel According to Mark' at the top of the first page. So also the authors of Matthew, Luke, and John do not name themselves. Names were assigned only in the second century when the existence of several gospels required a way of distinguishing among them. Perhaps somebody named 'Mark' wrote the earliest gospel, and perhaps not. It really doesn't matter; its value doesn't depend upon who wrote it. But we will call him and his gospel 'Mark.' (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • James

    "The dating and authority of James are inextricably intertwined. The author identifies himself as 'James' (1.1). For centuries, Christian tradition took it for granted that the author was James, the brother of Jesus. According to Acts and Paul, James was the 'leader' or 'head' of the Christian community in Jerusalem. He was executed in the early 60s. If by this James, the letter must have been written before the early 60s, thus making it earlier than any of the gospels. Indeed, some scholars argue that it could have been written in the 40s or 50s, which could make it as early or even earlier than the letters of Paul -- perhaps the earliest document in the New Testament. But the majority of mainstream scholars do not think the author was the brother of Jesus. The author does not say so, but describes himself simply as 'James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.' Moreover, his use of Greek language and grammar is quite sophisticated -- not impossible for a brother of Jesus from the peasant class who native language was Aramaic, but at least somewhat unlikely. If the author was not the brother of Jesus, then its date becomes wide open. There is no scholarly consensus. Estimates range the 70s or 80s to as late as the early 100s. I have decided to place it in the 70s or 80s, later than Mark, but before Matthew, because much of James seems like early tradition." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Colossians

    "Colossians is almost certainly the earliest of the letters attributed to Paul but not actually written by him. Its strongest literary connections are to Ephesians, whose author most likely knew Colossians. Ephesians was most likely written no later than around the year 90, and thus Colossians must have been written earlier, probably in the 80s." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Matthew

    "Matthew was written a decade or two after Mark, in the 80s or perhaps early 90s. Along with John, it is one of two gospels named after a disciple of Jesus. According to 9.9, Matthew was a tax collector before Jesus called him to be a disciple. Mark and Luke tell the same story, but name the tax collector 'Levi.' They could be different names for the same person. The name Matthew also appears in all the lists of the 12 disciples in the gospels and Acts. For centuries, it has been taken for granted that this gospel was written by this Matthew, and thus by an eyewitness to the historical life of Jesus. And not just any eyewitness, but one of the inner circle of 12." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Hebrews

    "The document we know as 'the letter to the Hebrews' is exceptionally rich. Its central and best-known metaphor presents Jesus as the 'great high priest' who offers himself as the 'once for all' sacrifice. Its chapters on faith is one of the most famous in the New Testament. Its creative use of texts from the Jewish Bible, especially from Psalms and the prophets, is powerful. We do not know who wrote it. In the 200s, an early Christian theologian named Origen said that its author 'was known only to God.' In the centuries since, there have been guesses, Around the year 400, Augustine and Jerome suggested it was written by Paul, and thus it has sometimes been called the 14th letter of Paul. But there is no reason to think Paul wrote it, and many reasons to think he did not. Other guesses have included Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. None is persuasive, and modern scholarship agrees with Origen: God only knows who wrote it." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • John

    "Mainline scholars commonly date John around the year 90. Most also think that John has earlier and later layers. The clearest example is that the gospel seems to end twice -- once at the end of chapter 20 and again at the end of chapter 21. The most plausible explanation is that John 21 was added to a 'first edition' that ended with John 20. Scholars have also argued that the author may have had what is commonly called a 'signs source.' Despite uncertainty about what might be earlier and what is likely later, there is a strong consensus that the form in which we have John came from the decade of the 90s. It tells us how Jesus was spoken of in a Christian community near the end of the first century. It does not tell us very much about how Jesus himself spoke." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Ephesians

    "Like Colossians, Ephesians is one of the 'disputed' letters of Paul. A minority of modern scholars argue that it was written by Paul, but a majority have concluded that it was written by a generation or so after Paul's death. Though it has the typical forms of a Pauline letter and echoes some important themes from the seven genuine letters of Paul, it also differs in a number of ways. The framework for dating it is created by its close parallels to parts of Colossians that indicate that Colossians is earlier; and it seems to have been known by the Christian author Ignatius around the year 100. The suggests a date around 90." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Revelation

    "Because Revelation refers to persecution, it has been commonly dated either in the mid to late 60s, shortly after Nero's persecution, or in the mid-90s near the end of the reign of the emperor Dormitian (c. 96 CE). But Nero's persecution of Christians was confined to the city of Rome and did not affect Asia Minor, and the historical evidence for official Roman persecution under Dormitian is very weak. Moreover, the document itself does not indicate that large-scale persecution was already under way. The letter to Smyrna warns that suffering is imminent, but has not yet begun: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death" (2.10). The letter to Pergamum names one Christian who has already been killed (2.13). One of the visions refers to 'those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given' and to future persecution of 'their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed' (6.9-11). But the massive persecution of which it warns is still future from its point in time. Thus most contemporary scholars affirm that the persecutions in Revelation were unofficial, local, sporadic, and not official Roman persecution. With the link to Roman persecution severed, the primary reason for dating it in the 60s or the 90s is gone. Along with most scholars, I date it no earlier than the 90s, in part because its criticism of Christians in the seven communities sounds as though it is directed to second- or third- generation followers of Jesus who have begun to accommodate to the norms and values of the dominant culture. But it is also possible that it was written in the early decades of the second century." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Jude

    "Jude is perhaps the strangest document in the New Testament. It is one of the shortest, about a page long,and is the most enigmatic. Its authorship, the community to which it was addressed, and its date involve more 'guesswork' than any other document. The author identifies himself as 'Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James' (v.1). Jude (Judas) was a common name in New Testament times. According to Mark 6.3, one of Jesus's brothers was named Jude. Because the author of this letter also identifies himself as 'brother of James,' another brother of Jesus and leader of the Christ-community in Jerusalem, it was taken for granted until recently that the author was also a brother of Jesus. If so, that would make Jude one of the earliest documents in the New Testament. But modern mainline scholars have concluded that it was written much later. The precision is impossible, most date it around 100. It contains nothing that suggests the location of either the author or its recipients." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 1 John, 2 John and 3 John

    'Three letters are attributed to 'John' in the New Testament. The first is the most substantial and important. Five chapters long, it emphasizes love as much as any document in the New Testament. The other two are less than a page long and are among the shortest documents in Christian scripture. Dating these letters is difficult. There is a consensus that they are later than the gospel of John, most likely written around 100. But there is no way of knowing whether all were written at about the same time or whether they might be separated by a decade or more. I have decided to keep them together without any particularly good reason to do so, just as there is no particularly good reason to do so, just as there is no particularly good reason to separate them chronologically." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 2 John

    As mentioned in the previous slide, this letter was most likely written around 100.

  • 3 John

    As mentioned in the previous slide, this letter was most likely written around 100.

  • Luke

    "The gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles belong together. For about a century, the conventional wisdom of mainline scholarship has dated Luke and Acts to the late 80s or 90s. But in the last decade, a growing number of scholars have dated them significantly later, in the first decade or two of the second century. Thus there is no consensus about their dating, though probably at least a slight majority still favor the 80s to 90s. They see Luke, like Matthew, as written a decade or two after Mark and thus as a voice from a generation or so later. In this view, there is no compelling reason to date Matthew earlier than Luke or vice versa. Thus Luke and Acts would belong in the first half of the New Testament chronologically -- not long after Mark, roughly contemporary with Matthew, and before John, Revelation, and several letters. Dating them later, as I do, is the exception to the rule that I have sought to follow, which is to reflect consensus conclusion when possible, and, when there is no consensus, to follow majority opinion. The growing movement to date Luke and Acts in the early second century has more than one foundation. Some scholars argue that the author knew passages from the works of Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the 90s, thus making Luke-Acts later than that. Though the evidence that the author dd know the writings of Josephus is not completely persuasive, there is another reason for a date a decade or two later than Matthew, namely, both Luke and Acts emphasize the constant rejection of Jesus by 'the Jews.'" (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Acts

    As mentioned in the previous slide, this letter is dated to the first decade or two of the second century.

  • 2 Thessalonians

    "Paul's first letter to the Christ-community in Thessalonica in northern Greece is the earliest document in the New Testament, but 2 Thessalonians is one of the disputed letters of Paul. The majority of mainstream scholars do not think it was written by Paul, but by someone writing in his name some three to four decades after his martyrdom in the 60s." (Pg. 547) (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 1 Peter

    Two letters in the New Testament are attributed to Peter, the most important of Jesus' male disciples, who was executed in Rome around the year 64. But the majority of mainstream scholars do not think that either one was written by Peter. The letters reflect a later historical context. Moreover, they were not written by the same person. Second Peter is significantly later than 1 Peter. There is no unanimity about [1 Peter's] date. Some mainline scholars date it to around 90 or as early as 80s. The reason is that some think that the author of 1 Clement, an early Christian letter not in the New Testament but dated by some to around the year 96, knew of 1 Peter. If so, 95 or so is the latest possible date for 1 Peter. But is is not clear that 1 Clement was written that early. Moreover, because both 1 Clement and 1 Peter were most likely written in Rome, their authors might well have known each other. Given that, similarity of language need not mean literary dependence. Some of its themes, especially its endorsement of Roman authority and imperial conventions about slavery, suggest a date early in the second century." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 1 Timothy

    "In the canonical New Testament, 1 Timothy is the first of three letters known as the 'pastoral letters' or 'pastoral epistles.' The other two are 2 Timothy and Titus. They are called 'pastoral' in part because they are addressed to two early Christian 'pastors,' Timothy and Titus. 'Pastor' did not yet refer to an official institutional role, but had its ancient meaning of shepherd, leader of the flock. Their themes are also pastoral, providing practical advice for ordering the community's life. Though all three letters claim to be written by Paul, most modern scholars see them as written long after his death in the first decades of the second century. There is a consensus that they were all written by teh same person. But was that person Paul? For more than one reason, authorship by Paul has been rejected." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • 2 Timothy

    As mentioned in the previous slide, along with 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy was composed in the first decades of the second century. (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

  • Titus

    As mentioned in previous slides, along with 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, it this letter is believed to have been composed in the first decades of the second century.

  • 2 Peter

    "There is a strong scholarly consensus that 2 Peter is the last New Testament document to be written. Some date it as late as 150, and most date it between 120 and 150. Among the reasons for its late dating are its references to 1 Peter (3.1), its mention of the letters of Paul (3.15-16), and its use of phrases from the letter of Jude. In addition, it offers an explanation for the delay of the second coming of Jesus (3.3-10)." (Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written)

 
 
 
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