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The New View Of The New Testament

( Originally Published 1906 )



Seeing that biblical criticism has given us a new and better understanding of the Old Testament, we shall be eager to learn what it has to say about the New Testament. Nor is its word less clear and strong, less instructive and quickening in the latter than in the former. The pages of both sets of Scripture are more luminous with truth and beauty now than ever before, because of the increasing light which the lamp of learning has shed upon them; and it is our inestimable privilege to read their divine meanings with a larger measure of intellectual and spiritual satisfaction than has been vouchsafed to any former generation. If we shall but prove worthy of our inheritance by trying to enter into its full possession and proper use, we shall be rewarded by some grander outlooks and enriched by some deeper experiences than we have dreamed of hitherto.

The first thing to claim our attention is the fact that a close relationship exists between the two Testaments. The literary activity of the Jewish people continued down into the first century of our era, and some of its products may be seen in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, as well as in the writings of Philo and Josephus.

The first main collection of Hebrew Scriptures, called the Law, had not been canonized until about the time of Ezra, or 445–440 B. C.; the second called the Prophets, about 200 B. C. ; and the third, called the Hagiographa—including the Psalms, the Proverbs, Job, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, the Chronicles and Daniel—did not fully receive this distinction until about the close of the first Christian century. While the deep, free and powerful spirit of the old Israelitish prophets was wanting in the later Judaism, and a narrow, rigid legalism took its place, yet on the whole there was some progress in thought, and the national faith was perhaps more intense than ever. The ideas and ideals, the traditions and hopes of the historic form of religion were still vigorously maintained and were immediately implicated in the origin of Christianity. Hence we cannot go far in a correct treatment or comprehension of the New Testament unless we see its vital connection with the Old. The two fields of inquiry lie side by side; the critical study of the one collection of sacred writings is directly related to that of the other ; essentially the same principles must prevail in both cases; and in some respects the results in the one instance are quite similar to those in the other.

If, then, it was right to say, in the preceding chapter, that the Old Testament Scriptures are to be regarded as literature, and are to be studied with reference to the history of the people that produced them, the same two cardinal rules must guide us in dealing with the New Testament Scriptures. Otherwise we shall make little head-way in our effort to understand them. Until we can look upon them as literary documents bearing the peculiar birthmarks of their time, we cannot make them seem natural or real, and cannot relate them to human life in an impressive and truly helpful way. It is one of the principal faults of the old-fashioned method of reading them that an air of mystery, unnaturalness, unreality has been inevitably thrown about them; and it is one of the chief services of the new mode of treating them that it has steadily insisted upon viewing them primarily as the natural products of religious minds working normally, influenced by the conditions of their age and country, and employing language in the ordinary manner of other writers. Thus it teaches us to let these works speak their own message in their own way, to listen humbly and reverently to their slightest word, and to try to find the living reality and power with which they are able to touch our hearts; leaving whatever divine character they may possess or whatever divine truth they may contain to be apprehended as a result rather than as a beginning of our inquiry. Assuredly we ought to have sufficient confidence in their divine quality to trust it to attest itself in due time by such a procedure on our part.

Now the period covered by the New Testament writings is comparatively brief. Not more than one hundred years were required to embrace all those creative literary activities which took shape in these priceless documents; and most of them, and by all means the most important of them, excepting possibly the Gospel of John, were produced within the first century. Of course it was the career of Jesus Christ and the work of his followers which gave rise to this literature, and it constitutes our best source of information regarding them and the events connected with them. Yet it is not our only source. As in the case of the Old Testament, so in that of the New, many supplementary works, large and small, were written which were never canonized as Scripture. Nearly fifty such are still extant, in whole or in part; while perhaps as many more have perished, and are known to scholars only by quotations from them or references to them in other Christian writings. The chief of those which have been preserved may be seen and read as the New Testament Apocrypha. They are interesting and highly valuable for the side light which they throw upon the thought and life of the early Church; they show, more fully than the New Testament alone can do, the depth and force of the Christian movement ; and they serve to increase our appreciation of the fact that the New Testament writings themselves are to be treated, first of all, as literature.? We may be assured, however, that these latter are, on the whole, unquestionably the best literature culled from the entire mass—the seed-wheat of the full harvest. The law of "the survival of the fittest" prevails in the realm of human products, as well as in the animal and vegetable kingdoms; and we may be confident that the sway of this law has given us the best fruits of early Christianity in our present New Testaments

This collection of writings comprises twenty-seven different books, large and small—though none of them is very large, and several are very small. The arrangement of them is familiar : first, four fragmentary biographies of Jesus, called "Gospels;" second, an historical book, "The Acts of the Apostles," giving some account of the spread of primitive Christianity; then, twenty-one letters, of which fourteen have been ascribed to Paul, two to Peter, one to Jude, one to James, and three to John; and lastly, an apocalyptical work, called "The Revelation," and ascribed to John also.

Now when and by whom were these books written; how reliable are they; and what do they disclose concerning the origin and primary character of Christianity? These are the essential questions which have engaged the New Testament critics in study and controversy for a long time. Neither the study nor the controversy is yet finished ; there are still many unsettled questions, as well as wide divergences of opinion among eminent scholars. Nevertheless, certain grand results have been reached which may be fairly regarded as established; and these are of such a nature as to give us a general conception of the origin and character of the New Testament Scriptures so radically different from the traditionary conception as to call for its clear presentation, in order that it may be understood and judged by each reader according to his ability.

It is impossible, in a single chapter, to consider all of the New Testament writings, or to state any but a few of the main facts respecting those principal portions of the literature which can be briefly discussed. These facts will have to be taken merely as a hint of methods pursued and conclusions indicated in the treatment of the remaining portions in the numerous works of the biblical scholars.

A preliminary remark should be made : The dates, titles, and ascriptions of authorship of the New Testament books, as given in the Authorized Version, are not very trustworthy. They were mainly supplied by copyists, translators, or editors, and must be often disregarded. Moreover, the fact that a given book is written in the person of a certain author is not final prof that he wrote it. The New Testament age was not a critical, scientific one, and it was no unusual (or, as then considered, improper) thing for a writer to attach the name of some distinguished person to his own production, in order to draw attention to it. Such a proceeding was not peculiar to the New Testament authors, and it in nowise reflects upon their honor. The question of authorship in each particular case must be determined by the evidence.

Now the fact that the gospels come first in the New Testament has doubtless led many to suppose that they were written first. But they were among the latest to assume their present form, and were placed first in the existing arrangement of New Testament books because of their foremost rank in importance, and also because they record the life of Jesus, which came first in the history of Christianity. The earliest New Testament writings were some of the letters of Paul. It is worth while to try to recall the circumstances under which he began to write.



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