RCIA Presentations

4. The Newer Testament

 

Thius is an icon of Jesus – God's Word-made-flesh. Before him is a text (in fact from Matthew 11:18-30 in ancient Slavonic). A disciple of Jesus is guided by the New Testament to look at Jesus, for He is the revelation. The words are inspired reflections upon him.

The New Testament has its origins in the religious experience of Jesus' disciples. In the opening words of his First Letter John writes: 'We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.'

Luke locates the ministry of John the Baptist, and so of Jesus in the years after 28AD ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip Tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitus, and Lysanius Tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John.’(Luke 3:1-2)

Palestine

From the beginning of the human race, God has been drawing everyone into divine communion. Those who chose to respond have found salvation.

 

The following is an aerial view of ancient Babylon. People there, and, indeed, everywhere in the world, were loved by God 'who wills everyone to be saved'(1Timothy 2:4).

The people of Israel in the northern kingdom, and the Jews in the south ex[perienced what was for them a special covenant relationship with God. In the first of the following images we see a Samaritan priest with the scroll. The second is an illustration of the temple in Jerusalem, and in the third we see a Jewish Rabbi kissing the scroll.

 

 

The following is a scene from the market in Nazareth. These people, too, longed for love and strove to know. In so far as they were responding to grace, they were welcoming God's offer of communion.

Jesus of Nazarteth

It was these universal hopes and dreams that Jesus met by revealing God to people and by revealing people to themselves. He is the climax of God's self-giving to the human race, and the climax of our response.

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him (Carravaggio)

 

Nowhere was Jesus' self-giving more manifest than in the way he died on the cross:

It is this self-giving in love that we celebrate when we join our brothers and sisters at the Eucharist:

The Letters of Paul

The above icon is by Rublev. It was Paul's mission to take the revelation of God in Jesus to the non-Jewish world, to cities like Corinth (see following picture):

The earliest books of the New Testament come from Paul. It is likely that Jesus was crucified in 33AD, and Paul's experience on the road to Damascus may have occurred the following year. After three years in the area around Damasuc, Paul paid a short visit to Jerusalem and went on to his home town, Tarsus. In 45AD Barnabas sought him out and he joined the community at Antioch. It was from there that he set out on a missionary journey which took him to Cyprus and then to the mainland, the southern part of the Roman Province of Galatia.

Galatia

On his return to Antioch Paul was troubled by news coming from southern Galatia, and wrote to them what is possibly the earliest letter of the New Testament, the Letter to the Galatians. He then went down to Jerusalem (49AD) to discuss the matter of receiving non-Jews into the Christian community without expecting them to follow Jewish customs. Having persuaded the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem to bless his missionary strategies, Paul returned to Antioch and set out overland to revisit the Galatian Communities. He went then to Troas (top left of map), and then crossed to Europe: Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens. From 50-52AD he settled in Corinth, and from Corinth wrote back his two letters to the community in Thessalonica .

Aegean

Paul left Corinth in 52AD, landed at Ephesus, then went by ship to Jerusalem. He returned from Jerusalem to Antioch and then headed off overland for Ephesus, where he stayed for 3 years (52-55AD). From Ephesus he wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, his Letter to Philemon and also to Philemon's community at Colossae.

Paul left Ephesus for Troas, and seems to have spent the winter of 55-56 with the community at Philippi. In 56AD he spent some time preaching in Macedonia and Illyricum. He also wrote his Second Letter to the Corinthians.

Paul spent the winter of 56-57 in Corinth where he wrote his Letter to the Romans. In the spring of 57 he went overland back to Macedonias and then took ship for Jerusalem. He was arrested there and spet 5--59 under house arrest in Caesarea. It is possibly from here that he wrote his farewell letter to the Gentile churches of the East (the so-called 'Letter to the Ephesians'). he appealed to Rome and was put aboard a ship which foundered off Malta where he had to await another ship which took him to Rome.

 

To Rome A

Paul was under house arrest in Rome from 60-62AD. It is likely that it was from here that he wrote to the Philippians. By Roman law you could not be imprisoned for more than two years without being tried, and it appears that the time lapsed, and that Paul returned to the East, and while there wrote his Letter to Titus (Crete) and his First Letter to Timothy. He was arrested again, taken back to Rome are beheaded (67AD). His last letter was written while awaiting execution. It was once again addressed to Timothy.

Other Writings from the middle to late sixties

The letter of James (probably James the leading presbyter in Jerusalem) was composed in the middle of the first century. Peter's First Letter seems to belong to this period, as does the Letter to the Hebrews and Mark's Gospel. All three may have been written in Rome. The Gospels of Matthew (Antioch?) and Luke (Greece) both draw on Mark and add sayings of Jesus and other material.

Writings from Ephesus late in the first century

The Gospel and Letters of John were composed in the last decade of the century, as was the Apocalypse – written from exile in Patmos to the churches of Asia (Western Turkey). The Gospels were the product of many years of Christian reflection. Our faith is based, not on the writings of Paul or the Gospels, but on Jesus. Their importance is that they are an inspired expression of who Jesus was and is – what he said, what he did, and what he continued to reveal through his Spirit, and what this meant to those who knew him.

The evolution of the Gospels

Gospels

Human language inspired by God

The biblical texts are inspired, but the language is human. As Vatican II reminds us: ‘In sacred scripture God speaks through people in a human way’(Dei Verbum 12). The Catechism agrees: ‘in order to reveal himself to human beings, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words’(n. 101).  The Catechism goes on to quote from the Council: ‘Indeed the words of God, expressed in human words, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like us’ (DV 13).

Jesus was not an abstract human being. He was real flesh and blood. He was a Jew and he revealed God to real people in a real place at a real time using real words and doing real deeds. It was in his precise, unique, and necessarily limited, reality that he attracted people to God. Similarly with the multitude of texts that make up the Bible. They reveal God in their precise limitations. They mean this, and they do not mean that. They do not give us direct, unmediated, access to God or God’s will. Like Jesus they are a ‘way’: they mediate the divine. It is in their precise limitation that they offer a way of connecting us to God who cannot be contained by them, but necessarily remains transcendent.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Augustine wrote: ‘John did not express the entire reality, but said what a human being was capable of saying’(Tractate 1.1.2). He could do no other. If God wants to inspire a human being to write something true, God has to choose a real human being; in other words, a limited human being with limited points of view, using a limited language. There is no one else to choose, for we are all, necessarily, limited – which does not mean that we cannot be inspired. Limited human beings are capable of revealing God in many wonderful ways, including the written word.

In an article in the Journal Theological Studies (1981), Raymond Brown wrote: ‘The Bible is the literary objectification of a faith that is a response to revelation.’ He went on to define Scripture as: ‘divine revelation to which human beings have given expression in words.’ In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, in an article on Inspiration, Ray Collins urges the following caution: ‘Though canonised by long usage, “word of God” should not be used of the Scriptures without further hermeneutical reflection … A distance is to be maintained conceptually between the scriptural expression and the self-communication of God in itself … Theologically it is less confusing to state that the Scriptures witness to the word of God.’

M. Schmaus (God in Revelation, 1968, page 188)agrees: ‘What we encounter in the Sacred Scriptures is first of all the objectivization of the belief in and understanding of Christ that was possessed by the Church or the local congregation. In other words it is the answer to the revelation of God. In this answer, however, the word of God itself is expressed, for this word has entered into the answer of the Church and is effective in it. On the other hand we must not forget that God’s word, which enters into our human answer of faith, nevertheless always transcends it.’

God is reaching out to us in a special and privileged way through the inspired text. In the Catechism we read (n. 104): ‘‘In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, “but as what it really is, the word of God”(1Thessalonians 2:13).’ The Catechism goes on to quote from the Vatican Council (DV 21): ‘In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them.’

This does not take away the need to try to understand what the text is saying. The Vatican Council (DV 12) writes: ‘Since in sacred scripture God speaks through people in a human way,it follows that those interpreting sacred scripture, if they are to ascertain what it is that God wishes to communicate to us, must carefully search out the meaning that the sacred writers really had in mind, the meaning that God intended to communicate through the medium of words.’

The Commission (1993) writes: ‘The Word of God finds expression in the work of human authors. The thought and the words belong at one and the same time both to God and to human beings, in such a way that the whole Bible comes at once from God and from the inspired human author. This does not mean, however, that God has given the historical conditioning of the message a value that is absolute’ (page 113). ‘The exegete need not put absolute value in something that simply reflects limited human understanding …  One of the characteristics of the Bible is precisely the absence of a sense of systematisation and the presence, on the contrary, of things held in dynamic tension. The Bible is a repository of many ways of interpreting the same events and reflecting upon the same problems. In itself it urges us to avoid excessive simplification and narrowness of spirit’ (page 94).

The truth revealed in the sacred text

The Catechism (n.107) insists that ‘the inspired books teach the truth.’ It goes on the quote the Vatican Council (DV 11): ‘Since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.’

What we are seeking as we reflect on the sacred text is precisely ‘that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.’ The Catechism (n.110) reminds us: ‘In order to discover the sacred author’s intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current.’

Fundamentalism

Surely, God can inspire factual accounts, poetry, epic, myth, historical novels, comedy etc. All these are ways of communicating truth. If we think that making factual statements is the only way God can communicate truth, we need to recognize the seriousness of our ignorance – which brings us to the modern problem of fundamentalism. The subject is vast. Hopefully two statements from The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) will suffice to alert us to the nature of this very pervasive and very destructive phenomenon.

‘When fundamentalists relegate exegetes to the role of translators only (failing to grasp that translating the Bible is already a work of exegesis) and refuse to follow them further in their studies, these same fundamentalists do not realise that, for all their very laudable concern for total fidelity to the Word of God, they proceed in fact along ways which will lead them far away from the true meaning of the biblical texts, as well as from full acceptance of the consequences of the Incarnation. The eternal Word became incarnate at a precise period of history, within a clearly defined cultural and social environment. Anyone who desires to understand the Word of God should humbly seek it out there where it has made itself visible and accept to this end the necessary help of human knowledge. Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labours necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning’(pages 132-133).

‘The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the Incarnation itself … It refuses to admit that the inspired Word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources’(page 73).

The Canon of Scripture (n. 120-130)

By ‘canon’ we mean the list of writings that are accepted by the Church as comprising the inspired texts included in the Bible. The declaration that a piece of writing belongs to the Bible is a recognition that it is inspired. It is not a declaration that other writings are not inspired. Nor is there any suggestion that God is no longer revealing himself to us today. Declaring an inspired writing to be part of the canon of Sacred Scripture is a declaration that this inspired writing is foundational in the life of the faith-community and that it belongs among those writings that are recognised as a standard against which all other writings must be measured.

Much of what was written by Jews and Christians prior to and after the time of Jesus has undoubtedly been lost because people did not take the trouble to preserve it. Other writings were preserved, but were not accepted into the general body of the religious community, or were rejected by it as lacking authenticity. The writings that make up what is known as the Bible are those that people of faith accepted, reflected upon in their assemblies, and continued to treasure. For this reason we have the community’s guarantee that these writings were judged to be truly inspired, because they were found to be truly inspiring, and to give expression to this inspiration in ways that continued to reveal God.

The texts that have been accepted as inspired are those that have been treasured in the community and used in its liturgy. The article on ‘Canonicity’ in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary states (page 1037): ‘Public reading within the church gives these writings a “pulpit” from which they can guide the lives of the people.’

In speaking the canon, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking that the writings as we have them came straight from the ‘pen’ of one or other author. It is important to realize that God did not directly inspire David to write 150 psalms and that the text we now have is exactly the text that the inspired David wrote. The same must be said of the Book of Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. It is essential to recognize the fluid nature of the material that is now found in the various ‘books’ of the Old Testament. The prophetic oracles were seen as giving expression to a living word from a living God dealing with living people. And so the material was written, treasured, edited, updated, and made relevant to changing circumstances. 

The earliest writing probably dates from the seventh century BC. Some time in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, possibly due to pressure from the Persian rulers, the text of the basic constitution of Israel, the Torah, was completed in the form that we still have today. Gradually this happened for the rest of the Bible. The existence of the two books of Chronicles indicates that instead of re-editing and re-imaging the history of the kings, the people felt the need to keep the Books of Samuel (which the Jewish Bible includes among ‘the early prophets’), and write separate books (‘Chronicles’), even though they cover much the same ground. The Prologue to the book of Sirach, from the early years of the second century BC, divides the Books of the Old Testament into three categories: ‘the Torah, the Prophets and the other writings.’ These categories are still used today.

The Palestinian canon was established at Jamnia (Javneh) towards the close of the first century AD. The growth of the Christian community meant that a lot of Jews were accepting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. This, along with the destruction of Jerusalem (70AD), was seen by the Jewish leaders as posing a serious threat to Judaism. They felt the need to establish a fixed canon of the books that they considered sacred. One of their criteria was that the writings had to be in Hebrew. Jews in the Greek-speaking diaspora, especially Alexandria, had a number of writings that were popular in their synagogues and were considered inspired, but were in the Greek language. These were not included in the Palestinian canon, but this does not mean they were not inspired and inspiring. When Christianity emerged Greek was the language of commerce and communication, even in Palestine. Christian Jews, therefore, continued using the Books in the Greek Version, including Books not recognized by the Jewish leadership as part of the Hebrew canon.

This is how things stood in Eastern and Western Church till, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, some of the reformers decided to limit their sacred books to the Jewish Palestinian Canon – which meant that the Jewish books written in Greek were not included in many Protestant bibles. They seem to have thought, wrongly, that the Palestinian Canon was the canon at the time of Jesus. Today, all Christian Bibles worthy of the name include all the books of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments, while recognizing that not all are of equal value.

As regards the canon of the New Testament, the main difference is that the New Testament writings emerged in a much shorter space of time, basically the second half of the first century. The criterion for acceptance was basically the same simple criterion that governed the writings of the Old Testament. The canon included those writings that Christian communities treasured and wanted to hear read in the assembly. The earliest list comes from the opening years of the third century when Eusebius of Caesarea (History of the Church 3.25) lists writings that were accepted by Christian communities, writings that were disputed, and writings that were rejected. There is no point in listing the rejected books, but it is interesting that his list of disputed books consists in letters that are now in our bibles: the Letters of James, Jude, Second Peter and Second and Third John. Athanasius (367AD) also has a list, which is identical with the books we have in our Bibles today. We find the same list also in canon 36 of the local Council of Carthage in 397AD, and repeated in the Council of Trent (1546AD) and the First Vatican Council (1870AD).

Basing our trust on the presence of the Spirit of Jesus guiding the Christian Church, we can be confident that the books listed in the canon are inspired, and, while some are more central than others, all have something to offer us in revealing God and in nourishing our desire to know God and to know God’s will for us.

The Bible is a precious treasure, communicating in written words the religious experience of many faithful and inspired people. Of special value is the New Testament, and Christians have learned to read the Old Testament in the light of the revelation given by Jesus. At the same time it would be a mistake to separate the Bible from the lived religious experience of the Christian community. Written words are not the only way of communicating and sharing faith. The main vehicle for handing on revelation has been the lives of good people. Our reflections on the Bible must be made, as the structure of the Catechism makes clear, in the context of the many and wonderful ways in which ‘God comes to meet us.’