How to read the New Testament like it was a 2000 year old manuscript.
Have you ever started to read a bed-time story to your children from a book that your wife has already been reading to them and had no idea what is going on? As you come “barging in” in the middle of the book you ask the kids: “Who are the characters?” “What are they doing?” “Where did they come from?…”, etc.
Many in the church today make this same fatal mistake in their bible reading: gleefully hopping and skipping about from chapter and verse to chapter and verse of completely different books, without once ever asking these same questions!
“And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.” Col 4:16
#1. We need to read the books of the bible as books – from beginning to end – and not just random chapters and verses. Please notice that the early church read them as a letter (Col 4:16, I Thess. 5:27) and that it would be 100’s of years before chapters, then verses, were added…An imperfect system to say the least! (History tells us that the verses were put in by a monk while riding on horse back!)
The NT is a collection of different letters written by different authors from different times and different cities addressing different problems! Read them as individual letters, from the first page to the last, just as you would with any letter you received in the mail! And ask yourself the “who, what, where, why, when” questions to boot!
Context & Author’s Intent before Interpretation! (for you scholarly types: Exegesis before Hermeneutics!)
Can you imagine explaining American history to a complete foreigner, who knows absolutely nothing about the USA, and you start with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights issues, then you go on to explain about the present Iraq War and follow that up with a complete overview of the Revolutionary War, then the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth Rock and close with a brief description of the Civil War?
“Absurd” you shout! But did you know that this is how many of us read the NT right now!
#2. The second task before us is to realize that the NT is not written in chronological order but is ordered mostly by the size of the letter, especially the Pauline letters! The NT, in fact, was collected like many other compilations of the Ancient East (including the Koran) from the biggest book to the shortest. This is why the short books of 1-2 Thessalonians, some of the earliest NT literature ever penned (written in 50 AD), are put just in front of the equally short book of 1 Timothy (written about AD 62 – twelve years later!) towards the end of the NT.
Never mind that 1 Thessalonians is written to an infant church (just 6 months old) and 1 Timothy to a seasoned, veteran apostle dealing with elders who had been bring false teachings.
Once we know the chronological order of the NT, people and places start to fall into place and deeper meaning bursts forth: such as Paul’s stating that he had “fully preached the Gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum…”(Rom 15). Knowing when (and where) the books were written we can see that after just 10 years preaching and planting churches in both Asia Minor and Greece, Paul had “no more place in these parts” and it was time to move on.
Below is a very probable time-line of some of the NT letters:
Galatians, James, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy, 1-2 Peter, Hebrews, Jude, 1-3 John, Revelation
Many people, even after years of reading the NT, are unable to tell where Pisidian Antioch is or locate Achaia on a world map and have no clue who Tychicus and Epaphras are! While this may seem like I’m splitting “theological hairs”, it actually looms very large in increasing our overall comprehension of the NT and its fast moving action and characters. We need a time-line to keep the flow of what the Holy Spirit is doing!
#3. The third task before us then is to make a time-line of the events of the NT, especially the Pauline travels and the time-line of his writings, to really understand the ebb and flow of the life and times of the early church.
30 AD – 44 AD. Pentecost to Antioch
46 AD. Paul’s First Missionary Journey (with Barnabas and John Mark)
50 AD. Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (with Silas and Timothy)
53 AD. Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (with Timothy, Erastus, Aquila and Priscilla)
57 AD Jerusalem Arrest Acts 21
59 AD Shipwreck in Malta Acts 27-28
62-68 AD. Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey with Timothy, Trophimus, Tychicus, Titus and Luke including trips to Crete, Miletus, Ephesus, Philippi, Nicopolis and Rome – death.
Lastly, I want to briefly mention one more critical area: Biblical translation, especially during that volatile and politically dark era when the Bible was first translated into English (ca. 1400-1500).
#4. The biblical writers – Luke, Paul, Peter, Moses, etc. – were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the translators were not! Moreover, the “powers that be” often had controlling reasons to keep the laymen/women ignorant of the Scriptures. Why else would the Bible be ONLY in Latin – a dead, academic language then as it is now – for 800 years?
William Tyndale was one of many Reformers who broke with this atrocious stronghold over people’s lives. Unfortunately he, like countless others, paid with his life: strangled and burned at the stake in Belgium in 1536 at the age of 42.
For an example of how politics and power held sway over the “Bible Translations”, please read on (taken from The Great Ecclesiastical Conspiracy) :
“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. (1 Tim.3:1) Would it shock you if I told you that the word office is not in the Greek text? It is obvious, again, that the King James translators were preserving their ‘Ecclesiastical words’. The translators, under King James’ injunction to keep the main terms of the Church of England’s ecclesiastical form, make two main errors. The first is adding a word to the text that doesn’t appear in the Greek, i.e. “office”. There is neither a word in the text for office NOR the idea of office outside their own paradigm. The second is an error in translation. The word translated “Bishop” is episkopos. The word means to “oversee”, to “tend”. Vine defines it thus: ‘EPISKOPOS’, lit., an overseer (epi, over, skopeo, to look or watch), whence English ‘bishop’… The passage in 1st Timothy actually reads, ‘If a man wants to oversee, he desires a good work’.”
Thanks for reading. We hope this is helpful.
Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,
Jeff and Maria Gilbertson