2004 issue 1, 5 -10 Jan 2004

A Good Book

Grove Books just keep turning them out! Yet again it is a pleasure to commend a booklet in the Grove Biblical Series, this one written by my friend Peter Head, New Testament Research Fellow of Tyndale House, Cambridge. It is entitled Is the New Testament Reliable? and in 28 pages addresses itself to central aspects of this key topic.

First to be considered is the question: What is the New Testament? Most Christians today know the New Testament through printed translations of both Old and New Testaments. But the New Testament did not originate as a collection by that name, but as a series of separate writings: ‘In the earliest Christian period… if you had asked a Christian what he understood by the ‘new testament’, he would not have answered in terms of a document. He would have spoken of the new covenant that was inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only after about 200 AD does the term start to be used as a description of a collection of documents’ (p. 6). Indeed, though texts of the complete NT did start to be produced in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, these texts would hardly have been common among the churches of that time. It is true that thousands of NT manuscripts survive to this day, but most of them contain only parts of the NT. Less than fifty manuscripts ever contained texts of the entire NT, and only a few out of this fifty remain complete today.

And so the question arises: Is the New Testament Text reliable? Does what we read in our modern Bibles accurately represent (in translation) what the NT writers originally wrote? This leads to a survey of the copious evidence for the NT text: not just Greek manuscripts, but significant early translations of the NT (e.g., into Latin, Syriac and Coptic) which were produced as the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, and also tens of thousands of NT quotations in the writings of the Church Fathers from the 2nd century onwards. We can compare the textual basis for the NT with that for three individual writers from the second half of the 1st century AD (when the NT books were written): the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo and the Roman historian Tacitus. Head concludes: ‘The manuscript traditions for all three are different, yet generally the manuscript evidence for their works is quite late and sometimes based on a single manuscript tradition. By comparison, when we come to examine the New Testament writings, we find the picture is completely different… we have more manuscripts, more translations into more other languages, we have NT manuscripts in significant numbers from every Christian century up to the invention of printing, we have more early texts, including possibly half a dozen from the second century. There are basically no chronological gaps in the manuscript record’ (p. 10).

But is the New Testament Canon reliable? We know of many other writings circulating among Christians in the early history of the church. What if the particular selection of writings in the NT is unrepresentative of early Christian beliefs? Have our New Testaments arisen through the suppression of other texts which at one time had as good a claim to represent mainstream Christian thinking? A further chapter, accordingly, considers some ‘other gospels’ for which serious claims have been made, particularly the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas. It is concluded that, while these two documents are important for understanding second-century Christianity, they are not an alternative, let alone a better, source of information about Jesus. ‘It was certainly no accident that the church recognised the four gospels as we know them, and the extra-canonical gospels are not the sort of documents to which we should turn for information about the life and ministry of Jesus’ (p. 17).

And so, finally, is the Gospel Tradition about Jesus itself reliable? Does the NT picture of Jesus and the early church correspond to historical reality? Did the NT writers know what they were talking about, and what traditions did they base their writings upon? Head has three lines of approach to this question. He first considers Paul’s letters and argues that already in the 40s and 50s AD Paul is aware of a tradition concerning Jesus’ life and teaching which seems to be more or less fixed and definite. Secondly, he notes that the NT at many points refers to Jesus as a teacher: is it not likely that Jesus’ disciples would have taken care to preserve his teachings? The sayings of many other Jewish teachers from the first Christian centuries have been carefully recorded, after all. Thirdly, we must bear in mind what the gospel writers, particularly Luke, themselves claim: that what they write is in line with reliable traditions about Jesus which they have carefully investigated (see esp. Luke 1:1–4).

‘Some topics are too complex to be dealt with in a short booklet and yet too important to be ignored’ (p. 3). Yes, the issues raised are complex, and a thorough investigation of them demands a longer treatment. But this is an excellent outline discussion, with many helpful references for those who would like to follow up some of the arguments in more detail. This booklet would be particularly useful as background reading for those conducting (say) an evangelistic discussion group. But it is well worth reading by anyone who wants to answer the question: Why do I believe what I believe about Jesus Christ?  

(Reviewed by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)

CHAPEL NOTES

The first chapel of the New Year began with the reading of a number of Psalms all of which celebrate God’s kingship (Psalms 96–102), interspersed with the singing of some hymns and choruses on the same theme. Dr. Satterthwaite then spoke.

 It is interesting to ask the question: What made ancient Israelites tick? Or: What thoughts filled their minds and motivated them in daily living? Answering these questions is not altogether straightforward: reconstructing the thoughts of dead people is never easy, and many things presumably went on during the centuries of Israel’s history of which we now know nothing, things which are not recorded in the Old Testament and which have left no discernible archaeological remains. Yet the book of Psalms surely tells us something about Israelite beliefs. Why else, after, were the Psalms collected and repeatedly used in worship (as a book like Chronicles suggests they were)? The Psalms must be somewhat representative of Israelite thinking. And one idea that comes across strongly in the book of Psalms is the idea that God is King.

All of Psalms 96–102 handle different aspects of this theme: Ps. 96 describes God as the creator of the world and its rightful king; Ps. 97 describes God as vindicating the righteous and judging the wicked; Ps. 98 looks forward to a time when everything God has made will rejoice at his rule; Ps. 99 focuses on God’s special love to his chosen people Israel; Ps. 100 describes God as the source of his people’s joy: in Ps. 101 King David is the speaker, and he commits himself to justice, impartiality, honesty, a style of kingship which reflects his belief that he serves a loving and just God; Ps. 102 arises out of a situation of distress, yet the speaker nonetheless looks to God and trusts him to be faithful to his promises (hence an appropriate sub-title for Ps. 102 might be: ‘God is still on the throne’).

Taken together, Psalms 96–102 suggest how important to the Israelites was the thought that God was their king. These Psalms convey the varied associations that this truth had for them, the different hopes it was tied up with, and also the diverse circumstances under which they turned to God as king.

Dr. Satterthwaite concluded by inviting those present to set their hopes and fears for 2004 in the context of this thought, that God is King; and to ask themselves in practical detail how their lives this year might reflect God’s kingship. (Readers of this summary are invited to read through Pss. 96–102 for themselves and ask themselves similar questions.)

Chapel concluded with the reading of one final Psalm, Ps. 103, a psalm which above all focuses on God as a merciful and forgiving ruler, a King whom we may approach in spite of our sin and weakness.

Dr Douglas Milne will be our Chapel Speaker next Wednesday (21 Jan).

NEWS BITS

  1. We extend a warm welcome to Dr Douglas Milne who is conducting two courses at BGST.

  2. Closed for Lunar New Year. The Library and Offices will be closed from 1pm on 21 Jan to 23 Jan. Normal operating hours will resume on 24 Jan (Sat) for Library and 26 Jan (Mon) for Offices.

A BLESSED 
BIRTHDAY TO ...

Dr David Tan  21/1

Mr Samuel Lee  21/1

Ms Cheryl Chan  21/1

Mr Lm Wai Kay  22/1

Mrs S.M. Peck  22/1

Mdm Eve Chan  22/1

Mr Kim Hak Soo  23/1

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