A Good Book
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.
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.
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).
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).
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
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?
by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)
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.
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.
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’).
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
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.)
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.
Douglas Milne will be our Chapel Speaker next Wednesday (21 Jan).
David Tan 21/1
Samuel Lee 21/1
Cheryl Chan 21/1
Lm Wai Kay 22/1
S.M. Peck 22/1
Eve Chan 22/1
Kim Hak Soo 23/1
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This page is updated on 17 Jan 2004.