How the New Testament Works

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by Neil Godfrey

David Trobisch reminds us in The First Edition of the New Testament that the books of the New Testament canon have been arranged in way that conveys its own message to readers. So editors responsible for the arrangement of the books send a message to readers. This is part of what Trobisch explains is “the editorial concept”.

So we open the New Testament and the first book we see is the Gospel of Matthew. Now the author’s name is nowhere found in the book itself. Someone has added the title and author heading to it. So who is this Matthew? We read the book and see Matthew is one of the Twelve Disciples. So the reader is led to understand that this first book is written by one of the Twelve who were with Jesus.

Next comes the Gospel of Mark, and the reader is left curious as to Mark’s identity. But the editor has collated other books and perhaps even added the odd “incidental” line that leads the reader to learn who he is, too. I’ll return to this later.

Then we read The Gospel of Luke. This work begins with a claim that leads readers to understand many others had attempted to write gospels before this one. The reader has already turned the pages of two of these. Now this Gospel is tied by the preambles to the Book of Acts that soon follows. Now Acts concludes suddenly with an imprisoned Paul preaching in Rome and waiting trial. The reader was expecting to read about the death of Paul. Moreover, some passages in Acts are written in the first person. It is natural, then, for the reader to conclude that Acts was written prior to the death of Paul.

And if Acts was written in the life-time of Paul, then so must have been the Gospel of Luke that precedes Acts. Yet the reader has seen that Luke follows earlier gospels still, such as Matthew and Mark. It is natural, then, for the reader to view these first three gospels as all being composed very early and during the life-time of Paul and other apostles.

The Gospel of John follows. The odd thing about this gospel is that it appears to have two endings. The final chapter appears to have been tagged on with an explanation of what was to happen to the apostles John and Peter. Peter is predicted to die a martyr’s death and John to outlive him. If the gospel is titled The Gospel According to Saint John the final chapter appears to be an editorial addition that looks back on the deaths of John and Peter.

So the editor(s) has arranged the first books of the New Testament collection to appear to be very early writings about the life of Jesus and written either by apostles of Jesus (Matthew and John) or within the life-time of those apostles.

Let’s look a little more closely at the book following those gospels, the Book of Acts. The first chapters of this book tell us of the great works done by the Twelve Apostles and by Peter and John in particular. Then along comes Paul. Paul is depicted as being controversial but mainly as a result of misunderstandings. All of these are sorted out by the great apostle James (the Lord’s brother) in the middle of the book. After that we read of Paul’s mission work. To the very end Paul is misunderstood. He is really teaching the same things as Peter, John and James. The Book of Acts is written to stress the unity of the Jerusalem apostles and Paul. Paul is shown to defer to the authority of those Jerusalem apostles, especially James in Acts 15.

In a very early New Testament canon it appears that the Book of Acts was followed by the “General Epistles”, those of James, Peter, John and Jude — the first three being the leading apostles of Jerusalem. These are followed by the collection of letters by Paul. We find, then, that the letter collection follows the same principles set out in Acts: the Jerusalem apostles take precedence yet Paul sits alongside and following them.

Through this arrangement readers are being predisposed to read Paul’s letters in the context of the gospels, Acts, and the General Epistles of the Jerusalem apostles. The readers do not expect to find anything in Paul that contradicts the preceding teachings. Odd sounding passages will naturally be interpreted in the context of the preceding books.

Accordingly when the reader comes across the Epistle to the Galatians and finds Paul in sharp disagreement with Peter, even condemning him for his wrong approach to the Gospel, he or she finds reasons to believe that this rift was only temporary and the differences were patched up. After all, had not the reader seen what Peter in his later years himself said of Paul in his second letter?

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

But the editor may well have done more than simply rely upon book order to direct readers to interpret Paul’s writings a certain way. This brings us back to the question of the identity of Mark. So what of the identity of Mark? How is the reader to know who these are?

In the second letter of the apostle Peter we read, 2 Peter 1:15 and 2 Peter 3:1-2

And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. . . . 

. . . . this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders . . . . I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. . . . 

Peter is very anxious that he leaves important memories with his flock. The passage in 1:15 suggests Peter will be making an effort to arrange for others to do what is required to this end. We may be reading here the beginnings of the tradition that Peter did not write a gospel himself but ensured that his memories of Jesus were passed on nonetheless through someone he could trust.

The same letter reminds us that Peter was himself an eyewitness, above all of the Transfiguration:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)

Who was close to Peter in his final years whom he might use for such a purpose? The first letter of Peter concludes with this:

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. (1 Peter 5:13)

And Paul’s own final letters adds further reason to wonder if the rumours are true:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:11-13)

The reader who was pained to see in the Book of Acts the way Barnabas and Paul split over Mark is reassured to see here in this letter of the older Paul that all is mended. Mark was well known to both Peter and Paul.

These little clues in the canonical books support the Church tradition that the Gospel of Mark was written as a memoir of Peter.

This post has just skimmed the surface of the many cross-references within the canonical books that tell their own story of the authors behind the New Testament.

What is important to understand (and this is what Trobisch is emphasizing) is that readers have been guided into these interpretations by the editor/s who selected and arranged the books.

Critical studies inform us that the Gospels were written long after Paul and they were certainly not written by apostles or companions of apostles. (Okay, Bauckham and other naive or confessional conservative scholars are trying to revive the notion of eyewitnesses etc., but I have addressed some of those arguments in other posts.) The letters of James and Peter were certainly not written by the Lord’s brother or leading apostle. And Acts is really a propaganda effort to paper over very real divisions between Peter and Paul.

A hidden voice has hidden these facts from the general reader. That voice belongs to the editor(s) responsible for the selection and arrangement of the New Testament canon.

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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “How the New Testament Works”

  1. Funny how I can no longer take the New Testament seriously any more after hearing of Marcion’s first NT.

    Begrudgingly over the past year or two, I’ve had to recognise the Marcionite version WAS the very first. Although looking at the current NT and forgetting what the churches have told us on how to interpret, the story this second NT paints still isn’t as the churches would like us to believe. The end chapters of Acts really don’t paint Paul in a good light even as a team player and I’m surprised that Acts shows us a Paul who told people he was prepared to die in Jerusalem only to then show him doing ALL he could to AVOID such a fate. That in turn makes his stay with the Romans all the more curious as a PROTECTION from the Jerusalem crowd…and I can’t say I’m impressed with his stay in Rome, because that doesn’t come across as a house arrest.

    Of course, the Marcionites considering Paul really MARK is a curiosity all its own, isn’t it?

    Over the past few posts you’ve done, I’ve felt the need to ask you if you can work out what was SO important about the Epistle to the Alexandrians that the proto-Orthodox could NOT interpolate it or use it in their version of the NT.

    What was so difficult for them that it had to be expunged?

    And although we have no extant information on what was in it…is there much outside of the Muratorian canon that tells much about it?

  2. I think we can infer from Trobisch’s reconstruction that the Pastorals as well as 1&2 Peter, James, (and Jude?) were written specifically for the New Testament. This probably includes Acts as well. They never existed independently of the New Testament. This further supports the theory of a single editor compiling the New Testament at an early date, around 150-160. The editor recognized a need to somehow synthesize two very different types of literature, the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Ancillary to that was also the need to bring the Catholic patron Peter in harmony with the Marcionite patron Paul. All of this was accomplished by commissioning Acts, Pastorals, and 1&2 Peter.

    1. There’s much to think about here. I am thinking of Brodie’s view that Paul’s epistles were written by various hands in dialogue with one another and wondering how that model might apply to some (not all) of the other books, too.

      1. “Brodie’s view that Paul’s epistles were written by various hands [in dialogue with one another] ..” sounds like Bob Price’s view about the Pauline epistles.

  3. Reading through your post, I thought of the mention in Acts that Paul had a right to an audience
    with the Emperor because he was a “citizen of Rome”.

    My curiousity may be off topic, but I have always wondered about Paul’s Roman citizenship; I have
    not found a serious exploration of the paradox where Paul, a pious, learned Jew, is also a citizen of
    the Empire, who are the nemesis of the Jews.

    I don’t recall any mention in the Epistle’s of Paul referring to Roman citizenship.

    1. Paul’s Roman citizenship appears to be a fabrication of Acts. It appears to have been a nifty plot device to get him to Rome. It also serves nicely to demonstrate how Christianity was a nice asset to the Pax Romana.

  4. The NT begins and ends with hell. Matthew is the most hell filled Gospel, coming right from Jesus’ lips, and Revelation the lake of fire book, and bowls of curses being poured down from heaven to the earth, again, a direct revelation from Jesus.

  5. On the extinct FRDB forum, Stephan Huller noted that the New Testament appeared to consist of interlocking forgeries, And one “aa5874” replied that they were all MASSIVE forgeries. Now, not only is this interlocking demonstrated to be true, but I’m coming to the conclusion that most, if not all, the books of the New Testament have been tampered with if not forged outright, including the genuine Paulines.

  6. “Now Acts concludes suddenly with an imprisoned Paul preaching in Rome and waiting trial. ”

    Is that really how Acts end?
    What I’m referring to is the notion that Paul is under house arrest.
    Now unfortunately, I’m unable to read the Greek versions, but in the translations, the only reason I can see for the notion of a house arrest is the coupling together of the verse concerning the guard accompanying Paul on his arrival in Rome (Acts 28:16) and Paul’s reference to wearing a chain (Acts 28:20) with the anti-climactic ending of Paul living in a rented house in Rome for two years and preaching unhindered (Acts 28:30-31).

    Is there some reason in the original Greek terminology or grammar to infer that these two years were spent under house arrest?

    It seems to me that this only follows by insisting that Acts 28:16 & 20 are descriptive of the two years in Acts 28:30-31 as well, though there seems to be no indication, but, by contrast, an insistence in the latter verses that Paul was free to preach. Not exactly a state of affairs indicating that Paul was being confined due to concerns about his heretical faith and preaching. Indeed there seems to be little to indicate that Paul was even awaiting a trial, which seems to be an inference from the lack of Acts mentioning a final verdict.

    If the guard and chain verses are not characteristic of the two years, then it rather sounds like the case against Paul was simply shelved and that Paul decided to stick around in the capital to convert some more gentiles.

    Now I see a good reason why the house arrest interpretation came about, namely that it represents both the “minimal persecution” allowed by verses 30-31 and that such a confinement would explain why Paul was still in Rome during the Great Fire in 64 AD in the aftermath of which later Christian tradition insisted that Nero had him executed.

    I realise that I may just be displaying my ignorance of the scholarship here, but I found the issue rather puzzling and haven’t come across any sure fire arguments for Paul’s house arrest so far.

    1. Interesting perspective. I can give you my reasons for believing the 2 years were a form of imprisonment awaiting trial:

      1) the fact that Paul does not leave the house but others come to him there also suggests (that in the context of the previous mention of the guard and his imprisonment as the means and reason he was on his way to Rome) his lack of freedom;

      2) the narrative plot: Paul has been destined from the beginning to testify before kings and the reader is told that his destiny is to die and also to go to Rome — this before he returns to Jerusalem. He is farewelled along the way with the evident understanding he will be seen no more. The contextual implication is martyrdom.

      One detail I notice in rethinking this since your question (maybe I noticed it before but had forgotten it) is that the motif of “all coming to Paul” in his house in Rome strikes an interesting resonance with the motif in the Prophets of all coming to Jerusalem to hear the word of the Lord in the day of salvation.

      That’s interesting, I think, in the context of Acts being a narrative designed to point to Rome as the new headquarters from which the new people of God declare their message of salvation after the demise of Jerusalem.

      1. Further on the suggestion that the conclusion of Acts is meant as an echo of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 with their descriptions of the teaching of the Lord going out from the exalted house on Zion in the last days and all or many people coming up to that house to hear that teaching . . . .

        Paul’s ‘rented house’ in this context would be consistent with the motif that Christians on earth are sojourners and our presence here temporary. The new base in Rome is a temporary replacement to Jerusalem until the Lord himself comes.

        1. ” The new base in Rome is a temporary replacement to Jerusalem until the
          Lord himself comes”.

          What you say sparked a thought in my mind: Atleast a post 70 ad dating,
          if not post bar Kochba, can be applied to Acts if Antioch, Alexandria and
          Rome are the only options (in terms of major cities) where early Xians can
          seek shelter and build communities. If Acts was a contemporaneous text
          from 35 ad (Paul’s conversion?) to the late 50’s (Paul’s Odyssey?) then it
          makes sense that Jerusalem would be the apparent background setting,
          and there would be no need to allegorically represent a diaspora to Rome?

          Scholars, and yourself, might share my particular observation as well.

  7. Interesting, as always.

    Maybe you should expand it into a larger article, “How the New and Old Testament work”? 🙂

    In the Jewish Tanakh, Malachi is located in the “Prophets” section — i.e. deep inside the book — whereas in the Christian version of the Old Testament, the twelve minor prophets have been moved out of “The Prophets” and placed at the end.

    This means that the Christian Old Testament ends with a prophecy, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me […] Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah” while the New Testament (after the Nativity) starts with the prophecy being fulfilled by John the Baptizer , “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, […] “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight“.

    In this way the Old and New Testaments are joined seamlessly.

    It’s all done with mirrors. Pay no attention to the man behind the pulpit.

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