The Order of the New Testament Canon

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by Neil Godfrey

George A. Kennedy makes some interesting observations about the order of the New Testament books that probably many Christians have at some time thought about. I suppose when a professor of classics publishes the same it gives us an assurance that our senses have not failed us.

The canon of the New Testament was established by Councils of the Church in late antiquity. Whether consciously determined or not, the order assigned to the books is interesting, for it is consistent with conventions of rhetoric as taught in the schools.

  1. First come the Gospels, which proclaim the message;
  2. then the narrative of Acts, which describes its reception;
  3. then the epistles, which may be viewed as arguing out interpretation of the message;
  4. and finally the Apocalypse, as a dramatic epilogue.

(p. 97, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, my formatting and numbering.)

It’s not quite true, of course. Acts can hardly be said to describe the reception of the message we read about in the Gospels, unless the message of the Gospels is confined to their final verses. And the epistles appear to be even less interested in arguing out the interpretation of anything we read in the Gospels. But the order of the books as bound in canonical black with gold edging does rhetorically convey the impression that it is quite true.

And then there is the order of the Gospels.

The order of the four Gospels probably reflects what the Church thought was the chronological order of their composition and is consistent with Eusebius’ reports on the subject. But it is also rhetorically effective in that

  1. Matthew, with his introductory genealogy, account of Jesus’ birth, and extended speeches, gives a comprehensive initial picture of Christianity and links it to the Old Testament;
  2. Mark, with his emphasis on what Jesus did, approximates a narration;
  3. Luke works out details and smoothes over problems to create a plausible whole;
  4. and John supplies a moving epilogue.

(p. 97 ditto)


Another Q versus literary competence argument

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

My copy of George Kennedy’s “New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism” has just arrived today. Can’t recall what footnote originally compelled me to purchase it online however many weeks ago, but already I’m impressed with one little gem.

A doctrinaire insistence on source criticism tends to underestimate Matthew’s abilities as a writer and the perceptual sensitivity of his intended audience; rhetorical criticism can help to redress that estimate. (p.42)

and before that:

He was surely not deliberately leaving his readers clues to unravel his use of sources. (p.42)

That last sentence says heaps. Do we really think that one well enough versed in Greek to compose a gospel that would last 2000 years so limited that they found it too much effort to adjust wording of their sources to fit the thematic contexts of their larger composition?

Kennedy in this section focuses on the apparent contradiction in the Sermon on the Mount that appears to begin with Jesus addressing his inner circle of close disciples only yet concluding as if he had been addressing the larger multitude.

The explanation to Kennedy is really elementary, my dear Watson:

In classical oratory, apostrophe, or the turn from the nominal addressee to someone else, is even more common than in modern public address. What perhaps should be envisioned in Matthew, as in Luke, is that Jesus first looks at the disciples and then begins to refer to the crowd in the third person, shifting abruptly to the second person in 5.11. (p.41)

Kennedy further points to the obvious intended audience throughout the rest of the Sermon — that Matthew clearly intended his Sermon to be read/heard as a speech, and among it audience were “the poor, the grief-stricken, the meek, those contemplating divorce, all Jews who will pray.” (p.40)

There is much, much more to Kennedy’s exposition of Matthew’s rhetoric, but I have chosen to isolate for the purpose of this moment this sole point, which is worth my digesting for before moving on and reading much else.