Over the weekend I practically devoured the new book by Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.
The idea of the book is simple. By placing the letters and Gospels and other books of the New Testament in chronological order and looking at the historical context in which they were written, we get an idea what the Good News of Jesus Christ meant for its first hearers and for the earliest generations of Christ’s followers.
There is general consensus that the earliest documents in the New Testament are seven letters of Paul, written in the 50s. Mark was written around 70, and was used by both Matthew and Luke as they composed their Gospels. Revelation was not the last to be written, but came in the 90s. The latest work is 2 Peter, which dates to the middle of the second century, about 120 or so. The book consists of introductions to each book followed by the full text from the NRSV.
We can also see the impact of current events on the language of the New Testament writers. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, most likely written in the 80s or early 90s, reflects the conflict between Christian Jews and other Jews. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70, many synagogues “closed ranks” and ostracized or expelled Christian Jews. This sheds light on why Matthew and John (both written late in the first century) contain harsher language about “the Jews.”
Reading the New Testament in this way makes me feel more connected to my brothers and sisters of those distant centuries, and it makes the issues they dealt with in their “life in Christ” feel as real as the ones I deal with. It also gets me excited for the upcoming year of Education for Ministry (EfM) when the eight students in my group will be studying Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History.
Building one’s knowledge of God through study of the Scriptures is as important as building one’s devotion to God through the use of the Scriptures in the Daily Office. Through the Scriptures, we come to know the power of God in our own time just as the very first Christians knew that power in theirs.