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An Introduction to the New Testament


In dedicating his collected Letters to his friend Septicius, Pliny says, "You have often urged me to collect and publish my letters"—colligerem publicaremque. The science of New Testament Introduction has paid too little attention to the part played by publication in ancient life and in the development of the New Testament literature. We must not forget that there was really just as much difference in antiquity as there is now between a letter written and a letter published.

The scattered letters of Paul had no considerable effect upon developing Christian literature until someone thought of seeking them out, gathering them into a collection, and publishing them. That action had a very marked effect upon the production of further Christian writings, quite apart from the composition of the several letters by Paul a generation before. Of course, the mere undertaking of such a collection implies a developed Christian activity where it was made, and so has a value for the historian as well as for the interpreter.

Our concern with it here is for its contribution to the science of Introduction, for which the making of that collection has as much importance as the writing


of almost any book in the New Testament. It was, of course, a significant thing for Paul to write his letters to Corinth, send them there, and experience their effects. They fell into the soil of the early Corinthian church and disappeared. But it was a very different thing when, some thirty-five years later, someone had the acumen to seek out those letters and publish them as part of a Pauline letter-corpus. It was that act that made them active as literature and put them in the way of influencing Christian writing as they had never done before.

This long-neglected matter of the collection and publication of Paul's letters is of great significance for New Testament Introduction, since it at once organizes the whole material into the works written before that event, and the ones that were written after it and under the influence—many of them, indeed, in imitation—of the newly published collection.

This is no external or mechanical principle of organization; for the forms, views, and groupings of all this subsequent literature show the influence of the published Pauline letters. Not only does the personal letter become the model for the formal epistle, as Deissmann observed, but these later epistles are not for private use but for publication and circulation. Further, the Pauline letter-corpus became the model for a whole series of later letter-corpuses—those of the Revelation, Ignatius, John, the Pastorals. The recognition of this sets all these groups of documents in new


perspectives. We perceive that they are not to be considered atomistically, as though they originated one document at a time; they came into being as corpuses and were published as such. This is plain in the case of Revelation, chapters 1-3; it is no less important to observe it in the Johannine and Pastoral corpuses. It is not without significance even for the Ignatian corpus as well.

In the published Pauline corpus, in short, we possess an instrument by which we can effect a new and fruitful reorganization of New Testament Introduction. It is such a reorganization that is undertaken in the present volume.

New Testament Introduction has suffered from a general tendency toward atomistic treatment. Cherished positions of various origins, traditional or critical, are found to be attended with what seem difficulties, and these are necessarily dealt with one by one and disposed of. The fault of this procedure obviously is that the investigator falls into the attitude of supposing that, if the one particular objection or difficulty under immediate scrutiny can be disposed of, the desired position is established. But of course it is precisely the cumulative effect of these difficulties that matters. We must not assume that, if this one difficulty be disposed of, the position is established, when nineteen other difficulties just as serious are waiting to be dealt with. In such a situation it is time to recognize that these objections can no longer be viewed as difficulties; they should rather be


regarded as clues to the true solution of the problem. In fact, a host of considerations that have usually been regarded by learning as difficulties to be zealously and ingeniously whittled away, one by one, are really nothing less than invaluable clues to the very solutions the achievement of which is the historical student's sole concern.

Not only is atomism a grave peril in detailed problems of Introduction, but it seriously affects its broader aspects. The individual letters of Paul have absorbed so much attention that their greater and very different value as a collection has been entirely lost sight of in Introduction. The letters, when collected, formed a new literary unit and at once and for the first time began to exert a literary influence. The Four-Gospel corpus has been similarly disregarded, as though it were of no concern for Introduction but only for the history of the canon. The letters to Timothy and Titus have been dealt with severally, as though they had separate origins instead of having originated as a corpus, which makes the study of them quite another matter.

How long it has taken us to perceive that Luke-Acts is not two works, written at different times, but simply two volumes of a single work—a very fruitful finding for all that concerns Introduction! And under the baneful influence of the old chapters and verses we have always interpreted the New Testament too atomistically, so that most people never dream a gos-


pel or a letter has any broad general controlling purpose or message of its own.

Whatever may be said of the historian or the critic, it is the task of the interpreter to understand. The writer on Introduction must take account of the findings of history and of criticism, but his primary concern is interpretation. It is for the understanding of the literature that he labors. Its sources are for him a matter of secondary interest; the rebuilding of history upon it is not his immediate responsibility, though he will be satisfied that a sound history can be built only upon a faithful interpretation.

The interpreter must not, therefore, be drawn aside into the search for sources which might so absorb him as to make him forget his proper sphere. Nor should he become so engaged with historical reconstruction as to neglect his own task. His peculiar business is to understand and make understandable the literature he deals with, to appreciate and appraise the use his authors have made of their sources, and to find out the ends to which they used them.

What some antique sentence taken up into Revelation or Acts may have meant when it was first framed does not matter for his present task; what does matter is the use to which it is put in the New Testament book in which it now stands. Form criticism is, therefore, not the province of the introductionist; the discernment of the origins of the materials behind the


sources is not a part of his immediate task. Much may be learned from such studies for the history and life of the early church, but it must of course be remembered that the fact that a saying fits a particular historical situation does not always mean that the situation created it.

The rise of the New Testament canon I have not dealt with in this introduction, inasmuch as I have treated it elsewhere, in my Formation of the New Testament, and I feel that brief accounts of it as adjuncts to volumes on Introduction are likely to be unsatisfactory.

Within twenty years after the death of Jesus the Christian movement was entering the Greek world. It was a reading and a writing world. Greek settlers were scattered along the shores of the Mediterranean, and everywhere they went, as the Greek papyri from Egypt have shown us, they read Greek books, old and new.

Into this Greek atmosphere of books and writing Christianity entered with astonishing vigor. Paul wrote his letters in Greek for Greek converts; Mark wrote his gospel for Greek Christians in Rome. Soon a Greek took up the pen and wrote a two-volume work on the history of the movement. John recast the Christian message for the Greek world, and the Rylands Library fragment shows that within a generation his gospel was circulating in Egypt in the new codex or leafbook form which was just coming into fashion. It now


seems probable that Christianity, which had a huge religious literature to circulate, was among the leaders or actually took the lead in adopting that ingenious innovation in book forms. Certainly the earliest leafbooks which we possess are Christian documents—John, Paul, Hermas, the Oxyrhynchus Sayings, the British Museum gospel.

The New Testament may be described as the literary precipitate deposited by the Christian movement when it impinged upon the Greek world.

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