Reading the New Testament: Chronological or Canonical?

Marcus Borg has an interesting article in the Religion section of the Huffington Post today on the chronology of the New Testament. It seems to me there has been more interest in a “chronological Bible” lately, with several new Bibles appearing with the order of the books sorted by chronology rather than by traditional canon.

Borg makes several excellent points on how reading the New Testament will effect the way were understand Christian origins.

First, he says that “beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels.” This is a great point, since the earliest unmediated witness to Christian thinking about Jesus are the Pauline letters. While Borg only accepts seven of the letters of Paul as authentic, he is correct to see this as the “earliest window” into Christianity. Reading 1 Thessalonians and Galatians is to see the struggles of the earliest Christians as the interpreted Jesus’ death on the Cross and the struggle to understand what Jesus means in the present age.

In order to make this point Borg must discount the historicity of the speeches of Acts here, which is why I said “unmediated.”  Certainly we have a speech of Peter at Pentecost, but it comes through another author (Luke) at least thirty years later, probably more.  Luke reported speeches accurately, in my view, but he also reported speeches which served his theological agenda.  Paul remains the earliest Christian voice we have.  (Borg does not mention the letter of James as an early voice since he dates the book well into the 80’s.)

Second, putting the Pauline letters first will force us to see the Gospels differently. They are “not the source of early Christianity but its product.” For Borg, the three synoptic Gospels are written after Paul’s ministry was over and Christianity had spread throughout the Empire.  (This is the consensus view of the dating of the gospels.)  While the content of the gospel was certainly present before the Synoptic Gospels were written, the theology present in the Matthew, Mark and Luke/Acts certainly reflects a time when Pauline Christianity was the dominant understanding of Jesus. While I am less confident about Borg’s dates for the Synoptic Gospels nor am I satisfied with separating them from the traditional authors, his point is nevertheless important.

Third, Borg points out that even within the three Synoptic gospels, placing Mark first “demonstrates that early Christian understandings of Jesus and his significance developed.” This is a standard view of the synoptic problem: Mark write first and was later supplemented by Matthew and Luke. As Borg says, they added to and “modified” Mark to reflect their theological concerns. Again, a fair point and one I can accept, although I do not think the modifications were as radical as implied by Borg.

Fourth, Borg again follows consensus and places John late in his chronology. Reading “John separated from the other Gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different his Gospel is.” Borg correctly points out that the gospel is rich with “metaphorical and symbolic language” which functions as a “witness” of the theology of John’s community. I think that this is also quite acceptable, although I would also include the letters of John and Revelation at this point as well.

Fifth, Borg states that “realizing that many of the documents are from the late first and early second centuries allows us to glimpse developments in early Christianity in its third and fourth generations.” This is perhaps the most difficult of his points to accept, since I am not willing to date anything in the New Testament in the second century. He is correct, however, that the later books are second or third generation Christianity. This is not a radical idea, since even in Hebrews 2:1 the writer of that letter heard the Gospel from others. The writers of the New Testament live at the end of the “first generation” and are writing their books as a legacy of tradition to the second and third generations.

I find it fascinating that Borg considers the trajectory from the earliest to the latest books as a trajectory of accommodation with culture: “[The books] reflect a trajectory that moves from the radicalism of Jesus and Paul to increasing accommodation with the cultural conventions of the time.” In Galatians the issues is the proper way to obey God, should Gentiles keep the Law or not? By Revelation, people are not even thinking about keeping the Jewish Law and wondering if it is permissible to participate in pagan festivals or “sin that grace my abound.”

This continues well into the early centuries of the church, and is repeated every time there is a call back to the original sources (the Reformation, the Great Awakening, etc.) Reading the books chronologically highlights the theological trajectory of the New Testament documents, but also highlights the struggles the church of all ages faces.

8 thoughts on “Reading the New Testament: Chronological or Canonical?

  1. Phil: This is a helpful perspective, to see the development. For me development means an emphasis on different things, but with no change to the overall message and teaching of the church. Maybe it’s because I’m a lawyer, but I still come back to Richard Bauckham’s evidence and eyewitness testimony approach. The Gospels took down the solid testimony which came down from eyewitnesses who are the people listed by name in the Gospels. The time span involved was short, which enhances the credibility of the written record. Some witnesses were still alive when the Gospels were written. The text of G John – the latest Gospel! – makes a bigger point of that than any other Gospel, and is underrated as a source of history. I like what Pope Benedict says in Vol 1 of Jesus of Nazareth, that G John comes from a source and a writer who was either a Jewish priest or close to one of more priests, highly reliable and with strong credentials.
    Keep this stuff coming, Phil! Much appreciated.

    • I think that you are right, the “eyewitness” approach is very helpful. One thing I did not include in my post is that 1 Thess contains the most “Jesus Tradition” of any Pauline letter, chapter 5 seems drawn from the Olivet Discourse. If that is “Q”, then Thessalonians is a witness to a very early collection of the Sayings of Jesus. Romans has some Sermon on the Mount material as well.

      Bauckham and Dunn (Jesus Remembered) are both drawing the gap between witness and writing quite close, far closer than Borg is willing to admit.

  2. I think it’s also important to take into consideration that the stories of Jesus found in the Gospels FAR predate their writing and the writing/dissemination of Paul’s letters. These would have had at least made some decisive theological formation within the early Christian communities which became the foundation for later theological formation. I don’t think Borg’s thesis takes this fully into consideration as he seems to dismiss the idea.
    However, I do think his assertion that reading the Bible chronologically gives an interesting glimpse into the church’s development, just not as much as HE thinks it does. Once again, I default to Wright who makes a good case for the stories of Jesus appearing VERY early, particularly the Resurrection accounts, due to their apparent lack of developed theological pondering.

  3. Sure, but “far” in caps seems a bit over the top, since we are talking about perhaps thirty years. That is the point I made in the previous comment, that if 1 Thess and Romans contain material from Q (or what gets labeled as Q), then we have a Jesus tradition in a fixed form in the early 50’s, which Paul can use as authoritative.

    With respect to the resurrection story, that is where Borg’s point that Mark is first is more helpful, since Mark has an underdeveloped resurrection, the fact that the manuscript evidence indicates that it was expanded into the “longer ending” shows that the earliest form was simple, unembellished.

    Defaulting to Wright is almost always a good idea.

  4. The assumption that Luke and Matthew modified Mark according to their theological concerns is viscously circular, isn’t it? How can we reconstruct their theological concerns except by comparing them with Mark?

    How can Borg be sure about a 30 year gap between Paul’s letters and Luke-Acts. Paul wrote most of his surviving letters after 54, so Borg must be placing Luke-Acts after 84. Scholars often claim more precision in dating the gospels than is justified from the data.

    • That is the main problem with the consensus view. Other versions of a solution to the Synoptic problem are possible, but Borg seems convinced by Markan priority. The article has a kind of “house of cards” feel to it, since the order of the gospels is based on his assumptions about the gospels, the fate of the Pastorals and Ephesians is based on his view of Paul, etc.

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