Word Studies: Introduction Part 3 – The New Testament: Radically New Writings

The New Testament is a Jewish text, written mostly by Jews and for Jews, whose worldview and truth claims were almost entirely framed by their understanding of God’s revelation to their ancestors. It was written at a time when there were many conflicting ‘world views’, all claiming to be ‘truth’ and most willing to disregard, or in the extreme dehumanise, those who believed something different. In this, there are many parallels with our world today.

Many of those ancient beliefs have disappeared into history leaving their mark only in stories, temples, and statues. However, some of their philosophies remain potent today. The concept of a separate body and spirit is not a Jewish understanding but the product of the Greek philosopher Plato. The parent who declares ‘I just want them to be happy’ and the atheist who thinks that after death, there is nothing, quote Epicurean philosophers, and we still call those who smile in the face of adversity while accepting what life brings, ‘Stoic’. Our contemporary patterns of thought, even today, still find their roots in ancient Greece.

Today we pride ourselves in being open to hear, and willing to embrace the truth claims of others, perhaps even up to the point where our own beliefs and ideologies are challenged. Yet today’s relativism asks us to bend the bounds of our experienced reality in a desire to appear accepting of the ideas of others, even when the claims made are irreconcilable or mutually exclusive. Still others hold to one particular worldview, and never question its source nor cross-examine the claims it makes.

This is exactly how it was for the New Testament writers. There were frameworks of understanding that all those in certain communities would have understood. There were points of conflict when ideas from one community were shared in another. Paul himself had to defend his Jewish-rooted truth claims in front of a panel of Epicurean and Stoic community leaders. Jesus’ disciples and the community of believers they gathered around them were all Jewish and yet it wasn’t long before people of other nations and cultures became followers of Jesus. They all had different ethnic identities, their cultural norms and world views were not Jewish, and so these early writers began to wrestle with their understanding of what it meant to be Jewish and also what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. They re-examined the absolutes that God had already shared with the Jewish people through history and reassessed the way these were to be understood when considered alongside what had been revealed to them by Jesus. This was not a simple process, as the narratives and letters of the New Testament testify.

The New Testament writers all quoted scripture to explain how the situations they observed and were caught up in had been alluded to, and prophesied by their Jewish ancestors many years before. The scriptures they quoted and studied were the writings of the Jewish people. The books of the Jewish law, or Torah, the historic writings, the words of the prophets, and other writings too.  It’s amazing that even today the majority of these same scriptures are still available to us, in what we call the Old Testament of the Bible

As a collection of writings, written in Ancient Greek and translated now into almost every language on the planet, it is remarkable how much of the New Testament can be understood just by reading it through, and I would encourage you to do just this. However, it is important that we recognise how our interpretation of what the words say, is shaped by the cultural lenses we look through, and impacted by the assumptions we bring with us to the text.

So, I hope that in these studies, as we look at these Jewish writings again, sensitive to the culture and context of their composition, we may be able to understand them better, we may be able to hear what their authors were saying and were not saying to their ancient audience, and in all of this we may be able to hear the voice of God speaking to us nearly 20 centuries later.

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