The Language and Literature of the New Testament

The Language and Literature of the New Testament

The NT is a relatively short book, yet, rightly called, it is not a book at all but a collection of twenty-seven “books.” Actually, most of these books are letters; the remainder (the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation) consists of materials representing three differing genres. (These twenty-seven books, individually read, are brief, some shorter than a page.)

While some of the NT is easy to read, the contemporary reader finds much of it difficult to interpret. That is a consequence of several possible factors: (1) Originally written in another language (see below), these documents have to be translated into English for most readers; (2) all of them were written in the first century and must be interpreted against the context of that period (see below); (3) the shorter the writing, the less opportunity the reader has to “get on board” (i.e., the context for interpreting the contents is foreshortened); (4) most of the documents were written to address specific situations about which we have little information (thus, the original audience could understand them more easily than we); (5) the subject matter, in a number of instances, is of a difficult nature for some modern readers (e.g., theological argumentation).

None of the NT was written for the sake of producing a body of Christian “literature” as such. The letters are probably all genuine, written to address real situations, to meet specific needs. Similarly, the motive that gave rise to the other writings is utilitarian: The purpose was to serve the practical needs of the church as those were coming to the fore in the latter half of the century. The authors were not writers by profession, but church leaders, evangelists, and teachers who used writing as a tool in their missionary work.

Thus the NT, which contains some of the world's finest literature (e.g., Jesus' parables) was not written with that lofty end in view. Rather, the NT illustrates the truth of Longinus' dictum that “sublimity is the echo of the greatness of the soul.” Its greatness inheres in its contents, not its form.

Further, the NT was not written and arranged to accord with some grand design (except insofar as that exists in the mind of God). Rather, the several letters and various materials having been collected, a kind of natural sequence emerged:

Gospels

Acts

Pauline letters

Non-Pauline letters

Revelation

The Pauline corpus, whose thirteen letters comprise nearly half of the NT, reflects the following principles for arrangement:

1. The letters are ordered by length, not date, the longest (Romans) first and the shortest (Philemon) last.

2. A “second” letter to the same addressee, however, is attached to the “first.”

3. The Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) are put at the end of the corpus, reflecting recognition of their distinction as letters addressed to individual persons and not churches.

4. Hebrews is then appended, showing the uncertainty of the early church regarding its authorship.

The first two of these principles also dictated the order of the non-Pauline letters. These letters, along with Hebrews, which today is regarded as non-Pauline, are typically labeled the “Catholic Epistles” or “General Letters.” This title refers to the fact that several of the major letters (e.g., James, 1 Peter, 1 John) were written for a general or broadly designated or unidentified audience. On the other hand, two of the letters in this group are addressed to a specific person or church: 3 John is sent “to my dear friend Gaius” and recipients of 2 John are “the chosen lady and her children.” This latter is generally interpreted as metaphorical, referring to a specific congregation. By attachment to 1 John, however, these two are included among the General Letters. By contrast, two of Paul's letters that were written for a wider audience are grouped with the Pauline corpus and not with the general letters; these are Galatians, which was sent “to the churches in Galatia,” and Ephesians, which went “to the saints.” The added words in Ephesus are spurious, not being found in several important early manuscripts.

Contemporary scholars customarily classify Paul's letters as follows:

Early Letters (Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians)

Major Letters (1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans)

Prison Letters (Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians)

Pastoral Letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)

(Note: This listing presumes the authenticity of the Pastoral Letters, and the so-called “South Galatian theory” with a corresponding early dating of Galatians.)

The four gospels naturally fall into two subgroups: the Synoptics and John. the word synoptic denotes a common point of view. Matthew, Mark, and Luke parallel one another at many points because they share the same material. John, which presumably was written much later, takes an independent approach. The order of the four in the NT apparently reflects the chronology of their origins as understood by the early church. Modern scholarship, for the most part, assigns priority to Mark.

In sum, while it may reflect some logic, the present order of NT books is an afterthought. The arrangement may be providential, but it is not inspired. On the other hand, it is instructional.

Internally, the literary forms deployed in the NT are ordinary enough. The letter, of course, was and is a common form of communication. Further, most of the epistles use the elements standard in first-century letters. For example, the opening typically includes (1) introduction of writer, (2) identification of addressees, and (3) a formal greeting.

In the NT, however, certain literary forms are highly refined. For example, as did the rabbis, so Jesus also used stories to teach spiritual truths. Storytelling, of course, is as old as history and a common means of human discourse. But some persons are better storytellers than others; no one, admittedly, was ever better than the Master Teacher. So well did Jesus use this ordinary device that merely to mention “parables” brings his name to mind.

In terms of the broader category of literary genre, Acts reflects the use of forms common to ancient historiography, and Revelation reflects the apocalyptic literature of early Judeo-Christian tradition. As noted above, the letters of the NT reflect the epistolary genre of their day.

Gospel, however, is a new form. Unique to the NT, it appears to rise from the nature of the materials and their use in the early church. On the other hand, as a literary form, gospel is not highly sophisticated or complex: The words and works of Jesus are simply told, using a general chronological frameword and highlighting certain events such as his passion and death.

Ordinary but transformed: that summarized not only the literature but also the language of the NT.

The original Greek of these writings is not, for the most part, the literary Greek of the period. It represents, rather, the ordinary vocabulary and form of the language as used in everyday conversation. Scholars call it koine, i.e., common Greek.

It should be noted that our understanding of the language of the NT changed considerably in the last century. Previously, it was thought, because NT Greek is somewhat different from so-called classical Greek, that biblical discourse was of a “higher” species than ordinary discourse. Due in large part to new archeological finds, we now know it differs from literary Greek because it reflects a “lower” form of the language, as used in everyday spoken communication.

In short, the extraordinary beauty and power of the NT does not inhere in its language or literature, which are commonplace. In this respect, the written Word mirrors the Word incarnate: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (Isa 53:2). It is to this One that the NT, the written Word, bears witness; and it does not eclipse him with a beauty all its own. Instead, consistent with the revelation of the Word “made flesh,” so it appears, once again, that God has used the simple things of this world to confound the wise. To him be glory forever and ever! Amen.