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ClassicsOnline Home » NEW TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 1: The Early Letters of Paul - 1, 2 Thessalonians / Galatians / 1, 2 Corinthians
The Spoken Word
Set One: The Early Letters of Paul – Thessalonians; I and II Corinthians; Galatians
Set Two: The Mature Letters of Paul – Romans; Philippians; Ephesians; Colossians; Philemon
Set Three: The Gospel according to Mark
Set Four: The Gospel according to Matthew
Set Five: The Gospel according to Luke
Set Six: The Acts of the Apostles
Set Seven: Letters and Documents – Letters of James, Peter, John, Jude, To Timothy and to Titus
Set Eight: The Revelation to John
Set Nine: The Gospel according to John; I John
The scriptures, Old and New Testaments, were shaped into their present form over centuries. From a range of documents, first the Hebrew and later the Christian community selected certain writings authorised for reading in public liturgy. That is the whole point of the canons of scripture. The Christian Church adopted the Hebrew canon in its entirety as being part of its own canon. In arriving at their choice, our forebears also made decisions about the order in which the documents were to be placed within the canon. The New Testament possesses a rationality in its order, placing the story of Jesus first, followed by Luke’s account of the missionary growth of the church, then the body of letters and concluding with Revelation—a broad chronology of events.
I have chosen to arrange the recordings in the order of composition, so far as that order is generally agreed upon by scholars. The letters of Paul were written before any of the gospel accounts. Mark’s gospel was followed by Matthew, then Luke, a book in two halves, the second half being the Acts of the Apostles. John’s gospel which can be read as a reflection back on the entire tradition.
My objective in making these recordings is to present the scriptures to my contemporaries in a manner that will, I hope, capture their imagination and their attention. Most of the biblical books are finely nuanced, and it can take the art of reading to bring out those nuances. Through nuance we capture imagination. Each of these documents was a response to a need that passionately involved both the writer and their readers. We are able today, in some measure, to recapture what those circumstances were, and therefore approach the texts with a light unavailable in the past. In commencing with I Thessalonians, for example, we can listen as a people for whom there was nothing at all in writing relating to their new-found faith. In the letter, Paul’s own thinking is far from mature. Thessalonians shows us a community of faith just beginning to grapple with themes that have occupied Christians ever since.
Even by the last of Paul’s letters to be written, not one of the gospels has appeared. Paul knows little of the details of Jesus’ life and teaching. Even in the Judea of that period the stories of Jesus’ life must have been little known or little valued, since otherwise Paul would have been instructed during his times in Jerusalem. When Mark was published, it may have come as a shock and revelation to the whole church. By reading Mark after hearing Paul, we can enter in some measure into the experience of learning about the earthly life of Jesus against the background of the significance Paul has assigned to the man.
Mark presents a picture of Jesus that fits the Pauline theology of justification by faith. Matthew, writing a decade later, appears to shape his account to contradict Mark and show Jesus as the man of the law, the establishment man. By reading Matthew after Mark and possibly as a reaction to Mark we bring new
light to our understanding of both.
This arrangement of texts also allows the connection of Luke and Acts into the continuous narrative they were originally intended to be and which the placement of John’s gospel between them destroys. John’s gospel, and the first Letter of John, is placed at the end of this collection not only because they were written around the turn of the century, with only a few of the New Testament documents subsequent, but principally because this gospel provides a supreme reflection upon the whole tradition and makes a fitting climax.
Here, then, is an invitation to listeners to bring new life and understanding of the scriptures that will, I am sure, in turn invigorate our engagement with the scriptures in all our manners of approach.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulder above other contemporary translations. I have, however, adapted some of the expressions in the original translation to meet the contemporary requirements for inclusive langue as appropriate.
David Guthrie, 2009
Any gift that I may have that is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N. Thompson and to Dr Raymond Foster whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife, Barbara, and daughter, Ruth, have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but both gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time, recording, editing and making ready for broadcast and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and wellbeing on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the New and Old Testaments and then break up the recording into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz.
First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians
(Written about 50–51 AD from Athens)
Paul has been engaged in missionary journeys through Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Then he crosses the Aegean sea, bringing the gospel for the first time to Europe. He preaches at Philippi but persecution drives him on to the city of Thessalonica, capital of the Roman province of Macedonia in what is today northern Greece. There, he and his two companions stay for some months, establishing Christian communities throughout the province, the membership drawn mainly from the Gentile (non-Jewish) population.
After his time in Thessalonica, Paul goes on to Athens. There he becomes depressed by what he finds and starts to fear for the community he left behind. Would they be able to maintain their stand against the overwhelming influence of paganism? In particular, Paul is worried about sexual standards. Thessalonica was the headquarters of three major cults practiced widely in the Roman world and each encouraged wild excesses of sexual licence.
In his concern, Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica to find out how they were faring. “Well”, Timothy reports, so Paul writes, out of relief, a letter, which we know as I Thessalonians. It is affirming and encouraging, full of confidence in the faith embedded there.
What is of particular interest is that the gospel Paul proclaims is focused upon the immanent return of Jesus as the Christ in glory, a return that will bring about the end of the present material universe. In this he shows the profound influence of his training as a Pharisee. From this tradition, he was imbued with the belief that the Messiah was soon to come to bring liberation from the sufferings of the Jews (the People of God) and the advent of God’s righteous kingdom. In Paul’s translation of this belief, those who have accepted the gospel will join Christ in glory; those who reject the gospel consigned to perdition—and all this is to happen in the very near future. Those who are genuine in turning to the gospel in faith show this in the ethical purity of their lives.
However, this understanding of the gospel also creates some problems and these Paul endeavours to address. Some have abandoned all productive work to await the return, and he tells them sharply to get back to work. Some were worried about the fate of Christians who had already died or would die before the Return, and Paul tells them that they will rise to join Christ in glory.
What makes the two letters to the church at Thessalonica so unique and powerful for us is the fact that these are our first recorded and preserved words of the Christian community, written only some 20 years after the event of the crucifixion. They were written to a community that had no “Christian” literature, no account of the life and teaching of Jesus such as we have in the four gospels and, from the evidence of the letters themselves, little knowledge of that tradition or even interest in it. The understanding of the gospel is very underdeveloped in Paul, compared to his later writings, especially in the letter to the Romans. The letters give us an insight into a gentile world just at the point of outset in its grasp of the meaning of the Christian message for its life.
The Letter of Paul to the Galatians
(Probably written about 54 AD)
Galatia was a Roman province in the middle of Asia Minor: its capital, Ancyra, is the capital of modern Turkey. Scholars disagree about the time of this letter and to what part of Galatia it was addressed but for our purposes the important point is that, first, the letter was written to a group of churches Paul had founded on an earlier missionary journey; second, that the letter comes before the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) that decides the issue at stake here, and decides it in Paul’s favour.
In this letter, Paul is angry—very angry. He has preached to these churches a gospel that Jesus has set aside the Jewish law as the way in which we please God and come into his kingdom, and that the way God has opened through Jesus is that Jesus himself has become the way to God. Through faith, expressed in baptismal identification with Jesus, we are completely free from the dictates of the Law. We rely solely and wholly upon what God has done in Jesus on the cross.
Paul’s concept of the gospel opened up Christianity to full participation by non-Jews. Many Gentiles had, in the past, been deeply attracted by Judaism and its strict moral standards. However, they were alienated by the demands of the Jewish Law, especially regarding male circumcision. Judaism’s response was to create two classes of “people of God”—Jews, first class, and Gentile ‘godfearers’, second class.
In one sweep, Paul does away with this class distinction. He insists that the Jewish Law no longer applies to Christians, neither to Jew or to Gentile. There can be no first or second class since all, Jew and Gentile, are one in Jesus.
The act of God in the death of Jesus institutes a new covenantal relationship with God. That covenantal relationship is accessed purely and only by faith in what God has done. Insofar as acting ethically is concerned, this is now a matter of the action of the Holy Spirit within us, not and never by keeping external commandments.
To his conservative contemporaries, Paul was a radical—a dangerous liberal, overturning all the ancient traditions, values and moral standards of the Jewish religion, shaping the expression of faith to the culture of ‘the world’. They saw Christianity as a branch of Judaism. The Jewish faith was simply modified by Jesus but not abolished. The conservatives followed Paul into Galatia, preaching their gospel of modified legalism, insisting that Gentiles must embrace the Jewish Law and its practices: above all, circumcision.
For Paul now, and later in the letter to the Romans, this is the key issue above everything else, an issue that surfaces continually throughout Christian history. Are we saved by anything we do? Or is salvation simply through believing and trusting in something that God has done without any input or effort from us?
The First and Second Letters to the Corinthians
(Probably written about 56 AD)
Because of an inscription surviving from that time, we can date the founding of the Corinthian Church with remarkable accuracy and certainty—AD50. Greece is something like the Americas—two large land-masses joined by a very narrow isthmus, and it was on this isthmus that the city of Corinth stood, a major place in the trade link between Rome and the East; wealthy but also world-renowned for sexual licentiousness.
Paul’s founding ministry there lasted about eighteen months. Now, as we read the Corinthian correspondence, a few years have passed and it is probably 55 or 56 AD and Paul has written a letter to the church, seemingly concerned about sexual laxity. The Corinthians replied and in that reply asked some questions. Paul, however, has been hearing worrying things about the church and so he writes what we know as I Corinthians. Clearly the letter does not resolve anything, so he writes another letter—an angry letter—which we do not have. Finally, he writes a fourth letter; we know this as II Corinthians.
The first Letter to the Corinthians
These letters are not doctrinal letters like those to Galatia or Rome. The letters to Corinth are concerned with community matters of church life in a tumultuous and divided church, subject to immense strains and pressures. It would seem that there were three main parties whose activities and preaching seriously split the community and threatened its ongoing communion. First were those who endeavoured to be faithful to the tradition handed to them by Paul. It is intriguing that Paul does not side with them but brings them too under his comprehensive attack on divisive parties. A second group gathered around Apollos were influenced by the fashion for secret wisdom and knowledge and sought to shape Christianity accordingly. The third group, followers of the Apostle Peter (Cephas) were trying to keep Christianity within the boundaries of Judaism and the Law. So Paul’s concern is to challenge the sectarian spirit in the church and remind them forcibly that Christ’s body cannot be divided and that the unity of the Christian community is a prime witness to the presence of the Spirit in its midst.
He then goes on to express his disgust and anger over two issues: an instance of incest and the fact that Christians were taking lawsuits against each other in the pagan courts. From there, Paul proceeds to answer various questions; first, relating to marriage and virginity; second, in a long and rambling discourse about food offered to idols; and third, decorum in public worship. His responses contain invaluable insight into the gospel as it outworks in practical life. The climax of this “first” letter comes when Paul challenges those in the church who denied the resurrection of Jesus.
The Second Letter to the Corinthians
Many will find the letter we know as II Corinthians somewhat confusing, as have scholars over the centuries. I personally find it enriching to approach it as a profound exposition and reflection upon the nature of ministry, in this aspect perhaps the most important of all the writings we have.
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