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ClassicsOnline Home » NEW TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 7: Letters and Documents - 1, 2 Peter / James / Jude / 2, 3 John / 1, 2 Timothy / Titus / Hebrews
The Spoken Word
Set One: The Early Letters of Paul – Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians
Set Two: The Mature Letters of Paul – Romans, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, 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
Set Eight: The Revelation to John
Set Nine: The Gospel according to John: 1 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 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 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 1 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 just 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 I believe will, 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 (NJB) 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 shoulders above other contemporary translations.
Any gift that I may have which 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 these 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 well-being on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the Old and New Testaments and then break up the recordings 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.
David Guthrie, 2009
Letters and Documents
The New Testament writings gather in three great groups of works: those by Paul, the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts and the writings of John. Outside of these three groups there is a miscellaneous collection of other letters and documents and these are gathered together in Set Seven of The Spoken Word. In a very broad sense, they can be taken as a collection of wisdom books akin to the Hebrew Testament’s parallel collection. Like their Hebrew counterpart, they vary greatly in quality of insight, wisdom and spiritual value. Nevertheless, even at their least value, we would be impoverished today had not these writings been preserved.
It was common practice, and not the least reprehensible in the eyes of the culture of the time, to attribute significant writing to some past figure whose authority was accepted as unquestionable. So these letters were attributed to apostles or to Paul and written as if from their hand. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Peter the apostle composed the first letter of ‘Peter’. His ‘second letter’, however, together with the letters ‘to Timothy’ and ‘to Titus’ are from the mid to late second century and certainly do not come from the hand of their putative author. It is possible that the so-called ‘Pastoral Letters’ incorporated some genuine material from the hand of Paul where reference is made to personal issues.
Ordering and dating
The general approach of The Spoken Word recording of the New Testament has been to present the books in the order in which they were composed, insofar as this can be ascertained. However, to follow this pattern faithfully would have placed a collection of second-rate writings at the conclusion of the collection, whereas it was more appropriate to bring the collection to a fitting conclusion with the end-of-the-century writing of John.
Of this collection of ‘wisdom’ writings, the most significant are the First Letter of Peter and the ‘letter’ to the Hebrews. So the collection commences with the First Letter of Peter, while the profound connection of the vision of Christ’ priesthood shared by Hebrews and John’s gospel suggested placing Hebrews at the conclusion of the collection.
The importance of these writings
The most fundamental thing that can be said about the importance of these writings is that the church of the first centuries thought them valuable enough to preserve them—though they had serious doubts about 2 Peter for several centuries. Much of their ascription of importance lay, of course, in their belief that these were genuine apostolic words, so that, had they been aware of what modern scholarship has been able to discern, they may possibly have adjudged differently.
Nevertheless, their value to us is incalculable if only for the insights they provide us into the issues and the conflicts that characterised and concerned the church of the first and second century. There is also much of deeply perceptive wisdom to be found here, even if we find ourselves today challenging and substantially modifying that wisdom is some of its forms.
First Letter of Peter
As noted above, it is conceivable if not particularly likely, that the apostle wrote this letter. Cutting through the scholarly arguments, I personally find it helpful to read it as from the man himself. It was written to Christians in Asia Minor who were suffering persecution and hardship and was designed to encourage them to persevere.
The Letter of James
‘James’ appears to have been a bishop of the late first century located in a backwater area of Syria, out of the mainstream of thinking of the church of the time. Nevertheless, he had some profound contributions to make about practical morality that remain a challenge to us today.
The Letter of Jude
What is interesting about this letter, written late in the first century, is, first that the apostolic tradition had become fixed and solidified; and that there was a fierce battle going on in the church around false teaching. What that false teaching was we do not know.
The second letter of Peter
Of all the canonical writings, the acceptance of 2 Peter into the canon took the shakiest route and its acceptance was very late. It stridently asserts the validity of the apocalyptic vision, a tradition that had its roots in Judaism in the time between the Testaments, was embraced by the early Paul and has continued to play a part in Christian spirituality down over the centuries.
The Pastoral Letters
The two letters ‘to Timothy’ and the letter ‘to Titus’ date from mid-to late second century. They appear to reflect a problem that had arisen whereby women and slaves were embracing the concept of gospel freedom in a way that was socially and culturally offensive to the structures of the time and created a major problem for the church leadership. Though today our sympathy probably lies more strongly with those whom these letters were designed to suppress, we are not in a position to judge the pastoral wisdom of the elders who produced these documents.
To the Hebrews
Of all the documents in this Set Seven collection, ‘Hebrews’ stands head and shoulders as the most significant writing, yet it is the hardest of all, apart from the Revelation to John, for us today to approach and grasp. It is not a letter at all, but a sermon, written in a style that its contemporaries would have recognised as of the highest order of oratory and language. It was probably written by a bishop in Rome around 96AD and addressed to Christians in Rome.
The church was in crisis. It was now the third generation after the first converts. What sustained the initial Christian generation in all the hardships and deprivation involved in being Christian was the fervent embrace of the Pauline message of the immanent return of Christ. Now that this vision was fading, people were becoming disillusioned and falling away from the church in droves. The message of the sermon was a simple one—to persevere in faith, confident in the reward that would come to those who so persevered.
The genius of the bishop’s vision in this sermon was that he produced an entirely new and fresh model for understanding the work of Jesus—the model of priesthood. What seems to us today as arcane to the point of incomprehensibility was, for the preacher’s audience, the every-day experience for life in the first century which was saturated with sacrifice and the encounter with priesthood both pagan and Jewish.
John, writing his gospel a few years later, was to pick up this theme of Christ’s priesthood and make it central to his exposition of the meaning of Jesus. Perhaps the most powerful significance of Hebrews for our age is the example of the creation of a new model to interpret Jesus to a new age.
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