New Testament Reading | Introduction

Awhile back, I decided that I wanted to actually sit down and read Scripture. The Bible has never formed a big part of my spiritual life, mainly because of how often it's used to justify whatever people wanted to do anyway. I also never saw a reason to put all of my eggs in one basket, so to speak, nor do I accept the idea that someone else should be the arbiter of my own faith.

But this first issue, my distaste at how I'd seen the Bible used, also led to an improper motivation: on some level, I saw that what motivation I did have to read the Bible was mostly to gather ammunition to be used against people whose views I didn't like. Speaking truth and all that is one thing, but going in for the sole purpose of refuting others didn't really seem like a good way of spending my time.

Anyway, after awhile, I kinda got over it. That, combined with trying to put some more work into my spiritual life, led me back to the idea of reading the New Testament once again.

Which Bible?

Of course, this leads to a host of other questions. Which translation should I pick? Ultimately, I decided that the answer would have to be none. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. That meant that I'd be reading it in Greek.

I had studied Classical Greek (mostly the Attic dialect) in college years ago, but both needed a refresher and wanted to get up to speed on any differences between that and Koine, the dialect in which the New Testament was written. After all, a language can change quite a bit in a few hundred years and a thousand miles. Anyway, after looking around some, I decided to pick up Professor Rodney Decker's Reading Koine Greek.

I spent a year or so going through it, with my focus mostly on learning NT-specific vocabulary and refreshing myself on the grammar. Thankfully most of the major rules remained consistent from what I remembered, and some things had gotten simpler. Koine Greek tended to use prepositions more than relying on cases (thank God), which also makes life just a little easier. Once I felt comfortable enough to move forward, it was on to the New Testament itself!

Of course, even though I'd decided on reading it in Greek rather than a translation, this doesn't fully answer the “which Bible” question.

Old Books

One of the things to remember is that the idea of a single cohesive “Bible” is not original to when it was written. What we now know of as the New Testament wasn't a consistent thing until at least 100 years after Christ's death. Throughout the first few centuries of the Christian church, there was ongoing debate about which books that were floating around were actually divinely inspired. The modern list first shows up in the works of Origen in the early 200s.

But even then, we have to remember that the printing press wouldn't really be a thing for another 1,400 years. So instead, there were people who served as scribes, whose job it was to copy important texts (and this wasn't just true for Christian writings). Monks would later play this role as well. Even though this was a profession, or at least a specialty, it doesn't necessarily mean that all copying was always perfect. Accidental errors happened, as did attempts by scribes to “correct” what they saw as mistakes, either in copying or in the actual theology.

My favorite example of this comes from Codex Vaticanus, which is one of if not the oldest complete New Testament manuscripts currently known. Dated to the beginning of the 4th century, it's believed to have been written in the western part of the Roman Empire, with possible origins given as Rome, Caesarea, Alexandria, or somewhere in southern Italy. It was probably written by three scribes, although even that is not certain. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts hosts images of a facsimile edition made in the late 19th century, while images of the original are hosted by the Vatican Library.

On page 1512, if you look between the left and middle columns, you'll see a little note crammed between (note that this only appears on the Vatican's version, as it was omitted from the facsimile). That note reads, in Greek:

ἀμαθέστατε καὶ κακέ, ἄφες τὸν παλαιόν, μὴ μεταποίει

Which would be something like,

Foolish and terrible [person], leave the old one, don't change it

What this is referring to is not changing the verse to a different interpretation.

Another example comes from a book by Bruce Metzger (most recent edition updated by Bart Ehrman). In it, he describes an example of a medieval manuscript from somewhere in Ireland that contains notes a couple monks were writing to each other. But these were not heady theological arguments, it was things like complaining about the cold and the drudgery of writing (more examples here).

So even something as seemingly simple as getting the New Testament together is a significant undertaking.

For much of the modern era, the definitive Greek edition of the New Testament was the Textus Receptus, compiled by Desiderius Erasmus and first published in 1512. This was the basis for the King James Version (and the earlier Tyndale translation), as well as significant translations into German (by Martin Luther) and Spanish (the Reina-Valera). Other scholarly editions would show up over the years.

Then in 1898, the 1st edition of Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece was published in Germany. This version was compiled by looking at three existing scholarly editions and using whichever had majority support. Over the following hundred or so years, it received numerous updates and revisions as new scholarship came out, with additional information being added (such as alternate readings and the like). Meanwhile, a group commissioned by the American Bible Society began to compile an edition for translators in 1966. The main difference was fewer details about alternate readings, but instead the editorial committee gave a probability rating from A-D as to a given variation's authenticity.

Currently, we're up to the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text, often called simply NA28, which was published in 2012. Meanwhile, the more translation-focused edition (now maintained by the United Bible Society (UBS)) is in its 5th edition, published in 2014. The text of the two is identical, with the only difference being the critical apparatus.

It can't be understated just how much work had to go into compiling these texts. For the current edition, the editors have looked at around 125 papyri, over 400 manuscripts (meaning written on velum), and about 70 lectionaries. In addition, they consulted numerous early translations into other languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Old Church Slavonic, in case those translators had access to texts that have since been lost. Finally, they reviewed writings by early Church Fathers for the same reason, and looked at how those writers both discussed Scripture and quoted it directly.

Ultimately, I went with the UBS version, commonly called the UBS5. I knew that textual criticism wasn't my primary approach, and so I figured the more concise apparatus would be better. I did however pick up a companion book, also edited by Bruce Metzger, who was on the editorial committee for the Greek texts. In it, he goes through each variant reading, and explains why the committee made the decision that they did. It's super useful, and also shows just how many changes could have been made over the centuries for various reasons.

All this shows one of the happy accidents to result from my decision, namely that I had to engage to some degree with textual criticism. That this isn't part of mainstream, popular Christianity is beyond baffling to me, because it gives so much insight into the nature of the text we have before us.

Where to Start?

So, now that I found my edition, I needed to decide what to read first. Matthew has traditionally been listed first (and so it is in the UBS5), and took preeminence for the vast majority of the Church's history. However, more recent scholarship, beginning in the 18th century, has ultimately led to a different conclusion. The current consensus, which has been so for the last couple of hundred years, is that the first of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to be written was the Gospel of Mark.

There are a few reasons for this, and most of them have to do with the relationship of the texts to each other. Some of the points that favor this interpretation are:

That being the case, it seemed to make sense to simply begin at the beginning, so to speak. It also helps that Mark's prose is much simpler than the other Biblical writers, and so it's much easier for me to get through given that my Greek isn't yet fluent.

This last thing leads to another point in Mark's favor, which is the greater simplicity overall.

Approach to Scripture Generally

Because I'm starting from a blank slate, I'm coming to the text with less in the way of theological baggage than might otherwise have been the case. I've always been religious, but almost always on my own: other than occasional Methodist sermons as a child (about which I remember nothing except being bored) and some time as a member of a Quaker Meeting in my teenage and early adult years, I've never been part of any broader group. I never felt particularly beholden to any church's tradition or teachings, and continue to believe that our relationship with God must be an individual, personal thing.

So it was that one of the other things that attracted me to beginning with Mark is that there are so many things in later Christian writings that aren't present. There's no virgin birth, for example, and the original text didn't include a full-on resurrection narrative (it ends when the empty tomb is discovered). From what I've read so far, there's just less stuff, which is a good place to begin.

As I said, I believe firmly that a relationship with God must be as personal and personalized as any other. If you have any siblings, then you've seen that your relationship with your parents is different from theirs, but that this doesn't necessarily mean one is worse than the other. Our relationship with God is no different. This of course raises its own concerns; I don't want my approach to religion to be an exercise in self-validation. But my experience has been that the more difficult approach is usually the better one, and so I'd rather be forced into self-reflection than simply abdicate myself to some other teacher.

This is not to say teaching isn't important, which is why I'm reading the Bible to begin with. But it also means that the Bible isn't the end-all, be-all. Maybe it was truly and completely divinely inspired, maybe it wasn't, or maybe only part of it was. But even if the former, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always going to be the best thing for me. Meanwhile, there is so much out there; humanity has been seeking the Divine for at least as long as we've been writing things down. Why should I value something that feels True less because of its source? I don't feel obligated to allow early Christians to dictate the entirety of my spiritual life. Christianity is the best starting place if for no other reason than accessibility, plus my own cultural history is going to make it seem less out there. But I've been just as moved by verses from the Qu'ran, a passage from the Dao De Jing, or something by Gibran. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.

Returning to my reading of the New Testament, my approach is this. I'm going to start from the beginning, since it's been awhile since I've read any of it, and this blog is an attempt at pushing the reset button. My plan is to read a chapter at a time. For the blog, I'm going to post my rendering/translation of that chapter, followed by whatever thoughts come to mind. Any translation or commentary on my part should not be seen as definitive (or trying to be): I'm absolutely a lay-reader (hence the name of the blog), even if I am trying to put the work in as best I can (ibid.).

#newtestament #history #textualcriticism