This is the first chapter, out of a series of ten, on the history of the New Testament. Throughout this series we will see that the apostles did not write the New Testament; that after Jesus’ death a lot of Christianities appeared, different to the one we know; we will analyze how the “Christian orthodoxy” established the monopoly of faith; we will talk about Erasmus of Rotterdam’s famous “Textus Receptus”, of the amazing story of Constantin Von Tischendorf, the manuscript hunter who devoted his life and traveled around the world looking for Bible manuscripts; and, finally, we will talk about the reliability of the latest versions and translations of the New Testament so as to show you that it was not written by God but by men of flesh and bone.
Chapter I: The First Scriptures
The importance that Christians have granted to the Bible for centuries is not for free because the Jewish religion, from which Christianity derived, gathered its traditions in sacred books in the Temple of Jerusalem so that they were read and interpreted during the religious services. According to Bart Ehrman, Judaism was the first “religion of the book”, and Christianity followed the same path.
Christianity started with Jesus, a Rabbi (a Jewish priest) who accepted the authority of the Jewish sacred books, and who read, studied and interpreted those books for his disciples. Jesus was Jewish by birth, from his mother and father sides. He was an erudite of the Jewish religion.
Jesus left no church, doctrine, or religion. Besides, it is paradoxical that someone who gave so much importance to texts left no written work. Everything seems to indicate it was a deliberate choice. He preached with his life and transmitted his ideas through images or parables. After his death, his apostles and other followers who identified him as the Messiah awaited by the Jewish people started spreading his message, traveling and founding communities of believers. It is worth pointing out that most Jewish people did not believe Jesus was the Messiah since, according to the Old Testament prophecies, they expected a warrior king, like David, who overthrew the enemies of Israel, and reinstated it, once more, as a sovereign state. For them, Jesus represented the antithesis of what they expected.
One of the Jewish who identified Jesus as the Messiah and decided to travel preaching his message was Paul of Tarsus, a Roman-Jewish with a good education that allowed him to read the Jewish sacred scriptures. Paul was not one of the apostles and, as per the New Testament, he did not meet Jesus either. However, he very soon became one of the pillars of Christianity. He became the “apostle of the gentiles” or the “apostle of the Non-Jewish people” because he always maintained that Jesus’ message was for everybody, whether Jewish or Non-Jewish, unlike the apostles led by Santiago or Peter, who preferred to preach Jesus’ message to Jewish people only.
According to his own letters, included in the New Testament, Paul founded churches in many cities to the East of the Mediterranean. After gathering new adepts in a new city he moved on to continue preaching, although he sometimes received bad news from the communities he had established: Problems with authority, misbehaviors, immorality, among others. Whenever this happened, Paul wrote a letter to the community involved, dealing with the problem. These letters are the oldest documents of the New Testament.
The first letter from Paul to the community he founded in Thessalonica, called the “First Letter to the Thessalonians”, is dated around 49 aC, and it is the oldest Christian document we know. It was written 15 years after Jesus’ death and 20 years before the appearance of the earliest gospel –the Gospel of Marcus– which would recount Jesus’ life.
1st Thessalonians V, 26, 27, Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss, I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
As Ehrman well clarified, this was not a common letter that could be read and thrown away. Paul insisted that it was read by all the members of the community and that it was accepted as an official declaration by the community founder.
The importance of the scriptures for the Christian religion did not necessarily imply that most of their believers could read. According to the studies performed by William Harris and Catherine Hezser, only 10% of the population of that region (Palestine) was able to read and/or write. During that time, reading was a privilege of the wealthy classes.
These letters were fundamental for the development of the first Christian communities, and some of them, because of their content, were considered as important as the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament.
These first documents united both the Christians and their beliefs, guided them through their customs, and, especially, made them different from other religions since they bragged about belonging to a movement with principles that were not only transmitted orally but that were certified by written documents.
With the appearance of these letters a problem that would be recurrent in the first Christian documents arose: The false authorship.
Most of the specialists on this subject state that many of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by his followers on his behalf. The reason for this is that, for the Christian communities, a letter signed by one of the apostles would be welcomed and more respectfully received than a letter written by an unknown character.
But Paul was not the only one who wrote letters. The apostles, led by Santiago, Jesus’ brother, did the same, as we will see in a future chapter.
While Jesus’ image moved away in time, the need to know more about his life and teachings grew within his followers. The next logical step was to make up the story of the birth, death and resurrection of the leader of the new movement.
This is how the gospels were born, and there were so many that, a few years after Jesus died, they were counted by the dozen. However, only four gospels were included in the New Testament, none of them written by the apostles. Why and how was this made? We will learn about it in the next chapter: Brief History of the New Testament II: The Gospels.
(The Bible quotes correspond to the New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 1989. We have also used, as a support in case of discrepancy, The Word Study Greek-English New Testament with Complete Concordance de Paul R. McReynolds, Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.)