Outstanding Problems

The New Testament was formed as a collection of writings at a time when its sheer verbal content was uppermost in people's minds. Whatever the importance of apostolic authorship, real or supposed, and whatever the degree of a writing's usefulness for Christian devotion or guidance, it was the actual words that counted. So it has continued to be through most of Christian history. While academic interest in some questions of context and history has arisen from early times, the words have generally been viewed without reference to setting and background. The imagination has focused on the writing before the eyes rather than on the churches, human beings and situations that lay behind them. And of course the New Testament is still widely used in this way, with teaching and edification its chief purpose, and direct verbal authority the chief means to its attainment.

But the growth in the past two or three centuries of awareness of the historical context of the writings, that is, of what lies behind them, so that they are significant as windows opening on to early Christian life, produces some uncertainty about the scriptural canon. As we have seen, the more it is taken in this way, the more arbitrary and incomplete it seems as the way to achieve the end in view: other writings also offer us glimpses of the early Church in at any rate the later part of the period of the New Testament's origin. Whether it is often felt or not, the duality of perspective on these canonical writings creates a tension that deserves more attention, especially in the Church's use of them, where the two attitudes often sit uneasily side by side.

There are also unresolved matters with regard to the figure of Paul (Sanders 1985; 1991). In the preceding section, he was not put forward as a possible centre of gravity of the New Testament as a whole, but he might have been, without too much forcing of the evidence. For while, clearly, Paul saw himself as but the agent of Jesus for the furthering of the Gospel concerning him, it is a particular way of looking at Jesus that Pauls puts forward—and that way dominates the canonical collection as does that of no other figure, both in Paul's own writings and, with modifications, in those of Christians dependent on him and admiring of his work. Not only the undoubted writings but also the letters pseudonymously ascribed to him, signifying, in the practice of the time, the intention of continuing in his tradition, witness to his importance: from the earliest stage in the formation of a collection of Christian writings, these works, or most of them, formed its core. In addition, the writer of Luke—Acts was plainly a devotee of Paul, one who saw him as central in the Church's early expansion, and so perhaps (if certain similarities of thought are any guide) were the authors of the Gospel of Mark, of the First Epistle of Peter and even of the Gospel of John. In sheer bulk of writing, Paul dominates the New Testament, one way or another.

Recognizing that the Gospels present Jesus only indirectly, we may then say that Paul has left behind in the New Testament both more of a direct picture of his mind than did Jesus himself and testimony to a widespread influence. Undoubtedly the reason for this prominence of Paul is related to the removal of Palestine from centrality in early Christianity after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the consequent shift of weight to the churches of Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, precisely the sphere of Paul's activity and importance. It is thus probable that he loomed larger in the period following his death than he did in his lifetime. It may also be that in his lifetime he was less prominent than he now appears in relation to other early Christian missionaries and leaders, and perhaps atypical in his style of thought and presentation of Christian belief. The very fact that he often argues against formidable opposition, admittedly much of it relating to the Jewish Christianity prominent in the first decades, suggests that he was, at that stage, less of a mainstream Christian thinker than he subsequently came to appear.

If Paul himself is, in these ways, something of an enigma within the New Testament, so is the issue with which many of his struggles and indeed his whole Christian identity were concerned: the relation between Christian faith and Judaism from which it derived. In the books of the New Testament we can see examples of almost every possible relationship between the two: Christianity within Judaism (but could it still qualify?) but open to non-Jews on the basis of adherence to Jesus as God's universal agent and with the letting go of the necessity for basic Jewish observances and marks of identity—as in Paul; Christianity as the continuator and fulfilment of Judaism, which remained in certain ways essential in its heritage—as in Luke—Acts; Christianity as retaining Jewish observance, it seems, but with the Jews' rejection of Jesus as the great apostasy—as in Matthew. With this variety, the matter is not resolved within the New Testament—and it is arguable that it has never yet been resolved. Does Jesus represent, theologically, a brand-new start, with Judaism no more than the factual historical antecedent (as Marcion's doctrine was to suggest), or is he the (even a) crown of a deep-laid redemptive process, or else one important development among a number of such processes to be experienced in the religions of the human race? While it scarcely considers (at least in anything like the modern way) the last of these possibilities, the New Testament contains examples of the other tendencies, and, for those wishing to use it in this way, can be held to authorize a variety of policies towards Christianity's own mission and its relations with Judaism and with other faiths.

Finally, the elusiveness of Jesus, who comes before us vividly but only through the testimony of those who write about him, so expressing their response to him in their distinctive ways, seems strangely juxtaposed with his utter pervasiveness in most of the New Testament books. The Gospels in particular force the question—how important is historical knowledge about Jesus? And if important, how possible, given the distance of time and the indirectness of these writings in relation to him? Once more, we swing between seeing Christianity as continually and essentially marked by Jesus and recognizing that, with the partial obscurity of Jesus and the continuing flux of interpretation of him, the life of the Church and, now partially independent of the Church, the work of scholarship have their own independence, and even self-sufficiency. Yet the enigmatic quality of Jesus may be seen as the essential condition of his continuing and fertile influence, whether through the New Testament or through other channels.

In more positive vein, it is possible to see the New Testament canon as representing in early, perhaps pristine form a picture of the gamut of legitimate faithful human responses to God's initiative through Jesus; a picture too of the range of styles of Christian thought and devotion in relation to a number of vital matters, not least the place of Jesus in the whole history of human relations with God, but also the relationship of morals with faith, the balance of this- and other-worldliness, and the proper understanding of our relation with the material order. On these and other matters, it is possible to see the canon representing both a general unity and a range of tendencies which may prove suggestive and fruitful both inside and outside the tradition of which the New Testament is one of the earliest tangible expressions.

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