Friday, January 8, 2010

The Arbitraries of the New Testament

Who decided the book order of the New Testament? I ask the question belligerently. The information is out there, I'm sure. But I don't care about that. Maybe I should say, 'What idiot decided...?' but that would be too strong. At any rate there are some very unfortunate consequences of the popular book order of the New Testament.

The most humorous, I think, is the placement of Revelation at the end so that by inference, the warning at the end of Revelation not to alter the book somehow extends to the whole bible. Very convenient, very appealing to the literalists among us. Similar to Paul's advice to Timothy, advising him to go ahead and use the Old Testament, "All scripture is inspired by God..." and the way that is extended into the New Testament. Absolutely, you shouldn't alter any of the bible and yes, the New Testament is inspired, but to use those passages to support those worthy propositions is perhaps kind of shortsighted.

But that's by the by. The thing that galls me the most about New Testament book order is that the epistles follow the gospels. This has the strange and twisted effect of letting Paul have the last word over Jesus. What? Well, think about it. Progressive revelation. Great hermeneutical concept. We gaze on earlier parts of the bible through the lens of later parts. Well it may have failed us in this case... because of the book order. For one thing, most of the epistles were likely to be written before most of the gospels, so although the events of the gospels are before the missionary events that bring about the need for the epistles, some of the material in the gospels could actually be a corrective to stuff in the epistles. But by ordering the books as we do, we could be subverting that purpose.

Take for example, the seeds of patriarchal, and authoritarian hierarchy littered through Paul's letters. It's a theme he loves to play. "Timothy, my son" ... "I became your father," and other similar phrases. Also, the references to the elders (many of which he had put in place) being "worthy of double honor" There's lots of stuff like it. But hold on, what happened to Jesus' earnest command not call anyone "father" and not be like the rabbis and their seats of honor and regalia, not to lord it over each other, etc. etc? Every time Jesus refers to any hierarchy he squashes it flat. Frequently. (the most stunning to my mind is the laundry list of things gained and lost in the kingdom -- the one in Mark loudly omits fathers as something that you receive back in the kingdom - Mark 10:29,30) But since Paul is 'after' Jesus, we think, "oh well Jesus can't really have been serious about that after all..."

There's no problem with Paul saying these things. His worldview is likely one of patriarchal authority, and he's going to speak from inside his worldview. We all do. But I think he needed correction from the source of all righteous correction, Jesus. And the Gospel writers, writing at the same or later time, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recalling the words of Jesus, brought it. But through history, through ignorance (not the lack of knowledge, but the ignoring what Jesus actually said) we have followed Paul rather than obeyed Jesus. My NIV study bible, normally such a good resource, as a footnote to the famous "call no man father" passage in Matthew, dismisses it with "Obviously, we shouldn't take this literally..." Balance, shmalance. To put it in the most loaded religious language (and even that has its uses) How can we take the words of the Son of God and 'balance' them against the practises of his servant (Paul) or the whole church hierarchy that followed? And all this (maybe) because the ordering of the books of the New Testament.

OK I'm not against leaders in the church. People function better when directed in some way in some circumstances -- but in my view they function far better as they take ownership of the church they call theirs. What I am against is pedestalia. The tendency of some people to prostrate themselves before other people is just plain wrong (the whole teaching on covering comes in here somewhere.) The tendency of others to arrogate themselves on spiritual grounds is plain wrong. And if Paul had a skewed idea of authority (as I think he did) then the idea that we are locked into one form of church government ("that's the way Paul did it") is questionable. At any rate this is where this pilgrim is right now...


  1. I reached the conclusion a little while ago that the evangelical church has elevated Paul to primacy, above Jesus. Clearly Paul is for grown ups and Jesus and the gospels are for children after all they are full of nice stories and Paul is full of pithy theology.

    I believe that this error has occurred because we have been misdirected. Our focus has been on the church, how should we organise it, how big can we grow it, how should we lead it. Jesus was interested in the Kingdom. The church is simply a symptom or more properly a sign of the presence of the kingdom in the world. Much of what Paul wrote was to sort out the problems arising in the church in his day, and it was inspired and it was good godly advise.

    We need to regain a focus on Jesus and the Kingdom. To do this is to find freedom from the rules imposed as part of church life in the name of Paul (whom I'm sure would not have approved). Church and Paul or Jesus and Kingdom? Simples! As the Meerkats say.

  2. interestingly... just this week i have been doing a lot of driving, and listening to the nt (audiobook - i don't read)

    it was the first time in my life, that i heard the dramatically different "voice" of paul - compared to the content of the good news.

    i am guessing paul's picture of himself as "father" is from position or having "earned" it - whereas john's voice comes across as being motivated by love

    anyway - OP, i think you have explained in part anyway, a source of a huge problem i see with the disconnect between the way christians treat each other and govern their "churches" and the heart of god they imagine they are following

    maybe you should come out with an OP's bible - using your idea of sequencing.

    another thought that came to me while listening - that is that it is very easy, particularly when "studying" the bible, to lose sight of the forest for the trees