New Testament Texts

Christian probably don’t think about the significance of the Written Documents which they take for granted as part of their daily lives. Christianity has a rich ‘written’ tradition, following on from (and incorporating) the Jewish written tradition.

We are steeped in the experience of “it is written” – like no other people!

Global Phenomenon

If you take a quick skim around the continents and cultures of the world you will find that the Jewish and Christian heritage of possessing and interacting with a rich textual heritage stands unique. No other cultures have been endowed with such extensive and valuable texts or been so conscious and interactive with those texts.

The best selling book in the world, in all of history, is the Holy Bible. No other religion or culture has had such high uptake of his textual resources as the Christian community.

While the Hindu Vedas date back 1,000 years BC and underpin the faith of millions, yet they are not as widely read and relied upon as the Bible text is. It is said of them “For Hindus, the Veda is a symbol of unchallenged authority and tradition. Selections from the Vedas are still memorized and recited for religious merit today. Yet much of the religion presented in the Vedas is unknown today and plays little to no role in modern Hinduism.”

The Judeo-Christian literary tradition is unique.


A tradition of scribes emerged in Israel in the centuries before Christ. During the exile to Babylon, without access to the Temple in Jerusalem, community preaching houses developed, ultimately becoming the synagogue tradition which we know today.

These synagogues required copies of the scriptures so that local rabbis (teachers) could instruct their devotees. However, whereas the Hindu gurus tended to develop a personal following, the Jewish mind understood the need to submit to the written tradition that was being passed down.

By the time of Christ we have the example of the community at Qumran, where it is believed a large number of scribes were specially trained up and devoted to the task of copying the holy texts.

Book and More Books

Due to this emphasis on the written word, all meticulously penned by hand, there developed several steams of textual material. Obviously the Holy Scriptures were copied and translated into various languages. However, we find at Qumran that fake holy writings also abounded. These are labelled as ‘Pseudoepigraphical writings’ because they often claimed to be the words of some ancient Bible character. Even though they are clearly bogus, they were stored and copied at Qumran, suggesting the high regard that was held at the time for written material.

A further category of literature was that of codes for living. The Qumran community had elaborate rules about initiation of new members, behaviour at the common meal, and managing order in the community. Included in this category, I also add those writings which were inspirational, rather than practical, but which were directed to the particular community. At Qumran the community gave attention to prophetic style books which extolled their significance and their prophetic role in their generation, as the “voice in the wilderness”.

Enter Jesus Christ

Such was the situation 2,000 years ago when Jesus began His ministry. So, as you might well expect, the followers of Jesus thought it perfectly reasonable to create documents of Christ’s teachings and biography, as well as the key teachings that they believed should be understood.

When the Gospel documents were written they were quickly translated and copied. When Paul wrote his letters to various churches the letters were copied and shared around. The texts were copied into multiple languages and made available in large numbers.

I dare say that such a rapid and wide distribution of textual material would never have occurred in any other culture. The Jewish culture, with its “it is written” heritage and its history of scribal tradition, was eminently poised to disseminate the written word.

The New Testament survives today as a rich textual resource, only equalled by the Old Testament in its amazing composition, historicity and significance.

Greeks Outdone

Today’s students are given the impression that Greek philosophy is something of great import and worthy of study. Yet for all the modern interest in Plato, Aristotle, and the like, history reveals that their textual value is insignificant when compared to the literary tradition supporting the New Testament.

Josh McDowell points out in his book ‘A Ready Defense’ that there are only seven copies of Plato’s Tetralogues, with the oldest text being 1,200 years after the original writing. Aristotle has only 49 copies of his most preserved work, with the oldest text being 1,400 years after the original writing.

The very best preserved Greek text is that of Homer’s Illiad, which boasts 643 copies, with the oldest text being 500 years after the original writing.

Compare that to the New Testament, with over 24,000 copies, with the oldest dating to 25 years after the original writing.

The Greeks are completely outdone. And this textual reality makes a clear statement about the relative value of the two sources. While academia has long extolled the virtues of Greek philosophy, it is clear that human experience has not given them much value, whereas the impact of the New Testament on people’s lives has prompted a much more vigorous dissemination and preservation of the textual material.

Mohammed Wanted a Book

Mohammed referred in his writings to the “People of the Book”, again signalling the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian tradition of holding holy texts in high regard and promoting copies of those books. There are no other people on earth who would be so readily identified as the people of the book.

It seems that Mohammed had such high regard for the benefits of having a national holy book that he wanted the Arabic people to have such for themselves.

Spawning Books

Christianity and the interest it created, led to new books emerging in the first few centuries after Christ. Once again, as we saw at Qumran, a primary emphasis went to copying the Scriptural works. However Pseudoepigraphical works again emerged, some with ridiculous and obviously imaginary material. Also emerging were works that aimed to provide codified rules for communal life, drawing from the teachings of Christ and mixing that with various other elements.

The rich textual heritage of Judaism fed into the wide distribution of New Testament texts, but also played into the existing pattern of people creating their own written material.

Today, of course, everyone is an author. New books are appearing daily. And, with the web and electronic communication at our disposal the world is being drowned in text. In the midst of it all we need to keep our eyes fixed on holy writ, those texts which are God-given, not man made.

May God’s Word dwell in your hearts richly.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Colossians 3:16

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