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.

Scribes

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

Daniel Webster Whittle the One Arm Convert

Daniel Webster Whittle was born at Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts on November 22 in Massachusetts, in 1840, named after the American politician Daniel Webster.

During the Civil War he marched with General Sherman as he blazed his way through the Southern States. At the battle of Vicksburg Whittle lost his right arm and was taken prisoner by the Confederate Army.

But like thousands of others – in both the Northern and Southern troops – Whittle came to a saving knowledge of Christ. It has been estimated that over 100,000 were converted in the Union Army … and approximately 150,000 among the Confederates (Christian History Magazine, Volume 33).

While in the Confederate hospital, recovering from his injury, Whittle looked for something to read and found a New Testament. Its message touched him but he resisted faith in Christ.

One night a hospital orderly woke him with the news that a dying prisoner wanted someone to pray with him. When Whittle declined the orderly said, “But I thought you were a Christian. I have seen you reading the Bible.” Whittle then decided to go to the dying man.

“I dropped on my knees and held the boy’s hand in mine. In a few broken words I confessed my sins and asked Christ to forgive me. I believed right there that He did forgive me. I then prayed earnestly for the boy. He became quiet and pressed my hand as I prayed and pleaded God’s promises. When I arose from my knees, he was dead. A look of peace had come over his troubled face, and I cannot but believe that God who used him to bring me to the Savior, used me to lead him to trust Christ’s precious blood and find pardon. I hope to meet him in heaven.”

Near the close of that awful war, Whittle was promoted to the rank of major, and so he was known as “Major” Whittle from then on. He became well- known in Christian circles as an evangelist. He also wrote about 200 gospel songs, under his own name and also under the pseudonym of “El Nathan” – many still popular today:
“There shall be showers of blessing,” “Have you any room for Jesus?”, “I know not why God’s wondrous grace to me hath been made known”, “There’s a royal banner given for display”.

After the war, Whittle worked as the treasurer for the Elgin Watch Company in Chicago, Illinois. Less than ten years later, however, he dedicated himself to serve in evangelism.

Whittle describes this decision, saying that one day while at work, he “went into the vault and in the dead silence of the quietest of places I gave my life to my Heavenly Father to use as He would.”

In his evangelism ministry Whittle worked with musicians Phillip Bliss and James McGranahan. His daughter, May Moody (married to a son of evangelist D.L. Moody) also wrote music for some of his lyrics.

At the Chicago World Fair in 1893, his friend Henry Varley commented to Major Whittle how he did not like the hymn, “I need Thee every hour..” Varley declared, “I need Him every moment!”

So Major Whittle wrote:
Moment by moment I’m kept in His love,
Moment by moment I’ve life from above…

The melody was composed by his daughter, May.

The works of Major Whittle, El Nathan, Elias Nathan and D.W.W. ended on March 4, 1901, at Northfield, Massachusetts.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield as a Prince at Princeton

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (BBW) was born near Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.A., on November 5th, 1851.

His early life on the farm left him with a life-long passion for farming and especially horses, and became a leading world authority on short-horn cattle.

He graduated from Princeton University “with highest honours” in 1871. The following year, at age 21, he acknowledged the claim of Christ on his life and entered Princeton Seminary to prepare for the ministry.

Warfield graduated in 1876 and married Annie Kinkead. He was studying in Leipzig and so the couple honeymooned in Germany. While walking in the Harz Mountains the pair were caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Some say that Annie “was struck by lightning and permanently paralysed” (Great Leaders of the Christian Church, Moody Press, page 344).

Whether that is the case or not, she was traumatised from the experience and never recovered, being an invalid for the rest of her life, needing Warfield’s constant care. For the next 39 years Warfield “seldom left home for more than two hours at a time”.

He became Professor of New Testament at a Presbyterian college, and in 1887 he succeeded A.A.Hodge as a Professor of Theology at Princeton and kept that post until his death 33 years later. He also edited the Presbyterian Review.

In the 1920’s ten volumes of his larger collected writings were published, and in the 1960’s two volumes of his shorter writings were also published. Those books and volumes of his sermons are in print today and are read more widely than in his life-time.

His book, Counter Miracles (1918), was a strong defence of the cessationist viewpoint.

His Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1948) “asserted that verbal inspiration had been perfect in the original manuscripts” (Dictionary of Religious Biography, page 492).

His writings in defence of Calvinism are also worthy of mention.

He was an excellent lecturer, using a Socratic dialogue quiz style to prompt his students to examine the subject at hand. His writings were described by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “His mind was so clear and his literary style so chaste and lucid that it is a real joy to read his works and one derives pleasure and profit at the same time.”

Warfield preached vividly. Once he illustrated the difference between fate and providence with a story of a Dutch boy who disobeyed his father and played near a windmill. Going too close he suddenly found himself picked up from the ground hanging upside down as a series of blows were rained upon him. What horror, caught in the machine! He thought his end had come. But when he opened his eyes he discovered the windmill’s sail that had taken him up but his own father had. He was receiving the threatened punishment for his own disobedience. He wept, not with pain but with relief and joy. He now new the difference between falling into a machine and into the loving hands of a father. That is the difference between fate and predestination.

On Christmas Eve, 1920, Professor BBW suffered a stroke – he recovered enough to resume his classes on 16 February, 1921, but died that night as a result of a further stroke.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Warren Wiersbe

This is the day that … Warren Wiersbe was born in Chicago, in 1929.

As a lad he dabbled in stage magic (rabbits out of hats and all that sort of thing), and “the greatest literary event” was when he was introduced to the “Sherlock Holmes” stories and developed “a life-long interest in good detective fiction” (Be Myself, by W. Wiersbe, pages 26-27).

On 12 May, 1946, we find him handing out hymn-books at a Youth for Christ rally.  A relatively unknown Billy Graham preached. 

“Right where I stood I asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart and save me, and He did.  I didn’t raise my hand for prayer, I didn’t fill out a card.  I didn’t even go forward when the crowd sang “Just as I am”, but I did trust Christ and became a child of God” (page 56).

Later Warren Wiersbe was to become a staff worker for Youth for Christ (1958-61), then pastor of various churches including the Moody Memorial Church, Chicago (1971-78).  After some years of itinerant Bible teaching, he accepted a position as General Director of the Back to the Bible Broadcast (1982-1990).

Weirsbe has devoted much of his life to writing – including his “Be…” series, which form a commentary on the Old and New Testament.  The Old Testament “Be” Series runs to 27 volumes. 
Billy Graham wrote of him that, “He is one of the great Bible expositors of our generation.”

Psalm or Bucket? Do you Give or Take?

Today’s church is beset by people who are keen to “get” and not so keen to “give”. This should be surprising considering Christ’s injunction that Christians are to be a giving people. We are to “give” and consequently things will be given to us (Luke 6:38). Jesus did not say, “IF you give”, but “When you give….” (Matthew 6:3). 

A self-serving attitude can often be seen in the way people approach church. When someone is looking for a new church home they are likely to be quite fussy about what they want and what suits them. This is especially so when a whole family has to be accommodated. Each family member will have their own idea of an ‘ideal’ church, and will measure each possible spiritual home against that wish-list. Then, when it comes to attending church people often come with a “meet my needs” mentality.

There is a popular idea that church is the place to be re-charged and restored. The imagery is almost that of the desperate Christians finally getting to church for their re-charge – where they can escape the pressures of everyday life and be recharged to face the pressures of tomorrow. Each Sunday is a chance for people to get enough of a charge to get them through to the mid-week meeting, and so on. 

The New Testament church had a different concept of church life. It was a place where people brought something of their own spiritual blessing to share with others. Paul described the situation in the church at Corinth as one where “everyone has a psalm, doctrine, message in tongues, revelation or interpretation” 1Corinthians 14:26). Today, however, people come to church empty handed. Rather than coming to make a contribution, with a generosity of spirit, they come to make a withdrawal. Instead of coming with a psalm or prophecy, they come with a bucket! 

I have written a poem about this modern approach to church life and I’ll share that will you in the next few days.