The New Testament
Of all the ancient religious creeds, the Jewish creed with its ‘Ten Commandments,’ created the most successful and moral lifestyle, and continues to do so even down to this day. As a people of laws, the Jews had a distinct and cognizable social order. Their lifestyle, and its consequences, were predictable. When coupled with their monotheistic religion and their metropolitan location, the Jews would have provided the most secure setting for a monotheistic God of order to make an appearance to mankind. In this setting, Jesus appeared with a greater and more universal message – the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He taught mankind that God was not just the God of the Jews, but the God of all people; and that God was not just the God of all people, but the Father of all people – ever single one of us! (Matthew 23:8-9)
Jesus’ ministry was oral and demonstrative, meaning that he spoke and lived his teachings. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not leave any written records. The only account of Jesus ever writing anything was when he drew a cryptic message in sand. (John 8:6) Jesus’ reluctance to leave behind his own writings may explain why it took his followers so long after Jesus’ death to publish narratives about his life. The book of Matthew is said to have been completed in 41 C.E., Mark in 60-65 C.E., Luke in 56-58 C.E., and John in 98 C.E.
However, it appears that immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers began sending written correspondence to one another telling them about Jesus, about their personal experiences, and encouraging one another to hold onto their new found faith. History reveals that there were hundreds of such letters circulating in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death.
Continuing up through the fourth century, the Christian community was very loosely organized. There were no centralized teachings or authorized dogma, other than having faith in Jesus and in the promise to be with him in heaven, and getting baptized to receive holy spirit. Each disciple taught about Jesus according to what they understood. The congregations were organized around their foremost teacher and in some instances, conflicts and dissension arose over what was the true good news, and whether the Gentile converts to Christianity would have to keep the law of Moses. (See 1 Corinthians; Galatians; Colossians; Hebrews, as examples.)
Some groups accepted certain writings as authentic, other groups chose different writings. There was a lot to choose from. And, as the Apostle John wrote:
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
– John 21:25
In time, the early Christians settled on 27 of those writings that they felt best represented the teachings of Jesus as they understood them. Those 27 books, consisting of 4 historical accounts of Jesus’ life, 1 historical account of the activities of the apostles, 1 book of prophesy, and 21 of the hundreds of letters that had been circulating, made up what came to be called the ‘New Testament.’ And shortly thereafter, these 27 books became the only authorized and acceptable teachings of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this demarcation and codification of acceptable Christian teachings changed the free-flowing nature of original Christianity and gave rise to a centralized clergy/laity class that had far reaching, and not always positive, implications. Nevertheless, the canonization of the writings proved to be an important development toward preserving enough of the teachings of Jesus so as to effect powerful changes even down to our day.
So, as to its authorship, we know that the New Testament writers were men who wrote about Jesus and his teachings to the best of their ability and understanding, and were thus inspired by God. However, except to the extent that they quote directly from Jesus, the writings are not the word of God. Instead, John wrote:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
– John 1:1-3
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
– John 1:14
Yes, Jesus himself is the word of God. He demonstrated God’s message to mankind by the way he lived his life. Thus, learning about Jesus is how we learn about God, and what is true, and the way to the real life:
“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
– John 14:6
Therefore, while we can learn much from the writings that were inspired by God, a true knowledge of the word of God can only come from a study of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is Jesus’ example that has the real power to effect change.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
– Hebrews 4:12