One of the hardest parts of writing an Introduction to the New Testament is figuring out where to begin. If someone were writing a literary introduction, or even a theological one, it might make best sense to begin at the beginning, with the Gospel of Matthew, and then continue through the New Testament all the way to the book of Revelation. But what if one is writing an Introduction from a *historical* perspective? Matthew wasn’t the first Gospel to be written; Mark was. So doesn’t it make better sense (after discussing the Greco-Roman and Jewish milieu out of which these books arose) to start with Mark?
But the problems go even deeper. The Gospels were not the first books written: Paul’s letters were written earlier. Students almost never know this; they simply assume that since the Gospels occur first in the NT, and since they talk about Jesus, who lived before Paul, that they were written before Paul. So if one wants to deal with the NT historically, doesn’t it make best sense to begin in chronological sequence, with Paul, starting with his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians?
That’s what some NT professors do in their classes. They start with Paul. Almost always for purely historical reasons. But I decided that even though my book was going to be a historical introduction, it did NOT make sense to start with Paul. And for a very clear and, what struck me, compelling reason. Paul, in my view, cannot be understood without knowing about Christianity before Paul. He inherited a good deal of his beliefs and practices from the Christian tradition that had developed in the two or three years before he converted to be a follower of Jesus. And this Christianity before Paul cannot be understood without knowing about the early beliefs in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And these beliefs in the death and resurrection of Jesus in turn presuppose knowledge of Jesus’ life.
As a result, you might think that the place to start an Introduction to the New Testament would be with an account of Jesus’ life. But you can’t discuss the life of Jesus without considering our sources of information for the life of Jesus. And those sources of information are almost entirely the Gospels of the New Testament.
And so there is a very strong irony. In order to write a *historical* introduction to the NT…
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