Not every apologist is a New Testament scholar. However, the New Testament is enough of a battleground that there are certain things that you need to know. Here are four areas that you should study.
1. Genre. You should be able to articulate what genre the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are. I don’t mean just comparing the Gospels to the Psalms or Song of Solomon, but also comparing the Gospels to other ancient writings. Much of the confusion, including supposed mistakes, comes from not understanding the genre.
2. Source criticism. You may not believe in the four-source hypothesis or the existence of Q, but you need to study how the Gospels are related to each other. Who used who and what were the sources?
3. Textual criticism. Do we have an accurate New Testament that is close to the original text? How do we know? What are the means that textual critics do their job? How did the mistakes in copying enter in and how does that affect our theology?
4. Canonical studies. The canon is always a hot topic. Are the books we have the ones that should be there? Why the four Gospels instead of the other available gospels? Did Constantine choose our New Testament? These are very important questions.
You may never get an advanced degree in New Testament studies, but if you do personal research in these four topics, you will greatly improve your apologetics.
I recently heard from a Community of Christ pastor who was receiving some opposition from his local ministerial. If you are not familiar with the Community of Christ, they were formally known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When people hear this, they automatically think of the Utah Mormons and the doctrines of polygamy and becoming gods and denying of the Trinity. Many assume the Community of Christ believe the same things as the more famous Mormons. The fact is that they do not. In fact the Community of Christ have a very orthodox theology. You can find their statement of faith here. Please notice that they believe in the Trinity, the deity and incarnation of Christ and salvation by grace.
The main concerns people have once they get over their initial prejudice is their doctrine of Scripture. They accept the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants as Scripture along side the Bible. But a closer look will show that they do not see them on the same level and that the Bible is their primary foundation for theology. From the protestant perspective, is an incorrect canon enough to lose orthodoxy? If so, what do we do with Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans (to a certain extent) who accept more books than the protestant canon? A correct canon was not one of the early tests for orthodoxy, especially considering our exact protestant canon was not found in any list until the end of the fourth century.
I am not suggesting that people should accept the Book of Mormon as truth. What I am suggesting is that the Community of Christ explicitly seeks to follow Jesus and holds to almost all the same doctrines as protestants. What would be the result of avoiding fellowship with them over what we disagree on? Fellowship would draw us closer together, enabling us to be a positive influence. Rejecting them as heretics or a cult will drive them away from the orthodox position they have taken. I urge Christians to not judge before they look at the facts and that they respond with grace and humility.
The New Testament is an incredibly influential book but how did it come to be? People like Bart Ehrman seem to attack almost every issue regarding the process. Arthur Patzia’s Making of the New Testament is a great place to go to get some answers. Not exactly an introduction to the Bible, but rather an overview of various aspects of the making of the New Testament. Patzia deals with how ancient books were made, the process of the development of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the choosing of the canon and textual criticism. Patzia deals with the authorship of Paul’s letters and is actually open that some were written by Paul’s followers and yet attempts to show how that can fit within an evangelical understanding of the Bible. I found his section on how the early church interpreted the inspiration of the New Testament to be particularly interesting. Although not written as a direct response to Bart Ehrman, and only a small section deals specifically with Ehrman, it happens that this book deals with most of the areas that Ehrman has been writing about. If you are looking for a richer understanding of the making of the New Testament, I highly recommend this book.
Since my article on embracing the Community of Christ into orthodoxy came out, I have had a few people question me (respectfully) on this. Their main concern, as was mine, was the fact that the Book of Mormon is still considered scripture by the Community of Christ. I would like to respond to this.
Two things need to be understood with regard to the Book of Mormon. First of all, the radical Mormon doctrines do not appear in the Book of Mormon. In fact, there is very little theology in it. While Jesus does appear, not much is said about his nature. Secondly, in the Community of Christ, unlike the LDS, the Book of Mormon does not supersede the Bible. Their theology is very much based on the Bible.
More than this, however, we must ask what is the basis of salvation? Is having the proper limits of biblical canon a requirement for salvation? What do we say about our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends? What do we say about those early Christians who accepted books like the Gospel of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas? We may not agree with the Book of Mormon, but if the Community of Christ accepts the Trinity, incarnation, and salvation by grace, it is hard to say that they are not Christian.
I have just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew. First of all, it must be said that Ehrman is a talented writer. He is able to take material that is normally of interest only to scholars and package it in away that can reach the interested layperson. This book is a good summary of the various groups that appeared in the early years of the church and of the texts that these groups produced.
However, there are some problems. Rather than just a summary of early church history, the thesis of this book is that there was no original orthodox church with various heretical groups breaking off over time. Rather there were numerous parallel groups that were there from the beginning with what he calls “proto-orthodox” as just one of them. Eventually the proto-orthodox won out, promoted or created their own Scriptures while banning or destroying the competing Scriptures. This agenda really shapes how Ehrman presents the materials.
Some of the problems include the fact that Ehrman gives some pretty early dates for the alternative texts, earlier than what many scholars would be comfortable with. While it is true that it took some time for the New Testament canon to become firm, he overemphasizes the variety. The canonical books that were most often questioned include Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter and Revelation. There were only a few other books that were considered canonical that are no longer included, such as Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement. There is no evidence that texts such as the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Thomas were ever considered and their popularity was likely quite limited. There are also some problems suggesting multiple parallel theological lines coming from Jesus rather than various break offs from the one continuity. The canonical books are by far the earliest Christian texts that we have and the best resource we have to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. We can see a clear continuity between most of the church fathers and these New Testament teachings. There is some variation in emphsasis but in the major themes they are consistent. But when we look to the alternative texts there is a radical change in theology. While the canonical books are steeped in Old Testament quotations, the gnostic books either ignore or are critical of the Old Testament. The gnostics saw at least two gods (sometimes as many 365) and saw the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as being different. The New Testament affirms that the Father of Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. The gnostic writings reject matter as evil and the New Testament affirms the Old Testament idea that creation is good and emphasizes that Jesus’ resurrection was physical. All of the heritical groups denied that Jesus was both God and human (disagreeing among themselves as to which was true), while the New Testament affirms both Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
At one point, Ehrman unwittingly contradicts his thesis of parallel Christianities. He rightfully notes that Jesus and the early Christians were very apocalyptic. This meant that they recognized the problem of evil and that they believed that God was going to act decisively through judgment to redeem this world and bring it back under his reign. As the return of Jesus seemed to be more and more delayed, some people began to question this worldview. Ehrman then states that the gnostics reacted to and rejected these ideas, believing that the answer was to reject this physical world and to seek to escape it. This means that gnosticism is a reaction to the original apocalyptic faith rather than an example of an ongoing parallel Christianity.
Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is and interesting and informative book that is worth reading. But it must be read with a grain of salt, understanding Ehrman’s agenda. If you are reading this book I would encourage you to follow up with either Darrell Bock’s Missing Gospels or Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus.
Sometimes critics like to suggest that the New Testament is late, and that although individual writings may be earlier, the gathering of them as Scripture is a much later development. We are led to believe that there were just a bunch of writings, orthodox, gnostic and other, that were floating around and then Constantine had the Council of Nicaea choose certain books that suited his political motives. It is true that we do not have many early official lists of the authorized or canonical books. But we can learn a lot by the way the early Christian Fathers quoted from the New Testament.
One of the earliest of the Church Fathers that we have is Polycarp (69-155 AD). Polycarp was a disciple of John, thus having direct contact with the Apostles. The only surviving work of Polycarp’s that we have is his Epistle to the Philippians (110-140 AD). I will not go into detail about the teachings in this epistle but I would like to note the number of New Testament books that Polycarp quotes from: Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and 1 John. That such an early Christian writing quotes so much New Testament is remarkable. The question is: does Polycarp quote such passages as interesting Christian writings or as Scripture? A clue is given in chapter 12, where Polycarp writes:
It is declared then in these Scriptures, ‘Be ye angry, and sin not,’ and, ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.’
The first passage quoted as Scripture is from Psalm 4:5, which is no surprise. But the second passage quoted as Scripture is from Ephesians 4:26. Polycarp, a Christian so early that he was a disciple of the Apostles, considers both the Old Testament and the New Testament to be Scripture. I would encourage you to check out Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians for yourself and to learn from this Church Father the importance of the whole Bible to the early church. You can find online text and information here.