A New Translation: The Earliest Christian Documents: AD 49-100

Three converging thoughts…. First, the lead codices are presumably fake, but they raise an interesting hypothetical question, nevertheless: How different would our understanding of the earliest Christian texts be if we were now to stumble across them for the first time, with a hermeneutical innocence, with a blissful ignorance, our minds unencumbered by millennia of tortuous and often traumatic theological reflection. Secondly, it was suggested in an astute comment attached to my review of Kent Yinger’s book The New Perspective on Paul that “we aren’t going to make much headway into getting the NPP outside of academia until we have a bible translation from the NPP perspective”. Thirdly, during a recent stay at the spectacular Mar Musa Monastery in Syria I came across The Modern Reader’s Bible: The Books of the Bible with Three Books of the Apocrypha, Presented in Modern Literary Form, edited by Richard G. Moulton, first published in 1895.

In the preface to this volume Moulton writes:

The Bible is its own best interpreter. When however we approach the practical application of this sound principle, we are met by an obstacle of an unusual kind. We are all agreed to speak of the Bible as supremely great literature. Yet, when we open our ordinary versions, we look in vain for the lyrics, epics, dramas, essays, sonnets, treatises, which make the other great literatures of the world; instead of these the eye catches nothing but a monotonous uniformity of numbered sentences, more suggestive of an itemized legal instrument than of what we understand as literature.

In order to bring out the intrinsic literary character of the Bible Moulton introduced a number of typographical novelties, accentuating poetry, drama, dialogue, highlighting generic distinctions, and so on. He also reorganized the texts rather dramatically. For example, the New Testament—the “History of the Primitive Church as Presented by Itself”—is arranged in the following manner:

  1. The Gospel of Luke
  2. The Acts of the Apostles, into which the Letters of Paul are inserted at appropriate places
  3. Other New Testament Epistles
  4. Other Books of the NT: Matthew, Mark, John, Revelation

Moulton’s concerns are primarily literary rather than historical-critical, but his argument and editorial approach highlight for us the fact that the very form of scripture—the whole convention of scripture—controls how we read it. To see things differently we need to take some risks with form and convention.

What the New Perspective leads us to consider is not so much the literary character of the texts as the relationship to their original historical and ideological contexts—to second temple Judaism or to Greek-Roman paganism. So what might a comparable NP-friendly publication of the seminal Christian texts look like? This is all rather hastily done. To be honest, I’ve probably spent more time on the front cover than on the actual content. But here is a rough proposal for an alternative presentation of the texts that traditionally have made up the second part of the Christian Bible.


  • The collection would be published as a separate volume entitled something like The Earliest Christian Documents AD 49-100 or Texts of the First Century Christian Movement. There are a number of problems with the name “New Testament”. It misrepresents the disjunction between the Jewish scriptures and the early Christian writings; it gives a misleading impression of uniformity; it obscures the narrative and historical dimension of the texts; and more. By publishing the “New Testament” texts separately we break the canonical link with the Jewish scriptures, but I think we make it easier to assess the historical relationship between the two collections.
  • The documents would be arranged roughly in chronological order of composition, at least with Paul’s Letters preceding the Gospels and Acts, and perhaps the Johannine material gathered together towards the end; Q might merit inclusion as a separate text; the disputed Paulines could be quarantined in a section of their own.
  • The collection would also include other first century Christian texts: sections from the Sibylline Oracles, 1 and 2 Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas? There are obvious problems with dating, but this is merely an exercise of the hermeneutical imagination. The point would be not so much to question the authority of the canonical texts as to re-embed them in the matrix of a literary history: “earliest Christian documents” is a historical rather than a theological category.
  • There would be cross-references not only to the Jewish scriptures but also to other Second Temple and Hellenistic Jewish texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus. In this way attention would be drawn to the marked correspondences between, say, Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse and Josephus’ account of the Jewish war, or between Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon.
  • If this is a study version, introductory sections and footnotes by suitably qualified scholars would highlight the historical, contingent, short-sighted and sectarian nature of the emerging Jesus movement.
  • The translation would aim at defamiliarization, at making the texts strange again for modern readers. It would endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, the conventional diction and cadences that characterize standard modern versions. Any Christianizing bias would be removed. It would acknowledge the disjunctions, lacunae and anomalies of the original Greek texts. It would reflect distinctive New Perspective translational preferences (“the Christ”, “the faithfulness of Jesus”, etc.); “Law” would be capitalized, “god” might not be; the word “hell” would not, under any circumstances, be used to translate geenna or hadēs. As in The Modern Reader’s Bible, verse numbers would be shifted to the margins—or perhaps better, removed altogether.
  • The next challenge will be to imagine a popularized, “Earliest Christian Documents For Everyone” version for use in churches.
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If it were to have credibility, it would need to omit the fictional Q, and perhaps be co-edited by 'M no-Q Goodacre'. And given that a key criterion was apostolic eyewitness, the non-canonical books would logically be in an appendix.

But of course such a translation already exists--in Tom wright's 'For Everyone' series...

Exciting to see you roll with this idea.  Very creative work here.  I'd buy that.

Brandon Rhodes | Wed, 04/13/2011 - 14:35 | Permalink

I agree with Ian, including a hypothetical document would be a bit much for many people, not least myself!

I love the idea, though.  I presently read out of "The Books of the Bible", which is a verseless, single-column formatting of the TNIV.  It has changed how I read the Bible more than any particular shift in translations over the years.... it lets it read like actual letters, poems, and so on.

Oh, and they reorganize both testaments somewhat, into what is frankly a much more sensible order.  I'd love to hear what you think of TBOTB, Andrew.

Well, the project is certainly a bold step in the right direction. I like the single column, chapter-and-verse-free layout. It really needs a dedicated translation, and personally I am looking for a much stronger sense of historical context. This introductory paragraph to the New Testament is a big improvement on conventional paradigms, but it doesn’t go far enough for me—it sounds a bit too N.T. Light:

Israel’s continuing story and its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the announcement of God’s victory over humanity’s enemies sin and death, and the invitation for all peoples to be reconciled to God and to share in his restoration of all things…

Adrenalin Tim | Wed, 04/13/2011 - 18:57 | Permalink

Fascinating! I think this is a project you should seriously consider pursuing. I'm also very interested in your proposal for the popularized version for use in churches.

I agree with others that the inclusion of Q might be a bit much.

Would The Shepherd of Hermas belong in the collection?

I think this sounds like a great idea. I think that anything we could do to make scripture fresh and free would be a good thing. I would buy a book like this to enrich the way I understand Scripture in it's historical context. And I like getting away from the category of 'New Testament'...It's just one of those desriptors that I've never given thought to challenging, but doesn't might not make sense to many. 

"As in The Modern Reader’s Bible, verse numbers would be shifted to the margins—or perhaps better, removed altogether."

Please, oh, please do not yield to the temptation to eliminate verse numbers. While in most Bibles they're obtrusive, especially where verses get their own new line beginnings, as an aid for reference and cross-reference, for study and discussion, they're a gift not to be spurned. Even moving them to the margins is unnecessary when we have grayscale, size and position with which to make them unobtrusive.

But maybe part of what we’re trying to do here is break some deeply entrenched habits of “study and discussion”. For example, it might help us to get out of the very bad habit of prooftexting and learn to read the whole text. I appreciate the fact that in practice it is extremely useful to be able to reference to chapter and verse—I do it all the time and would be lost without it. But as part of a thought-experiment, I think it is an essential step. Besides, most of us, I’m sure, use more than one Bible—so use a conventional edition when you need it.

Kenton | Thu, 04/14/2011 - 15:22 | Permalink

I like your ideas.

Does it have to be a printed book? What if it were an e-book with hyperlinks where the cross references were? You could read Acts and have a bar where Paul would write a letter, click the bar, and then the letter would expand and appear embedded in the text. Maybe It would work the other way around too, where your reading the letter and at the top it shows you where the letter is in Acts. Same with study notes, cross references, etc. (Strongs numbers?)

+1 on the idea of NT Wright's For Everyone translations. I'm sure there are inevitible copyright issues, though.

I thought of the e-book idea as a way of satisfying NJP’s need for verse numbers—perhaps they could be turned on and off. But on the whole, my intention is not to facilitate the reading of the New Testament; if anything it is to make it more difficult. Your suggestion about hyperlinking between between Acts and Paul would have appealed to Moulton. But it’s not really what I was aiming for.

Well, yes, to be honest. The problem is that we are too familiar with the Bible, we know it—or we think we know it—too well, and as long as that is the case, it is very difficult to read it differently. I suspect that a lot of people struggle to work with the New Perspective because while they are attracted by the light that it sheds on the New Testament, they are attached by a long piece of over-stretched elastic to an old perspective—and as soon as their grip loosens, they are yanked back to the familiar, safe paradigm that evangelicals know and love so well. Defamiliarization is a way of weakening the power of old paradigms.

Such a book would be a treasure.

What do you guys think of The Concordant Literal New Testament?

I simply love this idea and I have often appealed for ppl not to view the Nt as the NT....I'm sure there is a marketing opportunity here!

Since your post N T Wright has published his own translation. I did a review so do go have a look, if you think joining my site or making comments would be appropriate ,please do so!


Doug in CO | Sat, 11/12/2011 - 12:57 | Permalink

I vote for no more verse and chapter numbering.  I've taken softcopy editions of the NT and deleted such things from some of the epistles and I think they read significantly differently (especially in Revelation).  But, I would go a step farther.  I'd look at the NT Aramaic Primacy movement and, when examining the lexicon for the NPP version, be considerate of how Aramaic would have approached a given text (especially in dialog sections where we know they were actually speaking Aramaic).