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:
- The Gospel of Luke
- The Acts of the Apostles, into which the Letters of Paul are inserted at appropriate places
- Other New Testament Epistles
- 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.