Saturday, February 06, 2016

Orderly Meditation

Have you ever thought about why the books of our New Testament are ordered the way they are?

They’re not alphabetical, like a reference work. We can see that right away.

They’re definitely not completely chronological, like most novels or histories. Read the NT through a few times and that will certainly become evident. There is some evidence of chronology, certainly, in the sense that the four gospels come first, but Acts is a history that spans a period of decades during which most of Paul’s epistles were written. If we were able to determine precisely when each epistle was written, we might try to slot them in between chapters of Acts, but that would make for an awkward read.

Some have argued that the order is providential (in fact, in 1864, Thomas D. Bernard did that precisely), but good luck trying to make that case. You’d pretty much have to take that on faith.

In fact, Bible scholars, F.F. Bruce and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor among them, make the case that it was Greco-Roman practice to order compilations by length, from longest to shortest. And in fact, if we look at the epistles of Paul, we find them in our Bibles ordered by the number of lines of Greek text.

Bizarre, no?

The Consequences of “Disorder”

Frank Viola argues that the common, rather arbitrary order of our New Testaments constricts and biases the thinking of evangelicals in unfortunate ways, not the least of which is the “cut-and-paste” approach to Bible study:

“What is the ‘cut-and-paste’ approach to Bible study?

It is a rather common practice of coming to the NT with scissors and glue, clipping and then pasting disjointed sentences (verses) together from Books that were written decades apart.

The ‘cut-and-paste’ approach has spawned all sorts of spiritual hazards — one of them being the popular practice of lashing verses together to build floatable doctrines.

Another is that of ‘proof-texting’ to win theological arguments. (A sizeable portion of Western Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random and de-contextualized verse ends all discussion on virtually all subjects.)

The Medievals called this ‘cut-and-paste’ method ‘a string-of-pearls.’ You take one text, find some remote metaphorical connection with another text, and voilá, an ironclad doctrine is born.

But this is a poor approach to understanding the Bible. While it is great for reading one’s own biases into the text, it is horrible for understanding the intent of the biblical authors.”

While considering context carefully will generally guard us from such excesses, and while each of Paul’s epistles stands alone, with distinct purposes and intended readership, I also see some value in reading his letters (and perhaps the entire New Testament), as best we can determine, in the order it was written. Just as when I read a Bible in an unfamiliar translation, I find a different approach to reading, study and meditation can often add freshness and clarity. Viola lists a number of other benefits here.

Ordering Paul Around

Of course, if we are going to approach the New Testament chronologically, there will be some minor debate about the exact order the books should be read in. Viola follows F.F. Bruce and Donald Guthrie in ordering Paul’s letters like this:

1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy

I note he doesn’t count Hebrews. Bible Study Tools online prefers a slightly different order:

1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy

We can see that Hebrews would probably come last in any case.

How Is Dating Accomplished?

To understand why there are differences between the lists, bear in mind that the apostles did not start their letters with an inside address and date as we might today. Thus scholars weigh a combination of internal and external evidence to come to their conclusions about when any book of scripture was written.

Compelling Truth explainsinternal evidence” as it relates to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament:

“Internal evidence can involve style of writing, people, places, and events mentioned in the book. For example, Daniel uses Aramaic language in some places, narrowing its writing to a time when Aramaic would have been a common language among the Jews. He also wrote from Babylon, indicating a particular 70-year period during which the Jews had been deported to Babylon. Internally, he also mentioned the exact times when certain kings reigned and which year he recorded certain events to help narrow the time period in which the book was written. Of course, since the book was written by Daniel, it also had to be composed during his lifetime.”

Of course for the Christian who believes in the inspiration of scripture, it is not useful to depend on secular scholarship to assess internal evidence. Secular critics tend to start from different assumptions than believers, like: “Since we do not accept the possibility of genuine predictive prophecy, the writer must have been lying about who he was and when he wrote the book.”

To those who already accept the testimony of scripture about itself and are simply looking to put trusted documents in chronological order, such basic assumptions are, to say the least, unhelpful. The scholarship that flows from any such assumptions is necessarily flawed.

External evidence involves conclusions that are sometimes obvious (like that Acts was written after Luke, because Luke refers to “the first book” in the opening verse of Acts) and sometimes a bit more tenuous (such as the tradition that Revelation was the last book written).

Such evidence is useful in ordering the books, but not 100% conclusive, as looking at the conclusions of various scholars on the subject quickly demonstrates.

The New Testament Ordered Chronologically

Here’s the entire BST online list, complete with their approximate dates:

James – 50 A.D.
1 Thessalonians – 52-53
2 Thessalonians – 52-53
Galatians – 55
1 Corinthians – 57
2 Corinthians – 57
Romans – 57-58
Philippians – 62-63
Colossians – 62-63
Philemon – 62-63
Ephesians – 62-63
Luke – 63
Acts – 64
1 Timothy – 65
Titus – 65
2 Timothy – 66
Mark – 66
Matthew – 67
Hebrews – 67
1 Peter – 67-68
2 Peter – 68
Jude – 68
Apocalypse – 68
John – c. 85
Epistles of John – 90-95

Free Beginning has a slightly different and more convenient list, sourcing their reasoning with links to New Testament authorities and providing earliest possible, latest possible and most likely dates for each book (the ones here are their “most likely” estimates):

Galatians – 48 A.D.
1 Thessalonians – 51
2 Thessalonians – 51
Mark – 48-55
1 Corinthians – 55
2 Corinthians – 56
Romans – 57
James – 50-60
Luke – 57-62
Ephesians – 60-62
Philippians – 60-62
Colossians – 60-62
Philemon – 60-62
Acts – 62-63
1 Timothy – 63
Titus – 63
2 Timothy – 64
1 Peter – 64-67
2 Peter – 65-68
Hebrews – 50-68
Matthew – 65-70
Jude – 65-80
John – 90s
Epistles of John – 90s
Revelation – 95-97


Well, I’d say it’s clear we can’t nail these dates down too emphatically. Still, there seems to be a pretty good general consensus in NT scholarship about which are the early books, which are the later books, and in which decade of the first century each was most likely written.

When I finish going through the New Testament the usual way this year, I’m going to give chronological order a shot just to see how it goes.

If you’re interested in joining me but suspect you might be too lazy to keep looking up which book you ought to read next every time you finish one, Thomas Nelson has come out with a chronological Bible. So has Tyndale, in both NIV and NKJ versions.

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