Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The New Testament From The Standpoint Of A Philologist (Part 1)

AP: There are 15 million copies of the New Testament sold each year, and hundreds of millions of people , and how hundreds of millions of people (or thousands: about two billion people are at least "cultural Christians") make it their frequent reading and the base of their spiritual life. Therefore, I think that is the most important book of the West, and perhaps even the world.

In this post, I want to step back and look at the New Testament in its cultural dimension, outside the realm of faith, from history, sociology, and philosophy. In doing so, we are going to treat the New Testament just as we would another book of antiquity.

This book rightly belongs to the history of the Hellenistic-Jewish literature in Greek and also to the history of Greek literature, because all of it–and this is something that the vast majority of people ignore–was composed directly in Greek, not a Semitic language (Hebrew or Aramaic) and later translated into Greek.  Even the Gospels that have been preserved were written directly in Greek, and that goes for Matthew as well, despite a centuries-old tradition saying otherwise–that the original Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, that version now lost, and later translated into Greek. None of them were written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but in Greek.

The first point a philologist should emphasize regarding the New Testament is: The New Testament is one of the sources of antiquity, among others, we can use to learn about the first century A.D. in the Eastern Mediterranean and its effervescent religious landscape.

There are many people who consider the New Testament a sacred book, "inspired" to so many people. And many of them argue that the techniques used for the interpretation of other ancient (non-sacred) texts cannot be applied to this corpus. They claim that their texts should be read only from the standpoint of faith. For them, this is the only way to uncover the substantial content of the New Testament, which is basically an unfathomable mystery otherwise. And sometimes you will even hear something that basically says only professional theologians and believers can draw from them the profound truth they contain.

But, from an outsider's perspective and from the standpoint of basic philosophy, to use descriptions like "almost unfathomable mystery" or "profound truth attainable by faith" when discussing the New Testament is to renounce the use of the only power we have to know anything–our reason. To do so would also mean that we must do away with its status as an important historical source for learning about the history of the Mediterranean.

Moreover, these expressions do not seem correct because if we tried to prove them, we would just be arguing in a circle. The basis for such a claim could only be something like this:
"This book cannot be examined critically because it is sacred. Now, why is it sacred? Because it is the word of God. Who says so? The Church with all its supernatural power. Where does the Church get this power? Naturally, from its having been founded by Jesus, as the book says. Therefore, this book supports its sacredness in the voice and authority of the Church, and the Church bases its power in that the sacred book says so. "
This logic is a complete circle. The sacredness of the book is based on the Church, and it gets its authority from the book.

Clearly we cannot accept this type of reasoning. The voice of faith is not the only competent voice to present readers in the 21st century the fullness of what the New Testament means. But, and more so, the voice of literary research, philology, and knowledge of the history of that era can. Theological statements also fall squarely in the field of research of ancient history, specifically the history of ideas, and therefore they do not get to escape scientific laws that govern a strictly historical inquiry.

This is the reason that the work contained in the New Testament can and should be studied without necessarily thinking of them as "inspired" and as carrying a revelation.

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