Studying the New Testament - Introduction
For youth growing up in the educational system of 21st century America, life and learning come mainly in the form of a series of lectures and examinations; all the data we assimilate into our brains comes in the formal language of textbooks, journals, notes, articles, et cetera. So it is not surprising that our impression of learning is that it is somewhat "dry" or even "stuffy". A college student will sit to learn about philosophy from a textbook his professor recommended and slowly drift into somnolence by a dreary litany of syllogisms, paradoxes, and dialectic. A high school junior will sit down to decipher an American History textbook with its endless list of names, dates and definitions, which he could scarcely care for if his grade were not riding on it. The last thing modern youth need, then, is spiritual literature that reads like the school books.
So it is with a wave of relief and delight that we look and realize that the whole New Testament comes in the form of stories and letters. The first five books (Gospels and Acts), which are the New Testament's "historical" section, differ drastically from history in school. We do not find any tedious recording of dates in them, just "the next day" or "after several weeks". There are no lengthy descriptions of characters, but every individual-especially that of our Lord-pulsates with a luminous and vibrant life that makes each figure real and tangible. In other words, we are nowhere told that "Christ is very compassionate"; rather, the story of the woman taken in adultery is set before our eyes and we are left to behold in awe and reverence the Master's loving kindness. We are not told that "Peter was a most reckless fellow"; we are only given to witness him in such scenes as when he plunges into the sea at the sight of Jesus or when he indiscriminately swings his sword at a Roman soldier. And most interestingly, we are never specifically told that Christ loves us. But something much greater and more convincing are we rather shown: the spectacle of the Lord dying on the cross for our sins. God has given us the "history" of His Son in the Gospels-but a history full of life, energy, and motion.
In similar manner, the epistles (Pauline and Catholic) are starkly different from what we would have expected God to use in our divine education. For, as we said, the world's method is predominately that of a formal essay or "treatise": that is, a teacher writing a systematic and organized list of beliefs and proofs to his students-which often tend to rigidity and dullness. Not so with the epistles. They are in every respect vivid, spontaneous and free of the limitations of a formal thesis. For each epistle was written simply as a letter: a message from one individual-to rebuke, or warn, or correct, or encourage, or exhort-another individual or assembly. And so God has given us the pleasure of reading all the dynamism, and self-expression, and shifts in thought, and occasional outbursts of emotion that accompany letter-writing. Only in a letter can a man work his way through a tightly argued theology of justification, as St. Paul does in Romans, and suddenly break the argument with a cry: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom 8:35). Only in a letter will one hear the writer speak so personally and warmly as does St John in his epistle: "I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake" (1 Jn 2:12).
Now it must be admitted that when it comes to biblical knowledge among Coptic youth in 21st century America, we are almost in a state of crisis. Most of us know precious little of the few but significant pages that make up our New Testament. If the question were posed to a group of youth, "Who knows what 1 Thessalonians is all about?" the show of hands in the air would be embarrassing. If the average doctor knew as much about medicine, or the average accountant about numbers, as we youth know about the New Testament, we might all be sick and in debt. The point here is not merely to offer glib sarcasm, but a real question: If we devote hundreds of hours of studying to master our career fields, why have we not considered expending a little extra time to "master" the greatest study of all? The question deserves at least a moment of honest reflection.
To help remedy the situation, and to aid the expansion of our life and faith in the word of God, this series of introductions or "briefs" on each book of the Holy Bible is being launched and will continue over a period of several months, by God's grace. The study will by no means be exhaustive. For now it will not examine each book verse-by-verse and it will not mention every teaching involved. We are looking only for the basic meaning and overall structure of each book. Most importantly, all the historical and situational facts will be provided to give a full picture of each book. For it is unlikely that even one book of the NT can be properly understood without the basic background and impetus for its writing. Each book was composed for a certain reason, at a certain time, to a certain audience. It is our plan to explain all this briefly but comprehensively in order to equip the reader with the mental tools needed to fully appreciate scripture.
An old writer once said that St. Paul's epistles are like living creatures, with arms and legs; St Jerome once said that they are like so many claps of thunder. Will we ever be able to perceive the NT in the same way? Certainly. It requires only a little more effort than usual, and a little more time, to reap a bountiful harvest. All scripture reading should be approached prayerfully and with hope of enlightenment. And with the aid of these introductory summaries, it is our prayer that each reader might search more and more deeply into the inexhaustible riches of God's Word.