Personal Great Books · Reading

Completed: New Testament

BibleNew Testament
1st century

This was not the first time I’ve read the New Testament complete through, nor will it be the last, but I did want to keep a record here as part of my The Original Classics project list, and because of the literary heritage of the New Testament. I’m not sure of which section of the Bible—Old or New—is more commonly referenced in later literary sources. It does seem (going on my familiarity only) that direct quotations come more from the Old, but some of the stories of the New—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the crucifixion—recur again and again, not just in literature, but as general cultural touchstones.

Then there is the history side of things. Whether or not you believe that the stories of the Bible (Old or New Testaments) have any factual basis, it is undoubtedly a product of the Middle East, and watching world events unfold to this day, there is sometimes a stop when reading either section of the Bible—hey, that city is still in the news. As a current example, the apostle Paul spent a good deal of time in the present-day capital of Syria, Damascus.

Just as I did with the Old Testament a few years back, I used a semi-chronological approach to reading the New. This meant a lot of skipping back and forth among the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and then some alternating between Acts and some of the Epistles. The chronological order reading is only approximate, as scholars aren’t always certain and/or don’t always agree as to when the various Epistles were written. As with the Old Testament, reading in this order helps give some context to the various parts of the New Testament. The book of Acts covers the early church period (starting with Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven), and much of the rest of the New Testament was written during this same time. We can trace the progress of the early theology, including the early debates as to how this new faith should or shouldn’t incorporate establish Jewish law (e.g, requirements of male circumcision or dietary laws).

Order I read NT:

  • Matthew/Mark/Luke/John (concurrently)
  • Acts, interspersed with:
    • James
    • Galatians
    • I Thessalonians
    • II Thessalonians
    • I Corinthians
    • Romans
  • Colossians
  • Philemon
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • I Timothy
  • Titus
  • I Peter
  • Hebrews
  • II Timothy
  • II Peter
  • Jude
  • I John
  • II John
  • III John
  • Revelation

(Reading order source [pdf])

Although the Christian Church combines the two Testaments into one book, the Bible—and they have many strong relationships, with countless textual references in the New Testament back to the Old—it is interesting to note the differences between the two. While much of the Old Testament feels like “story”—Genesis, parts of Exodus and Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, parts of the Prophets, etc.—only the first five books of the New Testament (and perhaps Revelation, depending on your take) really have that element in the New. And the first four books, the Gospels, are frequently overlapping, as they tell the same overall story, that of Jesus, but tailored for different audiences. The bulk of the New Testament is made of the Epistles, letters written by the Apostles (or perhaps by later church leaders, depending on which scholar you believe) to various early churches. These touch on matters of Christian living and Christian theology, and can be more tricky to follow—especially if reading in the King James Version as I did—than a story. However, I noted this time the importance of repetition, familiarity, and study aids—those books I’ve read more often, or come across in Sunday School, were more readily accessible, even when my memory was of difficulty. This is a good lesson to apply, not just to the Bible but to any difficult book. Repetition, repetition, repetition! No wonder that some readers/writers advise reading the “great books” many times.

Of course, considering the length, societal importance, and complexity of the Bible, it’s not possible to take the whole thing in on one go anyway. There’s simply too much there, and just as any great book, it rewards many readings and every time a reader approaches it, they will take away something new. Add to this the multitude of ways in which it informs so many other works of literature, both sacred and secular, one understands why despite its status as a religious book, it continues solidly in the Western literary canon and why it continues to be taught even in secular context.

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