How to read the New Testament

I have recently put the finishing touches on my syllabus, lectures, discussions, and assignments for my introduction to the New Testament class I will be teaching this semester. Classes start for me this week and I will be beginning a semester with students who want to learn more about the New Testament. I will treat every student as if they have had no exposure to any of the New Testament texts before, though this will certainly not be true for many of them. Many will have grown up in churches, going to Sunday school, and will have already formed opinions about what the texts say and mean.

I was in just this boat as a freshman in college when I began taking religious studies courses. I was not yet a religious studies major, but already had plans to attend seminary and work in the church. These plans came to fruition – I did earn a Master of Divinity and worked in churches for almost a decade – but the end result was not what I was expecting as a freshman sitting in my NT class. Much of what I was learning in my college courses was at odds with what I had been taught growing up. I was in trouble. Did I stick with what I had been taught and try to ignore what I was learning? Did I turn my back on what I had been taught in church and accept everything my professor said?

This is not a faux tension that I am creating years in the future to make for a better story about my experiences as a freshman in college. This was a real problem for me. What I had to figure out was how to read the New Testament. Sure, I knew how to read it devotionally and how to read it in search of proof texts for beliefs I held, but to this point I did not know how to simply read the text before me and allow it to speak for itself.

For me, the decision ultimately came down to my personal integrity. I simply was not willing to put blinders on to anything just so I could maintain some beliefs I held. I was, after all, a budding historian – or so I liked to think of myself, anyway. I made the decision during the first semester of my freshman year that I was going to learn all I could about the New Testament from as many different sources as possible. I had a pretty good idea of how to evaluate the reliability of sources and made the decision to be open to what I was learning. This did not mean that I had to accept every idea I read, just that I had to seriously consider them all.

This is my hope for the students I have this semester. I will explain to them at least three ways that we will read the New Testament:

  • As a religious document: The texts of the New Testament were composed by religious people for religious reasons. They are intended to speak to various religious concerns and answer various religious questions. They are not intended to be historically or scientifically accurate texts.
  • As a literary document: The New Testament is comprised of at least four different types of literature – letters, gospels, acts, and an apocalypse. Each literary genre calls for different textual parameters and employs different conventions. These differences in genre, scope, and purpose should be recognized and their impact on the texts understood and appreciated.
  • As an historical document: As historical documents, the texts of the New Testament should be read according to certain historical standards. That is, we should read the New Testament with the same level of appreciation, scrutiny, and critical thinking with which we read all historical documents. Moreover, because these texts are millennia old, we must be careful with the claims we make about the texts and must go no further than the texts legitimately support. Or, put another way, our readings/interpretations of the texts should do not harm to the texts by forcing them to map onto previously held beliefs or assumptions about what the texts really say or mean.

Each of these focuses allows us to get something different from the text, but they also help us to read the text more accurately so that we can better understand the texts we are studying.

Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament a Lancaster Theological Seminary, recently wrote a piece on the HuffingtonPost religion blog called, “Where do ‘Liberal’ Bible Scholars Come From?” In it he talks about his journey from a very conservative student of the Bible to a so-called ‘liberal’ Bible scholar. One particular sentence jumped off the screen as I read his piece: “The best way for conservative churches to produce ‘liberal’ biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.” Certainly, that is how I got to my current reading of the New Testament. I read a lot of scholarly and theological works, but mostly I read the text and the more I read and allowed the texts to speak for themselves, the more I learned.

My goal for my students is not to turn them into ‘liberal’ bible scholars, but rather to provide my students with the tools to be able to write and speak critically and reflectively about early Christian texts in relation to their literary and historical contexts. I have this same desire for those in the church. For too long those who read the Bible for personal religious reasons have not allowed themselves to use their brains when reading the Bible but have relied solely on Sunday School curriculum to tell them what to think and believe. We need not be afraid of asking questions of the text and, then, being honest about the answers it provides. We cannot fully understand a text without understanding its numerous contexts. The four gospels tell similar stories, but they do not tell the same story and they do not all employ the same literary techniques to get their points across. Understanding this is not only important for an introduction to the New Testament class at a large state university, but also for the committed believer sitting in a weekly Bible study. We, as Christians and as baptists, cannot profess to love or respect the Bible – or to be a “people of the Book” – if we aren’t honest about what it actually says.

Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

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  • Clement_W

    I was one of those ‘liberal’ sunday school christians. I have been reading both the New and Old Testaments systematically and contemplating what I have read and I have moved ‘Rightward’.

  • mlineber

    “Sure, I knew how to read it devotionally and how to read it in search of proof texts for beliefs I held, but to this point I did not know how to simply read the text before me and allow it to speak for itself.”

    TJW, two comments, plus:

    Not to downplay the value of scholarly engagement with the texts of Holy Scripture at all, but I question the dichotomy of reading devotionally verses reading the text and allowing “it” to speak for itself. I do not think that the text was written to speak for itself, honestly. The experience of the Living God is necessary for the understanding of the truth of a Text received as a Revelation from that Living God. Of course, there is the question of how exactly the texts were originally perceived by the communities in which they developed.

    Secondly, I would add at least one more way of reading the text: in the context of Christian Liturgy, for which I believe the texts were created and preserved. I would even suggest that certain liturgical texts-especially the Psalms and other Scriptural canticles used by the Christian communities in which the texts first were incarnated-are to be considered in listening for the meaning of the New Testament texts. I have found that a recurring objection I have to many methods of reading the NT texts is that I find the methods decontextualizing the texts, not necessarily from their historical-social location, but from the context of people who truly believed the Spirit was speaking in their midst in, through, by, etc. the words of the Scriptures, in the context of their experience with the Living Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus, and their Eucharistic response to this Real Presence in their midst. I realize my objection might sound vague, but I still think that there is something to be said for it, and that it could prove an exciting research opportunity that I consider pursuing in the future.

    Underlying both comments is my belief that the Texts of Holy Scripture cannot give us a full picture of the early Christian community, at least not in any fuller respect than can Christian Tradition(s) and Liturgy. You allude to this cautious attitude in the following statment: “Moreover, because these texts are millennia old, we must be careful with the claims we make about the texts and must go no further than the texts legitimately support.” I would say that we must be careful with the claims we make about the early Christian community based on the texts, being aware of the limits that we are presented with by the role of these texts in those early Christian communities. Oddly enough, with my high Ecclesiology and view of Tradition, I am a Baptist, and I affirm with you the need for a people of the Book to be open-hearted, and critically-minded engagers of our Book, even as we listen for the voice of the Spirit and the experience of the Living Jesus as we listen.

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