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In What Ways Is the New Testament a “Religious Text”?

The New Testament canon was shaped by religious leaders and communities; how it functions as scripture today varies greatly.

Beginning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in an illuminated Latin manuscript.
Title page of Paul speaking to Galatians in an illuminated epistle

Around the world, Christians read and study the New Testament because they regard it as a religious book. Here, the word religious means that Christians think the New Testament is divinely inspired, sacred, and authoritative in matters of faith and conduct. The New Testament, however, did not begin as a unified collection of books that were divinely inspired, sacred, and authoritative.

The collection of 27 books that we know today as the New Testament consists of four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, 13 letters of Paul, a few catholic (meaning “universal”) letters (James, Jude, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John), Hebrews, and the book of Revelation. While we might think of the New Testament as a single work, its 27 books were written by different authors between approximately 50 C.E. and 120 C.E. and circulated from place to place independently in the ancient Roman world within the first three centuries of early Christianity. It took years of hard debate for Christians to agree which of the books in circulation should form their canon (their list of sacred books considered genuine and inspired). In part, these disputes arose because other books were available to them—books that did not end up in the New Testament we have today. Those books were written by authors who claimed to be the original apostles of Jesus yet who espoused views contrary to those later held in the canon.

Take the example of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Christians the world over consider them to have religious significance because they recount the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Very few modern Christians are aware, however, that numerous other gospels besides these four were available to early Christians. These other gospels are labeled the noncanonical (nonstandard) or apocryphal (hidden) gospels. More recently, they have been called parabiblical (existing alongside the Bible).

These gospels outside the New Testament include, for example, the curious Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This gospel is a second-century collection of stories about Jesus from the ages of five to twelve. In one story, a child irritated the young Jesus at play, so Jesus, with strong words of condemnation, causes the boy to wither away (chapter 3). When another boy bangs into Jesus’ shoulder in the marketplace, an aggravated Jesus utters a curse (“You will go no further on your way”), and right away the boy falls down and dies (chapter 4). Despite its troublesome contents, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas circulated broadly and was translated into numerous languages. Ultimately, the difficult image of a youthful Jesus causing playmates to die in this so-called gospel, however, made it unacceptable for inclusion in the official canon as a Gospel alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Christianity in the second and fourth centuries C.E. was forced to wrestle with these contrarian views and the questions they raised. The early Christian churches struggled with the questions of whether Jesus was human, or divine, or both; whether he had actually died; whether Jesus’ death was relevant for salvation; whether he had been raised bodily from the dead; or whether stories of a youthful Son of God wreaking havoc, for good or bad, should be taken seriously. Solutions to these questions eventually determined the contours of the New Testament. Even though the matter was not settled for some time, for the most part the 27 books of New Testament were finally collected and accepted as Scripture by the year 367 C.E. (We know this because we have a letter from the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, at that time, and he names these books as Scripture.)

Christians globally are no longer motivated by a concern for determining which books to include in the New Testament. They consider the collection of New Testament books to be complete and binding. Personally and communally, however, they still want to discover which of the many books and passages in the New Testament most qualify as authoritative Scripture. Frequently, the books and passages that have the greatest hold on them are those that speak to larger-than-life questions such as: What is the purpose in life for humans? How are they meant to live together as families, friends, nations, and neighbors? What will happen to them after death? Is there any justice in this life or the next? How should they think about human values, relationships, responsibilities, identity, and God’s will and intentions for the world? So, for example, apprehensions about mortality turn Christians to the apostle Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of the body. Many find encouragement and religious significance in his triumphant cry, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1Cor 15:55).

Humans choose and interpret individual passages and books of the New Testament in widely differing ways. Their personal concerns, social contexts, cultural conventions, religious commitments, political orientations, and cognitive habits determine the ways in which they choose texts that make the grade as “religious texts” and which do not. When these debates occur, sometimes differences emerge that divide family members, friends at dinner parties, political parties, and religious communities. Paul’s Letter to the Romans lies at the heart of a highly divisive theological and social debate concerning sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. Some uphold the sanctioned authority of Paul’s text (Rom 1:26-28) and condemn homosexuality as violation of God’s created order, while others dismiss the authority of the text and accept homosexuality as a normal part of human sexual expression. Mark 16:16-18 is an especially religious text for those Christians who consider handling venomous snakes and drinking deadly potions integral to their religious experience (Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News).

With that said, however, the selection and interpretation of passages is not a free-for-all determined by individuals but operates within communal boundaries. Institutional leaders and religious communities play a substantial role in determining the ways in which the New Testament is a religious text. Both leaders and communities unite believers around common understandings of beliefs, practices, behaviors, rituals, holy places, forms of worship, and Scriptures. They also unite believers around a core of passages and books from the New Testament and other sacred texts. Once endorsed, the passages and books take on a sanctioned authority within the communities. An approved set of passages and books, however, does not guarantee that everyone in the community will accept it. Frequently, deep dissent within the community and between the group and outside communities emerges. Differing interpretations drive the dissent.

Consider, for example, the debate taking place about the ordination of women to the Christian priesthood. One of the key relevant biblical passages is 1Tim 2:11-15. The author of the letter advises that “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (NIV). While deep divisions exist in Roman Catholicism on the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood, the official line is that 1 Timothy and other texts prohibit the ordination of women because it defies the gendered order established at creation. Within Protestant traditions, similar variations of interpretation exist. For some, the 1 Timothy passage is the authoritative word of God and must be upheld, while in other traditions it holds no authority and is irrelevant to the practical issue of women’s ordination. How the Bible is deemed to be a religious text—on a personal level and for communities—varies widely and is dependent on groups of people who determine which writings are authoritative.

  • Dietmar Neufeld

    Dietmar Neufeld (1949-2015) was associate professor of formative Christianity in the Greco-Roman social world at UBC, Canada. He wrote Mockery and Secretism in the Social World of Mark’s Gospel (Bloomsbury, 2014), edited of The Social Sciences and Biblical Translation (SBL, 2008), and coedited Understanding the Social World of the New Testament (Routledge, 2010).