Making Sense of the New Testament

Colossians 2:16-3:4, Mark 2:23-28

How are we to make sense of the New Testament? Many of the more popular churches today claim that the New Testament is the literal, infallible, or inerrant word of God. They believe that the Bible is, word for word, a divine revelation given to humanity.

The problem with this approach is that a close reading of the New Testament (and the Old Testament as well) reveals factual errors and contradictions. Moreover, we can see very easily that the Christian scriptures were written by human beings for communities of faith. We find in the Bible, therefore, human failings and conflicts as well as inspiring teachings and examples that point us toward God. This is obvious when we read the letters of Paul, but the gospels, too, are testimonies of the early church that reflect human controversy.

How then are we to make sense of the New Testament? We need to remember that the letters of Paul were written before the gospels were written, and we need to read the gospels as testimonies of faith written to settle disputes within the early church.

The readings today help to make this clear. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul urges the Christians of Colossae to resist criticism about not properly observing the Jewish dietary laws or religious festivals or sabbath. Compared to Christ and what is to come when Christ rules at the right hand of God, Paul says, these issues concerning Jewish law are of no consequence. There must have been other church leaders, however, who believed that Christians should keep Jewish regulations about eating, worshipping and the sabbath, or Paul would not have felt it necessary to address this issue.

We ought to be surprised by this controversy in the early church, given the story recorded in Mark 2:23-28 about Jesus breaking Jewish law by working on the sabbath. Jesus justifies picking corn on the sabbath by referring to an Old Testament story (I Sam. 21:1-6) about David eating consecrated bread that was reserved for the priests. Jesus does not directly answer the question about breaking the sabbath rules, but he identifies with David who also broke religious rules to satisfy his hunger.

The story, as told in the gospel of Mark, seems to imply that Jesus, like David, is an exception to the rules — perhaps because Jesus, like David, has been anointed (or chosen) by God to lead his people. The passage in the gospel of Mark concludes with what we might take to be the moral of the story — "The sabbath was made for man (humanity), not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath."

Why didn't this account in the gospel of Mark settle the issue of the sabbath for the early church? Jesus seems to say clearly that he is more important than keeping the rules about the sabbath. Why was there controversy about observing the Jewish sabbath among Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church at Colossae?

The answer is that Paul doesn't know this passage from the gospel of Mark. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, there was no gospel of Mark! If the gospel of Mark had been written before the letters of Paul, surely Paul would have told the story of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath to give greater authority to his argument. 

If we read the letters of Paul carefully, we will see that he never refers to the gospels. Paul is writing primarily in the 50s, some twenty years after the death of Jesus. At this point in the life of the church, there are no written gospels. The church begins without the New Testament! Therefore, Paul has to rely on his own wit and authority to argue his case against Jewish Christians, who clearly believe that following Christ involves keeping Jewish law.

A passage from the Acts of the Apostles reveals that Paul was opposed by many of the Christians in the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 21:18-21 we find Paul in Jerusalem explaining his ministry among the Gentiles to James, the brother of Jesus, who was the head of the church in Jerusalem at this time, and to other church elders. The author of Acts, who also wrote the gospel of Luke, tells us that the church leaders in Jerusalem are impressed by the success of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. But they warn Paul that he has many enemies among the Christians in Jerusalem.

"You observe, brother," they say to Paul, "how many thousands of converts we have among the Jews, all of them staunch upholders of the (Jewish) law. Now they have been given certain information about you: it is said that you teach all the Jews in the Gentile world to turn their backs on Moses, and tell them not to circumcise their children or follow our way of life." From what we read in Paul's letter to the Colossians, this charge would seem to be true. Paul is teaching that the Jewish law no longer matters, because Christ is the way to God.

But we can only wonder why the Christians in Jerusalem are "staunch upholders of the (Jewish) law," if Jesus himself violated the sabbath (and other Jewish laws).

The gospels of Matthew (Mt. 12:1-8) and Luke (6:1-5) also tell the story of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath. A comparison of the three gospel accounts of this story reveals that the facts about picking corn on the sabbath are exactly the same, but each gospel presents the meaning of the story in a different way. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus points out that priests in the temple also break the sabbath and quotes from Hosea 6:6 to assert that God demands mercy and not the sacrificing of animals. The gospel of Luke is closer to the account in the gospel of Mark but, like the gospel of Matthew, omits the statement by Jesus in the gospel of Mark that "the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath."

Furthermore, the gospels of Matthew and Luke omit the reference in the gospel of Mark to Abiathar — perhaps because he was not, as the text of the gospel of Mark claims, the high priest at the time that David ate the consecrated bread. In fact, we know from the books of 1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament that Ahimelech was priest at that time (1 Sam. 21:1-6), whereas Abiathar was high priest during David's reign as king (2 Sam. 15:35).

Now, let's see if we can make sense of these passages from the New Testament. First, it is clear that the three gospels tell the same story about Jesus picking corn on the sabbath, but each presents a slightly different set of statements by Jesus. Which gospel, if any, accurately reports what Jesus said? There is no way to know. Clearly, however, the theory that the New Testament is the inerrant word of God cannot explain the factual error in the gospel of Mark, nor can it account for these three variations of the story in the gospels.

How might these different accounts be explained? A close reading of the gospels of Matthew and Luke reveals that each follows the story line of the gospel of Mark but adds material to it (or edits the text by deleting material). This makes sense, if these two gospels were written later than the gospel of Mark, and if the authors of these two later gospels felt free to modify the gospel of Mark to present more clearly their own testimonies to salvation in Jesus the Christ.

Second, it seems clear that Paul couldn't use these gospel accounts of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath to bolster his argument against the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who were "staunch upholders of the (Jewish) law," because the gospels weren't written until after his death.

Nonetheless, we might suppose that the teachings of Jesus were transmitted orally during the ministry of Paul. Surely, if these teachings were written down later by the author of the gospel of Mark, they must have been remembered, repeated and reaffirmed during the thirty or more years until the first gospel was written. But why then didn't the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem know this story about Jesus picking corn on the sabbath? And why hadn't Paul heard this story during his visits to Jerusalem or his travels among the churches?

The most likely answer is that the story of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath was created after the time of Paul to bolster his arguments against Jewish Christians who taught that converts to the church should be required to keep the commandments of Jewish law. So, our third conclusion is that the gospels relate a story about Jesus picking corn on the sabbath to resist efforts by early church leaders in Jerusalem to impose Jewish law on Gentile Christians.

Paul first encountered this issue in his ministry among the Gentiles. He told the Christians in Colossae that they were free to ignore the sabbath restrictions of the Jewish law, because he felt called by the risen Christ to bring the good news of salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews. Observing the Jewish sabbath on a workday in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire made no sense to Gentiles, and in his ministry to the Gentiles Paul quickly came to share this conclusion. To unite Gentiles and Jews in the church, Paul preached salvation through faith and rejected all efforts by other Jewish Christians to impose Jewish law on Gentile converts.

The gospels were written after the ministry of Paul, but at a time when there was still controversy in the church about keeping the commandments of the Jewish scriptures that had shaped the understanding of Jesus and his disciples. At the time the gospels were written, Gentile and Jewish Christians, who were at home in Greek culture, dominated the life of the church. These Christians did not believe that their faith in Christ required keeping the Jewish sabbath on a Roman workday. The story of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath was incorporated in the gospel of Mark and repeated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke in an attempt to settle this dispute within the early church.

Probably, Jesus never picked corn on the Jewish sabbath. That would explain why Paul doesn't know this story and why the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, whose leaders were the disciples and followers of Jesus, are "staunch upholders of the (Jewish) law." Perhaps, Jesus was a staunch upholder of the Jewish law. Probably the gospels accurately portray his attack on hypocrisy by religious leaders, but are more concerned with promoting Christian faith among the Gentiles than with reporting the facts of the ministry of Jesus in Palestine.

This is how we can make sense of the New Testament. Paul is trying to create a viable Christian faith for Gentiles and for Greek-speaking Jews who live and work primarily among Gentiles. The gospels were written later and do not merely record the events in Palestine during the ministry of Jesus, but address issues troubling Greek-speaking churches in the Roman Empire. The gospels were not written to record history, but to proclaim a message of salvation. Their authors were not journalists or historians, but preachers and teachers. The gospels explain to urban Greek-speaking Gentiles and Jews why they are saved by faith through the resurrection of a Jewish teacher from rural Galilee, who was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem.

What does this mean for our Christian faith today?

As we make sense of the New Testament and see its human concerns, we may appreciate more fully the faith of Paul and the other early Christians who wrote the New Testament. The church did not simply come into being because of divine revelation, but was created out of conflict and controversy within communities of faith. The New Testament is not the inerrant word of God, but the words of Christians struggling to be faithful to their sense of the saving presence and power of God in Christ Jesus.

As Paul and other Christians realized that salvation was not a matter of keeping religious laws, today we need to understand that salvation is not a matter of having the right beliefs about God or Jesus or the Bible. The story of Jesus picking corn on the sabbath points beyond the rules of religion to the life of faith.

Paul tells the Christians in Colossae that they have died to their old life in Christ and that now their life "lies hidden with Christ in God.” For those with faith, this is the good news of the gospel. © Robert Traer 2016