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The New Testament: From Oral Testimony to the Written Word

Neil Lightfoot has a Ph.D. from Duke University in North Carolina. He serves as professor of the New Testament at Abilene Christian University in Texas. In his book How We Got the Bible he notes the perspective of the early Church and how that affected the formation of what would become known as the New Testament:

"When the church of Christ was first established it had no thought of a New Testament. Its Bible was the Old Testament and its new teachings were based on the authority of Christ as personally mediated through the apostles.

"Soon, inspired men began to put in writing divine regulations both for churches and individuals. It was inevitable that these written instructions would become normative ... Thus Paul's letters were carefully gathered into a single whole: next came the collection of the four gospels, and then all the others followed" (2003, p. 156).

But what about the time interval between the oral and written word? Why the delay? Were Christ's true sayings distorted in the intervening years?

Our answer to these questions must not overlook God's Spirit, but instead emphasize Christ's promise that the Holy Spirit "will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26, New International Version).

What a promise to the apostles! And as New Testament scholar David Ewert commented on this passage, "The New Testament is the written deposit of these words of Jesus . . . God, however, was at work in the church and watched over His word" (From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations, 1983, p. 125).

Humanly speaking, however, we seek rational, natural explanations. First, in the beginnings of the early Church the very presence of the original apostles minimized the need for written records. They were all eyewitnesses. Secondly, traditions were often transmitted orally. Jesus often said: "You have heard..." (Matthew 5:27). And how many times did He say, "He who has an ear, let him hear"?

So one would expect the sayings of Jesus to be passed on by word of mouth. Often traditions would be told and retold in easy-to-remember fixed forms. Also, an apostle like Matthew may well have taken down notes during Christ's ministry on earth. This apostle had been a tax collector used to keeping written records. Perhaps Jesus even assigned him the task.

Background to the New Testament

Fully one third of the New Testament consists of quotations from or allusions to passages in the Old Testament. The New Testament mentions the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies including those concerning the birth, ministry, messiahship and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Himself, referring to the Old Testament—the only "Bible" available at the time—stated that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).

The Jewish community was entrusted "with the very words of God" (Romans 3:2, NIV). Its official representatives of Jesus' day bore responsibility in religious matters (Matthew 23:2-3) until the time that "the kingdom of God [would] be taken away from [them] and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43)—a reference to the New Testament Church of God (compare 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Jesus would shortly build and establish His Church through His chosen apostles (Matthew 16:18-19; Matthew 18:18). In due time they would record their experiences in what would become the New Testament.

Sound Scholarly Testimony

Guiding His apostles and their successors, why did Jesus Christ include certain books and not others? What has been called "apostolicity" is the major standard. Each and every New Testament book was either composed by an apostle of Christ or a very few close associates.

"So we find Mark, the companion and interpreter of Peter, committing to writing . . . the Gospel as Peter habitually proclaimed it . . . and Luke, the companion of Paul, writes in two books [Luke and Acts] for Gentile readers a narrative for the beginnings of Christianity from the birth of John the Baptist up to Paul's two year residence in Rome" (Bruce, p. 107).

Applying the New Testament in Faith

At the end of the day, however, the crux of the matter lies in our faith to believe that Christ kept His promises that His words would never pass away and that the Holy Spirit would bring everything He had taught the apostles back to their minds for later teaching and accurate recording. Though not without an enormous amount of historical evidence, true Christianity remains a religion of faith.