The New Testament
[Sidenote: Its Name.]

After the gift of the Holy Spirit Himself, we may justly reckon the New Testament as the most precious gift which our Lord Jesus Christ has given since His Ascension to those who believe on His Name. The word "testament," which is in Latin testamentum, corresponds with our word "covenant," and the phrase "New Testament" signifies the record of that new covenant in which God bound man to Himself by the death of His Son. The truth that this was a new covenant, distinct from the covenant which God made with Abraham, was taught by our Lord when He instituted the memorial of His death and said, "This cup is the new covenant in My Blood." We do not know precisely at what date the Christians began to call this record "the New Testament," but we do know that they used this name before A.D.200.

[Sidenote: Its Language.]

In the time of our Lord the popular language of Palestine was Aramaic, a language which was akin to Hebrew and borrowed some words from Hebrew. Hebrew was known by learned people, but the language which the Son of God learned from His blessed mother and His foster father was Aramaic, and He spoke the Galilean dialect of that language. From a few words preserved in the Gospels, it is plain that the gospel was first preached in that tongue. In the 7th century after Christ, the Mohammedan conquerors, who spoke Arabic, began to supplant {2} Aramaic by Arabic, and this is now the ordinary language of Palestine. As many people who spoke Aramaic were at one time heathen, both the Jews and the Christians adopted the habit of calling their language Syriac rather than Aramaic. The great centre of Christian Syriac literature was Edessa, and in the eastern part of the Roman Empire Syriac was the most important and most elegant language next to Greek. It is still used in the Church services of many Oriental Christians, and it is spoken in ordinary conversation in parts of North Mesopotamia and Kurdistan. Further west it is only spoken in a few villages of Anti-Libanus. In the course of this book it will be necessary to refer occasionally to the Aramaic language.

It is highly probable that some of the earliest Christian writings were in Aramaic, but all the books of the New Testament which we now possess are in Greek. The Greek language was known by many people in Palestine, and it was splendidly fitted to be the medium of God's revelation. It was widely known among the civilized nations of the time, and it is so rich and expressive that religious ideas are better conveyed in Greek than in almost any other tongue. Whereas it was essential that the gospel should be preached first in Aramaic, it was equally essential that it should be written in Greek, for the benefit of people who did not live in Palestine or who lived there as strangers.

[Sidenote: The Canon.]

The New Testament Scriptures consist of twenty-seven different books, written by nine different authors. Each book has some special characteristics corresponding with the mind of the writer and the circumstances under which it was written. Yet these books exhibit a manifest unity of purpose and doctrine. Under many differences of dialect and expression there is an internal unity such as we do not find in any secular literature, and this unity is due to inspiration. The whole collection of books is called the CANON of the New Testament. This Greek word "canon" originally meant a straight rod, such as could be used for {3} ruling or measuring, then it was employed to signify a rule or law, and finally it meant a list or catalogue. As applied to the New Testament, the word "canon" means the books which fit the Church's rule of faith, and which themselves become a rule that measures forgeries and finds them wanting. The Church set these genuine books apart as having their origin in inspiration which came from God. They were all either written by the apostles or by men who were trained by the apostles, and thus they contain a unique account of the sayings of the Lord Jesus and the teaching of those who received their commission from Him. They are therefore documents to which the Church can refer, as a final court of appeal, in all questions of faith and conduct.

It was only by degrees that the Church realized the importance of placing all these twenty-seven books in the canon. This was finally done in the western Churches of Christendom in A.D.382, by a Council held at Rome.[1]

The disciples first endeavoured to collect the sayings of our Lord and the record of His life. Thus the four Gospels constitute the first layer of the New Testament canon. The canon of our four Gospels existed by A.D.150, as is shown by Hermas and Justin Martyr.

The next layer of the canon consists of the thirteen Epistles of St. Paul and the Acts. To these the Epistle to the Hebrews was generally attached in the east, though not in the west. This layer of the canon was universally recognized towards the close of the 2nd century, and perhaps some years earlier, for the books composing it were used and quoted throughout the 2nd century.

The third layer of the canon gained its place more slowly. It consists of what are called the "Catholic Epistles," viz. those of St. James, St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude, together with the Revelation or Apocalypse of St. John.

A crowd of works circulated among the Christians of the {4} and century, including some forged Gospels and Apocalypses, the Epistle of St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, written about A.D.95, and the allegory known as the Shepherd of Hermas, written about A.D.140. Several of these works appear to have enjoyed a popularity in excess of that which attached to some of the books now included in the canon. Nevertheless they were rejected when they were examined. It was not merely a wonderful intellectual feat on the part of the Church to have sifted out this mass of literature; it was an action in which the Christian cannot fail to see the hand of God.

One question remains to be asked after drawing this small sketch of the history of the canon. Why is it that for several generations the canon of the New Testament varied in different countries, containing fewer books in one place than in another? Two reasons may be given: (i.) Certain books at first enjoyed only a local popularity; thus "Hebrews was saved by the value set upon it by the scholars of Alexandria, and the Epistle of St. James by the attachment of certain Churches in the East." (ii.) The books of the New Testament, when translated into other languages, were not all translated together. The Gospels were naturally translated first, as containing the words of our Lord. The other books followed gradually. Interesting information is given us with regard to the latter fact by the Doctrine of Addai, a Syriac book of which the present form dates from about A.D.400, but which appears to describe the condition of the Syrian Church in the 3rd century. The writings of Aphraates, a Syrian writer, A.D.338, supplement this information. We find from these books that about A.D.160 the Syrian Christians possessed a translation of the Gospels. Early in the 3rd century they used a harmony of the Gospels with Acts and the Epistles of St. Paul. In the 4th century they used also the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is fairly evident, from the Doctrine of Addai, that only the Old Testament and the Gospels were at first used by the Syrian Christians, and that St. Paul's Epistles and Acts arrived later. And as late as {5} A.D.338 they knew nothing of the Catholic Epistles and Revelation, though these books were well known by the Christians who spoke Greek and Latin.

[Sidenote: Ancient Versions.]

The most ancient versions or translations of the New Testament were in those three great languages spoken by people who touched the borders of the districts where Greek was spoken. These were Latin, Syriac, and the Coptic language spoken by the Egyptians. It seems probable that a large part of the New Testament was translated into these languages within about a hundred years after the time of the apostles. The oldest version in any language closely akin to English was that made by Ulphilas, the celebrated bishop of the Goths, who translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic about A.D.350. There is a most beautiful manuscript of this version preserved at Upsala, in Sweden. The Goths were then settled in the country between the Danube and the Dnieper. As late as the 17th century their language was still spoken in part of the south of Russia. A carefully revised translation of the Latin Bible was made by St. Jerome between A.D.382 and 404, and this version came to be used by the Church throughout the west of Europe.

[Sidenote: English Versions.]

The Gospel of St. John and perhaps the other Gospels were translated by the patient historian and monk, the Venerable Bede, who was buried at Durham in A.D.731. Parts of the Bible, especially the Psalms, were soon fairly well known through translations. King Alfred was translating the Psalms when he died, in A.D.901; and soon after A.D.1000, Archbishop Aelfric translated large portions of the Bible. As the language of England gradually changed, new versions of the Psalms were made, and most of the Bible was known in a version made before 1360. But perhaps there was no complete version of the Bible in English until the time of John Wyclif (1380). Wyclif translated most of the New Testament of this version, and a priest named Hereford translated the Old Testament. Wyclif held various {6} opinions which the Church of England at that time condemned, and some of which she still rightly condemns. The result was that in 1412 Archbishop Arundel denounced Wyclif's version, but it seems to have been revised and to have come into common use. All these versions or partial versions in the English language were made from the Latin. But after the Turks captured Constantinople from the Greeks in 1453, a number of learned Greeks fled for refuge to the west of Europe. The result was that Greek books began to be studied again, and the New Testament began to be read once more in the original language. Three important editions were printed in 1514, 1516, and 1550 respectively. The first was printed under the direction of the Spanish Cardinal Ximenes, but owing to various causes was not published until 1522. The edition of 1516 was printed under the direction of the great Dutch scholar Erasmus. That of 1550 is important as being substantially the "received text" which has appeared in the ordinary Greek Testaments printed in England until the present day, and as being the foundation of our English Authorised Version. This "received text" was printed by Robert Estienne (or Stephanus), a great printer of Paris. About the same time a desire for a reformation of abuses in the Church caused a deeper interest to be taken in the Word of God. The first English translation of the New Testament shows a desire for a reformation of a somewhat extreme kind. It was the version of William Tyndale, which was printed at Worms in Germany, in 1525. In 1534 the Convocation or Church Parliament of England made a petition to King Henry VIII. to allow a better version to be made. The work of translation was interrupted by an order to have an English Bible in every church. As the Church version was not completed, a version made in 1535 by Miles Coverdale had to be used instead. Two other versions, also somewhat inferior, appeared in 1537 and 1539, and then a slightly improved version called the Great Bible appeared in April, 1539. It is {7} also called Cranmer's Bible, because Archbishop Cranmer wrote a preface to the second edition. Three other important versions were published before the end of the 16th century. The Calvinists, who were the predecessors of the modern Presbyterians, published a New Testament at Geneva in 1557, followed by the whole Bible in 1560. The English bishops published what is called the Bishops' Bible in 1568, and the Roman Catholics published an English New Testament at Rheims in France, in 1582. We cannot fail to be impressed by the eager desire felt at that time by the people of Great Britain, of all religious parties, to study the Holy Scriptures, a desire to which these various translations bear witness.

All previous English versions were thrown into the shade by the brilliant Authorised Version, which was commenced in 1604 and published in 1611. Its beauty and accuracy are so great that even the Presbyterians, both in England and Scotland, gradually gave up the use of their Genevan Bible in favour of this translation. But since 1611 hundreds of manuscripts have been discovered and examined. "Textual criticism," by which an endeavour is made to discover the precise words written by the writers of the New Testament, where discrepancies exist in the manuscripts, has become a science. Many results of this criticism have been embodied in the Revised Version, published in 1881. The English of the Revised Version is not so musical as that of the Authorised Version, and it seems probable that a deeper knowledge of the ancient versions will before long enable us to advance even beyond the verbal accuracy attained in 1881. But at the same time we know that both our modern English versions give us a noble and trustworthy interpretation of the Greek. And criticism has made it certain that the earliest Greek manuscripts are essentially the same as the original books written by the apostles and their companions. The manuscripts are almost utterly free from wilful corruptions. And concerning the small variations which they contain, we {8} can fitly quote the words of a fine old English scholar, Bentley: "Even put them into the hands of a knave or a fool, and yet with the most sinistrous and absurd choice, he shall not extinguish the light of any one chapter, nor so disguise Christianity but that every feature of it will still be the same."

For the sake of space the works of the evangelists are often referred to in an abbreviated form; e.g. "Matt." has been written for "the Gospel according to St. Matthew," and "Mark" for "the Gospel according to St. Mark." But when the writers themselves are mentioned, their names are usually given in full, with the title which Christian reverence has bestowed upon these "holy men of old."

[1] See Mr. C. H. Turner, Journal of Theological Studies, July, 1900.


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