Reading the New Testament chronologically

Marcus Borg talks to Candace Chellow-Hodge at Religion Dispatches about reading the New Testament chronologically and what this approach teaches us about the early Church and about being a Christian.

Marcus Borg: In the New Testament, among the things we learn by reading it in chronological order is, in a sense, the obvious: mainly that there were vibrant Christian communities. I call them ‘Christ communities’ since there was not a separate religion called ‘Christianity’ in the first century. There were vibrant Christ communities spread out around the Mediterranean world before any of the documents were written, so the documents give us glimpses, or windows, into what those Christ communities were like.

And they make clear that the New Testament as a whole, including the gospels, are the product of those communities, written to those communities, and in many cases written within those communities. So, we learn that it’s not that the gospels created early Christianity but early Christianity produces the gospels as well as the other documents.

The book of Revelation, which of course comes at the end of the familiar New Testament, is almost in the middle—number 14 of 27 documents. When the book of Revelation comes at the end of the New Testament, it makes the whole of the New Testament sound as if we’re still looking forward to the second coming of Jesus and what is popularly called ‘the end of the world.’ When the book of Revelation appears more or less in the middle, we see it, hear it and understand it as a document produced in a particular time and place that tells us about what that Christ community, and the author, John of Patmos, thought would happen soon, in their time—rather than it being ‘Oh, this is still about the future from our point in time.’

Comments (13)

"I call them ‘Christ communities’ since there was not a separate religion called ‘Christianity’ in the first century."

There is now?

There is attestation to the community in Antioch being called "Christians." (Acts 11:26) This is recorded as before the death of Herod Agrippa (I) in 44 CE. His successor Agrippa II is reported to have said to Paul, "Soon you'll make me a Christian!" (Acts 26:28). So depending on how you date Acts, it makes a point of the use of the term...

But isn't the point that Marcus Borg is making Father T, that, yes, there were Christ communities made up of folks that were first called Christians at Antioch, but that there was not yet a "Christianity," a religious system of belief, separate and apart from Judaism?

Bro David

Bro D., my point is twofold: first, he begins by referring to "Christian communities" --- and then switches to the needlessly trendy "Christ communities." As "Christian" seems to have been in use why not stick with it?

Second, there is ample evidence in Acts that Christianity was already seen as a separate sect from (or within) Judaism, that is, something that could be named, identified, and persecuted.

More importantly, the notion of Judaism itself as some kind of monolithic religious faith is an unsophisticated reading of the period: there were many Judaisms in the second temple era, which referred to each other as sects, and so also referred to Christians. When and where it was first referred to as "Christianity" --- an English word, after all --- I don't know --- the earliest terms seem to be "Christians" and "Nazarenes" (at least as far as Acts is concerned.) Paul himself refers to it as "the Way." But it at least saw itself, and was seen by others, as sufficiently distinct to warrant being called something.

So Borg seems to be making a point that isn't much of a point, and I think it creates a false impression of a "uniform" Judaism.

It is an intriguing idea to read the books of the Christian Testament in chronological order, and it is certainly not for me to question Dr. Borg's work. I would like to note my understanding, however, that dating the Gospels, especially, is rather problematic since portions were likely in circulation well before they were collated, even so with regard to Mark, let alone the so-called "Q" material.

Since the stories, or portions thereof, about Jesus certainly were circulating, even if only by word of mouth, well prior to the stated date for Mark, I think the Gospels might be considered separately from the Epistles, Acts and Revelation from a chronological perspective.

Jim Hammond
Warrenton, VA

Sorry Tobias, have you read his book? I come away with a much different take than you do, if you have. I'm not sure that one can rely on Luke-Acts, which modern scholarship places in the first decade of the 2nd Century CE (110s), as being definitive of the situation of the small communities/assemblies during the time of Paul, which Borg calls Christ communities, not for trendiness, but differentiation.

Bro David

No, David, I've not read the book. I was responding to the quotation cited here, and the article from which it was taken. If those do not represent his work then surely I am not to be blamed for their failure.

I tend to be a bit of a minority when it comes to dating, particularly Borg's views on it. I agree with Jim about the oral tradition, which many scholars with a prejudice towards manuscript traditions tend to not honor.

I also, for example, follow the minority of scholars who argue for a late Mark, rather than the Marcan priority that is the widespread theory. Frankly I don't think it holds water for a number of reasons. (Most of the reasons for a later Mark well summarized by Mann in the Anchor Bible Series volume on Mark.)

In short, part of the problem with "chronological reading" is that it necessitates buying into one or another of the "dating theories" concerning composition. (For instance, I'm surprised to see Revelation dated as early as Borg does, but again I'm sure he has his reasons.) The problem, it seems to me, is that this involves fitting material into a timeline the primary evidence for which is the material. It's a bit circular.

"If those do not represent his work"

They don't. His use of Christ-community is in reference to specific assemblies of Christians in a particular early period.

Bro David

Well, it still seems "trendy" to me. One could use the Greek for "assembly," "ekklesia" or as we would say, "church" -- clearly attested in Revelation which he dates rather early, and used in the earliest Pauline corpus. I guess I just don't get the point of his "special" terminology for a phenomenon he alleges to have existed, but for which there was no name at the time.

And if the interview doesn't represent him well, he needs to learn better interview style!

"Paul’s communities were not only small, but deeply committed and intentional. To become part of one was a serious undertaking. Jesus had been condemned and executed by Rome. Joining this movement meant risk— to call Jesus “Lord” and “Son of God” meant that the emperor was neither of these things. It meant becoming countercultural, rejecting the values of dominant culture and living in accord with another vision of how things should be. Paul referred to them as communities whose identity was “in Christ” and as “the body of Christ.” They were “a new creation” in the midst of “this world” that subverted “this world.”

The small size of these communities meant that they were intimate. Their members knew and were committed to taking care of each other. Paul’s frequent use of the language of “brothers and sisters” is not just affectionate; it is “new family” imagery. People who became part of one of his communities took on the same responsibilities for each other that blood brothers and sisters had. In the first-century urban context in which many had lost their blood families because of migration and high mortality rates, this was a powerful image of community. It also meant that these were “share” communities: if you were part of this community, you would eat.

For the above reasons, I will not use the word “church” to refer to early Christian communities. Instead, I will use “Christ-communities” to refer to these small, committed, intentional, and intimate groups. Over time, what we call “churches” would emerge; but that time was not yet."

Borg, Marcus J. (2012-08-28). Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

I guess the problem then is that Borg has a curious notion of what "church" means -- if it can not be intimate, sharing, caring, small, etc. That is not a defensible position.

These are the very communities that Paul addresses by "ekklesia." It would have been just as clear, and less trendy, to simply use that word, in romanized type if need be to distinguish. Making up a terminology no one ever used to try to make a point few would contest in itself seems rather pointless. After all, it is the text of Acts itself (late as it might be) that describes in detail just how small, intimate, and supportive these "churches" were.

I felt that I couldn't quote the whole portion leading up to why he chose Christ-community, so obviously I failed in letting you know his full rationale.

BTW who is this and what have you done with Tobias? The Father Haller with whom I am familiar most at his own blogsite is so much more gracious and magnanimous!

Bro David

Bro David, I don't think I'm being ungracious in finding fault with Dr Borg. I have to admit I am not a fan of his work, but I don't think my criticism is by any means unkind to him or unjust. I think in the present instance he is stating the obvious but finding it necessary to dress it up in new terminology.

I also have scholarly disagreement with a number of the theses upon which he has based much of his work (including that done in the Jesus Seminar). I don't think stating those disagreements is by any means ungracious -- and I am far less negative than many of his critics.

And I wouldn't blame yourself too much for failing to provide more context. I've seen enough of the good Dr.'s work to understand where he's coming from. It's just that I disagree with the need for that particular journey.

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