Reading the New Testament in the order the books were written

New Testament Books in Historical Context

New Testament Books in Historical Context

Most people who are familiar with the New Testament know that this part of the Bible is a collection of short writings composed by several authors. Also known is that they were written over an extended period of time and therefore represent an evolution in the early Christian understanding of Jesus.

What is less well known is the logic that was used long ago for organizing this collection of twenty-seven New Testament documents. They were arranged into groups by the type of material they contain rather than by the order in which they were written.

Earlier this year, I decided to reread this section of the Bible, starting with the earliest to be written and continuing according to the time sequence. My guide in this project is Marcus J. Borg’s book, Evolution of the Word, in which this New Testament scholar proposes a rationale for reading these documents chronologically by date of composition. Borg’s book also prints the entire New Testament arranged by the time sequence that many scholars accept as probably correct. Several months into the project, I’ve read a third of the New Testament. Already, the project is opening up several lines of thought.

(1) The first New Testament books were seven epistles written by Paul, the church’s first missionary-theologian. They were composed during a short period of time beginning about 50 CE, approximately twenty years after the crucifixion and resurrection. Most references to Jesus in these books are to “the Lord Jesus” or “Christ Jesus” or some other title rather than by the name Jesus.

(2)  The next New Testament book to be written was the gospel of Mark, which was composed about ten years after Paul’s books, near the year 70. Ten years later the book of James went on line. A few years later, came another cluster of New Testament books, including the gospels of Matthew and John.

(3) It’s interesting that the first New Testament books to be written give little attention to the details of Jesus’ life. Instead, they focus on the meaning of his life and ministry. Even the gospels—Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke (to list them in their composition order)—present theological portraits rather than biographical sketches.

(4) Paul’s epistles provide a theological interpretation of Christ Jesus, and Mark fills in biographical details that give readers a fuller understanding of the man Jesus who stands in the shadows of this theological presentation. James seems to focus attention on still another aspect of the early Christian community: the way that members of the community were to live. James gives little attention to theological issues that are the primary focus of Paul’s writings. Although James echoes more of Jesus’ teachings than any other book in the New Testament other than the gospels (so says Borg in his introduction), “its fiery passion reflects the passion of Jesus himself” (p. 196).

As part of the project, I’m making notes as I read. So far, I’ve jotted down fifty pages of comments and reflections. Note taking is stretching out the time it takes to read through the New Testament, but I’m learning more by doing it this way.

Borg’s rearranged New Testament gives the books in this order: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Mark, James, Colossians, Matthew, Hebrews, John, Ephesians, Revelation, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Luke, Acts, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter.

These books can be read in this order using one’s favorite Bible and with the help of study guides and commentaries of the reader’s choice. There are, however, two advantages in using Borg’s book with its rearrangement of the books. It’s easier to keep the sequence straight when the books are arranged in the order readers want to follow. Furthermore, readers have the benefit of Borg’s brief introductions to the books, which include explanations for decisions about dates of composition.

Happy reading.

Evolution of the Word, by Marcus J. Borg (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

4 Responses to Reading the New Testament in the order the books were written

  1. Elva Anson says:

    Interesting information, Keith.

  2. eirenetheou says:

    As we read these documents, in whatever order — and Borg’s attempt at chronology may be as good as any — we do well to keep in mind the form and genre of each document we read. A “letter” is not a “book” as we are accustomed to thinking of books. It is written on occasion to specific recipients — even if it be pseudepigrapha, as the “Pastoral Letters” are — and when we read it, we are reading other people’s mail. A “gospel” may be a “book,” but it is a book of a distinctive kind; the same may be said of an “acts” or an “apocalypse.” Each is a peculiar form with particular characteristics. Disciples of Jesus did not begin writing in a vacuum.

    Most of the New Testament is a collection of other people’s mail. We may think that disciples of Jesus invented the genre “gospel,” but an “apocalypse” is an inheritance already well-defined, and an “acts” borrows from both history and the novel in the Greek world. When we “take up and read” from the “book” of Romans, for example, we are likely to miss something that we need always to keep in mind. Luther, Calvin, and Campbell wrote “books”; our brother Paul wrote “letters.”

    God’s Peace to you.


    • Your comment on the genre of the NT documents highlights one of the important factors in reading and understanding these materials. Borg refers briefly to matters of this kind, but your comment states this point with greater clarity and force. Thank you.

  3. Joe Culpepper says:

    I’ve always liked this interesting example of the importance of chronology in reading the New Testament just within Paul’s letters. In writing about the resurrection in I Thessalonians, he says that we will rise in a physical resurrection upon the return of Christ. However, by the time of his later writing of I Corinthians he has developed the notion of rising as a “spiritual body.” This clearly shows the development of Paul’s theology over time. I have often used this example to show how even in the Bible theological understandings grow & change, & they are not simply single “truths” set in stone.
    Thanks for this interesting review of a helpful book & approach to reading & understanding the New Testament!

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