Reading the New Testament Beginning with Paul

Since I began writing blogs in April 2017 as keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com, I have published 441 columns on American religion, bicycling, and the environment. Month after month the column with the most readers is one I posted on September 6, 2013, with the title “Reading the New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.”

Borg Evolution

New Testament Books in Historical Context

I described the Bible reading program that Marcus J. Borg had recommended in his recently published book, Evolution of the Word, which was to read the New Testament in the order that the books were written rather than in the order they are arranged in the Bible. This meant starting with seven epistles by Paul before reading any of the gospels or Acts.

New insights and new questions were among the results of this different way of reading a very familiar book. Why does Paul say so little about the life and ministry of Jesus? Much of his theology was a response to specific problems that his intended readers were facing, but we face different problems. How can Paul’s theological insights and pastoral guidance be applied to our situations?

I used the New Revised Standard Version because that and its predecessor have been the translations of choice much of my adult life. Along the way, I also consulted The New Interpreter’s Study Bible and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and I occasionally used other commentaries to clarify obscure points.

Along the way, I made notes, and when I finished my reading, nearly two years after starting, my personal commentary totaled 140 manuscript pages and nearly 20,000 words. Although it has not been my intention to publish these notes, a colleague (who has seen the set on Paul but has not read them) has urged me to make them available in a more public and permanent form.

Before showing him these notes, I had begun a second reading of the New Testament in chronological order. I’m still early in the project, having read only two short epistles (1 Thessalonians and Galatians) and half of a long one (1 Corinthians). I am using the Common English Bible (CEB), which is new to me, as my primary text and referring to notes in the CEB Study Bible.

In addition, I am using N. T. Wright’s series of popular commentaries entitled Paul for Everyone. Wright provides his own translation of these texts and it is interesting to compare his effort to translate these texts so that “the words can speak not just to some people, but to everyone” with the hope of the CEB’s translators that their new translation will “speak to people of various religious convictions and different social locations.”

I am reviewing my first set of notes as I read, but I am also creating a second set. From time to time I will consolidate the two sets into one new commentary which will replace the two previously developed sets of notes.

Years ago I read a book in which the author (neither the author’s name nor the book’s title come to mind) proposed that preachers develop a series of sermons each of which proclaims the central message of an entire book of the Bible. I may not write entire sermons, but I intend to select the text and suggest the sermon’s outline for each of the New Testament books as I make my second trip through the New Testament in the order that the books were written.

How long will this process take? Just reading and making notes is moving more slowly than the first time through. Consolidating the two sets of notes and developing sermonic possibilities will increase the time even more. Early this Advent season, my working plan is to finish this second reading of Paul’s epistles by Easter and the revised commentary with sermonic notes by Pentecost.

4 Responses to Reading the New Testament Beginning with Paul

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, your curiosity and energy at 86 six or so continues to amaze me. At some point, I’ve be honored and nurtured in my own desire to better understand the origin and development of the NT scriptures, and how to integrate those early canonized writings, to the extent I’m able, into to my own continuing evolving Christian world & life view — to see your “notes”. Your friend, a much younger octogenarian, Rod Reeves.

    • Rod, we are a nicely matched pair of friends because we both love books and pay attention to them.Our choices of reading material differ, but even as octogenarians we keep at it. I’ll send you an electronic copy of my first set of notes which relate to Paul’s “for sure” epistles. You could help me decide if I should post them on my blog. By the way, yesterday’s NYT had summaries of their best books of 2017 according to book review editors of the newspaper. I intend to come up with my own list and describe them in similar fashion–about 100 words per book. Keith

  2. Rod Reeves says:

    Thanks Keith.

  3. Rod Reeves says:

    After I review your “first set of notes”, I’ll hope to respond to your question “if I should post them on my blog.”

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