A Historical Introduction to the New Testament

September 26, 2017

Wikipedia-Papyrus 46, one of the oldest New Testament papyri, showing 2 Cor 11:33-12:9

In Charles Schmidt’s upcoming class, “A Historical Introduction to the New Testament” students will explore the texts of the New Testament from the perspective of modern academic scholarship, with an emphasis on their historical and social context. We checked in with Professor Schmidt to find out more.




WIH Reporter:  What is important to know about your upcoming class?

Schmidt: This class will provide a historical and cultural background to the world of the early Jews and Christians who wrote the texts that would eventually become codified as the New Testament. We will take a look at the historical figures of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul within the broader history of ancient messianic expectations and discussions of the Torah (the Jewish Law). My goal is to share some of the insights biblical scholars have had about these texts and traditions.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do we have about the historical basis of the New Testament?

Schmidt: There are myriad examples, all of which I will discuss in more detail during the first week of this class. But for right now I would have to say that the arrangement of the texts in the New Testament gives us a false impression as to their relative dating. The New Testament opens with four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), before moving on to Acts and the letters of Paul. For over two centuries, however, biblical scholars have known that these gospel accounts about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth actually post-date the letters of Paul.

In other words, if we wanted to read the New Testament chronologically, we would have to begin with Paul rather than the gospel writers. The arrangement of these texts in Christian Bibles gives us the impression that the gospel accounts are the real beginning of the story of Christianity. In many ways, this makes perfect sense; why not begin the story of Christianity with Jesus, after all. But for someone who wants to learn about the history of earliest Christianity and the development of its Scripture, it may not be the most historically accurate approach.

WIH Reporter: What don’t we realize about the New Testament?

Schmidt: For starters, I would say the most surprising thing would be that our earliest complete copies of Christian Bibles date to around the fourth century—about three hundred years after the life of Jesus. Additionally, these Christian Bibles contain some books in their New Testament that are not found in those used by modern Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. For example, they include texts such as 1 Clement and The Epistle of Barnabas, or substitute the Apocalypse of Peter for the Apocalypse of John. I’d also like to point out that the earliest canon list identical to the 27 New Testament writings in today’s Christian Bibles dates to the year 379. The point I’m trying to make is that the New Testament we’re familiar with today came into being through a complex historical process and did not appear one day, fully formed.

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Schmidt: This class will primarily take the format of a discussion-based seminar. In other words, I like to run my classes as open forums for sharing and discussing ideas. Each class meeting will be organized around a particular topic or text about which our learners will read short texts or select passages before we convene. I begin class with a brief lecture designed to provide some historical context for that week’s material and topic. After that, the remainder of the class will be spent doing close readings of select passages, leading discussion, and answering questions that arise in the moment.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table  right now?

Schmidt: At present I am re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 and attempting to get through a collection of Greco-Egyptian esoteric texts called the Corpus Hermeticum, which are magical-philosophical writings about the ultimate reality of the cosmos.

Professor Schmidt’s class begins October 19th at 1:00 p.m. For more information, or to register, click here.