A chronological New Testament is different from and yet the same as the New Testament familiar to Christians. It contains the same 27 documents, but sequences them in the chronological order in which they were written.
The familiar New Testament begins with the Gospels and concludes with Revelation for obvious reasons. Jesus is the central figure of Christianity and so the New Testament begins with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Revelation is about "the last things" and the second coming of Jesus, so it makes sense that it comes at the end. Revelation and the Gospels function as bookends for the New Testament. Everything else comes between: Acts, 13 letters attributed to Paul, and eight attributed to other early Christian figures.
A chronological New Testament sequences the documents very differently. Its order is based on contemporary mainstream biblical scholarship. Though there is uncertainty about dating some of the documents, there is a scholarly consensus about the basic framework.
It begins with seven letters attributed to Paul, all from the 50s. The first Gospel is Mark (not Matthew), written around 70. Revelation is not last, but almost in the middle, written in the 90s. Twelve documents follow Revelation, with II Peter the last, written as late as near the middle of the second century.
A chronological New Testament is not only about sequence, but also about chronological context -- the context-in-time, the historical context in which each document was written. Words have their meaning within their temporal contexts, in the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.
Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:
- Beginning with seven of Paul's letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a "window" into the life of very early Christian communities.
- Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel -- the good news -- of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus' historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
- Reading the Gospels in chronological order beginning with Mark demonstrates that early Christian understandings of Jesus and his significance developed. As Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they not only added to Mark but often modified Mark.
- Seeing John separated from the other Gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different his Gospel is. In consistently metaphorical and symbolic language, it is primarily "witness" or "testimony" to what Jesus had become in the life and thought of John's community.
- Realizing that many of the documents are from the late first and early second centuries allows us to glimpse developments in early Christianity in its third and fourth generations. In general, they reflect a trajectory that moves from the radicalism of Jesus and Paul to increasing accommodation with the cultural conventions of the time.
Awareness of the above matters not just for historical reasons but also for Christian reasons. American Christianity today is deeply divided. At the heart of the division, especially among Protestants, is two very different ways of seeing the Bible and the New Testament. About half of American Protestants belong to churches that teach that the Bible is the inerrant "Word of God" and "inspired by God."
The key word is "inerrant." Christians from antiquity onward have affirmed that the Bible is "the Word of God" and "inspired" without thinking of it is inerrant. Biblical inerrancy is an innovation of the last few centuries, becoming widespread in American Protestantism beginning only a hundred years ago. It is affirmed mostly in "independent" Protestant churches, those not part of "mainline" Protestant denominations. Catholics have never proclaimed the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, even as many have not been taught much about the Bible.
Biblical inerrancy is almost always combined with the literal and absolute interpretation of the Bible. If it says something happened, it happened. If the Bible says something is wrong, it is wrong.
For Christians who see the Bible this way, whatever Paul wrote to his communities in the first century is absolutely true for all time. For them, whatever the Gospels report that Jesus said and did really was said and done by him. So also the stories of the beginning and end of his life are literally and factually true: he was conceived in a virgin without a human father, his tomb really was empty even though it was guarded by Roman soldiers, and his followers saw him raised in physical bodily form.
These Christians are unlikely to embrace a chronological New Testament. It would not only change the way the see the Bible and the New Testament, but also make them suspect and probably unwelcome in the Christian communities to which they belong.
There are also many Christians, as well as many who have left the church, for whom the inerrancy of the Bible and its literal and absolute interpretation are unpersuasive, incredible, impossible to believe. For these Christians, as well as others interested in the origins of Christianity, a chronological New Testament, I trust, can be interesting, helpful and illuminating.