Conversations with Scripture: Blunt, 3

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 3

Having dealt with New Testament dating stuff in a previous post, I’ll head into Blunt’s third chapter on the New Testament.

His opening paragraphs introduce an interesting set of stats:

The books of the New Testament are twenty-seven, the writers eight, in number; the greater part being written by St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John, who are the authors of three-fourths of the whole. The writings of St. Mark and St. Matthew to nearly one-fifth, and those of St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude to one twenty-third part of the whole. Or, more exactly, supposing the whole New Testament to consist of 186 pages,

St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude wrote 8 pages,

St. Matthew and St. Mark wrote 38 pages,

St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John wrote 140 pages.

Blunt, 54.

Or, in pictures:

Blunt’s bird’s-eye view of the NT page counts thrown into an Excel chart

The point he’s making here is that there are five major authors (at least as measured by page count) and three minor. (Of course, as he’ll explain, he’s lumping Hebrews with Paul and Revelation with John the Evangelist.) What he doesn’t say, but clearly implies, is that these eight men represent our fundamental conduit of Christian truth. Furthermore, of those eight, three provide the bulk of the material. This is an interesting fact that I’ll say he leaves at the level of an assumption. But—I want us to notice what he’s doing here. We’ll come back to this in a post or two…

Then, Blunt provides a paragraph explaining the ordering principles of the NT. I didn’t want to quote this one in full, but after wrestling with it, I think we do need to see this two sentence paragraph in its entirety so that we can tease out a couple of observations with the assistance of some bracketed numbers inserted for later reference:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

Whenever I teach an Intro to Bible/Exegesis class (and quite frequently when doing a forum or similar sort of biblical talk), a central source of confusion for the students/participants is around order and chronology. Here are two key things to remember:

  • Order implies chronology especially when disparate texts are assembled beginning with a chronological order.
    • In the OT, Genesis begins with creation, and the following books of the Bible maintain a narrative historical order through Esther (with a recapitulation for 1 and 2 Chronicles)
    • In the NT, Matthew begins the story of Jesus (which the other gospels recapitulate), Acts picks up the narrative thread, letters to churches follow, then time and history conclude with the end of the Book of Revelation
  • A distinction is necessary between “time in the text” and “time of the text”
    • “Time in the text” refers to the time period that the text is about.
    • “Time of the text” refers to the time period when the text was written/achieved the form in which we have received it.

When I talk about this stuff, I frequently refer to “the time referred to in the text” or simply “time-in” versus “the time when the text was written” or simply “time-of.” Keeping these two concepts distinct is especially important when talking about narrative material. Yes, the Gospel of Mark is describing the events of the year A.D. 33 or whatever year we decide Jesus conducted his main ministry in. But Mark was written in A.D. 65 or so. These are two different dates that represent two different things: when events happened vs. when the version of the events recorded achieved the form in which we encounter them.

Why does this matter?

Without any external cues, we tend to collapse these two mentally. Matthew is first; Revelation is last. If Paul mentions something about Jesus, we can just look earlier in the book to what he was referring to. Ah—but wait… In a single-author book you can totally do that… In a collection, it’s a totally different story (so to speak).

Thus, for one example, even though Paul is located after the gospels and is writing to churches established after the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Paul’s writings were written before the gospels as we have them. Indeed, if we want to look at what Paul’s reference to Jesus might mean, we should look to Luke as—if we take the Acts narrative as reliable (which I think it largely is)—Luke himself was Paul’s student and the Gospel he leaves us, written a decade or two after Paul’s letters, gives us the Jesus-content of Paul’s proclamation.

While Paul was chronologically later than Jesus, his letters were written before the gospels were. 1

For another, I’ll throw in an OT example. When working with students wrestling with Psalm 8, they will often point to the fact that it references the creation story. Specifically, Psalm 8 has some parallels to the Genesis 1 account. (I’d say strong thematic parallels; the verbal parallels are actually less strong in the Hebrew than most English versions make it appear). They fail to appreciate that saying “the psalm quotes Genesis…” has some serious dating implications! The Torah as we have received it appears to have come together in and around the Babylonian Exile, and the Genesis 1 section appears to be from a Priestly source writing around that general time and possibly in deliberate contrast to a Babylonian/broader Ancient Near East creation-through-conflict narrative (which pops up in some of the older psalms!). To then say that “the psalm quotes Genesis” is not just an intertextual statement but also a dating argument that must place the composition of the psalm after the composition of Genesis (or at least that part of it which appears pretty late in the book’s history overall). This gets even more tangled if David (who lived roughly around 1000-960 BC) is identified as the author of the psalm!

[For more on all of this OT stuff, I refer you to the most excellent find by long-time friend Barbara in a comment below, the free full and complete open source text of John J. Collin’s Introduction To The Hebrew Bible And Deutero-Canonical Books, Third Edition (2018)]

Ok… Having said all of that, let’s pick up the Blunt thread again. Rather than forcing you to scroll up, I’ll put Blunt’s paragraph here one more time:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

With regard to [1], Blunt does not clarify between time-in and time-of; however, [2] makes it clear that he is talking about time-of—at least, as he sees it. Therefore [3] refers to placing the various NT books in strict time-of chronological order which—given his dating scheme—would intermix Epistles and Gospels in a most confusing combination. [4] presents his thesis on gospel order, but fails to note the time-in/time-of hiccup represented by Acts. Thus, following the order of composition popularized by Eusebius and Augustine, Blunt will date Matthew at 61, Mark later in 61, Luke (and Acts) in 63, and John in 97. The reason for the canonical gospel order, then, is the chronology of their writing. (But—don’t forget—this is not the only order possible; the pre-Vulgate Old Latin Gospels that circulated in the fourth through seventh century followed the order Matthew-John-Luke-Mark which reflected the frequency of use in the lectionaries of the day.)

Following this introductory material, Blunt follows the pattern established in his OT chapter, providing a marginal date notation, then giving a quick summary of the content of each work. The notes on the gospels are largely about the evangelists, passing on the traditional material from Eusebius that was collected into the standardized prefaces that appeared in the medieval manuscript gospel books. Thus we’re told of Matthew’s Hebrew gospel, Mark being the deacon of both Peter and Paul but preserving Peter’s remembrances, and Luke being the disciple of Paul. His John section is different. Following Augustine’s lead he tells his readers that it:

…is chiefly a theological, and not a historical work, only so much narrative being introduced as is necessary for setting forth the particular truths to be proved and illustrated, and the whole of it being comprehended within broken periods, amounting altogether to only thirty-one days. His purpose was not to teach the history of our Lord, but the mysteries arising out of that history.

Blunt, 57-58.

Unlike the preceding Synoptics (and, no he certainly does not use that term!), he provides a brief guide for John:

Chapter 2Divine Nature of the Man Christ Jesus.
Chapter 3Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Chapter 6Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Chapter 8Eternal existence of the Son. His equality with the Father. Doctrine of Plurality in Unity.
Chapter 10Pastoral work of Christ in the visible Church.
Chapter 11Power of Christ in the invisible world.
Chapters 14-17Various mysteries connected with Christ’s perpetual presence.
Blunt’s drive-by of John (Blunt, 58)

After noting the limited focus of Acts on Peter and Paul, Blunt heads into the Epistles and provides brief summaries of each, identifying the location from which it was written, the addressees, and—in a sentence or two—the chief arcs. He does attribute Hebrews to Paul. He places James in A.D. 61 (same year as Matthew and Mark) basing his date on the death of James following (here explicitly name-checking) Eusebius and Josephus. 1 Peter is dated to 49, becoming the earliest of all the NT writings. The writing of the Johannine epistles is correlated with the destruction of the Temple, but he places Revelation either in 67 (Nero) or 96 (Domitian), preferring the earlier date (pleading confusion based on the longer name “Nero Domitianus”).

As in the previous chapter, this one ends with the summary of Revelation with no concluding verbiage.

Again—despite my issues with his dates and some authorship matters, I think Blunt does provide a solid overview of the content of the NT, suitable for providing readers used to encountering the Scripture in pericope-length chunks (whether from the Eucharistic lectionary or the Daily Office one) a big picture view of the NT. I do find his opening paragraphs intriguing, less for what he actually says and more for what I think he is assuming and will build on in the next chapter.

Because…the next chapter is one of the key reasons I’m interested in working through this book: “The Revelation of the Holy Bible and the Inspiration of its Writers.” But that’s for next time…

  1. I was tempted to talk about the Jesus vs. Paul narrative you sometimes find in the church at this point, but that would have taken me completely of course! Another post, perhaps… [back]