Who was the New Testament Written for?

Over at The Catholic Weekly, I write

There is only one place in the gospels where Jesus ever speaks of a New Testament.  It is here:

“This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

Paul, the first to write of the Institution of the Eucharist, relates the same incident with slightly different words: “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood.” (1 Cor 11:25).  Indeed, none of the gospels give us exactly the same words of Institution, because both Paul and the Evangelists are normal people giving us the gist of the apostles’ living memory of that one-time event and not pretending to be human tape recorders.

What matters here is that the Church saw the “new diatheke” (that is, the new covenant/testament established by Jesus in fulfillment of the promise of Jeremiah 31:31) as his gift of himself, not as his gift of a book.  The books we call the New Testament were given that name because they were read in close proximity to the celebration of the Eucharist and explained the origin and meaning of the sacrament being celebrated.

This is significant because that means the reading of those books was understood to be something of a cautiously guarded thing in the early Church.  There were no Christian bookstores hoping for sales among pagans. There was no bound copy of the Bible for preachers to use as they stood on corners and hollered at passersby.

Indeed, although there was a general consensus about which should be the core books of the New Testament, there were some minor differences from one diocese to the next about some of the more peripheral books such as 2 Peter, Hebrews, James, and Revelation.  In addition, some bishops took a shine to things like Clement’s letter to the Corinthians.  Eventually (and with surprisingly little acrimony) things settled down over the course of about three centuries and by the mid-fourth century everybody was (pardon the pun) on the same page.

But here’s the thing: this means that in the early Church, the New Testament documents were, in the experience of most Christians, a thing you heard at the liturgy, not a thing you read for yourself and still less a thing you read to non-believers.  That was because, as a rule, you couldn’t read, being a slave or similar illiterate.  It was also because books existed to be read aloud. (Augustine remarks on the marvel that you could stand right next to Ambrose of Milan and still not hear him reading.)

Moreover, ordering up your own copy of the New Testament was like buying your own family space shuttle.  Only the fabulously wealthy could do such a thing.  The New Testament was a book of the Church, by the Church, for the Church and was intended for the bosom of the Church.

But most of all, the Eucharist and the books—and above all the Church herself in all her members—stood in perpetual risk of being burnt by their neighbours.  So they were treated as guarded mysteries.

What that means for us is that the promises—and warnings—of the New Testament are meant first of all for our ears, not for Those Non-Christians Over There.

But wait! There’s more! Read the whole thing here!


12 Responses

  1. In point of fact, in the Ancient world, *all* reading was communal, or at least outloud–if you time traveled back to the Roman Empire and sat down and started reading a scroll by yourself silently, people would think you’d have gone completely nuts.

  2. “That was because, as a rule, you couldn’t read, being a slave or similar illiterate.”
    Historians have lately been reexamining the assumption of widespread illiteracy in Ancient Rome. The discovery of all that graffiti on the walls of Pompeii makes one wonder who they were writing it for. When someone writes “I f*cked the barmaid” on the wall of an alley, he’s probably not writing for the elite. Also, there’s that story in Luke when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue. The reason the audience was surprised was not because a carpenter’s son could read, but because of the claim he makes at the end about fulfilling the scripture himself. Think about it: why would a synagogue in a small town even have a tradition of handing a scroll to a commoner and asking him to read from it?
    (Having said that, it’s probably true that few women could read.)

    1. Jews were an exception precisely because their tradition prized knowledge of Torah and therefore literacy. But among the Gentiles who entered the Church, the bulk were lower class: slaves, women, children, with a smattering of educated people. That’s why Paul tells his audience to see the his letters were read to the Church.

      1. Ask yourself: who was the graffiti written for? Most likely, the Jewish literacy rate was within the norm for Roman subjects.

    2. Tour guide in Pompeii told us about local artifacts that had been gathered up into museums (would have been otherwise damaged or stolen.) These included fairly explicit paintings from brothels, that functioned as picture menus (You know, he said, like at McDonald’s?).

      Language and literacy both.

  3. @Joel, even if there was a high literacy rate, as Ben pointed out, reading wasn’t a solitary pastime yet, and manuscripts couldn’t be mass produced.

    My guess is that the graffiti was the work of an upper crust of wealthy hooligans. Probably even a form of bragging.

    1. @joel

      I must say your opinion of the uppper crust is quite different from mine. Who was it again who bragged about grabbing women by the p****?

      1. “Murtis Felatris” – that is, Queen Fellator.
        “Successus the weaver loves the barmaid of the inn, called Iris, who doesn’t care for him, but he asks and she feels sorry for him. A rival wrote this. Farewell”
        “if anyone wants a f*ck, he should look for Attice — costs four sesterces.”
        “Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st Praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women.”
        “If you can piss over this door, the San Diego Fire Department needs you!”

        OK, that last one wasn’t from Pompeii but from the bathroom wall at a local gas station. But it fits right in, doesn’t it?

  4. Literacy in the Roman Empire was really only common in the upper classes. But it wasn’t unheard of, even amongst slaves. Remember that when the Romans went in and conquered or “subdued” or (better yet) “liberated” a place, one of the first things they would do would be to liberate the locals of their freedom, and oftentimes educated captives were taken as slaves. The Roman aristocracy often had slaves who were in charge of their children’s education.

    But even amongst the Jewish population of the first century, literacy was not widespread. It’s very unlikely that most of the original Apostles (with the exception of Matthew) were literate.

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