How do we understand the narrative, the real-life story of God in the New Testament? How should we view the story which reached its ultimate climax in Jesus of Nazareth and which then flows out, in the power of the Spirit, to transform the world with his love and justice? How do we let the poetry of the early Christians, whether it’s the short and dense poems we find in Paul or the complex imagery of the book of Revelation, transform our imaginations so we can start to think in new ways about God and the world, about the powers that still threaten darkness and death, and about our role in implementing the victory of Jesus? How do we make the New Testament matter? How to study the New Testament for all its worth?
The answer is that we must learn to study the New Testament with a view to making it matter in our lives, our churches, and our communities. Jesus insisted that we should love God with our minds, as well as our hearts, our souls, and our strength. Devotion matters, but it needs direction; energy matters, but it needs information. That’s why, in the early church, one of the most important tasks was teaching. Indeed, the Christian church has led the way for two thousand years in making education in general, and biblical education in particular, available to all people. A good many of the early Christians were functionally illiterate, and part of the glory of the gospel then and now is that it was and is for everyone. There shouldn’t be an elite who ‘get it’ while everybody else is simply going along with the flow. So Jesus’ first followers taught people to read so that they could work out and live out the Jesus-story for themselves. That’s why the New Testament was and is for everyone.
By contrast with most of the ancient world, early Christianity was very much a bookish culture. We sometimes think of the Christian movement as basically a ‘religion’; but a first-century observer, blundering in on a meeting of Christians, initially would almost certainly have seen them as belonging to some kind of educational institution, a type of school. This is the more remarkable in that education in that world was mostly reserved for the rich, for the elite.
This bookish culture, by the way, is why Christianity was a translating faith from the beginning. The movement went out very early on from circles where Aramaic was the main language into the larger Greek-speaking world. From there, it quickly moved north-west into Latin-speaking areas, and south and east into regions where Coptic or Ethiopic were dominant.