By David N. Mosser, Special Contributor…
Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written
Marcus J. Borg
Hardcover, 608 pages
When I was a kid, the big biblical question around my church was whether we should read from the King James Version of the Bible or from the Revised Standard Version that had been published in its entirety by 1952. After about a decade of “RSV burn-in,” our smallish church decided it was OK to use the newer translation for public worship and private study.
As someone has said: “Baby, we’ve come a long way!”
From the choice of two versions 50 years or so ago, we now have the choice of scores of biblical translations and paraphrases. The book under review is another step along that path.
The author, Marcus Borg, is canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Ore., and Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture, emeritus, at Oregon State University. In Evolution of the Word, Dr. Borg has produced something of great usefulness, in my estimation—and far less controversial than his earlier work involving the Jesus Seminar and the sayings of Jesus.
He does scholars, preachers and Bible students a great service by reordering the New Testament, employing the consensus of modern scholarship to determine the chronological order of the 27 New Testament documents. The result is a Bible study tool similar to the 1985 Synopsis of the Four Gospels edited by Kurt Aland, or Burton H. Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, New Revised Standard Version (1992). Readers can use this book as yet another means to grasp the implications of a complex collection of ancient scriptural texts.
One might ask, “Why is reordering the New Testament important and is it something worth exploring?” But before we address this substantive question, we need to understand how Dr. Borg’s book is structured.
First, Lutheran Bishop Lowell Erdahl provides a foreword on how a sequential New Testament is helpful in Christian education, especially for catechism through confirmation. Second, Dr. Borg presents a measured and modest lesson on the chronology of the writings. Much of this material we might find in any respectable introduction to the New Testament; Dr. Borg covers not only the oral tradition with respect to Jesus, but also why Paul’s letters appear first in this collection and why that is vital to our grasp of Scripture.
After an illustrative timeline that shows the approximate dating of the individual documents, the 27 books appear in that arrangement. Each book is given a brief and informative preface.
No doubt, sequence does matter in some human experiences. The order in which we eat a full course meal, for example, has a “soup to nuts” validation to it. Likewise, a certain logic exists in the way the church has ordered the canonical New Testament. The life and teachings of Jesus begin the whole story, and there’s a rousing end in the apocalypse of Revelation. In between, the Scriptures reveal the life and theology of the Church, and its fundamental trust/belief in God disclosed in Jesus as the Christ.
Yet, reading the New Testament in the order suggested by Dr. Borg—who relies on scholarship of the last two centuries—gives us a new perspective on biblical faith. Reading Paul’s epistles first, and then Mark’s Gospel, and then James, and then Colossians, etc., tests and challenges our programmed ways of reading Scripture.
For preaching and Bible study, the book affords new insights. For example, while the earliest New Testament documents emphasize eschatology and Jesus’ imminent return, later documents such as 2 Peter help us to understand why the early promises haven’t yet been fulfilled. This new order of reading the Bible isn’t a substitute for the canonical tradition; rather, it proposes a different contextual background that can enrich our faith awareness.
It is hard to imagine someone not thinking fresh thoughts upon learning that all of Paul’s authentic letters came before the writing of the first Gospel. We may wonder how the earlier writings might have influenced the later ones. Also, knowing the order in which the books appeared, we can ponder how the Church transitioned from one phase of communal life to another. Did the Church evolve with its Scripture, or did Scripture evolve with the Church? We can never know for certain, but these and other questions are clearly worth our consideration.
The Rev. Mosser is senior pastor at First UMC in Arlington, Texas, and the author/editor of several books from Abingdon and WJK Press.