the weblog of Alan Knox

We just got a letter

Posted by on Oct 31, 2011 in blog links, scripture | 11 comments

We just got a letter

No, this is not an episode of Blue’s Clues… and only those with young children during the last 10 years or so will understand that reference…

Instead, this is about a post written by Josh over at “Reconstructing the First Century Story.” His post is called “Knowing the historical context of the NT.”

In the post, Josh reminds us what it would have been like to receive one of Paul’s letters in the first century. That’s right… the New Testament was not a collection at first. Instead, individual “books” within the New Testament were sent to different groups or individuals scattered around the Roman empire.

What would it have been like to receive one of those letters? Josh writes:

Imagine yourself as a brother or sister in one of the churches of Galatia during the summer of A.D. 50. Everyone is abuzz, for you’ve just received a letter from Paul in Antioch. Rumor has it this letter is no holds barred. They’re saying that it has to do with the men who have come into the assembly of late who are teaching things that contradict the message Paul brought you when he and Barnabas were here.

When you first received this letter you heard it read aloud in the assembly. You may or may not be able to read yourself, so maybe all you ever did was hear it read to you. Eventually, copies of this historic letter were made. Some leading brothers in the church intended to spread its liberating message to all the saints in other cities and regions. These were words that everyone had to hear.

The point is, when you read the letter you read it as just that, a letter. It was not a “book” to you. It was not divided into chapter and verse. Nothing about it resembled a textbook, or a manual on “how to be free from the law and live the Christian life.” Never once was it suggested to you in any way that you had to dissect it, analyze it, and cross reference it with other of Paul’s letters in order to find the “key” to a victorious life. In fact, looking back on the first century from our present-day vantage point, such a thought is ridiculous.

You should definitely jump over to Josh’s post and read the rest.

But, for now, think about these questions: Is it possible to read the New Testament today more like those original recipients would have read it? What are the benefits or dangers of reading it in this way?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-31-2011

    Do you think the original recipients of Paul’s letter to say the Galatians read his letter every day, each week, monthly?

  2. 10-31-2011

    Good question Hutch. And when did people start memorizing it? Can I guess it was when Christianity became less about following the person of Jesus and more about becoming religious and needed a well defined set of beliefs.

    (Disclaimer: However, I see nothing wrong with regular readings of these books, and I wish I had more of it memorized.)

  3. 10-31-2011

    I’m happy to have copies of the scriptures as well. I meditate upon read and study them often. But we must remember a number of things. Most of the 1st century believers could not read, the vast majority did not have copies of the Law and the Prophets and it took a while for what we consider to be canonical letters, gospels and the revelation/unveiling of the Christ to be written, then compiled, argued over by theological and political powers that be to arrive at the bible we have-we lose sight of the fact that millions of Christians lived and died without having or being able to read any of the scriptures, yet they came to Christ through His gospel of grace, were indwelled by His motivating and indwelling Spirit, had the New Covenant promise of His law written on their hearts and they were lead into all truth by the Counselor. Yet, the Pharisees who searched the scriptures diligently because they thought that in them they ha dlife, yet they refused to come to the One spoken of in the Scriptures the only One who can give Life. I think the same happens today, religious people have a relationship with a book and not with the One the book points to:

    Those who are in Christ see Him in all of the scriptures, listen to Him and live by His law of love:

    Remember to see our Master the LORD Jesus Christ in all of the scriptures:

    Our Savior said, ”Abraham rejoiced to see My day.” ”Moses wrote of Me.” ”David called [Me] Lord.” –John 8:56; 5:46; Matthew 22:45.

    When Christ commenced His public ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth with the words of Isaiah, ”The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor,” He said, ”This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears” –Luke 4:17-21.

    As He drew near to the Cross, our Savior’s testimony to the Scriptures has a still more sacred import. ”Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished” –Luke 18:31. ”For I say unto you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, –And He was reckoned with transgressors: for that which concerning Me has fulfillment”-Luke 22:37. On the night of His betrayal, in the shade of Olivet, three times our Savior points to the fulfillment of these Scriptures in Himself- Matthew 26:31,53,54; Mark 14:48,49. Three of His seven sayings upon the Cross were in the words of Scripture, and He died with one of them on His lips.

    But perhaps the strongest testimony of all, which Christ bore to the Old Testament, was after His resurrection. On the very day that He rose He said to the two disciples going to Emmaus, “And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. –Luke 24:26-27.

    Did you catch that? Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. –Luke 24:26-27.

    Now let’s look at verse 44: …Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”-Luke 24: 44

    Things in the Law of Moses (The first five books of the Old Testament) the prophets and the Psalms, basically the entire Old Testament speak of the LORD Jesus Christ. We need to be on the alert as we read the scriptures, in order to see where Christ is referenced, to see things the LORD is teaching us about what Christ’s name means “The Salvation of God”.

    Let us see The LORD Jesus Christ, God’s provision of salvation throughout the scriptures.

    The apostles also give us clear indication that they also employed this understanding about and interpretation of the Old Covenant scriptures. Peter said, “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.-Acts 3:18

    …all the prophets, all the prophets teach about the sufferings of Christ, so we must make sure not to miss that when we read the prophets.

    Peter also said, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” –Acts 10:43

    This is amazing! All the prophets teach that in Christ’s name those who believe in Him receive forgiveness of sins! If you missed that when reading the prophets, please read them again with this perspective in view!

    “So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place;-Acts 26:22

     Paul states that what he was teaching about Christ and His gospel was nothing more than exactly what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place!

  4. 10-31-2011

    I like your last question Alan. I think we can definately read Paul’s letters is a way that is not in keeping with their intent especially when we chop them up, pull them out of context, marry them with other unrelated texts in order to build a doctrine.

    The letters have their best effect when read as an entire letter and when we let them come to bear on the issues Paul was addressing in the various assemblies.

  5. 10-31-2011


    Most of them would not have been able to read it every day, even if they could read.


    Actually, they were probably better at memorizing than us. I’m not sure they would have been as concerned with “word-for-word” memorization, though.


  6. 11-2-2011

    Hutch says it right on.

    Several years ago, I got myself into some trouble discussing that very same topic. Of course, nothing has changed. I still find myself in hot water with most of what I believe. Not that I am trying to be a rebel, but, just trying to put things into perspective for myself.

    Anyway, as for the topic…

    The history of our bibles has been very explosive and controversial. As it has already been stated by others, the bible, as we know it, didn’t exist until relatively recently. And even then, it was limited in its distribution. That led me to rethink my concept of discipleship.

    The first century Christians didn’t have a bible. We do know some had gotten a letter from Paul or some of the other apostles. In fact, there were probably others that are not even included in our scriptures since they have been long lost.

    The first scriptures, or bible, as we know it didn’t come onto the scene until around 400 a.d. by one of the Roman Catholic councils. Think about that. For the first 400 years of Christianity, nobody had a bible! And the apostles had long died off. So contacting them by email was out of the question! :)

    During the middle ages, the Catholic church had VERY limited amounts of these bibles. They kept them closely guarded…even chaining them down. Not so people could read the for themselves. (Most couldn’t even read if they wanted to) They were chained to keep them from being stolen and sold on the black market for extremely high profits as each one of them were written by hand.

    During the Reformation, Martin Luther wanted some of the books removed, thinking they should not belong in the list of approved canonical writings.

    Having said all of this, I believe one of the greatest tragedies in our day and time is that we are no longer disciples of the Master, but, disciples of the Book.

    Each time I go on a “mission trip” overseas to Asia, etc., I have people tell me how sad it is that few of the people have bibles; as if it was impossible for them to be true believers without a copy of the scriptures.
    Frankly, I find that philosophy so sad. Yes, having the writings of the early disciples is good. It can clear up a lot of things. However, it can also muddy the waters. After all, we all know of many people who spend their times arguing over scriptural references.

    If only we could “make” disciples of Jesus Christ instead of the scriptures. Perhaps we would then see the type of revival that is so desperately needed throughout the world.

    Maybe it will start with those disciples that don’t have the bible as we know it.

    Marc S

  7. 11-2-2011

    I experienced this somewhat when I read The Untold Story of the New Testament Church and – interspersed – the New Testament. I was amazed at how the “letters” read so differently when I read them that way.

  8. 11-2-2011


    Good points, Its amazing that although I read the NT monthly and the OT 2x a year, when stating my views I am accused of having a low view of scripture. I think biblio-idolatry is a big problem and I am also beginning to think that ecclesiology-idolatry is becoming a big problem as well.


    That is an excellent book, everyone should read it, I think it along with Jesus Manifesto is Viola’s best work. I like his non-prescriptive books best.

  9. 11-2-2011


    You said: If only we could “make” disciples of Jesus Christ instead of the scriptures.

    Very powerful statement. Many people think discipleship is lacking in churches, but I see it completely differently. I think a lot of discipleship is going on in churches and that people are becoming good disciples the pet doctrines of those they consider their “pastor”, I’ve met good disciples of John MacArthur (I used to be one) who would weigh and discern everything based on John MacArthur’s teachings, who would champion his seminary, who would herald him with praise for correcting those he considered in doctrinal error etc. Of course I am just using MacArthur as an example, I’ve met disciples of Viola, Nee, Lee, Sproul etc., whose speak more of the teachings of these individuals than simply speaking of what Christ has taught them regarding loving God, their enemies, brother/sister, neighbor, giving to those who ask of you, turning the other cheek etc. I do not want to make a single disciple, I want to do as Christ said, as you are going make people His/Christ’s disciples by immersing them in identification with Him/Christ and teaching them to listen to Him and observe all that He has commanded. When a student is fully trained he will be like his teacher. How pitiful if that teacher was me, John MacArthur, Nee, Lee or any other human being as they would be cursed to only mature up to the level of our weaknesses and limitations. Not so with Christ.

  10. 11-3-2011

    Heather and Hutch– I will have to check out the book. First time I have heard about it.

    What is also interesting is the fact that many of these letters in the NT would never have been written if those churches had not been in some kind of trouble that needed to be addressed. Galatians was written to the church because a group of people were trying to put them back under the old law. Corinthians was written because of some real issues….including the very same things we have written about: pastor worship! The list goes on.

    When one really contemplates the what out NT is about and why these letters were written, it has a dramatic effect on how we should view our discipleship. It really IS about the spiritual life: one in which God’s spirit lives in us. That should be sufficient.

    God bless.

  11. 11-3-2011

    Marc, Heather, and Hutch,

    Thanks for continuing this discussion. I’ve noticed the results of the common practice of teaching bits and pieces of the New Testament separating from the context of the entire letter. I hope this is a trend that reverses and that we see more and more people studying entire books of the NT together.