New Testament Polyphony Explained

The texts of the New Testament were authored over a much shorter period of time and thus were not subject to a large amount of redaction. However, manuscript evidence does point to differences between copies of the texts mostly due to scribal error, explanations, additions and/or deletions. These textual variants have mostly minimal effect on the meaning of the texts. While there is little evidence of intratextual polyphony (i.e., different voices within a text), there is certainly evidence of intertextual polyphony (i.e., different voices between texts). However, when it comes to interpretation, there are, in the Septuagint and subsequent Greek recensions, plenty of ambiguous and polysemous words and passages that have resulted, from the earliest centuries to today, in a wide variety of, often contradictory, interpretations. Even the New Testament, as an anthology, clearly demonstrates a persistent polyphony. The results is the reality of disparate theologies.

Factors that helped to create the polyphony that does exist in the New Testament writings and early interpretations has to do with the context of its birth; that is, the character and diversity of Second Temple Judaism, and the continued and growing influence of Hellenistic philosophy. The apocalyptic fervor of late Second Temple Jewish spirituality as reflected in portions of Daniel (a late addition to the Jewish Scriptures) and numerous noncanonical writings had a undeniable impact on the nature of the earliest Christian writings and theologies. The approach of ancient Jewish interpreters—as described by James Kugel[1]—reflects precisely how the New Testament authors interpreted the Jewish Scriptures, especially in relationship to their efforts to prove that Jesus was the Christ.  

It is not surprising then, that nascent Christianity (i.e., Ante-Nicene) was characterized by a diversity of sects, each with their own distinct theological perspectives. Faith in Jesus as the Christ was born from, and in the midst of, theologically diverse Second Temple Judaism. The earliest followers of Jesus and leaders of the early Jesus movement came from several diverse sects. Add to that, as the Gospel of Jesus spread into the Gentile world, the authors of the New Testament texts and their earliest influential interpreters (i.e., the “Apostolic” and “Ante Nicene Fathers”) were undoubtedly ever more influenced by Hellenistic philosophy as were its Gentile converts.

Just as the Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha clearly demonstrate the vast diversity of theology of Second Temple Judaism, so the Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, along with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices (in 1945 in Egypt) demonstrate the vast diversity of theologies prevalent in pre-orthodox Christianity. Sadly, many of these writings have been “written off” as heretical, instead of being seen as representative of the polyphony of Jesus traditions, of authoritative Christian texts and their interpretations. As we noted in the previous chapter, prior to the Reformation of the sixteenth century CE, there was no biblical codex that contained only the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible, and prior to the fifth century CE there was no New Testament that contained all, and only, the twenty-seven books of the Christian New Testament. What does this have to do with biblical polyphony? As will be discussed later, one certain and sure proof of biblical polyphony lies in the factual reality of what a University of Notre Dame sociologist refers to as “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” I would contend that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” has existed as long as there have been writings that were considered authoritative among the Jews first and then the Christians. First, however, is to establish that there are clear examples of both intratextual biblical polyphony and intertextual biblical polyphony.

[1] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2008). In pages 14–19, Kugel states and explains that the ancient Jewish interpreters (and the early Christian interpreters) “all seem to have assumed the same four basic things about how the Bible was to be read: (1) the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text; (2) the Bible was a book of lessons direct to readers in their own day; (3) the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes; and (4) the entire Bible is essential a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through his prophets.” By “the Bible” Kugel is referring to the Jewish Scriptures that were considered authoritative at whatever time the Jewish or Christian interpreters were writing, whether before or after the process of canonization was complete.

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