Thoughts on the “Newness” of the New Testament

Christianity, as exemplified in the Gospels, poses a new way of living for human beings. It represents a distinct break away from the heroes and gods of classical Greece and Rome. By creatively reformulating, and thus revitalizing, the customs of the ancient Hebrews, and claiming to fulfill their prophecies, Christianity sows the seeds of a new morality. Jesus completes the public revealing of this new morality in the so-called “sermon on the mount” (Matthew Chapters 5-7) when he re-evaluates the values of classical antiquity, or at least the ancient values of the Israelites -the commandments, or “words” or Moses in Exodus and Leviticus.

In Jesus’s transvaluation of values, it can be tacitly said that morality as morality is recognized as fluid (i.e. if morality can change over time then it is not fixed). If God can reveal one series of “thou shalts” in the Hebrew Bible, but then another set of “blessed are the…” in the New Testament, then even God acknowledges there is no one true morality, and thus morals have evolved over time.

The “newness” of the New Testament is the fulfillment of a new morality, an inverted morality from classical antiquity, wherein humility replaces pride as the greatest virtue, and the same goes for meekness, poverty, and peacemaking. Good and evil are understood as reflections of something much deeper than mere actions as in the Torah. In the Hebrew Bible, obedience to laws was intended to formulate a priestly and holy city. Instead, Christianity looks at the decay of the world and imagines a “kingdom of heaven” (i.e. not a corporeal city on earth) wherein the least of all peoples are honored – the diseased, the poor, the slaves and so on. Christianity looks forward with hope to another world, beyond mere mortal life. Thus, Christianity poses a challenge to political philosophy which is concerned with corporeal cities and regimes. What is to become of the earthly city? Can a Christian person serve both Rome and the kingdom of heaven? The problems of Christian political philosophy are best examined by St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas -all three of whom offer a defense of Christianity.

How are we to accept these teachers in light of the newness of Christian teaching? The answer is through the lens of theology. Theology claims to be a certain type of knowledge, namely revealed knowledge via signs and wonders. In the New Testament Jesus claims to be the son of God (or sometimes “the son of Man”) as well as God incarnate. However, we cannot simply rely on his word, therefore, we are given many different accounts of his exorcisms and healings and raising people from the dead and other supernatural acts. These supernatural signs add force to his claim to be the son of God according to the logos of theology.

Following on the eschatological teaching of his predecessor, John the Baptist, Jesus preaches about the coming “kingdom of heaven” to the feudal peasants of Palestine, a message of hope for a long-enslaved Jewish people. However, Christianiity speaks to something universal, not merely to the blighted people of ancient Palestine. Christian morality reveals something much deeper and more true about the human condition than does the ancient Greek way of life. In fact, Christianity supersedes the Greeks in some ways. Unlike the Hebrew Bible, in which God is a particular god for his “chosen people,” Christianity presents a loving God that is universal (i.e. for all peoples across the earth). Christianity offers a universalist theology, expanding the minds of man beyond the limits of this or that particular city. God is for everyone. Today, the totalizing conception of God, or the good things in life, has become uniquely manifested and secularized in various political and technological regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries – political regimes like communism – and technological regimes which continue to this day. After all, who today can recall what life was like prior to the advent of the printing press or the personal computer?

In addition to its universalist horizon, Christianity also deepens the soul of man from within. Christian morality forces us to look within. Not only do we care about actions (“deeds”) when it comes to breaking moral laws, but also, and perhaps more importantly, we care about intentions. For example, if someone kills another person, we are now called to ask: why did they kill a person? Was it justified in some way? Was it done in self-defense? In contrast, recall Moses’s commandment regarding killing. It does not say: “thou shalt not murder” but rather “thou shalt not kill.” The key distinction here is intentionality. Christianity asks us to forgive and consider the inevitable fallibility of human life. Christianity points us to the conclusion of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, in which Orestes is haunted by the Furies for committing the crime of matricide, but he is saved by a trial which is judged by Athena who washes him clean with innocence (though there are certain key distinctions between Christian morality and the Oresteia). His crime was forgiven and justified. Thus, forgiveness is a key element of Christianity; the ability to be reborn and free of guilt, and finally to overcome a previous self, to learn from mistakes, and to trust and build new friendships.

However, another key ingredient of Christianity is compassion (coming from the Latin “passio” meaning suffering; or “suffering together”). By not seeing “the other” at a distance, as the ancients once saw their enemies and slaves and criminals and so on, we now experience the suffering of others together with them. Life becomes heavier, more tragic (hence why there is little laughter and instead much sorrow in the New Testament). We see Greek tragedy from a new perspective. There is a mixing of joy and sorrow in the desire for compassion, turning the other cheek, serving the least of our brothers and so on. We experience happiness in service to others, and perhaps even pride in the descent, as well as sorrow at the immense suffering in the world –for no amount of Christian compassion can possibly alleviate the suffering of the world.

With the teachings of Jesus, particularly his sermon on the mount which contains his transvaluation of all prior values, the new and modern morality takes hold in a unique revolutionary moment, discarding the world of antiquity, and embracing a new universalist horizon as God’s son commits himself in human sacrifice in order to free future human beings from guilt and thus open the gates of the “kingdom of heaven” for all people. It is a bold new morality which poses problems but also offers new creative opportunities for the future as we learn more about the significance of a universalist global horizon and the uniquely human death of God in the modern world. Much of our modern world faces a new conflict between the decaying state of Christianity in practice, and the inheritance of a secularized version of Christian morality.

These reflections have been influenced by the writings of Thomas Pangle.

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