Thoughts on the “Newness” of the New Testament

Christianity, as exemplified in the Gospels, poses a new way for human beings. 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 all previous values, or at least the ancient values of the Israelites -the commandments, or “words” or Moses, which are further extrapolated in Exodus and Leviticus.

At any rate, in Jesus’s transvaluation of prior values, it can be tacitly said that morality as morality is recognized as fluid. 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, even God acknowledges there is no one true morality, and that morals have evolved over time.

The “newness” of the New Testament is the fulfillment of a new morality, an inverted morality from the ancients, wherein humility becomes the greatest virtue, and pride the greatest vice. Good and evil are exemplified not merely in actions, or in obedience to laws intended to formulate a priestly and holy city which was the goal of the Torah. Instead, Christianity looks at the decay in the world and imagines a “kingdom of heaven” (i.e. not a physical city) 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 mortal life. Thus Christianity poses a challenge to political philosophy which is concerned with corporeal cities and regimes. This problem will later be discussed by St. Paul and St. Augustine, among others.

How are we to accept this teaching? The answer is through theology, which is revealed knowledge via signs and wonders. Jesus claims to be the son of God, or the son of Man, and 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 signs add more 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 occupied peoples of Palestine, a message of hope for a long enslaved Jewish people. However, 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 city. God is for everyone. 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; for who can recall what life was like prior to the printing press or the computer?

In addition to its universal horizon, Christianity also deepens man from within. Christian morality forces us to look within, as we acknowledge: 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; why did they kill? Was it justified in some way? Was it self-defense? In contrast, recall the King James translation of the teaching of Moses – namely that the commandment does not claim: “thou shalt not murder” but rather “thou shalt not kill.” The key distinction here is in intentionality. At any rate, 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 chaired by Athena who washes him clean with innocence. His crime was 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, learn from mistakes, and trust and build friendship.

However, another key element of Christianity is compassion (coming from the Latin “passio” meaning suffering; “suffering together”). By not seeing “the other” at a distance any longer, as the ancients once saw their enemies and slaves and criminals and so on, we now experience the suffering of others together with them. We see the 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 suffering in the world.

With the teachings of Jesus, or the transvaluation of prior values, the new and modern morality takes hold in a revolutionary moment, discarding the world of antiquity, and embracing a new universalist horizon as God’s son committed himself as a 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 that poses problems but also offers new creative opportunities for the future as we learn more about the significance of a universal horizon and the uniquely human death of God in the modern world. Much of the modern world faces a conflict between Christianity in practice, and a secularized version of Christian morality.

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