The New Testament: Rightly Divided or Torn Apart?

You’ve probably heard the dismissive argument that you can prove anything by the Bible—that it is an inconsistent set of books, written by diverse individuals across time and certainly not to be trusted as a guide to life. If you have, it’s not surprising, because recent years have seen an unprecedented public attack by scholars on the New Testament as a coherent document.

It’s become a popular notion that the early apostles were not united in their beliefs and doctrines. Paul, a Hellenistic Jew from the Diaspora, is depicted as one who disagreed with the Judean apostles, especially Peter and James. It’s said that he created Pauline Christianity, distinct from the teachings of Jesus’ first followers. Scholars also view the apostle John as having a separate approach, establishing what they refer to as Johannine Christianity.

If all of this is true, then we should expect to find great doctrinal conflict at the heart of the New Testament writings. This is what many scholars have taught during the past 150 years, following the thinking of the influential German theologian F.C. Baur and the Tübingen School. We should expect Paul to contradict James and Peter and vice versa; we should find examples of John disagreeing with Jude and James and Peter, and they with him.

Contrary Evidence

But there is evidence to the contrary for those with eyes to see. Certainly it requires a different starting point, but if we accept what Jesus said about the effect the coming Holy Spirit would have, the issues become much clearer. Here are Jesus’ words to His disciples at the end of His ministry, just before His death:

When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth, for [it] will not speak on [its] own authority, but whatever [it] hears [it] will speak, and [it] will declare to you the things that are to come. [It] will glorify me, for [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that [it] will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–15).

This is assurance that unity will result from the Spirit at work in disseminating the truth and teaching that flow from God.

What, then, do we find in the apostles’ writings that demonstrates the unity of the Spirit in teaching and practice?

Peter and Paul

The following is a statement from Peter at the end of his life: 

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:14–16).

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.” 

Peter (2 Peter 3:15–16, English Standard Version)

Though Paul had to publicly disagree with Peter on one occasion (Galatians 2:11–14), they were not generally at odds on doctrinal matters. The fact that Peter described “our beloved brother[’s]” writings as Scripture tells us that he placed Paul’s teaching in a very special category. If others twist Paul’s words, by implication Peter does not—he agrees with them.

The teaching that Peter said they had in common in this instance concerns the link between salvation and God’s patience. As noted above, he wrote: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.”

In Paul’s letter to the congregation at Rome, he asked: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

Peter’s letter also raises a question as to the circulation of Paul’s letters among the other apostles. Peter knew them, and he said the congregations he was writing to in the Diaspora likewise knew what Paul said in his letters. It is highly unlikely on this basis that the other apostles did not also know of them.

Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

Paul (Romans 2:4, English Standard Version)

But there was much more that united them.

Unity at Jerusalem

At the meeting in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 15, the apostles and elders (including Peter, Paul and James) came to a unified decision on what should be required of the gentiles in becoming followers of Jesus. Notice that as Jesus promised, the apostles were given special help in achieving unity over the question. Detailing the specifics to be expected of gentile converts, their written conclusion states, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements . . .” (Acts 15:28).

In the extended account we see the apostles and leaders—James, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabbas and Silas—along with the church at Jerusalem, come to doctrinal agreement through the Spirit. It’s also instructive that James said their new understanding was in line with what the prophets of old had said, and he quoted Amos as an example (Acts 15:15–17). 

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul said that that congregation was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). It is unthinkable that such a church would not be united in its belief and practice.

In fact, in the same letter he mentioned the role of the Holy Spirit in making the truth known to the apostles and the prophets: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:4–5).

James and Paul

It comes as no surprise, then, that James and Paul expressed themselves with the same words about the need for believers to put knowledge into action. James said, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Paul wrote, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” 

James (James 1:22, English Standard Version)

James and Paul also shared some shorthand terms, as pointed out by Margaret M. Mitchell in her essay “The Letter of James as a Document of Paulinism?” (Reading James With New Eyes, 2007); for example, their unique use of a specific title for Jesus, “the Lord of glory” (see James 2:1 and 1 Corinthians 2:8). Then there is the way James referred to himself as a servant (in Greek, doulos) of Christ (James 1:1). Paul used the same term several times (see Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1). 

Slight variations of the phrase “the coming of the Lord,” referring to Christ’s return, are found in James 5:7–8 and in several places in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica (see 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 5:23).

There are also a couple of linguistic constructions that are used only in the New Testament writings of James and Paul. First is “if anyone thinks. . . .” James used this in chapter 1:26: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Paul used “if anyone [among you] thinks” or “is inclined” in 1 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 11:16; and 1 Corinthians 14:37.

The second example is a phrase that is used first by Paul in all of extant Greek literature: “do not be deceived” (see 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Galatians 6:7). And James used the very same phrase (see James 1:16).

James and John

The concept of care for others is found in the letters of James and 1 John. James pointed out the hypocrisy involved in saying but not doing with respect to brothers and sisters who need urgent help: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16).

John’s instruction about what is to be done for the needy is the same: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).

James and John also taught about avoiding love of the world, its ways, and material goods. It is a question of what is put in first place. James warned: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). John instructed: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Peter and Jude

There is also broad agreement between the second letter of Peter and Jude’s letter in terms of content and teaching. In fact, they are so alike in places that one might be tempted to think one of the writers had plagiarized. While many of the themes and expressions are similar, the two letters were written at different times for different audiences. Both mention false teachers whose sensuality leads to denial of Christ; fallen angels whose judgment awaits them at the last day; the sin and punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah; the blasphemy that proceeds from ignorant teachers with animal instincts—boastful men without spiritual substance who have wormed their way in; and the accurate predictions of Jesus and the apostles about coming deceit and the scoffing attitudes that accompany it.

Paul and John

Paul and John provide further parallel teaching on the issue of false apostles. As Paul prepared to leave the elders from the region of Ephesus for the last time, he gave them the following warning: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).

In a late-first-century letter, John confirmed that such false teachers had existed within the Church and had then left. He wrote: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:18–19).

Paul and John also taught the same concepts about the identity provided to the believer by the Holy Spirit. Paul said: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). John instructed: “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit [which] he has given us”; and “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 3:24; 4:13).

John is known as “the apostle of love” because he used the Greek term agape and its associated words many times. The word and its related terms occur 98 times in his Gospel and first letter. So it might come as a surprise that the count for Paul is 107. His first letter to the church at Corinth contains perhaps the best-known passage defining love and its paramount importance for the follower of Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 13).

Both Paul and John dealt with the congregation at Ephesus, and both spoke about love in their specific messages to them. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contains more than one sixth of his uses and says a great deal about the love that brethren from two separated peoples (Jews and gentiles) should have for each other. It is also about the love that must exist between husband and wife, children and parents, and employers and employees.

Paul also wrote about love with respect to the church at Ephesus in a letter to Timothy, who was teaching there. He said, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

John relayed Christ’s words to the Ephesians in the book of Revelation. They show that the impact of false teachers had been offset by their response—perhaps to Paul’s warning—but that the practice of love was very much needed: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:2–4).

Paul’s Summation

It should be apparent that there are many parallels and overlaps between various authors of the New Testament. We have not even considered the four Gospel writers here but have concentrated on several apostolic letters. The notion that the New Testament cannot be trusted because its authors are at odds with each other is without merit. 

An understanding of the essential thrust of the New Testament will dispel the idea once and for all. Returning to the letter to the Ephesians, we find that Paul expressed God’s great overarching purpose in relating to His creation in expansive terms that center on the eventual unity of everything.

Paul said that God is “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9–10). Since that is God’s purpose, why would He lead His apostles to compose anything other than a coherent and unified New Testament?