The New Testament brought a number of surprises to me, reading it for the first time. As a refresher, I was raised Catholic but never read the Bible before, and I did so this time straight through without much study. I had some prior understanding of the contents through attending church and participating in the sacraments, but that was all.
The most unexpected parts were the passages showing Jesus with a temper. I had known the story of his flipping over the tables when the money changers were in the temple, but that was easily understood with his long antagonistic relationship with the hierarchy of the Jewish officials, the ones he believed were causing real harm to Israel with their lack of piety.
What’s harder to understand is Jesus getting angry at a fig tree for not bearing fruit when he was hungry and condemning it, causing it to wither. What’s more surprising is his proclamation that he was there to turn families against each other, fathers against sons and mothers against daughters. My picture of Jesus had always been of someone constantly mellow, the most “live and let live” person in all of history. That is simply not the case.
Also surprising was just how flawed the apostles were. I knew they weren’t perfect, but not to that level. They constantly got Jesus’ message wrong and needed him to spell it out for them. They had bickering and infighting. Many were clearly in for it for glory rather than pure altruism. Once Jesus was crucified, they seemed to forget many of his messages. The accepted wisdom of the Christian faith is God used imperfect people to carry out his vision, showing his mercy and acceptance of all. This is used to inspire people to not get down about their shortcomings, and to realize that anyone can be called to do God’s work. Personally, I think it would be better if the people in charge of creating a new religion designed to save everyone’s souls had a firmer grasp of the principles God and Jesus were trying to get across.
Then, of course, there was Paul. The most influential Christian started out as a Jew persecuting Christians, punishing them with death. Then after his conversion, he became about as obnoxious a born-again Christian as there could be, which is really saying a lot. He is very different from what I pictured the founders of the Christian faith to be like.
Related to Paul, because so much of his teachings come from letters he wrote to various churches, there’s the idea of the different audiences for the books of the New Testament. The Old Testament was very much written to be for everyone. It’s both history and guidebook, but it is written for all. That’s not the case with the New Testament. It certainly has books like that — the gospels and Acts, notably, are accounts of events meant to tell the story of Jesus and the apostles. Many other books, however, are letters. They were written for one (or multiple) churches. Admonitions that stand out strongly in certain letters are because the members of those churches were not following certain tenets of the faith (many times because the faith hadn’t really been fully fleshed out yet). Various words of wisdom and other parts of those books were intended for specific people, not as widely distributed texts. I’m sure if you asked Paul to write a missive to everybody who was interested in being a good Christian, the tone and substance would be radically different.
Finally, there is Revelation. It would be easy to dismiss Revelation as kooky and crazy. I’m willing to give John of Patmos the benefit of the doubt though. The writings are clearly layered with such an intense degree of symbolism that reading it as having any degree of literalism to it is silly. The beast with seven heads and ten horns is not a creature with those features. Each feature represents a different aspect of a power on Earth.
It is just as foolish to try to find signs of the prophecy in that book in the modern time. John made it very clear that the apocalypse he was writing about was coming in the lifetimes of the readers, and those readers, as mentioned above, were receiving this text in a letter format. They were the members of seven churches. Many of the symbols are very clearly concerning Rome. Whatever parts of the prophecy were to come true would have happened nearly 2,000 years ago.
All in all, it was well worth the read. Son of God or not, Jesus was a historically important figure whose words and actions shaped the world. Reading what that meant at the time was fascinating. And believer or not, he had many teachings that were simply good ideas. If you choose not to look at him as a prophet or messiah, then as a philosopher I believe he still stands up.