Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Each of the books of the New Testament has a unique relationship to the Old Testament and to Judaism as a whole, ranging from the very Jewish Gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Luke, which makes little or no reference to the Jewish scriptures. This range is largely due to the location and audience of the different authors of the New Testament. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a largely Jewish group to convince them that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, and so he interprets Jesus as someone who relives the experience of Israel. For Matthew, everything about Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament. The Old Testament narratives to which Matthew refers served as ways in which early followers of Jesus could make sense out of his birth, death, and resurrection. In contrast, Luke makes little or no reference to the Hebrew scriptures because they would have been unfamiliar to his largely Gentile audience.
Paul introduces yet another perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures with his theology of “faith versus works,” which states that through Christ we are saved “through grace alone,” not through doing good works. Paul contrasts Christianity’s emphasis on the grace of God and the faith of the believer with the Jewish insistence on the law as the necessary means for salvation. Paul’s theology inaugurates a strong anti-Jewish tradition in Christianity, which claims that Christianity is a higher, more spiritual tradition than Judaism. This claim is called Christian supercessionism because it is based on the idea that the New Testament supercedes the Old Testament. Supercessionists believe that the laws laid down in the Old Testament are external, in the sense that they regulate human behaviors rather than spiritual states, and that these laws become unnecessary through Christ. Supercessionism simplifies the rich and subtle theology of the Old Testament, which makes no such distinction between faith and works.
Some scholars have argued that the New Testament’s references to sinners actually referred to those who were marginalized, poor, cast out, orphaned, diseased, or widowed. Jesus not only promises salvation to such sinners, but goes so far as to call their poverty itself “blessed” throughout the Gospels. At many points in Jesus’s ministry, he shocks mainstream Jews by associating with, ministering to, and healing people who are cast out, poor, and sick. Some have argued that a prominent theme in the Gospels is Jesus’s good news to such people and an invitation to the rich to join them.
In his final letter to the new churches in Romans, Paul summarizes his lifelong question about the relationship between Jewish law, which requires certain observances and actions, and faith in the grace offered by God through Jesus Christ, which is given freely and without regard for good works. This issue was particularly problematic in Rome because the early church consisted both of Jewish followers of Christ, who observed the law, and Gentile followers, to whom the law was relatively unknown. Paul concludes that the law is a gift from God, and can help people become more faithful, but ultimately we are justified by faith alone, and the grace of God is available to both Jews and Gentiles. In the end, Paul declares that only minimal observance of Jewish law is necessary to be a follower of Jesus—who himself, interestingly enough, was a law-abiding Jew.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Gospel of Mark takes us on a vivid journey through the roads of first-century Palestine, from the small Galilean villages to Jerusalem, where Jesus’s trial and crucifixion take place. The shifts from location to location in the narrative are often abrupt and hasty, but these movements serve an important purpose in that they teach believers that Christian discipleship means following in the footsteps of Jesus. Believers are to follow his progress in their imaginations, as one follows a character in a story, sympathizing with him in his progression to the cross. Jesus’s trail toward the cross offers a warning to potential followers that discipleship may involve persecution and suffering, and will call for unremitting faithfulness on the part of the disciple.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The longest section of Matthew’s Gospel is his “proclamation” (Matthew 4:17–16:20), in which he issues a number of declarations about the kingdom of heaven. Matthew likens God’s kingdom to a small mustard seed, which has in it the potential to grow into a “tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches,” something startlingly different in size and appearance from its humble beginnings. Matthew’s proclamations about the kingdom of God symbolize the tantalizing fruits yielded by a life lived in obedience to the commandments of Christ. His use of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” also discloses Matthew’s Jewish roots, as in Jewish custom one could not utter God’s name.
In one of the New Testament’s most well known parables, Luke tells us that Jesus used this story as the answer to a man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus describes a man lying on the road, dying. Neither a passing priest nor a Levite helps him, because touching a dead body was considered utterly impure. The Samaritan, however, rescues the man, thereby breaking two social conventions—associating with what could be a corpse, and crossing the border between the rival communities of Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritan can be understood to symbolize both Christ’s message that the poor and outcast are blessed, and that Christ’s message is for Gentiles as well as Jews.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is symbolized by the life-giving matter of everyday existence: water, bread, light, and words. Water and bread, in particular, are used repeatedly. While speaking with a Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her, “water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” She says in reply, “[S]ir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” John uses this symbol of water to illustrate that Jesus’s gift is abundant and life-giving.
In Romans 11:17–24, the olive tree symbolizes the salvation of the Gentiles and of Israel. The tree, including the root and branches, is Israel. The branches broken off are the Jews who do not believe in Jesus Christ, while the branches grafted on are Gentiles who believe in Christ. Having been made part of the tree only because of faith—rather than birth, obedience to the law, or works—the Gentile believers have no reason for pride, since the God who has grafted them on has the power to cut them off.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul writes about the variety of spiritual gifts that exist using the image of the human body to convey that each of these different gifts is needed, just as every part of the body is needed. The church is Christ’s body. Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul uses this symbol as a way to deal with the difficult issue of balancing unity and diversity in his early churches, saying that though we are all uniquely gifted individuals, we are also all parts of the one united body of Christ.
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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