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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
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.