Question: Our parish priest asked us at Mass which book of the New Testament was the oldest. Most of us said “Matthew.” He said we were wrong, and that First Thessalonians was the oldest. This doesn’t seem right, does it?
— Donald Wilde, Warsaw, Mo.
Answer: When we speak of the age of a particular book in the Bible, we can speak about its age in terms of the events it describes or of the likely date it was put into the written form we have today. Usually when scholars speak of the age of a book they refer to the time of its appearance in final written form. And in this sense, it is largely accepted that the First Letter to the Thessalonians is probably the oldest book, the first of St. Paul’s letters, and was written between A.D. 51-52.
The writing of a letter in the New Testament was a fairly straightforward process and, while St. Paul and others may have made some final edits, or even a second draft, it is likely that the letters were dictated to a scribe and then sent within a matter of days. Other copies may also have been circulated.
The emergence of the Gospels in written form was a more complicated process. And while the events they detail are older, the writing out of these events went through several stages.
Obviously the first stage of the Gospels was the actual events themselves: the words and deeds of Jesus. But it will be noted that Jesus did not write a book, or even say to the apostles, “Go write a book.” Rather he sent them to preach, teach and baptize disciples into the life of his Body, the Church.
Thus, the second stage was the oral stage wherein the apostles went forth proclaiming what Jesus taught and did and who he is. During this time, the teachings began to be written by scribes, and collected and circulated.
Finally, we begin to see the written stage. The idea that Matthew or John just sat down and wrote the Gospel is probably inaccurate. Recall that most people could not write in the ancient world. Scribes and others acted as secretaries for the author who helped refine and edit the final product.
Gradually the Gospels were collected and edited in what came to be their final form as we know them. The exact dates and order of their final form are hotly debated topics among scholars.
However, it is safe to say that the four Gospels took their final form between 60 and 90, some time after St. Paul had sent his letters.
Meaning of I.N.R.I.
Question: What does the I.N.R.I. mean on the top of our crucifixes mean?
— Name withheld, Palm Beach, Fla.
Answer: It is an abbreviation for Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judeorum — Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. In Latin the “I” and “J” are usually interchangeable and ancient Latin did not use the “J.” That is why it is I.N.R.I. not J.N.R.J. It was common for the Romans to hang a “titulus” or sign above the crucified to indicate the charges against him. Scripture says that Pilate put the charges in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
Pilate placed this title above Jesus in scorn and mockery, rather than faith. He also likely knew it would irritate the Jewish leaders, which it did (see Jn 19:21). Yet even in his ridicule, Pilate spoke truth. Jesus is King, not of the Jews only, but of all things.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.