Lesson 5: The New Testament; The Koran

Learning Objective:

You should gain a critical understanding of the text.


  • The New Testament, 882-902.
  • The Koran, 1001-1023
  • The Koran, 1023- 1042
  • Answer discussion question; Take Quiz in Blackboard.

Lecture Notes:

P52, a papyrus fragment from a codex (c. 90—160), one of the earliest known New Testament manuscripts.

Norton Backgrounds: New Testament

The selection in the anthology (from Luke and Matthew) begins with the birth of Jesus (from Luke) and the famous story of the “good news, great joy’ brought by the angel of the Lord to the shepherds in the fields. This selection ends with the picture of the twelve-year-old Jesus questioning and answering the learned interpreters of the scriptures and the laws. There follows Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, which contains Christ’s basic doctrines and also the words of the Lord’s Prayer. The next selection (from Luke) contains the famous parables of the lost sheep, the lost piece of silver, and the prodigal son, along with Jesus’ account of why he speaks in parables. The rest of the selection, also from Matthew, narrates the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, his denial by Peter, and then the trial before Pontius Pilate and the Crucifixion, ending with the Resurrection and Christ’s command to the disciples to “instruct all the nations.’

When Alexander died at Babylon in 323 B.C.E. after conquering the whole of the immense land empire of the Persians, his generals divided the spoils between them; Ptolemy took Egypt (his descendants ruled it until the last of them, Cleopatra, went down to defeat with Mark Antony in 31 B.C.E.); and Palestine, together with most of the Middle East, came under the control of Seleucus and his descendants the Seleucids. Over the whole area Greek became the language of administration, and in the cities, at any rate, Greek culture took firm hold; the ruins of its typical buildings– temple, theater, and gymnasium–still testify to its wide dissemination.

In Palestine, however, the attempts to impose Greek culture ran into the stubborn resistance of the Jews, who after a long war succeeded in retaining the right to practice their own religion and observe their own laws. Eventually, in the first century B.C.E., the area came under Roman control; it was before a Roman official, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus was tried and condemned to death.

While the governing officials conducted their business in Greek or Latin, the Jewish population spoke a Semitic dialect called Aramaic (though the scriptures that their rabbis expounded were written in classical Hebrew). Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic (some of his last words on the cross–Eli Eli lama sabachthani–are in that language), but he must have learned classical Hebrew to be able to dispute with the rabbis in the temple, and it is quite likely that he knew enough Greek to speak to and understand Roman and Greek officials. But his preaching to the crowds that came to hear him was in Aramaic, and when he died on the cross in 30 C.E. it must have been in that language that his disciples remembered and perhaps began to record his words.

He had given them the mission, however, to “instruct all the nations,’ and if his message was to go outside the narrow confines of Aramaic-speaking Palestine, it would have to be in a Greek version. And it is in that language, the “common’ Greek of the Middle East (not the highly wrought literary Greek of the Athenian writers), that the four Gospels were written, probably in the last third of the first century C.E. In that language the message was accessible to anyone in the Middle East and mainland Greece who could read at all; later, as Latin versions were made, the Gospels (the word means “good news’) could be read all over the Roman Empire.

A depiction of Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307, Ilkhanate period.

Norton Backgrounds: The Koran

About the year 570 C.E. a young man was born into the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. He was given the name Muhammad, and since his father had died before his birth and his mother died while he was about six, he was raised first by his grandfather and then by his uncle, Abu Talib. In his early twenties he was married to the wealthy widow Khadija, who was some years older than him. The marriage was prompted by convenience– he was a poor orphan, she a middle-aged widow–but by all appearances it was a happy and loving one. He had been trained as a merchant by his uncle and had a talent for commerce. Their affairs prospered.

Muhammad had a serious, spiritual bent and often withdrew to meditate. One day in the year 610, while he was meditating in a cave outside Mecca, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him, ordered him to “Recite,’ and revealed to him the first verses of what became the Koran. Other verses followed, and Muhammad gradually gathered a circle of believers around him. The first was his wife, and the second his nephew, Ali. (Ali was married to Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah; became the fourth caliph, or successor, to him as leader of the community; and through his marriage to the Prophet’s only surviving child, was the focus of the legitimist claims of the Shi’ite community.)

Others followed, and the success of this fledgling community threatened the established order of Mecca. Mecca’s success as a trading center rested on its importance as a center of pilgrimage. Muhammad’s God demanded the destruction of the idols that were the objects of pilgrimage. He also challenged the tribal basis of the society, saying that faith was more important than blood. He even went so far as to say that all the Meccan’s ancestors who had not worshiped God were suffering the torments of damnation. Eventually, he was disowned by his own tribe, a virtual sentence of death, because it left him without protection from his enemies since there was no civil government outside of the tribal alliances. He survived by being adopted into another tribe. His situation was perilous, and some of his followers fled to temporary refuge in Ethiopia. Eventually, in 622, he and his community made a flight (Arabic hijra) to the oasis center of Medina at the invitation of the local residents. There he established a Muslim community, which he led until his death in 632. During this period, he attracted many converts from all over Arabia. He also forced out the Jewish tribes that had been resident there so that Medina became wholly Muslim.

In 624, Muhammad initiated a war with Mecca that ended with a complete Muslim victory in 630. All the Meccans converted to Islam, and the remaining tribes of Arabia followed their example in short order. Mecca became the center of the new religion, and a few months before his death, Muhammad returned to Mecca to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’ba–now emptied of idols–a journey that established the pilgrimage ritual that is followed to the present day.

Shortly before his death, Muslim expeditions were sent against Islam’s neighbors to the north. There was a brief pause after the Prophet’s death while the question of his succession was settled, but then the Muslim conquests continued to the north, west, and east with astonishing success. Within a century, Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the west to central Asia in the east, and from northern Syria to the southern shore of Arabia.