While teaching yesterday I mentioned the total New Testament word count – a place I hadn’t planned on going – and I knew I had the numbers wrong, ending up with “there’s a lot of words.” That answer never worked on a math test – which is probably why math is the one class I consistently failed (when I finally pulled a “C” in Algebra 1 it was a cause for major rejoicing).
So here is the official total – or at least one official total (I believe the word count is from the KJV):
There are 169,751 words in the English New Testament (depending on the translation – the Amplified Bible no doubt at least doubles this – and I’d be interested to see a word count for the Message). Interestingly enough, the word count for the Greek New Testament is 138,020 (depending on which edition one is using). Amazing how much more one can say with fewer words in Koine Greek .
Sticking with the English, the total word count of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) is 83,898; adding in the book of Acts the total goes up to 108,148. Which means that we are left with 61,603 words for the New Testament Epistles and Revelation.
This means that nearly half of the New Testament is literally the story of Jesus told four times. Well over half is narrative. The remainder is the applied theology of the letters – and the wild visions of Revelation.
Of that 61,603 words for the letters and Revelation, 6,950 of them are found in Paul’s most systematic development of a theology of the cross in Romans 1-11 (for the West) – which we can place alongside Hebrew’s rather systematically developed theology (for the East) coming in at a word count of 6,928.
The point that was striking me yesterday during the teaching was, to put it another way, Paul’s 6,950 words in Romans 1-11 I don’t believe were ever meant to drive the major download of the four Gospels that together comprise nearly half of what we know as the New Testament. All things considered, I think Paul would shudder at the thought of his 7,000 word theological treatise aimed at western culture garnering more attention and receiving top billing over the fourfold Gospel. In fact, isn’t the simplest answer to the question, “What is the Gospel?” found in asking which books of the New Testament bear that name? The plain fact is that the Gospel is the Story of Jesus. The four Gospels provide us with the Message that was preached then and that remains the only message to preach now or at any time: the perfect doing and perfect dying of Jesus – and his resurrection Life bursting out of the tomb and effectively beginning the re-writing of all creation’s (and our) DNA with the kingdom of God.
How ironic that evangelicals tend to memorize Paul (at least I definitely did) and minimize the Gospels, ultimately understanding Jesus through reading Paul’s explanation (inspired though it be), and leaving the Jesus Story of the Gospels in the background. In my old fellowship, we even emphasized that Jesus lived under a different covenant and thus half of the New Testament (that scandalous part in the Gospels) doesn’t even directly apply to us today. Bowing to one of the great gods of our age here in the West – Reason – we much prefer the reasoned explanations of Paul over the scandalous acts of a most unreasonable Savior (by the standards of accepted Reason and Religion). I believe that would have been news to the four Evangelists and their audiences in the streets, in the synagogues, in the marketplaces, and in all those upper rooms, because this Story told in all of those little story bytes that scholars call pericopes were aimed directly at them. And they are still pointing right at us – thankfully. This is the Jesus that comes to us still. And Paul, through all of his inspired commentary, still ultimately points to that Story. “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
And it’s that Story that still wins the ears and hearts of people desperate for the Light among all ages and cultures and peoples and languages and religions — Light ultimately visible in the face of Jesus in the Gospel of the four gospels.