Chapter 1: The Critical Study of the New Testament

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 1: The Critical Study of the New Testament

Christians agree in regarding the books of the New Testament as possessing a special authority. They differ as to the nature of this authority and in their interpretation of the contents of the books. The purpose of the critical study of the New Testament, if it is also religious, is to use all the available methods of applying human knowledge to discover how the authority of the New Testament is to be understood, and to set the revelation which it contains as far as possible in its original historical context. The central fact that God has revealed himself to men through Jesus Christ is in the last resort based for Christians on faith and experience and not on knowledge alone. It can be accepted or rejected, but, for those who accept it, it becomes as the act of God no longer a matter for human argument, but the supreme event of history. The final aim of Christian study of the New Testament is the better understanding of the revelation which it contains, and here the resources of human knowledge can be fitly employed, because the books of the New Testament were written and copied by men who were fallible like ourselves and under the influence of their human environment.

This fallibility becomes evident as soon as we undertake the necessary preliminary examination of the text of the New Testament and of the way in which the books of the New Testament were gathered into one authoritative collection. There are a great many places where the wording of our oldest Greek manuscripts differs, and a considerable number where it is impossible to decide with certainty exactly what the original authors wrote. A study of the history of the early Church reveals disagreements as to the books which should be reckoned as of special authority, and it took centuries of dispute before the final selection received general agreement. The detailed study of the books themselves provides further evidence that this fallibility extended to the authors themselves and to the sources which they used. ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels’(2 Cor. 4:7).

When once we have come to see that the early disciples did not have perfect memories and that their understanding of Jesus was influenced at many points by the mental and religious background of their time, the purpose of the modern critical and scientific approach to the contents of the New Testament becomes clear. It is to establish as far as possible the historical truth as to what Jesus said and did, how the Church grew and developed, and the historical circumstances in which Christians came to write the books of the New Testament. We cannot, of course, achieve more than a very limited reconstruction of the New Testament events and teaching, and on many important points there will continue to be great disagreement. Yet for all the uncertainties that follow in its train, the critical study of the New Testament provides us with a picture of Christian origins that gives a new focus to certain aspects of Jesus’teaching and the development of the Church and a truer understanding of the mode of God’s revelation than that which derives from a complete and uncritical acceptance of the New Testament as uniformly and verbally inspired.

The Progress of Criticism

It was only by slow degrees over a period of centuries that the Church settled which books were to be included in the New Testament and given a place side by side with the Old Testament. The ancient Church contained some acute and learned scholars who raised many of the critical questions that are discussed to-day. Thus Irenaeus at the close of the second century noted the different numbers given to the Beast in his texts of Rev. 23:8, and preferred the reading ‘666’, as modern scholars do, on the ground that it was contained in the oldest copies known to him. In the third century Origen expressed doubts as to the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the grounds of the epistle’s style and thought, and Dionysius of Alexandria on similar grounds distinguished between the author of the fourth gospel and the author of Revelation. Such instances of critical acumen could be multiplied, but for the most part members of the Church lacked a scholarly knowledge of Greek and by the end of the fourth century the text of the chosen books was received unquestioningly as of apostolic authority; a series of revisions produced an ‘official’Greek text which was to remain of great influence from the fifth to the nineteenth century, but which we now see in the light of further knowledge to have been based on wrong principles.

The attribution to this New Testament text -- as to that of the Old Testament -- of verbal inerrancy was associated with methods of exegesis which often disregarded the literal meaning of a passage for an allegorical interpretation which gave it a meaning of more present significance. Such methods had been employed by the New Testament writers themselves in their interpretation of Old Testament passages (e.g. I Cor.10 1-2, Heb. 7: 1-17) and for the same reason, the desire to gain the authority of infallible scripture for purposes of controversy or instruction; they could only be justified when the original meaning of the passage had been taken into account, and even in the New Testament this had often not been done. In the later Church this type of exegesis sometimes led to fantastic misinterpretations, e.g. the view held by both Origen and Jerome that Peter and Paul had only pretended to quarrel at Antioch (Gal. 2:11 ff.). Even when the New Testament was literally interpreted, the conception of the equal authority of all passages in it led to distorted ideas of what was the teaching of Christ: the literal interpretation of the Revelation, for example, with its material and temporal picture of Christ’s reign (Rev. 20) has sometimes obscured the spiritual nature of Jesus’teaching on the kingdom.

The effect of such a mechanical doctrine of inspiration and of such inadequate methods of interpretation was to rob the New Testament of much of its true force and to make it the handmaid of ecclesiastical tradition for more than a thousand years. The Reformation saw the reemergence of some true principles of criticism, but they were only slowly to influence the now widespread reading of the New Testament. Thus Erasmus’publication in 1516 of a Greek text based on the comparison of manuscripts marked the beginning of a new era in the determination of the correct text, but progress in the examination and classification of manuscripts was slow, and three centuries were to pass before the textual criticism of the New Testament was firmly based on scientific principles. Luther himself distinguished between the value of different parts of the New Testament (p. 18), and Calvin declared it as ‘the first business of an interpreter, to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say’, but neither reformer fully lived up to his own precepts, and it was only gradually that scholars began to adopt a truly historical approach to the documents of the New Testament.

There is no one moment at which ‘modern’methods of criticism can be said to have come into existence, but the first half of the nineteenth century saw their adoption on a wide scale in the universities of Germany. The rationalism of the eighteenth century had led to the widespread abandonment of belief in the infallibility of the Bible and to the rejection e.g. of the miraculous elements of the Old Testament narratives. The application of scientific methods of source-criticism and textual criticism to the writings of Greek and Latin authors had also begun. When men trained in such scientific methods and dominated by philosophical preconceptions which left no room for the miraculous in human life turned to the study of the New Testament, they started a revolution in New Testament criticism. The philosophical bases of thought changed, and are still changing, and the Lives of Jesus and Histories of the Early Church which were written under their influence have each yielded place in turn to a new interpretation, but in the process of controversy the documents of the New Testament have been subjected to such a continuous and minute scrutiny that their scientific study is now established on firm and stable foundations. Perhaps the most important pioneer in the early nineteenth century was the great scholar Lachmann who applied to the New Testament methods which he had learnt from his study of the Classics. It was he who in 1830 laid the foundations of modern textual criticism of the New Testament by rejecting the authority of the traditional ‘textus receptus’(p. 21) in favour of the witness of the oldest Greek and Latin manuscripts, and his declaration in 1835 that the gospels of Matthew and Luke presuppose the Marcan order of the gospel-narrative pointed the way to what is now the accepted basis of any comparative study of the gospels.

The priority of Mark, however, was not generally acknowledged for many years, and only when every possible explanation of the similarities between the gospels, e.g. that Matthew used Luke, that Luke used Matthew, that a common oral tradition alone accounts for the similarities, had been put forward and examined in great detail, did it become finally clear that Mark was the earliest of our gospels. In the process of controversy that led to this conclusion it became widely recognised that a second document, largely composed of sayings of Jesus, was also used by Matthew and Luke, although controversies still continue as to the nature and extent of this source, which is normally designated as Q (from the German Quelle = source).

When once Mark had been acknowledged as the ‘foundation’gospel, the implications of such a belief were seen to be important. The Matthaean authorship of the first gospel was no longer defended by the majority of critics, and both the apostolic authorship and the historical value of the fourth gospel were matters of dispute. On the other hand there was widespread agreement at the end of the century that Mark provided a generally trustworthy account of the ministry of Jesus, although in the prevailing liberal temper of the time critics tended to question the historicity of the miracles recorded in the gospel and also to disregard the apocalyptic nature of e.g. Mk. 13. The authority of Mark was claimed in support of the view that Jesus was first and foremost a great human ethical teacher, whose teaching had been altered by the early Church, and especially by Paul, into a system of theological and sacramental belief.

The problem of reconciling a merely human view of Jesus with the emergence of the Catholic Church was, of course, much older, and the theories of the Tübingen school of critics, which had first been put forward in the eighteen-thirties by F. C. Baur, exercised a wide influence on men’s conceptions of the early history of the Church for most of the nineteenth century and spread a distorted view of the circumstances in which Acts and the epistles were written. Under the influence of the philosopher Hegel’s theory that history proceeds by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, Baur and his followers proclaimed that the early Church was rent asunder by conflict between Jewish (Petrine) and Gentile (Pauline) factions, and that Acts represented an attempt of later Catholicism to veil these differences. To support these views Baur denied the Lucan authorship of Acts, whose historical value he impugned, and left to Paul the authorship only of Romans, I and II Corinthians, and Galatians; the other ‘Pauline’epistles were products of the Christian struggle against Gnosticism. It was fifty years before the traditional authorship of Acts and of most of Paul’s epistles were again re-established in the favour of the leading German scholars.

The nineteenth century was above all a period in which new knowledge was gained, systematised, and made available for effective use. In the textual field thousands of manuscripts were examined, collated, and classified, and it was the new availability of adequate material that made possible the establishment of the New Testament text on scientific principles (p. 22). Archaeological finds threw new light on the accuracy of many of the details in Acts, e.g. the Asiarchs of 29 31 and the ‘chief man’ of Malta xxviii 7, and papyri dug up in Egypt helped to elucidate the language of the New Testament. The knowledge of the New Testament background was immensely increased both by archaeological discoveries and by the scientific assessment of new sources of evidence. The effect of the accumulation of this knowledge was to make possible a much fuller understanding of the New Testament writers as men of their own time; there is hardly a verse in the New Testament where the application of this knowledge does not bring out some new aspect of the original meaning.

The early years of the twentieth century saw the rise of two new schools of thought which have each made a permanent contribution to the understanding of Jesus and the early Church, although not in the form in which it was originally made.

The ‘eschatological’interpretation of Jesus was a protest against the liberal misinterpretation of him as primarily an ethical teacher. In the last years of the century J. Weiss had shown that such a picture of Jesus was incompatible with the presentation of him in Mark as proclaiming the imminence of the Day of Judgment and the setting up of the Kingdom of God. Weiss, and after him A. Schweitzer in a book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which made a great impression on English scholars, interpreted Jesus as primarily a prophet of the approaching world-catastrophe who stood in the succession of Jewish apocalyptists. Such a theory, however, has proved too one-sided for acceptance as a satisfactory explanation of Jesus’life, although it has brought out the undoubted apocalyptic element in the gospels and has forced all subsequent critics to offer an explanation of it.

Of even greater influence has been the ‘sceptical ‘approach to the gospels of a succession of German critics. The ‘Christ-myth’ theory that Jesus never existed (Cf. A. Drews, The Christ-Myth; J. M. Robertson, Pagan Christs.) was an aberration of thought that could never be taken seriously, but the view that we can know very little about him because the gospels are the creation of the Christian community has received unexpected support in the last fifty years. The starting-point of the movement was the publication by Wrede in 19O1 of a book (Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (=The Messianic Secret in the Gospels). Significantly enough the book has not appeared in an English translation.) in which he challenged the genuineness of the Marcan outline of Jesus’ministry. The book made little stir at the time, but was to have great influence, especially upon the advocates of ‘Form Criticism’, a new method of gospel criticism that arose in the years succeeding the first World War.

The Form critics treated the gospels as ‘Folk literature’compiled out of the beliefs of a community, and broke down the gospel material into separate incidents and pieces of teaching which had had a separate existence before being collected together and ultimately formed into a gospel. They drew on parallel folk traditions to show that such isolated stories obey certain laws of development, and that they often lose their original point in the telling. The result of the application of such principles of criticism to Mark by sceptical scholars was to change ‘the memoirs of Peter’into an anonymous compilation of material, the historical value of which could not be determined with any certainty. The methods of form criticism have a certain value, and the employment of them opens up new possibilities of understanding how the gospels were composed, but the majority of critics today would separate the employment of such methods from the adoption of the sceptical standpoint which used them to such a negative effect.

For all those who hold that the early Christians misunderstood Jesus there arises the necessity of accounting for the misunderstanding and for the development of the earliest community into the Church as we know it in the second century. The breakdown of the Tübingen theory was followed by the development of other theories which attempted to solve the same problem without disregarding so much of the evidence of Acts and the epistles. Attempts were made to show that Paul was responsible for the transformation of a simple Jewish cult in which Jesus was thought of as Messiah into a Hellenistic mystery-religion, and some scholars tried to push the Hellenisation of Christianity even farther back and to associate it with the introduction of title ‘Lord’ (Greek, kyrios) for Jesus in early Syrian-Christian circles. Against such theories the eschatological school maintained the essentially Jewish nature of Paul’s teaching and held that his conceptions, e.g. of baptism and the eucharist, were based on eschatological expectation and not on any ‘magical’regard for them; the Hellenisation of Christianity was due not to Paul but to his Gentile converts.

This sketch of the development of ‘tendencies’ in modern New Testament criticism has been confined for the most part to work done by German scholars. This is not accidental, for the Germans have been the outstanding pioneers, not only in the production of new theories about the New Testament, but in the accumulation of knowledge. Yet it would be wrong to ascribe too much importance to the emergence of ‘new schools of thought’in the progress of New Testament studies. Such developments have played a useful and valuable part in increasing our understanding of the New Testament, but even more valuable has been the patient sifting of each new theory as it has appeared, the elimination of what is unsound, and the retention for permanent profit of what has proved to be of worth when tested by the New Testament documents themselves.

It is in this field that scholars in England, America and elsewhere, as well as in Germany, have made their most important contributions. The progress of criticism in England, for example, has not been by violent swings of opinion but by gradual steps, in which the conception of a verbally inerrant New Testament has yielded slowly but surely to that of a collection of books, imperfect in all kinds of ways, but containing very much that is historically trustworthy and offering still a sure witness to the truth of the revelation which it contains.

The present position of New Testament criticism cannot be easily defined, although the later chapters of this book attempt to summarise some of the more generally accepted views, and to indicate the main issues of present controversy. There are many important points on which critical opinion is likely to continue divided, but there are good grounds for thinking that we can still get from the New Testament a knowledge of Jesus and of his Church different in some respects from that of earlier days but with the same power to inspire men to follow him in their lives.

Books For Reading:

W. F. Howard. The Romance of New Testament Scholarship (Epworth Press).

M. Jones. The New Testament in the Twentieth Century (Macmillan).

A. Schweltzer. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Black).

A. Schweitzer. Paul and His Interpreters (Black).

M. J. Lagrange. The Meaning of Christianity according to Luther and his Followers (Longmans).

S. L. Caiger. Archaeology and the New Testament (Cassell).

R. M. Grant. The Bible in the Church (Macmillan).