Chapter 5: Historical Criticism
Textual Criticism is concerned with the comparison of various witnesses to the early text of a document and has as its goal the establishment of its earliest form. Literary criticism is concerned with the comparison of various literary forms and materials and has as its goal the literary analysis of a document in order to ascertain the way or ways in which its author expressed his thought. Historical criticism, to which we now turn, is concerned with the time/place setting of a document, its sources, events discussed in or implied by the document. Historical criticism builds on textual and literary criticism, and its end product is the writing of history, a narrative which reports events in a sequence roughly chronological. Chronological sequence is the skeleton of history. Without it there can be no historical narrative, and no interpretation of casual relationships; for while what is prior is not necessarily the, or a, cause of what is posterior, that which is posterior can never be the, or a, cause of what is prior. For this reason those who criticize the search for ‘what actually happened’ as the study of ‘mere events’ and the results as ‘nothing but chronicle’ are mistaken. Without chronicle history cannot be written. Even the analysis of the past in relation to social, political, economic, philosophical or theological theory has to be based on a chronological sequence.
Moreover, while it may be held that the record of events provides us with a skeleton and perhaps even a body, but not with a soul or spirit, it must be remembered that a soul or spirit needs the clothing of body if it is to act historically. History is more than the history of ideas. While the sciences of tactics, strategy and logistics are obviously important in interpreting military or naval history, the history of warfare is not just the history of theory. It must be concerned with wars, campaigns and battles in which real men actually made decisions and acted upon them. Similarly, economic and social factors are undoubtedly significant; but historical events cannot be understood solely in relation to them. The Roman empire was the creation not of factors alone but of Julius Caesar and Augustus. Christianity arose not simply because of Jewish apocalypticism and Hellenistic piety but because of the work of Jesus Christ and his apostles.
Before discussing the kinds of materials which the historical critic uses, we should say something about what he can expect to learn from them. He can expect to find out a great deal about significant public events, especially battles, murders and sudden deaths. He can find out about institutions and their organization. What he cannot find out, unless the materials happen to mention it, is any account of what a private person did at a particular time and in a particular place. “To obtain this information he must rely upon accounts written by or about such a private person. No amount of inference, however plausible, can lead him to a fact about this person, for this person’s motives and actions are unique and cannot be reconstructed hypothetically. It is, of course, possible that the person himself or a later writer describing him, has misinterpreted his motives or incorrectly described his actions; but existing accounts, whatever their quality, must be given preference over the historian’s hypothetical reconstructions. (We shall later consider the problem which arises when the accounts disagree with one another.)
It should also be said that all the materials which the historian uses are modern — that is to say, they exist now. If they did not exist now, he obviously could not use them. Some interpreters of history, or of the writing of history, have therefore argued that the historian’s work is strictly contemporary. He uses his materials in order to create a picture which has modern significance and, because he is influenced by his own religious, psychological, social and economic situation — often in ways he does not recognize — he is not, and should not try to be, a discoverer or recoverer of ‘what actually happened’. What happened cannot be recovered. No doubt this argument possesses some validity. Absolute ‘objectivity’ is not an attainable goal. At the same time, a historian who tries to write history rather than propaganda will not be content to impose his own will on the materials with which he deals. He will enter into a conversation with the materials from the past, a conversation in the course of which he will expect to learn something, not simply to engage in a monologue. Such a historian will recognize some of his own limitations as well as the limitations of his method and his materials, and he will try to maintain a scrupulous honesty in the face of data which do not correspond with his preconceptions.
There are various kinds of data with which the historian is concerned. (1) There are archaeological data, some of them non-literary (buildings, artifacts, etc.),others literary (inscriptions, papyri), still others ‘mixed’ (coins, medals, etc.). Those which are literary or semi-literary in nature must be examined critically. Not every official inscription conveys the whole truth about the events to which it is related; an example is provided by the inscriptions which express the joy of subject populations in celebrating the emperor’s birthday. Even a private letter, preserved on papyrus by chance, does not necessarily present a complete account of the events mentioned in it. (2) There are also non-archaeological data, materials which we know because they have been copied and recopied in the course of their transmission. These data usually consist of the literary productions of poets, philosophers, historians, and — for that matter — evangelists. In addition, there are literary or semi-literary documents such as letters; the originals of the Pauline epistles have been lost, but the epistles are known to us from copies of copies.
In dealing with these data there are several distinctions which can be made, and the historian must deal critically not only with the materials but also with the distinctions.
Primary and Secondary
All data have relevance in relation to some situation or other. (1) All data are contemporaneous with the time in which they were written. Thus a letter written in the year 50 is obviously significant for our synthesis of events in that year; in addition, a historical narrative, describing events in the year 10 but written in the year 50, is also significant for 50 because it reflects the interests of that year. For this reason the gospels are important witnesses to the life of the church in the time in which they were written, as well as to the life of Jesus which the evangelists endeavour to describe. The importance of this contemporaneousness should not, however, be exaggerated, since — as we have already argued — historical writers do not simply reflect the concerns of their contemporaries (including themselves), but enter into a dialogue with the past.
(2) Moreover, all data, to a greater or a lesser degree, provide evidence for the time before they were written, since their creators did not create ex nihilo. Their language is not their own; many of their ideas are not their own but come from previous generations. In historical writing the historian’s testimony is more significant in relation to an earlier time than in relation to his own. Thus, though it is sometimes said that the gospels provide us with evidence from the time when they were written rather than with sources dealing with an earlier period, such a statement can easily mislead the unwary. The evangelists did, indeed, testify to the meaning of Jesus in relation to their own times; but it was Jesus with whose meaning they were concerned. They and their informants were dealing with materials which had been remembered, not invented. To be sure, the locus of remembering is always in the present, but the locus of what is remembered is in the past. The early Church included individuals who not only proclaimed the gospel but also remembered who the Jesus was whose life, death and resurrection were being proclaimed. The apostle Paul was quite capable of differentiating a ‘commandment of the Lord’ from his own interpretation of it (I Cor. 7.10, 12). The fact that man has a memory means that he is not simply contemporaneous or ‘modern’.
At the same time, memory plays tricks. In analysing reports based on memory, therefore, some measure of precedence must be given to accounts written soon after the events and based on the reports of eye-witnesses. (1) The best account is written fairly soon after the event, since at that time the writer has less opportunity to see how he ought to modify the record with a view to preserving his own reputation or that of his friends. Since he cannot usually foresee later consequences he is likely to present an unvarnished account. The farther he gets from the event the more likely he is to fail, voluntarily or involuntarily, to recall and record it correctly. (2).The best account is written by, or based on the reminiscences of, an eye-witness. Such a witness has heard with his own ears and seen with his own eyes; he himself participated in the experience. He is not likely, at least at first, to combine rationalization of the event with his remembrance of it. Yet the measure of precedence the historian gives to early accounts, even by or from eye-witnesses, cannot eliminate other considerations. The eye-witness may have been so much influenced by his expectations of what ought to have taken place that he identified what should have happened with what did happen. He may not have been an accurate observer or an accurate reporter. His memory may have been more reliable than his first-hand testimony was. In other words, there are few, if any, absolutes in the writing of history.
On the other hand, we must remember that as critical analysts we may doubt the accuracy of the witness’s record but we cannot substitute our own conjectures for what he has reported. If there are two or more conflicting accounts, we can indicate which of them is to be regarded as the more trustworthy and try to explain how the other or others arose. If there is only one, we cannot invent an alternative account, since historical events are not precisely predictable. All we can do when we have a single, seemingly unreliable narrative, is to indicate why we reject it and admit our ignorance as to what actually happened — if we think anything did happen.
Sometimes a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ materials is used in order to make choices between differing accounts of the same, or similar, events. For example, the accounts of Paul’s career to be found in his own letter to the Galatians and in the later book of Acts are not altogether in concord. Should we then claim that his letter is a ‘primary’ source of information, Acts a ‘secondary’ one? It is most unlikely that history can be analysed so neatly. More probably, Paul writes from one standpoint, the author of Acts from another; neither account deserves absolute confidence to the exclusion of the other. The task of the historian is to compare similarities and differences and to try to construct an inclusive account which will do justice to both points of view. Furthermore, though Paul was obviously an eye-witness and Luke (as far as early events are concerned) was probably not one, it must be recalled that documents later in time (Acts) can be based on materials as early as, or earlier than, documents produced by eye-witnesses. These points mean that no absolute distinction can be drawn between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’, at least without careful critical analysis.
Fact and Interpretation
Another common distinction is that made between ‘fact’ and ‘interpretation’. Essentially a fact is something which is, or could be, recognizable by all the possible witnesses to an occurrence. Thus it is a fact that Jesus was crucified. An interpretation, on the other hand, is essentially that of an individual or a group; it varies from individual to individual or from group to group. Caiaphas, Judas, Pontius Pilate and the apostles interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus in differing ways. Therefore, it is sometimes held, the historians will deal with the fact after separating the various interpretations from it.
To make such a separation is very difficult, for facts are almost always remembered, and accounts of them are transmitted, because they seemed meaningful both at the time the events occurred and in the period immediately afterwards. In addition, the analyst is trying to deal with the subjective interpretation(s) provided by an ancient author — as well as with the interpretation(s) provided by that author’s source(s) — on the basis of his own judgement. Suppose that the analyst can show that the author had a particular axe to grind. It will be hard to show that this axe was different from the axes of earlier witnesses, or that it (or they) necessarily distorted the impression(s) which the original event made on the minds of eye-witnesses at the time. The summaries which Luke gives in the first half of Acts, for example, are his own, but they may accurately reflect the early life of the Jerusalem church.
Only when two or more sources of information are available can the analyst definitely show that a subjective judgement has provided a mistaken interpretation — or when, for example, a summary contradicts or distorts the materials being summarized. Before claiming that contradiction or distortion exists, however, the analyst must be sure that the summary is not based upon materials which the author did not reproduce. If it is based upon such materials, or if it may have been based on them, it is obviously not the product of the author’s imagination alone.
If it can be shown that one document, actually in existence, is a source of another existing document (as when Mark is employed by Luke), the analyst can proceed to show how the later writer has modified the materials he employs. Two warnings, however, need to be given at this point. (1) Analysis of Luke’s revision of Mark does not justify any conjectures about Mark’s possible revision of his other sources. We do not know what those sources were, apart from the preaching and teaching of the apostle Peter (and perhaps others), and we do not know precisely what Mark did with them. (2) The analysis cannot proceed in reverse. It cannot be claimed that the more highly ‘developed’ of two documents is necessarily the later of the two, for it must first be proved (a) that one of the two is later than the other, and (b) that the one presumably later makes use of the earlier one. This is to say that apparent literary relationships or cases of ‘development’ do not provide solid ground for chronology.
The Idea of Development
Sometimes just such an analysis is used in order to get back to the original form of a tradition or, in other words, to get close to the events or facts by tracing lines of interpretation from the known back into the unknown. Put rather crudely, this use of the theory of development can be expressed geometrically. We assume that we know points D and E on a particular line of tradition; we can assess the distance between D and E and also the direction DE. Then in theory, we can proceed to reconstruct the line (ABC)DE, and even the distances A, BC, and CD. Unfortunately the course of human events, like that of true love, does not run so smoothly. The idea of development seems to have come from biology, where it is used in reference to the process of evolution from a previous and lower (e.g., embryonic) stage to a later, more complex or more perfect one; this development can involve differentiation into individual organisms and their subsequent histories.(For this definition see The American College Dictionary [New York, 1947], 331.)
Development involves continuity among the various stages of the organism which develops. It is therefore different from change, in which the phenomenon being considered is distinctly different from what it was. There is also alteration, in which there is a partial change and the identity of the phenomenon is still preserved. It is the notion of development which best combines the elements of sameness and difference — together with an emphasis on the growth of something living.
The basic question, however, is that of the extent to which early Christianity, for example, actually did develop, and the use of a semi-biological term may well confuse the issue by implying that the answer is already known. It may also tend to suggest that there were no radical alterations, or even changes, in the history of the early Church, or that by ‘development’ is meant a process which from small beginnings (Jesus) brought great things (the Church). Such a notion obviously does not do justice to such revolutionary events as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus or the conversion of Paul. Whether or not there was development in the early Church, the idea of development cannot be used as a guide for the reconstruction of its history. It may serve as a hypothesis; it is not an analytical instrument.
Change and Decay
What we have said about development should also be applied to theories about an original, authentic, pure Christianity which was later distorted by various secondary factors. Such theories have a long history within, and on the edge of; the Christian Church. Marcion, for example, held that the pure gospel of Jesus was distorted by his disciples who modified it severely when they presented it to Jews; and similar notions are often latent in the work of modern scholars. Since fashions change, the contrasts developed by one generation often differ from those emphasized by the previous one; but it can be shown that underlying a good deal of study supposedly analytical in nature there is a very simple set of antitheses which are supposed to be self-evident. In previous times it was customary to contrast Jesus with Paul, or the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith, or the synoptic gospels with the Fourth Gospel. Alternatively, faith or grace could be contrasted with works, moralism, sacraments, doctrines, and creeds, and the ‘New Testament teaching’ could be found in Paul but not in James, Matthew, or the synoptic gospels in general. For a time there were those who believed that the essential ‘kerygma’ could be emphasized at the expense of the less significant ‘didache’, though the fairly obvious fact that in early Christianity ‘gospel’ included both preaching and teaching lessens the force of this contrast. More recently it has been fashionable to compare the authentic Hebrew elements in the New Testament with the less satisfactory elements which can be called ‘late Jewish’ or ‘Greek’.
The chief difficulty with these antitheses is that they are not historical. They arise out of the needs of modern writers to pick and choose among the various elements in the New Testament and Christian synthesis, and when they are used as instruments of analysis they become substitutes for thought. They are created by laying emphasis on certain distinctive, or seemingly distinctive, features in the various documents and by neglecting equally important resemblances. A warning can be given if we look at a problem in Old Testament studies. A generation ago it was customary to contrast prophetic with priestly elements. Now the pendulum has swung again, and it is recognized that much prophecy arose out of the priesthood and that priests preserved the writings of prophets. Similarly, the study of Judaism has led to the recognition that there were Greek elements in it, and that a sharp separation of Jewish from Greek ideas is not justifiable. The world in which Christianity arose was not characterized by the contrasts which some scholars have imagined to exist.
Change But No Decay
A variation on the theme of change is provided by those scholars who insist that by means of historical analysis it can be shown that Christianity was originally a movement of apocalyptic expectation within late Judaism; the prophet Jesus preached that the reign of God was at hand — but he was wrong. Several corollaries can then be deduced from this axiom. Since the movement at first existed within Judaism and only later spread to the Hellenistic world, features which seem Jewish are authentic while those which seem Hellenistic are not (see above). Since it looked only towards the future, features which are concerned with past or present represent revisions of the original message. Since the followers of Jesus regarded him as essentially human, statements about his divine nature or function have been added to the authentic gospel, often by use of ideas derived from ‘mystery religions. Since God’s reign was immediately at hand, Jesus could not have established a church or appointed ministers for a long period of time; there were no sacraments in Judaism, therefore references to the Church or its life are not part of the original teaching of Jesus. He preached a purely Jewish gospel. After his death this gospel was changed in the Hellenistic world.
The essential difficulty with this axiom (and these corollaries) is that it rests upon a principle of historical analysis which is not tenable.(On this principle in gospel criticism see Ch. 19.) The gospel materials represent Jesus as teaching that the reign of God is not only future but also somehow present. They represent his followers as considering him both human and more than human, whether as ‘Son of God’ or as ‘Son of Man’. They represent him as appointing apostles (principally, it must be admitted, for an immediate mission) and as binding them to himself and his purpose at his last supper, in which he related his body to the broken bread and his covenant to the outpoured wine. The principle employed in dealing with these materials is that when there is discordant testimony, the evidence to be accepted is that which conflicts with the main lines of later Christian witness. (The principle is therefore analogous with the preference of early textual critics for the ‘more difficult reading’, whether or not it made sense.) Such a principle assumes that as the genuine, ‘difficult’ testimony was being modified it passed through the hands of halfhearted forgers who while inserting their own corrections of the tradition somehow felt compelled to retain a few authentic items, presumably for the benefit of modern analysts. The transmitters of tradition were thus ‘deceivers, yet true’ (II Cor. 6:8). But this assumption is not provable. A more satisfactory assumption, it would appear, is that the authentic gospel of Jesus is to be recovered by considering the various, conflicting items of evidence and by attempting to ascertain what proclamation, perhaps ambiguously expressed, could have been interpreted in divergent ways. (Again, this is like a principle of criticism; we look for the reading which could have resulted in the divergent readings now found in the manuscripts.) The original teaching of Jesus is therefore not to be found by rejecting much of the evidence we possess but by analysing all the evidence and looking for its source.
Another way of viewing the New Testament is that maintained by the ‘demythologizers’, but since this method is largely theological rather than historical (though it is supposed to have a basis in historical analysis) we shall consider it in our chapter on theological interpretation.
It is obvious that in speaking of development and change we have come close to the question of the environment or environments of the New Testament writers. The study of this area has occupied a great deal of attention in modern times, before as well as after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The purpose of this study has been described as ‘setting the church in the village’ or, in other words, relating early Christianity to the world in (and in opposition to) which it arose.
The purpose of environmental study is not so obvious. In so far as the early Christian gospel was addressed to Jews and/or gentiles of the first century, it can certainly be understood in a more specific way if we know something about the first-century world; on the other hand, it may be that we shall be tempted to make what was intended generally more specific than it actually was when we relate it too closely to the first century. We may even develop a theory that whatever Jesus said was spoken with a specific reference and that any generalizations are the products of the early Church; such a theory is, of course, unwarranted by the evidence.
We may also try to determine how much of the village has entered the Church and its tradition and, in short, to indicate what elements in early Christianity are shared with (hence, derived from?) its environment and what elements are unique. But unless we start with the presupposition that the unique is the true it is hard to maintain that this kind of analysis can produce meaningful results. Does the gospel of Jesus, for example, consist essentially of what he did not share with his contemporaries? Are ideas which he did share with his contemporaries necessarily wrong? To put the matter a little more precisely, can we speak of an ‘ancient world view’ and thus dismiss it? To raise these questions is to suggest that environmental study conducted solely for comparative purposes leads nowhere.
On the other hand, useful negative conclusions can be reached from the study of the environment. It is often said that ancient people accepted a ‘three-storey universe’; they were wrong and we are right; therefore whatever they say about the universe is to be rejected. Examination of the evidence can indicate that (1) not all of them accepted such a cosmology, and (2) such a cosmology as such has little to do with the teaching of the New Testament. Again, it is held that ancient people accepted miracles while modern ones rightly reject them. Such a generalization is false. In antiquity, as in modern times, some believed in miracles while others did not. Such conclusions, negative in the face of contemporary scholarly clichés, can be reached not by reading modern summaries but by looking at the heterogeneous testimonies given by first-century men. Instead of making statements about ‘the ancients’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Greeks’ we must resolutely face the varieties to be found among individuals, even though the individuals were certainly conditioned (to some extent) by the groups in which they found themselves.
The History of Religions
Towards the beginning of this century there was great enthusiasm for the comparative study of religions; it was often conducted by scholars who believed that when they had discovered parallels to early Christian expressions, ideas, institutions or rites in other religions they had shown that the Christian phenomena were derived from these other religions and also that their meaning within Christianity was essentially the same as it was within the other religion or religions. In addition, some of them believed that theories based on phenomena in other religions could be applied without alteration to the phenomena of early Christianity. Since some Greek myths were ‘aetiological’ (composed in order to explain the origins of rites), the story of the Last Supper could be treated as an aetiological myth, intended to explain the origin of the Christian Eucharist — which actually came from the Hellenistic mystery religions. Similarly Paul’s idea of dying and rising with Christ, and perhaps the belief in Christ’s resurrection itself, came from a prior notion about dying and rising saviour-gods in the Graeco-Roman world. The notion that baptism meant rebirth was viewed as pagan in origin, largely because of the evidence provided by some inscriptions of the fourth century of the Christian era.
The absurdities to which this kind of study led resulted in its being generally discredited, although more recently it seems to be flourishing again in different form. The more modern view is that everything, or almost everything, in early Christianity can be explained as derived either (1) from the kind of Jewish apocalypticism represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls or (2) from the kind of Gnostic thought reflected in the writings criticized by the early Church Fathers or found at Nag-Hammadi in Egypt. Undoubtedly there are affinities between early Christianity and the Qumran community, and less significant ones between early Christianity and Gnosticism. But in each case the differences require as much attention as the resemblances do, and chronological priority, even when it can be established, does not prove the existence of causal connection. Post hoc is not the same as propter hoc.
Early Christianity certainly deserves to be studied by the historian of religions, and by other students who use his methods. But the methods need to be applied with extreme caution. Is the student studying the history of religion in general or the history of specific religions? More fruitful results will probably be obtained by respecting the individuality of religions as of men — in other words, by emphasizing the word ‘history’.
A Final Problem
An important aspect of modern New Testament study is the very fact of its modernity or, rather, its supposed modernity. It is obvious that some progress has been made in the course of the last century or so; few scholars today would suppose that New Testament history is significantly illuminated by the use of the terms ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’. But as we have repeatedly pointed out, other clichés are often employed, no better for their being more recent. It is an open question whether or not genuine progress exists in this area of study. Certainly new evidence has become available, and to the extent that it has been utilized adequately it can be said that some advance has taken place.
It should be said, however, that in each generation an adequate or partially adequate understanding of the New Testament can be achieved only by the abandonment of the ‘assured results’ of the previous generation and by the fresh creation of openness to the text and to what it may say. The historical method must be employed in dealing with historical critics.
Why, then, should the study be continued if it has not led, and is not likely to lead, to any final results? The answer to this question lies not in any notion of inevitable progress but in the study itself. By means of critical-historical study, properly conducted, each generation comes to know the New Testament — not necessarily more thoroughly than its predecessors knew it, but more thoroughly than at the time it began its own work. Once more, however, we must avoid speaking of ‘generations’ or groups when we ought to keep the individual in mind. The progress of the individual student can be real though that of his generation may be dubious. Only he can resolutely refine his own method and try to keep himself free from the erroneous generalizations and bad logic which stand in the way of historical understanding.( For an excellent statement about historical method see Samuel Eliot Morison, By land and by Sea (New York, 1953), 346-59; reprinted from the American Historical Review 56 , 26-75.)
Above all, the historical analyst must not be ashamed of confessing ignorance — not the easy ignorance due to failure to investigate what can be known, but the hard ignorance due to the real lack of historical records. No amount of speculation supposedly historical can fill in the gaps which exist in our records. No amount of theory can be a substitute for evidence. Moreover, no final explanation can be given, in many instances or perhaps in all, for historical events of which we have some records. The ‘explanations’ we provide of the life of Paul or the life of Jesus still leave us with mysteries which will never be explained.
The Necessity of Historical Understanding
Thus far we have concentrated our attention upon negative factors practically to the exclusion of positive ones. We have almost made it appear that historical understanding of the New Testament is an impossibility. In large measure this result has come about because of our phenomenological or, one might say, nominalist approach to the question. It could easily be charged that we have concentrated upon the trees and have lost sight of the forest. As we have been urging that historical understanding goes beyond literary and textual criticism in the direction of subjectivity, we have neglected the objectivity which is given our study by the existence of what we may call the phenomenon behind the phenomena. This phenomenon, more important for historical study than the isolated data which reflect it, is the existence of the early Church. Without awareness of the existence of the Church the isolated data remain isolated. It is the Church in its empirical, historical existence which holds them together and allows us to make sense of them. Without the Church the data might mean almost anything. Indeed, in early Gnostic communities the data did mean almost anything, since the Gnostics were not adherents of the visible Church and were therefore free to interpret New Testament texts in a wholeheartedly subjective way. Only by postulating or, rather, admitting the existence of the Church can we hold the data together and see that they reflect the Church’s life and thought.
Of course the existence of the Church can be treated as a merely static hypothesis or fact, and the correlation of the various data can be made on grounds appropriate to such a static situation. Such an analysis, like the atomistic analysis which we have so far advocated, proceeds on non-historical lines to discover eternal truths or absolutes which may do justice to some aspects of the Church’s gospel but cannot adequately be related to the variety of outlook present in the New Testament and other early Christian literature.
Because of this inadequacy it would appear that another approach is likely to be more fruitful. This different kind of approach must be one in which the unity and continuity of the Church’s life is recognized but, at the same time, the diversity characteristic of any historical process (that is to say, of real events) can be accepted. To say this means that the New Testament must be viewed not only as the Church’s book but specifically as the early Church’s book. It is the book which shows how the good news was brought from Galilee to Jerusalem and to the ends of the Graeco-Roman world. To illustrate the change, or development, which accompanied this movement we may cite two texts:
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.
He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption which is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
The first is from the words of Jesus according to Mark; the second is from II Peter. Between the two lies a process, whether long or short, in the course of which the Christian gospel was redirected in order to become more fully comprehensible to those who lived and thought in the Graeco-Roman world.
The business of historical criticism is to deal with the diverse materials in the New Testament (and in other early Christian literature) and to show (1) their unity in relation to the mission of the Church and (2) the relation of their diversity to the various cultural currents within which the mission was carried on. In other words, historical study should set forth the elements of continuity and discontinuity in the Church’s life.
There are, of course, other features of the Church’s life, in addition to the question of Hellenization, which deserve attention. First there is the nature of the proclamation of Jesus as the Church remembered it. Was this gospel of the kingdom related (1) exclusively to the future or (2) exclusively to the present or (3) in part to both future and present? Is there any difference between the emphasis found in Galilean preaching and that found at Jerusalem? Second, there is the critical situation in the church of Jerusalem as it confronted, or was confronted by, the mission to gentiles. How was this problem solved — in so far as it was really solved? Third, how did the preaching of Paul to gentiles differ from his preaching to Jews? To what extent was it the same? What held the two kinds of preaching together? Fourth, how did the misunderstandings of his gospel, as reflected in his various letters, come into existence? To what extent did he agree, to what extent disagree, with his opponents of various kinds? Fifth, as members of the Church recorded the common memories of Jesus what did they continue to hold in common and what did they feel free to modify? What (historically) can explain the rather remarkable differences (1) among the synoptic gospels, (2) among all four gospels, and (3) between the synoptics as a group and the Gospel of John? Sixth, what is the difference, if any, between New Testament writings and those of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists? Seventh, what factors caused the Church to regard some or all of the New Testament books as canonical’ while gradually coming to view the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (and other books) as extra-canonical?
Such questions as these require historical answers and lead us beyond the confines of the New Testament as a collection of books to the historical reality of the life of the early Church to which they bear witness. The New Testament points backward to the Old Testament and the old Israel and forward to other early Christian literature and the later Church; still more directly, it points behind or underneath itself to the Christian community in which and for which it was written. It remains incomprehensible unless the existence of this Church is recognized. It is the Church which both historically and theologically holds the New Testament together.
This is to say that the New Testament is the book of the early Church not only in the sense that the New Testament was written for use by the Church but also in the sense that it reflects the life of the Church. The New Testament is a collection of isolated documents and almost random theological statements for anyone who does not recognize the Church reflected and expressed in it. In other words, the New Testament sets forth the beginning, and contains the classical formulation, of the life of the Christian Church; the New Testament documents are the primary documents of church history and of the history of Christian thought. They are classical in the sense that the Church chose them as adequate representations of its beginnings or, to put it more precisely, of its original and thus permanently significant expressions. At the same time, they do not suggest that the Church can be regarded as a static entity. They come out of a historical process, and the dynamism of this process implies that whenever the later Church is true to its origins it too is dynamic.
The purpose, then, of New Testament study is to take the various documents and the insights expressed in the documents and to reconstruct the life out of which the documents and the insights emerged. We have already said more than enough about the necessity for caution in assigning semi-canonical status to our reconstruction. It can never be more than probable; at the same time, it can be rather highly probable, and we should not ask for more. No historical knowledge is more than probable. Of course it is possible to avoid risks by remaining within the circle of what the documents say and simply paraphrasing them. But such paraphrasing contributes nothing to historical knowledge. Such ‘exegesis’ cannot be related to anything else we know. It stands in splendid isolation, and so does whatever else we may be able to ascertain. Historical knowledge involves the risk of interpretation.