The New Testament and the Examined Life: Thoughts on Teaching

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 1-8, 1995, pp. 108-111. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


The author finds that many of today’s New Testament students are not predominantly the children of lifelong believers; not well-shaped by church traditions; not well-read in the Bible. Many are seeking meaning. Johnson’s challenge, as a teacher, is to introduce students to a tradition they should have learned elsewhere and to enable them to engage in critical thinking about that tradition.

The classical definition of New Testament studies essentially involves the historical-critical method. It is not so much a method, of course, as a theoretical construal of the field. New Testament studies has had as its object the historical reconstruction of early Christianity. It has demanded that the canonical writings be analyzed in strictly historical terms, which has meant, among other things, bracketing claims to divine inspiration in favor of human authorship, bracketing discussion of the miraculous in favor of observable causes, and subjecting all the sources to the most rigorous questioning in terms of dating, authorship, tendency and accuracy.

The result was a version of Christian origins that in many if not most points was at variance with the version accepted by the ordinary believer. If the believer thought, for example, that Christianity began in unity and only later fragmented into heresy, the historically correct version claimed the opposite: Christianity began in diversity and achieved unity only partially and only by great effort. The historical-critical perspective expressed a scholarly mission of correcting historical perceptions and thereby of purifying the Christian faith. Those who adopted this perspective could view themselves as holding a version of Christianity that had survived the toughest of tests.

Teachers making use of this perspective in the university, college or seminary generally assumed that their students would be the children of the pious but unenlightened faithful. They would have been raised in solidly and traditionally Christian homes (just as we professors, ex-monks, ex- seminarians and ex-churchgoers had been), would have read the Bible in worship and heard endless sermons based on it, and studied the Bible in Sunday school so that they had the facts of biblical lore (its geography, chronology, monarchies, prophets, Gospels) at their fingertips. They would have read the Bible in the home and in church as the word of God to be received in faith as divinely inspired and authoritative for all of life.

We teachers could fancy ourselves as playing a Socratic role for these students, inviting them to the examined life which alone is worth living. Just as in political science classes teachers challenged a student's assumption that because his father was a Republican, so he should be, and just as in economics classes professors challenged a student's assumption that capitalism is without question the best of all economic systems, so in religious studies teachers challenged students to examine their received traditions concerning Christianity. And nowhere was this done more frontally and forcefully than in the introductory course in the New Testament.

We did this -- or at least many of us did this -- with an astonishingly "uncritical" acceptance of the received verities concerning our own discipline. The historical-critical method, after all, had its own internal myth. According to this myth, biblical scholarship was a struggle outward from dogma into the freedom of history, and upward to the higher truth finally realized in 19th-century Germany. The myth declared historical -- critical method to be the only true way to read the New Testament, and dismissed all other modes of reading (particularly the despised errors of allegory) as "precritical."

Little did we realize (I hope) that in our classes we were in effect proselytizers for a different creed. We deceived ourselves if we thought that our students "accepted" the two-source hypothesis for the Gospels because they had carefully gone through the synoptics and reached an independent decision that just happened to coincide with ours, or that they "accepted" the pseudonymous authorship of the pastoral letters because they had independently examined all the arguments pro and con. In fact, they converted to our point of view because they accepted us as the new authority figures.

So satisfied were we in our secure possession of a higher truth regarding Christian origins that we did not think to ask some fairly important questions. We failed to ask, for example, what the results of our rapid deconstruction of the myth of Christian origins and its replacement with a more critical version might be. When political science students were challenged about being Republicans, they were not thereby disenfranchised from voting; when economics students were challenged on the merits of capitalism, they were not thereby excluded from purchasing notebooks, But when students were told that everything they had learned about their religion before entering this class was wrong, did we know -- or care -- if their capacity to function religiously in a mature fashion was diminished?

My first strong sense that there was a wide and growing gap between the discipline of New Testament studies and its intended purposes came after I joined the faculty at Yale Divinity School. I quickly discovered that the clientele was not at all what I had imagined. The students at YDS were not predominantly the children of lifelong believers; they were not well shaped by church tradition and well read in the Bible, ready and eager to take on the red meat of critical study. Far from it.

As I looked out over the 180 people taking New Testament interpretation, I saw folk who had never been to church in their lives, and for whom the YDS chapel was their first parish; who certainly did not know the Nicene Creed and probably not the Apostles' Creed. Some still stumbled over the Lord's Prayer. In short, they possessed none of the traditional church and biblical lore they were expected to have. Then what were they doing there? They had, a great many of them, adult experiences of transformation: they had been drugged and now were straight, had been drunk and now were sober, had been through divorce or depression and were seeking meaning. In short, they were filled with the raw stuff of religious experience for which they had no framework. Living in an academicized culture such as ours, they turned in their search not to the church but to the university -- in this case a university divinity school -- to find the meaning of what had happened to them.

How did these students experience the historical-critical method, which talked not about the experience of the resurrection but about the chronology of Acts, and which never engaged the figure of Jesus in the Gospels but only dissected the sources of the Gospels? It was as if people who had never experienced a living human body were being introduced to anatomy through attendance at an autopsy. The critical method handed them pieces, dismembered limbs and organs, no longer living, and no longer even recognizable as having come from a living body. They were not only shocked and disappointed, they were also disabled. The critical apparatus actually blocked their capacity to use the Bible for theology, pastoral care and prayer. We produced students who could not declare in a sermon, "Jesus said," without a disquisition on the "Quest for the Historical Jesus." In sum, even within what was assumed to be the original setting and purpose for the corrective task of the historical-critical method, the changing clientele made it either otiose or obstructive.

Teachers of Christian origins today are faced with a problem not unique to them -- it is shared in some fashion by all teachers in the humanities -- but nevertheless of pressing urgency. The problem is simply that they must now do two apparently irreconcilable things at once: they must introduce students to a tradition that they should have learned through some other primary socializing institution; and they must find a way to engage them in critical thinking about that tradition.

The challenge put to the historical-critical paradigm by the changing character of the student clientele has been matched by a series of severe criticism from within the scholarly discipline as well. (Indeed, some readers may feel that I am beating a horse now already well dead. But, in fact, that dead horse is still being driven daily through the pages of introductory textbooks.) The supposedly "scientific" and "disinterested" character of the historical-critical paradigm, for example, is increasingly recognized as a cover for a theologically tendentious agenda. The internal myth of this paradigm that regards everything prior to it as a series of errors has been identified as mythic and self-serving. But more than that: the dominance of this paradigm with all of its built-in theological biases has also been recognized as a block to more inclusive approaches to the material.

It is possible to approach early Christianity without, for example, assuming that "religion" is a less valuable phenomenon than "faith." or that "ritual" is a regression to superstition, or that "Christianity" is only authentic when defined antithetically to Judaism, or that "development" is automatically to be equated with "decline." It is also possible to recognize other ways of reading the New Testament: not only midrash, but also typology and allegory are modes of reading which, given their assumptions and rules of discourse, are every bit as disciplined and "true" as that offered by the literalist renderings of the historical-critical method.

From within the guild of New Testament scholars, a number of questions have also been raised about the goals of the historical-critical paradigm and its capacity to accomplish those goals. It is asked whether the ideal of an "objective history" might not be either fatuous or, worse, a form of ideology posing as science. And if historical reconstruction is the goal, isn't it hopelessly parochial -- indeed a kind of historian's bad faith -- to confine the investigation to the canonical writings? Why not include all the literature from early Christianity, if the goal is historical reconstruction? But even when extra canonical writings are included, isn't the attempt to delineate Christian origins doomed to frustration because of the paucity of the sources, their fragmentariness and their reluctance to perform as historical sources? Aren't most "Histories of the Primitive Church" a kind of paper-chase, in which a lack of genuine historical controls leads to ever more elaborate and ever less plausible "reconstructions" based less on facts than on the demands of developmental models?

Such questions partly derive from and partly have motivated developments within the study of early Christianity that have even further eroded the classical paradigm.. This has been a time of unparalleled access to and use of the rich comparative materials of the Mediterranean world: not only the apocryphal Christian writings but the fascinatingly complex literature of Second Temple Judaism, as well as the literature of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion. This has been a period in which the categories of the social sciences have been employed for the study of such ancient literature, alerting us to the ways in which ancient communities are rooted in social realities, as well as the ways in which social structures and ideologies reinforce each other. This has been a time, finally, when the literary analysis of ancient literature has become a very significant force within the field, insisting that documents do not exist only to provide historical information, but are to be appropriated as complex works of art as well as witnesses to and interpretations of religious experiences and convictions.

In a word, the character of our student clientele and the changes within scholarship alike make our adherence to the classical paradigm of the historical-critical method problematic, and invite us to think of new ways in which to engage our students in critical reflection on materials they may be meeting for the very first time.

These days when I teach, I try to apply what we have learned from the sociology of knowledge to our classroom situation. I invite the students to reflect on our own social setting. I try to identify the sorts of backgrounds and expectations I think they have, and talk about how each of us needs to move from our starting point to a shared realm of discourse. I identify what I regard as the scholar's "moral virtues" that enable this transition: a) openness to what is new even when it is threatening; b) respect for what is different even when it is strange; c) dedication to the truth even when it is difficult to achieve; d) willingness to use critical intelligence both with the materials studied and with the materials of one's own life.

I specifically address the distinctive social settings and functions of the church and the university. Looking at the context of the church, I describe the ways in which the Bible is read there, legitimately, as scripture, full of existential meaning, and how that form of reading has its own rules. Then I invite them to look at the social setting of the university and talk about the rules for discourse in the setting of the. liberal arts and humanities: how texts are read, how questions are framed, what counts as evidence.

This opening exercise is designed to enable students to engage in critical reflection on their background not as the only place that needs criticism, but in comparison with another -- equally relative -- social setting. They are thereby able to grasp that they are being invited not to a quasi-religious conversion from falsehood to truth, but rather to play a new and fascinating game whose rules they have yet to master. Another benefit of this exercise is that it relativizes (because it acknowledges) the role of authority in this process. I clearly am the authority within this academic game. But I try to be an authority figure who authorizes their ability to think critically -- and also one who lays out the academic game ahead of time for their inspection: there are no hidden trap doors, no secret rooms.

The next thing I try to do is expose the actual paradigm that I am using in this class, contrasting it, in fact, to other possible paradigms (the historical, the theological, the literary). My approach tries to respect four dimensions of the early Christian texts. The first dimension is anthropological. This means not only that we are approaching the texts as fully human productions -- I point out that statements of divine inspiration are statements concerning ultimate origin and authority, not method of composition - but even more that we take seriously that aspect of literature of most interest to cultural anthropologists: how it gives symbolic expression to human experience.

The second dimension is historical. The people whose interpretations of experience we are studying are not Trobiand Islanders, but Jews of the first-century Mediterranean world; to understand how they interpret their lives, we need to learn as much as possible about the properly historical realities within which they lived: the social and symbolic worlds of Roman rule, Hellenistic culture, and a variegated Judaism.

The third dimension is literary. We approach the New Testament writings not as sources for a historical reconstruction, so that they are of interest only as they can supply certain kinds of information, but as intentional literary compositions whose genres and conventions must be taken seriously if we are to learn anything from them at all. The fourth dimension is religious. Here I make a sharp distinction from theology. We are not reading the New Testament to learn the "theology of Paul," even if that were available to us; rather; we are attempting to get at the religious experiences and convictions that generated this literature and gave it shape.

The model that enables us to capture these four dimensions is a model of experience/interpretation. It takes seriously the fact that humans always seek to understand and interpret their experiences, but that certain experiences force more radical and inclusive types of interpretation. The model necessitates looking at three interrelated stages of the process: first is the shape of the symbolic world shared by the participants; second (and hardest to get at) is the set of experiences and convictions that generated a reinterpretation of that world; the collection of literature containing (in quite diverse forms) that reinterpretation. In the study of Christian origins we are almost uniquely privileged to be able to analyze each of these stages with some confidence. This model invites students to see the New Testament as the product of a profoundly human process of experience and interpretation, by which people of another age and place, galvanized by a radical religious experience, sought to understand both that experience and themselves in the light of the symbols made available to them by their culture.

I hope, out of this, that students will learn not only about the New Testament but about how to think ahout their own lives. Ideally, Christian students come to understand that early Christian writings emerged from the same sort of process that produced other sacred scriptures. They therefore can appreciate more fully the deeply human character of their own tradition as well as the authentically human character of other traditions -- above all, Judaism. This insight can be applied even more directly by non-Christian students, who are able to appreciate the New Testament without feeling forced to appropriate it.

Awareness of the historical placement of the New Testament should caution Christian students against too quickly identifying their own religious perceptions with those of the first Christians. They should recognize the gap between Californians and Corinthians. An awareness of change and development within Christianity can give people the freedom to negotiate the differences without fear, aware that so things were from the start, when Paul told the Corinthians that they had to develop the capacity to maturely think through the complex issues of life together.

Grasping the literary dimensions of these writings enables students to see what kinds of questions readers can expect such religious texts to answer, and which they cannot answer. They can understand how any claim to "God's word" is clothed in linguistic particularity and rhetoric requiring interpretation, and that every tradition requires a reinterpretation in order to transmit symbols from one generation to the next as living vehicles of meaning and not as museum artifacts. Finally, aware of the religious dimensions of the texts, they are able to appreciate how claims to ultimate significance are inevitably forged in terms that are anthropologically rooted, historically conditioned and literarily defined; on the other hand, for the first time, many of them come to perceive Christianity as in fact making a number of extremely interesting religious claims.

Such a model of teaching is patently not perfect, but it does a better job than did the classical paradigm of bridging the gap between the discipline of New Testament studies as it actually exists and the students we actually face.