A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant


The purpose of this book is to deal with the New Testament (and other early Christian literature as reflecting the historical life of the early Christian Church. This literature was produced in this Church, by members of this Church, for the use of this Church. The Church is the primary historical reality which stands behind the literature, and without the ‘hypothesis’ of the Church the literature does not make sense. The New Testament consists of twenty-seven heterogeneous books which were written at various times and under various circumstances; some of them were accepted and used by Christians almost at once, but as a whole the collection was not universally, or almost universally accepted until the fourth or fifth century. It was the ‘mind of the Church’ which finally recognized the significance of all twenty seven books as setting forth the basic statement of what the earliest Christianity was. No other literature has anything of value to say about Christian origins and the earliest Christian movement. To be sure there are a few ‘traditions’ recorded in apocryphal writings or in the works of the Church Fathers, but their historical or theological importance is practically nil. In so far as they can be checked, they have to be checked in relation to the primary documents which the Church recognized.

At the same time, the primary documents are not self-explanatory, as Christians have recognized since very early times. In our present collection we find four gospels, a book of Acts, fourteen letters ascribed (with varying degrees of plausibility) to the apostle Paul, seven general or catholic letters, and a book of Revelation. This scheme of arrangement does little to indicate the meaning and significance of the various writings. In order to understand them, we must look for the history which stands behind the books. This is to say that we are trying to deal historically with the New Testament writings.

The central historical problems in relation to the New Testament can be defined in several ways, but before they can be approached we need to consider the periods into which early Church history can be divided. The question of periodization arose in the second century and has been examined by church historians ever since. Generally speaking, historians have differentiated three periods in the life of the early Church: 1) the period of the Incarnation, or the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth; (2 the apostolic age, from the resurrection or the ascension to the reign of the emperor Nero; and (3) the sub-apostolic age, from Nero’s reign to some later date, not usually defined with any clarity. The real significance of this periodization is to be found not in the periods of time involved but in the characteristics of the Church’s life in the various periods and in the key events which mark the transitions from one age to another. In dealing with the characteristics and the events we must recognize that there were continuities and discontinuities; there was sameness and change. We must be on our guard against assuming too readily that either sameness or change was dominant. At the same time, we must remember that the community, usually conscious of its self-identity, was likely to lay more emphasis on continuity than can always be justified by the extant texts. The simple chronological periodization mentioned above may obscure significant changes related to the basic directions which the Christian movement took.

First we should say something about the primary elements which provided continuity. These were to be found in (1) the relation of Christian disciples to the Old Testament with its revelation of God and its proclamation of his future acts; (2) the relation of Christians to Jesus and the community which he brought into existence, and (3) their life of worship and mission in this community. Without these elements there would have been no Church and there would have been no New Testament. But, second, these elements were expressed in different ways because of the different historical circumstances in which Christians lived and in which they carried on the mission. Several of these historical circumstances can easily be identified. (1) The first disciples of Jesus were called in Galilee and accompanied him to Jerusalem; even though there are occasional indications that they moved outside Judæa and Galilee, their primary location was in this area; their mission was addressed to Palestinian Jews; Jesus himself, as Paul said (Rom. 15:8) , was ‘minister to the circumcision on behalf of God’s truth’. It may even be possible, though the evidence is far from clear, to point to differences in emphasis between his proclamation in Galilee and that in Jerusalem. Certainly there are later differences between Galilean and Judæn Christianity. (2) There is also a difference between the life of the early Church in Jerusalem and the life of the gentile communities which gradually came into existence. This difference is reflected in Paul’s account of the Jerusalem council (Gal. 2) and in the viewpoints set forth in the materials in Acts which describe events from the standpoints of Jerusalem and of Antioch. The difference is also present even within the Gospel of Matthew, with its two contrasting statements, Go not into a way of the gentiles, nor enter a Samaritan city’ (10:5) and ‘Go, make disciples of all nations’ (28.19). (3) There are differences in the ways in which early Christians looked back at the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only are there differences between the Gospel of John and the synoptic gospels as a group; there are also differences between each synoptic gospel and the others and between each and John. To some extent these differences can be explained if we attempt to provide historical settings for the various books and relate them to the life of various kinds of community. (4) There is also a difference between the literature which is clearly apostolic and that which is less certainly so. The most obvious example is to be found in II Peter, with its mention, of the Christian goal as sharing in the divine nature (1.4) and, of entrance into the eternal kingdom of Christ (1:11). In II Peter the earlier idea of the kingdom as inaugurated by Jesus but still to come in power has disappeared. The future coming of Christ has been almost entirely neglected in favour of his past coming (1:16). Another example probably occurs in the Pastoral Epistles as a group. In them the primary emphases of the major Pauline epistles have been, so to speak, domesticated. They reflect the life of churches which live in relation to ‘faithful sayings’ and are concerned with organizational problems. (5) At the end of the New Testament period come the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, in which we see how the gospel and the life of the Church are being still further interpreted in relation to new environments and new circumstances. There is a difference between these writings and the earlier documents which cannot fully be explained simply in relation to their settings. In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, as in II Peter and the Pastoral Epistles, the Church has almost become ‘established’ -- not in relation to the State, but in some measure in relation to the various cultures of the Græco-Roman world. This movement becomes more clearly defined as we move through the Jewish and gentile forms of Christianity in the early second century towards the works of the Apologists.

Our purpose in discussing the history of the New Testament is to see how the Church came into existence, what its life was like, and how it expressed its mission in relation to the various environments in which it lived. Our starting point and our ending point will be the same: the Church as the congregation of believers brought into existence in response to the event of Christ. This event includes his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem and his crucifixion, but it finds its climax in his resurrection, which can be defined as the creation of the new community. Even though Luke, like the later Gnostics, set an interval between the resurrection and the origin of the Church, such an interval is nowhere reflected in the Pauline epistles, and we may suppose that it is due to an attempt to provide historical periodization at a point where it is not really useful. The Church is the resurrection community; the apostles were apostles of the risen Lord.

Our purpose in dealing with the materials provided by the New Testament and other early Christian literature is not, however, simply to make affirmations or pronouncements about them. It is to deal with these materials in a sober and cautious manner in order to show what is actually known, what is actually not known, and how we can perhaps proceed from the known to the unknown. This is not to suggest that the documents or their contents will somehow miraculously arrange themselves in order to prove our points. There is a kind of dialogue between ourselves and the materials, a dialogue in which we do not lose our own subjectivity although we may hope that it will be modified by what the materials say. We do not necessarily or entirely become ‘objective’; but we check our own subjectivity in the light of the subjectivities of those who created and transmitted the materials and (it may be) in the light of others farther back in the chain of tradition. This kind of checking is what one can hope to acquire by means of critical methods.

But before we can turn to the conclusions we hope to reach, we must look at the materials themselves; and before we can look at the materials we must consider the various methods which can be used in looking at them. At this point we therefore turn to the methods used in analysing the New Testament and early Christian literature as a whole, examining these methods in order to make sure that they will bear all the weight that has often been placed on them. To a considerable extent our analysis will seem negative. This negative aspect is certainly present, but it is present for a purpose. We hope that by criticizing criticism we can make it a more useful and effective instrument for proceeding to positive conclusions about the early Christian writings as reflections of the life of the early Church.

Theory of Interpretation

Perhaps it may seem odd to begin an introduction to the New Testament with a discussion of the principles to be employed. Are they not either self-evident or so abstruse as to defy explanation? Doesn’t everyone employ the historical method, based on enlightened common sense, while some scholars employ it better than others because they are so acute? The answers to these questions must be negative. What characterizes a great deal of modern New Testament study is (1) an inadequate historical method and (2) a rather excessive confidence in those who employ it with sufficient acuteness. These characteristics are no substitute for a carefully-thought-out method which bears a closer relation both to common sense and to historical experience.

The principles will be discussed in the following sequence. (1) We shall deal with the New Testament in the Church in order to determine what the New Testament consists of and how and why it was collected in a canon or authoritative anthology of books. (2) Next we shall consider the transmission of the text of the New Testament and the analytical procedure used in determining (a) the relations of various texts to one another and (b) the textual readings which are probably more original than others. Consideration of the text will lead us to investigate the nature of translations made from the text or texts into other languages. (3) Since understanding a text involves more than a word-by-word translation, we must investigate the ways in which the literary structure of an author’s work can be analysed, and try to see what this analysis contributes to our interpretation. (4) In so far as the New Testament, documents are related to historical events and historical circumstances, they are subject to historical criticism; but historical criticism deserves much more criticism than it has received in recent New Testament work. (5) Finally, the New Testament writers wrote for a purpose or for purposes which have to be examined by a method which we venture to call both historical and theological.

It is obvious that in setting up this method of analysis we have laid great emphasis on what may perhaps be regarded as a ‘phenomenological’ approach. We are concerned with what the New Testament authors said, how they said it, and why they said it. This kind of understanding tends to minimize the importance of two other possible approaches. (1) There is what is sometimes called the theological approach, in which the New Testament books are examined for what they have to say, explicitly or implicitly, systematically or unsystematically, to us. Our reason for not following this line is that we believe that by undertaking to find out what the New Testament writers said in their own time we may achieve two purposes: (a) we may be able to safeguard our interpretation from an excessive degree of subjectivity and may thereby reach conclusions which can be more generally accepterl within the double context of the culture and the Church within which we live and (b) similarly, we may be better able to do justice to the rich complexity which in our opinion characterizes the writings; we shall not be so strongly tempted to search {br, or to claim that we have found, a single theological key to all doors, or a single axe to grind. (2) On the other hand, there is what is often regarded as ‘the’ historical approach, in which the New Testament writings are co-ordinated with what is understood to be their environment and the result of this co-ordination is used to show the extent to which the writers were ‘historically conditioned’. We are not emphasizing this approach for two reasons: (a) the co-ordination is highly subjective and to a considerable extent involves the explanation of the known (the New Testament writings) by the unknown (their precise environment or environments) and (b) we do not share the view of those who believe that items which can be correlated with the ancient environment(s) can or must, for that very reason, be relegated to the dustbin.

Our major emphasis, therefore, will be laid upon the interpretation of the New Testament books themselves, more or less as they stand, and the method (in theory, at least) primarily involves literary and historical analysis of them.

I do not claim that there is anything unique about this method. On the contrary, I have come to believe that it would be positively wrong to apply a special method of interpretation to the New Testament. (1) If the New Testament literature is actually different from other literature, this fact can best be shown by applying a common method. (2) In so far as the New Testament literature is literature, it can best be investigated by using a common method. (3) In so far as the New Testament, theologically and historically considered, reflects the revelation of God in his incarnate Son, similar observations should be made; both the divine nature and the human nature (to speak with fourth-century symbols) can be best approached if we are using normal literary-historical methods by means of which the difference between God and man, and the action of man as man, can be understood. This is to say that in my view a direct and immediate understanding of the New Testament as either ‘spiritual’ or ‘existential’ (in so far as either term is understood as atemporal) is analogous to the docetic understanding of Christ as a purely spiritual being. Just as the Incarnation involves acceptance of the categories of time and space, so the New Testament is a collection of books created in time and in space, and it therefore needs to be considered by means of a method which takes these categories seriously. The uniqueness of the New Testament, then, becomes clear if, and only if, we use a method which is not unique.

At the same tune, we should probably point out that not everything in the New Testament is unique. There are words, phrases, forms and ideas which are also to be found in Judaism or in Græco-Roman culture. Our method must pay some attention to these features of the New Testament; it need not, and indeed must not, neglect them. We have already intimated why this is so. The revelation of God in the New Testament is not confined to the unique items. The Christian claim about Jesus Christ is not that his message was absolutely novel but that it was true. Indeed, the notion that the unique is the revealing was advocated in ancient times not by orthodox Christians but by the dualist New Testament critic Marcion.

We are trying to deal with our subject matter by use of a method at least relatively logical, for in our view such exegesis of time New Testament has suffered from its lack not of theological but of logical method. This is the reason for which we begin with the canon. If we arc going to study certain literary phenomena, it is well to have some idea of the basis on which we regard these phenomena as belonging to much the same class. For instance, one might think of the New Testament books as ‘Christian classics’; but to classify them as classics would not quite adequately differentiate them from Augustine’s Confessions, the Summa Theologica, or Concluding Unscientific Postscript. If we are going to consider something called the New Testament, we need to know what the New Testament is. Now in order to answer this question we can do one of at least two things. We can immediately appeal to authority and say that the New Testament is what the Church, or our particular church, says it is. In the modern world, however, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, such direct appeals to traditional authority are not as convincing as they once were. People are all too likely to ask why the Church regards these books, and not others, as belonging to the approved list or canon. We are therefore driven, as we so often are, towards a second method -- to examine the evidence concerning the canon.

But before we turn to this evidence we should have a few questions in mind. What are we going to look at the evidence for? What do we think we are going to find? Are we going to find that original authentic something which can serve as a norm for our own conclusion, on the view that the earliest is time best? Are we going to say that the history will help us see how the present situation came into existence and therefore, in a way, justify it? Or are we going to examine a process in the course of which the Church reached certain conclusions which, though possessing great weight, are not necessarily infallible? Perhaps we should simply raise these questions without attempting to answer them at this point.