A synthesis of “New Testament theology” can only come after justice is done to its manifold diversity.

In the opinion of some students of the New Testament, Gospel criticism has reached an impasse. Source criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism, and redaction criticism have all been pursued as far as they are likely to take us, and the situation in which we now find ourselves is not encouraging.

The main end of Gospel study has been the more secure establishing of the life and teaching of the historical Jesus, and there has probably never been a time when Christian practitioners of Gospel criticism were more skeptical about the prospect of achieving this end than they are today. When there was widespread acceptance of the Marcan hypothesis—the hypothesis that the outline of Mark’s Gospel corresponded well enough with the historical development of Jesus’ ministry—certainty on some of the most important phases of that development seemed to have been reached. My own opinion is that the Marcan hypothesis was a reasonable one, but if (as many hold nowadays) Mark’s arrangement of his material was altogether the product of his own genius, there is nothing to take its place as a basis for constructing a coherent account of the ministry.

Nearly 50 years ago T. W. Manson published his great work on The Teaching of Jesus. He expounded the teaching according to the various audiences to which it was addressed, and according to the period in the ministry from which it came—before or after Caesarea Philippi. But it is commonly believed today that the varying audiences are simply part of the framework which the evangelists devised as a setting for the sayings of Jesus they had received, and that the placing of the sayings before or after Caesarea Philippi is similarly redactional. Indeed, one scholar carried others with him when he argued in 1963 that the Caesarea Philippi episode itself is a piece of Marcan composition, designed to convey a theological lesson.

The much discussed “criteria of authenticity,” by which the sayings ascribed to Jesus are to be assessed, have been of little help. At best they attract attention to those sayings of his which cannot be paralleled either in Judaism or in Christianity, and insofar as they portray Jesus at all, portray an eccentric rather than a historical Jesus. One of the most assiduous exponents of these criteria remarked to me not long before his death that he thought six, or at most eight, of the sayings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were likely to be authentic. I felt I could do better than that with Socrates.

It is not that the well-trodden paths of Gospel criticism have led people astray, but that attempts have been made to force criticism to do more than it is capable of doing by its very nature. No one will be a successful historian unless he is gifted with a sympathetic imagination; but some seem afraid to exercise it in their studies, lest it should detract from a proper objectivity. That is a pity. None of us can escape from subjectivity, because we are all thinking subjects; an imaginative subjectivity (with all necessary controls) is to be preferred to an unimaginative subjectivity.

One way forward is for individual scholars to take particular limited areas of Gospel study and explore them in depth. If, after some time, their findings are compared and prove to lead to a synthesis, that can be promising. The Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research has recently launched a “Gospels Research Project” along this line; the first of a series of volumes entitled Gospel Perspectives, published earlier in 1980, presents the first fruits of this project.

Another way forward is to stand back and contemplate the figure that dominates all strands of the Gospel tradition. The historical Jesus makes a continuing impact on the life and thought of humanity. Whatever may be set down as post-Easter interpretation is a measure of his stature: Jesus is the sort of person who could without absurdity be interpreted in those ways. Readers of the Gospels should allow his personality to make its impression on them; as they do, they will recognize with increasing certainty whether or not the words and actions attributed to him have “the ring of truth.” And, lest this should be a merely subjective impression, they should learn to formulate their reasons for this recognition, so that they can be submitted to the judgment of others.

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Primitive Christianity

The gap between Jesus and Paul is not all that wide, chronologically speaking, but in the eyes of some historians of early Christianity it is a vacuum that demands to be filled. There is one New Testament document—the Acts of the Apostles—that offers some help in filling it, but this offer of help has not always been accepted. The heritage of Tübingen, with its understanding of Acts as a late attempt to reconcile in a synthesis the sharp antitheses between Palestinian and Pauline Christianity, is still with us. It may be regarded as poetic justice that Tübingen today, in the person of Martin Hengel, should have provided a corrective in the slim but meaty volume entitled, in its English dress, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (London, SCM Press, 1979).

Indeed, within a few years Hengel has made a most impressive contribution toward pointing a new way forward in New Testament studies. His two-volume work, Judaism and Hellenism (Fortress, 1975), has gone far to demolish two theses that have attained almost axiomatic status in a very influential school: (1) that Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity were widely different; and (2) that Paul’s debt was to Hellenistic, not to Palestinian, Christianity. (We may recall Rudolf Bultmann’s imaginary construction of the thought of the pre-Pauline Hellenistic churches in his Theology of the New Testament.) Palestine itself was part of the Hellenistic world from the late fourth century B.C. on. When Howard Marshall read a paper along these lines to the Society for New Testament Studies at Claremont, California, in 1972, the meeting almost broke up in disorder and it was only by the exercise of great self-control that the president (the most distinguished post-Bultmannian of them all) preserved the impartiality of the chair.

But there are still a number of questions to be answered. Paul’s relation to rabbinic and Palestinian Judaism has been explored by W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders; others can follow where they have led. What was Paul’s relation to those who were “in Christ” before him? What was the composition and outlook of the church of Damascus, where he first found Christian fellowship? What can be discovered about the spread of non-Pauline Christianity in Paul’s lifetime, even in the lands of his own Gentile mission? What is the significance of Apollos? Can we reconstruct the early history of the community to which the Letter to the Hebrews was addressed?

Several scholars have recently given fresh attention to the Johannine writings and the environment in which they appeared. A particularly suggestive work is Raymond Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist, 1979); one reader of this book will find it difficult to approach the Johannine writings in the future without having Brown’s thesis in mind. Brown has not said the last word, but the word he has spoken should provoke others to speak a further word or two on the subject. Nothing that affects the place of the fourth Gospel in the New Testament can ever be unimportant.

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Unity and Diversity

The title of J.D.G. Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Westminster, 1977) and that of the Festschrift for G. E. Ladd, Unity and Diversity in New Testament Theology (1978), will remind us of the rich variety to be found within the New Testament, and sometimes within one body of literature in the New Testament, such as the Pauline corpus. Where the center of unity—the acknowledgment of the crucified Jesus and the exalted Christ as one Lord—holds firm, the New Testament theologian can rejoice without misgivings in the diversity of witness and appreciation with which the New Testament writers present him. If a synthesis of “New Testament theology” is to be attained, it can only come after proper justice has been done to the manifold diversity. To make Paul and John say the same thing does a disservice to both. That Christ the Lord could call forth from minds like theirs such a wealth of varying insight is a tribute to the many-hued wisdom that resides in him, part of which was grasped by one and part by another as the Spirit enabled them. If a Bampton lecturer in the nineteenth century (T. D. Bernard) could trace The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament (1865; Klock & Klock, 1978), could not a New Testament theologian in this generation contribute to his subject by tracing “the progress of doctrine in Paul?” That would be a more exciting exercise than a flat picture of “Pauline theology.”

Jewish Influence

Several years ago Professor Dennis Nineham remarked that the task of today’s historian of Christian origins is “to wring truth relevant to the history of Jesus from the increasing stock of remains of the Judaism of his time.” There is no need to restrict the field of research to Judaism, but even in Judaism there is still ample room for research in the voluminous material available. Professor E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress, 1977) showed how fresh insights can be obtained from a thorough reexamination of familiar material; not everything has been said even about Paul in relation to rabbinic theology. Who will undertake a comparable study of “Jesus and Palestinian Judaism”? Our knowledge of Palestinian Judaism itself has not stood still, thanks to the research of Jacob Neusner and others into the situation before A.D. 70; some of these new findings could profitably be applied to New Testament exegesis.

Nor has the bearing of the Qumran texts on the New Testament been exhausted. One of the most fruitful aspects of the comparative study of Qumran and early Christianity has been the analogy between Old Testament interpretation at Qumran and in the New Testament. There are still many commentary fragments from Cave 4 at Qumran awaiting publication (the delay in publishing them has indeed been disgraceful), and while their publication is not likely to dictate a radical change in the picture already built up, it will certainly make it possible to fill in the picture with much more detail. The New Testament interpretation of the Old provided what C. H. Dodd called “the substructure of New Testament theology,” and equally biblical interpretation at Qumran provided the substructure of Qumran theology. New Testament theology is as different from Qumran theology as early Christian exegesis is different from Qumran exegesis, but the comparison between the two areas of study can be illuminating for both.

It should not be necessary to say that no one should undertake to compare the New Testament with any area of Judaism—the Qumran texts, rabbinic tradition, or Hellenistic literature—without an adequate mastery of the relevant writings in their original language. And any one who makes pronouncements on the rabbinic material on the basis of Strack-Billerbeck alone will swiftly expose the second-hand and limited character of his knowledge.

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The long delays in publishing much of the remaining Qumran material have not been paralleled in the publication of the documents from Nag Hammadi. Much gratitude is due to James M. Robinson and his colleagues for the admirable promptitude with which they have published those Coptic texts, not to mention the one-volume English version of The Nag Hammadi Library (Harper & Row, 1977).

Long before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, attempts were made to relate the New Testament writings to Gnosticism, and even to find Gnostic influence in them. As early as 1925 Bultmann discussed the bearing of Mandean and Manichean sources on the Gospel of John, and concluded that it betrayed knowledge of a Gnostic myth that was clearly discernible in those sources. When once the myth was reconstructed, it was possible to discern it in other early Christian works. There was a real difficulty in the relative lateness of some of the primary evidence: in particular, the Mandean texts on which Bultmann relied were shown by F. C. Burkitt to presuppose Manichean doctrine (mid-third century A.D.) and the Peshitta text of the Syriac Bible (early fifth century A.D.).


Do apples hang like pendants

on wooden stems, so small,

to demonstrate unearthly engineering?

And bumblebees lift bulky bodies high

with bungly wings too scant to fly

to disprove impossibility?

If we would believe God’s promises

and yield ourselves to Him,

would our feet water-walk?

would mountains move? would

we be whole? Would every good

we could conceive come true?

Just seed-small faith, and thrust

of childlike trust will turn our most

limiting impossibilities into unlimited

possibilities for good. Oh, His miracles

are staggering; but it is the sheer

simplicity of His logic that confounds.


But now the Nag Hammadi library has provided us with a wealth of Gnostic literature of an earlier age. True, the Nag Hammadi documents are in Coptic, belonging mostly to the fourth century A.D., but many of them are translations from Greek originals to be dated two centuries before that. It is to be hoped that among those who study them will be found some whose primary interest lies in the New Testament field and who will pay special attention to the problem of whether or not they bear witness to a pre-Christian Gnostic system—not to say a pre-Christian Gnostic myth. If it could be established that such a system or myth is detectable in them, that would be the time to embark on the further question: Has this system or myth exercised any influence on the New Testament writers? Or, if it exercised no influence on them, did it exercise any influence on the forms of teaching attacked (say) in the Letter to the Colossians, in the Pastorals, or in First John? Here is a whole area of study open to the New Testament student who will take the trouble to learn Coptic. (And, be it said, a knowledge of Coptic is a gateway to fields of knowledge other than the Nag Hammadi papyri.)

The works of Elaine H. Pagels on this subject have been given a significance in some popular media, exaggerated beyond anything that Dr. Pagels herself claims for them. Some cautionary words were uttered a few years ago by Edwin M. Yamauchi in Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Eerdmans, 1973); “a very good and very important book,” according to Gilles Quispel of Utrecht, who does not throw compliments around carelessly. But he agrees, for example, that “the Nag Hammadi texts do provide us with new materials for the investigation of the Fourth Gospel” (p. 34). We may expect to see further investigation of the interrelation of the New Testament and early Gnosticism in the years ahead of us; if some of this investigation is carried out by evangelical scholars, so much the better.

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The Sociological Approach

In 1960 the Tyndale Press, London (Inter-Varsity), published a monograph entitled The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century, by Edwin A. Judge. It was a pioneer essay, attempting (in the author’s words) “to clarify certain early Christian ideas about society by defining the particular social institutions that are presupposed, and showing how the behavior of the Christians was related to them.” It proved more influential than could have been foreseen at the time. Quite recently Gerd Theissen, one of the leading explorers of the sociology of primitive Christianity, has acknowledged that it was Judge’s book that first encouraged him to undertake a more far-ranging study of the subject.

Such a study can be especially helpful in the understanding of Paul’s letters. Some knowledge of city life in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire will inevitably illuminate letters that were addressed to city dwellers in those provinces. The acquisition of such knowledge is rendered the more difficult because of the variety of legal and social institutions between one city and another, and the scantiness of information about these institutions in the first century A.D. as compared with the abundant information available on the civic and imperial institutions of Rome. What we can learn from classical authors finds welcome augmentation in inscriptions; it is from them that we are most likely to gather data bearing on local conditions.

When we come across confident statements that such and such passages in the Epistles are “culturally conditioned,” that may well be so; but what is the factual basis on which these statements are made? Only a painstaking collection and piecing together of fragmentary data can provide us with a stable foundation of knowledge here. Conventions, for example, regarding women’s public headgear may have differed from city to city and from community to community: we need to be sure of our facts before we make pronouncements.

The status of a local church in a cosmopolitan city is illuminated by an inscription from Philadelphia, belonging to the first or second century B.C., setting forth the rules of membership of a religious group which was explicitly open to “men and women, free persons and household slaves,” and in which ethical probity was emphasized. The Philadelphia church to which one of the seven letters of the Apocalypse was sent had probably a similar status in relation to the municipal law of Philadelphia.

If we wish to know how the recipients of the Epistles would have understood or reacted to them, it could help to discover what were the commonly accepted presuppositions of thought and behavior in their environments. Six years ago Sir Kenneth Dover published an important work on Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Univ. of Calif., 1975). If someone would do the same for the Aegean world in the apostolic age it would provide valuable background knowledge for the study of the Epistles. What were the accepted opinions of the man in the street in those lands at that time? Did he think that gnosis was a good thing? Did he venerate the ideal of the divinely inspired man—the theios anthropos—or would he have recognized that expression had he heard it? How did he contemplate death, and the possibility of existence after death? Had he been initiated into a mystery religion, or did he use mystery terminology in daily speech? What kind of rhetoric did he find impressive? What were his ideas of public and private decency? Did his wife accept his presuppositions, or did she and other wives have ideas of their own? (This last question is particularly difficult to answer, because women in the home had minimal opportunity for giving open or lasting expression to their thoughts; Paul’s affirmation that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female must have made a difference in this respect.)

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The answers to questions like these could have differed from province to province, but inquiries of this sort, patiently conducted with all proper sifting of the relevant evidence, might substantially fill out the context of the Epistles and help us to see more clearly how their first readers understood them.

I expect that there will be much more of this kind of investigation in the 1980s, along the trail blazed by Judge, Theissen, and Malherbe. True, the study of the social culture of the New Testament is only one approach among others, but in itself it is nearly as important as the study of the language of the New Testament: after all, the language of the New Testament is one aspect of its social culture.

Never attempt to bear more than one kind of trouble at once. Some people bear three kinds—all they have had, all they have now and all they expect to have.

—Edward Everett Hale

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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