What is the next horizon for evangelical scholarship? Martin Hengel, one of the foremost experts on early Judaism and Christianity, explores one idea in this essay. He is professor emeritus of New Testament and early Judaism at the University of Tubingen, Germany. The most recent of his many books is The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity, 2000).

In a time of breathtaking progress in the fields of biophysics and biochemistry, astrophysics, nanotechnology and information technology, the acceleration of our knowledge is a hyperbola striving after infinity. Our ethical consciousness and human responsibility cannot keep abreast of it.

In contrast to this scorching speed of progress, the Bible remains always the same: the canon of the Hebrew Bible has not changed since the Pharisaic rabbis of Jamnia established it in about A.D. 100. Nor has the New Testament canon changed since the 39th Easter letter of Bishop Athanasius from Alexandria, written in A.D. 367. But, one may object, our understanding of the Bible has changed. The answer to that is yes and no.

The Bible's basic spiritual importance for our faith and the Christian church remains unchanged. We have at this time no better answer to the Lord's question ("You do not want to leave too, do you?") than did Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:67-68). Yet it seems that now, more so than in former centuries, we must fight an intellectual battle to ensure with Paul "that the truth of the gospel might continue to be preserved" (Gal. 2:5).

In this battle, we've had many victories. Biblical scholars can be proud of breakthroughs that resulted in an explosion of our New Testament knowledge in the last 100 to 200 years. For example, 150 years ago few scholars had access to a Greek text that incorporated the readings of only a few old reliable manuscripts. This is no longer the case. Constantin von Tischendorf's great edition based largely on the famous fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (found in St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai) appeared in 1869 and 1872. In 1881, B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort edited their New Testament in the Original Greek founded upon the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus. Upon this foundation Eberhard Nestle created his Novum Testamentum Graece 103 years ago, which is still in use as the Nestle/Aland Greek text most students and scholars use today. Thanks to diligent scholarship, the current edition appears in a totally changed form based upon an extremely broad selection of Greek manuscripts and ancient translations that include Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopian versions, as well as quotations from the church fathers.

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Most fascinating is our knowledge of the papyri, the earliest witnesses to the Greek text. Tischendorf knew only one of them, while we today know about 112 papyri, the majority of which contain passages from the Gospels and many come from pre-Constantinian times (before A.D. 310). A few even date from the second century. Consequently, the New Testament is the best-transmitted text collection from antiquity. We are able to reconstruct the different text forms from about the end of the second century. The earliest witnesses to the text of Gospels of John and Matthew date from only about two or three generations after the originals.

In the field of the Hebrew Bible, the progress is even more astounding: Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we possess biblical manuscripts that are 1,200 years older than the hitherto existing text of the Old Testament. The Old and New Testaments have grown more closely together thanks to these greatest of textual finds, which began in 1947. In the field of New Testament text research in America, Princeton Theological Seminary's Bruce M. Metzger has distinguished himself with his books about the text, the early versions, and the canon of the New Testament.

Archaeological Advances

Our historical knowledge has also been advanced by archaeological discoveries. These include excavations at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, of synagogues, and of places like Capernaum, Bethsaida, Sepphoris, and Caesarea. Inscriptions and coins, as well as a better knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman sources, have helped to overcome both historical skepticism and factual ignorance.

Perhaps the most important recent discovery is that early Christianity was strongly embedded in ancient Judaism, even after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 up to the end of the first century. Among others, evangelical scholars have shown that early Christianity was not a reflection of Greco-Roman paganism, but a development in continuity with the Jewish faith. Nearly all authors in the New Testament have a Jewish background, and ideas that might seem to have a pagan Hellenistic origin could easily have been mediated by monotheistic Jewish-Hellenistic sources.

The discovery of Jewish ossuaries (bone chests in tombs) show just how tied to Greek culture the Jewish people were. Most of these bone chests come from Jerusalem and are dated from between the time of Herod (c. 30 B.C.) and the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70). Although they are Jewish, around 40 percent of them bear Greek inscriptions. This means that many Jerusalemites spoke Greek, while the "Hellenistic" Christian community came, as Acts shows, from Jerusalem itself.

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The New Testament is therefore an important source of Jewish history in the first century. The authenticity of the history of the primitive church in Israel, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and as far as Rome, as it is described by Luke, is also seen in the development of its religious thought, its Christology and anthropology as we find them in Paul and John, the basic Christian theologians. These early Christian witnesses are certainly not dependent on half-pagan pre-Christian gnosticism or pagan mystery cults, as skeptical critics claim. Rather, they build their Holy Spirit-inspired and impressive Christian edifice of ideas by using biblical and Jewish building stones. It was in the fertile soil of biblical and Jewish-apocalyptic thought that the early Christian theology of eschatological fulfillment of the prophetic promises grew.

Pushed to the Limits

This all too short sketch of new developments in New Testament learning shows how promising the task of further, more extensive biblical research has become. It is now easier than in former decades to disprove the old skeptical prejudices and fantastic overconstructions of modern—in my opinion, uncritical—criticism. But we can do this only by better, more convincing scholarly work, beginning with the basic requirement: a better knowledge of the ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic.

Only by mastering these languages can we read and understand the necessary Jewish, Greco-Roman, and early Christian sources, especially the church fathers, who are the earliest exegetes of the whole Bible. To present the faith to the 21st-century world, we need to support young, gifted scholars who have excellent philological-historical training and possess a broad learning base as well as specialized expertise. The evangelical community needs to free up resources for our scholars.

Our evangelical universities, divinity schools, and seminaries have too few teaching posts in classical and oriental languages or in ancient history, not to mention the scarce exposure to ancient Judaism and archaeology necessary for training junior scholars and biblical teachers. Pastors today need better training in biblical studies. We need a comprehensive, first-class level of evangelical scholarship to equip these pastors and other Christian workers. Such training will enable them to answer critics' questions and rebuke the pseudo-scientific nonsense that is spread by the media about Jesus, early Christianity and the New Testament. Just recall the many odd findings of the Jesus Seminar during the last few years. We need credible, comprehensive scholarship in order to repel such unsubstantiated charges in a way that even secular scholars will respect.

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While evangelical scholars' knowledge of the Bible is impressive, many of them are overextended by both teaching and church obligations. Consequently, they have too little time for reading sources and creative study, which must move beyond the narrow borders of the 680 pages of the Greek New Testament to the wider fields of ancient Judaism, Greco-Roman literature, and the church fathers. What a vast field of research has been opened by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls alone!

The financial trustees of evangelical institutions need a better understanding of the necessity for more basic source-centered research and better philological-historical training. The evangelical community needs to train specialists in advanced classical and Judaic studies, papyrology, epigraphy, archaeology, ancient history, and oriental Christian languages and literature. This includes Coptic and Syriac, which have become extremely important for biblical studies, as well as Arabic, which is increasingly necessary because of the relations between Judaism, early Christianity, and the emergence of Islam. Christians often know very little about the fundamental difference between early Christian and Islamic history.

An American Tyndale House

What would help in attaining these goals is a U.S.-based evangelical research center like Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, which serves today as an inspiring stimulus for Old and New Testament, Jewish, Greco-Roman, and patristic research. From its facilities, former students have spread over the whole world. Such a research center, if established in America, could stimulate a tapestry of significant studies that will help us to better understand the Bible, as well as its languages, theology, and history. We need more scholarly collaboration—not competition—between American evangelical seminaries.

A hopeful development in America is the supra-denominational evangelical Institute of Biblical Research (IBR) with its fine scholarly journal. But its possibilities are restricted financially, which limits its effectiveness.

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Allow me to make a daring proposal: Why not found an IBR-run institute of advanced studies at a traditional, renowned university center in the United States? The university would grant room to IBR on its campus, thus allowing IBR to develop a respectable evangelical presence at the university. Another plus of a renowned university location would be the scholars' access to a world-class library collection. Such a center would house evangelical doctoral students and postdoctoral students who could study alongside more seasoned professors during their sabbatical years. The institute would also attract the best scholars from overseas who are indebted to the truth of the gospel and love the Bible. The center would operate within a free atmosphere of scholarly discussion but with the confident assurance that Christ, "the truth and the way and the life" (John 14:6), will overcome all human misunderstandings and wrong ways.

The evangelical theological schools in the United States and in Canada have a great number of first-class scholars who can create and organize such an institution. Many of them I know personally. It is impossible to list all of their names, but they include Craig A. Evans, E. Earle Ellis, Darrell L. Bock, Ben Witherington III, Seyoon Kim, Donald A. Hagner, Ed Yamauchi, Gordon D. Fee, Donald A. Carson, James Scott, Judith Gundry-Volf, Craig L. Blomberg, Scot McKnight, and Klyne Snodgrass. I think they and other scholars could cooperate in creating the Tyndale House-like institution in America.

John 8:32 promises that "the truth will make you free." This is the ultimate aim of all true biblical scholarship. The search for truth unites us, and it is a task for which we remain always responsible. In a time of astonishing discoveries about the Bible, but also of deep errors and seducing deception, this task is more necessary than ever.

Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles from the Annual Bible Issue include:

Word Power | A little knowledge of New Testament Greek can be a dangerous, or edifying, thing. (Oct. 23, 2001)

The Word of God | Quotations to Stir the Heart and Mind. (Oct. 23, 2001)

The Reluctant Romans | At Douai in Flanders, Catholic scholars translated the Bible into English as an alternative to the Bible of "the heretics." (Oct. 22, 2001)

A Translation Fit For a King | In the beginning, the King James Version was an attempt to thwart liberty. In the end, it promoted liberty. (Oct. 22, 2001)

We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation | As good as many modern versions are, they often do not allow us to hear what the Holy Spirit actually said. (Oct. 19, 2001)

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See the official site for Tyndale House, Cambridge, England.

The American Bible Society has a wealth of information about the Bible's history and translation of the Bible.

The Bible Learning Center has a Bible Reading 101 section, tools for learning and teaching, and research resources.

See more related articles in Christianity Today'sBible section.

Several of Martin Hengel's books including The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ are available at Christianbook.com.

In June, Christianity Today ran another piece by Hengel: "The Genesis of Our Woes | The most realistic and hopeful prophecies for our era come not from Daniel or Revelation but from the opening chapters of the Bible."

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