OUTLINE OF NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES
The following is my outline of the critical study of the New Testament based upon the following works: Werner Georg Kümmel The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, William Baird, History of New Testament Research 3 volumes, Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, and Scott McKnight and Grant Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research.
Prior to the eighteenth century, there are very few examples of the scientific study of the NT. Since the NT was held to be the Word of God, early scholars/writers studied it with the understanding that it had no contradictions and what appeared to be contradictions could be resolved by further study. The burden lay upon the reader and not the text.
This does not mean that there was no critical scholarship at all prior to the eighteenth century. The earliest church fathers devoted much ink to the historical and literary background of the NT. There were 2 competing schools of Bible Interpretation in the early centuries of the church: School of Alexandria (Clement of Alexandria and Origen) and School of Antioch (Irenaeus). The Alexandrian school emphasized the Role of Allegory. This does not mean that they never looked at the literary understanding, just that the former dominated their interpretation. The Antiochian school emphasized the Literal Reading. For example, if the reading was about the construction of the temple, the Alexandrian would immediately ask: “What spiritual principle does it symbolize?” They were not concerned with the history of the temple itself. To the contrary, the Antiochian would take seriously the actual dimensions of the temple. Meaning: first, they would look at the history, language, and culture of the text and then, they would expect that the Spirit of God to lead them to a higher contemplation of deeper spiritual realities. First, historical background and then gospel glasses to see Jesus.) Note: There is a third school that deserves to be mentioned – School of North Africa (Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine) also known as the Latin Tradition. It emphasized reason, authority, and tradition.
Overall, the early fathers read the Scripture with the following criteria in mind (from Chris Hall in Christian History Vol XXII, no 4):
– The tradition of faith
– Response to different heretical positions
– Holistically – seeing the narrative of the Bible as one continuous story from Genesis to Revelation. So words like Jesus, Israel, and church are part of that larger story.
– Communally, within Christ’s body, the church.
– In the context of prayer, worship, and spiritual formation.
Some scientific questions were raised about the status of the NT writings by the likes of Marcion. Even Origen raised questions about the authorship of Hebrews, so also Dionysius of Alexandria who questioned the authorship of Revelation. Eusebius and Jerome documented some of these disputes. Nevertheless, no large-scale scientific or critical study was attempted in the early period. Until the end of the Middle Ages, the NT writings were regarded as part of the ecclesiastical tradition and were not questioned regarding origins and historical peculiarities of the individual writings.
Starting in the fifth century with John Cassian (d. ca. 433), the church approached scripture with a fourfold understanding: literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical. Similar approach can also be found in the works of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). One example is the various understandings of the city of Jerusalem: literal = Jewish city; allegorical = church; tropological/moral = souls of men and women; anagogical = heavenly city. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) tried to ground the spiritual meaning more securely in the literal meaning. Ultimately, the medieval exegetes and theologians remained hesitant to assert that the full and final meaning was the meaning intended for the original audience. Even though some like Erasmus (humanist tradition) attempted to do critical studies on the NT writings, they succumbed to the authority of the church.