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.
First came the Renaissance (1400s – 1600s) and then came the Reformation (1517 – 1685). The Renaissance paved the way for the NT scholars of the eighteenth century to have the spirit and skills of the humanists. Before that period the scholastics were focused on the supernatural instead of mundane affairs. The humanists dismissed the medieval period as the dark ages and went back to an idealized era of the bright world of ancient Greece and Rome. In studying this period they came across the classical texts and developed the linguistic tools to study them. The Reformation was indebted to the Renaissance in some sense. It laid the foundation for the importance of the Bible. The Renaissance and the Reformation together led to the period of the Enlightenment (1650 – 1800).
Needless to say, a new era had dawned that was opposed to authority, especially ecclesiastical. It was recognized by the Reformers that neither the Church nor the pope had the authority to determine the sense of the Bible. In fact, the Bible itself is the only and final source of authority for the Christians. Consequently, it has to be explained by its own self. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made this clear at the Diet of Worms in 1521, when he said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in council’s alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) also held similar views. Unlike humanists like Erasmus (1466-1536), who were no doubt very instrumental in studying the text in their historical setting, the Reformers refused to submit their conclusions to ecclesiastical traditions. For example, Luther was not shy in calling into question Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. He even placed them towards the end of the New Testament in contrast to the traditional arrangement. In this way, attention was drawn for the first time regarding differences between the various writings in the NT. The only stopgap against eroding the authority of Scripture was the principle that Scripture has to be explained by Scripture. Hence, it was ultimately affirmed that Scripture could not contradict itself. But this was not to last very long.
Some precursors to the critical study of the Enlightenment came on the scene in the seventeenth century. Notable mentions include Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), John Lightfoot (1602-1675), and Richard Simon (1638-1712). The first, Grotius, held traditional views regarding the canonical books. He also considered the “minor discrepancies” to be proof of the reliability of the Bible as a whole. In his Annotationes in Novum Testamentum he presents a historical interpretation of the NT based on textual, linguistic, and grammatical studies. Overall, he gives attention to philological and historical details and is not afraid to think for himself. The next, Lightfoot, placed much emphasis on the need to interpret the NT from its Jewish roots. He pioneered the use of rabbinic literature to study the historical setting of the NT. Finally, Simon can be called the founder of modern biblical criticism. He was a monk who was neither an academic nor a theologian but a historical critic. He was expelled from his order for some of his critical writings. Simon preferred to be a grammarian than a theologian and preferred to write in the vernacular French and not Latin. Much of Simon’s works were a herald of things to come in the Enlightenment.