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.

The scientific study of the New Testament was the work of the “neologians,” who were influenced by the historical critical works of two very important German scholars.

The first one was Johann Salomo Semler (1725 – 1791). He tried to avoid the “pitfalls” of orthodoxy, Pietism, and extreme rationalism. Instead, he proposed a new way wherein he could have an unrestricted use of criticism without compromising the faith. He advocated distinguishing faith and theology. The former, he argued, was a matter of religion and hence outside the bounds of criticism. The latter was not part of religion and, hence, open to ruthless critical research. In doing so, he was trying to protect faith but ended up doing more damage. He also focused on the canon, specifically, rejecting the orthodox view. Again, he tried to distinguish between the Bible and the word of God. Here too, in Semler’s view, the biblical canon could be freely debated while the word of God remained outside the realm of criticism.

Semler, in attempting to safeguard faith, opened the door to a dangerous bifurcation. His influence on eighteenth century biblical scholarship and later biblical studies cannot be overstated. One can notice the germ of neo-orthodoxy much before it’s time.

The second scholar to make a great impact in the field of New Testament studies was Johann David Michaelis (1717 – 1791). He was more conservative in his views than Semler. He believed in fulfilled prophecies and miracles and even agreed that the resurrected Christ was the “cornerstone of Christianity.” Nonetheless, he did not consider the Gospels to be infallible. In his monumental Introduction to the New Testament, he also dealt with text criticism. He believed that the early text could be classified in four early recensions: Western, Alexandrine, Edessene, and Byzantine.

In many ways his work appeared to be conservative but in the view of many it weakened the foundation of Christianity. In trying to bridge the gap between faith and reason, he destroyed the bridge itself.

Both Semler and Michaelis achieved quite different results than what they anticipated.



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.

New Testament scholarship saw a radical shift with the coming of deism. Deism was the birth child of the cosmology of Newton (1642-1727) and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. For the deists God was not some orthodox creed or some authoritarian establishment but just a natural, universal religion.

The works of John Locke (1632-1704) were instrumental in creating the framework for the impact of deism on NT scholarship. Even though Locke himself was not a deist, he formulated the philosophy that was exploited by the deists against NT. Contrary to the notion of innate ideas, as proposed by Descartes (1596-1650), Locke advocated an empirical epistemology. According to this view, there are two kinds of knowledge: external sensation and internal sensation. The mind is a blank slate wherein all knowledge comes in via external sensation. This knowledge is then appropriated and arranged by the reflection of the human mind. What cannot be known by reason is revealed by God through supernatural revelation. This revelation will not contradict reason. To this the deists retorted – if the supernatural revelation does not contradict reason, what’s the use of revelation. After all, the ordered universe and the rational mind was enough. Hence, fulfilled prophecy and supernatural miracles were no longer viable or necessary.

Locke was considered to be a pious Christian but he rejected the doctrine of original sin and was not fully orthodox with regards to the doctrine of the Trinity. He also rejected the idea of propitiatory, substitutionary atonement. He considered faith to be simply an assent to doctrines. Although Locke laid down the famous dictum: “The most certain interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself, and it alone is infallible,” his views on Scripture were far from orthodox. He held to the opinion that the Scripture has errors. He also argued that human beings did not inherit Adam’s guilt but only his mortality. Other divergent views of Locke were that speaking in tongues in Corinth was actually speaking in Hebrew.

The father of deism was Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) and the leader of the cause was Charles Blount (1654-1693). Deists claimed that God established a rational order at creation and then stepped away. Leading propagandists were John Toland (1699-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1657-1733). Toland’s basic thesis was that “there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” In other words, when the doctrine of the Gospels is exposed to reason, it is rational and free of any mystery. It is the clergy who have conspired to create the idea of the mysterious. He gave another important thesis: “Nor is there any different rule to be follow’d in the interpretation of Scripture from what is common to all other books.” Although, Toland allowed for miracles, he considered them compatible with reason.

Tindal, however, was sharper in his criticism of the Bible than Toland. He considered reason to be supreme and no scripture to be beyond the reach of reason. He further asked the question – how could anyone be certain of the text of the bible, if it has so many variants. He argued that Jesus simply revived the old religion and called people back to the religion of nature, the religion of reason.

Another deist, Anthony Collins (1676-1729) rejected fulfilled prophecy as legitimate to claim the authenticity of scripture or Christianity. He argued that since the Jewish people had manipulated the Jewish text to prevent the Christians from claiming the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy in Jesus, there was no use in trying to advocate fulfilled prophecy as a viable defence. Using allegorical interpretation of prophetic passages does not prove the truth of Christianity.

The charge against miracles was taken up by the deist Thomas Woolston (1669-1733). He tried to make a fool out of the clergy about miracles. Much can be said against Woolston’s approach. One major counterpoint is that if scripture itself lends natural explanations that invalidate miracles, then why didn’t the writers and scribes remove the incriminatory details.

Deism continued to flourish in England in the eighteenth century. Notable mentions include Peter Annet (1693-1769), Thomas Morgan (d. 1743), and Thomas Chubb (1697-1747). Annet called Moses an impostor and pointed out the discrepancies between the Paul of the letters and the Paul of the Acts. So also Morgan who blamed Moses for introducing senseless rituals of the Egyptians in the place of the rational religion of nature of Abraham, Noah, and Enoch. Christ was not the Messiah but a restorer of the natural religion. His attack of the OT is reminiscent of Marcion. He also denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Finally, Chubb questioned the authenticity of the Gospels. He rejected the notion that the Gospel writers were supernaturally inspired. To this can be added the doctrine of atonement, original sin, and Trinity.

Even though the deists were not biblical scholars, they raised some very important questions for biblical research. Their attacks were usually marked with sarcasm and ridicule. This did two things: open the door for more moderate attacks and open the door for defense of the scripture and orthodox Christianity. The latter somewhat impeded serious study of scripture. The deists assumed that nothing would be left of Christianity by the end of the eighteenth century but they failed to expect the coming of the Wesleyan revival. Neither did they expect the coming of David Hume (1711-1776) who argued that deism was not skeptical enough. Deism did not survive long in England but was revived in Germany.



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.

Unit 3

The Greek text of the New Testament was first published in Spain in 1514 in a polyglot edition of the University of Complutum (Alcalà). Two years later in 1516, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) published his edition of the Greek NT. In the years to come, Erasmus’ Greek text gained more prominence than the Complutensian polyglot and, after 1633, became known as the Textus Receptus. Richard Simon (1638-1712) was also an important player in the development of what later became known as Textual Criticism. Simon’s goal was to bring out the necessity of the tradition of the Catholic Church along with the Bible. To prove this thesis, Simon laid undue emphasis on the unreliability of the NT text as seen in the number of variants. In doing so, he unwittingly undermined the scriptures.

About the same time, the Anglican theologian John Mill (1645-1707) embarked on the monumental task of putting together a critical version of the Greek NT. He used the text of Stephen (1550), except for a few places, “whether by accident or design” (per Scrivener), and added a list of the vast number of variants at the bottom of each page. This was a bold step indeed. Mill began the work with a Prolegomena in Latin that laid out valuable information and gave his method in listing the readings. Not everyone was as appreciative of his untiring effort. His work was attacked vehemently by the likes of Daniel Whitby (1638-1725), who represented the old guard against deism. His view could be described as moderate or even progressive for the day with regards to NT scholarship. Nonetheless, he held to a preservationist view of the transmission of the NT text. On the other hand, scholars like Richard Bentley (1662-1742) did come to his rescue. Nonetheless, as Scrivener remarks: “Of the criticism of the New Testament in the hands of John Mill it may be said, that he found the edifice of wood, and left it marble.”

Mill’s work was not without its faults. Bristol notes, “It is true that his collations were not always correct, but the errors were usually in collations made by others rather than in those made by himself. In this early period, at the very beginning of textual criticism of the New Testament, he could not be expected to go far beyond his generation. Therefore, we must not be surprised that he did not make notes of such things as transpositions of words, homoioteleuta, and itacisms.” (Lyle O. Bristol, “New Testament Textual Criticism in the Eighteenth Century,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 69 no. 2 (June 1950), 103)

Tregelles affirms the problem with the collations from the early days of the discipline and points out that Mill based his use of the versions on the Latin translations of the versions in Walton’s Polyglot. He rightly remarks: “thus, whenever they are inadequate or inexact, he was betrayed into error.” Furthermore, Mill focused heavily on patristic citations but here as well, they were “often less complete.” Metzger further cautions that: “The Fathers are referred to merely by their names, and only occasionally does Mill provide the title of the patristic treatise in which the citation is preserved.”

Although a monumental attempt no doubt, Mill’s work is not the perfect gauge to measure the number of variants. Fox points out that “there are very numerous corrections of errors both typographical and editorial. J.J. Wetstein in his Greek Testament of 1751 estimates that there were 10,000 errors in Mill, and he is probably right.” If Mill’s data were recorded according to today’s standards and progress in the field, it would be much less spectacular.

Another scholar worthy of mention in the field of textual criticism in this period was Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752). He attempted to regain the confidence in the reliability of the NT text. He was the first scholar to classify the NT Greek manuscripts into families. He also formulated the classical precept: “The most difficult reading should be preferred.” Bengel’s Gnonom (a Commentary on the New Testament) served as a model for combining critical studies along with figures of speech and also devotional applications.  A contemporary of Bengel who also deserves to be mentioned was Johann Jakob Wettstein (1657-1740). He too focused on the variants at the bottom of the page, claiming that many of them were the original text.

Such was the beginning of the discipline that became known as textual criticism of the New Testament.



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.

Unit 1

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.

–    Christologically

–    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.

%d bloggers like this: