Reading The New Testament

It is one thing to try to form a picture of how the New Testament came together in the early Christian centuries, another to decide how best to read it today. Over the past two or three hundred years, numerous approaches have been adopted to the text, mostly literary or historical in character—in line with general cultural and academic trends. Though usually conducted by religious people, these enquiries have tended to move attention from the New Testament writings as essentially having their role within present-day religion.

Measured by literary or historical methods, they become documents of their time of origin, to be assessed and analysed in their original contexts, so far as those can be identified. While there need be no denial or even neglect of their religious and theological significance, that too comes to be viewed in its firstcentury setting, and 'significance for us' is mediated through a first-century prism. In certain respects of course, 'significance for us' has come to seem problematic in the light of the original home of these writings in such distant and alien times and places (Morgan and Barton 1988).

Ever since critical study of the New Testament in the modern way began, it has concentrated overwhelmingly on discovering (and imagining) various aspects of the contexts in which the writings arose. The last two or three centuries have seen phase after phase of this historical picture-making (Tuckett 1987). Each phase has brought its own kind of question to the text, but always with an eye on its origins. For instance: who was the author, the one to whom the work is ascribed, or some other? And if we cannot know his (alas, unlikely to be 'her') name, can we outline his mind-set, his education, perhaps his religious or social provenance? Where did the writing take place, given what we know of the geographical spread of early Christianity? And again, where the text itself gives information, is it to be taken at face value? Given that some at least of our texts (especially the Gospels) surely have a pre-history, in the shape of traditions about Jesus or collections of his teachings, can we get at them by penetrating the skin of the finished products? Adding what we may know from other sources, from Judaism and Hellenistic writings, can we construct a viable picture and, if possible, story of Jesus (Meier 1991)?

Taking another line, can we imagine the circumstances in early Christianity in which it would have been desirable to preserve the various kinds of material? Assuming that the early Churches were not given to appointing full-time archivists and remembered what remained useful, what activities, such as preaching, decision-making or worship, led to the using and the writing of books like the Gospels and the epistles?

This catalogue of questions, coming in turn upon the scene, covers the greater part of scholarly activity down to the middle of this century. Notice that while there has certainly been analysis of the text itself, most of this work goes behind the text, in order to imagine (with both the strengths and the weaknesses implied by that word) what lies there—the early Christian world and its activities or the life of Jesus. The text has been a door: and where only the text is in our hands, is it surprising that it seems to open, in its various parts, on to any number of different scenes, some complementary, but some at odds with one another? And is it surprising that sometimes scholars are modest enough to sprinkle their work lavishly with 'perhaps' or 'possibly', or (less modestly) 'probably'?

In recent years, that historical orientation has continued to flourish and to express itself, it seems, ever more sharply. Two trends are promising. One of them means crediting the writers of the Gospels, and not just those of the epistles (where the fact is obvious), with strong religious and theological interests—ideas with which they have been ready to impregnate their books from end to end. Whatever traditions, whatever older documentary sources (e.g. Matthew and Luke using Mark) they have adopted, they have put their individual stamp on the work as a whole (Perrin 1970). That word, 'whole', comes to the fore. We move away from traditions, stories and sayings, playing their individual part in early church life and being modified by various pressures, and instead we contemplate finished products—still, certainly, in imagined historical settings, but as wholes, totalities.

The second trend leads off from the first, but takes the step of bringing modern sociological angles of vision to bear on these ancient religious texts. More obviously than any of the other approaches that have been used, this one blatantly asks of the original writers and their readers questions that would dumbfound them. Paul thought he was writing transcendental truth about Jesus and the hopes of his followers: ah yes, but he was also constructing a new symbolic universe, expressing deep concerns with the distribution of power, and inventing devices to deal with unrealized hopes (e.g. for the triumphant return of Jesus). Such treatment of the documents, again usually viewing them holistically, is subversive, and certainly seems to place barriers between the text and those who wish to use it devotionally: they are not forbidden but they are given a douche before they go about their business (Kee 1980).

Treating texts as wholes has, however, provided the setting for another, quite different development. All along, and not surprisingly, the various kinds of enquiry addressed to the New Testament writings have been in tune with interests current in other kinds of study and in the culture at large. In different periods, different kinds of enquiry seem to impose themselves-only to fade later into the background. So some of the purer insights of modern literary criticism have come to be applied to our texts. With ascetic radicalism, there has been in some circles a banishing of all historical interest: the text is what we have, and to the text alone we must attend (and indeed, because it is all we have, it is only to the text that it is sensible to attend) (Moore 1989). Of course it does not please: people will not cease to ask about the history behind the text, and even if they have begun to learn that definite answers are often not available, many have begun to feel an interest in discovering the frames within which the truth about Christian origins, including Jesus' life, is likely to lie. While it may be possible to combine the best of various approaches, there is, all the same, no doubt that a purely literary enquiry into the books (a Gospel's structure, patterns of words and themes, repetitions and echoes), with historical matters simply put aside, can give unsuspected light—and even make some of the old historical questions and their answers look crass. Is it more important to fidget about the precise historicity of Jesus' passion or to grasp meaning in the various tellings of the story?

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