Advances In New Testament Scholarship

One thing that strengthens my conviction in the truth of Christianity is seeing the advances made in New Testament studies since its inception. I find these advancements particularly encouraging because the field is not even slanted towards Christianity.

New Testament studies is a secular field with a liberal history.[1] Its pioneers viewed the New Testament texts with skepticism. They were convinced that the historical Jesus was not reflected in the New Testament texts and sought to uncover the “real Jesus” behind what they believed to be the legendary accretions and theology in the Gospels. The field of New Testament studies was profoundly shaped by its era, the Enlightenment, and its prejudice against divine and supernatural causation. 

With the emergence of biblical historical criticism in the 19th century, liberal scholars set out to uncover “the truth” behind the New Testament texts. Whoever Jesus was, he could not have been the “Jesus of faith”, and none of the miraculous events in the Gospels could have happened. These scholars examined the Bible with Enlightenment presuppositions and liberal assumptions, yet in time, especially in the last several decades, the views of scholarship would change, on many fronts, towards conservative positions. More and more devout Christians have entered the field and many first-rate works arguing for conservative conclusions have also been produced.[2] Later on in this post, we will go through many of these developments in scholarship. 

Before anything else, I want to point out that New Testament studies, in the tradition bequeathed to us by its liberal progenitors, is a valuable field. It has deepened our understanding of the Bible immensely and produced a lot of good fruit. As Pope Benedict XVI (a great admirer of the historical-critical tradition but also a critic of it) said, the field has many positive points, it just has its flaws — flaws that we need to be aware of.[3] 

Many scholars view the Bible through the lens of reason alone as opposed to faith and reason. Although this approach can bear a lot of fruit, it also leads to erroneous conclusions such as Jesus’ predictions of his death being invented after the fact and backdated into the Gospels. Another example of an erroneous conclusion is Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (which fulfilled the Messianic prophecy in Zechariah) being invented, a creative retelling of a story from the Hebrew Bible.

Philosophical presuppositions also play a major role in how a scholar assesses the data. These presuppositions can lead one to erroneous conclusions about the Biblical texts as well. New Testament studies is such a polarized field today because of philosophical presuppositions.[4] You either believe in the possibility of miracles or you do not. You either believe in the person of Jesus Christ or you do not. A scholar’s views on these matters affect his perception of the New Testament, which in turn, affect the assumptions he adopts, his assessment of the data, and ultimately, his historical reconstruction of the past. Giving an example of this, a scholar who does not believe in the possibility of miracles will view overtly miraculous events in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ nature miracles, as non-historical — the result of legendary embellishment. This, in turn, will also make him more skeptical of other accounts in the Gospels. In order to account for these elements in the Gospels, this scholar will also adopt a pessimistic view of the oral period before the Gospels were written. 

In the end, a scholar’s philosophical presuppositions (Christian or non-Christian) affects how he views New Testament texts, which in turn, affects how he views, weighs, and interprets the data available to him. As Pope Benedict XVI remarked in his famous Erasmus Lecture:

The debate about modern exegesis is not at its core a debate among historians, but among philosophers.[5]

As Christians, we need to read the Biblical texts not from a position of reason alone but from a position of faith and reason. The Bible was meant to be read through the lens of both. As Christians, we also need to engage the scholarship of secular scholars and provide thoughtful critiques of their critiques. 

With that said, let us go through an overview of significant advances made in New Testament studies. A lot of progress has been made in different areas and Christians have good reasons to be optimistic about the direction of the field heading into the future:

The Progress

Genre of the Gospels: Prior to the 1990s, a large segment of New Testament scholarship viewed the Gospels as belonging to the genre of sui-generis, a genre unique to the gospels. This sui generis was viewed as a type of mythology. Today, the consensus view is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography.[6] Richard Burridge’s “What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography” (1992) rapidly overturned the views of scholarship on the genre of the Gospels. Burridge actually began his work intending to refute the thesis of Charles Talbert and a few other scholars that the Gospels belonged to the genre of ancient biography. Over the course of his research, however, he reversed his opinion, and his work would go on to change the world of scholarship on the subject.

Miracles: In the past, scholars viewed the miracle accounts in the Gospels as legends. Today, virtually all scholars, including skeptical scholars, agree that Jesus was a miracle worker — particularly, that he was a healer and exorcist who performed deeds that were viewed by his contemporaries as “miracles”. Scholars will disagree over how these miracles are to be interpreted (e.g. healings of organic illnesses and therefore pointing to divine causation, healings of psychosomatic illnesses, or the result of the placebo effect) but scarcely anyone disputes the fact that Jesus was a miracle worker. As scholar Graham Twelftree notes:

There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus’ questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works.[7]

Likewise, scholars Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans note:

Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus’ ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as “miracles”.[8]

Notable studies on the subject of Jesus’ miracles include John Meier’s “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus Volume II: Mentor, Message and Miracles” (1994), and Craig Keener’s magisterial two-volume work on miracles, “Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts” (2011).

Authorship of the Gospels: Although the Gospel authors do not identify themselves within the main body of text (internal anonymity), this does not mean that they were published without any authorship attribution (formal anonymity) or that no one knew who wrote them. Simon Gathercole’s “The Alleged Anonymity of the Gospels” (2017) decisively refutes the primary argument in favor of formal anonymity, showing that it was extremely common for authors of ancient biographies to not identify themselves within the main body of the text but elsewhere (e.g. title above the main body of the work, in the capitula list, a running header, etc). We have over 100+ biographies written between the mid-second century BC and the late fourth century AD and all of them are internally anonymous except two![9] Gathercole, adding on to the arguments of Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham, also presents new evidence to argue for the high probability that the names “Mark”, “Matthew”, “Luke” and “John” appeared on the cover page of the canonical Gospels when they were published, just as they appear in all surviving ancient manuscripts. When it comes to the question of authorship, currently, a large number of scholars (probably the majority) believe that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke.[10] Many scholars also believe that John the Apostle wrote John’s Gospel while many others believe that John’s disciples had a hand in writing the Gospel based on his reminiscences. Together, these positions enjoy “considerable support”.[11] In fact, in scholar James Charlesworth’s list of views concerning the identity of the beloved disciple, the apostle John enjoys “the longest list of defenders”.[12]

The Reliability of the Gospels: Many aspects of Jesus’ life enjoy strong support from historical-critical analysis and are widely agreed to be historical by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike. These include Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, his forming of the Twelve as a group, his ministry of miracle-working, his teaching on the primacy of love, his beatitudes, his parables in the Gospels, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, his conflicts with the Jewish religious leadership, his disruption at the temple, his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, etc.[13] More broadly, Craig Keener has argued for the general reliability of the Gospels based on multiple factors (e.g. the genre of the Gospels, their being early empire biographies written within living memory, the reliability of transmission through disciples, the findings of modern memory studies, what we know about oral tradition, Palestinian-Jewish coloring throughout the Gospels, etc) in his highly acclaimed work, “Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels” (2019). Michael Licona’s “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography” (2016) is another notable work in this area. Licona’s work shows that “a very large majority” of differences in the Gospels are the result of the author’s use of literary devices common in ancient biographies (e.g. spotlighting, compression, displacement, etc) rather than contradiction.[14]

The Gospel of John: In the field of New Testament studies, the Gospel of John is traditionally ignored in historical Jesus research. Its differences with the Synoptic tradition has led scholars to see it as a theological document rather than a historical one. In the last two decades, however, substantial evidence has mounted in favor of John as a valuable historical source. John contains a lot of information not found in the Synoptics and this information has been impressively corroborated by recent archaeological discoveries. John’s gospel contains very precise topographical information about Jerusalem and very accurate knowledge of Judean traditions.[15] Its author displays intimate knowledge of pre-70 AD Jerusalem (Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Romans). There are now growing calls to include John in historical Jesus research. As scholar James Charlesworth notes in his paper, “The Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: A Paradigm Shift?” (2010)

John is independent of the Synoptics and has special sources that need to be evaluated for their historical value. John has amazing details about pre-70 Jerusalem and archaeologists are frequently able to prove John’s historical accuracy … should scholars call for a paradigm shift in the study of the historical Jesus so that all data is included for assessment, including evidence that seems to lie hidden behind the kerygmatic Christology of John’s narrative? The evidence surveyed above indicates that the obvious answer in terms of historiography and reliable historical data is ‘yes’.[16]

Acts of the Apostles: Acts of the Apostles used to be viewed in a low light in scholarship. In time, however, a great amount of material in Acts would be corroborated, even in matters of small detail. Today, Acts of the Apostles stands firmly vindicated. As Roman historian A.N. Sherwin White comments:

The confirmation of historicity is overwhelming … any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.[17]

Notable works on the subject include classicist Colin Hemer’s magisterial “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History” (1989), as well as Craig Keener’s extremely thorough four-volume commentary on Acts, “Acts: An Exegetical Commentary” (2012).

Jesus as God Among the Earliest Christians: For most of the 20th century, scholars widely viewed belief in Jesus’ divinity as a later development, one that arose within the early Church several decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. Today, the consensus of scholars is that “high Christology” (the view of Jesus as a pre-existent divine figure alongside the Father within Jewish monotheism) arose extremely early and goes back to the earliest period of the Church. As scholar Crispin Fletcher-Louis noted in 2015: 

There is now, however, a newly emerging consensus that a “high Christology” goes back to the earliest period of the church and that it was adopted by the Jerusalem-based disciples in the early years, or even the first few months, of the movement after Jesus’ death.[18]

This latest revolution in scholarship owes itself primarily to the works of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. See Hurtado’s “One God, One Lord” (1988) and “Lord Jesus Christ” (2005), and Bauckham’s “God Crucified” (1999) and “Jesus and the God of Israel” (2008)

Jesus as Divine in All Four Gospels: In line with the previously mentioned revolution in scholarship, the consensus view among scholars today is that Jesus is portrayed as divine in all four Gospels. Two notable works that show the divinity of Jesus in the Gospels are Richard Hay’s “Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness” (2016) and “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” (2017). In the past, most scholars used to think that Jesus was only portrayed as divine in the gospel of John. This is no longer the case.

Jesus’ Predictions of his Death: The historicity of Jesus’ predictions about his death has received strong support in the last two decades. Today, the position that Jesus predicted his death is held by a considerable number of scholars, including leading critical scholar Dale Allison.[19] It is now a position in the mainstream. Notable works in this area include Michael Licona’s “Did Jesus Predict His Death and Vindication/Resurrection” (2010) and Michael Barber’s “Did Jesus Anticipate a Violent Death? The Implications of Memory Research and Dale C. Allison’s Methodology” (2020).

The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus: The evidence for the resurrection has received major support in recent decades. Significant works in this area include N.T. Wright’s magisterial “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (2003) and Michael Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” (2010). In the near future, Gary Habermas, the leading Christian scholar on the resurrection, will also publish his multi-volume 5,500+ page magnum opus on the subject. 

The evidence for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus is so strong that virtually all scholars, including skeptical scholars, believe that the disciples had experiences that convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. Of course, how these “experiences” are to be interpreted is another matter (i.e. actual appearances of a risen Jesus or some variant of the hallucination theory). As scholar Michael Licona notes:

[S]ubsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences … that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by a nearly unanimous consensus of modern scholars and may therefore be added to our “historical bedrock”.[20]

Some skeptical scholars have put forward the idea that Paul, our earliest Christian source, preached spiritual resurrection, not physical resurrection. This interpretation, already lacking in evidence (the Jewish concept of resurrection is physical in nature in all surviving sources), has been dealt heavy blows in recent papers by James Ware and John Granger Cook. See Ware’s “Paul’s Understanding of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5” (2014) and “The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5” (2014) as well as Cook’s “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15” (2017). Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed that he rose from the dead and physically appeared to them. This is a historical datum that skeptical scholars need to grapple with. 

The historicity of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, a significant subject in the debate surrounding the resurrection, has also enjoyed strong support in the last two decades. The most notable works in this area come from Craig Evans, John Granger Cook (a leading scholar on Roman crucifixion) and Jodi Magness (a Jewish archaeologist and expert in first-century Jewish burial practices). See Evan’s “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus” (2005), Cook’s “Crucifixion and Burial” (2011), and Magness’ “Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus” (2011)

Conclusion

As we have seen, on many fronts, New Testament scholarship has progressed in conservative directions (coming “full-circle”). Christian scholars like Larry Hurtado, Richard Hays, Craig Keener, and others have also been producing first-rate works and impacting the field in significant ways. To Christians, these developments provide very good reason for optimism heading into the future. Indeed, if Christianity is true, we should expect further study to validate the Bible.

References:

  1. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pgs. 3-13
  2. As observers have noted, more and more devout Christians have entered the field in the last few decades.

    As scholar Craig Blomberg noted in Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, pg. 53: “The proliferation of evangelicals in the academy means that there is hardly a discipline, subdiscipline, or sub-subdiscipline of New Testament, Gospels, or Jesus research in which committed, Bible-believing Christians have not published significant works at the highest levels of scholarship”.

    On the Catholic side, Dr. Andrew Swafford commented in an interview on Pints With Aquinas: “What is different now … [is that] you have got devoutly Catholic scholars with all the linguistic and historical street cred you can ever want and they are building huge bridges”.
  3. Rampage, Jesus Interpreted, pgs. 61-64
  4. Ibid, pg. 14
  5. Benedict XVI, Biblical Interpretation In Conflict, 19
  6. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 27
  7. Twelftree, The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206
  8. Chilton and Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, 11-12
  9. Gathercole, The Alleged Anonymity of the Gospels.
  10. Mike Licona. Who wrote the Gospel of Mark? Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TMY3VI-K9U&t=458s and Keener, Christobiography, pg. 227. Pelletier’s study is not released yet. All we know from the interview is that his survey shows a majority in favor of Markan authorship. I am going to be conservative though and assume that his results will show a “slight majority” in favor of Markan authorship since Michael Licona and Nick Peters did a survey on Markan authorship a few years ago (sampling of 75 critical scholars) and this was their result. Pelletier is Licona’s student and he volunteered to continue his and Peter’s research on the topic.
  11. Charlesworth, Disciple, pgs. 197–211
  12. Ibid.
  13. See Keener, Christobiography, pgs. 6-7 and James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (edited by Homlen and Porter).
  14. Licona, Why Are Their Differences in the Gospels, pg. 184.
  15. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: A Paradigm Shift?
  16. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: A Paradigm Shift?
  17. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pg. 189
  18. Fletcher-Louis, Jesus Monotheism: Volume 1, pg. 4
  19. Personal correspondence with Faithful Philosophy, who told me that “considerable” is in line with the treatments he has read.
  20. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg.  372

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