Developments in NT/Christian Origins
A couple of days ago, in a comment to my posting on “NT Studies in the 20th Century,” Rich Griese asked for a list of “discoveries” in the study of Christian origins in recent times. In my response to his comment, I noted that we think more in terms of “developments” in our approach and understanding, often based on effective challenges to prior assumptions, but sometimes also prompted by the discovery or appearance of new data (e.g., the Qumran material, or early NT papyri). I could recommend readers to Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). But Rich’s query intrigued me, so here’s my own ad hoc list of what I think are major developments in the study of NT/Christian origins over the last century or so. (Developments take longer in this field than in the bench-sciences.) These are developments in the historical study/approach to the NT and earliest Christianity, so other matters don’t appear (e.g., hermeneutical/theological issues). I’d welcome other scholars (if they can take the time to read this blog) to comment and add their own proposals.
- The “de-throning” of the textus receptus and the turn to a critically-based NT text. Westcott & Hort (1880s) were crucial (though they built much on the work of earlier scholars). Today, all scholars agree that our editions of the NT must be based on sound critical principles and the best evidence subjected to critical analysis.
- The discovery & publication of early NT papyri. In particular, the Chester Beatty biblical papyri (which includes both NT & OT) in the 1930s had profound effects thereafter on scholarly notions about the early history of the NT writings. The Bodmer biblical papyri (1950s-1960s) furthered this. We now have copies of NT writings (often partial/fragmentary) that take us back to ca. 200 CE, and so allow us to peek back into the second century. This evidence still needs to be mined further, but has already generated significant shifts in scholarly views (e.g., the demise of the “Caesarean text” of the Gospels, and theories of a 3rd or 4th century “recension” behind the “Alexandrian” text of the Gospels).
- Methods in text-critical analysis. These include more soundly-based quantitative methods (prompted particularly by E.C. Colwell in the 1960s) for establishing textual relationships of manuscripts. Now, with the development of computer-applications, there are further developments, esp. the Muenster-based “Coherence Based Genealogical Method” for attempting to map the “textual flow” of the transmission of NT writings.
- A greater sophistication in our handling of the Gospels: In particular, the recognition that the Gospels incorporate (1) Jesus-tradition that stemmed from Jesus, then (2) passed through a few decades of circulation and adaptation in early churches, and also (3) the editorial and authorial work of the individual authors of the Gospels. This development really captures scholarly work across several decades.
- The growing recognition that the apostle Paul was firmly Jewish in formative background and remained so in his life as apostle to the Gentiles. From Schweitzer, Machen, W.D. Davies, Munck, and then E.P. Sanders and others more recently, this has now become the general stance for Pauline scholarship (a shift from some early 20th-cent views of Paul as a “radical Hellenist”). Controversies remain, but the debate is now conducted on this premise.
- A more vivid sense of early Christian diversity. It should have been clear all along from the NT texts and early church fathers, but for many it took the publication of various extra-canonical texts (e.g., the Nag Hammadi corpus) to realize this.
- A much more sopisticated understanding of the Jewish context of earliest Christianity. The Qumran scrolls are crucial, of course, generating changes on many issues (see the new Oxford Handbook on the Dead Sea Scrolls). But also key work by Liebermann, Bickerman and Hengel (in particular), built on by others subsequently, has crumbled earlier tight compartments of “Palestinian-Jewish” and “Hellenistic” used then to shape views of earliest Christianity.
- A more accurate sense of the social composition of earliest churches. Correcting earlier notions of earliest Christianity as almost entirely comprised of slaves and peasants, it is now clear that, e.g., Paul’s churches were made up of a more diverse collection of people, and that the local leaders were more often small business people and others with some property, schooling, and experience in leadership. Edwin Judge’s 1960 classic is probably the turning-point: Edwin A. Judge, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (London: Tyndale Press, 1960). Also, of course, there is now a far greater sense of the important place of women in earliest churches.
- The early eruption of Jesus-devotion. To cite a more recent development (i.e., of the last 20 yrs), it has become clear that a remarkable devotion to Jesus emerged astonishingly early in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution, so early that in Paul’s letters it is already presumed as characteristic of Christian circles, both Jewish and Gentile. (I immodestly note that I’ve had a hand in bringing this awareness more to the fore, but a growing number of scholars have made important contributions too.)