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A Neglected Factor (and Book) in NT Studies

April 7, 2014

In a now-famous (among NT scholars) essay published originally in 1975, the great Nils Dahl drew attention to, “The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology,” Reflections 75 (1975): 5-8; reprinted in Nils A. Dahl, Jesus the Christ:  The Historical Origins of Christological Doctrine (ed. Donald H. Juel; Fortress Press, 1991), 153-63.  That “neglected factor” is “God”.

In comparison to the oodles of studies published on Christology, and the many on numerous other topics, it was (and remains) hard to find much written on “God.”  Over a couple of decades back, I was asked to write a major article on “God” for a reference work on the Gospels.  I trawled through ca. 20 years of New Testament Abstracts (the major index of scholarly journal literature in the field), and I think I found a total of four articles relevant to the task.

More recently, I was asked to write the volume on “God” for a monograph series, “Library of Biblical Theology.”  Again, I found the bibliographical task easy!  A few further publications had appeared since I wrote that article, but there remained plenty of scope for further work.

I was set a word-limit, and I try to stay within one if given.  So, the result was a modest-sized volume:  God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), 152 pp. including bibliography & indexes.  But, within the limits assigned, I tried to do justice to major matters.

Unfortunately, that book has been one of the best kept secrets of the publishing world!  The only review I recall was a nice one in Spanish.  And the reason seems to be that the publisher didn’t send the book out for reviews.  (It would take a lot of convincing for me ever to go with Abingdon Press again!)  But I find myself often referring readers of this blog site and others as well to the book, as it’s the place where I’ve tried to map the main contours of the “God-discourse” that we find in NT writings.

So, acknowledging the naked self-publicity involved, I do think that, in good conscience, I can recommend the book to those who would like to study who/what the “God” of the NT writings is.  Whatever its faults, on the subject of “God” there isn’t a whole lot of competition out there still!

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  1. Steve Walach permalink

    Could the scarcity of “God” scholarship in the NT have something to do with Jesus’s attaining God status? A human becoming ‘’God” is feat that runs counter to every Jewish concept of God – whether referred to as El, Elohim or YHWH – who is primarily formless, infinite, unbound by time and space. Once that Rubicon has been crossed how can one assume that the continuity of “God” in OT and NT remains intact?

    When I first read your post, I was taken aback – so little about God, the main event? But then, given the conflict for OT readers posed by a God-Man and the probable awkwardness of NT readers trying to bridge that anomaly, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

    Coming in the “Name of the Lord,” as the crowd saluted Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem (MT 21: 9 – the Palm Sunday reading), is different from proclaiming Jesus equivalent to the Name, as do most interpreters of John’s gospel.

    Nevertheless, thanks for drawing attention to this counter-intuitive revelation and, metaphorically speaking, the elephant in the room.

    • Steve: Whatever conflict there may be with traditional Jewish thinking, I don’t think that is a factor in why NT scholarship has “neglected” God. It’s more I think (as Dahl proposed) that God is, well, taken for granted. The God of the NT is the God of the OT/Jewish tradition, and so some (e.g., Dunn) judge that the NT adds little to that picture (I disagree).

      • Steve Walach permalink

        Larry –

        Pinning down the “God” of the OT is no small feat either, and, yes, I agree the NT adds to the picture, perhaps brightening it (when not conflicting with Jewish thinking) and providing the “God” discussion a significant degree of clarity, even more so, I think, if one also taps into sections from the Didache and some of the Nag Hammadi discoveries.

        On another note, I am still just finding my way around your website, and I happened to click on the link New Testament Studies: Questions for the Discipline (and proposed responses), which is offered above the “comments” in this “Neglected Factor” thread.

        Your address from 1999 upon assuming the Chair of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology is a remarkable manifesto – required reading, I’d say. Personal, still timely and only twenty pages long, it highlights numerous reasons for Edinburgh’s (and your) commitment to NT scholarship – especially necessary, you write, in a pluralistic society but also important in maintaining the “ever reforming” aim of the Protestant tradition, which, you note, is also much in keeping with Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II, whose inspiration is being fanned anew by Pope Francis.

        The address is candid but also heartfelt, and as the new Common Core Standards require US schools to offer “bible as literature” components in secondary education, all the more pertinent and instructive.

  2. James Ernest permalink

    Speaking of neglect (of God or books about God in the Bible): I see that the Gaventa FS is awaiting an SBL member to volunteer to receive a review copy:

  3. Fully agree. A while back I was looking for such a book, on Amazon. Sadly I missed yours and only found a few. I am looking forward to exploring your book. Thank you for your bit of self-publicity!

  4. Joseph Kelly permalink

    Here are some reviews I found on ATLA:

    Croteau, David A. “God in New Testament theology.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 3 (2011): 643-645

    Richardson, Neil. “God in New Testament theology.” Modern Believing 53, no. 2 (2012): 214-216

    Guijarro Oporto, Santiago. “God in New Testament theology.” Salmanticensis 59, no. 1 (2012): 129-136.

    • Yes, I had forgotten Oporto’s review (which is actually given to two of my books), and have recently been informed of the other two.

  5. Marianne Meye Thompson addresses this topic in her book The God of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001), citing Dahl’s work in the Introduction. She specifically acknowledges Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham (who had somewhat recently finished his own God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), a work of which Thompson was unaware at the time of her manuscript’s near completion), and others, as making substantial contributions. I highly recommend her work, though it’s focus is, as the title makes clear, on John’s Gospel.

    • Yes, Thompson’s book is very good, and I cite it in my review of scholarly publications in the opening chapter of God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010).

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel permalink

    Dr Hurtado, though my question is not directly related to your book, it is related to God, Jesus, and 2nd Temple Judaism, so I hope that makes it okay. 🙂

    Someone recently directed me to the works of Margaret Barker, particularly her book *The Great Angel*. I of course immediately did an internet search to find out more about her, as I was unaware of her name, but she appears to be a respected Old Testament scholar. I confess I had never heard of the proposal that before the Deuteronomic reform there may have been an Israelite pantheon of sorts, El and his son Yahweh. Interesting. I also gather that she believes that this kind of religion survived into the first century and that it was this model that allowed Christian Jews to so quickly embrace the divinity of Jesus.

    May I ask you to comment on her thesis. Is it plausible? convincing? How has the scholarly community received it? TIA.

    • Barker’s views are regarded in the scholarly guild focused on earliest Christianity as peculiar, eccentric, idiosyncratic. That early Israelite religion involved the notion that YHWH had a consort is now widely accepted. That El and YHWH were taken as Father & Son is not. Instead, most OT scholars think that YHWH was understood as El, which seems to be what the OT texts reflect.
      But in any case, Barker’s claim that earliest Christianity represents the re-eruption of the sort of Senior-deity/junior-deity schema that she posits is not accepted by anyone in the field to my knowledge.
      Her book, The Great Angel shows how she throws texts together to achieve an artificial synthesis that cannot in fact be found anywhere.

  7. Michael permalink

    For what it’s worth: God in NT Theology was a required text when I took the doctoral seminar on the doctrine of God at Wheaton College in 2012.

  8. Greetings, Dr. Hurtado. I bought the book and read through it some time ago. I think you make many needed points there – although I had some questions about the NT theology you advocate there. I intend to blog through it chapter by chapter some time, which could turn into an actual review. I’ll say this about it; it all seriousness, it is great virtue that this is a short book – the kind of book that is, while substantial, short enough to read and re-read. I appreciate both your written work and your blogging!

  9. James Ernest permalink

    Larry, I have sent you a couple of reviews.
    I think one problem is the disciplinary boundary between NT studies and patristics. Some patristics scholars (very crudely–about half?) see themselves as working in theology. A much smaller percentage of NT scholars see themselves as theologians. On the patristics side, a couple of volume with some interesting pieces on God in early Christian thought are: God in Early Christian Thought: Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson, edited by Andrew B. McGowan, Brian E. Daley, SJ, and Timothy J. Gaden (Brill, 2009); and The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, edited by D. Jeffrey Bingham (Routledge, 2010). I know people (yourself included) who have expressed interest in knocking down the disciplinary boundary, but I think that boundary is probably still just as visible from outer space as the Great Wall of China.

  10. Roger permalink

    I did not know of this book. I will order my copy today. Keep writing, I am throughy enjoying your thoughts and challenges.

  11. Thanks! Here’s a link to my RBL review of another important volume on this topic, namely Jochen Flebbe’s Solus Deus:,7635,7307

  12. Is one of the reasons for a lack of scholarship on God due to the fact that many scholars are atheist?
    And on that subject, would you say that many of these atheist scholars are more atheist due to an unscholarly and perhaps, in my believing mind, irrational dislike of Christians? For example, Bart Ehrman seems more to be rebelling against his upbringing rather than holding a convincing atheist position. Having read some of his work, I don’t find it convincing and am somewhat amazed that some do.
    Of course, professing atheism or at least agnosticism would seem to add legitimacy to any “pro-Christianity” conclusions they come to. Funny though that atheism is a sign of legitimacy and is not seen as a bias in any anti-Christian conclusions. I also think many scholars are of the 60’s generation of rebellion against any authority, which is funny because it seems being a Christian these days is to be the rebel. Your thoughts?

    • No, Byron. The neglect of “God” in NT studies has characterized the field for a long, long time, and both Christian and non/post-Christian scholars are guilty. The main reason, I think, is that scholars have tended to treat “God” as a self-evident category, Jesus being the factor that required explanation.

  13. Amen, Larry; I had a very similar experience when I wrote my article on God in Acts: Steve Walton, ‘The Acts—of God? What is the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ All About?’, Evangelical Quarterly 80 (2008) 291-306, available freely online here:

    • Nice article, Steve. As you say, implications for biblical studies…but also for preaching and ordinary reading.

  14. kosseyja permalink

    I purchased a copy in November 2010 and continue to appreciate how much lucid insight you packed into such a slim volume. Thank you for producing this remarkable synthesis.

  15. ‘naked self-publicity’ indeed! Have just ordered a copy!

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