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Is the New Testament a Field of Study?

June 21, 2017

In the course of researching for another topic, I came across my notes of an article by Leander Keck, one of the major American figures in NT studies in the late 20th century:  “Is the New Testament a Field of Study? Or, From Outler to Overbeck and Back,” Second Century 1 (1981): 19-35.  It’s the sort of reflective piece that is best written by someone with ample time in the subject, and Keck’s essay is well worth the reading, even these several decades later than its publication.

On the one hand, Keck urges that for historical inquiry into early Christianity, the NT writings must be treated the same as any other ancient source.  To cite Keck in his own words,

“All texts are equal in the court of criticism. For this reconstructive task, what matters is not whether a text is canonical but whether it was produced by someone who considered himself a Christian, and whether we can determine what kind of Christianity it manifests. For a reconstruction of the early Christian past, all such texts are simply ‘early Christian literature.'” (p. 30).

On the other hand, he contends, to “dissolve” the NT, treating it as “an error to be rectified,” produces distortions in theological and also historical work.  Keck argues that amassing “Early Christian literature” does not indicate “which of them was influential and which was marginal, if not obscure, in its own time.” Granting that it is difficult to determine this exactly, he nevertheless insists, “But if the historian disregards the fact that a particular corpus of texts was becoming canonical [in the early centuries], then one’s historical perception is skewed.” (p. 31).

Referring to “the Mandaean fever of the 20s and a severe case of Qumranitis in the 50s,” Keck observes that “repeatedly our agenda probably elevated to major significance for the New Testament certain texts which might not have been nearly as influential on the early Christians as we have made them.” (p, 32).

Given the considerable body of early Christian literature, the selection of certain texts to function as scripture in a wide diversity of circles of early Christianity should not be ignored:  “For the historian of early Christianity to treat this as a curious and probably unfortunate development or to relegate it to the shag end of a course in New Testament introduction . . . is to minimize the one thing that links later Christianity, including that of our own time, with that of the early centuries.” (p. 32)

As to the canonization process, Keck writes, “It is a commonplace, and one I have no desire to overturn, that to a considerable extent canonization was really ratification, that what was canonized had already established its preeminence as scripture before it was made canonical in the strict sense.”  (p. 33)  In a footnote, Keck cites A.C. Sundberg, “The Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,” Interpretation 29(1975): 356, in support of the distinction between “scripture” as “authoritative writings” and “canon” as “a closed collection of Scriptures.”

So, as for the question posed in his title, whether the NT is “intelligible as a field of study”, the answer must be no, “for the New Testament alone is an unhistorical abstraction from historical reality.” He further urges that for historical study, “What is to be desired rather is a history of early Christianity in which a central place is given precisely to the restless dialectic of the emergent canon(s) and the communities in which it (they) was (were) taking shape.” (p. 35)

In a similar spirit, our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins from the outset has represented a commitment to historical inquiry that takes account of the wider context in which Jesus and the movement that became Christianity emerged.  To keep things manageable, this has meant a chronological focus on the first two centuries or so.

In short, for theological purposes the NT is (and should be) a “privileged” body of texts.  But for historical purposes we should both take account of the breadth and diversity of early Christian literature and also the dynamics that from a remarkably early point gave to certain texts a special status and authority among at least many (most?) early Christian circles.

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  1. Deane permalink

    On “the breadth and diversity of early Christian literature”. Have you any conclusions, however necessarily tentative, on the relative proportions of types of Christians (‘proto’-orthodox, ‘Gnostic’, ‘Marcionite’, ‘Manichaean’, etc, or otherwise grouped), in each of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, within the Roman Empire or there and elsewhere? Just a small question.

    • I suspect that the majority of Christians were in the varied body of Christian groups that made up the emerging “proto-orthodox” camp (and it was a varied body, not a monochrome one). The critiques of Christianity (e.g., Celsus) seem directed against fairly recognizable beliefs of the emerging “great church”.

  2. Thanks, agreed!

  3. Thank you for the post, Professor! This has been a major concern ever since Wrede and later by H. Räisänen. My Doctor Vater Péter Balla dedicated a major part of his dissertation to this issue. It is still a big discussion in Theological Seminaries how far we can venture out in literature while reconstructing the context of the first Christians. Would not it be better to ask the question this way: “Is the NT a field of historical study?”? (I know, Keck should answer this) But you also distinguish between theological study (of which historical investigation is a relevant part) and “pure” historical study where you cannot include or exclude texts based on their canonical status…. But theological investigation is also a legitimate field of study.

    • Otto: Yes, an approach to the NT with theological intent is a perfectly legitimate endeavor. Indeed, a necessary endeavor for churches. Keck’s point was that for historical inquiry about early Christianity, we BOTH must take account of the wider body of Christian literature AND ALSO note that some writings were acquiring a special/scriptural status and so are of particular historical value in reflecting where the mainstream of early Christianity lay.
      In theological use of the NT as well, the first task is the best historical exegesis we can do, assessing meaning in the setting of the writers/writings. So all relevant evidence needs to be taken into account, but for the purpose of grasping the meaning of these particular writings in the NT.

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