'Drawing from the Treasure Both New and Old': Current Trends in New Testament Studies

An Article by Mark Goodacre

This article first appeared in Scripture Bulletin 27/2 (July 1997), pp. 66-77.
It is reproduced here with permission.

1. A New Era

Critical study of the New Testament is in the process of radical transformation. Talk of postmodernism, paradigm-shifts and new approaches fills the air. As many of the old certainties disappear, a new generation of scholars is studying the New Testament armed with different agendas, fresh perspectives and innovative methods. It is now most unlikely that any Biblical Studies student could emerge from the British University system without having encountered in some form new disciplines like reader-response, narrative or rhetorical criticism, feminist hermeneutics or liberation perspectives.

A fundamental shift has taken place over the last thirty years or so (from the later 1960s), with a marked intensification over the last ten years or so (the 1990s). What has happened is a breakdown in confidence in some (not all) quarters in what has become known as the historical-critical approach. Gone now is the assumption that studying the New Testament necessarily involves historical-critical methods.(1) Until recently, books on reading or interpreting the New Testament dealt with questions that were in some measure historical. Most obviously, the three dominant critical tools in Gospel study this century, source-, form- and redaction- criticism, though applied with varying results and different goals, are all, essentially, historical methods.

But if 'reading the New Testament', even as recently as a decade ago,(2) was about mastering such disciplines, it is now about much more. A recent compilation of 'strategies for interpreting' the New Testament features not only the familiar historical-critical material but also essays on such topics as discourse analysis, genre analysis, narrative criticism, rhetorical criticism, global perspectives and feminist hermeneutics.(3) Any sleeping beauty who had happened to miss as little as ten years of critical study of the Bible would wake up now to a changed landscape.

2. Variety

The arrival of fresh perspectives is a symptom, of course, of a change in the wider culture, a shift in the intellectual climate that has become suspicious of 'modernity', with which historical-critical methods are associated. As Anthony Thiselton coherently states:

'A hermeneutic of suspicion now seeks to dethrone all monolithic claims to represent a scientific "value-neutral" stance outside or above history, and it calls for the breakup of such hitherto respected institutional traditions of modernity into a new pluralism that reflects differing community interests.'(4)
Thus, the most characteristic feature of post-modernism in Biblical Studies, as in the outside world, is its lack of any characteristic feature. The only kind of one-word designation that could be used to describe the contemporary scene is 'pluralism'. The variety of both approaches and topics of New Testament study is staggering. To look at the list of the most recent SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) International Meeting Abstracts, for example, is to see subjects sometimes so distantly related that it is amazing that they manage to be housed under the same roof. Alongside old favourites like the Synoptic Problem, the Son of Man debate, or the authenticity (or otherwise) of Paul's epistles, one finds reference to topics ranging from gender issues in Corinth to Jesus as a Comedic Hero to the lyrics of Frank Zappa.(5)

Moreover, it is surely no coincidence that some of the most valued student textbooks in recent years have focused not so much on introducing New Testament thought, or providing an outline of its theology, as if unifying structures are easy to find, but rather on the variety or diversity among the New Testament documents themselves,(6) only struggling to discover some underlying unifying feature. An extreme symptom of the same trend might be seen in two books that attempt to revive an older notion and drive enormous wedges between Pauline and non-Pauline strands in early Christianity, Michael Goulder's Tale of Two Missions(7) and Gerd Lüdemann's Heretics.(8)

Further, the variety is increased by the moving of boundaries traditionally imposed on scholarship by the canon of the New Testament. There is an increased interest in extra-canonical material, generated particularly by an increased utilization of texts from Nag Hammadi. These texts have been making an impact on scholarship for a while - they were discovered in Egypt in 1945 - but the tendency for a long time was to attempt to fit them into the existing paradigms of New Testament research, finding ways, for example, to make the Gospel of Thomas buttress the problematic 'Q' hypothesis and so provide fresh evidence on the sayings of the historical Jesus. Now, however, there is a greater interest in these writings for their own sake, as texts in their own right, with their own history and their own ideas.(9)

3. Reader-Response Criticism

Most markedly, though, the new scene is about new strategies for interpreting the New Testament. The one that is perhaps most discussed in academic circles now is the highly controversial reader-response criticism.(10) This self-explanatory approach is controversial because it explicitly focuses attention not, as traditionally, on the (historical) author of a text but rather on its (contemporary) readers. Not surprisingly, this agenda generates such enormously varying readings of Biblical texts that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to define precisely how it works as a critical method.(11) Those interested would perhaps find it most useful simply to watch reader- response in action.(12)

The suspicion with which this kind of approach is often viewed is a consequence largely of its youth. Only time will tell whether it can survive its adolescence(13) and move on into maturity. At present there are both prospects and anxieties. One of the promising elements is the scope it provides for rapprochement between the academy and the Church, for in eschewing history and stressing the contemporary reader, reader-response criticism lends itself much more readily for use in Bible-Study groups, sermons and the like.

This same feature might in another way cause anxiety, however, for there is a danger that university students might receive (however unfairly) the message that one reading is as good as another, and that this is a good excuse not to read any secondary literature. Likewise, the teaching of New Testament Greek might also seem to be threatened by those who think that texts in translation are adequate in themselves for reader- response work. In a world in which there is constant concern about the possibility of falling standards, some already feel that a slump into uninformed mediocrity might be the result of pushing students towards reader-response.

4. Jesus Research

Many are currently inclined simply to suspend judgement on newer methods like reader-response, in the mean time attempting to make progress in whatever historical-critical area they are working. The difficulty, though, with this common perspective is that it often appears more hostile to newer criticisms than it intends to be. Thus while there are some who consciously entrench themselves in traditional techniques and perspectives out of disdain for the new methods, there are many others who are simply biding their time for a season.

For such scholars, those who want to wait a while, there is plenty of fresh historical-critical interest around. One of the most enjoyable areas of research remains the quest of the historical Jesus. Since its revival in the 1950s, the quest has had so many changes, twists and fresh developments that it is beginning to defy categorisation.(14) For those unfamiliar with recent developments, one might draw attention specifically to three important areas - the work of E. P. Sanders, the work of 'the Jesus Seminar' and the recent book by Tom Wright.(15)

E. P. Sanders is the greatest living New Testament scholar. Not only has he ushered in a revolution in the study of Paul,(16) but also he has changed the course of Jesus research, partly because he pays proper attention to questions of method and partly because he reads Jewish sources carefully and sympathetically and worthy of study in their own right, and not simply as 'New Testament background'.(17) His most important conclusions are that there is a retrievable bedrock of historical data which, when properly contextualised, will show Jesus to have been a 'Jewish restoration prophet' involved in a controversial incident in the Temple which led to his arrest, trial and death. The encouraging news for those unfamiliar with Sanders's work is that he writes with clarity and force, and has recently published a popular, non-'scholarly' book on Jesus,(18) which should be compulsory reading for all.

A figure of importance emerging in this country (Sanders is based in the U.S.A.) is Tom Wright. Wright, in the second volume of a five volume project on Christian Origins and the Question of God,(19) has attempted to take up Sanders's mantle and write about a very Jewish Jesus, but he develops his ideas in a much more conservative direction and regards most of the Gospel material as dependable for historical reconstruction of the ministry of Jesus. Wright pictures a Jesus who announced the end of exile and its attendant forgiveness of sins, who consciously brought Israel's story to its climax in himself, willingly going to an insurgent's cross to fulfil the plan of Israel's god. The jury is still out on Wright's enormous thesis, but although many will no doubt find both the grand sweep and the conservative tendencies rather difficult to swallow, some of the initial signs are promising for Wright.(20)

The now notorious Jesus Seminar, on the other hand, is rarely charged with being too conservative, though ironically some of its work does have a somewhat old-fashioned feel. Convened by Robert Funk in 1985, it is a group of North American scholars whose 'on-going project has been to evaluate the historical significance of every shred of evidence about Jesus from antiquity'.(21) It has attracted much media attention in the United States, and some in Europe too, and has been the victim of many barbed comments both from scholars and members of the public.

Most often criticised is the seminar's system of 'voting' on Jesus material, and the resultant 'red letter' editions of the Gospels, delineating in different colours degrees of likely authenticity of Jesus' sayings.(22) While it might seem easy, however, to mock such a method, it is easy to miss the point that the celebrated voting scheme is only the end product of discussion, debate and, most importantly, democracy. At the very least the seminar is, in this respect, a useful experiment. More worrying is the stress that is placed in its premises(23) on matters that are far from consensus among New Testament scholars, matters like the early dating for the Gospel of Thomas, or the dubious stratification of the already hypothetical 'Q' document. It seems to many that there is a danger of having pre-judged the results of discussions by settling on some rather debatable premises.

5. Integration or Anarchy?

There is, then, plenty for those still interested in historical methods to get excited about. Yet there are signs that even in Jesus research, newer approaches and post-modern outlooks will soon be making their presence felt. A recent book by William Hamilton attempted a quest for what its author called the 'post- historical' Jesus(24) and another, C. J. den Heyer's Jesus Matters paused from its historical-critical study for a chapter to reflect on 'New Pictures of Jesus', looking at the sensationalist literature (Jesus in India, Japan, etc.) and Jesus in fiction and film.(25)

It is striking to note, however, that den Heyer regards this chapter as an 'unscientific intermezzo' and not as part of the argument proper. The challenge for future Jesus research, one might suggest, is to attempt to integrate the insights that can be gained from such so-called 'unscientific' material with those that have already been gained using historical methods. Indeed, there are signs that this kind of integrated approach is beginning to develop in other areas.

There is much talk at the moment, for example, about another new method, but this time a method that has the potential to draw together some of the diversified strands in New Testament criticism. Its name is Wirkungsgeschichte and it might be defined as the technique of analysing the history of a text's influences and effects. The person most responsible for pushing this way of reading texts is the Swiss scholar Ulrich Luz. While writing his fine three-volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Luz says that he consistently found greater inspiration in the attempt to understand Matthew by going to Luther, Calvin and the like, than he did when he delved into the morass of historical-critical works of scholarship of the last century or so. His point is that the study of a text's reception history, as well as being interesting and informative in its own right, can also shed some useful light on the origins of a document.(26)

Wirkungsgeschichte is, then, an exciting development because of its potential to draw together insights from different forms of scholarship, reminding us simultaneously that a text has a history, a history that begins after it has left the hands of its author. So much attention has been focused on hypothetical reconstructions of events leading up to the writing of New Testament texts, that many have simply forgotten to consider the much more concrete and varied ways that the texts have been handled. Wirkungsgeschichte is inevitably a historical discipline, but its interest in readers and readings of texts is likely ultimately to prove congenial to reader-response criticism. It might even help to function as a useful control on some of the perceived excesses of some reader-response work.

Perhaps too Wirkungsgeschichte will prove conducive to any development of interest in the contemporary cultural appropriation of New Testament texts. There are signs that interest in analysing the Bible in culture are developing. There is a new journal called Biblicon which deals, broadly, with this theme and there is undoubtedly a developing interest in the New Testament in film and fiction.(27) However, at present Hebrew Bible scholars are ahead of their New Testament colleagues and there is nothing on the New Testament to parallel J. Cheryl Exum's recent Plotted, Shot and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women.(28)

If, though, Wirkungsgeschichte and the study of the Bible in culture generally might be helpful means of preventing the academic study of the Bible from sliding into anarchy,(29) another approach is already integrating traditional methods by interacting with them in the light of its own agenda. The development of feminist hermeneutics for interpreting the New Testament is almost certainly the most important recent development in Biblical study, and some of the feminist literature is among the most exciting work currently going on. The reader unfamiliar with feminist study of the Bible might usefully begin with the two volumes edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Searching the Scriptures,(30) in which feminist perspectives interact with, and often transform, the traditional means of doing Biblical exegesis.

The great challenge for the future, then, is the question of integrating different approaches in an attempt to prevent the discipline of New Testament Studies falling apart. Already studies by feminist scholars are demonstrating how different methods can be held together under one controlling agenda. Likewise, Wirkungsgeschichte and cultural studies offer means by which interaction can take place between historical-critical and non historical-critical ways of reading the New Testament.

6. Changing the Forum

Whatever the future course of New Testament studies, though, one thing seems certain about the next millennium - the forum for doing New Testament teaching and research will increasingly involve computers and the internet. Computer software packages are making technical, linguistic study of the New Testament a great deal easier and, more importantly, the world wide web is set to revolutionise the communication and publication of Biblical research.

Already, an electronic journal on text criticism has been established(31) and there are electronic conferences on Biblical Greek,(32) the Historical Jesus(33) and the Acts of the Apostles.(34) Such Email discussion groups are at present in their early stages, and the quality of the material contributed inevitably varies in quality, but the scope for quick and easy communication all round the world, for English-speakers at least, is generating some worthwhile exchanges. It is uncertain, however, how major a part these will play in the future. As more scholars and more students 'come online', it is possible that the electronic conferences will become drastically over-subscribed.

Under such circumstances, there will be more of a future for those scholars who publish their ideas by means of creating their own web-pages. At present there is actually relatively little on the academic study of the New Testament to be found on the world wide web,(35) and given increased student access to the internet, there is a market that is wide-open and waiting to be exploited.

7. Concluding Thoughts - the Synoptic Problem

Those who have read the foregoing with a close eye will perceive that I write from the perspective of one immersed in the historical-critical methods of New Testament research and that the current approaches I find most congenial are those that cohere happily with the standard perspective. My own research focuses primarily the most fascinating literary puzzle of all time, the Synoptic Problem, a puzzle that has a special interest for those who, like me, are convinced that the standard solution is partly wrong.

But studying the Synoptic Problem in the late 1990s encourages all sorts of troubling questions: of what relevance is it to those interested in reader-response criticism? What does it have to offer to those who focus on the cultural appropriation of the Biblical text? Is it not the last bastion of an antiquated enterprise, with nothing to offer to those using newer methods?

Increasingly, synoptic scholars are getting asked these questions and it is easy to see why, for much synoptic study appears to be utterly entrenched in traditional ways of doing things. 'The International Q Project', for example, like its distant relation the Jesus Seminar (see above), shows all the marks of a modernity untouched by the methods of this generation. Not only does the project take the existence of the hypothetical Q for granted, but its members believe that they have the ability to reconstruct its text in painstaking detail.(36)

Yet the questions asked above could well turn out to be less rhetorical than their authors intend. For while it is certainly true that as traditionally defined, the Synoptic Problem has very little to offer to those interested in contemporary approaches, there is no reason that this should remain the status quo. It is worth noting, for example, that in spite of the proliferation of narrative-critical, reader-response and literary-critical readings of each of our Gospels, at present there is nothing that attempts to appropriate the insights gained from such approaches to parallel texts in synopsis. This is a weakness of the current scene, in which scholars have become so besotted with responding to texts in isolation from one another, that they have forgotten that the texts have, and have always been perceived as having, an intimate interrelationship.

So there are possibilities for new directions even in apparently antiquated areas of study like the Synoptic Problem. Will scholars follow up such possibilities or will post-modern fads fizzle out and leave us alone to get on with good, old-fashioned historical work? Almost certainly, the answer to this is that there is far too much staked in the new methodologies for them to die. The paradigm has already shifted and historical-critical work cannot reign supreme again. As surely as the computer is already transforming the forum for debate, so too fresh approaches will continue to re-define the discipline. The challenge for the scholars of the future is, then, to train both themselves and their students in a study of the New Testament that draws from its store both new and old.


1. I have deliberately avoided talking about 'the historical-critical method' for there is really no such thing. Scholars use many different historical-critical methods, all of which might fall under the general designation historical-critical approach or perspective. (Back)

2. Cf. C. M. Tuckett, Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (London: SPCK, 1987). This book's 'methods of interpretation' are largely those characteristic of historical- critical enquiry, form-criticism, redaction-criticism and the like.(Back)

3. Joel B. Green, ed., Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995). This book is the best available introduction to many of the newer methodologies, with interesting essays also on some of the older ones.(Back)

4. 'New Testament Interpretation in Historical Perspective' in ibid., pp. 10-36 (p. 17).(Back)

5. For those with access to the internet the SBL 1996 International Meeting Abstracts can be viewed at http://scholar.cc.emory.edu/scripts/SBL/96-im-prog-abstr.html.(Back)

6. Two recent examples - John Reumann, Variety and Unity in New Testament Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) and James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (2nd edition, London: SCM, 1990).(Back)

7. Michael Goulder, A Tale of Two Missions (London: SCM, 1994). For an evaluation, see my Goulder and the Gospels: An Examination of a New Paradigm (JSNTSup, 133; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 33-37.(Back)

8. Gerd Lüdemann, Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity (ET, London: SCM, 1996). For a recent evaluation, see the review by Frances Young, RRT (1997/1), pp. 27-29.(Back)

9. For a recent example of this, see Majella Franzmann, Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), which groups together and discusses the writings' constructions of Jesus' character, without necessary reference to canonical Gospel material.(Back)

10. For a good introduction, see Stephen D. Moore, Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).(Back)

11. For some useful guidelines and nuances, however, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 'The Reader in New Testament Interpretation' in Joel B. Green, ed., Hearing, pp. 301-28. Particularly helpful is Vanhoozer's distinction between 'radical examples' of reader response ('reader rejection?') and 'conservative examples' ('reader-reception').(Back)

12. For a good starting point, see the references contained in ibid., pp. 318-24. For strident criticism of this and other contemporary approaches, see John Ashton, Studying John (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), especially the last chapter.(Back)

13. John Ashton, ibid., suggests that current strategies like narrative criticism will not survive beyond the turn of the millennium.(Back)

14. See the attempt by N. T. Wright in Stephen C. Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) to categorise the history of Jesus research into three distinct quests, already compromised in Wright's own more recent Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), especially pp. 78-82.(Back)

15. For a good current introduction to Jesus research, see C. J. den Heyer, Jesus Matters: 150 Years of Research (ET; London: SCM, 1996), reviewed by me in RRT February 1997/1, pp. 77-8.(Back)

16. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977) overturned the older Lutheran readings which placed 'justification by faith' at the heart of Paul's thought. He replaced them with a reading sympathetic to Judaism, a reading that has 'participation in Christ' at the heart of Paul's theology.(Back)

17. Indeed Sanders is also a respected scholar on Judaism of the second Temple period. See most recently his Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE - 66 CE (London: SCM, 1992).(Back)

18. The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993). The earlier, more documented book is Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985). Somewhere between the two is Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM, 1989), the last part of which is devoted to Jesus research.(Back)

19. The first volume is The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992). For the second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God, see note 14 above.(Back)

20. Note especially the glowing review by Rowan Williams, Church Times, 14 March 1997, p. 14.(Back)

21. Quoted from the introduction to the 'Jesus Seminar Main' homepage. For those with access to the internet, this can be read at http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~religion/jseminar/js_main.html.(Back)

22. See especially Robert W. Funk and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993).(Back)

23. See Robert W. Funk, ed., The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge, 1991), also available to view on the Jesus seminar site on the internet at http://www.harpercollins.com/sanfran/js.htm [Dead link?].(Back)

24. William Hamilton, A Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1993).(Back)

25. Jesus Matters, Chapter 10. (Back)

26. See especially Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History, Interpretation, Influence and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).(Back)

27.Pioneering the way here is Larry J. Kreitzer's The New Testament in Fiction and Film. On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow (The Biblical Seminar, 17; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). See also recently W. R. Telford, 'The New Testament in Fiction and Film: A Biblical Scholar's Perspective' in Jon Davies, Graham Harvey and Wilfred Watson, eds., Words Remembered, Texts Renewed: Essays in Honour of John F. A. Sawyer (JSOTSup, 195; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 360-94.(Back)

28. (Gender, Culture, Theory, 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). J. Cheryl Exum is also one of the executive editors of Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches (Leiden: E. J. Brill).(Back)

29. For Anthony Thiselton, 'the risk of anarchy' brought about by 'according privilege to iconoclasm and pluralism' is one of the big concerns about the recent paradigm shift ('New Testament Interpretation', p. 36).(Back)

30. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed., Searching the Scriptures, Vol. 1: A Feminist Introduction; Vol. 2: A Feminist Commentary (London: SCM, 1993 and 1994).(Back)

31. TC: A Journal of Biblical Text Criticism was established in 1996. There is an associated Email conference, 'TC List'. For details, see http://scholar.cc.emory.edu/scripts/TC/TC.html.(Back)

32. See the B-Greek Home Page, http://sunsite.unc. edu/bgreek/index.html.(Back)

33. For details on this, entitled Crosstalk, see 'Jesus at 2000 Debate', http://www.harpercollins.com/sanfran/2000.htm [Dead link?]. (Back)

34. For details, see the Acts-L World Wide Web Home Page, http://www.baylor.edu/~actsl/ .(Back)

35. The amount is rapidly increasing, though. See the Biblical Resources site for a fine introduction to what is currently available, http://www.hivolda.no/asf/kkf/biblia01.html.(Back)

36. For the reports of the International Q Project, JBL 114 (1995), pp. 475-85 is a good place to begin.(Back)

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© 1997 Mark Goodacre