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How Has New Testament Scholarship Changed over Time?

Throughout the history of biblical scholarship from early Christianity to the present day, theological and secular interpretations have coexisted.

Printer in 1568 C.E.

To ask how biblical scholarship has changed is to risk starting a food fight. Scholarship isn’t something that happens on its own and evolves according to its own inner logic. People study the Bible. They do so for different reasons, in different settings, in different ways—and every one of these reasons, settings, and ways has a history. Sometimes these ways are compatible, sometimes not. Anyone who says that biblical scholarship used to be one thing but is now something else may be getting ready to tell a story of progress (from superstition to enlightenment) or a story of decline (from faith to depravity). People who tell such stories tend to be emotionally attached to them.

Scholarship, in modern understanding, is supposed to be detached, objective study. “New Testament scholarship,” then, means following the rules of one of the post-Enlightenment intellectual disciplines—for example, history, or anthropology, or literary criticism—in order to produce plausible, nonsupernatural explanations of how the texts came to be written. Bible scholars usually earn advanced degrees (PhDs) that train them to read biblical and extrabiblical texts closely in their original languages, attending to historical context and analyzing the narratives or arguments. Such scholarship is normally done by professors in the religious studies, history, and classics departments of universities and in theology departments and divinity schools. Looking at economic, political, and other social circumstances, including the history of religious ideas and practices in the world in which Jesus and his early followers lived, they propose hypotheses about the text.

For example, modern scholars have suggested that sayings of Jesus were remembered and revised by various preachers and teachers, and written down in collections, and that various anonymous persons then used the oral and written traditions available to them to craft the four canonical Gospels. Other scholars have used methods from the social sciences or data from archaeology to analyze the social and cultural world of early Christianity. Others have brought the letters of Paul into conversation with contemporary political, social, or philosophical ideas in order to show their meaning in a different light.

Elements of some of these kinds of study may be found across the two millennia since the New Testament documents were written. Some early centers of Christian activity, notably Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt, were also centers of pagan (non-Christian, non-Jewish) scholarship. Teachers of rhetoric and philosophy taught elite students how to read the great poets, philosophers, and historians. As Christian culture developed and prevailed, Christian teachers used pagan reading techniques in their theological or spiritual reading. For example, ancient Christian authors such as Origen, Pamphilus, Eusebius, and Jerome researched names and places mentioned in the Bible. Antiochian and Alexandrian bishops and preachers used methods of interpretation developed by Homeric scholars of classical Greek literature. In the Middle Ages, monks at various monasteries and the houses of study that would become the great European universities applied linguistic, philosophical, and historical learning to their study of the New Testament. They derived some of their knowledge of philosophical concepts from Aristotle, often by way of the Muslim Arabs. So to a certain extent, premodern interpreters studied the New Testament as a text like other texts.

Generally speaking, however, premodern scholars did not aim to be detached and objective. For them, these were texts that told of God’s acts and intentions, and they were meant to help people align their life and thought with God’s purposes. To study them in the spirit in which they were written was to undergo a process of conversion within a godly community. That was as true for the trained scholars who used pagan learning as it was for others who immersed themselves in the scriptures and in the life of the church without benefit of secular learning. This tradition of spiritual or theological interpretation begins with the earliest of Jesus’ followers, who sought to discern how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus clarified the meaning of the Old Testament (as they came to call the scriptures of Israel) and vice versa. In so doing they produced the books that we call the New Testament. As decades went by and New Testament writings were accepted as scripture, Christians studied them in the same ways as they did the Old Testament, finding multiple layers of meaning in both. From the ancient period into the high Middle Ages, interpreters might give primacy to a text’s literal or historical sense, but they also looked for other kinds of meaning: allegorical (for doctrine), tropological (for morals), and anagogical (for ultimate union with God).

The Reformers of the sixteenth century likewise looked to the New Testament for doctrine, morals, and union with God, but they tended to reject traditional allegorical reading strategies, preferring to follow the literal sense of the text. In so doing they set in motion a process that, over succeeding centuries, enabled the rise of the critical, academic study of scripture. In the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued for a purely logical and historical reading of the Bible that did not depend on or aim at religious faith. In the nineteenth century, D. F. Strauss and others applied such an approach to the Gospels, seeking to establish what could be known about Jesus purely on the basis of historical method. Even professors who were Christian became more likely to explore secular readings. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, astronomy, biology, archaeology, and scientific historiography yielded knowledge that undermined some literal readings of the Bible. From human origins to Christian origins, contradictions emerged. Meanwhile, new forms of literary analysis yielded new conclusions about how the books of the Bible were written. Christians had traditionally assumed that God more or less dictated the words of scripture to the prophets and apostles, but scholars showed that parts of the Bible resulted from years of oral tradition followed by multiple levels of editing. Biblical scholars in the universities used literary and historical analysis devoid of religious or theological assumptions and aims. People who had previously been silenced or ignored—women, nonwhites, and majority-world scholars—began to make their voices heard, adding further new dimensions to the conversation.

The contemporary world of New Testament studies therefore has a mixed heritage. The texts themselves have religious origins and aims, but scholars may align themselves with those aims in varying ways and to varying extents, or not at all. There may be a general consensus that scholarship should always proceed objectively, not depending on faith (or anti-faith) commitments, but absolute objectivity is simply impossible. At best, scholars debate their conflicting interpretations and help keep each other honest. Organizations such as the Society of New Testament Studies and the Society of Biblical Literature therefore encourage collaboration among scholars of all stripes, neither privileging nor deprecating faith. Critical study coexists today with study explicitly aimed at fostering religious faith in the same educational institutions, and even in same individual scholars. There are tensions, but food fights are discouraged.

  • James D. Ernest

    James D. Ernest is editor-in-chief for Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. He is the author of The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).