Basic Resources for NT History Pt. 1

See PART II here.

The historical context leading up to the time of the New Testament is vast and complex. This article will introduce the “New Testament Introduction” and its basic usefulness. In the next article in the series, I will discuss three specific New Testament introductions.

Whence “New Testament Introduction”?

One of the biggest challenges when embarking on a quest to understand the New Testament is the paralysis that comes along with the sheer volume of publications in the field of biblical studies. It’s for our own good, I’m sure! Publishers are only ever motivated by the good of the reading market. . . right? What’s worse, the deluge of publications is cacophonous. This approach, or that? This *brand new* book is the book you need and all others are rendered useless with its coming? Sure. Statistically, given massive increase in publications, I suspect much of it can be ignored. What that says about blogs like this, well. . .

The genre of the “New Testament Introduction” is not immune to the tireless march of new publications, but this doesn’t mean it can be ignored, or that the gems produced under its auspices should be allowed to be eclipsed by the fever of the “new.” So, what is a “New Testament introduction”?

The New Testament introduction is a modern genre, first emerging as a distinct discipline in the mid-eighteenth century (with Johann David Michaelis’s Einleitung in die göttlichen Schriften des Neuen Bundes, [Introduction to the Divine Writings of the New Testament] published in 1750; see Baird, 1992, 1:127–38). Being a modern genre, it’s best understood in the context of the rise of so-called modern thought, and especially Enlightenment thought, and yes, may share a number of its associated flaws (a subject for another time). Whatever is the case, it’s worth noting the shift in perspective which perhaps made straight the path for this new “science” to emerge.

Johann David Michaelis; Prussian Bible scholar, author of the “first” New Testament Introduction

The oversimplified account is this: as the text of the Bible and New Testament began to be seen not merely as an ecclesiastical text, and began to be understood not primarily as a canonical whole, the histories and attendant circumstances of each book or sub-corpus of the New Testament became a major area of interest and research. Over the decades and centuries which followed works like Michaelis’s and others, the now-“traditional” questions of the science of introduction emerged: date, genre, authorship, setting, background, etc. Since the late twentieth century, the “social scientific” question has become a major area of research in this field (social theories, social dynamics, social identity, etc.).

By and large I think the presence of this genre of research is a praiseworthy thing, and that as far as the historical context of the New Testament is concerned, the New Testament introduction is a good place to start. This is because in these works, the world around the New Testament, is discussed with precise reference to the New Testament documents by experts in New Testament studies and (in some cases) ancient history.

Where to Start?

Where, then, to begin? I often get emails from the big university presses, and the major Christian publishers (not personal ones, of course), advertising the current slate of new publications. I think it’s fair to say I see at least one introduction coming out every year. As intimated above, I suggest you don’t fall into the trap of thinking new is better, especially when it comes to this genre which is supposed to give the general and well-known history relevant to the New Testament. This is not to say, however, that you don’t need other newer and specialized resources, but those resources should supplement the general reference resource like the New Testament introduction.

In selecting such a general reference resource to begin with, your goal should be to strike a balance between a work which will give you the broad language by which you can engage successfully in the field on the one hand, and a work which has been around long enough to have established itself as a reliable and original resource covering the key data, on the other. This means that the decision will necessarily be give-and-take. For example, the latter condition (finding “tried and true” resources) might mean that you will sacrifice some linguistic currency.

That’s to say this: a field has a certain dialect, and this dialect at times rapidly changes, with the newest resources reflecting the “current” state of things in terms of, well, terms. Of course, it’s necessary to know how scholars are speaking, but as with any language, the best way to pick up a dialect is by immersion over time. My take is that it is best to begin with a single resource even if it means you’ve got some “outdated” terminology. Outdated terminology is generally easy to remedy–lack of clear knowledge of data is not. Why not have both? You can try, but unless you have an ideology (or an infatuation with a particular scholar) which predisposes you to *this* new resource over another, what I am saying is you will often find yourself paralyzed in a sea of alternatives.

These changes in language are, however, a mixed bag. By way of example, consider the following. Should we use BC and AD, or BCE and CE? Most twenty-first century works use the latter; many if not most before that use the former; they refer to the exact same thing. The updated “meaning” (CE: common era vs. AD year of our Lord) is hardly one that demands a change, and while it’s fine if people are very agitated about using AD, it is not a scholarly question by any stretch of the imagination. What I’m saying above is that, if you first read a work from fifty years ago, and thus use BC and AD by convention on that basis, and then someone comes along to tell you that you should use BCE and CE, what would you gain from that advice? At most, a mere convention.1 Now, it’s up to you if you choose to make the change (some publishers make the decision for you if you go that route) but to the degree that such things become criticisms, it is the “narcissism of minor differences” (Freud) and you can dismiss it as trivializing.

This is one example of linguistic changes in a field, but not everything is mere convention; there are examples of more sensitive changes in language that at least require more historical reflection (see, for example, Steve Mason’s article in the Journal for the Study of Judaism: “Jews, Judeans, Judaizing, Judaism”).

For starting out, the key thing is getting a general knowledge of the historical data itself, and developing a glossary of terms you can consistently use to understand this data. The glossary can change, but your primary goal should be to get a feel for the available and relevant information . You should get new books when they are truly groundbreaking in one way or another (and to discover that, you probably need to wait until they are not new — new to you, however), but to start, consider those resources that are new enough, but nonetheless stable enough to be known pillars in the field. For this effort, and in regards to New Testament introductions, I give three recommendations in the next article. Three is plenty, and I will suggest you choose only one (which one is up to you).

A Concluding Warning

I’ve made a recommendation above: find staple resources and start with one good one. I would not want to be understood, however, to be suggesting that these key resources or the positions taken within them are the objectively true “scientific” positions of the field. They simply are not, and at the level of theories (say, of the synoptic problem) can never be. The consensus of the guild is only ever that: what most people think on an issue at a given time. A consensus may or may not be a good proxy for arriving at true knowledge, and that is a complex and interesting subject I will discuss in other posts. The warning is this: don’t read a New Testament introduction and think that, because most scholars believe “x” is the case, that anything older, more traditional, or different, is passé; you might be surprised to find that even first-place theories seem quite tenuous on a second look. Have I contradicted myself? “Find some staple resources” but “don’t trust everything that’s a staple in the field”?

I haven’t quite said that, but even so, herein lies the adventure: no one said New Testament studies would coddle anyone’s need for the simplistic! I’m just here to offer any help I can, and take any help I can get get.

See PART II here.

Baird, William, History of New Testament Research. Volume 1: From Deism to Tübingen. Minneapolis, Fortress, 1992.

Mason, Steve. “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 457–512.

1. This discussion on BC/AD is somewhat simplified: in fact BC/AD remains convention among archaeologists (most of whom are not religious or Christian), the traditional convention likewise remains in the house style of certain publishers (like Yale University Press, as of 2014 at least). This is true while the style of other publishers, and the convention of the contemporary, seem to demand BCE/CE. For an interesting comment/reflection on the convention, see the front mater titled “A Note on Definition” in Ronald Hutton, Pagan Britain.

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