that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This does not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. . . . It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. (5; italics original)
Thus, it is perhaps not without irony that we find ourselves still under the sway of a certain kind(s) of testimony even when we seek most to avoid or to exercise our independence from testimony of some other kind(s) (cf. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354; Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” 215).
At the beginning of the month, Klyne Snodgrass delivered this year’s W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectureship at Dallas Theological Seminary. In the lectureship, Snodgrass discussed a “hermeneutics of identity” in four parts:
The whole series is excellent and highly engaging. Snodgrass repeatedly observes the New Testament’s consistent concern with issues related to identity, but he also clearly distinguishes the direction of the New Testament’s robust concern in this area from the directions that this concern’s poorer cousins have taken. Each lecture is around 45 minutes long, and taking about 3 hours to listen to the whole series is fairly certain to be time well spent.
This morning, Scot McKnight has an engaging post that addresses some ambiguities present in descriptions of “theological interpretation.” To move toward decreasing these ambiguities, McKnight proposes his own description of what interpreting scripture theologically should mean—namely, “read[ing] individual passages in the Bible through the lens of one’s orthodox, community-shaped, and confessional theology” (italics original). Read the whole post, particularly the concluding paragraphs, for some other, very good reflections on the interrelationships between theology and hermeneutics.
In reading Roland Deines’ essay in Second Temple Judaism (“The Pharisees Between ‘Judaisms’ and ‘Common Judaism'”), I came across the following, astute paragraph:
If it is correct that it was particularly halakah that constituted Pharisees as Pharisees, it is also true that it constituted Essenes as Essenes and Sadducees as Sadducees. The same can be said regarding the other Jewish groups that existed prior to 70. This explains why the differences and even antagonism between these three basic movements (which included diverse elements within themselves) did not lead to the complete suspension of religious association within Judaism, whereas the association with early Christians broke off quite soon. All three Jewish movements oriented themselves basically around the Torah as the center of individual and national Jewish existence. In this system the Messiah was subordinated to Torah. For Christians, on the other hand, Christ became the center of individual as well as communal existence. In him, a person’s profound relationship with his own nation was expanded to an eschatological and thus at the same time universal horizon. The final breakdown came when the soteriological marginality of the Torah in relation to Christ could no longer be overlooked in the course of generational change. Even where Torah was observed with sincerity in Jewish-Christian congregations, it had still lost its absolute, eschatological dimension. It had, even in these congregations, reached its τέλος in Christ (499–500; italics added).
Neill’s stated purpose for his book was “to provide a narrative [about the interpretation of the New Testament] that can be read without too much trouble by the non-theologian who is anxious to know and is prepared to devote some time to the subject” (ix). This task he seems to have done masterfully well, with a comparatively frugal use of footnotes to set forth “the necessary apparatus of scholarship” (ix). While this history might have proved tedious, Neill has managed to produce a cogent narrative that, at times, may well carry the interested student into the situation or the time being described.
One of the work’s great strengths is the detail with which Neill and Wright investigate each character and movement included in the narrative. While the level of detail could prove cumbersome, it does provide a valuable opportunity to ‘meet’ some of the giants in the field. As a result, after this perusing this introduction, readers will probably find themselves much better prepared to read, critique, and make use of the positions investigated. Likewise valuable is the even-handed portrayal Neill and Wright give of the various theologians they cover, irrespective of whether they would personally support or object to these theologians’ assertions. For instance, although Neill and Wright are considerably more enthusiastic when writing about the Cambridge trio than when they write figures like Baur, even in this latter case, they do not villanize characters like Baur.
Finally, the book’s summary section tries to encourage continued study of the New Testament. As it says, “The New Testament is concerned with proclamation. It is a Kerygma, the loud cry of a herald authorized by a king to proclaim his will and purpose to his subjects. It is Euangelion, good news, sent to those who are in distress with the promise of deliverance. It is the Word of the Lord—and in the East a word is no mere vibration in the atmosphere, it is a living power sent forth to accomplish that for which it is sent” (448–49; italics original). Thus, the chronicle that Neill and Wright provide in this work moves, in their minds, toward establishing a better understanding of the New Testament’s message, which must be proclaimed and heard in all of creation.
N. T. Wright’s revision of Stephen Neill’s, Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986, attempts a concise, but significantly narratival, survey of various issues in New Testament scholarship during the period in question. To this end, Neill and Wright discuss: (i) the challenge to orthodoxy (1–34); (ii) the New Testament and its relationship to history (35–64); (iii) what the New Testament says and means (65–111); (iv) Jesus and His relationship to the Gospel (112–46); (v) Greeks and their relationship to Christians (147–204); (vi) “Re-enter[ing] Theology” (205–51); (vii) the theory of a gospel behind the Gospels (252–312); (viii) the Jewish background of the Gospel (313–59); and (ix) the relationship between history and theology (360–449).
While examining the challenge to orthodoxy, Neill and Wright concentrate on summarizing the noteworthy, continental contributions to New Testament interpretation from Enlightenment’s early days through the middle 1800s. “The New Testament and History” continues this examination, while giving special emphasis to the work of “the Cambridge three” of Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort. Chapter three discusses developments and issues in textual criticism and exegesis. “Jesus and the Gospel” handles research on the synoptic tradition, especially as relates to the synoptic problem. “Greeks and Christians” mainly investigates the possibilities for and evidence of influence of Greek thought on the development of earliest Christianity. In the chapter titled, “Re-enter Theology,” Neill and Wright concentrate almost totally on Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, Karl Barth’s dialectical theology, and Rudolf Bultmann’s attempt to discover the Christian kerygma—that is, the essence of the Christian faith. Further, Neill and Wright examine the possibility of a written source(s) that may stand behind the synoptic Gospels. The authors also investigate the help that Judaism might provide for interpreting the New Testament. In the final chapter, “History and Theology,” the book explores, in some detail, Ed Sanders’ work in reaction to, for example, the traditional Lutheran understanding of Paul. This chapter also encourages interpreters to exhibit a certain “historical humility” in their work and concludes by restating the relevance of New Testament studies.
Communication is hermeneutical; it involves people sending and receiving messages. To make the communication process work, the sender(s) and receiver(s) both have to meet their own particular, communicative responsibilities. Of course, with literature like the New Testament, the people who sent the messages it contains cannot clarify or supplement anything they have already said. So, if communication is to happen, any modern readers, or receivers, must try to understand the text’s own communicative horizon, for all the problems that task entails (see this post for a discussion). On this task, consider the following, insightful comments from N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God:
I suggest, then, that the epistemology which I outlined earlier—that which sees knowledge as part of the responsibility of those made in the image of the creator to act responsibly and wisely with in the created world—results, at the level of literature, in a sensitive critical realism. We must renounce the fiction of a god’s-eye view of events on the one hand and a collapsing of event into significance or perception on the other. Until we really address this question, most of the present battles about reading the gospels—and most past ones too, for that matter—will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure. But, for a start, I suggest a possible hermeneutical model . . . a hermeneutic of love.
In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.
When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other (63–64; italics original).
A corollary problem to the tension between the old and the new was the tension between the absolute and the relative. No one would have dared relativize the words of the Highest, but some heretical sects thought parts of scripture (notably the Old Testament) were products of a lesser god. This position allowed them safely to relativize portions of scripture. Although the rabbis had relativized scripture, to some extent, in halakah, they had limited the operational extent of that halakah by the oral law. In competition with these other positions, the orthodox, Christian position received slightly different articulations based on which factors pressed heaviest on a given author’s context. For example, the Epistle of Barnabas applied whatever method necessary to arrive at a distinctively Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. In contrast to the general, orthodox emphasis on the use of the Old Testament, Ignatius used the New Testament more frequently than he used the Old Testament. Where he did use the Old Testament, however, he took Jesus as the starting point for his interpretation of the Old Testament.
A final constraint prevalent during this period in the area of hermeneutical method was the tension between clarity and obscurity. Because Marcion was certain that the Old Testament did not originate with the God and father of Jesus Christ; thus, he omitted it from his canon and argued for a literal interpretation of (his edited version of) the New Testament. The Valentinians, by contrast, argued for an allegorical approach to the New Testament. The orthodox position attempted to maintain, rather than prematurely resolve, the tension between these two poles by affirming both scripture’s clarity and its obscurity (e.g., clarity: Epistle of Barnabas 1:7, 2:4, 3:6; obscurity: Epistle of Barnabas 5:2–3, 8:7, 10:2).