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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

New Testament Theology

A critical element in determining the character and content of NT theology is the fact that the writings which provide its subject-matter are described as the New Testament. That is, they are defined by their relation to the writings known as the Old Testament. NT theology, in other words, is determined in part at least by its character as new, over against the theology which is characterized as old. To be noted at once is the fact that the terms ‘old’ and ‘new’ are themselves not neutrally descriptive; on the contrary, they already express the perspective of the new—the ‘old’ so described only by contrast with the ‘new’, the ‘new’ in contrast with the ‘old’.

At the same time, the two phrases share a term in common—‘testament’, from the Latin testamentum. The Latin translates the Greek diathēkē, ‘last will and testament, compact, contract, covenant’, and the Hebrew bĕrît, ‘pact, compact, covenant’. It is in this last sense, ‘covenant’, that the word has carried most theological freight. For in Jewish and Christian Scriptures the term ‘covenant’ denotes the promises made to Israel's patriarchs in Genesis 12–17 (Exod. 2: 24; Lev. 26: 42–5; Deut. 4: 31) and the resulting formal agreements made between YHWH and Israel at Mt Sinai (Exod. 19: 5–6), and in the plains of Moab (Deut. 29–31). These were the promises and agreements (notably the Torah) which formed the core of Israel's self-understanding as the people of YHWH. The phrase ‘new testament’ itself is drawn directly from NT references to ‘the new covenant’, particularly in Luke 22: 20; 1 Cor. 11: 25; 2 Cor. 3: 6; and Heb. 9: 15. These texts all express the claim that the ancient prophecy of a ‘new covenant’ (Jer. 31: 31) has been fulfilled in what Christ achieved through his mission, death, and resurrection. It is no accident, then, that the same phrase came to denote the writings which bear most immediate testimony of and to that claim—the New Testament.

The very phrase ‘New Testament theology’, therefore, immediately presents its primary agenda: the NT claims about Christ, not just in themselves, but as fulfilment of the old covenant's hopes and expectations. But, of course, such an agenda cannot be pursued without asking equally fundamental questions. Is the new testament/covenant to be understood (theologically) as essentially in continuity with the old? Or rather, should it be regarded as superseding the old and rendering the old covenant/testament null and void? The latter option is posed by the Letter to the Hebrews (particularly Heb. 8: 13), and gave rise to a whole ‘supersessionist’ theology—Christianity as having sucked all that was good from the old covenant and left it as an empty husk—which dominated Christian attitudes towards Israel and Jews for centuries, indeed, until the last few decades. Alternatively posed, are the New Testament and Christianity to be seen as a wholly new revelation which determines how all earlier revelation should be evaluated? Is the New Testament to be understood as the goal of the Old—goal in the double sense of ‘end’, of climax and completion? Such questions, of course, pose challenges particularly for articles on ‘the Old Testament’ and ‘Old Testament theology’. But their implications for the stuff and thrust of ‘New Testament theology’ can hardly be ignored.

In short, if the fundamental task of NT theology is to analyse what the New Testament brings to theology or how the New Testament determines the subject-matter and weighting of Christian theology, then its character both as testament and as new needs to be kept in focus throughout. New Testament theology deals with the NT writings as testimony of a compact made by God with human beings. New Testament theology starts with the perspective that the NT writings represent (or constitute) a new phase in the relationship between God and human beings, in comparison or even contrast with the older phase expressed by the Old Testament.

If, then, the primary task of NT theology is determined by its character as New Testament theology, this suggests that its main subject-matter has to be the principal themes which both unite the Testaments as testament and distinguish the NT from the OT as new. These themes are fourfold: God, the people of God, the saving purpose of God, and the people's response.

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