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


The influence of our own beliefs, values, and location on our historical perspectives may be acknowledged at the outset by prioritizing the gospels and starting this survey with a local landmark scarcely visible from across the Atlantic, much less from across the North Sea: R. H. Lightfoot's Bampton Lectures in Oxford on History and Interpretation in the Gospels (1935). Anglican divinity has usually been concerned more with the Word made flesh than with the Word proclaimed, and, side-tracked by controversy with the eighteenth-century deists and their intellectual progeny, with the gospels as reliable historical records. Lutherans prioritize the apostle Paul, but in Britain Paul has often been read through Lucan spectacles, as perhaps the New Testament canon intends, and has been seen as secondary to the four gospels.

Lightfoot caused a minor stir in England with his concluding echo of Job 26: 14 that the gospels ‘yield us little more than the whisper of his voice; we trace in them but the outskirts of his ways’ (p. 225). His sympathetic accounts of Wrede, The Messianic Secret in the Gospels (1901), of Wellhausen's gospel commentaries and Einleitung (1903–5), and of the Formgeschichte which had become prominent in Germany since the First World War, contrasted sharply with Sanday's ‘regrettable’ (p. 17) condemnation of Wrede back in 1907, and even with Vincent Taylor's domestication of form criticism in The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (1933). The form critics' history-of-traditions approach to the Old and New Testaments had been pioneered at the start of the century by Bultmann's direct and indirect mentors from the history of religion(s) school. After the Second World War it led to redaction criticism and came to dominate twentieth-century gospel criticism, providing the methodological basis for the scepticism of most late twentieth-century historical Jesus research.

Outside Germany the sceptical implications of form criticism were temporarily resisted until in 1963 Lightfoot's pupil D. E. Nineham published a popular commentary on Mark which introduced students to the changing landscape. In the same year, Bultmann's form-critical classic on The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921, 2nd edn. 1931) appeared in English. More sceptical than Martin Dibelius's From Tradition to Gospel (1919, translated in the USA in 1934), it initiated a decade of translations that ended fifty years of limited contact between the two language-zones. This increasing acceptance of German methods and results was facilitated by the new interest in historical Jesus research among Bultmann's pupils, most attractively represented by G. Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth (1956, ET 1960). Right from the start of our period (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus first appeared in 1935), J. Jeremias's less sceptical conclusions and theological endorsement of historical Jesus research promised traffic across the North Sea. His classic work, The Parables of Jesus (1947, ET 1954, 2nd edn. 1963), continued, and corrected C. H. Dodd's account of Jesus' teaching; but it was not until 1966 that N. Perrin (‘the Wredestrasse becomes the Hauptstrasse’) could acknowledge a wider assimilation of history-of-traditions assumptions.

By then, close international contact among biblical scholars was normal. Back in 1935 Lightfoot's lectures were unusual in their promotion of form criticism, and innovative in developing composition criticism and (like Wrede) anticipating redaction criticism. This final refinement of history-of-traditions research was pioneered mainly by Bultmann's pupils after the Second World War, and some of the same scholars broke with their teacher in addressing ‘the problem of the historical Jesus’. That was the title of the 1953 lecture of E. Käsemann said by J. M. Robinson to inaugurate ‘a new quest’, but better seen as a new phase in the ongoing project.

All these developments had roots in the beginnings of the modern discipline. D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835, ET 1846, repr. 1973) had illuminated the history of the gospel traditions, and F. C. Baur had both highlighted the theological differences between the evangelists (1844–7) and also reaffirmed the theological necessity of historical Jesus research. Critical study of the synoptic gospels since 1935 has thus focused on the three lines of enquiry pioneered by Strauss and Baur: (a) the finished literary products and their authors and original audiences (Baur's ‘tendency criticism’, the redaction criticism of Bornkamm, Marxsen, and Conzelmann, and newer literary approaches); (b) the early traditions transmitted by the synoptic evangelists (form criticism and its predecessors); and (c) the quest for the historical figure of Jesus, understood in his Palestinian Jewish environment, after a long concealment in theologically coloured gospel traditions.

Today the third of these enquiries again excites most interest, but writing during the German theological reaction against liberal life-of-Jesus research (1921–53), Lightfoot reported on the second and said most about the first. His ‘eight Divinity Lecture Sermons’ scarcely needed (p. 9) to recap the source criticism by which liberal theologians in nineteenth-century Germany had sought to reconstruct the ‘historical Jesus’ following Strauss's demolition of the gospel history. This work was continued in the Oxford seminar of William Sanday, leading to B. H. Streeter's The Four Gospels (1924). Its well-grounded conviction about the priority of Mark was later further strengthened through this providing the source-critical base for some convincing accounts of Matthew's and Luke's ‘redaction’ of Mark. The revival by W. R. Farmer in 1964 of an alternative, the ‘Griesbach hypothesis’ of Matthean priority and a supposed use of Matthew and Luke by Mark (a view pioneered by H. Owen in 1764), has found little support. Sometimes labelled ‘The Two-Gospel Hypothesis’, to distinguish it from the ‘two-source hypothesis’ of Mark and Q being used by Matthew and Luke, it is a reminder that all proposed solutions to ‘the synoptic problem’ (the literary relationships between these three gospels) are only hypotheses.

The proto-Luke hypothesis (that there had been an earlier version of Luke not based on or using Mark) was advocated by Streeter and Vincent Taylor in the 1920s, but has also found little support. The second (Q) plank of the two-source hypothesis, however, has gone from strength to hypothetical strength, thanks partly to the rediscovery at Nag Hammadi in 1945 of a ‘sayings gospel’, the complete (114 sayings) Gospel of Thomas (published in 1959). An intelligent minority still dispenses with Q, arguing that Luke knew Matthew as well as his main source Mark. If Luke knew Matthew, and also had independent access to some of Matthew's traditions, a more modest form of Q (mini-Q) would be implied.

More important by far are the meanings of these texts and the broader trends affecting their interpretation. The richest fruit of the late nineteenth-century flowering of history-of-religions research on Judaism was the rediscovery of eschatology. This topic dominated twentieth-century scholarship, and was reinforced by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Since then, further study of early Judaism and a fresh recognition of the largely Jewish character of the New Testament itself have become characteristic marks of its critical investigation in our period, dwarfing recent challenges to this historical paradigm.

Lightfoot's lecture-sermons provide reminders of what preceded our period and pointers to some of what followed, but the seventy years from 1935 can be better epitomized by comparing and contrasting two of his greater close contemporaries. The North Welsh Congregationalist C. H. Dodd (1884–1973) had already published The Meaning of Paul for Today (1920), The Authority of the Bible (1928), and The Epistle to the Romans (1932) before our starting-point in 1935, the year in which The Parables of the Kingdom and The Bible and the Greeks appeared. The Marburg professor Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), a personal student of Gunkel, J. Weiss, and Heitmüller from the history of religion(s) school and a close follower of Wrede and Bousset from the same group, had summed up a generation of gospel criticism in The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921, 2nd edn. 1931). He had then (influenced by Karl Barth and Gogarten) changed his idiom, while remaining fairly close to his doctrine teacher W. Herrmann (1846–1922). His determination to combine his liberal critical heritage and that proto-existentialist piety with Barth's dialectical theology and its assessment of the 1920s cultural mood can best be seen in the collections of essays, Faith and Understanding, i (1933, ET 1969), Existence and Faith (Eng. edn. S. M. Ogden, 1961, essays from 1917 to 1957), and in the introduction to his Jesus and the Word (1926, ET 1934). In the 1940s and 1950s Bultmann became a controversial figure in conservative church circles for wanting to ‘demythologize’ the New Testament, interpreting (away) its mythological material, especially its futurist eschatology and apocalyptic language, in existentialist terms, as well as for his historical scepticism; but today his theological seriousness is admired by conservatives and liberals alike, even as they disagree with many of his historical and hermeneutical proposals.

Dodd's search for a unifying synthesis was programmatically announced in his Cambridge inaugural lecture on The Present Task in New Testament Studies (1936). The kerygma identified in The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (1936) was developed in subsequent publications, including According to the Scriptures (1952) on ‘The sub-structure of New Testament theology’. But the finest twentieth-century synthesis was Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament (vol. i 1948, ET 1951; vol. ii 1953, ET 1955). Its central plank remains among the church's most creative interpretations of Paul's theology. Both scholars were also form critics, though of a very different ilk, and both used Paul's word ‘kerygma’, though in rather different ways. And in the 1930s both were working on what were to be their greatest books, both on the Fourth Gospel. F. C. Baur's claim a century earlier that John is the climax of New Testament theology can find support in Bultmann's Meyer Commentary (1941, ET 1971) and in Dodd's The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953).

The main difference between the British and the German masters is visible even in the title of Dodd's further work, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (1963), but their similarities are also illuminating. Both aimed to interpret the New Testament in ways that are historically responsible, and sensitive to religious language, but also under the presupposition (as Bultmann put it in Theology of the New Testament, ii. 251) ‘that they have something to say to the present’. Both interpretations of the Johannine theology also posited a history-of-religions context which included Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism, and yet neither now seems satisfactory in this respect, because both underestimated the probably sectarian Jewish setting of this gospel. The turn, or return, of New Testament scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century to Judaism, including sectarian Judaism, marks its distance today from these two representative figures.

If Bultmann's work has lasted better than Dodd's, one reason is its stronger engagement with modern (Continental) philosophy and systematic theology. Like Bultmann, Dodd also reinterpreted New Testament eschatology to weaken its futurist fantasies, and he also had some outstanding disciples, including C. F. D. Moule, W. D. Davies, G. B. Caird, T. F. Glasson, and J. A. T. Robinson, but Bultmann's demythologizing and existential interpretation inspired two generations of future professors and clergy to do their theology as scriptural interpretation. Only E. C. Hoskyns (who at Cambridge inspired A. M. Ramsey, C. F. Evans, and C. K. Barrett, among others) might have had that kind of wider impact, but he died prematurely in 1937, his commentary on John unfinished. It was edited by F. N. Davey and published in 1940.

The difference between England and Germany at that time lay less in the quality of historical and exegetical research (though the size of the German faculties has always made for a difference in quantity) than in the depth of hermeneutical penetration. Dodd's concerns were reflected in some mid-century discussions of ‘the authority of the Bible’ that saw a need for new foundations, but that discussion looked dated by 1960. By contrast, Bultmann's hermeneutical programme was then still in its prime, bitterly attacked by traditionalists but criticized and developed by his eminent pupils and by his more radical disciple, Herbert Braun. It is still a point of reference for theologically committed interpretation of the New Testament today.

Most New Testament study in the first of our three generations was church-related in that many leading scholars were Protestant clergy with preaching responsibilities, and most European undergraduates were preparing for the ordained ministry or to teach Christianity in schools. In North America most biblical research was done in Protestant seminaries, some attached to great universities, but still church-related. These scholars were alive to the distance between the ancient texts and the modern world, but were in different ways aiming to bridge it. In Germany and Switzerland it was (and still is) self-evident that New Testament professors in theological faculties are Theologen, educated in systematic and practical as well as historical and philosophical theology. That explains the hermeneutical sophistication of some German New Testament theologians who built theological and philosophical reflection into their historical and exegetical study of the Bible.

A religious community requires interpretations of its scriptures which are both credible and speak of God. They must accordingly be true to the authors and texts, both in their historical contexts and in their aim to speak of God. That requires modern historical study, but this does not normally speak of God—hence the hermeneutical requirement to combine historical exegesis and reconstruction with a theology, i.e. contemporary talk of God. The alternatives are for biblical scholarship to repudiate the hermeneutical task and not speak responsibly of God, or to argue that historical research itself can do this. The ‘biblical theology’ movement of the 1940s and 1950s underestimated the historical and cultural distance between the Bible and modern believers, but its religious motivations were shared by most biblical teachers—conservative, liberal, and radical. Several of its critics were theologically as well as historically sophisticated, and New Testament theology was often seen as the crown of the discipline, or the goal towards which all other New Testament studies were pointing. Theology guided and beckoned the discipline, even though comparatively few complete New Testament theologies were published.

The strong religious interest present in much of the best New Testament scholarship throughout our period was as evident in the German endorsement of form criticism as in the initial repudiation in Britain of its sceptical implications. The new approach saw the early church transmitting Jesus traditions orally in order to communicate its faith. That corresponds to what Christians are always bound to do, and this strong ecclesiological dimension to the new gospel criticism excited even Anglicans, who were more interested in church tradition, ministry, and sacraments than in the sermon-related ‘forms’ identified by Dibelius, or the didactic and controversial emphases of Bultmann. In Germany New Testament interpretation influenced by the neo-Reformation dialectical theology of the 1920s dovetailed with form criticism (and with the Luther renaissance) in its emphasis on the kerygma, or Word of God preached, addressing humans and changing their self- understanding. Historical exegesis and reconstruction were pursued as before, but historical knowledge was here subordinated to theological interpretations of the texts, and ‘the Word’ rather than history was seen as the key to human speaking of God's self-revelation in Christ.

Cultural and theological reactions against the optimism of Protestant liberalism with its idealist metaphysics of history were inevitable after the First World War. Ignited by the genius of Barth, theologies of the Word sustained German and Swiss Protestantism for fifty years. But biblical scholarship was not ready to abandon its historical-critical paradigm, least of all in Germany, where its roots were strongest and already bearing fruit internationally, and later in German and American Roman Catholicism. It is a measure of Bultmann's success in harnessing the best historical scholarship of his liberal teachers to the new theological agendas of Barth and Gogarten that later attacks on his synthesis came more from theological than from exegetical disagreements. Even his loyal if rebellious pupil Ernst Käsemann (1906–98), who questioned his exegesis at many points while sharing his hermeneutical programme, was guided by theological considerations. Käsemann's conception of early Christian ‘apocalyptic’, for example, by which he meant futurist, dualist, and cosmic eschatology, was driven by a religious, theological, and even political imperative to criticize Bultmann's relative neglect of Christian hope and the struggle for social change, rather than by fresh study of the literary genre ‘apocalypse’.

Bultmann's existentialist theology, articulated through his interpretation of Paul and especially John, was an attempt to solve the hermeneutical problem of speaking of God with and through these texts. It had already been challenged by Oscar Cullmann's retrieval in Christ and Time (1946, ET 1951) of the nineteenth-century theological idea of ‘salvation history’ to solve the same problem. Cullmann thought that this idea expressed the New Testament's understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, ‘the centre of time’. Conzelmann showed its value in clarifying The Theology of St Luke (German: Die Mitte der Zeit, 1956, ET 1960), and Käsemann admitted its (subordinate) role in Paul's theology, but they both shared Bultmann's disapproval of finding revelation in historical events. L. Goppelt's Typos (1939) and posthumous Theology of the New Testament (1975–6, ET 1981–2) and W. G. Kümmel's Promise and Fulfilment (1945, 2nd edn. 1953, ET 1957) appealed to ‘salvation history’ to root theology in the historical events of the Bible, but despite some initial enthusiasm in the biblical theology movement, Cullmann's theological programme persuaded few. His Salvation in History (1965, ET 1967) came too late to halt the Bultmannian ‘victory in Europe’ and in parts of the United States.

A more powerful attack on Bultmann's contraction of history to the present experience of history, and eschatology to the present moment of decision, was launched in the late 1950s by W. Pannenberg and a group of his colleagues in Heidelberg. Inspired more by Hegel than Heidegger, and rejecting any idea of a special history (salvation history) alongside the real stuff, they saw ‘universal history’ as the best framework for speaking of God. Despite the participation of U. Wilckens, whose Theologie des Neuen Testaments later (2002– ) gave due weight to the history of Jesus and the resurrection appearances, and their appeal to a notion of apocalyptic as disclosing in advance a revelation which could not be manifest before the end of history, this theological movement made little impact on New Testament scholarship. Pannenberg's view of the resurrection as a historical event was rejected by Bultmannians almost as vehemently as they had rejected W. Künneth's revival of nineteenth-century conservative talk of ‘salvation facts’ in The Theology of the Resurrection (1933, 4th edn. 1951, ET 1965).

Pannenberg's theological reflection on real history and nature coincided with the decline of existentialism, and together with Moltmann's Theology of Hope (1965, ET 1967) contributed to the partial eclipse of Bultmann's hermeneutics around 1970. Pannenberg built his traditional German association of New Testament and systematic theology into a vision of history which, like that of Baur and Troeltsch, was more open to theological interpretations than the more positivistic attitudes of most biblical scholars, but he did this as a systematic theologian. The Bultmannians' hermeneutically informed attempts to do modern Christian theology as New Testament theology was by 1970 losing its power to set the agenda and direction of biblical scholarship.

The religious motivation and orientation of most biblical study in this period is visible even in the lexicographical research of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 vols., 1932–73, ET 1964–76). The dedication of the first volume to Schlatter and the importance of the earlier volumes for the biblical theology movement hint at roots in H. Cremer's Biblico-Theological Lexicon (1874, 4th edn. 1886, ET 1878, 2nd edn. 1895), in which linguistic expertise supported traditional theological positions. A conservative and edifying tendency is more overtly present in the more compact (3 vols.) Theologisches Begriffslexikon (1967–71, ET with revisions and additions: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. C. Brown, 1975) and the French Dominican C. Spicq's Theological Lexicon (3 vols., 1978, ET 1994). The papyri had seemed to imply that the Greek of the New Testament was simply the common Greek of the day (koinē), but further attention to its Septuagint background showed how it also drew on a particular Jewish theological vocabulary. Some biblical theologians' misuse of etymology was exposed by J. Barr in The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), and Kittel's dictionary was not immune, but the path from language to theology which so excited Hoskyns and his pupils still has much to teach a linguistically less educated generation. H. Balz and G. Schneider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (3 vols., 1980–3, ET 1990–3) maintains this invaluable tradition.

Other lexical and grammatical works in our period also have roots in both liberalism and pietism. Walter Bauer's now standard Greek–German Lexicon of the New Testament (2nd edn. 1928, landmark 4th edn 1952, 6th edn. 1988) was developed from E. Preuschen's original attempt (1896, ET 1898, 2nd. edn. 1905) to take account of the new knowledge of Hellenistic Greek gained from the papyri. It became a Greek–English Lexicon in 1957, embarrassingly labelled after its translators, Arndt and Gingrich. The 1979 revision is commonly called BAGD (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker). Similarly, a standard Grammar of New Testament Greek by F. Blass and A. Debrunner was the fourth edition (1913) of Blass's 1896 work. It was revised in 1947, and by F. Rehkopf in 1976 for its fourteenth edition. The English translation by R. Funk (1961) is based on the tenth (1959) edition. J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (vol. i, 1906) was continued with W. F. Howard in 1919–29 (vol. ii) and by N. Turner in 1963 (vol. iii). The Southern Baptist A. T. Robertson died in 1934, but his classic, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1914) and also A Shorter Grammar of the Greek New Testament (1908) remained standard works. As these examples suggest, and J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (1930) and A. Deissmann's earlier works confirm, our period is one of ongoing conversations (e.g. C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 1959) and minor improvements rather than major advances in lexicography and grammar, despite the impact of modern linguistics—e.g. in a lexicon based on semantic domains by J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida (1988). New materials continue to become available, as may be seen in G. H. R. Horsley, ed., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri published in 1978 (5 vols., 1981–9), and the notion of a ‘Jewish Greek’ is still alive, but few go much further than admitting the influence of the Septuagint.

The many papyri discovered in the rubbish heaps of Egypt in the late nineteenth century included fragments of the New Testament from the second and third centuries, i.e. earlier than the best fourth-century uncials (manuscripts in capital letters), the codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. New commentaries and new editions of older ones incorporated the minor textual alterations suggested by these discoveries, among them the Chester Beatty and the Bodmer papyri. Fuller details were included in constant revisions of editions of the Greek New Testament, notably the United Bible Society's 1965 text, revised in 1975 (3rd edn.) to correspond to the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland (1979). B. M. Metzger, ed., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1991) discusses some of the committee decisions reached by majority votes. G. D. Kilpatrick and his pupil J. K. Elliott pressed for a more eclectic approach to choosing between various readings, asking what best fits the particular context and the author's style.

The papyri also evidence the preference of the early Christians for the codex over the scrolls used for Jewish scriptures, and this has led to new suggestions about the emergence of a New Testament canon in the second century, with the beginnings of this collection possibly going back to the end of the first century. In The First Edition of the New Testament (1996, ET 2000) David Trobisch denies that the canonical status of the New Testament collection resulted from a long and complicated process. He argues that a mid-second-century ‘first edition’ was challenged, but was already a collection, and already Christian scripture. This discussion takes us close to the end of our seventy years, but it uses the new manuscript evidence to continue a debate associated above all with von Harnack, and with H. von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (1968, ET 1972).

New English translations of the Bible have also multiplied since 1935, but whereas the Revised Version of 1884 owed its importance to enormous advances in textual criticism and lexicography, and the twentieth century saw modest gains in both, changes in the English language and the desire to communicate more effectively account more for the further work. The main landmarks are the Revised Standard Version (New Testament 1946, revised 1952; NRSV 1989) and the New English Bible (New Testament 1961; REB 1989).

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