Tasks of New Testament Scholarship -- By: Martin Hengel

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 06:1 (NA 1996)
Article: Tasks of New Testament Scholarship
Author: Martin Hengel

Tasks of New Testament Scholarship*

Martin Hengel

Tübingen University

New Testament scholarship must move beyond its current preoccupation with faddish methods (as evidenced by several variations of the so-called new literary criticism) and return to a solid grounding in history, primary source materials, archaeology, and competence in the pertinent languages. This also entails familiarity with early Judaism, the Greco-Roman world, and early patristics. The exemplary contributions of major biblical scholars of the last century are reviewed.

Key Words: Tübingen School, New Testament world, primary sources

The Göttingen natural scientist and author Georg Christoph Lichtenberg observed self-critically, “The person who understands nothing but chemistry doesn’t understand even it.”1 Would we not have to say something similar with regard to our own discipline? A New Testament scholar who understands the New Testament alone cannot rightly understand it at all. Still, the datum of New Testament scholarship is only a single book of 680 pages in its small format.2 Among the disciplines in the humanities taught in universities, the field called “New Testament” surely has the most limited datum. One need only compare its neighbor, church history. Over against this one little book stands the complete Migne, with 378 volumes, along with countless other sources. A glance at Old Testament study, Jewish studies, and

* This paper is a slightly revised version of my 1993 SNTS presidential address, delivered in Chicago. It has been translated by P. E. Devenish and C. A. Evans. The latter edited it for the BBR. A somewhat expanded German version of this address has been published as “Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft,” NTS 40 (1994) 321-57.

classical philology (that is, at other neighboring fields of study) likewise reveals the same disparity. In the one instance, a vast number of sources from one or two millennia, in the other, twenty-seven documents, some brief, the first testimonies to a Jewish messianic sect covering a period of some sixty years, between 50 and 110 ce.

Of course, this striking disparity is bound up with the extraordinary claim to truth made by this little book and with a history of its influence that fills countless volumes. But a different, apparently opposite, problem immediately becomes evident here as well. In his aphorisms Lichtenberg, as an Enlightenment skeptic, is furious over “the time and trouble that have gone into interpreting the Bible.”...

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