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Another Approach to New Testament Theology

There is another aspect of the study of New Testament theology to what I discussed in yesterday’s post.   That post was focused on how one “does theology” with the New Testament – that is, how one uses the New Testament texts in such a way as to inform, critique, call into question, authorize, and dialogue with the important intellectual and practical aspects of life as a Christian, both individually and in community.  That is the sort of thing theologians do who are interested in the sacred texts of Scripture, and it is something many of my friends who were doing PhD’s in New Testament studies were ultimately invested in, especially since most of them saw their graduate training in the field to be preparation for serving the Christian church.

But there is another equally important aspect of New Testament theology that is more historical in its focus.  If you imagine a spectrum of disciplines with exegesis (the determination of what an author originally meant, to put it in its simplest terms) on one end, and theology (the sustained reflection on all aspects of God and humans in themselves and in relation to each other) on the other end, then I suppose this other aspect of New Testament theology is closer to exegesis.  It involves determining not just what the words of a text mean, but more broadly what the theological views of the author were, based on a full analysis of all of his surviving writings.

This is the area of New Testament studies that I found particularly interesting myself (although, as I’ll later explain, my real passions lay in a completely different area).  The reason I always found it so intriguing is that this kind of study reveals just how incredibly diverse Christianity was at the very beginning.

Here the researcher tries to determine …

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Studying New Testament Theology



  1. Avatar
    Todd  August 18, 2016

    This is an excellent post. You are giving me more insight into a couple of questions I have asked recently.

    Just as a sincere thumbs-up: I have learned more here, in your blog, about scripture than I ever learned in seminary. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Himb4i  August 21, 2016

      Ooooeee, Seminary and on Dr Ehrmans blogs….if I had to guess we may have a lot in common. I went (still attending but transferring because of threats I wouldn’t pass my doc sum because my new developed “liberal” beliefs) to Seminary and now find myself turning to Dr. Ehrmans scholarship. Not to mention my Seminary teaches apologistics and Dr. Ehrman is the model for the “other team” of what to say and defend against “guys like him”.

  2. Avatar
    James  August 18, 2016

    So that seventeen is presumably:
    1) Matthew
    2) Mark
    3) Luke and Acts (not counting the Infancy Narrative as being a separate author)
    4) John (not counting chapter 21 as being obviously from another author and 15-16 sometimes being argued to be separate too)
    5) The Pericope Adulterae
    6) Paul (not counting things like 2 Corinthians 6.14-7.1 as being significant enough to be different authors, although this sort of thing makes it harder to work out what Paul actually thought)
    7-10) Four Pseudo-Pauls, one each for 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastorals
    11) Hebrews
    12) James
    13) Jude
    14) 1 Peter
    15) 2 Peter
    16) The Johannine Epistles (not splitting 1 John from 2-3 John)
    17) Revelation
    Looks quite easy to reach a number in the twenties without even trying. Could even try for the miracle of 27 books by 27 authors…

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      Ah, right, I was miscounting on my fingers!! It should be sixteen. (I don’t count the Pericope Adulterae as a separate author; if we did, we would have to count each and every scribal addition to the text.)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 22, 2016

        Isn’t the Adulterae a special case, since it shows up in mss. of more than one gospel and at different locations in each? The S-V (Jesus Seminar) classes it with “orphan” narratives.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2016

          But it’s still simply a scribal addition that gets inserted in various places. There are other additions that scribes made as well (whole verses, etc.)

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  August 23, 2016

            So it couldn’t be a fragment of an otherwise lost gospel? It seems implausible to me that a scribe would insert it into one gospel and that another, finding it there, would move it to an entirely distinct gospel. Do any of the church fathers address this narrative outside the context of John or Luke?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 24, 2016

            No, it’s probably not a fragment of a lost gospel;

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, when you study the NT, do you make a distinction between a descriptive exegesis versus a prescriptive exegesis? That is, is your intention merely to uncover what each book, chapter and verse was intended to mean, and that’s it? Or are you approaching it as if the intended meaning is meant to become normative and universal — in the deontological sense? (Since you’ve made it clear that you’re no longer a believer, I assume the former.) And for your colleagues who are still in the faith, do they attempt to make a distinction between descriptive and perscriptive exegetics? And if so, how successful are they? And if not, how do they avoid falling into traps like confirmation bias and the sharpshooter fallacy? How difficult is it to be objective when one believes he is splitting hairs over a reading of a verse that can potentially save souls?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      Yes, I have no interest in being prescriptive about belief!

  4. Avatar
    ask21771  August 18, 2016

    How does the bible say God converts people to Christianity

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      The Bible doesn’t have any one view on much of anything! God converts Paul by appearing to him, for example; in otehr places people convert by hearing a good sermon; or by seeing a good miracle.

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 18, 2016

    Excellent post. I remember the days at a Fundamentalist church as the pastor jumped from one scripture to the next throughout the New Testament (sometimes using the Old Testement) to prove their theological positions. The Bible taught a singular message the author was God and every writer within the Bible agreed with one another and sat around the campfire singing Kumbaya!

    My question is; during the proto-orthodox stage of the early Church it seems Christian communities had certain texts and books that agreed with their beliefs, even books that never made it into the final canon, it seems like the differences in what each writer taught was apparent, but after that stage and when the books of the canon were approved was the belief that the New Testament taught a unified message and that all authors were in agreement already in place at that time? When did this belief in a unified message begin?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      The argument that Christianity has always presented a unified message is very old, before there was any agreement on the canon. The argument was not really based on fact, but it was an argument widely made among people who wanted others to believe them. We find it already in the book of Acts. I think I’ll add your question to the Readers’ Mailbag to give it a fuller answer.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 19, 2016

        Excellent question. Good point about Acts. It is clearly trying to give a unified view of christianity. The question is how much is that due to the things the author had heard and read, and how much has the author stretched the “facts” (as he knew them)? I can’t see how it couldn’t be a bit of both.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 19, 2016

    One of the most important things you have taught me is that early Christianity was diverse.

    It is certainly clear to me that the cosmological and teleological arguments provide an intellectual, although not a certain, foundation for deism and theism. What is less clear to me is what provides a similar intellectual foundation for liberal Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      Yes, sometimes it seems like at the borderlines we’re dealing with semantics!

    • Avatar
      Monty  August 22, 2016

      My view is that there are several drivers of liberal Christianity. The most important, I think, is the concept that the ideals of Jesus, particularly in the Beatitudes, are deemed more important than absolute certainty about the divinity of Jesus. I think a lot of liberal Christians think it is a worthy endeavor to seek to emulate the “good deeds” of Jesus, along with tolerance of varying degrees toward belief – and even no belief – in the divinity of Jesus. This may not have been the result of a conscious deliberation, as a historian would undertake, but something that those Christians repelled by fundamentalist Christianity found by trial and error they could feel comfortable with. With respect to today’s liberal Christians, I suspect in many cases denominational tradition in a family plays a role. I myself started out as a fundamentalist, then a liberal Christian, and now, a skeptic. During my time as a liberal Christian I saw a great diversity of individual belief within the congregation I was associated with for several years, but those individual beliefs were not “deal breakers” for these fine folks. Finally, I live in Texas, where it is socially much more acceptable to be ANY kind of Christian than an agnostic or atheist, and so I think some people who can’t swallow fundamentalism, but who want to be “socially acceptable” in the “Bible belt,” find a refuge in liberal Christianity, where they can worship to the degree they believe, or even quietly be skeptical, without overt social repercussion.

  7. Avatar
    Jayredinger  August 20, 2016

    Bart, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is interesting. How much of this story has any historical basis? If none, then how did this story come about. Could there be a different explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2016

      Ah, I’ll be dealing with the question at length in my forthcoming book. Short story: Acts has lots of legendary aspects to it. But certainly Paul did convert from opposing Christianity to promoting it, and he did so on the basis of some kind of vision of Jesus.

  8. Avatar
    brandon284  August 24, 2016

    Hey Dr. Ehrman, is Jesus’s death on the cross as a medium to salvation different among the Synoptics and John? Obviously he dies on the cross in all four accounts, but is the theology different? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      Yup, the theology is different in each case. It’s hard to put into a brief response, though. But for example, Matthew and Luke both see Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, and Luke sees it *not* as a sacrifice but as a miscarriage of justice.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  August 25, 2016

        Fascinating. Could you please give a broader response in the mailbag or even a post or two?

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