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Different Ways of Describing the Theology of the New Testament

To return to the current thread: I’ve been discussing why most scholars are not equipped, trained, or inclined to write books for a general audience, and that took me, naturally, to the field of scholarship in which I myself was principally trained, biblical studies.  My ultimate point is going be a somewhat ironic one, that precisely because my particular interests were in one of the most highly technical, obtuse, mind-numbingly detailed aspects of New Testament studies, this (strangely) made it *more* possible for me to write books for non-specialists.  The logic will not be obvious, but I’ll explain it.

To get to that I’ve been talking about the two areas most of my peers and colleagues in my PhD program were principally interested in:  (1) the exegesis of the New Testament (the matter of interpreting the texts of the New Testament in order to see what they appear to have meant in their original context – not an easy task, given all the work required for it, including an understanding of the Greek language and grammar, the historical setting of the NT writings in the Roman world, the detailed relationship of various early Christian writings to one another, and lots of other things) and (2) the theology of the New Testament.

The latter topic, I have pointed out, is itself a bit complicated.  Some New Testament theologians are interested principally in the relevance and meaning of these texts for the contemporary Christian community and for individual Christian believers today.  That is a more strictly theological approach to the task.  Other New Testament scholars (or rather, many of the same ones) are interested (either instead or also) in a more descriptive, exegetical task of determining what the theology of each New Testament author – or all the NT authors – actually was, apart from the question of how that might be relevant to the modern situation.

This kind of descriptive theology of the New Testament has historically been done in two ways.  The old fashioned way that is still followed by (theologically) very conservative Christians is…

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  1. Avatar
    Todd  August 22, 2016

    You keep tantalizing us !! 🙂

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  August 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, if you could snap your fingers and magically become an expert in another field (on top of NT textual criticism), what would it be? (And it doesn’t have to be a biblically or religiously related field.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      Probably Classics (both Greek and Latin). But the reality is that I’m really interested in lots of fields in the humanities (especially English and Literature I suppose)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 24, 2016

        Interesting. You know, a book you might enjoy reading (if you haven’t already) is The Limits of Art: A Critic’s Anthology of Western Literature, The Best That Has Been Written and Said, edited by Huntington Cairns. It goes from Homer all the way up to Yeats.

  3. Avatar
    rburos  August 22, 2016

    Question concerning exegesis of the NT within the context of the Roman world:

    A lot is written about how most Jews never saw a Roman soldier, and as long as Palestine was stable and paid their taxes Rome left the local client to keep the peace. That means Palestine should have been aware of Roman culture but was free to maintain it’s own from of “Graeco-Jewish” culture? If so, were later Christian writers more concerned with Rome after the destruction of 70 CE than Jesus was? But then again wasn’t apocalypticism a response to Roman hegemony? Argh.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      Yes, indigenous cultures were generally not required to become Greek or roman. Many ealry Christians were more concerned about Rome because they were urban people, not in rural backwaters (like Jesus and his followers)

      • Avatar
        rburos  August 24, 2016

        Thanks again. But if Mark wrote during the revolt and was able to predict the destruction of the Temple (even with incorrect details since he didn’t know the ending), how much of Jesus’ apocalypticism could have been inserted by Mark? I think I’m having a mini-debate in my head Ehrman v. Crossan. . .at this point not choosing sides (well the bulk of research points to Jesus the apocalypticist so maybe I already have chosen). But understanding where these points diverge will have a significant impact on my future studies.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2016

          Good question. I’ll add it to the Readers’ Mailbag. One main reason for thinking that Mark didn’t invent an apocalyptic message for Jesus is that this message is also found independently in such sources as Q, M, and L.

  4. Avatar
    Hume  August 22, 2016

    Hi Bart

    I just read “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” and “Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero” by Dennis R. Macdonald who is Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology.

    His claim is that much, but not all, of Mark is influenced by the Homeric epics of The Iliad and Odyssey.

    Have you read these and what do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      I don’t think Mark was particularly influenced directly by Homer. Many of Homer’s themes were “commonplaces” in the world at the time.

  5. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 23, 2016

    I’m trying to guess why you might be more equipped to write trade books than others. You weren’t theologically motivated for one, even though most of your colleagues would have been. So if you’re not writing from a theological perspective, then it’s a historical perspective. You also learned something obscure which means very few people were interested in it. Your fundamentalist education meant that you knew both sides of the argument. That still doesn’t really explain how you’re able to write to the general populace without Engish classes showing you how to organize information in a coherent way.

    With all of those things combined, you can write to a broader range of people than most scholars. Plus, you were learning the right (narrow) thing at the right time.

  6. Avatar
    barryclick  August 23, 2016

    This is paradigm shift of major proportions for the study of scriptures…I will definitely stay tuned to your next post. Also, I look forward to the third part of your lecture series…the first two brought clarity to continued study of the development of Christology.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 23, 2016

    Egads! This looks quite a bit different than the theology via cherry picking scripture quoting to which I have been exposed most of my life.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 23, 2016

    A question that just occurred to me: Do you think the Gospel authors were themselves converts (from Judaism or paganism), or had been *raised* Christian by parents who were early converts?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      I really don’t know! (And either does anyone else….)

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 23, 2016

    Another question, suggested by the mention – a couple of posts back – of the Gospel authors’ having believed in some sort of “Paradise.” Do you think that was *all* due to the “Kingdom'” the real Jesus preached not having come, and early Christians’ views having morphed into something else – or had significant numbers of people believed in “Paradise” even *before* Jesus was crucified? Before anyone had heard of him?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      Yes, I think “paradise after you die” had morphed from “the Kingdom of God that is soon to arrive.”

      • Rick
        Rick  August 27, 2016

        Do you think “Elysium” had any bearing on the acceptance of this Paradise?

  10. Avatar
    teg51  August 23, 2016

    wow, really interesting. I have a question though Bart, seeing as you’ve studied Paul for quiet sometime, and your well aware of the disagreement that existed between him and the Jerusalem church, I wonder, do you really think Paul says the objective truth when he claims that the pillars of the faith(James, peter, john) gave him right hand of fellowship because they recognized the grace that was given to him by God, and therefore accepted his ministry to the gentiles?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2016

      I don’t know what their motive was, but I do think they agreed that Paul could have their blessing for his gentile mission.

  11. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  August 24, 2016

    I think I’ve read all your trade books and New Testament textbook and some of the similar books by other authors that you’ve recommended. Are these books primarily getting at what you call the theology the New Testament authors? Or are they more on what the texts meant in their original context? Or both equally – and pretty thoroughly. If there are other trade books that focus mainly on the theology could you recommend some?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      No, I haven’t really written a book that focuses on the theology of the NT authors, but yes, the textbook is the closest thing, when I describe the views set forth in each of the NT books.

  12. Avatar
    rburos  August 26, 2016

    I keep coming back to this post because I may be in a similar position as you back then, albeit at a different phase of life, without the natural skills, but with what is developing into a similar level of passion.

    Your description of the new critical methods of descriptive theology, of asking each author about their own theological insights (and unpacking them) instead of asking them what they think of our theological insights (and unpacking them ourselves) would seem to necessarily lay out disunities in the biblical text. To someone emotionally wed to inerrancy and the unity of the Holy Spirit this could be the beginnings of an emotional event. Is this where you began to lose your faith? At present I cling to the Jesuit understanding of scripture (much more inclusive than the traditions of the conservative wing). For instance the church teaches not to participate in communion when in a state of mortal sin, but Jesuits like to ask the question ‘If Jesus knew Judas would betray him, yet still gave him the last supper, shouldn’t we consider a more inclusive practice as well?’ Of course both readings depend on the assumption that Jesus is God, but it seems to hint at the two types of theology you discuss above. And then they made a Jesuit the Pope. . .

    It affects my own deeply, but not yet in a destructive manner. It doesn’t take long, however, to begin reading passages like the blind man Bartimaeus more as parabolic than historical. For the record I have a priest who is a former Episcopalian, and he seems to think you are the anti-Christ (I know he has read Misquoting Jesus at a minimum). He is definitely one of your old school theologians! I find your work to be what he would call a blessing, although I don’t tell him so.

  13. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  September 1, 2016

    “Christ is a divine figure who is equal with God who has come from God to reveal the truth that can bring eternal life.”

    Dr Ehrman, do you not think it is actually possible that John is addressing a real or potential **misconception** within his community that Christ was equal with God, when he has Jesus saying that he is going to the Father, because he (the Father) is greater than him (Jesus)?

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 2, 2016

      I think instead that it’s very complicated, that John incorporated traditions that emerged at different periods in his community’s history, and these traditions are sometimes at odds, christologically.

      • Avatar
        jbjbjbjbjb  September 2, 2016

        In which case (still thinking about your original statement), would it be more accurate (and wordy) to say that John incorporates a plurality of traditions, some of which affirm Christ’s equality with God and others that refute it? Personally, I would see this as too detached and inconsistent for John whose views I think you would agree are omnipresent. Thanks for the reply.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2016

          Not quite. I don’t think there are traditions that *refute* it in John (there aren’t any verses that say: And Jesus is NOT divine”

  14. Avatar
    madi22  September 5, 2016

    hi bart, in regards to these systematic theology questions by conservatives, are you saying they already had key questions they needed answers for from the scriptures to create a doctrine? If so where did these questions originate if they didnt even know on a scholarly level what the writings actually said. Was it related to traditional beliefs of the church? my understanding is that the bible was only published properly for us to read around 1500s??

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Yes, that’s right. The questions originate from the long history of theology, in which theologians categorized important topics thematically: views of God, Christ, salvation, the world, humankind, etc.

  15. Avatar
    Steefen  September 7, 2016

    If an Old Testament prophet ascended into Heaven (Elijah) and a New Testament prophet ascended into Heaven (Jesus), and in that Heaven, Jesus said there are many rooms and I’m going to prepare a place for you, Paul should have included that in his life after death teachings, yes?

    Why do we need to be caught up in the air and then what? Why couldn’t Paul just say, we get caught up in the air and then go to heaven?

    Paul’s concept of resurrection discredits the New Testament. Don’t you think so? It doesn’t hold up; so, how is it God’s word? How is it sacred with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2016

      Yes, it’s very difficult to figure out what exactly Paul thought about all this, or if he changed his mind at times so that he had different views at different times.

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