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Studying New Testament Theology

This thread has turned into an explanation of why most New Testament scholars – that is, professional researchers and teachers with a PhD in the field – are not well situated to write books for a general audience.   My reflections on that question – once I get around to it – are probably not what one would expect.  At least they seem ironic to me.  But before going there (in a later post), I should stress that what is true of NT scholars is true of virtually all scholars in virtually all fields of intellectual inquiry.  Most are not equipped (or inclined) to write books for their next door neighbor.  They are trained and interested in producing scholarship for other scholars, sometimes just for a small coterie of scholars who are specialists in their own narrowly focused field of intense research.  (I need to emphasize that I do not think this is a bad thing at *all*.  I think it is a very good thing.  Scholars are trained to advance scholarship.  We only need a small percentage of those doing that tell the rest of the world what the scholars are saying.)

In my previous post I pointed out that in my graduate training – just to take the one example I am most intimately familiar with – almost all the formal training was in New Testament exegesis and New Testament theology.  That was fairly typical of New Testament programs at the time.  In large part that was because the graduates from a program such as that at Princeton Theological Seminary (where I did my work) could be expected to – and almost always wanted to – teach in divinity schools and seminaries, training future ministers of the church.  And ministers need to be taught exegesis (roughly: how to establish the meaning of the biblical texts) and theology (very roughly: how to understand the religious significance of those texts).

In this way of understanding the tasks of New Testament studies, exegesis and theology are closely related but not coterminous.   The way it was all taught back in the 70s and early 80s, when I was being trained, was that exegesis is principally concerned to establish the “original” meaning of the texts of the New Testament.  That’s what I discussed in my last post.  Exegesis involves establishing how a text would be understood by its original readers or, more problematic, but more common, what the text was supposed to mean in the judgment of the person who created it, the author.

This is a historical question.  What did Paul mean when he wrote Galatians 2:12?  What did the author of Fourth Gospel mean when he wrote John 3:3?  What did the author of Revelation mean when he wrote Revelation 3:16?   What did any author mean when he wrote whatever it is he wrote?

That’s a pretty basic issue, and is of course fundamental for historical understanding.  The premise is that to interpret a text, we have to situate it in its original context and not simply assume that our modern ways of making sense of a text are necessarily what ancient authors themselves meant.  To know what they meant requires historical linguistics, an understanding of philology, a knowledge of how the words in the original language (in this case, Greek) worked in other contexts in the ancient world, both before, during, and after the time when this particular author was writing, the other writings of the authors and the detailed views they present, and … well, and lots of other things.   Exegesis is not simply a matter of reading a passage and knowing then what it means.  It requires rigorous study and analysis.

New Testament theology can be understood in a wide range of ways, but …

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Another Approach to New Testament Theology
Being Trained To Interpret Texts



  1. Avatar
    rburos  August 17, 2016

    Bravo and thanks. Writing about the intent and methodology of your training becomes less a blog and more a seminar (in broad strokes) on how each of us can move ourselves forward. I hope this thread continues for some time.

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    Pattycake1974  August 17, 2016

    So for a theologian, is the text continually adapting to the believing community?

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, as an atheist I don’t actually consider theology to be a legitimate academic discipline (someone telling me they are a theologian is like them telling me they study vampires). Now, I know this isn’t the most charitable view of theology, but I simply can’t help but think of the tremendous waste of some rather brilliant minds whose time and energy have essentially been flushed down the drain studying what I consider a useless and profitless field. Of course, I don’t expect you to agree with me. I’m sure you have lots of theologian colleagues and friends. But, as a fellow atheist to another atheist, can we be honest about how much precious time and energy have been wasted over thousands of years on this deadend discipline?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      There are lots of disciplines that I know nothing about, since I don’t study them (Sports Science, e.g.). But I try not to denigrate them, since I don’t know anything about them!

      • Avatar
        James Chalmers  August 18, 2016

        Yes, but students of sport find archaeological and textual evidence as to the nature of sports even in ancient times, and how they fir into society then. They have an abundance of evidence as to who does what in a sporty way across the world today. They can refer to physiology in explaining performance and achievement, they can look to compare women’s and men’s sporty activity. What’s said about sports can be easily supported or criticized on the basis of reason and evidence. (Or perhaps sports concepts as well, in the philosophy of sports, and sporty normative, legal and moral, standards exist and can be interpreted and criticized. There’s lots of there there.

        Further, for historians, psychologists, and sociologists and other social scientists, religion and religions are of great importance. And religions of course encompass a variety of beliefs about gods and the whole realm of the supernatural.

        You and I and talmoore none of us accept the existence of the supernatural. We may, we should I think, appreciate beliefs about this realm and actions and institutions which derive from them, which play an important role in human affairs. So then if I want to know about the large role played by religion in 13th century Europe, I need to know what Thomas believed and why. Since he was a theologian, I need to know his theology–what he believed and understood about God and other elements of the supernatural realm. I need to study theology, then. Religion plays an important role in human life, and theology plays a large role in some or many religions, notably Christianity and Islam.

        But still, you and I and talmoore believe that theological beliefs are entirely human. Christians and Muslims would say God has revealed various truths about himself and his world in scripture, and revealed truths in other ways as well. But the chief objective and reliable source of revealed truth is to be found in scripture–in the Bible and the Qu’ran. Christians and Muslims (some very sophisticated, some would say sophistical, ones excepted) have to accept scripture as authoritative, as dispositive as to what God has to say in some special way that is set apart from the secular and mundane. They must and do believe in the realm of the sacred, places, things, occurrences touched by God and raised above the ordinary. One large part of that realm is reserved for scripture, for His Word. It may be, as you’ve already suggested in this thread, that basic Christian tenets (derived in large part but not entirely from the Bible) may be inconsistent with some of what the Bible (its dozens of authors) have to say, so that this particular passage has to be, if not outright rejected, anyway construed so as not to override the basic tenet. But still for the believer it has to be that what the Bible or Qu’ran says is of God Himself in an authoritative and special way such that no other form of revelation is so important and so much to be relied upon (with few or rare exceptions, which it’s risky to allow of).

        Theology then is certainly a great intellectual tradition, and is even a great game–it’s a human construct with rules as to what moves are allowed and what not. Mistakes can be made, and valid arguments made from accepted premises. There are, for instances, several theories of atonement, and valid arguments can be made as to the strong points and weak in each. But then also the very idea of atonement can be questioned. It can be questioned on moral grounds: you deliberately killed your own son? in so painful a manner? making him despair of your love? all this as a means to the end of saving others? how does that work? And the notion this human being was God–does the very idea (conceded to be mysterious) of the Trinity make sense? And, of course, the very question of the existence of God and making sense of the concept of God. Theology is the study of God and of His Transcendent Sacred Realm. But if He does not exist, nor His putative realm, then there is after all nothing to study. I mean, yes, there is a human construct. There is a great game, played out by great intellects over the centuries, and its rules so that mistakes can be made and avoided. But, to get back to sports, for sports there is a referent out there that assertions can be checked against. The confirmation or truth game is not just a human construct, it’s connected or disconnected from the external (albeit human) world in ways that allow for confirmation and refutation of a more or less determinative sort. (A game involving kicking a ball up and down the field and through an aperture was played in ancient Assyria–or it wasn’t. And there’s evidence that can settle whether it was or not.) But theology, for atheists, is different. I can test whether my wife is there for me and loves me or not. I can’t test whether God is there for me or loves me, and those (believing theologians) who think they can are badly mistaken. Badly because there’s a big difference between a human construct and a God who really exists out there and down here, who enters our lives from above.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  August 19, 2016

          It seems the atheist is sometimes the most fundamentalist of all. Why should the Bible necessarily be the most fundamental source of truth for the Christian? Moses and the people of Israel existed before the Torah or other Hebrew scriptures. Jesus, his followers, and the church with its earliest traditions existed before any of the New Testament.
          If I were Muslim, I might take up the case of the Qur’an, but I am not, so I’ll leave that alone.
          As to the usefulness of theology as opposed to other disciplines, the strongest objection here seems to be that theology is the study of a thing that does not actually exist, in the sense that the game of baseball exists. But there is a saying: If people perceive a thing as being real, then it will become real in its consequences. Even if the words “God,” “Theos,” “Allah,” all referred to the same object (real or imagined) it would not matter so much from an academic point of view whether that thing actually exists in the real world, outside the minds of the people who use those words, as the consequences of believing one or another thing about that thing.
          Complicate that with the fact that “God” and all its equivalent terms has no fixed meaning, now or at any time in history. The study of theology might also be useful to speculate on what, if anything, persons might, ought, or ought not mean when they use that word.
          I often like to recall the lines of Archibald MacLeish as a guide to God talk:
          “If God is God, he is not good,
          “If God is good, he is not God.”
          To speak of God in a Judeo Christian context is to speak of an impossible paradox: if we pare it down to something we can all agree is “real,” then it does not deserve to be called God; there are many more appropriate words for it (baseball, e.g.); if we reject every statement about God that makes it less than worthy of the term, then it is impossible to say what it is we are talking about, yet many of us insist there is that which exceeds the limits of our language and is more important than the things we can easily talk about.
          God is not the only such thing. We can’t say for sure that love, beauty, and evil are things in themselves — my inclination is to say they are not — but we would probably be better off if we spent more energy contemplating them than baseball or the stock market.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 18, 2016

      I don’t see it as deadend if theologians are enjoying their work and feel that it’s useful. Their work may not benefit you or me, but it’s benefiting others. Some people think NASA’s explorations are an absolute waste of time and money, but I wholeheartedly disagree.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 19, 2016

        When was the last time you heard someone reference Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica for any purpose other than to point out that the Summa Theologica exists? The book is essentially a 4,000 page doorstop. Theology stopped being a worthwhile field of study around the same time we stopped burning witches at the stake.

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    RonaldTaska  August 18, 2016

    With regard to theology, my main interest is trying to distinguish liberal Christianity from secular humanism. If one discards the historicity of the Resurrection, the atonement, and the divinity of Jesus and is left with the goal of being as kind to others as one can be isn’t this essentially secular humanism?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      It certainly can be a form of secular humanism. But one could discard the historicity of the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, and the atonement and still believe that God was active in the life of Christ (I have friends who do that!)

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  August 18, 2016

      I believe the atonement (the universal sacrifice of Jesus) was the original idea of Christianity, therefore the only essential. A sacrifice only has to die. Some in the Greek mystery religions were already thinking about a universal sacrifice, but only some of them thought the sacrifice had to be a god.

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    Erekcat  August 18, 2016

    Where can we get the text of biblical exegesis used by most scholars?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2016

      I”m not sure what you’re asking. Do you mean the form of the Greek text that exegetes use? It would be the Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece.

      • Avatar
        Erekcat  August 18, 2016

        I believe I’m asking is there biblical exegesis that you would recommend reading. Sorry if I’m not saying that correctly.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 19, 2016

          OK, I think I understand. I’ll answer that in a Weekly Readers’ Mailbag.

          • Avatar
            Erekcat  August 19, 2016


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    godspell  August 18, 2016

    Once in a very long while, a historian will come out with a book that is both highly accessible to a large audience and an original work of scholarship that expands our understanding of the subject. It’s very rare. One famous example would be Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada, which is at the same time a brilliant look at all the various related activities that were going on while the Spanish Armada was bearing down upon England, as well as the actual battle–a vast game board, with many players on it. The historical characters in it are vibrant living beings, who do not at all resemble the various cliches propagated about them by the movies and other popular works.

    Why did the Spanish attack? Why did the attack fail? Was it really just about the English having fast little ships that outmaneuvered the great Spanish galleons? In a word, no. The truth is always more complex than what we’ve been led to believe. And the truth is never all on one side.

    But Mattingly could never have written that book without having first read a host of dry scholarly works written for other scholars, such as himself. And he knew that. To create something like the Cathedral of Chartres, how many generations of builders and artisans had to slave away in obscurity, experimenting with different materials and techniques, finding out what works? All creative endeavors are collective endeavors. Jesus himself was building on what came before him–and he said so.

    But here is what I think makes Mattingly’s book work–and really, any great work of history that can reach beyond a scholarly audience–it has a theme. Professionalism. He’s moving us around Europe, and each chapter is from the perspective of this or that person, and these various players are on different sides–but they’re all unified by their devotion to doing their jobs. I told my professor that in class, after we read it, and he nodded in satisfaction. So it’s not just a collection of events occurring in Europe in the year 1588. It’s a single unified narrative, with a single unifying theme. Something writers of fiction tend to understand better than writers of history.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 18, 2016

    OT: Can’t resist mentioning that the controversy over American athletes’ having been robbed in Rio illustrates the concept of “gist memory.” The men’s recollections of what happened don’t agree in detail – and even individuals don’t describe it consistently – for the obvious reason that they were drunk! But the “gist memory” is almost certainly true, because they had no reason to make it up.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 19, 2016

      But the Brazilian authorities obviously wanted it to be a made-up story, because it was a public relations black eye for Olympians to have been mugged. They wanted to cast doubt on the story, and since it can’t be proven to have happened, there is some doubt. Maybe the athletes wanted publicity, or were covering up something. I doubt it very very much, but you could make that case if you wanted to. And which story you believed would depend on a variety of prejudices, positive and negative.

      In any event, there’s nothing miraculous about being mugged in Rio de Janeiro.

      Still a place I’d like to see someday. I live in New York, and even though our crime rate is not what it once was, I hardly feel in a position to throw stones. We are hardly without sin, and most of our newer structures are actually made of glass, you know. 🙂

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    Dipsao  August 18, 2016

    I have debated with seminary professors that we should be talking about “theologies” as opposed to theology. James’ theology differs from Paul’s and even Paul has multiple approaches to soteriology. As I see it, the weakness in systematic theology is that it tends to homogenize these differences so one ends up with a produce that looks little like the original or originals as the case my be. This vanilla theology has resulted in the fundamentalist-evangelical style of Christianity we have today. I realized that not to do that makes Christianity look messy and most people can’t handle that. They can hardly handle the homogenized version. But, at lease, it would recognize the different voices in the Bible instead of silencing some.

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    Wilusa  August 18, 2016

    A later note: I guess I was wrong about that “gist memory”: Everyone seems to be saying they *did* make it up! To cover up a minor “incident” when they’d found a public restroom locked and tried to force their way in. Or something like that!

  10. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 18, 2016

    How does a theologian or a textual critic address Paul’s letters or James letters or any epistle for that matter? They are one-sided communications, in that we’re reading only one side of the conversation, and since it is important to know the historical context in which these letters were written, such as, what problems or issues were being addressed, what was the authors motives or intent for the letter etc; are all these factors known to the scholar or are there still unanswered questions about the “other side of the conversation” and how does that impact the development of theology and exegesis?

    Also, a simpler question. In a debate online a Fundamentalist friend said you were a textual critic and not an historian. I said you wore both hats. Do you also consider yourself an historian?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2016

      I think I’ll answer both questions on a Readers’ Mailbag. But I wonder what would make someone think I’m not a historian. Have they never read any of my books? The vast majority of them (even the ones focused on textual criticism) are about *history*. I actually don’t do textual criticism any more; all I’ve worked on for years is the history of early Christianity (on which, for what it’s worth, I had far more formal training than in textual criticism!)

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  August 19, 2016

      Dr. Ehrman shows in his books why Paul is no longer so one-sided. We now (mostly during my lifetime) have writings from and about the other Christianities, the ‘Lost Christianities’. When Paul blasts a competing Christianity, we now know a lot more about his targets.

      A textual critic (even a theologian) has more problems with things like the epistle of James, since that seems to be the only work we have by that author. So it’s harder to detect patterns in how they use words and phrases. To me, it seems either Ebionite, or even pre-Christian. Nothing in the text is uniquely Christian. Replace Jesus with any respected Jewish sage, and it makes equal sense.

  11. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  August 18, 2016

    “we should be talking about “theologies” as opposed to theology. James’ theology differs from Paul’s” — For a Fundamentalist, and even for many Conservatives, there can by definition only one theology. The Bible is all true, therefore all of it must express the same truth, or at least consistent truths. That’s why theology, as so defined, is an impossible task. The authors did NOT all have the same ideas and views. Honest exegesis learns those various views, without trying to force them into consistency.

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