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In this volume in the Library of Biblical Theology series, James D.G. Dunn ranges widely across the literature of the New Testament to describe the essential elements of the early church’s belief and practice. Eschatology, grace, law and gospel, discipleship, Israel and the church, faith and works, and most especially incarnation, atonement, and resurrection; Dunn places these and other themes in conversation with the contemporary church’s work of understanding its faith and life in relation to God’s ...
In this volume in the Library of Biblical Theology series, James D.G. Dunn ranges widely across the literature of the New Testament to describe the essential elements of the early church’s belief and practice. Eschatology, grace, law and gospel, discipleship, Israel and the church, faith and works, and most especially incarnation, atonement, and resurrection; Dunn places these and other themes in conversation with the contemporary church’s work of understanding its faith and life in relation to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
WHAT IS NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY?
Biblical theology as a distinct discipline is usually traced back to the of J. P. Gabler published in 1787. The Bible, of course, had a source and resource for the crafting of theology from the centuries of Christianity. Indeed, Irenaeus can be regarded as a candidate for the title, "the first biblical theologian." But prior was more a matter of the Bible in the service of systematic or theology than of a biblical theology as now understood. It was initiated the distinction and separation of biblical theology theology and promoted the understanding of biblical theology historical exercise to determine what were the theologies (not of the biblical writers. Since then the discipline of biblical would too easily sideline the question whether Jesus ought one of their own prophets (or rabbis, or messiah?). And prophet from Nazareth is brought into play, dialogue with virtually unavoidable and cannot easily be excluded concerns of a Jewish biblical theology. Here the issues of discontinuity are at the heart of any biblical theology of the has had an up and down history, but interest in it has emerged in some strength, which makes the present series timely.
The role of NT theology within or as part of or in relation to biblical also re-emerged as an important aspect of the larger discussion—indicated by the sequence of volumes in the 1990s on the theology the NT that revived the nineteenth century title "Biblical Theology in the New Testament." Robert Morgan can even say that "a theological NTT [NT Theology] is defensible only as part of a biblical theology."
So the principle and task of writing a New Testament theology within the framework of biblical theology is easy to state. But when we begin to unpack what is involved, questions and problems quickly emerge and soon multiply. When, for example, R. H. Fuller wrote his piece on New Testament Theology for the Society of Biblical Literature 1980 Centennial volume on the New Testament, the influence of Rudolf Bultmann still loomed large, and it was the questions that the latter's Theology continued to pose that were important for Fuller: "(1) the place and role of the historical Jesus in a NT theology; (2) the adequacy of the anthropological interpretation of Paul and of 'deworldification' as a hermeneutical key for John; (3) the problem of variety and unity in the NT; (4) whether the NT contains a stratum to be designated 'early Catholicism,' and if this is admitted, how that stratum is to be assessed." It will be apparent from the first two chapters of this volume both that some of these issues are still alive, and that the debate has moved on during the past quarter of a century.
In what follows I will attempt to give a fresh perspective on some of these problems by moving away from traditional formulations and expressing the problems in my own terms.
2. WHICH "BIBLE"? WHOSE BIBLE?
The initial problem is posed by the very title, "Biblical Theology of the New Testament." The problem lies with the term biblical itself. (1) The title assumes a Christian perspective, in which there is already an entity called the New Testament, and, explicitly or implicitly, another entity called the Old Testament. From this perspective the Bible is the Christian Bible made up of these two testaments. (2) At the same time, a biblical theology of the NT is inevitably an attempt to expound the NT writings from within the NT, using as a major explanatory key the NT writers' use of the OT. But since for the NT writers there was as yet no New Testament as such, Bible here, that is, from the perspective of the NT writers, can denote only the (Jewish) scriptures.
Thus the very concept of biblical theology immediately presses upon us the recognition that the biblical writings referred to are described as Bible/scripture because they function as Bible/scripture for two different reli-gious communities—the Jewish and the Christian. The point would have been difficult to avoid anyway, since the interdependence of a text, particularly a religious text, with its interpretative community, the community for which it is scripture, is more or less self-evident (scripture for whom?) and has rightly been an emphasis in recent broader hermeneutical discussion. It is this fact, however, that causes tension between the two usages of biblical theology. For, on the one hand, Christianity is unique among world religions in the fact that it has absorbed the scriptures of what is universally understood to be a quite distinct religion and has claimed them as its own. But is the Old Testament only Bible as Old Testament, that is, as interpreted by and in the light of the New Testament? If on the other hand, the Jewish scriptures are Bible independently of the Christian writings, should they not be allowed(!) to have their own voice independently of the NT? Is a Jewish theological interpretation of their own scriptures not equally biblical theology? One of the strengths of Brevard Childs's Biblical Theology is that he sees the issue and poses it a number of times, but clearly understands biblical theology as a Christian enterprise through and through. My point, however, is that biblical theology (however defined) cannot be carried forward without close regard for the fundamental issues of self-identity and mutual recognition at the heart of Jewish/Christian dialogue.
This problem cannot be ignored. It is in fact constitutive of biblical theology properly so called. Of course Christians could ignore the fact that their OT is also the Jewish Bible and affirm that their biblical theology is concerned only with their Bible. But that would immediately run counter to central concerns of the NT writers themselves, for whom the Jewish scriptures were the only Bible. Consequently such a New Testament biblical theology could be regarded as an oxymoron since it runs counter to the historical character of biblical theology, as formulating the subject matter in the terms and from the perspective of the NT writers themselves. As we shall note further in chapter 2, it was crucial to earliest Christian self-understanding and to NT apologetic generally that the gospel they were proclaiming was in direct continuity with and validated by those writings that were already recognized as scripture by Jews generally and not just by Christians. Not only so, but if the Bible in biblical theology is concerned with the Jewish scriptures only as Old Testament, Jews in turn, insofar as they might be interested in a subject called biblical theology, could all the more readily ignore the writings added to their scriptures by the Christians and confine their interests to their Bible alone. But that would too easily sideline the question whether Jesus ought to be counted as one of their own prophets (or rabbis, or messiah?). And once Jesus the prophet from Nazareth is brought into play, dialogue with Christians becomes virtually unavoidable and cannot easily be excluded from the proper concerns of a Jewish biblical theology. Here the issues of continuity/discontinuity are at the heart of any biblical theology of the NT. As I noted elsewhere, "At the heart of biblical theology is the interface between a Jewish biblical theology and a Christian biblical theology—the interface that is the New Testament itself."
In short, the dynamic of biblical theology is that its subject matter is determined and defined by texts that are Israel's scripture (the Torah or Tanakh as a whole) and not merely the Old Testament, but are also Christian scripture (the scriptures for the NT writers) and therefore have some sort of defining role for the texts that were to become the New Testament. What is the relation of New Testament to Old Testament? Does "New" indicate movement on to a different plane of revelation, with "Old" subordinated to a merely background role? Or is "New" a new form of the "Old," with each vital to a proper reception and understanding of the other? Or do they have to be regarded as in the end two distinct and even discontinuous bodies of sacred writings? This is the fundamental problem of biblical theology, and its impact on the task of NT theology is obvious.
3. QUESTION OF THE CANON
A second and unavoidable issue is the canon, for canon defines the content and scope of the Bible, and is particularly pressing for those who, like Childs, want to deal with a canonical biblical theology. The difficulty in this case is that for the crucial period when the NT was being written, but was not yet "the New Testament," the boundaries of the canon were fuzzy. What counted as the law (Torah) and the Prophets had been more or less agreed from the second century B.C.E. But the number of the Writings was far from clear, including the status of a major Second Temple Jewish writing like ben Sira. And are we talking about the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Bible (LXX), the latter with several Hebrew Bible texts elaborated and extended, and ben Sira and other apocryphal works included? Although the Protestant canon sided with the Hebrew Bible, it cannot be without significance that, as is clear from OT quota-tions in the NT, the LXX was the principal text for the NT writers. That fact in itself complicates quite seriously the issue of continuity/discontinuity between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible.
With the NT writings the problem is still more serious. For in the first century, there was, properly speaking, no NT canon. We can certainly speak of traditions of Jesus that were prized and functioned authoritatively, and of letters of Paul that were soon circulated and began to acquire a kind of proto-canonical status for a steadily widening circle of churches. But of little more than that. Nor should we forget that canonical status has never really meant a parity of status across the board for the NT writings. Those whose apostolic authority was doubted well into the fourth century are probably better designated as deutero-canonical. And questions about the status of secondary items have never been finally or satisfactorily dealt with.
The real problem with tying a NT theology to the canon of the NT is that it takes not so much the NT documents as the norm for NT theology, but rather the fourth-century evaluation of the NT and authorization of the NT canon. The voices of the NT writers are valued not so much for their individuality but for their agreement, or, perhaps more worryingly, for their assent to a creed or rule ("the rule of faith") that has been partly drawn from some of the writings but has also in effect been imposed on the others and reflects more the priorities of the subsequent centuries than those of the NT writers themselves. But what if conformity to such a rule is an imposition on much more diverse patterns of speech, belief, and praxis? In which case, is that properly New Testament theology, or the theology of the fourth-century church? The fact, for example, that the heirs of the first-generation Jerusalem church (within the canonical documents almost certainly best reflected in the letter of James) are arguably to be found more completely in the so-called heretical Jewish-Christian sects of these later centuries raises a troubling question as to whether the Christianity that James reflects was fully accepted by those who authorized the canon of the NT.
This issue underlines the importance of biblical theology as a historical discipline: the importance of hearing the texts in their historical context, as they were heard when first or finally written down in their enduring form; the importance of reading them diachronically, taking into account the influences that shaped them, and not simply synchronically where complementarity to other canonical texts becomes the primary hermeneutical principle.
The issue of canon also raises the question of non-canonical texts and their relevance to the task of elucidating the theology of the NT. Here of particular relevance are the so-called intertestamental Jewish writings, or, more satisfactorily, the post-biblical Jewish writings of Second Temple Judaism. They are relevant for the simple reason that, as we shall see, many NT passages cannot be understood historically except in some degree of interaction with several of these texts. No respectable NT theology can confine its inquiry to the canonical writings, since many of the writings included in the NT canon cannot properly be grasped without appreciating the interaction with issues and themes attested in extra-canonical writings that was part of their raison d'être.
More sensitive are the so-called NT apocrypha, including such texts as the Gospel of Thomas. A strong argument has been pressed in recent years for some of these texts, the Gospel of Thomas being the test case, to be regarded as comparable to the canonical Gospels, as bearing witness both to a stream of tradition equally ancient and to a different version of Christianity with equal claims to stem from Jesus. And certainly for biblical theology as a historical exercise it is important to be aware how fluid and open to diverse interpretation so much of the Jesus tradition (the Q material in particular) proved to be. However, the difficulty with making the case for regarding Thomas as a source of equal value with the Synoptic Gospels is that it is precisely the overlap with the Synoptic tradition that gives the Thomas tradition its credibility as a source that leads us back to the fountainhead (Jesus) himself. The more plausible explanation, therefore, is that Thomas constitutes clear evidence of how the Q tradition in particular was developed and interpreted by one or more strands emerging from first-century embryonic Christianity. Like Q itself, however, it reveals a source and development that was discounted and set aside within the mainstream that became Christianity. It therefore constitutes data of importance for any consideration of what constitutes a Gospel. The main body of second-century Christians came to the conclusion that only those accounts of Jesus and his teaching that climaxed in the passion narrative of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection were gospel and disowned collections only of his teaching. The process by which this conclusion was reached takes off from the fact that what were to become recognized as the canonical Gospels followed Mark in writing Gospels as passion narratives with lengthy introductions. A NT biblical theology should find in this whole issue a question to be grappled with as an intriguing historical question and in the process a model for how the question might or should be pursued.
The important point for a biblical theology, which I shall develop in chapter 2, is that canonization should not be seen simply as the endpoint in the formation of the NT and of NT theology. Rather the canonical process is itself an expression of NT theology. So the NT biblical theologian is bound to the NT canon, at least to its main components, simply because the canon demonstrates the power inherent in the documents concerned, the theological authority they themselves exercised as was acknowledged when the canonical status of just these documents was affirmed, or better, confirmed.
4. THEOLOGY OR THEOLOGIES?
If the relation of the NT to the Bible is a problem for a biblical theology of the NT, so too is the New Testament itself. The very manner of talking about "the New Testament" and "NT theology," as though each was a single, unified entity, poses several issues.
One is signaled by the fact that as a first-century term bible (biblion) never refers to what today would be called the Bible, or even to the Hebrew Bible or LXX as a whole. When used in reference to sacred writings, it always refers to a particular writing: one of the Torah scrolls; or the scroll of one of the prophets (Luke 4:17, 20); or an apocalyptic scroll; it is used also of John's Gospel (John 20:30). So by talking about the Bible do we not impose a unitary perspective that is quite unknown to the NT writers?
Excerpted from New Testament Theology by James D. G. Dunn. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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