Reception History and New Testament Introduction

By David Lincicum
Mansfield College, Oxford
February 2013

Since the year 2000, well over 25 ‘Introductions to the New Testament’ have appeared in English alone, with at least another dozen in major European languages in the same time period. Like the commentary, the Einleitung is a staple genre of biblical studies. The reasons for this prominence are not far to seek: ushering our students into some preliminary understanding of the foundational scriptural texts of the synagogue or church is one of our central pedagogical tasks. The proliferation of published options no doubt owes equally to publishers’ interests in the financial benefits of marketing textbooks to legions of undergraduates, and to the fact that (from an author’s perspective) lecture notes can often be converted into book with relative ease.

With the sheer number of Introductions on offer, one would expect to find lots of sophisticated reflection on the nature and purpose of Einleitungswissenschaft. Such reflection is naturally far from absent, but one does notice a certain disproportion between the significance of Introduction for the discipline, and the relative lack of critical reflection on its aims.1 But for perhaps the majority of students we teach, their sole exposure to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or the New Testament is in ‘intro’ courses, guided by these textbooks, and so it is well worth asking about the hermeneutical nature of New Testament Introduction.

Less than half a century ago, the matter seemed relatively settled. Reginald Fuller, in his A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, could confidently taxonimize New Testament study in this way:

The modern study of the New Testament is divided into three main disciplines: Introduction, Exegesis, and the Theology of the New Testament. Introduction, in turn, is divided….into general introduction (the history of the text and Canon) and special introduction….Special introduction deals with the history of the individual NT books, their sources (if any), the history of those sources before they were used in the particular book, the date the book was written, the place of its writing, the identity of its author and its intended readers, the question of its integrity (i.e. the history of the book between its first writing and its inclusion in the New Testament), the occasion of its writing (what need was it meeting?) and the content of the book.2

All this description of the tasks of Introduction is relatively familiar to those who know the genre. Before Fuller, James Moffatt, in his widely used introductory text, suggested, “An introduction to any literature ancient, mediaeval, or modern, is concerned primarily with literary problems, and with other questions only as these impinge upon the central issue, namely, the literary genesis and growth of the writings under review. …The origin and the objects of these documents in their own age forms its special business”.3 This recalls, of course, the basic tasks of historical criticism – concerns that still matter to most interpreters of the New Testament today. It is striking how similar the concerns of the Introductions to the NT published in the last decade are to those published a hundred years ago. The answers and a few of the questions may differ, but on the whole the genre has remained remarkably stable over time, with a predictable span of voices arguing, then as now, over questions about textual archaeology.

Historical criticism, of course, has as its concern the origins of a text – as do arguably all three ‘branches’ of NT study signaled by Fuller (the taxonomy is open to dispute, but it does not matter for my purposes). The recent upsurge of interest in reception history can be viewed in historicist perspective as merely an attempt to supply interesting footnotes to how such texts were (mostly mis-)understood in different contexts and interpretative traditions. From a more properly hermeneutical perspective, however, the interpreter is never free of a horizon of understanding from which she interprets the ancient text. We stand on the far side of the history of interpretation and so our approach to the origins of a text is always a re-approach through tradition, broadly conceived, to the point of origin. Therefore, the contemporary interest in Wirkungsgeschichte is not – or need not be – merely antiquarian, but has to do with the very nature of our understanding itself as historically-bound. To recognize the importance of a text’s later effects for its understanding is to pose the question of whether reception history might find a proper place not as a distinct category to add to introduction, exegesis and theology, but should rather suffuse them all – as a pervasive element within each of those categories.

Arguably we would benefit from more variety in both the conception and execution of NT Introduction today. If there is an unquestioned validity and important place to be assigned to historical criticism in Einleitung, one must also recognize the validity of approaching texts through their effective history.

Were one to compare pre-modern Introductions, as perhaps Hadrianus’s ΕΙΣΑΓΩΓΗ ΕΙΣ ΤΑΣ ΘΕΙΑΣ ΓΡΑΦΑΣ or Junillius’s Institut regularia divinae legis might be characterized, a question is raised as to whether such introductory remarks have the same object in view as historical critical Introductions. One could adapt David Kelsey’s famous thesis (in his Proving Doctrine) and suggest that there is a significant shift in the move from introducing, say, John as divinely authorized witness to Jesus to introducing John as the composite literary product of an internally conflicted community also undergoing tensions with its non-Christian Jewish neighbors. That is, one is always introducing a text as something, in a way that entails a construal about its subject matter.

In this sense, there is often a major disconnect between the way in which most Introductions to the New Testament construe the text and the expectations of those who first naively turn to seek an Einführung to the New Testament in the first place.4 This is not to suggest that Introduction to the New Testament needs to be confessional; rather it is to make the point that our students – whether they are of the Christian faith or belong to another religious tradition, whether agnostic or atheist – are interested in the New Testament precisely because of its churchly reception as Scripture and the subsequent political, aesthetic, theological and societal implications that reception has yielded. Or, as Childs memorably argued with reference to Old Testament Introduction, “the issue is not whether or not an Old Testament Introduction should be historical, but the nature of the historical categories being applied.”5

Would including elements of reception in NT Introduction produce an “ideal of a Juvenalian farrago” (Moffatt)? Would it be to return to the pre-Hupfeld days in which Einleitung became an unwieldy omnibus of biblical knowledge? There are certainly dangers to be carefully avoided in moving reception history from periphery to center in New Testament scholarship. The experiment would arguably be worth the risks involved, however, and a provocative foray into this territory may well supply an injection of exciting intellectual stimulation into a genre that is often vies with the commentary for the award of least creative.6


1 Notable exceptions include F. C. Baur, “Die Einleitung in das Neue Testament als theologische Wissenschaft. Ihr Begriff und ihre Aufgabe, ihr Entwicklungsgang und ihr innerer Organismus,” Theologische Jahrbücher 9.4 (1850): 463-566; 10.1, 2, 3 (1851): 70-94, 222-52, 291-328; H. Koester, “New Testament Introduction: A Critique of a Discipline,” in Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults. Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty (Part One: New Testament; SJLA 12; Leiden: Brill, 1975), 1-20; and Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon (London: SCM, 1984), inter alia.

2 Reginald H. Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament (London: Duckworth, 1966), 1.

3 J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (Edinburgh: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 1-2; cf. further W. G. Kümmel’s various works for the history of NT Introduction.

4 Here one might compare the instructive reflections of Dale B. Martin, Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

5 Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress 1979), 41.

6 I am aware that this could read as a series of justificatory thoughts prolegomenous to my own attempt at a NT Introduction, but I have no plans for such a project and speak from the perspective of a reader: this is for me a genuine desideratum, and I hope someone will take up the challenge, unwieldy though it be.

Comments (2)

I would have thought that the reception of the NT has been dominated by one overwhelming thought, that the text is somehow divinely inspired. I cling to this idea myself, thinking that it's my duty, if my clinging is to have any rationality, to subject the text to the utmost sceptical interrogation.
An introduction is an offer of information that will be useful to those who have made no specialist study so far but are thinking of embarking on it. This process must surely begin by acknowledging, but not by presupposing, the idea of divine revelation: indeed by testing this idea to the utmost by revealing what is known of the human origin of the text. That is to say that the last thing an introduction should be is confessional. A confessional introduction would distract people from the duty to be critical, the very duty which is essential if the validity of the confession is to be maintained.

#1 - Martin - 03/04/2013 - 20:11

It is lovely to see my mentor Reg Fuller still referenced. He was a good, careful, precise scholar -- something often hard to find now-a-days.

#2 - Edward Mills - 09/19/2013 - 23:05


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