The Relationship of History and New Testament Studies

New TestamentMy training is in New Testament studies and not history. However, I see a very close relationship between the two. I come at New Testament studies from the perspective of history.

How does one go about history in any other area? People who study Alexander the Great, the Han dynasty in China or the Napoleonic wars all go about it the same way. They look at the primary sources and examine the other historical forces surrounding those events.

When I study the New Testament, I do it the same way. I look at the New Testament texts as historical documents. I don’t mean looking at them as inerrant and inspired religious Scripture. I have Christian faith but I come at the New Testament as a historian first.

I then look at the surrounding context, including Hellenism, the Roman empire and early Judaism. I look at both the events that are described and what the texts say about the authors. This is exactly what historians do with other events.

That is not to say that New Testament studies is fully the same as other historical endeavours. Many New Testament scholars (including me) have religious beliefs and introduce theological ideas into the process. A historian of 19th century German philosophy may be inspired by the ideas they encounter but not in the same way as a New Testament scholar with Christian faith.

My basic conclusion is that New Testament studies can be more than history but it is definitely not less.

Were Paul and James Enemies?

PaulIt has been common from time to time to suggest a strong conflict between James and Paul in the early church. This was especially true during the time of Adolf von Harnack, who relying Hegelian philosophy, saw Judaism as the thesis (represented by James) and Hellenism as the antithesis (represented by Paul), resulting in a synthesis.

Even without borrowing from Hegel, there are some hints of conflict. It is true that James and Paul were both important figures. James was the half-brother of Jesus and was the head of the Jerusalem church. Paul was a powerful church planter and theologian who left his stamp on the Gentile church, which would ultimately become the majority of the church.

Paul did have conflict with some Jewish Christians. Despite what the Jerusalem council concluded, there were still some Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles convert to Judaism before becoming followers of Jesus.

It is also true that James and Paul had different emphases. Paul’s purpose was to bring as many Gentiles into the church as possible. James’ goal was to hold together both the growing Gentile element and the traditional Jewish core. A modern example would be the goals of a denominational leader and a missionary in another country. They would pursue their roles differently, even though they both wanted people to become followers of Jesus.

Some point to how Paul uses the example of Abraham in Galatians/Romans to demonstrate faith without works while James uses the same passage to demonstrate faith with works. Is this James attempting to contradict Paul? When we look closer, we see that Paul and James are talking about two different things. Paul is speaking about salvation, while James is talking about the nature of the Christian life.

What would it look like if Paul and James met? We don’t have to guess. Paul describes such a meeting.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you! Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.” So they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:18-24)

Did Paul and James always see eye-to-eye? Probably not. They were human after all. But to see them as enemies or as proclaiming contradictory and conflicting forms of Christianity is an overstatement.

What Bible Commentaries Should You Use?

BibleBiblical commentaries are a tremendous tool for understanding the Old and New Testaments. The problem is that there is not just one kind of Bible commentary. There are commentaries for preachers, devotional commentaries and scholarly commentaries. Some require some knowledge of Hebrew or Greek and some do not.

But you don’t want to wait until have purchased a commentary before discovering what kind of commentary it is.

Thankfully, you do not have to. One of the best resources on the web is a website called Best Commentaries. You can look up any book of the Bible and see a list of the best commentaries. Not only does this site rank the commentaries, it provides a description of the type of commentary it is.

If you are going to be doing any study on a book of the Bible, I recommend you visit Best Commentaries.


Did the Apostle Paul Reject Philosophy?

PhilosophyThe early church was born into a fertile garden of philosophy. Platonists, Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics were active far beyond the area that we think of today as Greece.

But what is the relationship between Christianity and philosophy? Specifically, did Paul, who was so influential in the development of Christian theology, reject philosophy? Some Christians think so.

Paul writes in one place: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, NIV)

This is not a criticism of all philosophy but “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” Such a criticism would be agreed upon by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Paul was not arguing that all philosophy is hollow and deceptive, but that which is, is dangerous.

Elsewhere we read:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Could Paul be saying here that the wisdom of the philosophers was meaningless and that he only proclaimed the gospel through signs and wonders?

The problem is that Paul uses philosophical arguments on a regular basis. For example, Paul attempts to demonstrate in 1 Corinthians 15 that there will be a final resurrection of the dead. He uses a basic logical argument:

  1. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus never rose from the dead.
  2. Jesus did rise from the dead.
  3. Therefore, there will be a resurrection of the dead.

We can debate as to whether we think Paul’s argument is convincing, but he was doing philosophy.

So what kind of philosophy was Paul critical of?

I suspect that Paul was critical of the same kind of philosophy that Socrates and Plato were critical of. I speak of Sophistry. What is Sophistry? In a helpful article in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy we find these concerns:

[T]hey were regarded as socially and morally subversive, especially by those of conservative views. Suspicion focused both on their naturalistic outlook, especially in its application to morality and theology, and on their teaching of techniques of argument, which could be seen as encouraging those who acquired them, especially the young, to subvert sound morality and hallowed tradition by clever cavilling. (p. 884)

The Sophists were known to be more interested in persuasion than truth. They argued not from a place of moral conviction but boasted of being able to convince a person of anything, true or not. It is likely something like this that Paul is arguing against in 1 Corinthians.

Paul lived and operated in a philosophical world and he used those tools as he deemed suitable.




5 Books on the New Testament That I Recommend

BookAlthough I love history, my formal training is in the area of the New Testament. I have come across some very helpful books over the years and I thought I would share what I think are the top five. Please note that I’m an Amazon affiliate and if you purchase any of these, you are supporting my work here.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)

Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message

5 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Apostle Paul

Apostle PaulThe Apostle Paul is one of the most influential thinkers and writers in the history of Christianity. It could be argued that his impact is second only to Jesus.

But how well do we really know him?

Here are five things you may or may not have known about the Apostle Paul.

  1. Paul never mentions his original name of Saul or his hometown of Tarsus in his letters.
  2. Paul’s letters were written earlier than the Gospels.
  3. Paul was not the first to preach to the Gentiles. It was actually Peter.
  4. Paul’s letters are not arranged chronologically in the New Testament but from longest to shortest.
  5. Paul never mentions hell in his letters. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe in some sort of judgment, but he never calls it hell.




Paul and the Faithfulness of God

One of my favourite New Testament scholars is N.T. Wright. He is an incredible historian who brings a fresh reading to the text through a close examination of the context. In this video, Wright is interviewed by Michael Bird (another NT scholar I respect). They discuss Wright’s book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If you are interested in learning more about Paul, you might find this video helpful.


Did the Apostle Paul Create Christianity?

Apostle PaulA lot of people, Christian or not, have great respect for Jesus. He may be seen as a great ethical and religious teacher. He may even be considered a prophet of some kind.

Some of those who have respect for Jesus, have much less respect for Christianity. They like Jesus but dislike some of the theological assertions of organized Christianity.

Where did the church go wrong? For some the answer is clear: Paul.

I have read criticisms by Muslims who have suggested that Christianity veered off from the teachings of Jesus because of Paul’s innovations. I have read similar things by some Jewish writers who wish to reclaim Jesus for Judaism.

It is a valid historical questions to ask whether Christianity as it is now finds its origin in Jesus or Paul.

One of the challenges in answering this question is the dating of our sources. It is likely that Paul’s letters predate our written Gospels. How can we tell if Paul changed anything if his writings are the earliest that we have?

I would say that the burden of proof is on those who insist that Paul changed the teachings of Jesus and introduced new ideas. Having said that, I believe that the weight of the evidence is on Paul being consistent, if not with Jesus, than at least with the earliest Christian teachings.

For example, some of the distinctives of Christianity include the resurrection of Jesus and divinity of Jesus. These are found throughout Paul. But did Paul come up with these ideas?

Paul seems to cite in 1 Corinthians 15 an earlier creed about Jesus’ resurrection. There is evidence that the clearest statements about the divinity of Jesus in Colossians and Philippians are earlier creeds that Paul adopts.

Paul also addresses the question of whether he had a different gospel in what is likely his earliest letter:

But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people)—those influential leaders added nothing to my message. On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do. (Galatians 2:6-10)

Of course, this could be Paul trying to cover up his involvement in changing Christianity. But we would need positive evidence for that before dismissing what he says in Galatians.

What about the conflict that Paul seemed to have with some Jewish Christians?

It is true that Paul did have some issues with some Christians from a Jewish background. But that conflict was not about what we would consider the key doctrines of Christianity. The question was about the process by which Gentiles would become followers of Jesus. Were the Gentiles required to convert to Judaism first or were they able to directly follow Jesus? It is interesting that Luke reports that it was not through Paul, but rather Peter that the Gentiles first were able to directly follow Jesus (Acts 10).

Was Paul influential in developing Christian doctrine? Absolutely. Much of what Jesus taught was aimed specifically at a Jewish audience. There were many topics that Jesus gave no clear teaching on how things worked in the kingdom of God. Paul took what Jesus taught and applied to a Gentile context.

However, I would suggest that evidence is lacking that Paul created his own form of Christianity distinct from the teachings of Jesus.