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How Do Biblical Scholars Study the New Testament?

Scholars use any number of diverse methods from the humanities to shed new light on New Testament texts.

Folio from Papyrus 46
Folio page from Papyrus 46

Biblical scholars usually study the New Testament with particular attention to historical and literary concerns. They do so, however, in ways that serve a variety of interests; thus, the academic field of New Testament study has developed into a discipline that encompasses different approaches and employs a variety of methods.

Text Criticism. Text critics analyze the various manuscripts of the New Testament that have been preserved over the centuries, comparing them, dating them, and employing various techniques to determine which are the most reliable. Their goal is to reconstruct what the original manuscripts probably said, noting also variant readings when one or more of the copies that have been made over the years say something different.

Archaeology. Archaeologists excavate ancient cities and other sites important to the New Testament world. They have uncovered an enormous amount of physical evidence that supplies background information for interpreting these texts; for example, the discovery of a Galilean fishing boat from the time of Jesus has revealed that such vessels were constructed with an exceptionally low draft, making them especially susceptible to storms. They have also discovered ancient documents from this period, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library.

Social-Scientific Criticism. Some scholars examine the New Testament with perspectives and tools derived from the social sciences. Scholars trained in sociology examine the New Testament writings in light of such phenomena as the diaspora migrations of Jewish people and the military occupation of Palestine. Cultural anthropologists study such matters as kinship relations and value systems, drawing comparisons or analogies from other cultures to understand better the New Testament context.  

Historical Criticism. Some scholars view the New Testament primarily as an ancient resource for learning about history. They want to reconstruct the lives and beliefs of significant people (such as Jesus and Paul) and understand the origins of Christianity, one of the world’s major religions. Such scholars generally view biblical texts with the same skepticism they would apply to other ancient religious writings: they do not take everything in the New Testament as a transparent account, the accuracy of which is divinely assured. Instead, they apply criteria of historical analysis to what is reported in order to determine what is most likely to have actually transpired.

Source Criticism. The discipline of source criticism attempts to move behind the New Testament texts to suggest hypotheses regarding materials that the biblical authors might have used in composing their documents (for example, Paul quotes from an early Christian liturgy in 1Cor 11:23-26, and Luke indicates he has drawn from some other materials about Jesus in composing his Gospel in Luke 1:1). Source critics try to identify these materials, and sometimes they even attempt to reconstruct them.

Form Criticism. Form critics classify different materials found in the New Testament according to literary genre or type (for example, parables, miracle stories, hymns, proverbs). They also try to identify the “setting in life” that each of these types of literature would have served, with the assumption that different genres are intended to serve distinct purposes: a prayer might have been employed in communal worship services, whereas a table of family duties (Eph 5:21-6:9) might have been developed for catechesis of converts.

Redaction Criticism. Used mainly in Gospel studies, redaction criticism tries to determine the particular intentions of New Testament authors by analyzing how they organized and edited their source materials. Scholars look at how various textual units are arranged within a particular book, and they look at alterations that each author is believed to have made in his source material. They are especially attentive to additions, omissions, and organizational patterns that might indicate an author’s priorities and preferences. Thus, Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ disciples having “little faith” (Matt 8:26) rather than “no faith” (Mark 4:40) could reflect growing respect for these people as foundational leaders of the church; the placement of a passage on church discipline (Matt 18:15-17) directly after a parable concerning recovery of the lost (Matt 18:12-14) could reflect a view that the goal of church discipline is to effect repentance, not to preserve community purity.

Narrative Criticism. Also used primarily with the Gospels (and the book of Acts), narrative criticism draws upon the insights of modern literary analysis to determine the particular effects that the biblical stories were expected to have on their readers. Narrative critics pay attention to how the plot of a story is advanced, how characters are developed, how conflict is introduced or resolved, and how rhetorical features like symbolism and irony affect the reader’s perception of what is happening.

Rhetorical Criticism. The focus of rhetorical criticism is one of the strategies employed by biblical authors to achieve particular purposes. Rhetorical critics are interested not only in the point that a writing wishes to make but also in the basis on which that point is established (the types of arguments or proofs that are used).

Reader-Response Criticism. The approach to New Testament texts known as reader-response criticism focuses on how texts have been understood or might be understood by readers who engage them in different ways and in various contexts. For example, they analyze how factors of social location (age, gender, nationality, economic status, and so on) inevitably affect the ways that readers engage texts and help to determine what they think those texts mean.

Ideological Criticisms. Somewhat related to reader-response criticism are a multitude of approaches to the New Testament that seek to explore how these writings might be interpreted when they are read from particular ideological perspectives. Feminist criticism expounds the meanings of different books and passages when read from a gender-conscious point of view. A related field called womanist criticism interprets texts from the perspectives of African American women specifically. Postcolonial criticism brings to the fore interpretations from the perspective of marginalized and oppressed people of the earth, especially those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.         

Deconstruction. The approach to texts called deconstruction is a mode of interpretation that arose in the late twentieth century and became popular with scholars influenced by postmodern philosophy. It attempts to demonstrate that all proposed interpretations are ideological constructs that have no objective claim to legitimacy.

Although there is potential for these diverse methodologies to yield conflicting results in interpretation, there is also considerable overlap in their application, and more often than not, scholars use a variety of disciplines in interconnected ways. The methods function as tools for understanding different aspects of the New Testament; most scholars try to approach these writings with a well-stocked tool box, prepared to use whichever method is called for at the time.

  • Mark Allan Powell

    Mark Allan Powell is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio). He is editor of the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and author of Introducing the New Testament (Baker, 2009) and Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster John Knox, 2012).