Posted by: aboutalbion | September 7, 2012


I posted yesterday about my historical interest in the origin of Christianity (using papyrus 46).  But, first, I need to orientate myself in the field of what is usually called ‘new testament studies’.  And this is where some difficulties begin to appear.

For historic reasons, research in ‘new testament studies’ in the UK is usually hosted by university departments of theology or divinity.  And the ethos at these university  departments usually implies that the ‘god’ question, the ‘Jesus’ question, and the ‘Christian origins’ question either stand together or fall together.  What this means is that there is an implicit or an explicit “No trespassers” sign that is put in front of people wanting to do research in ‘new testament studies’ just and only with historical methods.  The one exception to this unsatisfactory situation that I have encountered is the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield.  Here it does appear to be possible to research Christian origins with just and only historical methods.

This unsatisfactory situation is on view in London at the moment.  Beginning yesterday, The British New Testament Society is holding its annual conference at King’s College, London.  The BNTS website states that attendance “is open to professional biblical scholars resident in Britain and to Ph.D. students of a British institution”.  In other words, amateur historians in this field of study cannot attend.  Is this a professional way to limit the numbers attending to a manageable size of around 160?  Or is this a socially acceptable way of saying “No trespassers”.

In an ideal world, artefacts of around two thousand years ago from the Middle East (such as papyrus 46 discovered about eighty years ago) would be studied in a university department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies where methods in archaeology and literature and history would coexist together.  But we do not live in an ideal world.  We are where we are …

I think that Joseph Hoffmann [in a recent (19 August) post on his WP blog ‘The New Oxonian’] was accurate in his perception that behind the “No Trespassers” sign there is a good deal of confusion among ‘new testament studies’ scholars.

Here’s one way of describing the confusion.  On the assumption that there was a historical person whom we may call Jesus, the conclusion of these scholars is that the biography of the historical Jesus has not yet been written … and probably never will be written because there are no assured attested social facts about Jesus available to a historian.

Here’s another viewpoint.  The ‘new testament’ documents that were collected and designated as ‘scripture’ by the church authorities record how the figure of Jesus was understood by early church communities to be both human and divine.  It was this understanding that created Christianity.  And so it is natural to think that this understanding of the figure of Jesus as both human and divine evolved from simple to complex ideas.  The conclusion is that the ‘new testament’ documents ‘capture’ the more complex ideas about the figure of Jesus towards the end of the process of evolution.

Here’s Hoffmann again.  “[T]he New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.”  I understand this to mean that the figure of Jesus as both human and divine in the ‘new testament’ documents was a theory held by the officers of the dominant orthodox church of the third century, and that present-day scholars realize that this theory lacks a historical evidence base (in the normal sense of the word).  If that is the case, then the confusion among scholars in this field is understandable.

It is into this confused field, that I shall occasionally blog about my enquiry into the origin of Christianity.


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