Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-vkn6t Total loading time: 0.307 Render date: 2022-08-16T01:38:44.925Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

What if it were True? Why Study the New Testament

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 March 2022

Rowe C. Kavin*
The Divinity School, Duke University Box 90968, Durham, NC 27708, USA. Email:


This article argues for a renewal of the discipline of New Testament studies through a focus on the question of truth. To make the argument, the article first engages a recent essay that is highly critical of mainstream NT scholarship and subsequently works with the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and Hans-Georg Gadamer to pursue the interpreter's implications in the NT's assertions of truth. The article also briefly exegetes five passages from the NT to illustrate the way the NT makes claims that require judgements about truth. Along the way, the article also engages contemporary NT scholars who argue vociferously against ‘theological’ readings of the NT and others who argue for their inherent necessity.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Wittgenstein, L., Culture and Value (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995) 39e (emphasis original)Google Scholar.

2 Steiner, G., Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) 39Google Scholar.

3 Meeks, W. A., ‘Why Study the New Testament?’, NTS 51 (2005) 155–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Meeks gives five reasons why the NT ‘must’ be studied. The first is religious/sociological (part of the foundation of Christian communities), the second is aesthetic/intellectual (pervasive influence in art, literature and thought), and the last three are moral (it has been abused as often as used; we damage ourselves and others when we lose sight of our situation in the stream of history; we should be future-oriented because we don't have the last word). In some ways, these reasons are just fine as far as they go – partly because they are so unobjectionable – but under scrutiny one can see that they are simply assertions about the importance of things whose importance is just another assertion. We may agree or we may not. Who's to compel us? This layering of assertion on top of another assertion as if on a foundation and not just another layer of assertion is a common way of writing when you want to find something to hang your convictions on but don't want to use words like ‘truth’ or ‘God’ or ‘theology’ (Meeks admonishes us to jettison the language of biblical and NT theology).

4 Even those who want to use history to get free of it – genealogists, for example – do their work by history (see Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History). Try as we might, we cannot think on this side of the historical turn without the historical turn. We all now know, and cannot not know, that the NT documents have particular histories of composition, destination, purpose and so on. All supposedly non- or a-historical reflection gets its critical launch angle from what has come before it, what it finds unsatisfying in that ‘before’, and thus situates itself historically as yet one more mode of human reflection. All complications of ‘objective’ historiography just mean the ‘objective’ part is complicated. The historical part – that we turn to the past for reflection of any sort – remains firmly in place, even for those who think they have left it behind. In the end, this dependence on history is a feature of our humanity – we are finite creatures who emerge ‘after’ what has come ‘before’ and cannot do without what has come before – and it will inflect our thinking one way or the other regardless of our theoretical attempts to embrace or reject particular forms of historiography.

5 Kierkegaard, S., For Self-Examination in For Self-Examination, and Judge for Yourselves! (trans. Lowrie, W.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944) 58–9Google Scholar. A more recent translation of For Self-Examination – but less elegant in this particular passage – is For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourselves! (trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 33–4.

6 Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination, 58–9.

7 Steiner, Real Presences, 39. He finishes the sentence: ‘the primary text is only the remote font of autonomous exegetic proliferation’.

8 Steiner, Real Presences, 40.

9 Even the Bible itself is often commentary on commentary, the Chronicler's on Kings and Samuel, Luke's on Isaiah, or Matthew's on Mark, or 1 John on the Gospel of John, for that matter. Still, part of the point of returning regularly to the primary texts is surely to return to the primary texts.

10 S. L. Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”: The Protectionist Doxa of Mainstream New Testament Studies’, MTSR (2019) 1–36.

11 See, for instance, Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”’, 3, 11–13.

12 For Young's treatment of Barclay, see Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”’, 13–18.

13 Barclay, J. M. G., ‘An Identity Received from God: The Theological Configuration of Paul's Kinship Discourse’, EC 8 (2017) 354–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 372.

14 Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”’, 3.

15 Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”’, 3.

16 Young, ‘“Let's Take the Text Seriously”’, 6. In Young's view, we do offer some arguments, but they are only ‘further protectionist arguments’. There is a real question about whether Young has interpreted Bourdieu correctly. I think not, or at least not entirely, for the rather simple reason that his explanation of Bourdieu stands in tension with his analysis of Protectionist scholarly work on his own terms. For Bourdieu, doxa is a level of assumption that is deeper than reflection; at this level one cannot reflect upon what is assumed, at least not until some fundamental conditions that go beyond scholarly paradigms change (of society, of culture etc.). Young's use of Bourdieu does not show (a) an awareness of this problem, and/or (b) that the conditions have changed so that we can now see the ‘protectionist’ assumptions that undergird NT studies that we were earlier unable to see.

17 See McCutcheon, R., ‘A Default of Critical Intelligence: The Scholar of Religion as Public Intellectual’, JAAR 65 (1997) 443–68Google Scholar, which presages his book Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001).

18 Griffiths, P. J., ‘On the Future of the Study of Religion in the Academy’, JAAR 74 (2006) 6674Google Scholar.

19 See e.g. Young's approval of Bruce Lincoln's comment: ‘when one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood … one has ceased to function as historian or scholar’ (Young, ‘Let's Take the Text Seriously’, 3, citing Lincoln, B., ‘Theses on Method’, MTSR 8 (1996) 225–7)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A representative work within NT studies of this widespread position is Heikki Räisänen's Beyond New Testament Theology: A Story and a Programme (London: SCM, 1990). Räisänen attempts some nuance in his article ‘A Religious Studies Alternative to New Testament Theology: Reflections on a Controversial Enterprise’, The Bible among Scriptures and Other Essays (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck: 2017) 15–29, which explains his overall sense of his work. But the basic idea that not-theology is a viable way to think is simply restated. For an excellent treatment of this question in relation to reading strategies that explicitly presuppose faith, see Hays, R. B., ‘Reading the Bible with the Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis’, JTI 1 (2007) 521Google Scholar. Hays discusses Meeks, Räisänen, Michael Fox and Hector Avalos.

20 ‘Charms’ is Griffiths's apt word (‘On the Future,’ 73).

21 The programme of the not-theologians, while veiled in the language of ‘historicising’ and so forth, often functions as a mask behind which various moralisms and exhortations are smuggled in – all presented as self-evident, thrown out to their audience without any justification. Though he derides the ‘mainstream’ Protectionists for their way of reading, Young, for example, makes a convenient exception to his claim that Protectionist interpretation is problematical. As it turns out, there are some Protectionists whose protecting work is actually to be lauded (‘dominated Protectionists’). Why? For the moral end that the work serves: ‘One should not leverage examples of dominated-protectionism to legitimate protectionism in biblical studies since the latter reproduces the privilege of long-privileged texts and functions within a larger disciplinary apparatus of domination … there remains an important place for promoting scholarship with modestly empiricist, socially “realist,” and critical orientations since sexist, colonial, and other dominations are social realities that require non-protective interrogation and resistance’ (9–10). It apparently does not bother Young that by calling it Protectionist he admits that the hermeneutical moves of this type of Protectionist are formally no different from the mainstream type of Protectionist scholarship, which would, of course, suggest that the approved Protectionists are just as confused as the mainstream since the former commit the exact same formal intellectual errors as the latter. Young tries to avoid this problem by naming the difference ‘structural’ and by moral exhortation/preaching, but his basic grammar gives the game away. What matters to Young is (a) to exhort his readers to embrace the moral ends he likes (I say ‘likes’ because no justification is given for his preferences – with the result that the exhortations appear purely as a matter of taste), and (b) probably not to be heard as criticising the sort of current moral commitments you simply can't criticise if you want acceptance and employment at an American university. Young is for all that sort of thing, even if it is Protectionist on his own definition (and therefore ‘confused’). His basic typology seems to be: evangelical Protectionist (confused and bad); mainstream Protectionist (confused and confused); ‘dominated’ protectionist (confused and good). McCutcheon, to take another example of a modern academic moralist, thinks we should be public intellectuals; Lincoln that we owe something to society, and so on. Whether one agrees with Young or McCutcheon or Lincoln, or some combination thereof, is beside the point. They all exhort as if they have made arguments or have a moral or metaphysical background against which such positions are self-evidently compelling to all people.

22 Cavell, S., ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 2) 220–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 C. Diamond, ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,’ Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2003) 1–26, at 12.

24 Diamond also says that deflection occurs when we face things too difficult to think. But I take her ‘to think’ to mean too difficult to deal with. For surely there is some thinking of the problem that makes it known to us that it is the sort of thing we find too difficult to think.

25 As if one has a modern horizon and an ancient horizon and the scholar's job is to merge them. This is a misunderstanding of Gadamer. To take only one small example, see his remarks in the afterword to H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 19962) 576–7 (e.g., ‘working out the historical horizon of a text is always already a fusion of horizons’, 577; cf. xxxiv in the Forward to the second edition). There are of course exceptions within NT studies. See e.g. J. L. Martyn's use of Gadamer to critique Troels Engberg-Pedersen's Paul and the Stoics (‘De-apocalypticizing Paul: An Essay Focused on Paul and the Stoics by Troels Engberg-Pedersen’, JSNT 86 (2002) 61– 102, at 68–9); or, with an insightful attempt to put Gadamer in conversation with J. G. Hamann, J. A. Linebaugh, ‘Relational Hermeneutics and Comparison as Conversation’, The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Traditions (ed. J. Barclay and B. G. White; LNTS; London: T& T Clark, 2020) 143–58, esp. 147.

26 Erfahrung names for Gadamer something like ‘the entirety of the human experience of understanding’, not an isolated aspect of that understanding (as if there were such a thing as experience qua experience).

27 Gadamer is clear that the question/answer dialectic does not mean that there can be only one question. There are often questions (plural); but the hermeneutical point remains exactly the same.

28 Hence the title of his most famous work.

29 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 489.

30 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 394.

31 On the point about Situationshorizont and e.g. the role of historical research, see briefly his ‘Was ist Wahrheit?’, Kleine Schriften, vol. i (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1967) 47–58, esp. 55.

32 To understand something at all is to be able to understand it as said to oneself (otherwise it is just gibberish and we do not understand it: Truth and Method, 442). This is the truth that language reveals to us: exactly to the extent that we understand it at all, we understand it as said to us, as spoken to us, as in dialogue with us (cf. 446). Cf. Donald Marshall's concise remark on Gadamer's view: ‘If we understand a text that has come down to us from the past, then that understanding has the character of a dialogue’ (D. G. Marshall, ‘On Dialogue: To its Cultural Despisers’, Gadamer's Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics (ed. B. Kajewski; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) 123–44, at 130).

33 This would be the case even for what we initially see as fantastical, reject as false, and so forth. The very fact that we reject something as false or outrageous, for example, tells us that we understand its implicit claim to be possible truth.

34 To say it only slightly differently: they are focal instances of larger narratives – whether explicit or implicit – in which they are found and that give them the sense they have. On the indispensability of narrative for word-meaning, see C. K. Rowe, ‘Making Friends and Comparing Lives’, The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Traditions, 23–40, esp. 24–8, and ‘A Response to Friend-Critics’, ibid., 125–41, esp. 132–4 (LNTS; London: T&T Clark, 2020).

35 These verses have been overused in popular evangelism, but such overuse does not make it any less true that they summarise well the Gospel's main themes. In fact, the popularity may have something to do with an intuitive grasp of their overall importance.

36 The idea that we cannot understand a text until we know its historical occasion is, as Gadamer shows, far too simplistic an account of historical understanding. For Gadamer, ‘occasionality’ is not a barrier to understanding but a part of all understanding. We understand the text in some ways upon the first reading, and as a result are impelled to look for a particular occasion, which when found helps us to understand more of the text, which then enriches our sense of the occasion of the text, and so forth. But, note, Gadamer does not think that this is a linear process or a step-wise one: it is schematised like that so that he can draw our attention to the various features of the work of understanding, but the actual working out of a particular occasion of a text – and the hermeneutics that allow us to name this as what is going on – is simply a part of the whole experience of understanding. Put differently, the dialectic that is the relation between part and whole includes the working out of the occasion of the text as part of the interplay of part/whole. Put differently still, the Vorverständnis that goes with us whenever we read and interpret will always include occasionality. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, esp. 497.

37 There are other questions here, too, of course. Is there a God? What about death? Who's the Son? What's belief? and so on. The multiplicity of crucial questions only highlights the fact that there are questions embedded in understanding.

38 An easy way to see this is to try imagining a case where Paul would not think this is true. There is no such case.

39 This does not mean that there would be no differences in how we fill out the picture: how we understand salvation, for example, would naturally be construed differently in different epochs or places. But – and here's the point – in none of these construals would the claim Paul makes be taken to express Paul's opinion of the matter which he could just as easily take as leave.

40 Cf. Gadamer's perceptive remark that in questioning what we are to believe, we reveal that our questioning ‘arrives too late’, that is, post-understanding: ‘Someone who understands is always already drawn into an event through which meaning asserts itself … When we understand a text, what is meaningful in it captivates us just as the beautiful captivates us. It has asserted itself and captivated us before we can come to ourselves and be in a position to test the claim to meaning that it makes … In understanding we are drawn into an event of truth and arrive, as it were, too late, if we want to know what we are supposed to believe’ (Truth and Method, 490).

41 For an interpretation that presses the significance of the Gospel's truth-assertion, see R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), esp. 365.

42 See e.g. S. J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

43 See C. K. Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 160–76 and One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016) passim.

44 I use ‘mind’ here colloquially, not as a way to endorse a view of ‘mind’ that takes it to be a ‘thing’ that is fundamentally different from the body (or brain), which would be taken to be yet another ‘thing’, and so on.

45 S. Kierkegaard, ‘Was Bishop Mynster a “Truth-Witness”, One of “the Authentic Truth-Witnesses” – Is This the Truth?’, The Moment and Late Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) 3–8, at 4.

46 R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (2 vols.; New York: Scribner 1951–5) 250–1, with reference to Adolf  Schlatter's famous essay ‘The Theology of the NT and Dogmatics’ (cf. 249).

47 Steiner, Real Presences, 39 (he uses the plural ‘immunities’).

48 To take an example of someone who detested Christianity but understood that its truth claims had to do with life, we may think of Nietzsche. Nietzsche's version of Christianity was often a caricature – and he relied on a false division between Jesus the ‘one true Christian’ and all others who were nothing of the kind – but he grasped what was put to him as a style of life and saw it for the canker it was to his own conception of authentic, powerful existence.

49 ‘God's question to us’ (Gadamer, Truth and Method, Supp. i, 527).

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

What if it were True? Why Study the New Testament
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

What if it were True? Why Study the New Testament
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

What if it were True? Why Study the New Testament
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *