A New New Testament

The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

by Thomas Sheehan
Random House, 287 pp., $18.95

Thomas Sheehan has two topics. One is the development of historical criticism of the Bible, especially the New Testament and especially among Roman Catholic scholars in recent years. The other is the interpretation of the person and message of Jesus. The interpretation he advances is not implied by the results of historical criticism—implication is after all a very strong concept—but it seems to him a plausible account of what the person and message mean after criticism has done its purgative job.

What he tells us about the work of the critics is on the whole fair, though it tends to be interwoven with conclusions that are his own, not those of the critics; and perhaps his appreciations are more positive than is warranted. There can be large changes in a fairly short time in the views entertained by scholars. One has only to think of the change in recent years in estimates of the historical value of the Fourth Gospel. Some scholars would now think that as a guide to the chronology of Jesus’ public ministry and as a guide to Palestinian places and institutions it is better than the Synoptic Gospels, certainly better than Luke, the most historical sounding of the Synoptic Gospels. Again, there have been and are great differences over which gospel texts come nearest to reflecting the actual words of Jesus. Some have thought Matthew 16:17–19 (“…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”) has a claim to be regarded as close to the actual words of Jesus, whereas for others it represents the infusion of later theological developments, and is indeed a prime example of such infusion. Again, recent work on the dating of the gospels suggests that the critical consensus on the matter may need revision, that the gospels may on the whole be earlier than they have been thought to be.

But about the general drift of scholarly opinion there is not much doubt among critics. Most of the New Testament documents as we have them represent, no matter what primitive material they may embody, the thought and interpretation not of contemporary hearers and eyewitnesses but those of Christian communities thirty or forty years, or more, after the Crucifixion. Among the Pauline letters some, notably 1 Corinthians, are earlier than any of the gospels, but these too represent positions later than those of contemporaries of the gospel events. This is not to say that the gospels and the Pauline letters are without historical value. But they are so drenched in devotional and theological developments that came about after the Crucifixion that their historical content has to be dug for.

Of course, most scholars think that in their main outlines if not in all their details the teaching and career of Jesus are rendered reliably by the Synoptics. But once it becomes clear that the New Testament is the product of a faith that precedes it—after all, there were no gospels in the primitive Church …

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