Overview of New Testament at Aberdeen

The small corpus of texts known as the New Testament, though it can fit in many trouser pockets, is the most influential collection in the history of western civilisation. New Testament Studies is the discipline that seeks to understand these texts in every way possible, with the aid of literary, historical, theological, philosophical, social-scientific methods among others. Though of obvious importance to anyone training for ministerial or theological work, the field also provides fundamental reference points for students of western history, literature, religion, art, and philosophy. Our courses do not assume religious or faith commitments.

Given that the New Testament comprises only twenty-seven texts, some of which are very short, advanced study in this area may seem implausibly narrow. In reality, the field is so vast as to be unmanageable by a single person, for at least three reasons.

First, as it has developed in the modern West, much study of the ancient world traditionally fell to Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and New Testament scholars. Although Classics continues to become more expansive and post-biblical Jewish studies is developing as a separate discipline, it remains true that New Testament scholars must know a good deal about the Hellenistic and Roman worlds (eg politics, social history, education, rhetoric) and especially the history and literature of Judaea and the Jewish Diaspora from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. Many have at least secondary expertise in the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, Philo of Alexandria, Dead Sea Scrolls, Flavius Josephus, early rabbinic literature, 'gnosticism', and/or relevant aspects of Graeco-Roman culture. Facility in reading at least ancient Greek, which requires years of study, underlies everything. Reading knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and/or Latin will be necessary for some areas.

Second, because of the unique importance of this small collection, even the study of the canonical texts themselves is unusually rich. Reading each text in English translation does not get us far. The synoptic gospels, for example, present tantalising problems because of their evident literary relationships. The 'quest of the historical Jesus' builds not only on some kind of solution to that problem, but also requires a decent knowledge of the two centuries of prior research as well as Galilean geography and recent archaeology. Studying Paul's career and Acts takes one deeply into the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule. The thousands of manuscripts (with many variants) behind our printed NT texts invite constant re-evaluation.

Third, for at least half a century New Testament scholars have not limited their research to the NT canon, but have brought many other Christian texts of uncertain date under careful scrutiny (eg Barnabas, 1 Clement, Didache, Ignatius, Coptic Thomas). Studying such a basic question as the formation of the New Testament canon, or the early manuscript tradition, takes the scholar through the first three or four centuries of the Common Era, bridging the divide between this field and Patristics or Church History. In short, the study of the New Testament is a portal to an endless array of cognate areas that throw light on the Christian canon and its environment.

Studying the New Testament in Aberdeen offers notable advantages. Our four members of academic staff in the area, while sharing excellent training in the core texts (Paul and deutero-Paul, the gospels and Acts, Hebrews and the Johannines) and the history of their study, evidenced by an impressive record of publication on the New Testament, also branch out in various directions. Among us we cover all the areas mentioned above in some depth: theological study of the New Testament, connections with Christian origins (including canon formation) through the fourth century, the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule, Hellenistic and Roman Judaea, Philo, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, ancient historiography and rhetoric.