Learning the Basics about New Testament Studies

The problem of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is really a subset of “historical Jesus” research, which in turn is a subset of New Testament studies. For anyone seriously investigating the resurrection, it’s essential to have a basic working knowledge of New Testament studies. Not all of us, however, have the time or money to pursue a formal degree in the field, or even to take a few classes, so we have to fall back on personal reading and research.

So what books should one read to better understand the New Testament and the issues surrounding the historical case for the resurrection? Here are a few suggestions.

First, you need a good scholarly, annotated edition of the Bible, and you need to actually read it (the New Testament, at least). I did a side-by-side comparison of various “Study Bibles” a while back, and concluded that my personal favorite was the New Interpreter’s Study Bible. It includes the most meaty and detailed notes while maintaining a fairly objective, scholarly tone. The New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Harper-Collins Study Bible are fine, too, but their notes aren’t as detailed as those in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible. If you’re on a budget, buy a used copy of an older edition rather than the current version. They’ve sold large numbers of copies, and used previous editions are cheap.

These study Bibles all use the New Revised Standard version (NRSV) of the text. You should also get a copy of the New International Version (NIV) of at least the New Testament. If you really want to save money, various editions of it tend to be readily available in thrift stores.

By the way, if you’ve had trouble reading all the way through the whole Bible (especially the Old Testament), one of the best places to start for getting a fast overview is – believe it or not- the Reader’s Digest Bible. It was edited by noted evangelical Bible scholar Bruce Metzger, and he did a good job of keeping the basic essentials while trimming the overall length of the text by about half.

Once you have a New Testament in hand, start reading it. And re-reading it. Read both the NRSV and the NIV. Read the footnotes in your study bible, especially in the sections about the resurrection. If you want to do serious resurrection research, you need to become highly familiar with the whole text, and especially the resurrection narratives and related sections (e.g., the resurrection predictions in the synoptic Gospels, the “speeches” that mention the resurrection in the book of Acts, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, etc.)

In conjunction with reading the New Testament itself, you need to read a few “Introduction to the New Testament” books. Most of them are designed to be read in conjunction with the New Testament (i.e., you read the Gospel of Mark, then you read the chapter about it in the textbook). But after you’ve gotten a basic grasp of the New Testament text, and assuming you’re doing your continuous re-reading of it, you can just pick up a relevant textbook and read straight through it like any other book.

The important point is that you should read several of these New Testament textbooks written from a variety of perspectives. It’s most important to read a few “evangelical” textbooks, since they tend to use the sort of apologetic background that’s assumed by most defenders of the historicity of the resurrection.

A tip: a quick and handy way to assess the theological and doctrinal orientation of a New Testament textbook is to turn to the section on the second letter of Peter (2 Peter). This letter is the book of the New Testament that is most widely considered fraudulent – i.e., the general “mainstream” scholarly consensus is that it wasn’t actually written by the apostle Peter and may actually date from the second century. If the textbook says in a straightforward manner that it’s generally believed that the letter was not written by Peter, it has a secular/liberal orientation. On the other hand, if the textbook asserts that it probably was written by Peter (e.g., on the grounds that no one in the early church questioned its authenticity), then the book is conservative/evangelical and perhaps was written by someone who believes strongly in Biblical inerrancy. There are various shades in between these two extremes, such as “objectively” presenting both sides for the reader to decide, or suggesting that the letter may have been written by a follower of Peter (but reflects his actual thoughts), etc.

As for the best textbooks to read, I would recommend the following, to be read in the order presented:

  • Bart D. Ehrman – The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (more or less secular approach; covers the basics of New Testament scholarship well for anyone who is just starting out)
  • Mark Allen Powell – Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (written from a moderate evangelical perspective)
  • Stephen Harris – The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction (another secular/scholarly textbook)
  • D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo – An Introduction to the New Testament (evangelical, but attempts to be scholarly, and is strong on a number of issues, e.g., in its overview of the “synoptic problem”)
  • Raymond E. Brown – An Introduction to the New Testament (a detailed, heavy-duty treatment by a Catholic scholar)

Again, to save money, you don’t need to get the latest editions of the above textbooks (though Brown’s only has one edition); an older edition will do just fine. Also, if you happen to have access to a university library, many of these books will be accessible there.

It also doesn’t hurt to do some additional research on Amazon or elsewhere and pick up a few more introductory textbooks, such as Robert H. Gundry’s “A Survey of the New Testament.” The goal is to become conversant is the main “issues” involving the study of the New Testament, and also to get a feeling for evangelical perspectives and apologetics (whether or not you’re inclined to accept that perspective).

Once you’ve worked your way through those textbooks, you’ll be ready to wade into two older but essential books that have been vastly influential in setting the terms of New Testament studies (both of which have been cited by William Lane Craig in his work):

  • Werner Georg Kümmel – The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems
  • Werner Georg Kümmel – Introduction to the New Testament

Then, the last book you should read gives a more recent overview of “New Testament Studies” itself from an advanced (and evangelical but scholarly) perspective:

  • Scot McKnight and Grant R. Osborne – The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research

Once you’re read all of that, or similar works, you’ll have a workable background knowledge of New Testament studies – not enough to become a real “scholar” (whatever that means), but enough to understand and seriously begin to tackle many of the major issues surrounding the historicity of the New Testament. There’s no easier road. You simply need to do a lot of reading.