Vol 3 of Baird’s History of NT Research – Easily a “Best Book” of 2013

bairdIn 2005, I happened to have picked up the first two volumes by William Baird of his History of New Testament Research. Truth be told, since that time, I have had little time to read either of those volumes, though I know them to be excellent based on reviews and recommendations.

This past summer, I was delighted to acquire the latest and last volume in the series subtitled From C.H. Dodd to Hans Deiter Betz. One might have wished for Baird to bring the discussion right up to present day, but now that I have had a good look at the 700+ page volume, this is a master achievement, and adding more may have sacrificed the quality or publication date of the book. I am quite happy with where he left the discussion.

Here’s an initial important disclaimer – while I assumed a book like this would be tedious reading, it repeatedly surprised me as Baird is a truly gifted writer and that is matched by his sensitivity for commenting on salient points and leaving extraneous information aside. Also, Baird weaves into the book, at every turn, personal insights into the lives of the scholars under consideration, which brings all these figures to life (though a handful of them are still living anyway, and I wish them all good health!).

The book is organized into three main parts

Part I: The Renaissance of New Testament Criticism: The Zenth of Enlightenment Criticism , The New Biblical Theology, the Bultmann School

Part II: The Revisiting of Critical Problems: New Discoveries/Archaeology/Textual Criticism, Historical Backgrounds: Judaism, Developments in Historical Criticism, Confessional Research: Roman Catholic Scholarship, The Development of Scholarly Societies.

Part III: Theological and Synthesizing Movements: Theological and Hermeneutical Developments; Critical, Exegetical and Theological Accomplishments in Europe and North America.

Baird acknowledges in the preface that it is regrettable that he could only focus (for the sake of sanity) on European and North American scholarship. He also notes that he could only discuss one female figure (Fiorenza). Still , despite these limitations, it is far better to have this work than no work at all.

Here are some of the scholars he discusses and profiles: Henry Cadbury, T.W. Manson, C.H. Dodd, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kaesemann, Joachim Jeremias, W.D. Davies, E.P. Sanders, Martin Hengel, Helmut Koester, John Kloppenborg, Rudolph Schnackenburg, Raymond Brown, John Meier, Oscar Cullmann, Paul Minear, F.F. Bruce, C.K. Barrett, James D.G. Dunn, J. Louis Martyn, Leander Keck, V.P. Furnish, and, of course, Hans Dieter Betz.

This list is representational, not exhaustive. Baird includes many more than these. However, the only one I would have added is Morna Hooker – quite a strong influence in both Paul and Jesus studies, and also an outstanding commentator (Mark and Philippians). Still, no complaints given Baird’s remarkable achievement.

Here are a random smattering of insights and fun tidbits:

Dodd – Baird refers to Dodd’s height: “Like Zaccheus, Dodd was self-conscious about his small stature. W.D. Davies (in a recording made in 1986) told me that when, as a student, he would visit in Dodd’s study, the furniture would be so arranged that he would sit in a low chair and Dodd would sit above him on a higher one” (35). And, “Dodd was notorious for his absentmindedness, once appearing for a lecture wearing one of his own shoes and one of his daughter’s” (35).

20th century from beginning to end: “Little did the scholars at Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard expect that virtually everything they accepted as established would come under attack in the rest of the century–the priority of Mark, the existence of Q, the historical Jesus, the Son of Man-Suffering Servant Messiah, the liberal Paul. Most of all, they did not anticipate a frontal attack that would aim to blow them out of the water: the militant message of the new biblical theology [Barth/Bultmann]” (53)

Barth on Biblical interpretation: “I had set out to please none but the very few, to swim against the current, to beat upon the doors which I thought were firmly bolted” (Preface to Romans, sixth ed.; Baird, p. 75); Barth again, “I entirely fail to see why parallels drawn from the ancient world…should be of more value for an understanding of the Epistle than the situation in which we ourselves actually are, and to which we can therefore bear witness” (Baird, 75).

Kaesemann – “He thrived on combat” (130)

DSS - Great discussion of the origin and history of DSS research (212ff)

After WWII – Excellent discussion of scholarly reassessment of Judaism after the Holocaust (see pp. 279ff)

Jeremias – “J. Louis Martyn…recalls his amazement at seeing Jeremias stride to the blackboard, open his Greek NT to Mark, and begin to transcribe the text into Aramaic” (Baird, 282)

New Perspective on Paul – Baird begins his NPP discussion with W.D. Davies, not Sanders or Stendahl (see 293)

Hengel on Sanders – According to Baird, Sanders believed that too many NT scholars were blinded by their theological agendas. However, Hengel draws attention to Sanders’ own plank in his eye when Sanders put into the appendix of Paul and Palestinian Judaism a set of page references to “truth, ultimate.” The references lead you to blank pages. Hengel exposes Sanders as just as ideological as anyone else, and calls this little appendix-stunt “ein schlechter Scherz” (“a bad joke”). (see Baird, 332)

Raymond Brown – Baird admires Brown’s first-rate scholarship, but notes: “Brown was not a great innovator; he was heir and conveyor of the critical tradition. In the history of NT research, few have done it better.” (423; I second that!)

Praise for Catholic NT scholarship – “Their critical and exegetical work is consistently directed to the theological meaning of the text. Their boundless energy, their dedication of time, and the magnitude of their productivity represent a model to be emulated” (p. 438)

Scholarly Societies and something funky about Funk - ch 8 is about the development of the Catholic Biblical Association, Society of Biblical Literature, and the SNTS. Lots of fascinating stuff here, but most peculiar of all: Robert Funk (leader of SBL in 1970′s) resigned and cut off ties with the SBL mysteriously. Other unusual happenings surrounded his scholarly life: “He had been dismissed as editor of Scholars Press under bizarre circumstances, including a charge of misusing of funds, and through a devious procedure whereby he was locked out of his own office” (Baird, 446).

F.F. Bruce – Bruce never owned a car (513)

Dunn’s passion for the big picture. The last item I will share is a quote from James D.G. Dunn:

One of my besetting sins as a scholar (but perhaps it’s a strength!) is the desire to see the large picture, to gain (so far as possible) comprehensive overview…It’s not that I am unwilling to engage in the fine detailed work necessary in the analysis of particular texts. Far from it. But all the time I want to step back and see how my findings cohere with the rest of our information…Like a painter of a large canvas, I need to step back time and again to check how the fine detail of particular parts blends into the whole (Baird, 549)

No doubt, Baird has the same passion, as showcased in this book. If I was reluctant previously to read these volumes at all (let alone for “pleasure”), I have repented. This is easily one of the most satisfying reads of 2013 in Biblical Studies. I have nestled it among the books on my history of scholarship shelf, next to the earlier volumes. But I am sure it won’t rest there for long. Whether I am planning on lecturing on Jesus, Paul, textual criticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Synoptic Problem, I won’t hesitate to consult this priceless work.

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