Can we Trust the New Testament?

Written by J. A. T. Robinson Reviewed By Peter Adam

Two of the hats worn by Bishop Robinson are those of popularizer of modern theology, and New Testament scholar. He is perhaps most widely known for his radical contribution to popular modern theology in the ‘death of God’ debate of the sixties. These two books, on the other hand, show his more conservative stance in the field of New Testament scholarship.

While there are of course tensions in this dichotomy between a radical approach to theology and conservatism in New Testament scholarship, his work on the New Testament is not adversely affected. In fact, this dichotomy is helpful in that it ensures that he keeps separate the two questions ‘What does the text say and imply?’ and ‘How is it relevant today?’ This is an important point of methodology, for it aids a more honest answer to the former question, in that the contemporary scene is less likely to be read into the text.

The distinction between this approach and the evangelical tradition is that the latter, while able to keep separate the two questions, nevertheless regards the answer to the first as providing normative material for the answer of the second. Robinson writes in a different tradition; his works are refreshingly challenging and instructive.

Can we Trust the New Testament? is written to oppose four current attitudes to the trustworthiness of the New Testament: the cynicism of the foolish, the fundamentalism of the fearful, the scepticism of the wise, the conservatism of the committed (chapter 1). The material that he uses includes good popular surveys of the issues involved in textual and source criticism (chapters 2 and 3). Chapters 4 and 5 contain a summary of the arguments used in Redating the New Testament, and Chapters 6 and 7 a general study of the trustworthiness of the New Testament in its answer to the question ‘Who is this man?’ The book ends with a moving assertion of belief in the ‘faithful record’: that the New Testament conveys a faithful portrait of Jesus, and that its study will not hinder faith.

There are however problems with the book. For to justify the New Testament because of its portrait of Jesus (p. 7) may succeed in the case of the Gospels, but it will not go far in the Epistles. (And some scholars claim that the Gospel material is too disparate to provide one portrait of Jesus, particularly as Robinson regards John as reliable historical tradition.)

His apparent claim that the New Testament conveys a faithful portrait must be modified by his suggestion that (on the subject of the second coming) ‘our Bibles do not contain what Jesus said or meant’ (p. 19). This sort of statement changes the character of his main thesis in principle, as well as in this particular aspect. For some criterion must have been introduced to decide what parts of the New Testament really are ‘faithful’.

The area of discussion that has to do with event and interpretation is not illuminated by Bishop Robinson’s use of literal and poetic. For example, when he writes ‘to take the language of pre-existence … literally, as the sort of thing you might have heard of had you been around with a tape-recorder’ (p. 112) his meaning is far from clear. Was it said or not? And what is non-literal pre-existence? And again, when he writes ‘to take it all, with the fundamentalists, as prose rather than poetry is to confound everything’ (p. 97, of the annunciation, virgin birth, etc.), he takes no account of the fact that poetry can describe events, and prose can be symbolic. So also his comment, ‘These are theological interpretations, not literal utterances’ (p. 91) is far from illuminating. This use of ‘poetry’ and literal’ obscures rather than clarifies.

Similarly, to claim that ‘angels and clouds and going up in glory is stock symbolism … whose significance everyone at the time would have understood’ (p. 128) is not to have answered the question of their historicity; that they may have been so understood does not mean they are thus successfully ‘explained away’ (p. 128, his phrase).

If angels, clouds, et al., are meant to be removed by this process, then it becomes clear that the claim that the New Testament is a faithful witness must again be modified; it is a faithful witness if one removes the trappings, i.e. those aspects unacceptable to the modern liberal West.

It is important to remember that to believe that (for example) angels communicated messages to men does not remove an understanding of the significance of the event. A ‘literal’ understanding does not necessarily remove or obscure an understanding of its symbolism—indeed it should support it. More precision of thought and language is needed in this area if any progress is to be made.

It is instructive to note what features of ‘fundamentalism’ are criticized in the book. The fundamentalist avoids the challenge of biblical criticism, and finds a refuge in the theory of verbal inspiration. (He is also likely to revere the av, believe in the infallibility of Christ, and be anti-Communist!) This is an attitude which is ‘fearful’, and lacks faith in God. Robinson is not opposed to conservative conclusions, but he believes that the text itself ought to provide the area of debate, that critical studies need not destroy faith, and can indicate that faith is not misplaced (p. 134). This is a helpful and relevant challenge to liberal and conservative alike.

Four critical comments to end: clarity of argument is better achieved by attacking the ideas of an attitude (e.g. fundamentalism) than by attacking the emotion that is assumed to have produced it (e.g. fear); a messianic claim is not necessarily blasphemous (contra p. 118); ‘the most incontrovertible fact of all’ (p. 127) is not that convincing; and not every New Testament critic would be convinced by Bishop Robinson’s free use of sources.

Redating the New Testament is a more technical and closely argued book. Its claim is that the whole New Testament (and Didache) was written before ad 70 (and 1 Clement possibly in 70). The basis for this claim is given on p. 13: ‘One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period—the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple—is never once mentioned as past fact.’ Robinson argues from the silence of the documents in this respect for a pre-70 date. Perhaps one ought to be wary of an argument from silence—on the other hand it is a very persistent silence!

The question of the date of New Testament documents is important for issues of memory of event, eye-witness account, and development of doctrine and institutional life. All these subjects breed imaginative theories, ‘their world has been a world without fences’ (p. 345); if Robinson is right, then some real evidence can be brought to bear on these discussions. ‘For dates remain disturbingly fundamental data’ (p. 358).

The book tackles all the New Testament material, a mammoth task. A review cannot outline the detail of the argument. Suffice it to say that anyone studying the Synoptic problem, the date and historicity of John, Pauline chronology, the Petrine literature, Hebrews, or Revelation will find the relevant section of the book worth reading, and that everyone ought to read enough of it to grasp the force and impact of the argument. Chapter 11, ‘Conclusions and Corollaries’ has a breadth of new vision which is exciting. It is good that Bishop Robinson has employed his ability to ask radical questions to challenge the current orthodoxies of New Testament study so effectively; and it is good that he has produced a book from which all can benefit.

Peter Adam

Peter Adam
St. Jude’s Carlton
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia