Why Start with the Sayings?
From The Fourth R
The first decade of the work of the Jesus Seminar has been divided into two phases: for the first five years the members of the Seminar critically evaluated the inventory of roughly 1500 sayings attributed to Jesus in Christian sources from the first three centuries of the common era. The results of this work were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. During the past five years the Seminar has taken up the deeds attributed to Jesus in the surviving early Christian Gospels, and the results of this work are currently being edited for publication under the title The Acts of Jesus. Any reconstruction of the historical Jesus, of course, must include both his deeds and his words, and indicate how the two are related. But all investigations must begin somewhere — why did the Jesus Seminar begin with the sayings of Jesus rather than with his actions? And what difference does this make for the resulting reconstruction of the historical Jesus?
The immediate reason for reflecting on these questions owes to one of the criticisms aimed at the Jesus Seminar. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary says that, by beginning with the sayings of Jesus, the Seminar has produced a "talking head," a disembodied voice whose message is unclear because it has been removed from the historical, social and literary contexts within which it should and could be interpreted. Birger Pearson in the journal Religion claims that reconstructions of the historical Jesus should rather begin with his deeds, since "actions speak louder than words." Apart from such criticisms of the Jesus Seminar's work, reflection on whether one should begin with deeds or words is important because it calls our attention to methodological issues in historical Jesus research.
From the New Quest to the Jesus Seminar
When Robert W. Funk convened the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he invited respondents to prepare a new history of the traditions about Jesus in early Christianity which, in effect, would update and expand Rudolf Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition, first published in 1921, in light of textual discoveries like the Dead Sea scrolls (1947) and Nag Hammadi codices (1945) and recent methodological advances in the social sciences and literary criticism. The quick answer as to why the Jesus Seminar started with the sayings is, because Bultmann did. The outline of his History of the Synoptic Tradition provided the ten-year agenda of the Jesus Seminar:
- The Tradition of the Sayings of Jesus
- The Tradition of the Narrative Material.
As the preeminent New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, Bultmann formulated the questions which have been addressed by all critical scholars ever since.
Bultmann started the History of the Synoptic Tradition with an investigation of the sayings material because he was concerned with the relationship between the message of the historical Jesus and the preaching of the early church: can one demonstrate a continuity between what Jesus proclaimed through his parables and aphorisms and what early missionaries proclaimed about Jesus? Bultmann's question formed the agenda for the so-called New Quest of the last generation since the failure of the nineteenth century Old Quest to discover the historical Jesus had removed the historical foundation of Christian preaching. Even though we do not have historical sources to construct a full biography of Jesus, and even though the sources we do have are written from the theological viewpoint of post-Easter faith, the New Questers attempted to recover at least the message of Jesus in order to determine whether the intention of Jesus' words and the intention of early Christian preaching are coherent. Thus, Bultmann and the New Questers started with the sayings of Jesus, not the deeds, because their aim was to compare messages, not actions. Were Paul and the other early missionaries saying the same thing as Jesus, though in different words and new places, or was the message of the historical Jesus distinctive from his early interpreters?
The agenda of the Jesus Seminar thus evolved from the New Quest and its attempt to reconstruct the teaching of the historical Jesus. In distinction from the so-called Third Quest which is attempting to locate Jesus within the religious and social world of first-century Judaism, the work of the Jesus Seminar may be seen as a renewal and extension of the New Quest (though some members of the Jesus Seminar may see their own work as part of the Third Quest). In chapter four of his recent book Honest to Jesus, Robert Funk refers to the work of the Jesus Seminar not as part of the Third Quest, but as the Renewed Quest for Jesus.
The scholarly route from Rudolf Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition to The Five Gospels of the Jesus Seminar thus can be traced through studies like Gunther Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth (1956), which contains about twenty-five pages on Jesus' biography and about one hundred sixty-five on his message, and Norman Perrin's Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967), to monographs on the parables of Jesus, for example, Robert Funk's Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God (1966) and Jesus as Precursor (1975), John Dominic Crossan's In Parables (1973), and Bernard Brandon Scott's Jesus, Symbol Maker for the Kingdom (1981) and Hear Then the Parable (1989).
Before the Jesus Seminar, the forum for this renewed quest was the Parables Seminar of the 1970s and the journal Semeia, which Robert Funk launched in 1974, both projects of the Society of Biblical Literature—the professional association for biblical scholars. Scholars who had participated in the Parables Seminar and related scholarly circles from 1965 to 1985 formed the core of those who were invited to constitute a national seminar on the Jesus tradition by Robert Funk in 1985. The work of the Jesus Seminar can thus be seen as the continuation of the New Quest for the historical Jesus, mediated in part by the Society of Biblical Literature and representing many of the important voices in twentieth-century New Testament scholarship.
Methodological Questions about Words and Deeds
If one agrees with most scholars that there was at least a generation between the historical Jesus and the composition of the Gospels, then the New Questers were faced with serious methodological questions. How could the authentic sayings of Jesus be recovered if they were all assimilated to the message of the early church during the period of oral transmission? Could the Jesus tradition and Christian interpretation be separated, or had the two blended so completely that the authentic sayings can never be recovered? Gunther Bornkamm expressed this skepticism on page 14 of Jesus of Nazareth:
We possess no single word of Jesus and no single story of Jesus, no matter how incontestably genuine they may be, which do not contain at the same time the confession of the believing congregation or at least are embedded therein. This makes the search after the bare facts of history difficult and to a large extent futile.
Many still share Bornkamm's methodological skepticism and, in fact, several members of the Jesus Seminar consistently voted black during the first phase as a way of expressing their judgment that all the sayings were transformed during the process of oral transmission. For them, there are, by definition, no word-for-word quotations of what Jesus said in the Gospels. Thus, before the New Quest could begin to reconstruct Jesus' message, criteria had to be formulated for separating tradition from interpretation.
On the assumption that the sayings of Jesus were repeated and interpreted time after time, thus forming layers of tradition, Norman Perrin argued in Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus that the tradition-history of each saying must be written in order to discover its "most primitive form." He used three main criteria in his study to determine the tradition-history of Jesus' sayings:
- the criterion of dissimilarity, on the grounds that a saying which differs in its emphasis both from Jesus' background and from the foreground of the church was preserved because it was authentic
- the criterion of coherence, which judges materials to be authentic if they are consistent with those judged authentic in terms of the first criterion
- the criterion of multiple attestation, which takes materials to be authentic if they stem from most or all the pre-Synoptic sources.
In light of Funk's invitation in 1985 for scholars to rewrite the history of the Synoptic tradition, the question of methodology in historical Jesus research has been a constant topic of debate and refinement during the semiannual meetings of the Jesus Seminar. This attention to method started with a paper by Jesus Seminar Fellow Eugene Boring at the second meeting of the Seminar (Fall 1985) which was subsequently published in the journal Forum. Boring extended Perrin's criteria from three to ten and arranged them in order of priority beginning with multiple attestation.
Also in Forum, John Dominic Crossan proposed a chronological sequence for dating the various sources which he has elaborated in his later works on the historical Jesus. As a result of this methodological debate, a gradual shift occurred during the first phase of the Seminar from stressing the criterion of dissimilarity to emphasizing the priority of multiple attestation. This accounts, in part, for why some singly attested sayings like the Lucan parables were voted red and pink during the early sessions. As a result of this self-conscious attention to methodology, The Five Gospels begins with a lengthy analysis of rules of written and oral evidence and observations about how the Seminar determined the authentic sayings of Jesus.
The continuing debate about methodology among the Fellows also led to the recognition that, since Perrin's criteria were formulated with the sayings material in view, they would need to be refined for the second phase of the Seminar. In fact, the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus is more difficult than the search for the authentic sayings because the best one can hope to recover with respect to deeds are the earliest reports of bystanders about what they thought they saw, whereas the authentic sayings indicate what Jesus himself thought or intended about his mission. To quote a memorable couplet coined by Julian Hills of Marquette University, "Sayings are repeated, deeds are reported." Therefore, beginning with an analysis of the sayings is necessary if one's aim is to recover Jesus' own perspective, rather than the perspective of others who reported his actions.
Having reconstructed the intention of Jesus' message by recovering the authentic sayings, the Seminar, in phase two, then asked whether the deeds of Jesus as reported by others were consistent with his words. As is well known, every traditional proverb can be countered with another that advocates just the opposite. And so, though Birger Pearson cites the proverb "actions speak louder than words" to support his view that one should begin with the deeds of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar investigated Jesus' deeds only after his sayings in order to determine whether Jesus "practiced what he preached." Were his actions consistent with his message? Such a procedure, far from producing merely "a talking head," would yield a criterion for judging early Christian claims that Jesus was someone special who deserves to be imitated. This criterion would be the highest virtue, integrity. If it turned out that Jesus' actions were always consistent with his message, then he would indeed be a remarkable human being, since finitude implies that our actions do not always match our words, that most of us don't often practice what we preach. Like Socrates, Jesus was a victim of his own integrity. He could act in no other way than the way revealed through his teachings, regardless of the consequences for himself.
To sum up to this point, though the pragmatic reason why the Jesus Seminar started with the sayings stems from the fact that many of its members participated in the attempt to recover Jesus the teacher and parabler during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the deeper reason why the Seminar started with the sayings is a methodological one: deeds by themselves are like archaeological artifacts without a text; their meaning only becomes clear in light of the intent of the actor as revealed through his or her words.
The Nature of Jesus' Deeds
These remarks about the priority of sayings in reconstructing the historical Jesus raise other questions about the so-called deeds in the gospels. Are the deeds in the gospels, apart from the fact that they are secondary reports, narrated in such a way that their historical specificity can be tested? The father of ancient Greek historiography, Herodotus, defined erga ("achievements," "deeds") as the construction of monuments or military victories which bring immortal fame because they leave visible traces behind. History, for Herodotus, was the listing of such monumental deeds and biography, similarly, focused on the visible achievements of political and military heroes. Following the adaptation of the biographical genre by Aristoxenus and other students of Aristotle to accommodate notable teachers like Socrates, deeds were subsumed to words and redefined as miracles in order to correspond to Herodotus' view that erga bring fame because they are visible and leave traces behind.
The term bios ("life," from which we get the term biography) appears for the first time in the hellenistic period to mark this shift from biographies of military heroes to the lives of remarkable teachers. In Heroes and Gods, Moses Hadas and Morton Smith have constructed a genealogy for the genre which moves from history to biography to aretalogy, their term for the life of a spiritual hero which has become stereotypical in its form and functions as a model for moral instruction. As we know from Plutarch's Parallel Lives, the focus was not on the unique deeds of each hero, but on the conventional moral patterns which the paired biographies illustrated. The fact that deeds in hellenistic biographies of holy figures had become highly stylized is illustrated by the way Philostratus (a philosopher of the early third century ce) summarizes the first-century mystic Apollonius of Tyana's achievements not as historical events, but as a typical day in the life of the hero. This is reminiscent of Mark's use of the iterative imperfect (a use of the past tense of the verb to indicate typical rather than specific actions) to introduce the accounts of Jesus' miracles: "In the evening, at sundown, they would bring all the sick and demon possessed to him" (1:32).
Rudolf Bultmann has shown that all the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are narrated in exactly the same pattern:
- description of the illness
- cure, including Jesus' technique
- demonstration of cure or audience response
Since the same stylized pattern is used to recount the miracles of the disciples in Acts and in non-canonical works, it seems clear that we are dealing with a set oral form which has become a literary convention, rather than with reports of specific deeds which can be verified historically. Thus, the second phase of the Jesus Seminar has reached what may seem at first glance to be contradictory results with respect to the historicity of Jesus' miracles, but in fact honestly reflects the methodological difficulty in verifying the stylized reports of Jesus' deeds: while most of the actual miracles will be colored black because they cannot be traced back to a specific historical action of Jesus, the Seminar has voted red on the general statement that Jesus was a miracle worker and exorcist on the grounds of multiple attestation. This is probably the best historical criticism can do given the generic way in which the deeds were reported in ancient sources like the Gospels.
The healing of the centurion's boy (Matt 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10; John 4:46–54) is a good example of the difficulty in authenticating the deeds of Jesus. Because this miracle story is attested in two sources, John and Q, some scholars argue that it reports a historical event. But close analysis shows that:
- the illness was uncertain (paralysis in Matthew, a fever in John, unspecified in Luke)
- there was no direct encounter between Jesus and the sick boy nor healing technique
- neither the official nor the boy confirmed that a healing occurred—it is only reported by others (servants or friends or the narrator)
What in fact lies behind the narrative is a religious confession based on the model of the Roman patronage system. Jesus is acclaimed as a healer because he, like the centurion, is viewed as a broker of a higher authority. By asking Jesus to heal his boy (Luke 7:7b) and then describing the patronage system in Roman Palestine (Luke 7:8), the centurion reveals his belief that Jesus occupies a similar mediating function vis-a-vis God as he, the centurion, occupies vis-a-vis Caesar. Jesus is amazed that the centurion has such a sophisticated insight (Luke 7:9). But such reflection on the theological significance of an action means that the narrative has crossed the line from a bare report that something happened to later Christian reflection on the meaning of the deed. As a result, other scholars have concluded that the centurion's boy is neither a miracle story nor a report about the historical Jesus, but, in light of the saying in Luke 7:9 ("I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.") is a creation of the early church to justify its mission to the Gentiles.
As a result, in the judgment of the Jesus Seminar, it is methodologically unsound to begin with the deeds in reconstructing the historical Jesus because this material is stylized and cannot get us back any further than early Christian reports about Jesus' actions, though one would need at some point to account for the fact that in the oral tradition Jesus was perceived to be a divine man with the accompanying powers to heal and exorcise demons.
The Distinctive Voice of Jesus
Thus far I have been addressing the conservative critics of the Jesus Seminar who believe that the reports of Jesus' deeds are the place to begin the Quest. But, having argued on methodological grounds that we cannot get behind these reports to the historical Jesus, I must now address the critics on the other side who share the same skepticism with respect to the sayings of Jesus. They would remind us that there were no tape recorders in the ancient world and that all reported speeches were composed by later authors on the basis of what they were told the speaker said or what they thought the speaker should have said under the circumstances as, for example, with the reported speeches in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War (late fifth century bce). So German scholar Philipp Vielhauer has demonstrated that Paul's speech in Athens (Acts 17:22–31) was a composition which Luke placed on the lips of Paul, but which has little if anything in common with Paul's thought as reflected in his letters. Hence, Bornkamm, in the passage cited above, lumps words together with the deeds of Jesus in expressing his doubt that "the bare facts of history" can be recovered in either case. The burden of proof is thus on the side of those who argue that either words or deeds are authentic. (The fact that the Jesus Seminar started with the assumption that at least some of the Jesus materials can be authenticated — as opposed to those who would vote every item black — indicates that it is a rather more conservative project than is portrayed in the popular press!)
It is at this point in the argument that the criterion of dissimilarity becomes important. It was a criterion utilized by Norman Perrin and others as a way of distinguishing Jesus' message both from the message of his predecessors, like John the Baptist and other Jewish reformers, and from the message of his successors, like Paul and the Evangelists. Proponents of the so-called Third Quest have charged that this criterion produces a non-Jewish and a non Christian Jesus. But the point is not to separate Jesus from his social world. The criterion of dissimilarity was formulated to discriminate the voice of Jesus from the many voices that surrounded him. Just as in a crowded room we may isolate one voice and block out the rest because of its distinctive sound, so, by analogy, if Jesus proclaimed a distinctive message, that message should be recognizable in his authentic sayings, even if those sayings have been paraphrased or abbreviated in the process of oral transmission.
Thus, the vote that at least 18% of the sayings are authentic does not mean they are the actual words of Jesus, but that they preserve the gist of Jesus' message in a way that makes those sayings recognizable as deriving from him and not from the early church or the Evangelists. In order to indicate that this criterion was being used to isolate Jesus' message and not to separate him from his social and religious context, the criterion of dissimilarity has been nuanced by the Seminar in terms of the distinctive features of Jesus' speech. As noted above, lengthy discussions of this redefined criterion of distinctiveness are contained in the introductions to the Red Letter Edition of the Gospel of Mark and The Five Gospels.
The distinctive message of Jesus is reflected in both the novel form of Jesus' sayings — parables and aphorisms, and in their radical content — a new vision of how human activity is qualified by virtue of its divine horizon. In order to be able to recognize this distinctiveness, however, one must have a significant sample of authentic sayings which are coherent in both form and content.
By analyzing the history of individual sayings in isolation from other sayings, one could produce a collection of alleged authentic sayings that are not coherent. As a result, the test of coherence must be added to the criterion of distinctiveness: after a collection of sayings has been evaluated using historical critical methods, those sayings must then be compared to determine whether they are consistent and thus could have come from the same speaker. This question of coherence is now being tested by the third phase of the Jesus Seminar. Having established a database during the first two phases of the Seminar, can different scholars, using that database, now create profiles of the historical Jesus which are coherent and also account for the variety of Jesus traditions which emerged during the first century? In many ways, the interesting work of the Jesus Seminar is just now beginning as the data is collated and then tested against the resultant profiles.
Implications for a Profile of Jesus
This is not the place for me to present my own profile of Jesus, but I do want to conclude with a few summary comments on the distinctiveness of Jesus' sayings which suggest that we are close to the actual voice of Jesus with the red and pink items in The Five Gospels. Though other ancient rabbis used parables, the narrative parables of Jesus are immediately recognizable because they are short stories which begin with a realistic scene, are transformed into metaphors by means of a surprising, unrealistic twist in the middle, and invite hearers to act on the basis of this new, but not fully defined, vision of reality. Jesus' one-liners are also distinctive because their vivid images, e.g., leaven and mustard seed, are inverted as cultural symbols (leaven was a symbol of sin in ancient Israel; Jesus uses leaven as a symbol of God's domain). Similarly, Jesus' aphorisms do not repeat collective, ancestral wisdom, but articulate his own personal and unconventional insight about the really Real. Beginning one's profile of Jesus with his distinctive speech, and not the reported deeds, forces one to rethink Schweitzer's view that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. As one who lived during the escalating crisis of first-century Palestine, Jesus was familiar with the apocalyptic outlook of the Essenes and evidently shared their negative evaluation of history, though he usually expressed it as a protest against conventional wisdom rather than in cosmic terms. But, on the other hand, his solution to the crisis differed from apocalyptic (and shows that his message was not an apocalyptic one) in that he offered parables as gateways to the kingdom of God rather than mythical descriptions of the future.
Secondly, as metaphors, the parables must be grasped as a whole. Jesus is saying that something is going on in the parables which is like what it means to live in the presence of God ("The kingdom of God is like . . ." followed by the parable). This formula suggests that parables, as metaphors, are referring to a symbol (kingdom of God) and, as a result of the juxtaposition, they deconstruct and reconstruct the meaning of that symbol.
In Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, Norman Perrin recognized that the term is a symbol and not a political term for a new theocracy. He demonstrates that the kingship of God was a symbol of domination drawn from the ancient near eastern creation myth which was later transposed by the apocalyptic imagination into a mythical scenario for the conquest of evil in the near future. But he does not clearly show how the meaning of this symbol is subverted by Jesus when he juxtaposes it with parables like the mustard seed. If the mighty cedars of Lebanon represented royal power, then comparing the rule of God to a puny mustard plant shows that for Jesus, at least, the kingdom was not about conquest and domination and that God's rule would not be established as the result of a cosmic conflict between the military forces of good and evil. In short, Jesus' use of parables to announce the arrival of God's presence separates his message clearly from the mythical scenarios of the future contained in the Qumran War Scroll and the Apocalypse of John.
Could such a message get one crucified? Perhaps not, if one takes the modern view that "talk is cheap," that words don't matter. In this context, one would need to begin with a subversive deed like overturning the tables of the Temple moneychangers or complicity with the plotting of one of the revolutionary groups like the Zealots in order to account for Jesus' fate. But if one dwelt in a world in which language was potent, a world in which words could move the gods to change their plans (a world of prayers and curses) and word-pictures could enlighten and empower marginalized peasants, then in fact the integrity of Jesus' vision as expressed through his sayings could have threatened the authorities and resulted in his execution. One has only to think of Socrates and John the Baptist to realize that offensive words could get a teacher or prophet executed in the ancient world. In the world of the first century it is both possible and methodologically necessary to start with sayings and then move to deeds as a way of reconstructing the historical Jesus and accounting both for his message and his destiny.
- Boring, Eugene, "Criteria of Authenticity." Forum 1/4 (1985): 338.
- Bornkamm, Gunther, Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
- Bultmann, Rudolf, Form Criticism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962. Bultmann discusses the three-part pattern for ancient miracle narratives on pages 3639.
- Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
- Crossan, John Dominic, In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983. Crossan discusses the relationship of Jesus' aphoristic sayings to the ancient proverbial tradition.
- Crossan, John Dominic, In Parables. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1992. This book develops the view that Jesus' parables should be interpreted as metaphors.
- Crossan, John Dominic, "Materials and Methods in Historical Jesus Research." Forum 4/4 (1988): 324.
- Funk, Robert W., Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
- Funk, Robert W., "The Issue of Jesus." Forum 1/1 (1985): 712.
- Funk, Robert W., Jesus as Precursor. Rev. ed. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.
In this book, Funk elaborates his thesis that the parables of Jesus are metaphors, not allegories or moral illustrations, by amplifying their echoes in modern literature.
- Funk, Robert W., Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
- Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus
- Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic
- Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Publishing
- Company, 1993.
- Funk, Robert W. with Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991.
- Hadas, Moses and Morton Smith, Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Hadas and Smith discuss the movement from history to biography to aretalogy on pages 3 and 58.
- Herzog, William R., 11, Parables as Subversive Speech. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Herzog makes a direct connection between the parables of Jesus and his execution by using the analogy of Paulo Freire's work with Brazilian peasants.
- McGaughy, Lane C., "Jesus' Parables and the Fiction of the Kingdom." The Fourth R 3/4 (1990): 811.
- Momigliano, Arnaldo, The Development of Greek Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
This book contains four lectures by a Harvard classicist who surveys the development of ancient Greek biography and compares it with the development of ancient historiography.
- Pearson, Birger A., "The .Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar." Religion 25 (1995): 321.
- Perrin, Norman, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.
See pages 1540 for analysis of Kingdom of God as a symbol rather than a political term.
- Perrin, Norman, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Perrin discusses his criteria for determining the tradition-history of Jesus' sayings on pages 33 and 3849.
- Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.
Schweitzer's book, first published in 1906, marked the end of the First Quest for the historical Jesus. Schweitzer surveyed the nineteenth-century lives of Jesus and rejected their claim that Jesus was a teacher of ethical wisdom. Instead, he argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who mistakenly believed the world would end in the first century. Schweitzer's thesis has dominated much of twentieth-century New Testament scholarship. The work of the Jesus Seminar has challenged this thesis.
- Scott, Bernard Brandon, Hear Then the Parable. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
- Scott, Bernard Brandon, Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.
- Vielhauer, Philipp, "On the 'Paulinism' of Acts," in Studies in Luke-Acts. Ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966. Vielhauer's discussion of Paul's speech in Acts 17:2231 appears on pages 3350.
- Williams, James G., Those Who Ponder Proverbs: Aphoristic Thinking and Biblical Literature. Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1981.
- Witherington, Ben, III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.
Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) was the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century. His work shaped the areas of research for the last generation of European and American New Testament scholars. Bultmann's major contributions can be summarized as follows:
- The study of how traditions about Jesus were transmitted orally by the early Christian community before they were compiled in written form by the Evangelists, which resulted in the publication of his History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921).
- The study of the methods by which the Bible is interpreted by later readers (called "hermeneutics"). Bultmann distinguished between the enduring message of Christianity and the outdated first-century worldview through which that message is encoded in the New Testament. In an essay "New Testament and Mythology" (1941) and especially in Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), Bultmann urged preachers to translate the Christian message into modern categories, a program he called "demythologizing" the gospel.
- The study of Christian origins in light of the history of religions in late antiquity. His approach is reflected in the monumental Theology of the New Testament (1948–1953) and in Primitive Christianity and Its Contemporary Setting (1956).
For most of his academic career (1921–1951), Bultmann taught at the University of Marburg in Germany, where he was influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
The German New Testament scholar Gunther Bornkamm (b. 1905) was a student of Rudolf Bultmann and Professor at the University of Heidelberg. His lives of Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth, 1956) and Paul (Paul, 1969) are still standard works in the field. He was one of the pioneers of Redaction Criticism, the attempt to recover the theological views of the Evangelists by investigating the way each one edited traditional materials about Jesus. For his study of how the Gospel of Matthew was edited, see Bornkamm, Barth and Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (1963).
Norman Perrin (1920–1976) was a British New Testament scholar who did his doctoral work with Professor Joachim Jeremias at Gottingen, Germany. Most of his academic career was spent in the United States where he taught at Emory University (1959–1964) and at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1964–1976). His textbook, The New Testament: An Introduction (now in a third edition as revised by his former student, Dennis Duling), is still widely used in seminary and college courses. The central scholarly problem which Perrin addressed throughout his career was the meaning of the term "kingdom of God" and its relation to the parables of Jesus. Professor Perrin was friendly and robust, popular with his students and admired by colleagues. His early death is greatly to be regretted.