Where do we begin to interpret the New Testament?
Posted by joespencer on January 15, 2007
We (Latter-day Saints) begin with Matthew, but Margaret Barker–unabashedly–begins with Revelation. The first paragraph of her earth-shattering Revelation commentary:
If ‘apocalypic was the mother of all Christian theology’, then the Book of Revelation should be put at the centre of New Testament study. In The Revelation of Jesus Christ [this is the title of Barker's commentary] I have done this, showing that the Book of Revelation is not a late text from Asia Minor but the earliest material in the New Testament.
If that isn’t earth-shattering enough in and of itself, let me explain a little about Margaret Barker’s approach to the New Testament generally. Or rather, let me explain a little about how Margaret Barker’s scholarship is confirming–and according to the strictest standards of historico-critical methodology (she is, by the way, a Methodist)–that there very much was an anticipatory, prophetic worship of Jesus Christ (at least in the name of the Messiah) long before the New Testament era (what we see, that is, in the Book of Mormon).
Taking up the findings of the Old Testament exegetes, Margaret Barker (do check out her own website: www.margaretbarker.com) argues that there is abundant evidence for a major shift in the religion of Israel sometime during the seventh century B.C. She links the shift up with the reign of Josiah (she gave an amazing lecture on the particulars of this point of view at a forum at Brigham Young University in 2003). In the end, Barker argues that the shift was primarily political: the promoters of the “new religion” wielded enough political clout to marginalize the traditional religion (the “older testament” she calls it), but never to eliminate it. The traditions and practices of the “older testament” continued over into the apocryphal writings of the intertestamental period (400-1 B.C.), and so it was still being practiced (though never in the name of the ruling power in Jerusalem) at the time of Jesus Himself. Margaret Barker then reads the New Testament in terms of this marginalized, but very ancient, religion. The consequence is that many of the details of the story of Jesus’ life fit into this Older Testament paradigm. (One can read a very short work that summarizes this very well: Barker’s _The Risen Lord: the Jesus of History as the Lord of Faith_.) But how does Barker get from this point to the centralization of the Book of Revelation? That is the question ultimately I want to answer here, and it is the implications of this answer that I primarily want to discuss in this thread. Barker explains that two events grounded her radical interpretation. The first was reading the Book of Revelation translated into Hebrew, because she suddenly began to recognize the themes of the Older Testament in it then. The other was when she read J. Massyngberde Ford’s commentary on the Book of Revelation (volume 38 of the Anchor Bible, and an amazing book itself). Ford argues essentially that Revelation 4-11 was written by John the Baptist, and that the Book of Revelation as we now have it is an edited copy of that text, with quite a bit of added material (the editorial work supposedly being done by one of the baptist’s disciples). What apparently struck Barker in Ford’s work was the suggestion that some of the Book of Revelation predated the rest of the New Testament, that it went back to the very time Jesus was alive and teaching. Barker takes a very serious look at Revelation and then suggests that it wasn’t the Baptist’s revelation, but–as the first verse itself says–the revelation of Jesus Christ, the revelation Jesus Christ Himself received (at His baptism, as Barker suggests). Now, this is radical, and I recognize that. But it is quite intriguing, and the more I read Barker’s work, the more enthralled I am with what she is digging up. What if we began our New Testament study with Revelation 4-11, taking those chapters up as an edited text that Jesus Christ Himself had originally written, a summary of His experience in the wilderness after His baptism? How would this change our reading of the NT? Would anything like this be justified, in LDS terms?If all of this points to the possibility of reading the NT through Revelation, let me provide a brief bibliography for approaching Revelation itself. I think that one would best begin with Eugene Boring’s commentary (Jurgen Roloff’s is very good as well). Boring’s commentary is very straightforward and it is a rather quick read. I think if one read’s Ford’s Anchor Bible volume after such an introduction to the book, one is likely to get a great deal more out of it. And then one can move onto Margaret Barker’s book (_The Revelation of Jesus Christ_). After all of this, I highly suggest David Aune’s three volumes on Revelation from the Word Biblical Commentary (it is incredibly detailed), which will be read quite differently after working through Barker and Ford. Some possibilities, anyway.
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