Some thoughts on the opening paragraph of Donald Hagner’s How New is the New Testament?

Read time: 3 minutes

Sitting by a pool in Phnom Penh I’ve just picked up Donald Hagner’s book How New is the New Testament? I find much of his work very useful, but I’m expecting to end up some way further in the direction of “the New Testament is not new” than he is. We’ll see.

The opening paragraph sets the scene effectively, but it immediately raises a number of questions, which I will mention briefly:

Among the several paradigm-shifting changes in NT scholarship over the past century, none is more important than the new positive emphasis on Judaism as a religion of grace—a change that has begun to erase the common perception of Judaism as the antithesis of Christianity. Rather than having opposing theologies, Jews and Christians are now increasing perceived as members of the same family of faith, albeit different branches.

1. Yes, the re-evaluation of Judaism is critical, but why make “religion of grace” the central issue up front in this way? Does that suggest that Hagner is coming at this primarily with lingering late-Protestant debates about law and grace, works and faith in mind? That angle is important, but is it more important than the fundamental hermeneutical development of the recovery of historical perspective? Surely what underlies the central paradigm shift is the willingness to read and assess the New Testament historically, as a product of second temple Judaism, rather than theologically, as the founding document of modern Protestantism?

2. But then, is it really “grace” which constitutes the defining connector between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between second temple Judaism and Christianity? There is certainly a familial aspect to this: the controversial question of the basis for inheritance of the promises made to the patriarchs at this time of eschatological crisis is central. But “grace” is a theological theme. It is not a narrative. What the New Testament has in common with the Old Testament must be defined narratively: the climax of judgment, the coming of the kingdom of God, deliverance from enemies, rule over the nations.

3. To say that Jews and Christians are “different branches” of the same family is correct from a modern point of view, but I think it’s questionable as a perception of “NT scholarship”. I’m not sure that the New Testament allows for, or envisages, the co-existence of Judaism and “Christianity” as different branches of the same tree.

For example, Paul’s olive tree analogy in Romans 11:16-24 makes the patriarchs the root stem. Jews who believe in Jesus remain as natural growth from the root. Gentiles who believe in Jesus are grafted in unnaturally. Jews who do not believe that YHWH has made Jesus Lord and Christ are broken off: “God did not spare the natural branches.” They may be grafted in again if they repent and “do not continue in their unbelief”, but otherwise, as far as Paul is concerned, they are not part of the same tree. The most that we can conclude from the analogy is that natural Jewish-Christian branches co-exist with unnatural Gentile-Christian branches. Is this another area in which modern Protestantism is imposing its agenda on the interpretation of scripture?

Now back to the book….

1. The contrast between law and grace is affirmed here:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

No amount of exegetical/hermeneutic work can explain this contrast away.

2. You won’t find what the Old and New Testament have in common in “narrative”, but in the prophetical element of the Old Testament. Here:

 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when qI took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

Jesus has brought all this, but in its overwhelming majority, “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” have rejected it.

3. “Paul’s olive tree analogy in Romans 11:16-24” does not suggest at all that, since Jesus came, “Jews and Christians are ‘different branches’ of the same family”. It suggets that many (most) Jewish branches “were broken off because of their unbelief” so that a “wild shoot” of Gentile believers in Jesus Christ “might be grafted in”, but Paul envisages a time when “the natural branches” will be “grafted back into their own olive tree” (Rom 11:24), when “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26).

peter wilkinson | Tue, 04/09/2019 - 09:11 | Permalink

I’m slightly concerned about what you’re doing with Hagner’s book in a hotel in Phnom Penh. Did you pick it up in the hotel lobby?

@peter wilkinson:


it doesn’t seem very likely that a hotel in Phnom Penh would have available in its lobby for its guests a book about “First-Century Judaism and the Emergence of Christianity” that was issued on October 16, 2018 :)

By the way, I find very thought-provoking this paragraph at the end pf Chapter 1 of the book:

But, of course, it must be remembered that for the full story [of the role of Israel in salvation story], we must turn to Paul in Rom. 11, who assures us thet God has not simply used his people only then to abandon them without regard for his covenant promises. Israel remains special in God’s eyes, and “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). In the end, the God of the Bible is the God of an enduring continuity of grace and covenant.