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

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….

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