History of New Testament Research (trilogy)

William Baird. Fortress Press, 1992, 2002, 2013. 488/592/688 pages.

There will be very few readers who are eager to tackle hefty three volumes bearing the title A History of New Testament Research. Active Christian minds will no doubt take an interest in the contents of the New Testament, but the addition of “research” adds an element of technicality and esoterism that will disincline many readers. Furthermore, if that fails, the journeying into the dusty recesses of “history” (and three volumes at that) will douse the embers of enthusiasm that might yet remain in most enthusiastic readers. Completing this set will require some determination as well as some serious intellectual curiosity (and perhaps eccentricity).

But I enjoyed these books. I enjoyed them partly because history is fascinating (if at times arduous), and because it recounts the stories of so much work done by men and women who have aimed to interpret the Bible. Ever since my days as a younger theology student, the borrowing and buying of biblical commentaries has been a regular activity as I prepared sermons, Bible studies, and exegetical essays. Only very rarely did I ever consider whether the person named on the spine of the book might be important. Baird’s trilogy makes it very clear that these names refer to very real people with very real lives and contexts that formed the environment that they worked within as biblical interpreters. This is important. For the student of the Bible, this reminds and informs us of what and who has gone before us, and how we got to where we are now. The biblical studies student usually has little idea, and only hears a few historic names with an idea or two attached to them (e.g. I recall hearing about C. H. Dodd as an undergraduate; that he was quite good but still affected by older liberal Christianity. I knew otherwise nothing about this influential NT scholar). These books by Baird prevent us from taking for granted the resources and solutions and problems we encounter in biblical studies.

Each one of these volumes covers a timespan: roughly 1700-1847; 1870-1930; and 1930-early 2000s. In these, Baird introduces some of the great and influential interpreters of the Bible and their works, what shaped them, and what impact they made on the church, their students, and their areas of research. Much of the time (particularly in vols 1 & 2) Baird regularly overviews key points of NT debate… e.g. the authorship of Hebrews or the meaning of hilasterion in Romans 3:25 (is it best translated “expiation”, “propitiation”, “atonement”, or “mercy-seat”?), or the relationship of John to the Synoptic Gospels. These books also include useful overviews of various eras of, approaches to, and developments in NT research, as well as (in vol 3) the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi (gnostic) library and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the rise of scholarly societies such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association. A nice feature of the third volume are the personal anecdotes of the author’s own encounters with many of the scholars he writes about.

One unexpected bonus in these books is that they are actually very readable. Baird writes clearly and gives a surprisingly easy passage through the masses of detail and scholarship that his history traverses.[1] The second half of volume three did feel like more of a slog and seemed to spend more time ploughing through and summarizing main works of a few selected recent scholars than it did trying to set a context as he had in the earlier volumes.

One point of critique relates to who he chooses to focus on. Inevitably, any work of history will include a certain level of selectivity, and this is something that a number of reviewers of his books did pick up on—Baird seems to favour the more radical scholars, and give less space and attention to the more conservative ones who regularly responded to and critiqued these.
One reviewer goes so far as to devote several pages of analysis on the briefer treatment and denigrating language Baird uses for conservative NT scholars.[2]

Nevertheless, Baird’s volumes remain invaluable resources for students of the New Testament, both for the history it presents (recognised as inadequately told in fullness or in fairness to the more steadfast Christian scholars), as well as for the very helpful bibliographies he has compiled on successive sections of the volumes—I have made good use of them myself for my own PhD work.

I will finish this “summary” of Baird’s trilogy with two quotes he himself provides in the introductions on why the subject of his books are important:

“The history of NT research is important for theologians, church historians, and students of intellectual history. The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a major feature of the history of doctrine. The developing life of the church has been dominated by debate about the authority and interpretation of the NT. Religion has influenced political thought and played a leading role in social and ethical action. And understanding of religious influence is essential to understanding society and culture, and in the western world, the development of Christianity has been closely allied to the history of the interpretation of the NT.”

Baird, HNTR 2.xiv.

“Failure to know one’s history is a failure to understand one’s identity, a failure that destines one to repeat old mistakes and neglect venerable solutions, to put old wine in new wineskins without even knowing that it is old.”

Baird, HNTR 1.xxii.

The three volumes of Baird’s History of New Testament Research aren’t cheap – when I checked Book Depository on March 6 2023 they added up to around NZ$370.

I would like to thank (anonymously) a member from my church who gifted me some money for PhD expenses when I missed out on the scholarship I had thought more certain than it actually was—some of it was used to buy these three volumes, which have proved very useful for my studies.

[1] Compared with Reventlow’s four-volume History of Biblical Interpretation, which I have found much harder going.

[2] Robert Yarbrough, “A Milestone in the History of New Testament Research: A Review Essay,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46.2 (2003): 299–308. This reviewer writes: “Despite his valiant and often successful effort to be fair, in Baird’s narrative this voice too frequently comes off as dull, polemical, reactionary, and an impediment to the more exciting ‘critical’ directions that dominate the history as Baird depicts it. This does not jeopardize the usefulness of the book, but it does give it a slant which some readers will find unfortunate. For while no historical treatment can be ideal from every standpoint, this one could have been more satisfactory in its treatment of scholars who had the courage, conviction, and resourcefulness to think critically against prevailing trends which have proven with time to be seriously deficient. … At the same time, Baird confirms in this chapter what is evident throughout the book: scholars for whom it is important to uphold and defend historic Christian belief are treated with grudging praise at best, along with a hefty measure of disparagement. … Baird’s script nearly always casts the conservative scholars as polemical, obstinate, and standing in the way of progress.” (pp. 299, 303, 304).