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These requirements now fall to be successively
In common with any other period, the apostolic age calls into play that faculty of sympathetic judgment, comparative analysis, and historical appreciation, by the exercise of which the relevant literary expression and evidence ? become transformed into an uncoloured window looking out directly upon the actual field and horizon of the time. One primary principle of such research is a careful and clear recognition of the difference which may exist between the literary date of a writing and the period of time to which its contents principally refer. The two certainly reflect upon each other. Not infrequently their positions are determined through a comparison of their relative aspects. But initially and ideally they must be held separate. Any document may be avowedly a witness to previous facts and feelings. Unconsciously and as really, however, it carries now and then traces of its immediate environment; and it is with this latter, secondary, and indirect relationship that historical criticism has to begin its work. In some cases a NT writing is almost exactly contemporaneous with the period of which it treats : the epistle to the Galatians and that to Philippi are ex
i In a recent novel (of all places !) by Thomas Hardy, the idea has been curiously and roughly anticipated. “Jude, will you let me make you a new New Testament, like the one I made for myself at Christminster ?” “Oh yes. How was that made ?” “I altered my old one by cutting up all the epistles and gospels into separate brochures, and rearranging them in chronological order, as written, beginning the book with Romans, following on with the early epistles, and putting the gospels much further on. My University friend, Mr.
-, said it was an excellent idea. I know that reading it afterwards made it twice as interesting as before, and twice as understandable” (Jude the Obscure, p. 187).
2 Heinrici, Theologische Encyklopädie (1893), pp. 51-53. On the use of historical method in relation to documents, see Hatch, Organisation of Early Christian Churches (1882), pp. 2–17; and, for the importance of sourcecriticism in modern research, Professor J. B. Bury's edition of Gibbon, vol. i. pp. xlv, xlvi. “We have lived to see an age of source-criticism," says Preuschen, referring to NT research, “which can only be compared to the morphological and biological investigations of natural science" (ZNW, 1900, p. 3).
cellent instances. Indeed, taking the word in a fair although somewhat loose sense, we may argue that all the epistles, as well as the sources which underlie the synoptic gospels and the Acts, are “contemporary.”1 In this respect they compare not unfavourably even with most ancient histories, as will be seen from the appended table, which roughly gives some instances of the relative distance between events and their record in the older Jewish and classical literatures. In fact, judged by ordinary standards, the bulk of the NT
(bks. 13–17) 6 A.D.-66 A.D.
(bks. 18–20) 14 B.C.-68 A.D.
Tacitus, “Annals,” | 115-117 A.D.
1. “Agricola,” 97 A.D. Suetonius, “. Vitæ
XII. Imperatorum," c. 120 A.D. Mark, .
65-75 A.D. Matthew, . . 75-90 A.D. Luke, ,
80-90 A.D. Acts,
90-100 A.D. Fourth gospel, 95-115 A.D.
literature affords a fairly direct and clear witness to its period. Still, even here, with so remarkable a measure of historic credibility (though trustworthiness does not necessarily increase as the gap between fact and writing diminishes),
1 In a note to chap. iii. book iv. of his History of the Conquest of Peru, Prescott incidentally defines "contemporary” evidence. Speaking of Herrera, the author of Historia General de las Indias, he points out that this Spaniard's evidence is “little short of that of a contemporary, since it was derived from the correspondence of the Conquerors, and the accounts given him by their own sons.”
between the period recorded and the recording literature some space does intervene, varying from a few years up to nearly a century. Any of the historical writings, then, may be considered with some reason to represent a more or less extended period which has elapsed between the time of its historical reference and the date of its composition. This factor of distance between the life and the corresponding literature is cardinal, and it is necessary to get a sight and sense of it. The difference of time is always significant, though not always to the same degree: it demands in any case to be estimated and weighed. By all scientific research, indeed, this feature is steadily presupposed, while its consequences and bearings upon questions of accuracy, historicity, subjective characteristics, and the like, are paramount and abundantly obvious.
It is worth while to start from the very clear and accepted instances of this principle offered by OT criticism. To take an extreme case, the books of Chronicles are significant, not merely for the period of the monarchy, but also and especially as witnesses to certain ideas and feelings in regard to the law and history of Israel current some five or six hundred years later in the age between the Return and the Maccabean Revolution. In P, the priestly document of the Hexateuch, we obtain not (some would prefer to say “not only ") a record of primitive history, but, to some degree, the hopes and religious emotions of an author who wrote in the later monarchy or under the actual shadows of exile and captivity. Similarly the book of the Judges, as we have it, presents a conglomerate of narratives which have been finally recast in the Deuteronomic spirit fully six or seven centuries subsequent to the date of the events which it professes to record. The period of the NT is considerably smaller than that covered by the OT, barely extending beyond a century and a quarter at the most. But its phases, none the less, are varied and successive; and if they are to be defined with any historical lucidity, the above-noted principle must be carried into the criticism of the NT literature and fairly tested there. This need is patent at the very outset. To the historical student who is engaged in working back, by aid of sources, to the facts, the Christ of the apostles is the forerunner to the Jesus of history. Through the witness of the one we reach the presence of the other. Even with the help of the vivid emotion and imagination current in the apostolic age, we see the central figure as through a glass darkly; but without that age and its memorials we would not see him at all. Certainly the primary question in regard to early Christianity is not what the early Christians believed about Jesus, but what Jesus himself believed. His faith, not faith in him, forms the spring of his religion as a historical force (Meyer, Die moderne Forschung ü. d. Geschichte des Urc. 1898, p. 1 f.). Yet for the investigator the faith of Jesus is only accessible through a preliminary survey of the faith which others had in him. Personally he left no written statement or expression of his views and deeds. For these, as well as for the sense of his personality, we are absolutely dependent upon the reminiscences of an after-age, together with the impression produced by him on one or two men of exceptional ability who subsequently joined his cause. Jesus is the author and finisher of the faith. But to arrive at any historical estimate of his conceptions and character, the inquirer must first of all be prepared to spend no slight research upon the materials furnished by the writings of the apostolic age. These are the indispensable record of the ways by which the early Christian faith was formed, transformed, expressed, and propagated.
The sense of confusion, which commonly rises in this mental passage from the naïve to the scientific conception of the NT writings, is due for the most part not to the discipline itself so much as to the fact that it is a comparatively unpalatable and unfamiliar task for us to take into account this very factor of retrospective reference. Each document, we now discover, contains a standpoint as well as a subject. In using the records, one has to keep oneself alive to that, and to be ready to make allowance for what may be termed “the contemporary equation.” The trial-task of criticism is in fact to comprise not only the direct reference of a book to some previous period, but also such delicate and elusive, though not unsubstantial, considerations as those of the place and time in which, the motives for which, and the author by whom, it was composed. For the sake of book and period alike, a just estimate refuses to leave out of account these contemporary tendencies and conditions. Historical inquiry seeks, often and chiefly from the data of the book itself, to determine the precise extent and unravel the actual character of the influence exerted by any particular period upon its literary products. By this means it is enabled to work back to some keener insight into the period itself, while at the same time it becomes competent to estimate with finer accuracy the varying value of the evidence which the writing in question offers with regard to the earlier period of which it treats. This procedure is legitimate, healthy, and remunerative. Tendency-criticism has become a detected idol. It stands exposed as a fanciful and arbitrary method of research. But it is quite another thing to ascertain the mental and social latitudes in which an author seems to have written, to use his work in common with other aids for the discovery and illustration of these latitudes, and again to use these for the elucidation of the book itself. This reflex method of study forms a delicate and necessary practice. Between a writing of the NT and the period at which it was finally composed there exists a more or less direct correspondence. To some extent any writing is moved by its atmosphere, while the period in its turn is set off and indicated by the contemporary writing
“Like as the wind doth beautify a sail,
And as a sail becomes the unseen wind.” The classic and abused instance of this relationship has been the book of Acts; but when fairly employed the principle touches almost the whole collection. Paul's writings are the most objective. Their standpoint and subject are practically one, and the date of their composition falls not far from the period of their historical reference. All that needs to be done, as a rule, is to put them in chronological order. That determined, they lie actually parallel to the life which thus