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The Origin Of The New Testament by Adolf Harnack

§ 6. The New Testament obscured the true origin and the historical significance of the works which it contained, but on the other hand, by impelling men to study them, it brought into existence certain conditions favourable to the critical treatment

There is no need of many words to show how far the New Testament at first obscured the true origin and significance of the works which it contained. Within a sacred fundamental document everything must be regarded as equal in value, character, and significance. Canonising works like whitewash; it hides the original colours and obliterates all the contours. The Synoptics must be interpreted according to St John, the Pauline Epistles according to Acts: all stand on one plane. But much more than this: each separate passage must contain the highest, the best, the most infallible that can be imagined in this connection, and everything must always sound in unison. The New Testament is the hen kai pan, and in reference to all theological questions it is sufficient, consistent, and clear. Under such presuppositions, how could the actual intention, or indeed anything of the original significance of the works, make themselves felt? Already in Tertullian -- both in his own use of the New Testament as well as in that of his Lax opponents -- we may observe all the fatal consequences for history of the canonisation of the books of the New Testament. Only one example! In St Matthew's Gospel Magi make their appearance and no fault seems to be found with them as such. Therefore concluded some Lax Churchmen, even a Christian might have dealings with magic. Tertullian could not with confidence reject this conclusion; for it was held as an axiom that what Holy Scripture does not blame it allows. He therefore resorts to a way of escape -- the Gospel states that the Magi returned home by another way; the other way, however, means that the Magi gave up their magic. The inspired canonical document itself imposes the empirical and allegorical method of interpretation. Whether this method is employed |according to principles| and |scientifically,| or empirically case by case, makes no difference in the result: the original sense is always lost and the exegete no longer even seeks for it, but broods over the allegorical sense, i.e. over the thoughts which he has to read into the text.

But, on the other hand, the instinct for simple truth is not so easily destroyed, and the New Testament to a certain extent came also to its help. The mere fact that works all of one historical period were here compiled together was an advantage. The careful observer could not but perceive that in many places they did actually complete and interpret one another. If he had had to deal with each particular book in isolation, how much more perplexed he would have been and how much less vivid must have been the impression he would have received from it! Now, however, once the New Testament had been created, there arose a real science of exegesis, not only the exegesis of allegory which sublimated and thus neutralised the content of the works, but an exegesis which concerned itself, if only in a limited degree, with their historical origin and their literal sense. Even the difficulties presented by the New Testament as a compilation of separate books rendered such investigations quite unavoidable for thoughtful Christians. If, for instance, there had been only one Canonical Gospel, Science would have simply capitulated to it; it would have been pure insolence for the human intellect to act otherwise; but the four Gospels in countless passages summoned the intellect to a work of reconciliation. Naturally recourse was had to harmonising; but even in harmonising there lies a true critical element, and in the very process of harmonising it can assert itself. Think only of the critical efforts of Julius Africanus, of Origen, and others who lived soon after the creation of the New Testament; one cannot but see that these efforts would never have been made if the works that they studied had not stood in a collection. Again, in the same collection the Pauline Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles stood face to face. This fact also challenged investigation, and every investigation educates the critical sense and inspires it to further efforts! There is, moreover, the fact that the method of Origen, the alchemist of theology, demanded the investigation of the literal as well as the spiritual sense, and that he showed a truly scientific interest in the discovery of the genuine text. Interest in the literal sense and the genuine text of early Christian works would scarcely have arisen if these works had not been combined in the New Testament and regarded as canonical. Accordingly the creation of the New Testament of itself called into being a critical and historical treatment of the canonical books.

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