Few documents in world history can match the impact of the New Testament and Halvor Moxnes shows how the writings of this vibrant new faith came into being from oral transmission and then became the pillar of a great world religion.
We caught up with him to see where he sees the discipline going, and what the key debates are.
What initially sparked your interest in the New Testament?
In my book I suggest a comprehensive understanding of ‘the history of the New Testament’, one that includes not only the first century writings in their historical contexts, but also their impact throughout history via translations and receptions in arts and literature, and finally, the history of methods and theories of interpreting the New Testament. Two experiences in particular helped me see these interconnections. The first was a trip through Turkey (ancient Asia Minor) ‘in the footsteps of St Paul’, that made me realize the importance of the places of the writings: architecture, sculptures and landscapes made the social, cultural and religious context of Paul’s letters come alive. The second experience was a year in Italy exploring how Christian artists, especially from the Renaissance, in their paintings placed Biblical figures and stories in the context of their own times and made them relevant for contemporary issues.
Perhaps obvious to ask, but which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The first figure that comes to mind is of course Jesus, both the first century Jesus and the ‘historical Jesus’ who have been reconstructed through scholarship over the last two hundred years. The history of the New Testament is paradoxical in that it both attempts to go beyond the myths and beliefs of the divine Christ to the forceful and controversial Jewish prophet Jesus of the first century, but it also traces how the presentations of Jesus have been shaped by the culture, religion and politics of various societies throughout history.
Which areas of the New Testament most urgently need further exploration?
Reception history, that is, the history of the use and impact of the New Testament throughout history, is the newest area of New Testament studies. Most of the work that has been undertaken here has so far dealt with interpretations of New Testament writings by theologians and scholars, for instance Augustine in Antiquity, Calvin and Luther in the Reformation period, and by great 19th century scholars like the Cambridge professors Lightfoot and Westcott. But there is a need for more studies of how ‘ordinary people’ received the New Testament and made it relevant in their lives, for instance through art, music, private devotions, participation in worship, pilgrimages etc. In short there are many unexplored areas waiting to be studied.
Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?
It must be Paul: the one-time persecutor of followers of Jesus who became a tireless missionary for the risen Christ; the one time Pharisee who preached for gentiles that the Jewish law no longer was a road to salvation. And even if Paul cannot be held responsible for how he has been used and misused throughout the centuries, I would have asked him what it feels like to have been celebrated as an absolute authority in many churches, but also criticized as a source of discrimination against women and homosexuals, and lately lauded by postmodern philosophers as an inspiration for universal politics. There must be something about a person who is still controversial after 2000 years.
Do you have a favourite book (or film) that relates to the New Testament?
One book and one film in particular have thrown new light on the New Testament for me. The book is The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) by the Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago. In this novel, he follows the gospel stories, but gives them an unexpected twist by exploring the psychological dimensions of the stories. For instance, Matthew’s Gospel tells how Joseph was forewarned in a dream of Herod’s slaughter of all infant boys in Bethlehem, and that he left for Egypt with Mary and Jesus. But why, asks Saramago, did he not warn the people in Bethlehem, so that the other children could have been saved? The feeling of guilt over this failure follows Joseph throughout his life, and influences also Jesus. Saramago is critical of religion, and especially of God, whom he considers evil. In the novel Jesus protests against God, but loses out, and that is the reason why he ends up on the cross.
Also Paulo Pasolini, the Italian, Communist filmmaker followed the gospel text closely in his The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), filmed in black and white in a Southern Italian town, with local people as actors. But by small changes in the sequence of events, for instance by starting with Jesus proclamation: ‘I have come not to bring peace, but a sword’, Pasolini introduces Jesus as a protester against the powers of society – in Italy in the 1960s as in Palestine in the 1st century. The face of the young Spanish student who played Jesus brings intensity to the figure that makes it possible to understand how Jesus could be both so compelling and so controversial. ■