Stephen Neill (1900–1984) was a missionary, Anglican Bishop, professor, and linguist, and N. T. Wright (b. 1948), who earned his Ph.D. from Oxford in 1980, is now the famous and influential Bishop of Durham. The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986 (henceforth, INT) attempts to summarize the major people and events in the vast field of NT interpretation over a 125-year period. Neill’s first edition, which was the outgrowth of his Firth Lectures at the University of Nottingham in 1962 (p. ix), was published in 1966 and covered one hundred years of NT interpretation (1861–1961). Neill began updating INT for its second edition, but he died before completing it. He did, however, discuss the second edition with Wright, who edited Neill’s work (chapters 1–8, pp. 1–359) and replaced Neill’s previous conclusions with a final chapter that accounts for twenty-five more years of NT interpretation (pp. 360–449). The subject matter is almost exclusively British with some discussions of significant advances elsewhere (e.g., Germany), so the volume could be appropriately titled The Interpretation of the New Testament in Britain from 1861 to 1986.
Neill comments that Albert Schweitzer’s famous The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) is a summary, “and a summary of a summary would be quite unreadable” (p. 207). Although I feel the same way about summarizing Neill’s book, what follows condenses the nine chapters:
- “Challenge to Orthodoxy” (pp. 1–34) sets the stage by chronicling significant people and events leading up to 1861. Neill begins in the 1700s with Germans such as Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (pp. 2–3), and he highlights the critical rejection of orthodoxy by David Friedrich Strauss (pp. 13–20), Ferdinand Christian Baur and his Tübingen school (pp. 20–30), and Essays and Reviews, a scandalous book published in 1860 by seven British scholars (pp. 31–34). Chapter 1 is a rather slow start to the volume, but chapter 2 gets much more interesting.
- “The New Testament and History” (pp. 35–64) details the brilliant response to the Tübingen school by three great British scholars known as “the Cambridge three”: Joseph Barber Lightfoot (“primarily the historian”), Brooke Foss Westcott (“the philosopher”), and Fenton John Anthony Hort (“the exegete”; p. 36). “Hardly ever in the history of the Church have three men of such distinction worked together over so long a period on the accomplishment of what was essentially one great purpose” (p. 35).
- “What the New Testament Says, and What It Means” (pp. 65–111) summarizes the history of textual criticism (starting with Erasmus but focusing on Westcott and Hort) and lexical tools such as the famous Greek lexicon by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich as well as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (pp. 91–92). Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort wrote NT commentaries that were critical, linguistic, historical, exegetical, and genuinely Christian (pp. 93–94). Neill’s colorful anecdotes about these men (in both chapters 2 and 3) are a window through which readers can observe their personalities. For example, Westcott reverenced the text: “One of his pupils records that, when he and a fellow-student had rashly expressed their opinions on a certain passage and then turned to the master for guidance, Westcott stated in hushed tones that this was a passage on which he had never as yet ventured to express an opinion. This humble respect for the text meant that for Westcott no labor was too great, if it would help him to determine the exact meaning of a single particle” (p. 99).
- “Jesus and the Gospel” (pp. 112–46) addresses the synoptic problem after claiming in the previous chapter, “The gravest failure of the Cambridge school seems to me to have been its neglect of the problems of the Synoptic Gospels and of the life of Christ” (p. 103). By the end of the 1800s, Mark’s priority became “one of the assured results of the critical study of the New Testament” (p. 116; cf. 252). Burnett Hillman Streeter was primarily concerned with NT criticism and analysis, Arthur Cayley Headlam with historical reconstruction, and Adolf von Harnack with theological interpretation (pp. 136–44).
- “Greeks and Christians” (pp. 147–204) discusses the NT’s Hellenistic environment, including contributions by Sir William Ramsay (pp. 151–57) and manuscript discoveries, which revealed that NT Greek was Koine (p. 157–63). Neill steers a middle course here, arguing that NT Greek literature is lower than Classical Greek but higher than the papyri that first shed so much light on the Ancient Near East.
- “Re-Enter Theology” (pp. 205–51) studies the reaction to Harnack’s liberal theology by four scholars: Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Edwyn Clement Hoskyns, and Rudolph Bultmann.
- “The Gospel Behind the Gospels” (pp. 252–312) explains and critiques form and redaction criticism.
- “Salvation Is of the Jews” (pp. 313–59) discusses the NT’s Jewish environment. Neill acknowledges the importance and limitations of Strack-Billerbeck’s Rabbinic commentary on the NT (pp. 313–17), recounts the Qumran discoveries (pp. 318–35), devotes only one paragraph to Adolf Schlatter (p. 339; cf. Yarbrough’s “Schlatter Reception Now”), and summarizes James Barr’s groundbreaking linguistic contributions (pp. 352–59).
- Wright’s “History and Theology” (pp. 360–449), the size of a short paperback, evaluates Neill’s previous twelve analyses of NT studies (pp. 360–64). Wright presents “five areas in which real progress seems to have been made” in NT studies from 1961 to 1986 (p. 367): (1) background history, including E. P. Sanders’ seminal work on Judaism; (2) the history of Jesus, coined “a ‘Third Quest’” (p. 379); (3) Pauline studies, including E. P. Sander’s “covenantal nomism” (p. 425); (4) John A. T. Robinson on John’s Gospel; and (5) NT theology. Many NT scholars view Wright’s chapter as weak and disappointing (cf. Porter’s review below).
Its dated content and perspective aside (see, e.g., the short paragraph on speech-act theory on p. 365), I am overall disappointed and saddened by INT.
- INT is disappointing because it is unclear, which surprised me because many reviewers praise its clarity. Both Neill and Wright are scholars who can write well at the popular level. Consequently, INT has a conversational tone that is not nearly as stuffy as it could be. Neill clearly identifies his target audience: “This is not a book for the expert. . . . I have tried to provide a narrative that can be read without too much trouble by the non-theologian who is anxious to know and is prepared to devote some time and thought to the subject” (p. ix). If this book is for non-experts, then on a scale of one to five, I would rate it a one. The overall organization is less than clear, and with the exception of a few headings in chapters 2 and 6, the sub-divisions are only numbered, not titled. This makes it difficult to view a chapter’s progression at a glance. It is too easy to become disoriented in a chapter and focus disproportionately on what is merely peripheral.
- INT is sad because Neill and Wright are overly kind to influential non-evangelical theologians, the type of leaders whom the NT warns against as false teachers. Rather than warning the readers of their damning doctrines, INT ceaselessly praises them for their brilliance and alleged humble faith while pointing out some of their errors as if they were relatively minor mistakes. For example, Neill exclaims, “One can write of Rudolf Bultmann only with respect, and even with affection. By the time of his death he had become one of the great father figures of Western theology” (p. 237). Further, Neill appallingly disregards biblical inspiration in contrast to objective historical inquiry (cf. pp. 112, 147, 162, 359; cf. McFadden’s review below).
INT is a useful resource for understanding the history of NT interpretation, but readers should be forewarned that using it requires significant patience and discernment.
This partially annotated selection of about thirty reviews and related resources reflects a spectrum of perspectives. An asterisk (*) indicates a review of the volume’s first edition (1966).
- *Blackman, Edwin C. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (1964): 427–28. Neill’s work is “very able, balanced, and well-written” (p. 427). “All in all, this is a masterly treatment, indicating the real problems and the movement of research with the right proportion. . . . What the author lacks as a specialist scholar he makes up for in his ability to take the over-all view, to make use of all his experience as a churchman, and to make his account readable” (p. 428).
- *Brandon, S. G. F. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Modern Churchman 8 (Jan. 1965): 163–64.
- Budd, Philip J. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. Churchman 103:3 (1989): 266–67. “Four things are impressive about Bishop Neill’s work. First, there is his capacity to encompass and interpret a remarkable range of ideas and personalities in a straightforward, well-ordered way. Secondly, there is his ability to make the material accessible. . . . Thirdly, there is his combination of critical insight with breadth of sympathy. Even at those points where Neill dissents most sharply from the trends in question he demonstrates an appreciative understanding of scholarship’s motives and interests. Fourthly, there is his capacity to link intellectual rigor and theological concern; for him the critical task was always an imperative of faith” (p. 266).
- Carson, D. A. New Testament Commentary Survey. 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007. “For a history of the rise of current critical positions that touch both NT introduction and NT theology, see Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986, second edition brought up to date (1961–1986) by N. T. Wright” (p. 43).
- Godfrey, Peter B. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. Faith and Freedom 41 (Summer 1988): 101–2.
- *Hastings, A. W. and E. Hastings. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Expository Times 75 (1964): 321–22. “It is a pleasure to be able to recommend to our readers a really first-class book” (p. 321). “The writer presents with notable fairness the viewpoint of each writer, but does not shrink from shrewd and pointed criticism, where he is convinced that there is error. Nor does he hide his own convictions about matters which to him seem of crucial importance” (p. 321). “This is a good book to read, enlightening to the mind and quickening for one’s faith” (p. 322).
- Hickey, Denis. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. National Catholic Reporter (November 19, 1993). “This is an account of the more-than-hundred-years attempt to roll back the stone from the tomb and unloosen the centuries of cobwebs that enshroud Mark and Matthew, Luke and Paul, John and the author of Hebrews. It is thereby also an account of the search for the early Christianity that birthed the gospel stories and the gospel theology. If you would like to see this unbinding recounted by a gentle master (Bishop Stephen Neill died in 1985, while working on the revised edition, which was then completed by his disciple, Tom Wright), put this book on your coffee table and read snatches during TV commercials. Soon, you will turn off the set.”
- *Hull, W. E. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Review and Expositor 62 (Winter 1965): 96–97.
- *Linss, Wilhelm C. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Lutheran Quarterly 17 (Fall 1965): 83–84.
- *Marshall, I Howard. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Evangelical Quarterly 36 (Oct.-Dec. 1964): 231–33. Neill’s volume is “essential reading for the first year student who wishes a lucid guide to the development of N.T. scholarship during the last one hundred years. This does not mean that this book is in any way a simplification of its subject or that it is one to be ignored by the professional N.T. scholar. It is an amazingly competent survey of its field by one who is a master of English style and has produced a book which holds the reader’s attention firmly from beginning to end” (p. 231). Neill accurately represents other German scholars with whom he disagrees (p. 232). Marshall issues a warning: “It is possible for a person to give an impression of considerable learning by reading reviews instead of books, and no doubt the same is true of those who read the history of scholarship instead of the work of the scholars” (pp. 232–33).
- McFadden, Kevin. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. Posted on kwmc.blogspot.com. August 3, 2005. “Although the title itself may lull some into sleep, believe it or not this is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. . . . Like other ‘non-technical’ books of this ilk, I imagine, Interpretation has probably been of more use to theologians than laymen, giving a readable summary of a massive amount of information. . . . Two words convey my impression of the book: scholarly and readable. . . . Neill covers a multitude of names and ideas in the book, not as an unconnected bulleted list of scholars and their contributions, but as a part of the sweep of recent interpretation, and he offers his own criticism and insight along the way. . . . Despite its scholarship, Neill makes the book surprisingly readable and in fact enjoyable to read. Having a naturally lucid writing style helps, of course, but Neill also writes with tremendous energy, as if he just cannot wait to tell us this story. He has the right balance of the big picture and the details, and he sprinkles in personal anecdotes that bring life to these scholarly names that we read about (as it turns out, they were actually people too!). I have one criticism of the book, and it is a major one. Neill jettisons the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture for the sake of free historical investigation of the text. . . . NT scholarship is a great thing, but scholarship at the expense of faith is a damning thing. Many of the scholars discussed in this work have confirmed the unbelief of many in the church for the sake of free inquiry into the text. So, enjoy the book, but don’t be seduced by Neill’s scholarship and refinement into believing that one can disregard the authority and inspiration of Scripture without any consequences. To pull at the thread of biblical inspiration is to unravel Christianity itself.”
- *Migliore, Daniel L. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Princeton Seminary Bulletin 58 (Oct. 1964): 65–66. “It is both informative and very readable.”
- *Mignard, James E. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Religion in Life 34 (Winter 1964-1965): 132–133.
- *Moriarty, Frederick L. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Gregorianum 46 (1965): 124–27.
- *Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Revue biblique 72 (Jan. 1965): 135–37.
- *Nixon, Robin Ernest. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Churchman 79 (June 1965): 129–30.
- *Oudersluys, Richard C. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Christianity Today 9 (November, 6 1964): 33.
- *Patriquin, Allen. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Journal of Bible and Religion 33 (1965): 266–68.
- *Perkin, James R. C. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Baptist Quarterly 21 (Jan. 1965): 44–46.
- *Porter, Stanley, E. “The Basic Tools of Exegesis of the New Testament: A Bibliographic Essay.” Pages 23-41 in Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament. Edited by Stanley E. Porter. Vol. 25 of New Testament Tools and Studies. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. New York: Brill, 1997. Neill and Wright’s work is “probably the best overview of the topic for the period discussed, although admittedly concentrating on British scholars such as Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort (who can blame them?)” (p. 35).
- ____________. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992): 546–47. “Wright’s chapter, to my thinking, is a disappointment. First, he lacks the ability of Neill to capture what is essential about a significant figure and his importance for a movement. Second, his judgment is not as sound. Besides the fact that I would dispute some of his assessments of the five developments (third quest?), where are sociological criticism, forms of literary criticism, and hermeneutics and linguistics? Third, Wright has an agenda: He is a theologian, and the tone in which he writes regarding the fifth area of advance suggests belief that the other areas of interpretation are to serve theology . . . . Neill can be forgiven his prophetic failure, his outdated estimations, and his now-defunct categories of thought. And he can continue to be enjoyed. But it is far more difficult in light of the progress of the last twenty-five years to understand Wright’s unbridled preaching” (p. 547).
- *Rasmussen, R. D. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Foundations 8 (April 1965): 177–79.
- *Richardson, A. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Journal of Theological Studies 17 (April 1966): 131–32.
- Rowland, Christopher. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986. New Blackfriars 70 (1989): 46–47. “I was left wondering whether it is such a good idea to reissue a book like this without substantial modification. . . . Reading through the book in 1988 leaves me with the feeling that the book is both dated and insular” (p. 46). “There is little recognition of the significant contribution of Third World exegesis in the last twenty years nor of the shift in the center of gravity of New Testament scholarship from Germany to North America. . . . I find Neill’s concentration on English New Testament scholarship irritating, and it is a tendency apparent to some extent in Wright’s additional contribution. In this book New Testament scholarship means a sane and reasonable (perhaps one might say Anglican) historical exegesis” (pp. 46–47).
- *Swetnam, James. Review of Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Biblica 45 (1964): 454.
- Tuckett, Christopher M. Review of Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986, and Robert Morgan and John Barton, Biblical Interpretation. Scottish Journal of Theology 42 (1989): 587–89. “Neill’s style and approach, concentrating on a few select individuals and their personalities, makes for easy reading though the issues are often simplified rather violently in the discussion. (Was the whole approach of the Tübingen school really quashed by Lightfoot’s dating of the Ignatian epistles?) Further, much of Neill’s discussion of many issues looks rather dated and limited today (e.g. on textual criticism, form criticism, Gnosticism, etc.)” (p. 587). Wright’s “sweeping dismissal of tradition-critical work on the gospels as theologically useless, by comparison with the historical quest for Jesus and with ‘literary’ approaches to the gospels considered as wholes (p. 402f.), is slightly breathtaking in its naivety: how can one discover Jesus without some kind of tradition-historical approach to the gospels?” (p. 587).
- Yarbrough, Robert W. Unpublished annotated bibliography for “History of New Testament Theology” at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. N.d. “Highly engaging, sometimes almost gossipy account of how the NT has been read in the last century and a half. The Wright chapter is weak.”
- *Wilson, Robert M. Review of Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, and Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1961. Scottish Journal of Theology 19 (1966): 491–93. “Due tribute should be paid to the felicity of style, to the judicious use of the author’s missionary experience for apt illustration, to the occasional glint of friendly humor. Altogether this is a delightful book to read, a book to treasure, a book to go back to time and time again” (p. 493).
- Witherington, Ben, III. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2d ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997. Neill and Wright’s work is “a detailed review of how the New Testament, including the Gospels, has been interpreted by scholars in the modern era . . . . Wright’s reference in this work to ‘the Third Quest’ (cf. p. 379 and n. 3) may be the first use of this title for the present movement” (p. 9n1).
Andrew David Naselli
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
September 3, 2007