The Origin of the New Testament by William Wrede


A certain melancholy interest attaches to it as a posthumous publication. It is among the literary remains of the late Professor William Wrede, published by his brother with the assistance of a friend of the deceased theologian. The present work is intended for, and suited to, a much wider circle of readers than more elaborate and technical works. The interested layman, or the busy cleric with insufficient time at his disposal for wider special study, will here find a plain and, considering the limits of space, exhaustive account of the present condition of criticism of New Testament origins from what is commonly known as the standpoint of the “advanced” school. The work itself sufficiently explains and makes clear its point of view.

The student or the thoughtful reader will scarcely be in need of being reminded that it is obviously impossible within the limits of so few pages, in so small and popular a treatise, that the arguments which may be advanced in favour of the more conservative and traditional, not to say orthodox, positions should be stated at length. The interested student must go elsewhere for these.

An example may be given. On the question of the early decease by martyrdom of S. John as bearing on the authorship of the gospel traditionally ascribed to him, Wellhausen makes the confident statement that John suffered martyrdom with his brother James in Jerusalem ; on which Harnack, in a review of an article, which appeared in the Irish Quarterly for 1908, on the Traditions as to the death of John, the son of Zebedee, says that the positiveness of this statement does not make it more certain. It rests on two questionable arguments apart from the controversial interpretation of S. Mark x. 35, while it has half a dozen of the strongest arguments against it. Wrede, indeed, admits in the thoroughly plain and candid manner which characterises his style in this book that this is a doubtful point. In the article alluded to Bernard shows how the probably false tradition of this martyrdeath may have arisen. This may serve alike to illustrate how the interested student may extend his reading, and gather up fixed points, distinguishing them from those which are far from settled, but also of the fine candour which marks the style of the author. He nowhere dogmatically decides where something like certainty is not obtainable.

In a much longer published article on S. Paul, of which what is here said of the Apostle is in some sense an echo, Wrede draws out a contrast, and, so to speak, antinomy between S. Paul and Jesus. Of this there are no traces in the present brief dealing with the same subject, while sufficient is said to give a medallion portrait of the author of the epistles with whose origin he deals in so compact a fashion.

The most fastidious student cannot find fault with the work on the score of want of due reverence, or of consideration for the opinions and feelings of others, while all who are at once interested in the subject, and unprejudiced in opinion, will feel glad to possess in so wonderfully clear and compact a form the results of labour on such serious and important problems. Not a word is wasted from beginning to end. Only an expert, thoroughly master of his subject, could have packed so much into so small a compass.

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