Some Reflections on the Nature of New Testament Studies

Whence and Whither New Testament Studies?

A Gate to be kept, or an Open Door?

 The study of the sacred texts of Christianity has been going on since before the sacred texts of Christianity were explicitly codified into a canon (or canons) and broadly accepted (the debated issues are complex and remain some 2,000 years later). In addition to the fact of the study of these texts, books about studying the Bible (of varying size and quality) have been written for centuries up until the present. I have many reflections about this; most are probably not worth uttering (being the scholarly neophyte that I am). There are books, essays, chapters, and talks about this; many are more learned than this post. However, I do have a few reflections which are broad enough to resonate and make sense with most readers, but can apply to a pinpoint issues in biblical and New Testament studies, and which I think will help any student find their way a little better in the dizzying field of New Testament studies.

I’ll start with a question: what stuff is the New Testament scholar or student made of? I don’t mean their resolute will to slog through mountains of secondary literature (this is something of a special plague for New Testament studies, owing to the small size of the corpus but the huge shadow it casts on the history of Western thought)—I mean, what disciplinary craft makes someone a student or scholar of the New Testament? Is he or she an historian? A theologian? A linguist? A literary student/scholar? A philosopher? An archaeologist? A sociologist? A scientist? Some of these, all of the above, or something else entirely? Add to these questions of religious and theological significance for a life-situation: must that person be a Christian? Or does that make him or her biased? Or what about Old Testament studies, does it matter if an Old Testament scholar is Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or Agnostic, or Atheistic, or something else? Our politically correct sensibilities often filter us to say “no,” but our intuitions often say otherwise (the reality is probably complex and charity is the necessary virtue).

The fact of the matter is, when the net is cast into the sea of interpreters in the history of New Testament research, one finds interpreters of all types caught up in it. When the net is cast into the sea of contemporary interpreters, the diversity is even more exaggerated. Diversity for its own sake is not a quality of research, but diversity must nonetheless be admitted and appreciated as far as it reflects the state of discussion. In other words, many different kinds of scholars are found in the marketplace of interpretation of the Bible; they have many different approaches.

This is nothing new.

Take, for example, the German institutions of higher learning in and around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The universities of Halle, Jena, Göttingen, Berlin, and Tübingen, among others, housed many of the philosophers, historians, philologists, and biblical critics who are seen as the founding figures of their respective modern critical traditions (whatever one thinks of them)—and not a few of these figures published in more than one or all of these fields at various points in time: historians were theologians were philologists were philosophers were biblical scholars were historians were theologians—and so on, and so forth. I don’t mean to say that everyone did everything and equally well, but the lines were not as stark as they seem to sometimes be painted today. Some of the key figures were indeed what we’d call polymaths (they stood out in their own time, but it was not uncommon to still seek to master many disciplines in the eighteenth century), and some of them plied their minds to multiple of these fields and to the sciences, and to other vocations as well (fine arts, or medicine). Are they merely relics of a bygone era? With respect to biblical studies, were they merely playing free in an uncluttered field, beholden to no standards but their own whims? I.e., a “quaint, but we know better now” sort of situation?

Are we better now for our drawing of lines when we draw them? Or for our endless compartmentalization of thought? Often enough someone says I’m speaking “as an historian,” you’re speaking as a “theologian,” or, much worse, he or she is not one of us and so cannot speak at all. Does this make sense in the history of the discipline? I’m not suggesting there are not distinct kinds of projects (perhaps they are less discrete than is sometimes realized), but I am suggesting that it is strange to pit theologians against historians against “outsiders” who study other things like philosophy or–gasp–science.

Any scholar or student who reads or interacts widely realizes that there are some touchstone techniques/positions for the field: specific languages and the ability to understand them, the standard courses of major secondary readings, proximity to the output of the flagship presses and journals, etc. No one denies it means something unique to be a biblical scholar. And yet, there is the incontrovertible fact that the field is open to any and all academics (not necessarily formally defined) who may have relevant things to say. And, many scholars do have relevant things to say. Can classical scholars be forbidden to speak about the New Testament? Can Old Testament studies really be cordoned off from, say, Egyptologists who are thus not allowed in? Can philosophers be barred at the disciplinary door for their supposed unfamiliarity with “our field”? Beyond this, must educated laypeople be restricted to questions only, and no positive potential contributions? What about undergrads, etc?

The reality is that an answer in the negative is demanded for all of the above, provided that standards are kept. This is not a proposal that a field be given to the whims and fancies of everyone who has an impulse in the brain or gut when they hear the word “Bible.” This is rather a proposal to have standards, and then by those standards, judge all voices equally. What are these standards? The point I want to make is that the standard simply cannot be “membership in the guild” (who defines the guild and how does one enter in? Usually, this is a limiting enterprise).

This is also a two-way street with respect to disciplines: someone who devotes their life to the study of language and the New Testament and to deep thinking about interpretation should be suited to make specific kinds of contributions to other fields (philosophy, classical studies, the social sciences–what have you). They only need to appropriately familiarize themselves with those fields and treat that scholarship with respect. If some misunderstanding seems apparent, it should be hashed out with great patience and careful instruction (and a willingness to learn along the way).

I offer three reflections on the basis of these considerations:

The first reflection is this (I use New Testament studies as an example): New Testament studies is an academic field in which many disciplines necessarily intersect, and thus it should be a field where many different scholars interact. This does not mean that approaches are all relatively equal; they’re not. Language and linguistics I think persist as “the greatest of all,” which only means they will ideally be the servant of every other approach, which approaches can then be given adequate space to work in their own right. I am suggesting, however, that gate-keeping (where it goes on) is antithetical to the history of the discipline, is antithetical to good scholarship, and is antithetical to the vibrancy and continued relevance one hopes for the academic study of these fields.

The second reflection is this: because many different scholars are in theory able to study the New Testament and contribute to the field, perhaps they should. And if in practice some sub-fields are relatively untouched by these scholars, these may be the precise areas where revolutions and paradigm shifts can occur. Take, as one example, the importation of the modern science of linguistics into New Testament studies in a concerted way in the late twentieth century: the works of Porter and Fanning on verbal aspect theory co-occurred and effected a paradigm shift in the study of the verbal system of the Greek of the New Testament and Greek studies beyond that. This is intuitive because linguistics is more relevant in practice to the classical discipline than other fields seem to be (however, many linguists will wonder at that given the slow uptake in the field more broadly). Yet consider that other less intuitively related fields (like philosophy) have equal contributions to make. Do they? Could they? If they do, are we suited to be able to detect them?

The third reflection is this: when people gate-keep (by trying to exclude academics who are non-specialists in a particular sub-field) they are at best making a utilitarian move to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language and the scholarly discussion continues on within the bounds that their specialized language has constructed. At worst–and since gate-keeping is a pejorative term, perhaps most often–they do not want to be made uncomfortable in their foregone conclusions. Many sub-fields operate on the basis of a slew of “consensus” positions which, while they are at times highly probable and well-grounded positions, are just as open to the stagnation of thought that any other settled opinion is (and sometimes just as ridiculous as other hypotheses where the data are under-determined). When “consensus” is taken to be the “rule” and conclusions replace the arguments that initially led to them (and persist into circumstances in which the original arguments would no longer fly), then we have moved beyond the sphere of genuine, open scholarship, and into the realm of the merely politically coercive.

In these instances, a certain guild “register” and glossary of terms become defence mechanisms, and they lose their theoretical richness in a sub-field where outsiders who don’t know or don’t use the lingo (or refuse to on the basis of the very contributions they wish to make) are excluded as ignorant.

Is it really profound to point out that a scholar (who could very easily grasp a concept if it were explained to them) is confused or side-steps the neologisms and specialized dialect of a sub-field? I think it is trivial, and not profound (this is what Nietzsche called the “narcissism of minor differences”). Is it really helpful to insist a scholar doesn’t understand the terms they may be refusing to use on principle? It may well be profane. The challenge is amplified when what’s being promoted is a re-assertion of an older position. If one has “moved on,” then that implies that to “go back” is naive, despite the fact that people who want to resurrect old arguments tend to do so out of a desire to move forward. The other side of the horseshoe is often that new hypotheses are simply unpalatable because anything new is suspect “if no one has said it, it isn’t worth saying.” Consider an archaeologist who says “if no one has found it, it isn’t worth digging”. . . found what? Exactly. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know, and for that, people need to be able to freely research.

Back to the matter at hand. There’s a saying my parents often used to say to me: “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Has the language of our foregone conclusions made the scholarly bed we have to lie in? If so, there are probably few ways better of being woken from our dogmatic slumber than interacting with interested scholars outside our niche/field. One other way is to not interact with it ourselves. . . but that is a kind of self sequestration which will not get anyone very far. I think this applies to the intellectual life period.

While some of the above is hypothetical, it isn’t all hypothetical. Without naming names, I can think of two specific examples of biblical scholars (one New Testament, one Old Testament) who variously attempted to gate-keep their field/sub-discipline from “outsiders” (an analytic philosopher in the former case, and an Egyptologist in the latter). Yet those “outsiders” were/are highly informed in the relevant literature and bring fresh perspectives and relevant expertise to the field. How is this a way forward? It is not.

What is a way forward then?

The solution is not to feign neutrality—the “I’m purely neutral” slogan is simply a bad joke. Nor is it to pretend as if every position is equally valid (what person of any conviction in their position really thinks this is the case?). The way forward seems to be to hold convictions forthrightly, to base them on evidence and argumentation, and to be charitable and virtuous enough to vigorously debate, and then vigorously agree to disagree and happily work in parallel with others. When convictions are very strong, real divides cannot but emerge, and yet I like to think we can still extend respect to scholars who seem to be genuine good-faith actors (and offer healthy doses of “benefit of the doubt” when making our judgements on who or who isn’t “good faith”).

The way forward has to be to welcome with open arms any person who is genuine who wants to learn, ask, contribute, and correct, so long as such people are committed to push-back and debate and discussion.

But what do I know? I’m not a scholar; I’m a student. Yet I think as a student, developing intellectual virtue demands the training of the ability to learn from those with whom one disagrees, and to be able to disagree with those from whom one learns. I can learn more this way, and in spite of whatever comforts I lose, I’m consoled by this one thing: more understanding. As a Christian, isn’t this part of what it means to study to the glory of God? Or to pursue the knowledge of the holy? I think I can defend that it is, and have at arm’s reach all sorts of evidence for the hypothesis. And while there are many other considerations to be made about Christians and scholarship, it’s undeniable that, all things considered, seeing less is no Christian way forward.

By the way, I think many people agree. A number of journals, monograph series, and other projects prove it. I’m reflecting on a real trend, but I didn’t say it was universal.

Addendum:

Is what I have written above at all suggestive for a chastening of developing norms in the field? I hope so. If it is, how much more does it apply to gate-keeping with respect to views and ideas that have nothing to do with biblical studies? Why would one’s political views, for example, matter for such a thing? Many such views are irrelevant. Regarding ones that are not–especially historically–it is not always easy to determine what the response should be (as anyone interested in the history of German biblical criticism well knows). In any event we should be crystal clear about what, ethically speaking, is verboten and why. Yet when good-faith interested parties–and educated experts–are barred at the gates because of unfashionable political views that are utterly irrelevant to the field, then the way is being lost.

A new way is being found in its place; the virtues of this new way will look a lot less like the academic virtues aspired to in the modern world up until now (freedom of expression, open dialogue) and a lot more like everything else is looking today: radically political.

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4 Comments

  1. I eagerly await a future post! Hope this isn’t the last post we will see on the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The feedback means a lot! It will not be the last post. I am quite busy, but “slow and steady wins the race” and I have plans. Please subscribe to the blog, comment like this, and share wherever relevant!

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