Languages, Humanities and a New Testament PhD

As everyone knows, there has been some debate over the nature of what a (British) doctorate in NT studies should be about. It was started (and continued) by Larry Hurtado (here and see also here and here), with BW16 responding (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here!), and others, such as Mike Kok, James McGrath and, obviously, Jim West, joining in. It now seems to have gone viral.

Some of the discussion/disagreement surprises me because I think there are a number of basic points with which almost all involved would agree. Inevitably some of what I say will have been said or implied in some of the other discussions. So here is an attempt to do something which will bring us all together…

The debate effectively revolved around this argument made by Larry: British PhD students of New Testament studies should definitely have (or some pre-PhD training in) languages, ancient (Greek, Hebrew) and modern (e.g. German, French), and maybe others (e.g. Latin), as well as a good working knowledge of the relevant MS traditions. This is sort of right depending on how we define ‘New Testament studies’ (or whatever related phrase). While the shift to the rhetoric of ‘Christian origins’ can often have an ideological function of hiding theologically loaded NT studies (this is not a criticism as such, more an observation), I think we can here, for the sake of convenience, use the term (as John Lyons has suggested) to distinguish a major sub field of NT studies, i.e. the historical origins of the NT texts and the study of the NT texts in their earliest cultural contexts. I think Larry is using NT studies in this manner. If a PhD student (or non PhD student) were to be studying the NT in such contexts then clearly textual critical knowledge and Greek and Hebrew will be vital, as will others depending on the specific topic e.g. Aramaic or Coptic or Ge’ez would be obvious choices if studying certain Gospel traditions. Modern languages will differ from topic to topic (German and English being the most obvious from dominant North American and European perspectives, but Spanish, Italian or a Nordic language might also be added as well as French, again depending on topic…), though now we are already facing the problem of when to stop and get on with the thesis (see James McGrath).

The criticism raised by BW16 that non-European languages or cultures are being excluded is both right and intensifies the problem of when to stop. The point on the problem of exclusion seems a kind of truism to me (and before we continue, let’s just leave intentionality to one side): by keeping non-European languages and culture outside the English and Euro language sphere, it keeps such scholarship and different ideas outside with little chance of change. As things stand in the UK at least, this is not going to be easy to resolve but one way would be to encourage and fund such scholarship, or give it the same chance of funding as the more conventional Euro/N American scholarship (actually this does happen). This may mean sacrificing other language/textual priorities in such a PhD but that may simply be inevitable or might not even be necessary. It would provide a new range of insights though…

Incidentally, I think some of the discussion of BW16’s arguments on Pacific islands scholarship might be missing the point. I speak from a position of relative ignorance on Pacific islands scholarship but from what various people who know more about these things have told me (including one of my Sheffield colleagues who has been involved with such scholars), postcolonialism is one of the more dominant academic discourses and, from such perspectives, British scholarship would probably be more associated with someone like Sugirtharajah. Postcolonialism (and by this I do not simply mean the anti-imperial Paul or the like) is regularly ignored in historical critical circles but it would be difficult to deny that Sugirtharajah has made an impact on the discipline and not least through locating the importance of more modern geopolitical contexts on interpretation. The same must apply for Pacific islands scholarship. Cf. also M. Huie-Jolly, ‘Maori “Jews” and a Resistant Reading of John 5.10-47’ in M. W. Dube and J. L. Staley (eds.), John and Postcolonialism: Travel, Space and Power (London: T&T Clark, 2002), pp. 94-110.

And so back to the definition ‘NT studies’ (and, by extension, ‘biblical studies’) which for descriptive reasons alone is much broader than the historical study of the origins of Christianity. At Sheffield (I’m biased), there is a long established tradition of reception historical approaches and various approaches related to critical theory, poststructuralism and whatever. Some of these may involve close reading and the ‘original languages’ but quite often not really. Some applications of e.g. postcolonialism and queer theory require as much language skill as a form critical investigation of a Gospel passage, though in their more contemporary reception variants, less so. The use of Paul by various scholars outside biblical studies (e.g. Badiou, Agamben, Žižek etc) have some language discussion but (Agamben aside perhaps, who quotes every language under the sun, it would seem) not a massive amount. This is a huge area in and outside biblical studies and that alone would justify its investigation in a PhD thesis (with potential for some ancient language). [Aside: a PhD in this area would probably require more Euro languages…]

But what about reception history generally? Well, it depends and the following points are obvious, I think. If looking at the Bible in medieval France then certain specific language skills will be required. What about the use of the NT in contemporary American politics? English is more or less the only language required, as well as various interdisciplinary skills. PhD theses on the NT and/in art, cinema, literature, pop music etc will all require specific skills but obviously not really much in the way of the ancient languages. At the BNTC, one paper was given by Katie Edwards, who got her PhD at Sheffield and is part of a distinctive Sheffield tradition. It was on messianic representations in advertising. Dead languages are of no real use for this topic (I assume). The key thing for these sorts of receptions is that they use the relevant interdisciplinary skills from cinema studies, literary studies, critical theory, cultural studies etc and so on (the anonymous senior OT person cited by Larry and who says tools depend on the thesis, sounds right to me). And there are many untapped original topics available to be researched so the all important ‘originality’ might be a lot easier than a traditional historical critical thesis.

And we should not think these sorts of approaches (reception, critical theory etc) are in some marginalised area of biblical studies. At Sheffield we’ve long had a significant number of PhD students working in such areas (as well as plenty more traditional historical critical ones). John Lyons at Bristol heads a distinctive postgraduate programme in reception history. Major British universities (e.g. Sheffield, Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham, and, to some extent, Oxford) all have a history of non-traditional historical critical scholarship and/or reception historical studies. There are now peer reviewed international journals dedicated to these and related issues (Relegere, Bible and Critical Theory, Biblical Reception, Postscripts, Biblical Interpretation, and Semeia). Reception is also listed as one of the areas of significance for submissions to NTS. SBL has plenty of well attended sessions relating to critical theory and reception. There are plenty of ‘big name’ scholars working in these areas. For you ideologically minded critics out there, reception and related studies are perhaps already a, or even one day become the, hegemonic norm. If we were to ‘measure’ what NT studies is for a doctorate in terms of dominant discourses in (say) UK and N. America, reception, critical theory etc have to be part of the definition.

One problem among all this keeps recurring: when do we know when to stop? Let’s stick with the historical study of Christian origins for a moment. Larry emphasises languages (as he should) but I think a powerful case can also be made, and should also be made, for a basic working knowledge of methods in the humanities and social sciences. In a previous post I aired frustrations with a lack of proper engagement with a paper on postcolonialism which effectively stalled the discussion of issues the paper deserved. I felt (and I was not alone) that a number of people in different sessions did not understand the basic ways in which human beings might react to their culture, often unintentionally. Many were/are excellent with languages and close reading but this was/is, presumably, at the expense of a wider knowledge and to see scholars unable to understand the basics of the humanities only further highlighted this as a serious problem.

One solution might be to accept that people won’t necessarily learn lots of languages or the typical tools of the historical critical trade and attempt what Rodney Stark did and provide important approaches to the ancient material. Given time constraints, rightly or wrongly I could see this sort of case being made, particularly along these lines: understanding social change is just as important as being able to read extensively in a number of languages. But actually a working knowledge of the basics of the humanities and social sciences is not that difficult to acquire and most universities in the UK (certainly the ones I’ve been at) will offer the change to attend methodological courses and develop whatever interdisciplinary skill might be useful. At Sheffield, our research methods for PhD students, gives them overviews of major interdisciplinary areas (historical, postcolonial, literary, reception historical, political etc approaches). This can be done on top of the languages ancient and modern (which are also offered). British NT scholars should be encouraging this more and more, though I suspect some enjoy the ghetto a little too much.

In short, much of the problem is simply semantic, different tools are needed for different jobs and imposed time constraints might be a problem.  How could anyone disagree with any of the above, eh?

James Crossley


9 responses to “Languages, Humanities and a New Testament PhD

  1. You’ve got my vote!

  2. Right tool for the right job. Seems too simple!

  3. Pingback: Discussion of Languages and New Testament Study around the Blogosphere | Exploring Our Matrix

  4. You get my vote too. A phd in nt without serious study of critical theory is pretty pointless. The field is an impoverished and intellectually isolated one at present, and probably isn’t going to survive much longer in the uk unless it aquires some academic credibility in the sight of other disciplines.

  5. Great summary and analysis – works for me!

  6. Pingback: Languages, Theories, Approaches « Larry Hurtado's Blog

  7. Pingback: More on Widening the Definition of NT Studies | Sheffield Biblical Studies

  8. Pingback: An objective queer reflection on the past week in biblioblogging | BW16

  9. Pingback: India, English Bibles, British Empire, And the Foreign Bible Society: A Joint Post | Political Jesus

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