More on Widening the Definition of NT Studies

I want, in part, to respond to Larry Hurtado’s latest discussion of the whole language debate, partly because he interacts with my earlier post and partly to develop ideas about what the discipline might look like (not necessarily in disagreement or agreement with Larry). I was going to respond on Larry’s blog but I got carried away. I’m not sure people would appreciate an epic response in the comments section.

Before I start, I should re-emphasize that languages etc for a traditional (or, indeed, wherever required) NT doctorate plus career are indispensible. But I think I’m also willing to go as far as saying that a basic understanding of cultural, historical, literary and linguistic (as Larry rightly stresses) studies is just as important, not least, as Justin Meggitt suggested, to ensure that there is some distinctive research to be carried out in future but also for a fuller understanding of explaining the given work on Christian origins.

The following point raised by Larry is perhaps the most important issue on the nature of the discipline (and, by implication, the training required):

I would also suggest that there is a difference between gearing up to take part in a discipline and simply pursuing a given research project.  So, e.g., one could trace the influence and reception of the Beowulf story in, e.g., modern English-language film and fiction, without acquiring the original language of the poem.  But, to my mind, that wouldn’t make one a scholar in the field of Beowulf and Norse poetry.  Still a scholar, mind you, but not in that field…But I would think still that someone gearing up to be a NT scholar (as distinguished from a cultural historian of modern life or an analyst of religious life and developments in contemporary societies, or religion-in-media studies), i.e., someone who wishes to engage the NT and early Christianity needs, at a minimum, the languages complement that I’ve talked about.

Larry’s point on the hypothetical Beowulf example is well taken. It could also be the case that such a hypothetical scholar has far more expertise in Anglo-Saxon culture etc and couldn’t really pursue a career in biblical studies. However, a lot of reception is also on the nature of biblical reception which has wider significance and, if anything, there is a danger of underselling the discipline if we don’t pursue such an approach.

Whether we like it nor not, the Bible is the most influential collection in western culture and beyond, turning up in all sorts of unexpected places, and understanding the importance of its reception and influence is a significant task. Something like Yvonne Sherwood’s work on the ‘Liberal Bible’ (a dominant mode of popular exegesis since the early modern period) would be a prime example and the sort of thing and it is both clearly ‘biblical studies’ and of value across disciplines. David Gunn’s book on Judges is, I understand, likewise viewed as an important contribution to the ways we understand the history of ideas. In terms of the NT, Paul and the philosophers has a long history (raising the question of why Pauline themes have resonated in western thought) and people like Ward Blanton are operating both within the discipline and interacting with other disciplines. Because of the significance of the Bible in history, the reception of the Bible/NT opens up important areas of research, such as how they/it have shaped e.g. gender, ethnicity, politics, etc, i.e. understandings of what it means to be human. Analysis of the importance of the Bible in culture and history is actually something distinctive the discipline can offer well beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries and in a general intellectual environment where certain academics outside the discipline think the study of the Bible is a waste of time or are ignorant of its influence. I suspect this line of defence/attack will be important for the future of the discipline in the university. A biblical scholar with a broader training like this could offer a great deal. And it may simply be the case that a career in biblical studies could potentially be more diverse in years to come, particularly if Arts and Humanities become more integrated.

[Another aside: more traditional approaches could also sell themselves to the university extremely effectively than has been done (certainly in my experience). Are not the quest for the historical Jesus, the emergence of Judaism and Christianity, origins of Israel etc. massive topics for the humanities…?]

I think Larry’s definition of the discipline of NT studies certainly works for a previous era of scholarship, and it still almost certainly reflects the dominant approach at present. However, I don’t think it is universally the case and there are signs that things are changing. Clearly the academic boundaries are somewhat arbitrary and a certain pragmatism takes over (put simply: the discipline partially reflects what is happening among those who identify as a biblical scholar, what is happening at conferences, journals etc). Places like Glasgow, Sheffield, Bristol have a strong reception historical angle and I could easily see forthcoming jobs being in such areas (incidentally, I’m not saying this will be the case) as, I think, the present biblical studies post is at Leeds and we advertised a previous post along such lines. As I mentioned previously, major conferences (e.g. SBL), journals etc are now reflecting this trend. My guess is that for the majority of jobs in the discipline, the languages, esp. ancient ones, are still crucial, though I should add that at certain departments have had people go on to teach in other disciplines, as well as other areas of RS&T, and no doubt because of the nature of reception history (though the overlap between ancient history etc and traditional biblical studies would be an obvious analogy).

In short, what might count as something akin to an ‘official’ definition of discipline, and the training required for specific theses, can be so much bigger and maybe much more ambitious about its future.

Appendix: Minor Points (look away if my pedantry isn’t for you):

Larry wrote: ‘post-colonial approaches in biblical studies, and I note that this is heavily done in English (hmm, one of those European languages that I suggest is important).’ Yes, I agree. I would like to see it done more in history (including ancient) because I think the sometimes implicit separation of literature and history is problematic and postcolonialism (including, or perhaps especially in, biblical studies) can sometimes be treated as if it should be a literary phenomenon. But this is off topic now and another issue.

Larry also wrote: ‘the adjective ”ideological” applies to all of us.  There are simply different “ideologies”, a fancy term for different concerns, outlooks, values, etc.  So, nothing is gained by referring to this or that view as “ideological”.’ Agreed on ideology applying to all. Not sure it is all that fancy as far as academic words go (and Eagleton’s sort-of-intro to ideology discusses a number of common/popular uses whilst outlining the intricacies of ideology throughout the book). I still think it is a helpful term to describe certain positions and what may be dictating arguments etc. But I suppose this is no big issue for present purposes.

Larry says something obviously right about a place called ‘The University of Edinburgh’ and its intellectual resources. But, following Josephus’ retelling of the fate of the fourth kingdom in Daniel, and as a Sheffield propagandist worried that a certain other Scottish university has also come out well on this post, you can find out on Larry’s blog. 😉

James Crossley


10 responses to “More on Widening the Definition of NT Studies

  1. Hmmm. Sounds suspiciously close to my suggestions, although without the polemic and with a focus on Reception History. Nicely done.

  2. Who is imitating whom? Who is being ‘original’? Irrelevant. Things have been moving this way for a while from the Antipodes to Sheffield, despite some people not noticing as their heads are buried in the sands. And while the arts and humanities are integrating in the better universities, I think it might be helpful if all departments of NT, theology and schools of ‘divinity’, expand to include all religions and (non)beliefs.

  3. And ps, perfectly incisive post on the subject – prophetic. Long live the revolutionary evolution (I think).

  4. He’s a very naughty boy and if he doesn’t watch out he’ll start sounding pompously like the blooming bee wubblewoo free. I don’t know – those grounded little birds are all the same really. Cheeky b’s.

  5. Pingback: The Closing of Larry Hurtado’s Mind « Stalin's Moustache

  6. I have alerted our learned emeritus friend to this ‘discussion’ provoked by Larry. Like our respectable annonymous friend, first comment above, and myself, our learned friend too, doesn’t understand the fuss. He is ‘very unimpressed’ that there is a debate at all and thinks it ludicrous that Larry should dictate such a narrow Victorian view of what people should do and how they should do it. All decent scholarship around the world, our learned friend says, has been moving in new and broader directions, without Larry, for years. I remember the culture shock I got a my first BNTC. Since then I’ve skipped a couple, and after the ‘drinks’ reception, managed to avoid this year’s BNTC entirely.

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  8. Pingback: Discussion Continues about New Testament Study, Languages and Methods | Exploring Our Matrix

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