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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The future of NT studies...

UPDATE: further remarks by Jim West, Doug Chaplin and Michael Helfield (toshunka, blog on early Judaism and related areas).

[NOTE UPDATES] ...at least in the UK, though certainly not exclusively. The following is not about condemning anything, just a description and kind of prediction. The following is the sort of thing I can't 100% but is worth speculating about. So what better place than a blog?

It's fair to say that NT studies in the UK is fairly traditional. By this I mean the fairly standard theological and/or historical criticism - incidentally, as I've tried to point out in the comments, I include conventional literary criticism. By this I do not necessarily mean this sort of approach is bad (I'd be condemning at least half my own stuff if I did). At least in terms of discussions I've had with others (for what that may be worth) and even the debates on the blogs, when people (from a theological and/or historical critical perspective) talk of the good and the great the heroes tend to be from the traditional perspective and little knowledge of some very smart people from different, non-traditional areas in NT studies. On the other hand, people from non-traditional perspectives are well aware of the heroes in more traditional areas. I make no judgment here but it seems to reflect the interests of the discipline.

Mike Bird somewhere on his blog said something about being broad or more specific. Broad effectively means Paul and Jesus. On one level this is right: to be expert in both, at least in terms of theological and or/historical criticism and/or fairly standard literary criticism, requires reading fantastic amounts of secondary literature, sometimes on some very precise verses or words (think about how much has been written on the word 'sinner'). This, in its own terms, can reasonably be called 'broad'. On another level, the primary literature isn't so much, I suppose (gospels, a handful of letters). The reason for this is obvious: the central texts of Christianity. However, I wonder if this could provide the seeds of not necessarily the downfall of historical criticism but at least the cultural centrality of Christian texts could lead to the emergence of new approaches to the NT.

Here's the speculation... The Bible obviously remains culturally popular but, a few exceptions aside, the majority of traditional criticism is limited in its popular appeal and there is some degree of irrelevancy. Now, remember I am not making a moral judgment here, I am just speculating a wee bit. Moreover, popular demands and irrelevancy should not necessarily dictate what people study and write about. But, the limited interest and relative irrelevancy of traditional criticism could lead the way to further inroads from (say) reception history interests and the less esoteric end of critical theory. The Bible is seriously important in politics and popular culture right now in so many ways and this is not getting studied to anything like the extent that we see in traditional criticism. On the other hand, how long can the NT be studied in the traditional historical sense? Will it soon be done to death?

In one sense it seems (and I am certainly no expert on this) that elements of critical theory have, rightly or wrongly, more or less bypassed NT scholars (though some NT scholars are now becoming engaged in these debates) and gone straight to Paul and effectively debated with Paul (e.g. Žižek). Bible and politics would be another area where biblical scholars have been largely bypassed but things may be changing (cf. Berlinerblau, Secular Bible). Politics and popular culture is a massive area waiting to be researched by more and more and more biblical scholars and there is plenty of material just waiting... It is certainly justifiable in terms of research grants. I'd also add to this my own recent interests in the ideological examination of scholarship in terms of current politics and social context.

BUT, on the other hand, are the universities prepared to appoint such people right now? Thinking of the UK, would the main departments make such changes? Would students feel comfortable doing a PhD in a non-traditional area given the very competitive job market? While there are definitely exceptions (Glasgow, Bristol, and, of course, Sheffield immediately come to mind), it is difficult to see NT studies in university departments being anything other than traditional. Again in terms of the UK, the British NT Conference remains a pretty traditional conference and unsurprisingly reflects the interests of British academia. Again there are the rumblings of change with at least one session on reception history. Though, in addition to the main seminars and andmain papers, and if I remember rightly, the short papers remain constantly traditional.

The interesting thing is that some of those places I mentioned have some young scholars (well, young in terms of scholarship). I said a few months back that it would be interesting to see what the British NT Conference will look like in the coming decades and this was the kind of thing I was talking about. There are some prominent (relatively) young scholars coming through so if they become part of the establishment then we may see things change.

This is no rant about the state of the discipline. I re-stress: I am only really describing and predicting. These are some thoughts reflecting the debates I've had with a couple of people over the past couple of weeks, months and even years. Am I making sense and (if so) am I (/they) wide of the mark?


Blogger Jim said...

I interact a bit with your suggestion here:


January 10, 2008

Blogger Deane said...

I'll only talk from my own experience of biblical scholars doing literary critical approaches. A good proportion of the biblical scholars I have encountered seem to be able to remain within the fold of 'Christianity', very broadly speaking, by avoiding the historical-trad questions altogether and retreating into the literary qualities of the text. The aesthetic qualities of the text are then pursued energetically - with such enthusiasm in fact, that it sometimes seems to be a displaced evangelical fervour. It's as though, while the old reasons for doing biblical studies (usually, their Christian faith) have dissipated, now the supposed literary qualities of the text receive the same level of attention. Sometimes, of course, their literary criticism manages to read the text against the grain. But even when this happens, the text is read against the grain with such enthusiasm, that that old displaced evangelical zeal seems to be lurking in the background again. The text becomes a 'rich resource' to read against the grain, polysemantic, generative of many possibilities. It's the old Ijaz of the scriptures, with a new twist. Revealingly, the subject for lit crit will usually be something that stands a safe distance from Jesus. The subjects which will typically -- should I say, most easily -- receive the most attention are obvious: the Old Testament is fair game; Paul is good for a bit of lit crit; and if we approach the Gospels we can always concentrate on those damn redactors.

If I were to generalise, which I steadfastly refuse to do, I would guess that biblical scholars with Christian backgrounds and onetime fervour and zeal are fairly common around the blocks. That's probably why most of the lit crit 'readings' of Jesus that do exist make him out to be a wonderful precursor of feminism or postcolonial ideals. What's with that? Conversely, you're damn unlikely to pick up your next copy of JETS and read an article entitled "Jesus' Crucifixion as Žižekian Fist-Fucking".

... Mind you, I may well be out of touch with the offerings of JETS these days.

January 11, 2008

Blogger J. Matthew Barnes said...


Great post. Thanks! Here in America things seem to have already shifted so that the historical-critical people are becoming obsolete. Other methods dominate now: theological, literary, idealogical (liberation, feminist, queer, etc), sociological, reader response, reception history, etc, etc.

I would argue though that there is room for all of us to not only exist, but thrive. I know that what I am about to write is too idyllic and my hands will barely press the keys because it is going to be sappy...but...

Wouldn't it be great if we could all pool our academic resources and work on the issues that arise from our few primary sources together? This would help alleviate some of the tension between the different camps. The ideological interpreters, who are constantly accused of not being historical enough, could work with the historian. The literary critic could pool resources with the sociologist to help understand the texts better. The historical-critical people, who are always accused of being irrelevant, could work together with the reader-response theorists.

However, this isn't going to happen anytime soon. The answer to Rodney King's famous question is a resounding: "NO! We can't all get along!" So my guess is that there will be pockets of each of these sorts of interpreters throughout the US (if not the UK and the Continent). Different institutions will prefer different types of scholars...and maybe this isn't such a bad thing after all...

January 11, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

"queer"? I don't think that's correct is it?

January 11, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Deane: well I suppose my fisting essay will have to be sent off to Novum Testamentum. And congratulations on providing the best title ever seen on this blog.

I agree with what you say about literary criticism, at least in its conventional form, including the ideological function (keeps Jesus at a safe distance). But for that reason it could easily be classified with traditional approaches (theological, hist-crit etc). Certainly, the more conventional 'final form' reading would not be any hindrance for a university post and such approaches are very common in the traditional approaches I mentioned. It is still open to the issue of irrelancy etc. that I mentioned.

I'm perhaps thinking (you can see how much of this is off the top of my head) of the use of the Bible in contemporary culture and the use also of scholarship as primary source material (indeed why not look at contemporary post-col. Jesus or feminist Jesus or whatever as part of modern culture?). This puts a big gap between interest in 'original meaning' or even 'literary value' and focuses on its contemporary use with little concern for those older questions.

(J.) Matthew: thanks and just to say utopian thought is always welcome here!

It would be very interesting intself to see if the hist-crit focused has shifted in the States. Again, the traditional approaches I'm thinking of could include some, if not all, of what you mention (theological, sociological and literary certainly).

The happy mix about which you speak is indeed honourable and something I've sort of advocated in the past. In terms of traditional historical criticism a good case could be made for a range of perspectives producing some useful results (though maybe not perfect matrimonial bliss, the wedding of theological, literary, sociological, historical is now common enough - would that be fair to say?). But there is truth in what you say: clearly some of these people are NOT getting along.

But what I'm also getting at is another growing area which may have little or nothing to say to the older readings and I'm thinking of a form of reception history that looks at the use of the Bible in contemporary culture with little care for truth claims and 'correct readings' etc.

As you can see some of this is not clearly thought out and the boundaries are hardly clear cut but interesting thoughts one and all.

January 11, 2008

Blogger J. Matthew Barnes said...

James: Thanks for your response! The reception of the Bible is something that fascinates me (a person trained as a historical critic). And as someone who is devoted to churchlife, how the Bible is received today is also of primary importance to me.

Steph: Check this out!

January 11, 2008

Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

James, thanks for some thought-provoking questions. While I agree with the positive side of what you say about many newer ways of studying, I still have a soft spot for historically sensitive criticism. I've argued this in more detail here.

January 11, 2008

Blogger Deane said...

I guess you're interested in a greater focus on how the Bible acts as an instrument in culture. I can only agree with you that the importance of this today is as great as ever.

So where can it be done in academia? I often pop over to our university library and scan the 'recent arrivals'. A year or two ago I was astounded to see the complete 'Left Behind' series sitting on the shelves. Chatting with a librarian, it turned out to be requested by the Political Studies department. I'd say they and the cultural studies people would do a bit of this. I wonder if a biblical studies person who did this would be told to go to the cultural studies department? Were the first biblical studies folk who did literary studies told to piss off to the English dept? I don't know.

As a further development of your suggestion, and just thinking through it, what follows if one accepts there is always a dialectic between the historical meaning(s) of the text and current political/social/cultural interests. I'm thinking of Nadia Abu El-Haj's recent (and slightly controversial) work on Israeli archaeology. She points out how current day interests (Israeli-nationalist interests) engaged with the discipline of 'biblical' archaeology, and how that both altered the discipline itself and the 'facts on the ground'. What I take from her book is the impossibility of reading the historic text itself (the Bible) apart from the modern-day interests, and vice versa. For those interested in the semantic value of the Bible rather than its use, it may be pointed out that, if we ignore the instrumental uses of the Bible, we understand less well how our historic and literary readings of the text have been shaped.

January 11, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

Well I wouldn't perpetuate that term - its usage in that context has its origins in prejudice. "Gay" is more frequent in my small world.

January 11, 2008

Blogger Deane said...

Hi Steph,

'Queer Studies' has taken over from Les/Bi/Gay/etc Studies as the more usual term, since the 1990s. Judith Butler is sometimes called the 'inventor' of the term, but the substance of the field goes at least back to Foucault. In academic circles, 'queer' is preferred to 'gay', etc, in describing the theoretical field, because it is thought to avoid the heteronormative binaries that terms such as 'gay' (versus 'straight') fail to challenge. One of the main trajectories in Queer Theory is a critical questioning ('queering') of cultural ideas about sexuality, gender, etc.

Incidentally, the Gender Studies dept at Victoria University offers a course in "Queer Studies", so it must be ok.

January 12, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

Hi to you - Were Foucault or Judith Butler homosexual? You guessed it was the same me and now I know who you are ... but I don't advocate Victoria. In any case my former "mentor" no longer has a post there. He's moved on and the department has changed.

January 12, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Deane: yes, that's exactly right: 'a greater focus on how the Bible acts as an instrument in culture.'

As to where it can be done, I can speak only for the UK really but those I mentioned to cover such things (Sheff, Glasgow, Bristol - maybe not quite the same but even Oxford have a reception history seminar). In fear of getting partisan, I've taught on Left Behind at Sheff. But overall I suspect you are right: politics are definitely interested in this sort of stuff and the dedication to those traditional areas in biblical studies does not necessarily lead to an analysis of Bible in culutre. That is a huge area and could be exploited in biblical studies. As there are people in the British scene coming through, this is why I wondered what the scene would look like in decades to come.

As for the links between the historical meanings of texts and current interests, I couldn't agree more (cf. the comments I made about ideological location of scholarship). The examle you give highlights this very well. I will say much more about all this in the months to come (including Abu el-Haj).

January 12, 2008

Blogger Erin said...

fascinating stuff.
I would love to read a history of the church and/or scripture as examined through Foucault's archaeology of idea systems. Of course a book I enjoy and a whole new department are quite different! Scripture as cultural fetish? Propaganda? hmmm..

January 30, 2008


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