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Friday, July 11, 2008

Reception history: some speculation

Dedicated to John Lyons and Bishop Wrong, seeking out reception where angels fear to tread.

Reception history is becoming the next big thing in NT studies, or at least it seems that way to me. It may also be the future for the simple reason of how much interpretation of the same small collection of texts can be done without coming close to exhausting the options or doomed to repeating old arguments over and over (as Dale Allison showed)? The big advantage is that reception history has masses of material waiting to be exploited. Now, if we define this a bit more, how about two broad types of reception history, as several colleagues are now talking about… 1. The semi-official church based versions, something like Calvin’s view on this or that passage, Luther, Augustine, Liberation theologies, and so on, with some concern for a ‘correct interpretation’ of the biblical texts. 2. Whatever else is out there, irrespective of true meaning of the biblical texts and orthodoxy, but more how biblical texts influence, are used and are influenced (e.g. films, music, literature, popular culture and so on). And, yes, I know that, like most definitions, this definition will break down and people will cross over into both camps and one could (and often should) be influencing the other etc and so on but in general terms there are enough people now who would generally practice one or the other.

So now for some speculation…

What would this mean for the future of NT studies/biblical studies? Category 1 seems to be a continuation of traditional theology and would presumably have no problem surviving in church based contexts and theology departments. Presumably Category 2 could survive in church based context but not quite so easily if it is concerned less with theological truths (or whatever). It could obviously survive in a conventional university context but as what? If (say) 20-30 years in the future reception history was dominant and more and more people were looking at Category 2 (sounds like a disease or drug or something, sorry about that) then wouldn’t NT/biblical studies be more like cultural studies and/or critical theory? On the one hand, this could mean the end of NT/biblical studies as we know, with academics scattered around different university departments (film studies, English, French, religious studies etc). That certainly could be very interesting, though personally, I have found it much more beneficial being in a department where, for all the different interests, the common interest in biblical studies makes it far easier to learn all sorts of helpful things. On the other hand, and this seems more likely to me, biblical studies as a discipline could simply look very different in the future and could survive as a discipline. Another reason I say ‘more likely’ is because there is a massive biblical studies network. Most obvious is SBL and the recent issues with AAR might show how strong SBL and biblical studies actually is. Another reason I say ‘more likely’ is that there is obviously no collection of literature so deeply rooted and continually influential, or at least continually used, than the Bible in ‘the West’, not even Shakespeare (and even in ‘the West’ his influence has its limits). There has been a clear interest in the use of the Bible (and, of course, the Qur’an – scripture studies anyone???*) in different departments and disciplines, from politics to critical theory. Study of the reception of the Bible is currently at least pretty crucial I’d have thought.

How about that for a not-too-subtle ideological defence of careers?

I think Hector Avalos said something about the scholar as hero, finding a problem and then solving it (this is a blog so I don’t have to check the reference, right?). Well, that’s what I’m doing here, though un-heroically not solving the problem, more leaving it open…

*Sort of relevant, I just noticed this via Sean Winter: New Abrahamic Religions Chair at Oxford University.


Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Seems like a great escape from the earliest history.

July 12, 2008

Anonymous Andrew Bourne BA(Leeds) said...

My former University (somewhere in West Yorkshire) appears to be following your second interpretation as Biblical Studies as they believe that the present is more important than the past, not that they will repeat any mistakes !!!

July 13, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

Why is it that of all the possible combinations of approaches to the Bible, the historical approach is the one that always gets eliminated? The theological approach is the one that dominates since time immemorial, even in the so-called historical study of the Bible.

If you follow decent scientific method, it is possible to establish certain things about the historical Jesus beyond reasonable doubt. But this is avoided and I would even say suppressed in historical Jesus studies. There are rules in present-day scholarship and no one examines these rules. The most effective and powerful system in the world is the one that operates unconsciously (that is a paraphrase of something Kierkegaard said). Scholars are bent on eliminating exonerating evidence for Jewish leaders and Judas in the death of Jesus, even though the evidence is right there under their collective noses. No matter what fancy new names anyone gives these studies, it is still rather indecent of scholars to suppress discussion of all this. As Shakespeare complained in "The Tempest", people love filling the Bible with new contents.

Leon Zitzer

July 14, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Andrew, if the present is based on the past, then surely it is important to understand the past, otherwise your present could be based on lies. And how would you know what 'mistakes' had been made?

Leon, what makes you think that people with a particular theological/political/historical bent, didn't 'bend' what you describe as the scientific evidence?

July 15, 2008

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