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?