A Decade in...NT/Biblical Studies!
Reviews of the year and decades are common in TV discussions of pop music and TV and are often cheap and nasty (though there are exceptions). So, you might argue that decades are just constructs etc and we could start at any point etc. But what better way to show that NT/biblical scholarship is as much embedded in cultural context as TV and pop music?
Oh, and just because something is distinctive to a decade, don't make it right or wrong.
The following are just some thoughts on trends and developments in NT studies/biblical studies over the past decade. There are plenty of other developments of course (blogging and online scholarship, gospel of Judas, more interest in GThomas and not simply as containing sources for understanding the historical Jesus) but here are merely a few...
One of the most notable things of the 00s has been the ‘secular’/atheist versus theological/believer/evangelical divide. This past decade has seen some of the most confessional or conservative books hit the mainstream in ways that (collectively) they would not in previous decades and have resulted in plenty of discussion and publicity. Perhaps the most striking example is Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God. Who will ever forget his raising the possibility that the dead saints of Jerusalem could really have risen from the dead? More seriously, Bauckham’s work on eyewitnesses has been another major example, as has the resurgence of the idea of the every early deification of Jesus. On the other side, there have been some high profile ‘secular’ and/or atheist approaches, such as Berlinerblau’s Secular Bible and Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies, with some fiery debates on the SBL Forum. Towards the end we saw the emergence of the Jesus Project with the involvement of some people who would question, or indeed deny, the existence of Jesus. Whether the ‘non-existence of Jesus’ gets taken up in the mainstream, or indeed by the Jesus Project, remains to be seen but it is lurking in the background of the mainstream in a way it has not before, at least in recent history. It seems clear enough that this rhetorically polarised scholarship is product partly of the major cultural debates over religion and atheism, esp. in the States, and the rise of both Intelligent Design and New Atheism. Contrast all this with debates over the Jesus Seminar which was more often than not was more polarised due to (very) liberal Christian versus the rest of Christendom (a exaggerate, I know, but you get the point.
At the end of the decade it seems that ‘memory’ and ‘cultural memory’ has become one of the dominant ways of discussing the development of biblical tradition and beyond. In terms of historical Jesus and earliest Christian history, and at the end of the last millennium, Crossan was a prominent example of someone pushing issues surrounding memory in The Birth of Earliest Christianity, and such issues were developed in a number of different ways. I think there are parallels with the ways in which form criticism was discussed, though on the issue of memory the conservative wing is, I think, presently in the ascendency in contrast to the heyday of form criticism. I caricature but... On the one hand, memory can be used (academically) to discuss the ways in which a given cultural context constructs the past with a range of influences which can say more about different subsequent cultural remembrance (just think of the mixed up ‘cultural memories’ surrounding the contemporary portrayals of the Nativity scene). On the other hand, memory has been used in a more conservative way in historical Jesus studies as a means of getting back to Jesus (memories, it is argued, tend to preserve the particular things about the individual or group). Think of work by Bauckham and Dunn, to name two high profile examples. For a more mediating position, let us never forget Rafael Rodriguez.
Memory is really the major distinctive feature of historical Jesus studies (again, see Bauckham and Dunn). In terms of a ‘type’ of Jesus (eschatological prophet, cynic-like philosopher) this past decade hasn’t had the high profile controversies of the 80s and 90s and it is perhaps telling that other (and related) controversies of note about the historical Jesus involve questions about, for instance, the resurrection and history in memory. In terms of the content of Jesus’ message, I’m not sure anything particularly distinctive has been high profile this decade and major scholars have been giving (apparently) more weight to older positions. Perhaps there has been more on social history. But even here this is more a working out of positions from the 80s and 90s rather than any spectacular advance. Some of us (i.e. me) would like to see more emphasis on historical Jesus questions in terms of broader social and economic change but I think this decade has further shown how scholars are more interested in focusing on descriptions of the individual, of the early church and of the social history, with social history, at least in historical Jesus studies, being more interested in illuminating the content of Jesus’ teaching, rather than explaining historical change. That said, a potentially distinctive move involves some of those associated with the Jesus Seminar becoming more associated with the Redescribing Christian Origins group where mythmaking rather than HJ has now become the key emphasis. But the interest in historical Jesus seems not to have died down and this past decade saw, of course, the launch of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.
As implied, there have been some developments in *reading* Jesus and NT scholarship in historical and cultural contexts, including ideological critiques, and beyond the old debates about ‘you’re liberal...well, you’re conservative...etc’ (though they remain, of course). While gathering momentum in the 90s, there is a more widespread awareness of the Nazi and fascist scholarship (see books and articles by Heschel, Casey, Head, Keeley and others) and the influence of such scholarship, even though this can sometimes be abused (e.g. the unfortunate and inaccurate comparisons of Nazi Jesuses with the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar!). The history of NT scholarship has been further analyzed in terms of quests and come up with a sort-of new idea, i.e. there are no new ideas. Ok, I caricature a little, but the once widely accepted idea of distinct quests (No Quest, Third Quest etc) with new and distinctive ideas is being hit hard (most famously Dale Allison’s critique – but there is more out there and more to come) as it seems much of what we might have thought as new has been said before. If you want a suggestion, I think it might be more fruitful to analyze the history of scholarship in terms of historical contexts and how scholarship functioned and functions as products of its time.
Perhaps because historical Jesus studies hasn’t said too much new in terms of the content of Jesus’ teaching (at least in high profile scholarship), and with an awareness that not much new has been said, that there has been a turn to the analysis of historical Jesus scholarship in books such as Sean Keeley, Racializing Jesus, Bill Arnal, The Symbolic Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, Misunderstood Jew, Ward Blanton, Displacing Christian Origins, my Jesus in an Age of Terror etc. I have also been working with a project at Oslo run by Halvor Moxnes where the historical, political and ideological contexts of Jesus and NT scholarship has been the focus with edited volumes led by Moxnes on Jesus beyond Nationalism and ideas about, and constructions of, ‘homeland’ and ‘Holy Land’ published/on their way.
As a special treat for certain readers and bloggers, I should note that there *might* have been a notable shift in who supports what in discussions of the Synoptic Problem. Q scholarship is still going strong and there have been plenty of major publications and reconstructions of Christian origins using Q. However, and I stress that this is more my perception than any scientific proof, but I wonder if an anti-Q movement has been gathering pace of late, particularly with the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis. Even Maurice Casey’s Aramaic Approach to Q advocated a ‘Q’ in a very qualified and chaotic sense and with some sympathies for Goulder’s critique of Q and some hostility towards a fixed Q. I mentioned ‘perception’ because I am increasingly finding people agnostic about the whole issue and up for being persuaded. The end of the next decade might tell us a little more about who stands where on what.
Some of the old debates concerning the New Perspective have not gone way in Pauline studies, though there seems to be a further, though qualified, return of Old Perspective ideas. The other big debate in Pauline studies (and other areas of NT) is the role of empire and emperor cult etc, partly a product, no doubt, of the hardly ignorable impact of a Bush-led US empire, though a more hearty dose of postcolonial critique and/or Gramsci might have helped this (as started to happen in a more sustained way towards the end of the decade). Strangely weaving in and out of OP, NP, empire and power in Pauline studies was a partly pre-C21 movement in the study of Paul in continental philosophy. Here I’m thinking of Taubes, Badiou, Agamben, Žižek etc, and issues relating to Paul, universalism and Marxism. I cite this as a movement for the 00s *in biblical studies* because it has become a notable area in development, including collaborations between biblical scholars and critical theorists. Indeed this might be part of other trends where different ‘fringe’ topics have almost made their way into the mainstream after being used elsewhere in biblical studies and, of course, prior to that, in the humanities. The occasional use of postcolonial criticism in mainstream scholarship might be another obvious example, though Sugirtharajah’s work is being described as ‘still at the margins’.
Reception history has certainly caught on and may be one of the major areas where biblical studies will flourish in future given the sheer amount of material waiting to be analysed. There is the approach more associated with historical theology, esp. following Luz’s Matthew commentary (see e.g. Thiselton, Bockmuehl, Riches), a sub-category of which might be something like finding insight into the correct or original interpretation. Another sub-category might be a more sustained focus the role of readers or context in more unorthodox approaches to historical theology, outside the more ‘canonical’ tradition (e.g. Rowland). Then there is the anything goes approach (Lyons/Okland/others collaboration on Revelation is a recent example – and Revelation has become a notably popular choice of text), anything from cinema to pop music, from party politics to opera. Further methodological issues have also gathered pace: influence of text, influence of context, influence of tradition (and note they are similar sorts of questions which are asked, or ought to be asked of Christian origins). Why has reception history gathered pace? Maybe because there is only so much to be said with historical criticism of the NT after all this time (not really that big a collection of texts), maybe some people want to avoid the difficult faith questions raised by historical criticism, maybe it is a notable way of defending relevance and the dreaded ‘impact’. And this brings me on to something else...
I don’t like predicting the future but I will give an exception which might be particular to the UK and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. At the end of the decade, the humanities are not going to be supported anything like the way the sciences are. In the UK, the present New Labour govt are going to slash funding and the Tories (who may well be in power within six months) will be, if anything, worse. STEM subjects and those subjects which make an impact on society and culture (and that will be defined in terms of making a positive contribution to a certain definition of what society and culture ought to be) will be prioritized. This is not the greatest news for those who do not see education as a means of turning the population into middle management or selling the most popular subjects. So where will biblical studies fit into all this? On the one hand, there is a massive amount of confusion and ignorance over what biblical scholars do and biblical studies may well see itself as a target over the next decade. On the other hand, it can make the case for easily being one of the most ‘relevant’ subject areas (think of presidential elections in the US, the history of art, literature, cinema, the whole science versus religion debates, anything...). I don’t like this model of competing for what is deemed ‘relevant’ at all but this may be how things turn out in the next decade.
But let’s end on a happy note, and this especially for you, Geoff Hudson. This was the decade where NT Wrong came along. Can anyone top that in the 10s?
That's it, NY Eve...