A Future for NT Studies?
From time to time it’s well for any field of scholarly activity to step back and try for some perspective from which to assess where things have been, where they are, and where they might be heading. Indeed, it’s good to ask (as “Byron from Toronto” has in a couple of recent comments) whether there is still a cogent rationale for the field at all. In my plenary address to the British NT Society annual meeting (BNTC, in St. Andrews, 29-31 August), I’ll be doing a bit of this: “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in NT Studies”. (For the programme of the conference, click here, and scroll down for the PDF of the programme.)
But, to take a slightly different approach, let’s consider why there is (and should continue to be) a field of study, a discipline, of NT Studies. It’s not practical here to do more than state some things briefly. “Byron” claims that NT scholars are simply “chasing their own tails.” That may characterize some work(ers) perhaps, but as a generalization is an unfair, and uninformed, view of things.
Let’s begin by noting that there are a number of heuristic concerns bundled together in the field. Some scholars focus more on the religious/theological content of NT writings/writers, the traditional focus of biblical studies, with a view to contributing to the larger theological task (and preaching), and/or simply to seek greater clarity and understanding of what those first Christians really believed, and how they lived in and out of their faith. Given that all we have are various texts that give us snapshots of these matters, it’s understandable that it takes a lot of effort and expertise to handle these texts competently, and that scholars disagree and so have to keep on reasoning, exploring and trying to make some progress in these aims. And the state of scholarly debate/discussion shows that there isn’t agreement on all matters, and that there continues to be justification for trying further.
For over 25 years, for example, I’ve been involved (with others) in probing for greater understanding of earliest Christian religious beliefs, focusing especially on the ways that Jesus figured in beliefs and religious practices, and what effects this had on early Christian views of God. This has involved challenging some earlier widely-assumed notions, and (at least to judge from reviews) has contributed to some significantly revised views on these matters among many scholars. (See, e.g., Larry W. Hurtado, God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.)
Second, for over 200 years, many scholars in the field have been concerned with historical questions, and there are many, about the NT writings (e.g., how they came to be written, what the authors actually meant, how these writings were transmitted, how they came to be treated as scripture and then formed a canon, etc.). These questions too remain less-than-fully-explored and differences in scholarly views remain, thus permitting avenues of further exploration and analysis. In my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), for example, I’ve drawn attention to the importance of noting the physical/visual properties of the earliest Christian manuscripts of biblical and other texts, drawing on data usually addressed by papyrologists, illustrating how these data can inform wider historical inquiries about early Christianity.
Third, the questions that scholars bring to the NT writings continue to develop and multiply. For example, especially in the late 20th century, some scholars took up questions about the social makeup of earliest Christianity, and so probed NT writings for what light they might shed on this. Scholars explored the prosopography of NT writings (i.e., who the named people are and what kinds of people they seem to have been in terms of social status, wealth, gender, etc.).
To address these sorts of historical questions adequately requires a certain competence in a formidable body of collateral/contextual information. E.g., we need to know a lot about Roman-era society, religion, geography, taxation, dress, sexual attitudes/practices, dwellings, travel, letter-writing, and much more. Then, we need competently to bring all this to bear on the NT writings and what information they provide. Given the complexity of competences involved, nowadays this inquiry really demands collegial effort and gratefully drawing upon the expertise of scholars in fields that are for NT studies collateral (but the focus for those scholars).
Moreover, from time to time it’s important that assumptions and widely-held conclusions be re-tested and subjected to critical scrutiny. The result can be further confirmation or a showing up of fallacies. My own PhD thesis, for example, tested (and found dubious) what was then a widely-held view about the textual alignment of an important early manuscript in the Gospel of Mark (subsequently published: Larry W. Hurtado, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981].)
There remain (surprisingly, perhaps) in fact avenues of possible research not yet adequately explored. I’m presently supervising about five PhD students, each of whom is researching a question that either hasn’t been addressed, or hasn’t been addressed with the refinement of approach being taken.
So, to put it mildly, not all NT studies is “chasing tails”, or redundant work. The field remains alive with interesting, sometimes challenging, explorations, and there continue to be lively controversies and lines of analysis and inquiry that seem promising. To be sure, PhD students often have to probe deeply to identify viable questions and lines of investigation that can lead to a successful PhD thesis. That requires moving from what the textbooks recite to more in-depth exploration. And it helps to have experienced supervisors on hand who can prod and make suggestions about such matters.
As many of us complain about, the news media and a lot of internet traffic focus on sensational ideas (most of them goofy or over-simplified for mass sales/attention), and this is tiring for those of us invested in serious scholarly work. But my point is that this serious scholarly work in fact often produces new insights and understanding of the NT writings, the early religious movement that they reflect, the ancient believers and their historical setting, the ways these writings were transmitted, and many other matters. These developments don’t get featured often in popular media, but they are sometimes substantial. Stay tuned.