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On Being a NT Scholar

July 17, 2010

A few days back I promised to respond soon to a reader’s request that I say something about what it is like being a scholar of NT/Christian Origins.   (As I recall, the reader was doing/contemplating graduate studies in the subject.)

The first thing I want to say is that it is now increasingly difficult to generalize, as the field is now very diverse (which is the basis “story” I tell in my article on 20th Century NT studies posted on the “Essays, etc.” section of this blog site).  As recently as 50 years ago, the field was dominantly white, male, Protestant (liberal), and European (esp. German-speaking).  The dominant method was a “historical-critical” approach, but often combined with an explicit theological interest and agenda (Bultmann, Kasemann, et al. prime examples).  Likewise, esp. in North America and the UK, there is now a wide institutional diversity, with scholars in the subject in public and private universities as well as in seminaries and theological colleges.  So, it’s hard now to say what life is like, as it will be so diverse.

My own academic service involved an intial appointment at a theological college, but for over 30 years I have been in major university departments in which “theology” and “religion” were engaged in an intellectual context enriched by the colleagues in a variety of other departments and disciplines.  And these university departments have also comprised colleagues of widely varying personal stances on religious matters.  This I have found highly stimulating.

One of the potentially positive emphases in current intellectual/academic circles is to disclose (and reckon with) one’s own social, political, and relegious/philosophical “location”, on the (correct) premise that even the most rigorous scholarship is done by human beings, shaped by their own personal experience, orientation, psychology, strengths and weaknesses.  I.e., all knowledge is “embodied” knowledge, knowledge produced and held by historically-conditioned human beings.  (This can produce some counter-productive things, too, e.g., what I call “Oprah scholarship”, i.e., scholars who tell human-interest accounts of themselves as a way of getting attention for themselves and their books.  This obviously works, but I find it a bit tawdry. )

As I have been shaped in the field, being a scholar in NT/Christian Origins involves serious intellectual commitments (including rigorous self-criticism of assumptions, etc.), the hard work of building up skills (e.g., languages), knowledge (including the oceanic body of scholarship in the field), learning to limit one’s confidence to the extent of the evidence and treat one’s views as provisional and subject to correction, and, in particular, a commitment to study carefully and for understanding the views of those with whom one disagrees.  It involves serious professional commitments:  e.g.,  to contribute to the field, to engage in respectful scholarship debate and criticism.

Study of the NT can also require a particular intellectual and “spiritual” discipline, regardless of one’s religious stance.  For Christians (of whatever stripe) the NT is in some sense a body of scriptures, intended to serve in liturgy and life as shaping one’s pilgrimage.  I think we must make a strong conceptual distinction between “God” or the truth, and my perception/understanding of “God” and the truth.  (I confess to being a Christian–so take me to the lions!)  We can only operate on the basis of our understanding of these matters, but we must operate ready to revise it in the light of scholarly investigation and critique.  So, I think that Christian scholars must be able to develop and revise their views, religious as well as academic, without fearing that to find our understanding, e.g., of God, is faulty or untenable means that Christian faith as such is untenable.  But serious study of the NT/Christian Origins can also productively (re)shape and even inspire one’s religious faith, both intellectually and in praxis.

Scholars of other stances face very similar responsibilities.  So, e.g., my Jewish colleagues who study the early Christian texts have to learn to overcome traditional Jewish religious repugnance at all they represent, and engage their core religious ideas (e.g., Jesus’ divine significance) with intellectual (and even “spiritual”) discipline, seeking to understand appreciatively ideas that they may well feel unable to accept.

And, of course, our friends who think themselves “beyond all that” when it comes to religious faith are no less particularized and shaped by their experiences, prejudices, and formation.  So, if they wish to practice good scholarly work in the field, they too have to develop a similar intensity of self-criticism and disciplined inquiry.

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  1. It is very sobering to realize how much time and effort go into preparing for a PhD in NT/Origins, let alone to complete one. How do budding NT scholars survive while building up all those necessary skills? It must take years to become proficient in all of those languages!

    • It takes time. And it’s difficult to start later in life. Most people in the field started some language prep at undergrad level (one or more of the modern languages and/or biblical/classical ones). Then is masters work, you take on more. In a N. American PhD programme, you have a year or two of courses-studies, during which time you can also pick up a basic reading knowledge of French and/or German. But the UK PhD involves commencing thesis-research from the outset (no courses or exams first). So, we here expect PhD students to demonstrate relevant language abilities within the first year of studies. (And the optimum is thesis-submission within 36 months of full-time studies.)

      Since so much is involved, perhaps readers will understand if occasionally we who have done the work get just a leeeetle impatient with know-it-alls who haven’t, e.g., on blog-sites (those who operate some as well as some who visit the sites of others).

  2. thebarrowboy permalink

    Hello, Professor.

    I have lived in Latin America for 30 years and I am astonished at the lack of theological materials available in Spanish and Portuguese. There has been so much going on in the North for the past 20-25, but very little of it has been translated. For the most part, only “classic” works are available.

    Have you noticed any increase in students or interest from this region? Any why is so little material translated? Is it merely a question of the cost? One can buy books by Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen in Spanish anywhere, of course.


    • This is changing . . . somewhat. With the growing Spanish-speaking influx into N. America, many of whom are Christians, and among whom there are many wishing some theological education, publishers are waking up to things. Ediciones Sigueme (Salamanca) does translation of major works (I’m pleased that my own “Lord Jesus Christ” was translated & published by them a year or two ago), and they distribute in the Americas (e.g., they often have a rep/booth at the annual meeting of the Society of Bib Literature). Eerdmans and Fortress presses both have Spanish books included now in their offerings.
      It will take a demand for good scholarly books, and publishers will respond. But understand that it’s expensive to translate any book, so publishers have to be assured that there is a market out there.
      So perhaps what we need is more Spanish-speaking authors writing things!

      • Thanks for this advice, Mark, which I post for wider readership, as you’re perhaps the pioneering figure in internet scholarly comms by NT people. I’m still learning and have been thinking about how to improve this site to achieve my purposes. It isn’t a chat-room. This site is primarily for dissemination of scholarship by me and those I note to all those interested.
        I haven’t cruised other blog sites, and actually haven’t thought I’d do so. No time. If another scholar wants to discuss something with me, there’s email, and I’m having right now a very lively such discussion with Jimmy Dunn.

  3. Thanks, that’s more like it. I had no idea scholars had to do so much administrative and reporting work. How many courses and lectures does a scholar typically handle?

    • In a lot of small colleges (US and elsewhere), one is expected to do a lot of teaching and not a lot of research/publishing. In those, one can expect 3-4 courses per semester (ca. 9-12 class hrs a week). In research-intensive universities (e.g., Edinburgh), one would expect more like 4 hrs a week (or two courses per sem). One typical breakdown for performance monitoring would be 40%teaching, 40% research, 20% admin/committee work.

  4. Steven Carr permalink

    Do New Testament scholars ever get asked by colleagues working in secular fields of historical study to lend the expertise they have accumulated?

    • Sure. I’ve been asked most years to contribute to a Classics course on ancient biography (my input lectures on the Gospels). And my own publications on early Christian manuscripts have been reviewed and cited approvingly by papyrologists & classicists.

      Also you need to realize that “NT studies” isn’t simply done in seminaries and for preacher-preparation programmes, or always from some “confessional” standpoint. There are scholars focused on the NT and Christian Origins in major “secular” universities, of which the Univesity of Edinburgh is a major one. There is no confessional test for appointments here, and in other such depts. If a NT scholar engages historical questions, he/she is expected to employ historical reasoning and evidence-tests that are employed by anybody conducting historical investigation.

  5. Thanks for doing this as I requested. But I was hoping that you tell of things that are a bit more personal, such as why did you decide to pursue a career in this particular over, say, Old Testament studies; share struggles you’ve learned to overcome (for example, learning time management); how does a NT scholar typically divide his time in a week? a few hours lecturing, a few hours reading, couple hours mentoring up-coming scholars?

    I think it’s important too to dish out some advice to younger scholars. I’ve read some interviews with some other scholars who advise studying outside of one’s field to avoid being narrow-minded, and keeping up with language studies like Koine Greek. Perhaps you have something like that?

    A more direct question: what sub-fields do church origin studies comprise of? Rabbinical Judaism? Dead Sea Scrolls? 1st-century archaeology? You said the field is quite big, so perhaps you can give us a clearer picture of how big it is.


  6. Eric permalink

    “…the hard work of building up skills (e.g., languages)…”

    Professor Hurtado, what languages would one be required to master in the field of NT studies, and what languages are recommended but not necessarily required? I get the sense that Greek, Hebrew, French and German are necessary, while Latin, Aramaic etc. are recommended. Is this accurate?

    • Here’s what we require of our PhD students in NT/Christian origins in Edinburgh as languages (beyond good English of course): a good reading ability in Koine Greek; at least adequate Hebrew; adequate reading ability (not necessarily speaking ability) in German and French (which with English are the major languages of scholarship in the subject, although for some topics one might need to handle a few things in Italian or Spanish). These are minimum. Latin is good, esp. for topics that involve Roman govt texts and/or that go down into 3rd cent CE Christianity (which is when Christian Latin authors first appear). Aramaic is good, esp. for a focus on the Jewish matrix of Christianity.

      • Duke’s requirements are very similar.

      • Tim permalink

        Those are essentially the same as Marquette’s standards when I studied there. For NT/Christian Origins students, you needed to be considered “advanced” in Greek and “intermediate” in Hebrew (though one was never quite sure how those terms are quantified), and of course German and French as well. Depending on one’s dissertation topic, another language might also be necessary (e.g., Coptic, Ethiopic).


  7. Interest in Christianity is huge in China academic circles, and among scholars who are not themselves Christians too. But biblical studies is lagging. Perhaps because (original) languages are required but not readily available. NT scholarship has been diversifying nationally for a few decades, with impressive younger scholars now in Asian, African and eastern European countries.

  8. J.C. permalink

    Thanks for the blog post, Professor Hurtado.

    I have a couple of questions. With Christianity spreading so fast in the Far East, especially in China, do you see an increase, if any, of scholars of Asian ethnicity who engages the world of scholarship, with regards to NT studies and Christian origins?

    The other question I’m curious about is do you see a decrease of scholarship in Europe, since many countries therein are quite secular and/or becoming more secular?

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