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Languages, Theories, Approaches

September 8, 2011

In the discussion and comments arising from my postings about “Tools of the Trade” (in which I emphasized key languages for NT scholars), one thing posed as a counter-point was the value of knowing something of current theories and approaches, some of which come from other fields of study.  I affirm the value of insights and approaches of this sort, but I want to insist that it’s a false dilemma to pose theory/approach over against languages in NT studies.

It’s not a matter of preferring one over the other, and certainly not one to the neglect of the other.  I stand by the view that languages have to be an unavoidable acquisition.  But that’s because NT studies is fundamentally text-based, both the source texts (NT et alia) and also the scholarship (which perforce is conveyed in written form).  And I maintain the view that the scholarship that NT scholars should engage must extend beyond English-language work.

But of course we can benefit from a critical appropriation of theory and approaches.  E.g., I view it as essential that NT scholars obtain some working acquaintance with linguistics, esp. semantics (as a former Edinburgh scholar, James Barr, famously urged decades ago in his book, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 1961).  Observations from cultural anthropology, diaspora studies, feminist criticism, literary theory, rhetorical studies, colonial/post-colonial theory, and other fields have proven relevance. 

But to my mind, theory and approach is a corollary of one’s research question.  The question is prior, and the method or approach is selected as appropriate to pursue the question.  So, in the course of one’s career in scholarship, one might well need to acquire some familiarity with several theories and approaches.  I urge PhD students, however, to learn to formulate good questions, which I think is an essential attribute of a good researcher.  Good questions may be creative (but they have to be viable), and they focus one’s efforts; and reflecting carefully on the question will guide you to the relevant evidence and the relevant approach.  This conceptual work is essential, especially in the early stages of formulating a research project, such as a PhD thesis.

P.S.  For a long and thoughtful reflection on the matter from a somewhat different perspective, see James Crossley’s posting:

I would only respond here by noting that the adjective “ideological” applies to all of us.  There are simply different “ideologies”, a fancy term for different concerns, outlooks, values, etc.  So, nothing is gained by referring to this or that view as “ideological”.

I would also suggest that there is a difference between gearing up to take part in a discipline and simply pursuing a given research project.  So, e.g., one could trace the influence and reception of the Beowulf story in, e.g., modern English-language film and fiction, without acquiring the original language of the poem.  But, to my mind, that wouldn’t make one a scholar in the field of Beowulf and Norse poetry.  Still a scholar, mind you, but not in that field.

James mentions particularly post-colonial approaches in biblical studies, and I note that this is heavily done in English (hmm, one of those European languages that I suggest is important).

My final comment here is that the sort of studies that James mentions as undertaken in his department are also undertaken here in Edinburgh, e.g., studies of biblical interpretation and “reception” in various cultures/countries, and lots of other innovative theses.  One of the advantages of having an academic staff of the size of ours in the School of Divinity here (ca. 25) across a variety of disciplines and specialisms, and with a long-established international scope to our work, is that we can engage a variety of research interests. 

But I would think still that someone gearing up to be a NT scholar (as distinguished from a cultural historian of modern life or an analyst of religious life and developments in contemporary societies, or religion-in-media studies), i.e., someone who wishes to engage the NT and early Christianity needs, at a minimum, the languages complement that I’ve talked about.

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  1. Simon permalink

    I looking to PHD at British University in Bible Studies. Althogh I wanting to study the promoting of Western cultures through distributing Bibles in China and wondering about theories. Will I need German too?

    • Simon, my first response is that the sort of subject you wish to research would fit very well here, especially in our Centre for the Study of World Christianity, and I encourage you to be in touch with its Director, Prof. Brian Stanley (
      My second comment is that a study of Bible distribution in China isn’t what I’d call “Biblical Studies”, but it’s a perfectly interesting subject that you propose. I have a strong personal interest in China, having visited a couple of times, and am particularly intrigued by the strong interest in biblical studies and theology and Christianity more generally in a number of Chinese universities.

  2. When it comes to linguistics, I’m not sure that we can separate studying the languages and linguistics. There was a time in the late 19th century and early 20th where scholars like Moulton and Robertson explicitly identified themselves as linguists and demonstrated a solid knowledge of not only the classical languages, but also the theoretical approaches of their time. These days how many scholars are there who are just as comfortable in Homer and Pindar as they are in Luke and Paul? How many scholars are as up to date on current knowledge of Indo-European linguistics the way that Robertson and Moulton were one hundred years ago? As the field of NT studies has narrowed, so has our knowledge.

    • Well, you set the bar high as to knowledge of languages. But I was referring to knowledge of principles of semantics; e.g., the recognition that “words” (“lexemes”) acquire their specific “meaning” in sentences, and that sentences, not “words” are the primary semantic unit. There’s more but a good introduction to linguistics will be my recommendation for PhD students.

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