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A Future for NT Studies?

August 21, 2013

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.

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  1. Thank you for this useful post, Larry. There may be exagerations in the term “chasig their own tails” but even NT scholar giants like M. Hengel recognized that there is something wrong with the recent trends in NT scholarship (secondary literature producing more secondary literature, reinventing the wheel type of Ph.D. theses etc.):

  2. Deane Galbraith permalink

    Your lecture at BNTC sounds intriguing, especially in light of recent exchanges on the topic.

    And it is in memory of a great New Zealand biblical scholar, Graham Stanton.

  3. Yes, there is and will be a continuing need for ongoing NT research! Just taking NT textual criticism and Koine Greek studies, there are, at least to me, exciting developments.

    As for TC, the online availability of more and more texts and fragments has enabled a greater number of experts (and even non-experts) to assess the texts in varying ways in order to get closer to the “originals”. I was delighted to find that the NA28 accepts the variant that Jesus [rather than “the Lord”, “God”, or “theos Christos”] delivered the Jews out of Egypt in Jude 5.

    As for Greek studies, there seems to be wider acceptance of the Verbal Aspect theory, in which Koine Greek verb tense-forms do not grammaticalize time, which is determined instead by context. VA theory posits that tense-forms only determine spatial perspective (using Stanley Porter’s view, verbs are either perfective [indicating a complete, wholistic view], imperfective [in progress, i.e., progressive] or stative [complex state of affairs, not necessarily pertaining to a past completed event]). This has potentially fairly significant implications on the interpretations of the texts.

  4. Dear Larry,

    When do you think the public will develop “horsesense” and critical judgement? I suggest never. They need to hear someone informed take a stance and defend it as you have on this blog. You have forcefully stated that those appearing in media are goofy, that “don’t know what they’re talking about.” These “goofy” people interviewed by the media need to be challenged by someone like you to ‘ tell it like it is.’

    We cannot change the public or media but need to skillfully respond to the goofy ideas. Shouldn’t we let our voices be heard? Your responses here were not “measured tone”, good for you, why not do that in the larger media? Also, shouldn’t learning somehow develop the skill set of presentation to others along with research?

    • Squeaky,
      Sure, get me a slot on the Letterman show, or the Daily show. I’ll be happy to respond. As I don’t have a literary agent myself, and haven’t written anything perceived as sufficiently offensive or shocking to attract the attention of the media thus far, I await stardom.

  5. I think the challenge many fields are facing in addition to the question of what is left to say is how to cope with the wider array of tools of communication that we presently have. Thought and insight are passed along in much more rapid ways, both for the good and for the bad. I think the key for n.t. Scholarship is not as much to find new topics and discoveries as to refine those things that have already been explored and to guard the gates from the academy being taken far afield. It seems that part of the value of schweitzer’s quest for the historical Jesus has been how he analyzes where the search went off track and found the firewalls for others to be sensitive to. Raymond brown seems to have fallen into line behind in his work, followed by Meier. I don’t think the value of that type of scholarship should be overlooked.

  6. Franklın Ampah-Korsah permalink

    What bearing has all this flesh wearying research on the Spiritual development of the Body of Christ? I mean we should study alright but why should this study be confined to literal scholarly work only ? From my little experience , it takes a long arduous path through literal scholastic research to arrive at a little point, but its much shorter and quicker to arrive at a biblical truth through our daily rounds in the heavenly principles of life lived by Jesus. I believe that man’s true food is the daily bread of life supplied by our heavenly father , which quickens our steps into the Kingdom of God.
    Am not saying scholarstic research is of no importance…but I believe that the sufferings of men on earth today is due to our carnal love for all things…..except….the righteousness of the Kingdom of God so my point is that our Biblical Scholars should steer all their efforts towards….reversing…..this particular trend of gross materialism without the fruit of the Spirit.

    If Biblical scholarstic research cam come up with a model or blue print to ensure mankind’s true fellowship with The Holy Spirit , then of course heaven and earth would laud their work.
    Any other result apart from the aforementioned might prompt a very keen observer and unwilling prophet I know to label Bible Scholars…..’Alchemists’.

    • Dear Franklin,
      You’ve a right, I suppose, to your somewhat blinkered view, but you should know that it’s a blinkered one. So, ignore what you like, but you’ve no right to try to tell others what they can or cannot find interesting.
      And even for faith-development, scholarly illumination of the situation, meaning, transmission of the NT writings surely offers somethings important . . . provided that one is not so willfully blinkered to recognize it.

  7. Howard permalink

    If I may give my two cents, I think Byron has missed some of the key points concerning scholarship and its history. The first point is that the Judeo-Christian Bible, through its religions has permeated and helped defined many cultures and customs through out the world over the past 2000 years. Many of the words and idioms we use everyday are the result of the Bible and its religions. These religions are still very active today, so its not like studying a dead religion. And over the years, facts and fiction became intermingled and produced numerous ideas and theories about the Christian religion and the Bible. Someone needs to sift through all this data and try to separate the facts from fiction.

    The second point is that Byron has clearly misunderstood what these scholars are trying to do. It’s not all about groundbreaking new discoveries, its mostly about refining the information we already possess. And a lot of this refining has nothing to do with being a believer or not, its mostly about how a certain generation lived within the surrounding culture. It helps form better, more educated conclusions. And a distinction also needs to be made about the things scholars disagree about. In the study of the Bible, there are facts and conclusions. For instance, it is a fact that Christians used codices, why they used them would be a conclusion based on the facts. Other scholars may disagree with certain conclusions, but not on the facts themselves. And finally, another aspect of the scholar is to teach future generations the known facts about the Bible, not the nonsense a person learns from family, friends, and popular books. Not surprisingly, that’s where the majority of Christians get their ideas about the Bible, many do not even know NT scholars exist. Therefore, scholars hardly play a large role in determining whether the average person becomes a believer or not.

  8. The term “tail chasing” remains an apt description of folks pursuing unworthy scholarly topics. For every ignorant hollering fundy preacher on one side there seems to be a tail chaser on the other side.

    The highway of holiness, by its nature, has a ditch of extremes on either side. I hope, Larry, you will be able to wisely direct your students.

    • What would an “unworthy” scholarly topic be? In principle, any topic feasible for human inquiry is “worthy” in my view.

  9. Judy Diehl permalink

    I fully agree with you, Larry. Do we tell scientists to stop studying the stars because they have all been found? Do we tell the medical world to stop investigating genes because there is nothing left to learn? The more I study the NT, the more complex it becomes, and the more I want to learn. Besides — it’s just fun.

    • I agree with both Larry, and you Judy. When I was studying it seemed the more I learnt the more there was to learn and for all the answers I found, the questions multiplied. And even for all the answers that remain accepted, gaining a fresh understanding of them can never be a bad thing.

  10. Perhaps I was a bit offensive with my remarks regarding NT studies. I apologize if it was. More frustration than anything. I guess my problem with the current state of NT scholarship, and I’m not expert, but as a member of the public who look to NT scholars for a greater understanding of the NT, is twofold:

    1) Why can’t NT scholars who give an opposite viewpoint from the Reza Aslans, the Simcha’s and the Prof King’s of the world make a splash in the media? Having spent some time in media relations, I know the media looks for sensational stores, esp. ones that attack Christians and their beliefs. I get that. But why can’t those scholars, and I’m obviously speaking here as a Christian, who are Christians make a splash in the media about proof of, for example, Jesus resurrection? I agree it’s below true, and believing, NT scholars to play in the game of media, and certainly people may question your motives, unlike the anti-Christian “scholars”, who are seen as conspiracy-busting heroes.
    But media is a powerful force, hence the desire of many NT scholars to have blogs. (Thankfully, Mr. Hurtado’s is one of the best I visit daily.) Here’s where I may get a bit offensive, forgive me, but presenting papers to fellow scholars will never make the news. I’m not asking you to forget your ethics, I’m merely asking for you to have a greater profile in the public’s eye.

    2) I just have a hard time believing that new original ideas that are “ground-breaking” are possible. I came across this when looking for a question for my MA in history. Certainly, not everything has to be ground-breaking, but finding out what kind of sandals Jesus wore or whether Jesus was nailed on a cross or a tree or a pole aren’t the most important ideas. Meantime, Prof. King gets all the media attention for saying Jesus may have had a wife because it is “ground-breaking”. Perhaps my beef is really with the media who always look for “scholarly” work that attacks Christianity, while more people in the West at least, walk away from their religion. I sometimes think that if someone found definitive proof of Jesus’ resurrection, no one in the media would cover it.

    So, I guess I don’t mean you’re chasing your tails. I just want the world to see the whole dog.
    Byron from Toronto.

    • Byron, As I’ve repeatedly stated, no purportedly scholarly claim should be entertained by the public until/unless it has first been vetted and given critique by appropriate scholars. So, we scholars present our findings to one another, precisely because that’s the only way to gain any sense of whether the ideas are cock-eyed or valid. It is another set of skills involved to then communicate valid findings to a wider public in ways that make them meaningful and interesting. And not all scholars can do this well. But we shouldn’t expect otherwise.
      The public has to develop some critical “horsesense” of its own. I’ve given up on the media. But if the public simply exercise some critical judgement, perhaps the media will fall into line and do so as well.

      • Larry, your comments astound me. I’m stunned really.

        To use an analogy: a race car may be very powerful but if it cannot translate that power through the tires effectively over the given course it loses the race. The scholar is the refined, highly tuned car. The course is the audience (and mission field). The tires are the scholar’s wisdom and skill (“meaningful and interesting”) of how their research applies to humanity.

        You have given up on the media? You want the public to develop sense and exercise critical judgement? That is a pipe dream. You are trying to race your car on a course of your own making instead of reality. It seems you and your buddies are over by yourselves doing donuts (spinning around in cars), revving your engines and such while a serious race is going on elsewhere.

      • And you don’t know what you’re talking about, “sqeaky2”. The primary job of scholars is to research and teach, not be media stars. Just as the primary job of physicians is to treat people, not appear on Fox TV.
        We can’t make the media contact experts in the field for a story. And our more measured tones will never attract as the goofy hyped up people they prefer . . . unless, unless you engage in what I call “Oprah scholarship”, in which you purport to tell a personal account of how you discovered something that changed your previous view of things, and how this is really a sensational discovery (when you’re really exaggerating things to sell books). (I won’t name names, but you can probably guess.)

    • Howard permalink

      Byron: I’m sorry if I am intruding, but I had a few things to say about your questions. I’m actually a little surprised to hear you say what you did. You asked, “Why can’t NT scholars who give an opposite viewpoint . . . make a splash in the media?” I would have thought you already knew the answer to this. The media caters to the desires of its viewers/readers, and you said it yourself, “I know the media looks for sensational stores, esp. ones that attack Christians and their beliefs.” Why does the media look for these types of stories? Because that’s what the viewers/readers want to hear, they want to be entertained, not educated. Anyone who is serious about educating themselves concerning the complexities of biblical study, is not going to sit around and wait for some ground breaking discovery to be aired on Fox News, they are going to seek it out for themselves by pouring over vast amounts of data, and learning as they go how to separate the chaff from the wheat. It takes a desire for truth, not a desire for entertainment.

      You need to be more specific about what you mean by ground breaking discoveries and what you expect from them. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was probably the biggest ground breaking discovery of the 20th century, but it had little to no effect on Christian belief, for some it strengthened it, for others it weakened it, but it didn’t cause any change in what was believed. The development of biblical discoveries would best be described as micro-evolution rather than macro-evolution.

  11. Joe permalink

    Why would the contents of the “1st-century fragment of GMark” never be “made public”? What are the “complications”? Why would Dan Wallace be forced to sign a “non disclosure agreement” What are they hiding?

    • Nobody is hiding anything. There were/are complications in the acquisition of the item from present owner(s). It is unfortunate that the item was referred to prematurely, and the whole process is now more complicated. But Wallace isn’t to blame.

  12. Larry, many thanks for this cogent defense of the field. While I think that much has changed as far as the what, why and how we study the NT, it remains, along with other ancient literature, an important part of culture and history and thus something to be studied. The religious commitments of a large segment of world’s population also provides us with with a raison d’etre.

  13. Lorenzo permalink

    Great post, thank you! I think there’s still plenty of papyri (and archeological sites) that must be properly studied and many others may still lie buried somwehere, waiting to be discovered.
    Also, I never forgot the 1st-century Mark’s fragment announced by Dan Wallace early last year (during a public debate with B Ehrman). According to Wallace, it should be published by Brill sometime this year.. No news so far. I heard that Wallace signed a “non disclosure agreement”, so he’s now legally bounded to say nothing about it. As you said.. let’s all stay tuned, always..!

    • As to that putatively 1st-century fragment of GMark, don’t hold our breath. It has not actually been published or properly edited. And I understand that there are now complications about it ever being made public.

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