Scholarship and “Political/Theological” Labels
Yesterday, I spent a few hours with a French-speaking visitor from Switzerland who had become interested in some questions about earliest Jesus-devotion, in part through reading some of my publications. He indicated in particular that he’d read with interest my big volume, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).
Toward the end of a long discussion, he asked if I knew of a bookshop in Edinburgh where he might purchase a copy of the book. I couldn’t give an answer readily, and showing a copy of the French translation asked why he didn’t purchase a copy of that. He was startled, indicating that he had no idea that the book had been translated into French. Nor, apparently, did the university libraries where he had studied have the book in French. I was surprised too. And then we wondered if the reason might be this: The book was translated and published by Editions du Cerf (Paris), a Catholic-related publisher, and he had studied in Protestant faculties of theology in Switzerland. Perhaps they didn’t pay so much attention, he wondered , to books from Catholic-linked publishers.
Well, I can’t say for sure, but that was the possibility that he offered. And it reminded me of a matter that had emerged in our conversation earlier. Remarking how it seems that English-speaking scholarship now dominates the NT field, whereas up through at least the 60s of the 20th century German-speaking scholarship set the agenda, he wondered why this was so, and why English-speaking NT scholarship often seemed . . . more lively, more interesting, more creative. (That was his characterization, not mine.)
My response was to suggest that two factors might be relevant: First, the institutional settings, and second the demographics. In English-speaking circles (esp. the UK and North America), high-level NT scholarship tends dominantly to be located in university settings, where confessional issues aren’t a factor. I.e., in a given university department of Religion you can have Protestants, Catholics, Jewish scholars, people of no particular religious allegiance (as is the case here in New College Edinburgh). Moreover, there are often linkages and serious conversations with colleagues in other disciplines (e.g., literatures, social sciences, linguistics, classics, et al.). In key European countries, however, you tend to have either Protestant or Catholic faculties of theology, linked directly to ecclesiastical bodies, and mainly in the business of training clergy for their respective faith communities.
I wonder if this doesn’t produce a kind of narrowed circle of scholarly conversation. In one German university I visited some years ago, there was both a Protestant and a Catholic faculty of theology, and in the same building. But I was told by students that there was scarcely any contact between them! I don’t want to generalize from this one report, but I do just wonder if the institutional settings and arrangements are a factor in shaping the differences between some European and English-speaking scholarship.
Then, there are also the demographics. In English-speaking scholarly meetings, you will have Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, non-religious NT scholars, males and females, and perhaps colleagues of various ethnic backgrounds. I suggest that this produces a much more diverse conversation in the field, with various approaches taken, various standpoints involved, etc.
Now I continue to admire deeply the high-quality work emanating from colleagues in various German-speaking and French-speaking nations, for example, and I mean no offence in what I write here. Indeed, when it comes to formal preparation for serious NT scholarship (e.g., languages, etc.), my European colleagues often seem much advantaged. I’m simply pondering that conversation yesterday and others that made me wonder what accounts now for the differences that one can see broadly in the kinds of work done and the way the NT field has developed over the last several decades.