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Scholarship and “Political/Theological” Labels

October 16, 2014

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.

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  1. I am not quite sure if this is relevant to the discussion, but it seems that Biblical Studies in America are driven by the entertainment culture. Whether it be best selling books (Misquoting Jesus, The DaVinci Code), or docu-dramas on the Discovery, History, or Nat. Geo. channels. These media outlets do a very effective job of driving academia in America. I am not sure how this relates in France or Germany.

    • Timothy: I’m not so sure that the sort of “pop” works that you mention “drive” biblical scholarship. Biblical Studies in N. America is primarily driven and shaped by the scholars, their interests, etc. It’s only a very few (you can count them on one hand) who get into the pop culture you mention. Others (including myself) often get interviewed for documentary programmes, but that doesn’t shape what we do.

      • Dr. Hurtado,
        Thank you for your response. I am sorry if my comments were offensive, I apologize if they were. I didn’t mean to imply that scholars are only driven in their research by “pop” scholarship. I was thinking more on the lines that many students (at least in NTTC and Christian Origins) are first interested in studying these subjects due to the effect that “pop” scholarship has had on society as a whole in North America. The resurgence in interest in NTTC the resurgence in interest in Christian origins, historical Jesus, etc, seems to be linked to works like “Misquoting Jesus,” and “Da Vinici Code.” I hope that clarifies my comments above a little better.

      • No offense taken, Timothy. And if pop works elicit serious interest from others, then that’s cool with me.

  2. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    I’m reblogging this because it’s interesting AND because – believe it or nay- Larry is getting flack over it… (there’s no explaining people).

  3. I’m certainly not convinced! In short, I don’t find that these generalizations fit with either my experiences in Germany or with my experiences of reading German scholarship. I’m not saying there is nothing in them at all, and therefore I do find it helpful that you have raised the issue. For example, I do think that an openness to multidisciplinary study is a particular strength of the English tradition, and I do think that institutional structures may well contribute to this virtue. And it probably is true that German scholarship gives more attention to classic approaches to the field, including a mastery of languages, which might bring with it a reduced emphasis on some other areas, perhaps especially in past generations of German scholarship. But is contemporary German scholarship really as parochial as these generalizations could suggest? Or is the problem that we are now in touch with only a very small amount of what is taking place in German scholarship? At the very least, I would suggest that these generalizations don’t really apply at all to many of the leading scholars in the German tradition. The name of Gerd Theissen alone should be sufficient to demonstrate their limitations!

    • Wayne: Can I correct the mis-impression to which you seem to be responding? I didn’t say that all German NT scholarship was “parochial”, and I wasn’t intending some simplistic generalization (indeed, I can’t find a generalization at all in my posting!). Of course, there continue to be creative and agenda-setting German-speaking scholars, among whom Theissen is a splendid example, and Peter Lampe another, and Martin Hengel was another, and . . . well, you get my point. But in my visits to Germany, more than once, and without provocation, I’ve had colleagues there offer the view that nowadays the agenda seems to be set more by/in English-speaking circles. That’s their view, and I make no judgement about it. I simply note that there are different institutional settings, and that, to some degree, confessional lines seem a bit more of a factor in German universities than seems to be the case in the UK and N.American universities.
      “We” (or at least a sizeable number of “us”) may well not be as diligent in consulting German publications as ought to be the case. That is a fair complaint.

      • Yes. That is a helpful clarification. And perhaps my introduction of the language of “generalization” was unhelpful. I think the impression of many that the agenda seems to be more set by/in English-speaking circles is probably accurate. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, so long as it doesn’t cause scholars to marginalize other traditions and so long as English-speaking scholars remain open to a mutuality of agenda-setting. And I suspect that we are basically on the same page with regard to this point. I think that confessional settings can have both positive and negative effects as can non-confessional contexts. I suppose my main point is that I don’t think confessional contexts necessarily produce a narrowed circle of scholarly conversations and more specifically that I don’t think this tends to be the case in the German context in which the confessional context is joined with a vigorous academic context. Hopefully that makes sense!

      • Wayne: I really didn’t/don’t intend to focus on the *quality* or *value* of scholarly work. My posting was generated mainly by observations by *Europeans themselves*, including, notably more than one German NT scholar, that the agenda of NT studies was being set now more in English-speaking scholarship. Accepting their view of the matter for purposes of thought, my posting was simply exploring reasons for this. The period in which this seems to have developed coincides with major institutional developments in the academic study of religion, particularly in the UK, the USA and Canada: In particular, the emergence of numerous Religion departments in universities, and the demographic diversification and interaction that characterizes NT scholarship in these same countries.

  4. Robert permalink

    When I studied NT in Europe, years ago I’m afraid, there did seem to be a bias against much American scholarship, especially, as trendy and superficial without taking seriously enough the last century of European scholarship that had established some consensus positions with a substantial history of discussion. Right or wrong, I absorbed this bias and still find myself disappointed with much scholarship that does not engage fundamental questions or its own methodological assumptions.

    • Robert: My point wasn’t to sling mud or make allegations about German-speaking scholarship, and so answering allegations of “trendy” and “superficial” scholarship are beside the point (and gratuitous). But I share your complaint about any scholarship (I don’t know if it’s “much”) that fails to exhibit appropriate self-criticism. In fact, that’s what “critical” scholarship means, to my mind.

      • Robert G permalink

        Sorry, Larry. I certainly did not mean to imply that I thought you were trying to sling mud or make allegations about German-speaking scholarship.

  5. Robert permalink

    This is a very interesting post. I am a bit concerned by the strange claim that confessional problems aren’t as much a factor in the UK, however. For example, in a seminar paper I gave the other day to a secular UK institution, I was accused of ‘intellectual laziness’ for my apparently hasty dismissal of a supernatural bodily resurrection. #confessionalproblems

    • But if all you got was an objection from a member of the seminar, I fail to see that it’s a “confessional problem.” So long as matters can be debated, there isn’t a “problem,” unless one wishes to forbid certain points of view from being aired. But an accusation of “intellectual laziness” either can or cannot be refuted.

      • Robert permalink

        Thanks for your reply. There seems to be an interesting double standard here though given your previous (and quite reasonable) dismissal of mythicism as a conspiracy theory. How come the same criteria does not apply to supernatural interventions in history?

      • Robert: No double-standard that I can see. But you do have to read things more carefully, and try to make more sense. How is the Christian claim about Jesus’ resurrection a “conspiracy theory”? And all I wrote in my earlier reply to you was that it wasn’t in principle some serious “problem” if someone wanted to argue for or against “supernatural interventions in history.” So long as one is free to take a position for or against such a question, we don’t have a problem. Only if one side or the other isn’t allowed to make a case do we then have a “problem”.

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