Baker Academic

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

British New Testament Conference 2013—Chris Keith

Last week was the annual British New Testament Conference.  Last year I attended one day of the conference, having just moved to London from the USA.  This year, though, I managed to get talked into doing three things.  The first was the panel review of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing in the Jesus and Gospels seminar.  The scope of this book is breathtaking and I think all the panel members (me, Paul Foster, and Simon Gathercole) were impressed with how much work went into it.  There were, however, disagreements and critical questions.  We all raised questions about Watson’s argument that, although the Gospel of Thomas is often dependent upon the Synoptics in content, its genre represents a pre-Synoptics form of the Jesus tradition, a sayings collection.  I think the arguments of Gathercole and Goodacre make this unlikely.  On the positive side, I think this book stands as one of the most comprehensive applications of a Wirkungsgeschichte approach to early Christianity.

The second responsibility for me was a 45-minute lecture to the Social Worlds of the New Testament seminar, which they kindly invited.  My title was “Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: The Past, Present, and Future of a New Methodology.”  My eyes got a bit bigger than my belly, though, and I was really only able to address the past and present.  My basic argument was that many applications of memory theory in Gospels research today seem unfamiliar with the work of Maurice Halbwachs, Jan Assmann, and Barry Schwartz, who make up the triumvirate that has shaped the discourse.  As a result, some applications of the theory in Gospels research are out of step with those methodological foundations.  I’ll take up this issue more fully in my inaugural lecture here at St Mary’s University College on October 16, “Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: Assessing the First Decade.”  I’m grateful to the Social Worlds session for the opportunity to get some early feedback on some of my thoughts.

The third responsibility I had was another panel discussion.  This was again in the Social Worlds seminar.  The co-panelists were James Crossley and David Horrell and our topic was “Social-Scientific Criticism as Social History,” but it mainly turned into a “Where do we go from here?” discussion.  Horrell interestingly proposed that the term “social-scientific criticism” may not be needed anymore, as the goals of the scholars who introduced the term have largely been realized as social-scientific emphases have gone mainstream in NT scholarship.

On a side note, the weather was amazing in St Andrews, as it was for the International SBL a couple months ago.  As someone who lived in Scotland for three years, I felt almost robbed of the experience of fist-fighting a wind and rain storm.


  1. I didn't get a chance to go to BNTC in the end, but all of your panels seem like the ones I would have wanted to check out. I actually kind-of liked Watson's argument for a primitive sayings source, because sometimes it seems to me that some may be uncomfortable with a "Q" or an independent Thomas because they may dislike the implications of the amount of diversity argued in models such as Koester's/Robinson's trajectory approach (I hasten to add that I do not include Mark Goodacre in this assessment as he is explicit that he does not have this agenda and is just going where he feels the evidence leads). You make a fair point that the more a scholar thinks Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics (rather than just influenced by them through secondary orality like in Risto Uro's view), the less likely it may be that it reflects a pre-Synoptic genre, but what do you make of the possibility of primitive sayings collections (e.g., evidence of sayings of the Lord in the Pauline or catholic epistles, Papias on Matthew's logia, Jesus logia in the Apostolic Fathers or extra-canonical Gospel fragments, etc)?

  2. Just found your blog and will be returning to benefit from it - and enjoy it - often.

    Apple James

  3. Mike, thanks for these comments. I think the argument for a pre-Synoptic sayings source has to be made on the evidence, and not the fact that some people might be uncomfortable with it, for whatever reason. Watson himself acknowledges that the only extant hard evidence for the genre is Thomas itself. At this point, I think it's imperative for his argument that he demonstrate the genre's complete independence from the Synoptics, and I don't think he's done that. Further, I'm not convinced that one can so easily separate the form and content of Thomas. I'm persuaded by Goodacre that the form/genre is itself a direct reaction to the Synoptics in the form of a decontextualization of the tradition. The issue becomes more interesting since he argues in the previous chapter against Q. In other words, he's for a pre-Synoptics sayings source, just not Q.

    There's a lot to consider in the arguments and I'd encourage everyone to read the book. But each of the panelists had problems with this particular issue.

    I wondered why Watson did not appeal to testimonia in his argument. Those collections are at least close to the genre he's proposing, since they're also traditions transmitted outside a narrative context (though, I would argue, still guided by a certain kind of narrative sensitivity).

    1. Thanks for the reply. Both your response and Mark's Facebook thread on Q have given me lots that I need to think over.

  4. Chris,

    Did any of the reviewers of Watson's book challenge his argument on the primitivity of the Egerton Gospel vis-a-vis John? Or what about his attempt to fashion a *Wirkungsgeschichte* into a support for a canonical approach?

    1. Hey Jack. We each had (literally) ten minutes, so almost all the attention wen to the GTh and Sayings Collections issue. Gathercole mentioned in passing that he found the Egerton argument unpersuasive.

      I mentioned that I appreciated the application of Wirkungsgeschichte to such a wide period of time, since I think this is probably the biggest such attempt. But there was no real debate about the details of that because of the time constraints.