Baker Academic

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Byron from Hotmail writes...

Sorry for the delay in Ask James but there have been 1000s of your letters and I endeavour to read every single one.

Byron from Hotmail has been in touch and has cheated by asking 8 questions.

Hi James
Love this website. Lots of great info for us non-scholars.
You are probably the best person to ask these questions that have been on my mind for a long time. I think they are short answer questions so it won't take too much of your time:

1) Is there really anything left to discover on the Bible? Haven't we analyzed this ONE book to death?

Or, should biblical scholars be sacked? Good question. On one level, there is plenty of ancient material that hasn’t really been analysed or even translated so there’s an obvious case for this sort of material to be studied more intensely than the Bible. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing left to discover on the Bible, even if recent changes in scholarship of the Bible in its ancient context are typically one of nuance (no bad thing). But one notable thing among those who might be (and indeed are) identified as New Testament scholars is that there is more and more interest in noncanonical material. No doubt there are several reasons for this shift but one of them is presumably some anxiety about going over the same material again and again and some interest in comparatively untouched material.

Which leads to my main point…it is the reception history of the Bible where more and more new analyses can take place. The possibilities are seemingly endless. The Bible in cinema, popular culture, politics, TV, literature, music, art, and so on, and over time and place, is leading to all sorts of new research and is a notable gap in the humanities where it has been largely overlooked. I would hope that there would also be some attention to understanding the different constructions of ‘the Bible’ in different cultural and chronological settings too. Maybe it has been analysed to death in the context of the ancient world so maybe we should reclaim the term ‘afterlife’ for the study of the reception of the Bible.

2) What are the chances we will discover a 1st century fragment of the NT or even a totally new fragment on something we never knew about Jesus? Tucked away in some library like the Birmingham Quran recently (which by the way has not had even a tiny fraction of the analysis that the Bible has had).

I don’t really know enough about various libraries and the like but I am guessing that (for the reasons you have raised about the intense analysis of the Bible) that we should probably not get our hopes too high for a chance discovery of a biblical text. But that’s only a guess. And staying in guess mode, who knows if there will be another Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi find?

3) Do you think the hostility some scholars have towards southern US Evangelicals, and other Christians as well, makes their work a touch unreliable? And I am aware of the potential bias of pro-Christian scholars.

The question depends on who the potentially unreliable are. If you mean the criticisers, it will simply depend. If they ignore or dismiss any well-made argument by a southern US evangelical simply because they are a southern US evangelical then that’s not exactly a smart move. If you mean the criticised, then sometimes, in terms of the game of academic scholarship, there will no doubt be times when there will be the kinds of problematic interference you’d expect: insistence on unprovable supernatural explanations, dogmatic adherence to a given theological position, a distinctive and unchangeable view on the study of gender, or whatever. But, like everything else in the field, the useful can be separated from the non-useful and certain southern US evangelicals can bracket out some of those issues in their academic work and produce clever stuff. It might even be suggested that such a particular bias draws a number of such academics to detailed linguistic analysis which could be used by people of any number of ideological persuasions without much worry.

4) Do you ever feel that a story in the NT is just a story and doesn't need to be analyzed to death? That is, are we reading too much into a simple story?

No. Or, rather, this is just a question of taste. I have had this argument with friends (better: people I have spoken to over the years) about whether a story is just a story and so just enjoy it, and the same goes for any other film, poem, book, music etc. I enjoy analysing and contextualising things, presumably just like others enjoy the excitement of the conclusion of the plot or suspense (as I also do) or dancing to music (as I don't). In terms of Christian origins, there are all sorts of things going on in the texts we have that relate to gender, ethnicity, class, and so on, as well as plenty of things authors want to hide and plenty of things authors don't realise they are transmitting. To establish such things often requires reading between the lines and making connections with other texts and contexts. So I’m also suspicious of any straightforward simple reading. Don’t let the author get away with their propaganda!

5) I take it that you are not a believer, and as most NT history scholars are Protestant, but could you recommend some good Catholic NT history scholars?

Well, most obviously, Brant Pitre. He also writes with other Catholic academics at The Sacred Page. Unfortunately, I don’t know, or probably shouldn’t reveal, the beliefs of many academics but some of the most famous ones over the past 50 or so years have identified as Catholic (e.g. Joseph Fitzmyer, Raymond Brown). And while I have no idea about how they personally identify, good NT people work at institutions with some kind of Catholic identity e.g. Bridget Gilfillan Upton, Candida Moss.   

6) Why does Mark end so abruptly and not talk about Jesus' appearances?

I can only speculate. Because people did not know where the empty tomb was, hence no one being told...? Given 1 Cor. 15.3-8 were can reasonably assume that enough people were aware that there were resurrection appearances and so maybe those responsible for Mark did not feel the need to add anymore narrative detail after his death. But I think a lot of explanations are speculative and, unfortunately, this is necessarily so.

7) Why do scholars who present the NT in a good light not publicize their efforts except in scholarly books that the public has little access to or are even aware of? Why should the Ehrmans of the NT studies world get all the attention?

I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. NT/Tom Wright sells a lot of books. And there are some other pretty successful popularizers e.g. Craig Evans, Darryl Bock. And, of course, this assumes that Ehrman presents the NT in a bad (or not good) light which I’m not sure about as I suppose it is a matter of perspective (personally, I’d like to see more popularisation of scholarship which is indifferent to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ presentations of the NT). But Ehrman obviously gets a lot of attention, though the reasons are not straightforward. I know several NT scholars who’d like to do what Ehrman does. I’ve also spoken to a number of publishers and popular authors (including those outside biblical studies) which has only confirmed that it isn’t easy to be successful to the extent Ehrman or Wright have been. For a start, there are loads of popular history books out there and one more probably won’t make much of an impact, no matter how good either of us might find it. No one is likely to make a fortune, unless, perhaps, they give up on NT studies and write on the Tudors, sharks, wars, or Nazis. In retrospect, we can partly explain why Ehrman and Wright have been so successful, other than being able to write for popular audiences. Both are part of certain moments in American culture in particular (Wright on the increasing cultural prominence of evangelicalism, Ehrman on the increasing cultural prominence of discourses surrounding non-belief) and no doubt both have had the right connections at the right time and plenty of undefinable ‘luck’. Put more simply, if success were easily predictable then there would be plenty more NT academics challenging Ehrman’s place at the top of the bestseller charts…

8) Why did you get into NT studies?

By accident. I went to work in a shipyard straight after school (i.e. 16 yrs old) and it was mind-numbingly boring (punctuated by the odd funny moment) which started at some satanically early hour. Despite a few years of relentless monotony, and watching people age rapidly, become alcoholics, develop what we’d now more readily identify as mental health issues, I couldn’t think of a way out that didn’t involve some other, equally shitty, job. Thankfully, my younger brother started working there but by then the pay (but not working hours) was absurdly reduced for apprentices and he got out within a few months and went to the local sixth form college. That really opened my eyes and I followed his lead, not least because it was becoming clearer to me that I liked education and learning. I wanted to do subjects that were clearly anti-shipyard. I did English Lit, History and I couldn’t think of a final subject until, at a party, a student recommended religious studies so I took it up and loved it. The first topic I did was the gospels in historical context which hooked me (as did the other subjects I took as I read all about them in various shipyard toilets—a sort of intellectual cottaging, if you like—while waiting to start college). I found myself occasionally smiling for a few years to come when I thought about my escape, though I have thankfully got over that particular problem. Now I (sometimes) find it amazing that I couldn’t see this route out but such were the unconscious structural constraints.

James x


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