What is Progress in NT Studies? Walton Responds…

Expository Times online is now posting articles in advance as they are in line for publication. One such article, by Steve Walton (London School of Theology) is entitled “What is Progress in New Testament Studies.” This article is a slightly revised version of his public lecture that marked his promotion to full professor. As a public lecture it is appropriately meant to be non-technical and does a fine job of promoting the study of the New Testament as a true academic discipline in the university.

While Walton makes several very good points, one matter he addresses is the profit and ills of reception study. On the cautionary side, Walton warns Biblical scholars not to confuse study of the history of the interpretation of the NT with the study of the NT documents itself. He goes as far as saying study of reception fits more as a sub-discipline of “Cultural Studies.” For NT interpreters, it should go without saying (but nowadays actually needs to be said) that such scholars need to study the actual NT texts themselves in their own historical and literary context.

Of course Walton has some positive things to say about reception study. For example, he looks at Acts 1:15-26 where the apostles are selecting a disciple to replace Judas. Peter seems to be addressing men (1:16) as the cohort of leaders entrusted with this task: “Men, brothers.” Were women there? John Chrysostom (whom Walton refers to as the first commentator on Acts) understands there to have been present both men and women. Does Chrysostom encourage us to take more time and effort to see whether there actually were women there?

Reading Chrysostom prompts looking further, and it is noteworthy that in Acts 17:34 the same expression can include women. Thus reading Chrysostom, an interpreter more likely to be alert to ancient Greek usage after the writing of Acts, suggests that the group being addressed in Acts 1:15-26 consists of both women and men. (p 7)

This is just one nice discussion in the whole article. There is much here that reminds me of Markus Bockmuehl’s reflection on the trajectory and state of NT studies.

Congratulations again, Steve, and I often recommend students try and do their doctoral studies with you, so keep up the good work! Also, finish up that Acts commentary so I can buy it!

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9 thoughts on “What is Progress in NT Studies? Walton Responds…

  1. I think you will find that it needs to be more than said nowadays, Nijay; it needs to be argued. From my perspective, the mistake you are making is that you imagine the New Testament is a Greek text. This is a basic category error, albeit one you share with some senior scholars, especially perhaps in the UK. I think you will find eventually that choosing that as the core of your vision of New Testament studies will lead only to is eventual demise, or at least significant downgrading among the disciplines. But that ‘minor’ pragmatic issue aside, the simple fact is that that slice of meaning you find so central is only accessible through the slice of meaning that is modern scholarship, and that is now very obvious to those who are watching and funding us, at least away from the Bible colleges. That is why reception history is so important–because it goes all the way done. The world you wish so fondly for does not exist and the assertion that it does is beginning to look very like special pleading of the kind that really sets the wider academy’s teeth on edge. But the fact that you wish it did exist is also to my mind one of the most dangerous things that Modernity’s historical-critical scholarship on the Bible has gifted to the world.

  2. Thanks for this. But the one point where I would disagree with Steve (and there is much with which to agree) is the idea of reception history. John is right: if I’m reading you (Nijay) correctly then the point needs to be argued, not stated. The boundaries of the field are, to some extent, historical accidents and as it stands reception is a major part of scholarly self-identities and more ‘official’ representations, e.g. the Society of Biblical Literature. What criteria can actually prioritise one aspect of biblical studies or NT studies over another? Why should we prioritize one period of history over another? The Bible is massively influential for centuries so why is one period of human experience to be prioritized over another?

    Let’s put this another way. I have a colleague (in the Department of Biblical Studies) who has a degree in Biblical Studies and a PhD in Biblical Studies supervised by a famous biblical scholar (and someone everyone would identify as a biblical scholar). My colleague works, teaches and researches exclusively in contemporary uses of the Bible. By a certain logic should we have her moved to Cultural Studies (or English, we have no Cultural Studies dept at Sheffield)?

  3. John and James, thanks for this. I think Steve and I, as well as the both of you, are wanting students of the NT to be attentive to BOTH the first century context of the NT as well as the use and interpretation of the NT in history (and I agree, James, that the divisions in study are historical accidents). I must admit that when I was in graduate school, I was an “ad fontes” only kind of person, but I have learned a good deal since then about how naive that was. Nevertheless, I think Bockmuehl and Walton are right to point to the EARLIEST reception of the NT as very important for understanding the texts.

    I am curious how Steve himself would respond to each of you – I may ask him to do so!

  4. Yes, there is a logic to the early reception argument, esp. interpretation of Gk terms (as Steve shows), though I’ve heard some good arguments made concerning later receptions. But (and I’m pretty sure John would agree with me here) reception isn’t *just* about finding the interpretation of ancient texts in ancient contexts but *also* ways of understanding how biblical texts have survived throughout history up to the present. My own view is that we effectively have in place a narrative for the field that includes the origins, use and receptions (in all their chaos and craziness) of the Bible and biblical texts.

  5. There was a nice comment at this year’s SBL from Simon Gathercole. He was reflecting on why it is worth studying the Gospel of Thomas’s relationship to other early Christian texts and suggested that if it’s not worth studying, we should all instead be attending sessions on “Klingon readings of Leviticus”. The problem is that I would really love to go to a session on Klingon readings of Leviticus!

    • A session on Klingon readings of Leviticus sounds like a wonderful way forward for The Future of Biblical Studies. Would, for example, the utterance of the fierce Klingon insult, Hab SoSlI’ Quch (“Your mother has a smooth forehead!”) be considered – through a Klingon lens, that is – to constitute the uncovering of a Klingon mother’s nakedness (Lev. 18:7)? Presumably Klingons would celebrate the command in Lev. 21.11 not to touch the dead bodies even of one’s mother and father – given their notorious lack of burial rituals. But I foresee a real problem with all that spitting that is required in speaking the Klingon language: everyday conversation would render then almost continuously unclean (Lev. 15.8). What a fertile field for biblical studies!

      • Dear Academic Loncon3,

        I am tempted by your offer, thank you. I see the official call for papers will be out in Feb/Mar 2013, so I will give it my serious consideration before then. My primary research interest is in the book of Numbers/BaMidbar and the BSG universe, but I would certainly be interested in branching out into Leviticus and the Star Trek universe. Moreover, somebody really ought to respond to the implicit challenge by Simon Gathercole (the PetaQ!) for a paper on “Klingon readings of Leviticus”. Indeed, it is an urgent desideratum of Hebrew Bible scholarship that the current neglect of Klingon views on the Pentateuch be remedied forthwith. And I can’t see Steve Walton remedying this lack anytime soon, can you?

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