A Response to Paul Holloway’s Mockery of N.T. Wright (Gupta)

Holloway has recently expressed deep disappointment with his institution’s (Sewanee) awarding of N.T. Wright an honorary doctorate. Now, Holloway has every right to disagree with this, he is also entitled to protest this, but what concerned me was his basis for his protest – he claims N.T. Wright is not a scholar of the New Testament. In Holloway’s own words:

My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

I take this mockery of Wright personally because (a) part of the reason I went to Durham was to learn from Wright (and Wright received an honorary degree from Durham, my alma mater), (b) I have followed his work quite closely (reading nearly everything he has written, including articles) and appreciated his thoughtfulness, and (c) the journal I used to co-edit (Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters) dedicated a whole issue to a series of reviews of his latest Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So, I feel the need to respond, at least to defend a whole segment of the Society of Biblical Literature that respects his work, even if we don’t always agree with him (and there are indeed some things that I think Wright gets wrong, but I would not mock him as if he were a pseudo-scholar).

1. Is Wright an apologist?

I remember the “New Perspective” wars and Wright was actually quite unpopular amongst most evangelicals for his strange and disturbing views, especially on justification. I can’t imagine anyone thought of him as an apologist. Certainly he advocates for orthodox Christianity, but he is a bishop after all! Perhaps that itself is what Holloway protests, but then I wonder what Holloway thinks of Lightfoot and Westcott.

2. Is Wright ideologically-driven, bad at looking at the evidence and facing it as a scholar?

When I was in seminary, we read The New Testament and the People of God, and Wright is quite emphatic that one must engage with the first century on its own term. He made it clear he wanted to establish a firm setting in history, and a clear academic methodology before embarking on his work on Christian Origins. One might critique his method (by all means, and with academic argumentation), but hardly his motives.

Also when I was in seminary, Wright had been invited to Harvard to serve as visiting chair of divinity. My guess is, Harvard  – while not “on board” with everything Wright taught –  respected him as a scholar of Christian Origins.

Several years back, N.T. Wright and John Barclay went toe-to-toe at SBL in a debate on St. Paul and the Roman empire. The place was packed, many hundreds of people. I think the general sentiment at the end was that Barclay had the better argument, but I doubt more than a few thought – Wright is not a true NT scholar.

I guess I am wondering if Dr. Holloway and his circle of scholars ought to fairly represent the rest of us.

3. Is Wright the New Testament equivalent to the unthinking biblical creationist?

Dr. Holloway published his first monograph in the prestigious SNTSMS of Cambridge. The SNTSMS is the series of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, the most elite society of New Testament scholars in the world. Dr. Holloway is a member of SNTS, and for good reason. Guess who else is a member? And Wright has presented at SNTS as recently as 2014, though of course he is a regular contributor in any case.

Wright is also recipient of the Burkitt Medal awarded by the British academy “in recognition of special service to Biblical Studies.” He shares this honor with Prof Tuckett, Prof. Luz, Prof. Bauckham, Prof. Stanton, Prof. Hooker, Prof. Gerd Theissen, and Prof. Hans Dieter Betz (and the award goes back further to Metzger, Fitzmyer, Moule, Barrett, etc.). Did the British academy forget to do their homework in 2014?

Perhaps the most objective way to tell if someone is a “legit” scholar is by journal articles in academic blind peer-reviewed journals – the “blindness” means that the review committee is not simply enchanted by “Wright the apologist.” I did a quick scan of ATLA and saw that Wright has published with many top-tier journals (blind review) including JSNT, JBL, NTS, Scottish Journal of Theology, and JTS. Now, Dr. Holloway might have a bone to pick with an ideological bend of a particular journal, but it is worth noting that Dr. Holloway himself has published with both NTS and JBL, so certainly he must admit these two journals at least meet his standard of genuine scholarship. According to the same standard by which Dr. Holloway wants his scholarship judged, Prof. Wright fits the category of (more than monkey-brained) scholar.

May I add that Wright wisely chose to publish his Christian Origins series, from the beginning, with Fortress Press, and I just don’t think Fortress is known for publishing mickey-mouse scholarship. In fact, I think it is an insult to the Fortress editors to question their intelligence and integrity by working with Wright.

Finally, Wright is contracted to write the Philippians volume for the ICC. The ICC has always struck me as a series that produces scholarship in the highest class (I am thinking of Davies/Allison, Cranfield, but also forthcoming volumes with Karl Donfried and David Horrell). I am pretty sure that is widely believed. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but we are talking about guild-recognition of Wright’s scholarship and potential for contribution.

As a final word, I would like to make it clear that I am not defending UnS/Sewanee’s decision to grant Wright a doctorate; I do not have an opinion on that issue and Dr. Holloway may be right that it undermines their own institutional convictions. My concern is that Holloway is misrepresenting Wright, and mocking many of us who are in academic dialogue with him. We do not all agree with Wright, in fact I am going to disagree with him in several projects I am working on (I am sure he is used to that), but it simply does no good to mock him. He is a thoughtful scholar, and questioning his integrity does not serve our students well as future and current members of the guild (SBL, BNTS, SNTS and so forth).