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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.


Our divisions are admittedly arbitrary. It is no more possible to interpret the 1960s and 1970s without constant reference to what preceded them than it was the 1930s and 1950s. On the other hand, no European who lived through the Second World War and its aftermath will deny that the 1960s were different. This change was reflected as sharply in theology as in other culture-critical disciplines, because theology is a part of its religious tradition and community, and the latter a part of society. Biblical scholarship includes essential tasks whose social and theological implications are minimal, but the subject- matter of the Bible and the religious motivation of most readers constantly draws alert students into the wider cultural debate.

Subdividing our seventy years at around 1962 places the American ‘biblical theology movement’ and its European stimuli (Barth, Eichrodt, Kittel, Cullmann, for example) in the generation of theological syntheses. But that movement was scarcely affected by the New Testament theology of Bultmann, whose followers were still at the height of their powers in the 1960s and still advancing his project of kerygmatic theology and radical historical criticism. The ‘transitions’ made by German Protestant scholarship at this time included the export and increasing influence of its earlier classics. Translations into English of both old and new German scholarly works affected teaching, and the development of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship following the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) and the expansion of North American scholarship made this transitional period the seed-bed of more dramatic changes in the discipline. Some roots of the Roman Catholic revival can be traced in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) and in the Dominican École biblique et archéologique founded by Lagrange in Jerusalem in 1890 (and so named in 1920) which had survived the lamentable persecution of Modernists. The emergence in the 1960s of leaders such as H. Schürmann, R. Schnackenburg, A. Vögtle, R. E. Brown, and J. A. Fitzmyer (all Roman Catholic priests deeply rooted in their tradition) showed that the best Protestant scholarship could now be assimilated by loyal Catholic churchmen without much difficulty. That list shows too that the American expansion now included Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant and Jewish, scholars.

Within German New Testament theology the major debates on the question of the historical Jesus, the interpretation of Pauline and Johannine theology, the development of early Christianity from (perhaps) apocalyptic beginnings to (so-called) early Catholicism, and the canon were initially conducted most sharply within the dominant Bultmann school. In the 1960s these debates were greatly enlarged by the participation of other countries and by German Roman Catholic contributions. Academic New Testament studies were now more visibly international and inter- confessional, not only because ecumenical agencies encouraged this (as they had long done), but because scholars could now afford to travel, attend more conferences, and buy more foreign books. International scholarly friendships which a few had fostered before and after the First World War, now became normal. On one religious border cultivated sporadically at least since Justin, though often with polemical intent, these friendships became even more significant.

A few Christian scholars ever since Origen have learned Hebrew and Judaism from rabbis (C. K. Barrett studying rabbinics with H. Loewe is a modern example), and in Europe around 1900 this collaboration was growing. In the United States, and especially since the Second World War, it has flourished. The study of Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism in Germany by such giants as Schürer, Schlatter, Bousset, and Billerbeck had failed to end the shameful history of Western anti-Semitism to which the churches have contributed, but the emigration of some Jewish scholars sowed the seeds of a better future. Among them, David Daube attended Dodd's Cambridge seminar and later published The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (1956), having co- edited the Dodd Festschrift in 1955 with his friend, Dodd's pupil and fellow Welshman, W. D. Davies, the author of Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1948).

Well before the 1960s, this represents the beginning of a major transition. Davies's book adumbrates the work of his student E. P. Sanders, whose Paul and Palestinian Judaism appeared in 1977. This goes behind Dodd's (1932), Barrett's (1957), and Käsemann's (1973) Protestant commentaries on Romans, W. L. Knox's books on Paul (1925, 1939), and Bultmann's, Conzelmann's, and Bornkamm's (1969, ET 1971) various accounts of Paul's theology, back to Albert Schweitzer's emphasis on participation in Christ. Sanders's book was more influential than his teacher's. Whereas the culture had by 1964 caught up, and Davies's later work, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964), which related Matthew's gospel to developments in post-70 Judaism, became a landmark, his earlier book remained somewhat on the margins, together with the Jewish scholar H. J. Schoeps' Paul (1959, ET 1961) and J. Munck's Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (1954, ET 1959), a major Danish critique of the main lines of early Christian history and theology laid down in 1831 by F. C. Baur. In the 1950s the major influence was Bultmann, whose classic presentation of Paul's recognizably biblical (i.e. fundamentally Jewish) theology in a Lutheran and existentialist mould, had also appeared in 1948 (ET 1951).

In 1948 the Dead Sea Scrolls, having been discovered only a year earlier, had yet to make their impact. Thirty years after that discovery it was Sanders's 400 pages on Judaism, taking up and documenting G. F. Moore's devastating thesis in ‘Christian writers on Judaism’ (HTR 14 (1921), 197–254) rather than his Schweitzerian Paul which changed the shape of Pauline studies. It did so by denying that Judaism was a legalistic religion of merit and works righteousness. This account of early Judaism, based on an intimate knowledge of the Tannaitic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, was followed by Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (1983), which gave the historical Paul a sharper profile. Its alternative to ‘the Lutheran Paul’ was partly anticipated by K. Stendahl's provocative essay on ‘Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’ (1963) and independently reinforced by H. Räisänen, Paul and the Law (also 1983) and F. Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles (1986, but written in 1983). This ‘new perspective’ is now embedded in such widely read commentaries and textbooks as J. D. G. Dunn on Romans (1988) and Galatians (1993) and The Theology of Paul the Apostle (1998), but the subsequent debate, best followed in S. Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (2004), suggests, without belittling Sanders's achievement, that the heart of the apostle's religion and theology is more profoundly understood and appreciated in the modern German and Swiss tradition with its vital roots in Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.

Interpretations of Paul in which solid historical exegesis has reinforced Reformation theological perspectives have thus been modified by a new emphasis on the historical context of Paul's argument for justification by faith alone in his defence of his law-free Gentile mission. The shift of emphasis should not be exaggerated. Influential Pauline scholars barely affected by Sanders, such as N. A. Dahl, C. K. Barrett, J. L. Martyn, U. Wilckens, L. E. Keck, J. C. Beker, C. Roetzel, M. D. Hooker, and J. Becker all have deep theological roots in the Reformation tradition. But here too there is movement as some of them follow G. Howard, R. B. Hays, L. T. Johnson, and S. K. Williams in taking Paul's rare (seven times) phrase ‘faith of Jesus’ (or Christ) to mean Jesus' own faith (or faithfulness unto death), rather than Paul's more typical ‘faith in Christ’. This exegetical adjustment makes the historical memory of Jesus more significant for Paul (and so for some modern theology) than it was in the conception of Bultmann and his followers.

The interpretation of Paul is the weather-vane of New Testament scholarship because here theologians have strong meat and historians strong evidence. Ancient history is not the only frame of reference in which the New Testament can be studied, but since the 1830s this has increasingly provided context, methods, and goals, even during periods of reaction against historicism. Christian identity depends on, and theology and preaching draw from, the gospels and Paul. They therefore need biblical scholarship to clarify the faith intentions of these ancient texts and authors. However, the necessary development of a historical perspective brought with it non-theological readings which described their first-century religion without relating this to contemporary Christianity, even implicitly. The hermeneutical problem could be left to theologians, while biblical scholars did their proper linguistic, literary, and historical work. This programme, enunciated by Wrede in 1897, and differently in the Chicago school of the early twentieth century, gained ground as the balance between historical and hermeneutical interests shifted in the 1970s. Disembodied ideas and their linguistic backgrounds seemed less interesting than life in society. The history of theology is a part of the history of religion, and that is social history. Ideas were to be understood (and perhaps explained) in their social contexts. The shift was to social history, now interpreted by sociological theory, and the relative richness of data about Paul and the communities he addressed in the 50s made the seven undoubtedly authentic epistles one major field for this new emphasis.

An even more important field for the new approaches was historical Jesus research, where again a recognizable historical figure was influential in a recognizable social context. Here the evidence is less reliable, because the primary sources stand at some remove from the events they relate. New questions with which to interrogate the evidence can elicit fresh knowledge, but more evidence to interrogate is especially welcome, and the context of Jesus' activity has been explored in different ways. The contributions of archaeology and epigraphy, though less helpful than in Old Testament studies, have been eagerly sifted. Where interest in ideas declines, the architecture of house-churches, synagogues, Herod's palace, and topography assume a new importance.

Social history is demanded by the nature of the New Testament material, but the ‘sociological turn’ in some historical criticism of Old and New Testaments also reflected wider social, cultural, and educational shifts in Europe and North America at the end of the 1960s. Classical form critics had not pursued the sociological aspects of their theory that literary forms had their ‘setting in the life’ of the early church. Käsemann's conviction that Johannine Christianity was sectarian had not encouraged him to analyse the texts with tools from the social sciences. But interest in the Jewish sect responsible for the scrolls at Qumran would soon invite fresh attention to Ernst Troeltsch's typology of sects, and this would prove suggestive for historical Jesus research and for the earliest phases of the church, as well as in Johannine studies. Historical and sociological hypotheses about Christian origins were stimulated by a better understanding of Judaism and a more sophisticated understanding of sectarianism. The new social location of some American biblical studies in university departments of religion was also encouraging new relationships with the social sciences and with Jewish studies. A new generation of scholars was asking new questions.

In North America John Gager's Kingdom and Community (1975) applied Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance and Coser's account of the functions of social conflict to interpret early Christianity as a millenarian movement, but his allowing analogies from other societies to compensate for the scarcity of empirical data from the ancient world was generally rejected. Several scholars used Bryan Wilson's analysis of sects in their discussion of the messianic sect. A little earlier in Germany Gerd Theissen's pioneering studies of the synoptic tradition and Paul drew on sociological theory to set the historical and textual data in a new light, pressing questions first raised before 1914 but left undeveloped during the theological revival of the 1920s and its afterglow. His sophisticated methodological discussions and historical probes were later collected in English as The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (1982), Social Reality and the Early Christians (1992), and The Gospels in Context (1992). His work and that of J. H. Schütz in Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority (1975) among others was drawn on by Wayne Meeks in The First Urban Christians (1983), the representative and standard work on ‘the social world of the apostle Paul’ (subtitle). Meeks has articulated this change of sensibility in studies of The Moral World of the First Christians (1986) and The Origins of Christian Morality (1993). His essays from 1972 to 2002 collected (with ‘Reflections on an Era’) as In Search of the Early Christians (2002) include his celebrated essay on ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’ (1972) which highlighted the interdisciplinary potential of this development.

Others have taken social-scientific approaches further. B. Malina followed The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (1981, rev. 1993) with Biblical Social Values and their Meaning (1993, with J. J. Pilch) and a series of ‘social science commentaries’. J. H. Elliott pioneered ‘a sociological exegesis of 1 Peter, its situation and strategy’ in A Home for the Homeless (1981), and in Britain P. F. Esler has more recently continued the work of this group in studies of Galatians (1998) and Romans (2003) following an earlier ‘socio-redactional’ monograph on Luke–Acts (1987) and works on social-scientific modelling. Examples from North America could be multiplied, but the way this trend has continued to develop over thirty years can best be illustrated by comparing Gerd Theissen's pioneering ‘sociology of the Jesus movement,’ The First Followers of Jesus (1977, ET 1978), with its expansion to four times its length in 2004 (ET 2006), or with E. W. and W. Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century (1995, ET 1999), which focuses on the economic and social conditions of those early Jewish-Christian sectarian communities.

The combination of sociological questioning and a better understanding of Judaism is most evident in the historical Jesus research of our third period, but special mention should be made of studies of the Johannine community. J. L. Martyn's History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (1968), relating the history of the community and origins of the gospel to developments in Judaism after 70 CE, as W. D. Davies had done for Matthew in The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964), was a turning point in America barely recognized in continental Europe. R. E. Brown's Anchor Bible commentary on John (vol. i, 1964; vol. ii, 1969) and The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979) also reconstructed (also hypothetically) the history of the community, and W. Meeks dug deeply into its Jewish messianic background in The Prophet-King (1967). D. Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (1988; in Britain: Overcoming the World, 1989) shows what fresh light can be thrown on this history from sociological perspectives.

The psychology of religion has yielded far less than sociological theory, despite the advocacy of Theissen in Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology (1983, ET 1987) and some more recent work on social psychology. Clinical data are not available from the ancient world, but biblical symbols can be interpreted with the help of various discourses. Works such as R. Scroggs, Paul for a New Day (1977), R. Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father (1979)—a taboo theme for some—and D. A. Via, Self-Deception and Wholeness in Paul and Matthew (1990), as well as the varied works of W. Wink all draw on psychology, and perhaps deserve more attention than they have yet received.

The change of sensibility associated with the social sciences can be seen most clearly in liberation and feminist theology. Both are more closely related to practice than most biblical scholarship, and both began to affect biblical studies during this transitional period. E. S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (1982), is the landmark, even if her advocacy of advocacy has not been widely accepted in academic circles, and some of her proposals are hard to justify historically and exegetically. Feminist interpretation of the Bible has been more successful when proposed in the framework of the modern literary approaches to the Bible which flourished in our third period. The application of structuralism to the parables and other narratives in the 1970s gave only a hint of this impending major and variegated shift in some biblical scholarship.

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