Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The First Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

I was reading one of the Thomas the Tank Engine books to my son last night, and the last line struck home. Thomas realizes that "a train is only as good as its track." It made me think again about our field and the shift we are seeing in the Academy's approach to the study of early Christianity. What track are we on? Are we any better off as students and researchers by turning away from historical inquiry, replacing it with trendy postmodern methods?

Whatever else postmodernism may have done for us, it certainly has not helped us understand our ancient texts as ancient texts. Rather, these methods have gone a long way to remove the texts from their ancient religious contexts and sever them from the mega-narratives familiar to the ancient audiences. The fashionable postmodern hermeneutic serves the interests of the contemporary interpreter, which, in the case of a large number of biblical scholars, is still theological. By emphasizing the non-neutrality of texts and the histories we make of them, postmodern critique has done more to dump us back into the methodological cave a hundred and fifty years ago when scholars made any number of truth claims about Jesus and early Christianity with little to no reasoned justification. I thought that Albert Schweitzer taught us a hundred years ago how problematic this is for biblical studies, a point raised by James Tabor on his blog Albert Schweitzer and An Apocalyptic Jesus. But today, under the pressure of postmodern method, we have settled into an academic discourse content with "alternative" scholarly reconstructions and "different" research opinions, as if all reconstructions and opinions were equally sound and legitimate historically.

This is not to say that the Academy has ever been truly uncompromising when it has come to employing historical criticism. The canon always has strong-armed the Academy. The New Testament documents have been and remain privileged. The marginalization of the parabiblical material has a long history, itself caught up in normative discourse. This literature is either named in relation to the canon (non-canonical/parabiblical = non-authoritative or inauthentic) or demeaned linguistically (pseudepigrapha = false writings; apocrypha = spurious or inauthentic; heretical = deviant or worse).

If we are to advance in our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity, the Academy must throw off the common apologetic position strangling us - that the study of non-canonical documents cannot teach us anything worthwhile (or: new) about early Christianity while the New Testament can. This position must be replaced with the first principle of a truly uncompromising historical hermeneutic, that the historian cannot privilege one set of texts over another, or one position over another.


Peter M. Head said...

Surely the historian is always privileging some texts over against others, that is part of the point of historical criticism. In studying Paul's thought one might privilege his (authentic) letters over against e.g. the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
In studying the history of early Christianity the historian will privilege those texts which that historian regards as the best historical sources for the period.

April DeConick said...

Of course. My argument is focused on not allowing personal theological holdings to privilege the canonical texts over the non-.

Phil S. said...

Doesn't it rather depend on what you are trying to accomplish in your historical project? That is, I have no doubt that any historian with his or her salt must remember all possible sources. In the case of the history of the early Christianity, this means we have to work with Christian apocrypha in their own right. Clearly, they are representative of Christian groups in their day. Even if I disagree with them theologically, they are an important part in understanding what was going on in the early Christian period.

Yet, one of gifts of post-modernism is to see a scholarly project when we see one. That is, it is clear that you are operating with in a 'humanist' project. That is fair enough, as long as you recognize that such a project distorts your evidence as much as, say, my own theological assumptions as an orthodox Anglican amateur historian. That means we can and should challenge each other's presumptions and, by those challenges, we may well advance the process of figuring out what early Christianity was like. That is why a diversity of views, even those which are theologically informed, is useful because it prevents us from getting complacent about knowing the truth of what we study.


April DeConick said...

Dear Phil,

Yes, I couldn't agree more with your first paragraph. But the majority of biblical scholars don't feel this way. The Apocrypha is a marginal field of study in the Academy. How many universities teach Coptic? How integrated have the apocryphal materials become in our textbooks and classrooms? How many people on the street know about these texts? We have to thank Dan Brown for doing more than the rest of us have. No matter what one may think about his thesis (and I could go on at length with a great critique), he made the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip known to the public.

As for your second paragraph. Certainly none of us are objective observers. But historians of religion are in a very tough spot because they have to leave their own religion at the door, especially if those religious beliefs function to favor or legitimize the canonical story of Christianity. The historian of religion cannot be beholden to the desires and wishes of faith communities. We are not the custodians or defenders of the faith. We are its critical commentators.

Jim Deardorff said...

I would go a good deal farther than you, April, and deplore the lack of academic interest in any recently discovered, canonically related document whose original no longer exists due to good reasons but whose translation can be checked through redaction criticism, historical correlations, and discoverer's attestation. Fear of loss of reputation or ridicule from faith based colleagues should not be allowed to deter the study and disclosure of a potentially important new find, for which an optimal balance between open-mindedness and skepticsm should be sought.
--Jim Deardorff--

Phil S. said...


Personally, I'd like to see Coptic introduced in more universities, if only to get more of the Fathers who wrote in Coptic published. I note that because the low degree of interest in Coptic or Syriac affects more than the Apocrypha.

As for your comment on my second paragraph, I think I have to challenge you more on this. I write very self-consciously in an orthodox Christian tradition, but I do believe that we have to read the Apocrypha in its own terms to understand it properly. Mind you, my own tendency when faced with a challenge to my tradition is to head in and take it up.

You'll have to forgive me, but you really do present a very religious studies approach to the topic. That is fair, of course, but I deny a person who does work within a religious tradition either has to or can operate outside of it. What worries me is when the religious studies tradition makes a claim that it is the only valid one and that other scholars in other tradtions need to conform to it. That is every bit as limiting the scope of the debates as the religious interference you rightly challenge.

It is very possible to write as a good scholar within a religious tradition. We know this because so many of those writing in, say, patristics or even in the Apocrypha and Biblical Studies do write from a religious tradition and still manage to retain balance. They may have a different understanding of their purpose and they may ask questions that a 'humanist' may not, but I'm unconvinced that their scholarly integrity is compromised by their religious affiliations.