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.