Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Future of Biblical Studies

Today I am thinking particularly of our future as biblical historians because we are welcoming on campus graduate students who may be coming to study with us beginning in Fall 2007. Where are we in terms of our knowledge of early Christianity, its literature, its history, its practices, its theology, and so forth? What direction does our field need to go? How can we advance?

The first on my list, is the development and practice of an uncompromising historical hermeneutic, informed by contemporary disciplines of thought from the arts and sciences. In former posts, I have spoken about what some of the primary principles of such a hermeneutic should look like, and I will be creating future entries on the subject later.

The second on my list is the fact that we must face the troubled waters of the rhetorical culture and conquer oral consciousness. There is a huge body of literature on orality and rhetorical culture that has amassed in the last fifty years, and which remains largely unknown to biblical scholars. How many biblical scholars have actually read Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, from cover to cover, let alone numerous books by Walter Ong or Miles Foley to name only the surface "three" who have studied orality? A few of us have, and some of us have incorporated the results of this literature in our work. But we are only in the beginning stages of digesting this huge corpus of material on orality and rhetoric, and trying to sort out the implications (and there are many, and they are deep) for biblical studies. I think these studies are absolutely CRUCIAL, and without them, our field will continue floundering in terms of compositional theories and transmission of traditions.

The third on my list is Social Memory theories. Again, we as biblical scholars are about fifty years behind in our knowledge base. I don't know why this is, since Social Memory theories have been picked up by historians long before we biblical scholars even heard of the existence of these theories. These theories have enormous implications for biblical studies because they explain how and why traditions form and shift, are preserved and erased. They help us with historiographical problems, really proving in my opinion that history recounted is never the history that happened but only the history remembered by people for reasons contemporary to the community remembering. Think about what this means for early Christian writings.

The fourth on my list is cognitive approaches and memory studies. Here again, we are fifty years behind the times. What our colleagues in psychology know about this is truly remarkable, and what we know about it (among us generally) is truly pathetic I think. Yet the application of this material to biblical studies is not just pertinent, it is essential.

The fifth on my list is Coptic. No one who studies early Christianity should be allowed to graduate with a Ph.D. without having learned Coptic. There are too many early Christian documents in Coptic for it to be considered just an "additional" language any more.


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Javier Marti said...

How early is early 'Christianity'? It now seems extraordinary to me that some of the foundations of 'early Christianity' were not laid in the first two centuries BC, and thus within Judaism, well before its central prophet came on the scene.


Henry M Imler said...

I have spoken about what some of the primary principles of such a hermeneutic should look like, and I will be creating future entries on the subject later.

As a new reader of this site, can you link to such things? said...

In reality, the history of the Christians (anointed ones, ie prophets anointed with the Spirit) goes back to Moses who established the two priestly orders of priests and prophets. These two orders were I believe the focus of Josephus's original texts (not the extant garbled versions of three/four sects or philosophies). Philo has priests and Essenes, but no Pharisees or Saducees. The DSS have no Pharisees or Saducees. Eusebius writing in the 4th century has Philo say "our lawgiver (Moses) trained an innumerable body of his pupils to partake in those things, who are called Essenes, being as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness." (Hyp.11.1). Who else would the Essenes have been but the prophets?

April DeConick said...

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Darayvus said...

I just dropped by from Davila's Pal(a)eoJudaica.

Yes, indeed, Coptic is a must-have for students of early Christianity. Also, it's useful for students of Judaism; ancient Egyptian influence and all that.

But I think what's more important, now, is for Arabic and Islamic scholars to start making their findings known. That means studies in Talmud and also - especially - Syriac.

It amounts to cultural treason, that the West has spent so much time investigating (and undermining) its own roots without more than a glance at the roots of its eternal rival.

Anonymous said...

James Dunn and Richard Bauckham are way ahead of you in studies of orality and the psychology of memory. See James Dunn's "A New Perspective on Jesus" and Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eye-witnesses".