Sunday, January 27, 2008

Seeing the Word: Part 1

Today we begin the first part of our overview of Markus Bockmuehl's book Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (STI; Grand Rapids, MI:Baker, 2006). This will not so much be a review as much as I will highlight interesting points and issues that Bockmuehl raises. (I should point out that Bockmuehl was Joel Willitts' Doktorvater and he might be able to add comment here and there on some aspects).

In his introduction, Bockmuehl finds an analogy between Simon Marmion's painting of the Evangelist Luke painting the Virgin and Child and New Testament scholarship. He states: "The student or scholarly writing, say, about Jesus of Nazareth will in a sense find herself, like Simon Marmion, painting the bibical author painiting Christ". The purpose of this book is to take account of NT scholarship, explore the potential value of implied readers and wirkungsgeschicte, and what it means to remember the Christ.

Chapter 1 is entitled, "The Troubled Fortunes of New Testament Scholarship" and starts off by noting C.H. Dodd's 1936 inaugural lecture about the present task in NT studies. Bockmuehl notes the fragmentation of the discipline into divergent methods and criteria and a collective unease about the relationship between biblical studies and theology. The sheer volume of secondary literature means that it is most difficult for any scholar to be competent in more than one or two sub-field areas. Bockmuehl also laments the striking numer of graduate students unable to operate in primary source languages and secondary source languages such as German, French, and Spanish. He colourfully says: "By the late twentieth century, the Neustestamentler's cappucino had too frequently become all forth and no coffee" (37). [Considering that I hate coffee this does not bother me].

Bockmuehl then looks at several attempts to rescue the discipline from its historical rootlessness and fragmentation including a renewed focus on historicism. To this he questions whether the "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus has run its course, but he finds numerous opportunities for work in this area: further research on balancing Paul's Jewishness with his Gentile mission focus, archaeological gaps to be filled like digging up Colossae (I ask myself this all the time), commentaries on the DSS, Josephus, and LXX are all in progress which is a good sign too. But Bockmuehl asks, what is the place of history in the overall exercise of NT scholarship. It must be part of something bigger and here he alludes Nicholas Lash by suggesting that a "coherently critical approach would need to render a credible account of the texts in relation not only to the stated or implied phenomenology of Christian origins, but also to explosively 'totallizing' theological assertions that writers like Paul and the evangelists state or imply in practically every sentence" (46). We can try to get behind the text and talk about what it meant rather than what it means, but the story these texts tell is "inalienably theological" and the vested interpretation is enver treated as a optional extra in need of stripping away in order to get to the phenomological core. To this I say, "amen", and I am hoping to explore as much in a two volume work on a theology of early Christianity!

Bockmuehl also looks at several other attempts to rescue the discipline including final-form literary approaches and ideological and self-deconstruction studies. He takes issue with the latter for many reasons including that it fails to be self-criticial and the ideogogues who have come to save us from our power-hungry and oppressive selves fail to reflect on or to criticize their own ideological make-up. He writes, "The ideological velvet gloves of egalitarian inclusion ill conceal the claws of a hermeneutical worldview that is in fact far more totalizing and prescriptive, and far more stifling of free criticism" (54). Furthermore, "From both a hermeneutical and a theological perspective, any approach primarily based on this metacritical relativism can only be regarded as discarding the exegetical baby along with the inevitable eisegetical bathwater" (55). The so-called secular pluralism advocated by some scholars which calls for the elimination of theology from the science of biblical study is in fact designed to eliminate religious perspectives from the academy because these perspectives represent the most serious challenge to the secular framework. (I commend Bockmuehl's final image in the chapter: there are limits to how much you can usefully say about the stained glass windows of Kings' College Chapel without actually going in to see them from the inside [74]).

As a way forward, Bockmuehl suggests studies on and Wirkungsgeshichte and Implied Readers as possible avenues for the future to renew the discipline. In other words, his concern is the place of the text in history an the place of the reader in the text.

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