Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Facts and Theories in New Testament Studies

Johannes Munck has wise words to those who study the New Testament as well as encouragement for those looking for a thesis topic when everything seems to have already been done.

As a young man, feeling my way towards the study of the New Testament, I wrote a book about Clement of Alexandria. There were many surprises in the change from patristics to the New Testament. In patristics--a map with many blank spaces--there was always a feeling of gratitude for the work already done by others, and pleasure when they had reached entirely different interpretation of the texts. In the New Testament there seemed to be less elbow-room. Everything appeared to have been settled already, in our grandfather's generation, or earlier still . . . Having criticized the traditions of the primitive Church concerning the New Testament writings and primitive Christianity, the professors had themselves come to represent tradition and authority, and there was no room for young scholars, for it was not permissible to doubt what all believed. Brilliant impartiality and ended in stolid conservatism . . .

Let us give the younger generation opportunity and encouragement to question the important, but perhaps not always [the] true or permanently valid views put forward by the generations before us. Let us go further, and urge them to question what we ourselves tell them.

With a subject like the New Testament, consisting of a certain number of facts, and a large number of theories, and assumed rather than substantiated suppositions, it is necessary to go through it from time to time, in order not to forget what is fact and what is theory.

Excerpted from "Jewish Christianity in Post-Apostolic Times" NTS 6 (1959-60), pp. 115-16


RobKash said...

It's true. You New Testament guys have so little a corpus to work with it's no wonder there are 35 views on issues such as the Synoptic Problem! :-)

In this regard, us Old Testament folks envy you all, but then again, unique research topics are easy to find.

Roger Pearse said...

Very interesting, and wise, words. NT studies must be distorted by the limited data base. I'm not sure that the humanities as a discipline really works in this situation. Because, after all, what are theories? Nothing, in a way.

Classics had got into the same rut until a century ago and the papyri. The result was revisionism of a grotesque kind.