Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Next Big Thing in NT Studies: Gospels

What is going to be the next big thing in NT studies in the next 2-7 years? As I gaze into my crystal ball, I think it is going to be "Gospels and Non-canonical Gospels". I wouldn't say that the third quest for the historical Jesus has run out of steam (forthcoming volumes by John Meier, Craig Keener, Dale C. Allison, and even Michael Bird will keep it on the radar), nor has the "New Perspective on Paul" aged over the hill quite yet (forthcoming volumes by Doug Campbell and Michael Gorman alone will continue to stimulate discussions on Pauline soteriology and no doubt we all await volume 4 of N.T. Wright's COQG), but I sense a degree of fatigue in the discussions as most scholars in these debates have pretty much said everything that they have to say.

What is more, several things tip me off to look towards Gospels for the future.

1. Gospel of Judas. It looked as if study of the "other" Gospels from Nag Hammadi Codices had teetered out, but the publication of the Gospel of Judas by National Geographic (plus no small amount of sensationalism in the press) certainly reinvigorated the discussion. At SBL in 2007, I felt like I was the only person there who had not written a book on the Gospel of Judas. On the Gospel of Judas see the books by Simon Gathercole, April DeConick, and a good and sane intro is available from Peter M. Head, “The Gospel of Judas and the Qarara Codices: Some Preliminary Observations.” Tyndale Bulletin 58 (2007): 1-23.

2. Move beyond apologetic models. Discussion on the Gospel of Judas did open the subject of what is the difference between the canonical and non-canonical Gospels. It is a good opportunity to break down certain assumptions about the non-canonical Gospels. Not all the non-canonical Gospels were "gnostic" (most students I meet don't really know what gnosticism really is) and not all non-canonical Gospels are "heretical" (e.g. Gospel of Peter, Hebrew versions of Matthew, etc.).

3. Testing old assumptions. Nicholas Perrin's published dissertation on the Gospel of Thomas and Tatian, even if you don't agree with him (see discussion here), goes to show that there is still alot of work to be done in source criticism esp. if you take the time to learn the primary languages that are very rarely learned, i.e. Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic. This is better avenue for study than the tiresome hypotheses of a Q-Gos. Thom seedbed for Christian Origins prevalent amongst the Ivy League Gnostics. Likewise, Stephen Carlson's work on the Secret Gospel of Mark has shown how a bit of healthy scepticism can leave many assumptions of scholarship on shakey ground.

4. On publications, there have been a spate of introductions to the non-canonical Gospels and I recommend those by Hans-Joseph Klauck and Paul Foster. There has also been a number of publications of early Gospel Fragments edited by Thomas Kraus, Micahel Kruger, and Tobias Nicklas, Stanley and Wendy Porter, and by Andrew Bernhard which provide a good collection of the primary source texts for us to use.

5. Paul and the Gospels could be a big area too. David C. Sim continues to write a spate of articles articulating the anti-Paulinism of Matthew and I and Joel Willitts are editing a LNTS volume about the relationship of Paul to the canonical Gospels and Gospel of Thomas with an all star cast.

6. Christology of the Gospels. Synoptic Christology will be a new growth industry too. Simon Gathercole's book on Pre-Existence in the Synoptics and C. Kavin Rowe on Lord christology in Luke have begun breaking down the myths of the "low" christology of the Synoptics. The challenge is to situate the christology of the Synoptics in the context of early Christianity but also in relation to views of intermediary figures in second temple Judaism as well as in proximity to Graeco-Roman writings about divine figures. I myself would love to one day do something on the Marcan Jesus and the God of Israel. Though I expect Richard Bauckham will have much to say about that in his forthcoming two volume work on christology and monotheism.

7. Gospel Sources. I think that the field of studies in memory, orality, and texts provides many new exiting vistas for studying the Jesus tradition (see Tom Thatcher's study on John in this regard). Likewise, is it possible to adopt the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre view on the Synoptic Problem (Luke used Matthew and no Q), but still retain a place for some shared written and oral traditions between Matthew and Luke?

8. The Gospel audiences is still very much uncharted territory. I think Richard Bauckham and co. have taken us beyond the "community" hypothesis in its 20th century form at the height of form and redactional critics, but there are still many hold outs. Bauckham was more careful on this than his critics suppose, he did not deny that the Gospels circulated initially among an immediate audience, only that they were not intended exclusively for that immediate audience. I've had my own dig at the so-called "Marcan Community". In addition, Edward Klink is editing a volume on the Gospel Audiences and it includes my own essay on the audiences of the non-canonical Gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and Jewish Christian Gospels).

9. Many prominent scholars are moving into the field of Gospels research. Richard Hays is now working on echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Francis Watson is about to start research on the non-canonical Gospels too, Luke Timothy Johnson keeps writing absolutely brilliant essays on the Gospels for various festschriften (see volumes in honour of Robert Morgan and Richard Hays), Simon Gathercole is writing a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas, Andrew Gregory will eventually publish some great work on the Jewish Christian Gospels.

So, if you're looking to do a Ph.D, my advice, start learning either Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and find something on the Gospels.


Mark Goodacre said...

Enjoyable post, Mike. I am inclined to agree; I think the juice is going out of the Historical Jesus quest a bit, and there will be some fatigue re. repeated discussions about the new perspective too. Thanks for mentioning me in relation to the Gospel sources debate. I think the ice has broken over the Farrer theory now, even in the US, and it is being taken seriously. There is also more to be done on the orality / textuality debate, agreed. BTW, I am also writing a book on the Gospel of Thomas. I have a similar perspective to Simon, but where he is writing a commentary, mine is more in the style of The Case Against Q.

John Anderson said...

Interesting read, thank you.

Regarding your point about Gospel audiences, I would like to say that the NT Ph.D. program at Baylor is then in very good shape; the primary emphasis is on audience criticism.

Brian LePort said...

If someone was to move toward the direction of studying the Gospel what languages would you recommend they have a solid grasp on? I assume Gk, Heb, and German are givens. What after that?

steph said...

Hi Mark: I don't see any signs of fatigue in Maurice's forthcoming book on the Historical Jesus. Quite the opposite. :-)

Michael F. Bird said...

Brian: It depends on what Gospels you want to study? If it is from NHC then obviously Coptic. But if you want to do Hebrew versions of Matthew, then obviously Hebrew and Aramaic.

Steph: Nice to have you back in such a jovial spirit! Yes, I should have mentioned Maurice Casey's forthcoming "Life of Jesus" book, thanks for reminding us all.

steph said...

? I'm always around, and jovial, Mike :-)

Daniel Sihombing said...

Thank you very much for the post, Mike! I will be graduated in bachelor degree next year, where do you suggest me to study for the master? With regard to your 'prophecy' of course.

Hwa Sung Ryu said...

Thank you for this well-documented post. And I love the gospel of John Syriac. I have been translating the gospel of John to English, in my blog. I love the gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. So, your post and the comment of Michael F. Bird are wonderful.

Michael F. Bird said...

Well it depends what side of the theological pond you're from and which side of the Atlantic you live.

April De Conick at Rick University would be great to learn Coptic from and you'd get into Judas, Thomas, and many other Gospels.

Mark Goodacre of Duke University would be a good guy to study under esp. in terms of Synoptic problem and Gospel of Thomas.

Nick Perrin of Wheaton College is a good guy who knows several languages and he'd be a good teacher.

Francis Watson of Durham, if he's actually teaching, might be doing a course on Gospels as M.Th or B.A. level. Stephen C. Barton is also there, not only is he Austalian, but he's also a Gospels guru evidenced by his editorship of the Cambridge Companion to the Gospels.

Best bet is to find somewhere where they are teaching courses on Gospels, non-canonical Gospels, and teach Coptic, Syriac, and perhaps even Ethiopic.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me we're going back to our "old" arguments, revising these critical issues but this time with significant clarification and modification. Perhaps something new might arise by way of rearticulation.

Ros said...

That is what everyone at Tyndale (yes, I exaggerate) seems to be doing. There's always someone learning Syriac in the lounge or Coptic in the dining room.

Michael Barber said...


Great post. I couldn't agree more. But I had to do a take-off of this post on SITR. I think the next big thing will be Gospel studies, but I think part of that is the eclipsing of the form-critical model. In fact, I think the fact that the form-critical model has offered all it can say is the reason for the fatigue in historical Jesus research.

Great post!

Daniel Sihombing said...

Thanks mike. By the way, I am an Indonesian. And I would prefer the low-cost and easy to be admitted program. Duke and Durham, I think that would be almost impossible for me. I have just heard about Rick University. Thank you very much for the info, I'll browse it site. :)

John Anderson said...

Baylor University has a solid NT program (and OT for that matter). Longenecker is joining our faculty in the Fall. That's a pretty big deal.