N.T. Wright and Biblical Stu– Er, I mean, Theology

I dimly recall, desperately struggling against the skips in my memory, reading a baffling section in one of NT Wrights many, repetitive works that one must start from ‘theology’ when attempting to reach back into the past and work toward conceivable and coherent histories of the New Testament documents and early Christianity.

Now, I may be pre-disposed to mis-remembering, especially because I have become increasingly skeptical about Wright’s work as I have slowly worked my way toward becoming a scholar in, among many things, New Testament studies. (And, I would appreciate if anyone more familiar with Wright would point to a source, even if I have gotten him completely wrong)

NT Wright fellow kids

Yeah, I made this masterpiece.

Nonetheless, even in my inchoate state as an undergrad, I recall being taken aback. After all, what are we doing here? Surely, we are attempting to unearth the murky, dusty, scratched reality that was, right?

As has been stated too often, this smacks of apologetics and reminds me of  my undergraduate obsession with the well-known evangelical philosopher and ‘NT scholar’ William Lane Craig. While an expert in debating tactics, and also well-respected regarding his work in philosophy of religion and philosophy of time, his work on the resurrection often relied on not just pointing to certain fairly established facts regarding the historical Jesus, but also noting the importance of one’s presuppositions. Namely, one’s assumed theological/philosophical worldview.

This brings up the big roadblock as, of course, discussions about the possibility of a physical resurrection relies on what one assumes about the world that they live in. And, while Craig is routinely in the role of ‘apologist’, this is the common tact of our opener, Wright. The resurrection is possible precisely because, well, possibility is opened through rejecting forms of ‘methodological naturalism’ that usually operate within historical (or, well, most any) disciplines. The problem is skirted, really.

I still find myself baffled by this, and the only explanation I can really find is the one put forward by James Crossley in his 2006 book Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).  Namely, that biblical studies too often plays a sort of ministerial role, in a wide sense (paraphrased). And, you can find this to be widely true when you look at the history of biblical studies. There is often a ministerial element. I recall that famous story about Julius Wellhausen, the OT scholar and one of originators of one of the documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen apparently resigned from his post at the University of Greifswald because he recognised that, as a Professor of Theology, he wasn’t able to properly prepare students for their ministerial duties. However, his resignation also mentions why he became a professor of theology: because he was intensely interested in the scientific study of the Bible.

I am unsure that this sentiment has left the professional study of biblical texts completely. It is surely present in those most famous biblical scholars, such as Wright. And, I don’t know precisely what to do about it.

I don’t deny that all scholars are bound up within their ideologies, some of them explicitly theological. I don’t deny that it is a good thing to make clear your ideology (although, as I have pointed out in previous posts, just pointing to biographical markers doesn’t really do anything; it doesn’t cause you to change how you are reading a text. It just makes you feel a little better, a little more responsible as you carry on your way).  I’m not even denying that it is a good thing to make clear one’s own theological proclivities.

Perhaps all I am really saying is that NT Wright kinda annoys me.

Edit: I don’t want to appear as if I am completely against the ministerial element. I am definitely not, and as Jonathan Bernier reminded me, most of the world reads the biblical texts precisely from such a perspective. And, it isn’t really a point that has to be stressed, but biblical texts inform theology.

What is frustrating is when biblical scholarship becomes merely a vehicle for expressing one’s theological proclivities. When  distinctions become difficult to see and disciplines mix without clearly stating so. Wright’s theology steadily slides into ‘biblical studies’ for his reader, and it can be difficult to discern where the shifts take place.


Reconceptualising Conversion

The market is saturated with academic books of various types: newly published dissertations, edited collections, and established scholars’ latest projects. This is not new information for a scholar at any level who pays attention to their disciplinary boundaries.
It can be difficult to keep up, and too often books slip under the radar for a number of reasons. Perhaps they were not marketed well; or, more likely, an avalanche of titles gathered speed from atop Publisher Mountain, enveloping any onlookers, burying them in a mass of (quite expensive) scholarship.

Because of this, I wanted to highlight a book that was particularly influential to my early PhD work. A volume that, actually, will soon be given new life!

In 2004 De Gruyter published many books. Among those was an updated version of Zeba Crook’s PhD dissertation, entitled Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, and included within the highly respected series Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wisseschaft. It can be easy to dismiss dissertations, especially these days since the academic market seems flooded with them. But, Crook’s Reconceptualising Conversion helped to make apparent several crucial problems while also suggesting solutions.


Despite the beginnings of noticeable disagreement with ‘personal guilt’ as a necessary component to understand Paul (often marked by Krister Stendahl’s 1963 essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’) and the rise of the so-called ‘NPP’, many scholars continued to rely on psychology (including cross-cultural models) to understand the conversion of Paul. This is one of the tracts in studies of conversion that Reconceptualising attempts to combat, primarily because the temporal and geographical gaps are much to wide for such methods to be deemed constructive. Trying to utilise ‘psychological’ models are, for Crook, problematic precisely because there are diverse ways of viewing the self, and modern psychology relies on strictly modern understandings of the self. This is, of course, a vital point because it cuts through the muck of individualisation that many Pauline scholars seem to be stuck in, even in the rather wide embrace of the distinctions between ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ cultures (granted, this binary is a simplification) within NT studies.

But, going beyond this important beginning, Crook spends much of the rest of the book setting up a discussion on Paul that pierces through the often overt theologisation of conversion and, crucially, charis. Crook, then, spends time dealing with the intricacies of reciprocity, as well as patronage and benefaction. Here is, perhaps, one of the most compelling points of the book. Crook brings out the importance of benefaction language, how it plays into ancient religion, and how this changes how Paul is read. Again, Crook breaks the reliance on ‘grace’ as a strictly ‘theological’ concept filtered down through certain, pervasive theological structures that are often found in discussions around grace within the academy. Instead, Crook underscores the importance of Paul’s conversion as a response that can be read more coherently when compared with other similar moments of patronage between deities and individuals in the ancient world.


So, I don’t mean for this to be a review of a book that says much more than I what I have written above (much is going on in the book; for instance, there are crucial discussions on pistis, fides, and other trust and loyalty terminology that predate Teresa Morgan’s large 2015 volume on the subject).

More, important, is the announcement that this wonderful book will breathed new life by Wipf and Stock in the near future!

A few months ago I was finally able to get my hands on Stephan Joubert’s Paul as Benefactor and James Harrison’s Paul’s Language of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context (neither of which my library had, but both of which I had encountered at previous universities). These were two expensive academic books published around the same time as Crook’s, dealing with many of the same themes (in fact I’ve often seen these three as an important coterie of studies essential for readings of grace, Paul, and conversion) that were thankfully resurrected into ‘new bodies’ through Wipf and Stock’s Reprint division.

paul and language

Yay! Now this book is affordable!

I had the naive idea to email Wipf and Stock and suggest a re-print of Reconceptualising Conversion. They were super interested, and I was able to briefly operate as a sort of middle actor between Crook and Wipf and Stock. I’m pretty excited that I was able to help make this happen and I hope that many will pick the volume up when it finally comes out.

I do think the book is an important volume, even nearly a decade and a half later, and I am still shocked that while it does make an appearance in many books that deal with ‘grace’, not even John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift gives the book it’s due attention.

Now, no one will have an excuse.

Paul and Marxist Criticism

Here is a video of a talk I did a few weeks ago at University of Kent. The Religious Studies department had their weekly seminar and I was able to present a ‘work in progress’ paper.

Basically, this is something I am currently working on. Further, it is distilled from a much longer piece, and thus much of the piece is skating around more important clarifications and digressions.

Take a look:


BCTR(S) 2018: London

Call for Papers and announcement of details for this years Bible, Critical Theory, and Reception conference. I can attest to the great fun and intellectual importance of these conferences, so do consider coming along!

Bible, Critical Theory, and Reception: The official seminar of the Royal Association of Biblical Studies

The eighth annual BCTR Seminar will be dedicated to some of the latest developments in biblical studies. Building on the success of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal in the southern hemisphere, this approximate northern hemisphere equivalent will welcome papers in the general areas of critical theory, cultural studies and reception history.

Reception history is broadly understood to include the use, influence and receptions of biblical texts in all aspects of what might conventionally be called ‘culture’ (e.g. film, pop music, literature, politics etc.).

This two-day seminar will be held in London 23-24th July, 2018 at a venue to be announced shortly. CWkrThe seminar will run from noon on day 1 to mid-afternoon on day 2 and will be free of charge; accommodation will have to be found privately.

Anyone interested in presenting a paper (typically in a 30 minute slot), or would like any other further information…

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English Political Christmasses 2017

James Crossley providing ace commentary as usual.

Harnessing Chaos

Theresa May: The Ghost of Cameron Past

TMXmasTheresa May’s construction of Christmas is a little different this year. The usual praise is certainly present (e.g., emergency services, armed forces, aid workers etc.) and potential controversies alluded to, in this case a mention of the Grenfell Tower disaster just after she was strongly criticised for not appointing a diverse panel for the inquiry into the fire. And there is also the typical mention of Christmas as a time to construct a British Christian heritage (‘Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear’) and the usual vague values associated with Christmas in English political discourse (‘As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us celebrate all those selfless acts…that epitomise the values we share: Christian values of love, service…

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Stating the Discipline: Some thoughts on NT Studies

Let’s talk, again, about whiteness and the discipline in light of the last few posts about Horrell’s work. (Interested readers can access these here here and here)

Reports I had heard (unfortunately, I became violently ill and was not able to attend) about one of the final plenaries underlines, perhaps, one of the pervasive problems in the discipline. As a sort of prologue before this final session started, it was said from the pulpit that (in not so many words), despite the crucial realisation by many that the discipline needs to continue to overtly confront questions of diversity, questions of the predominance of ‘whiteness’ (including dangerous religious triumphalisms, as well as the manifestation of these in methodology), and the need to more concretely broaden the boundaries of the discipline, the speaker would continue on with what is traditionally done in the discipline. You know the spiel.

Now, I don’t particularly care about how close the interpretation above comes to the actual event. It serves, instead, as a sort of broader picture of the majority of the discipline. Despite the pandering to ‘diversity’, actual methodological diversity (informed by non-Western methods, especially) is scant. And, in the midst of interest in diverse discourses, no actual sustained interest is shown in different methods (ever read those ‘hurrah’ pieces by major scholars talking up postcolonialism, but never actually engaging in the discourse?). Perhaps because doing so includes the possibility that past work (often hard and difficult work) needs to be augmented in crucial ways, perhaps even re-evaluated.

NT WRIGHT.jpgA prime example of pandering was gestured to in the last post connected to this larger blog project on Whiteness and NT Studies. A common scholarly aside occurs in the beginning of a book or larger project, where a scholar will admit their specific social place. Perhaps they are a white, confessional academic who lived through the tumultuous 60s in America, and has also served in many churches within the diocese of such-and-such. Biographical material may be interesting. It may also be helpful for those who are interested in interrogating how these biographical realities may relativise the scholarship contained in the book or project. They do not, however, affect the material produced! In fact, they quite easily do the opposite of what they pretend to do. They, instead of challenging assumptions, reify them in the work. These are an outworking of ideology in a basic sense, affecting the material relations the subject has, re-inforcing assumptions because they have checked the bare minimums off of the list. They do not have to go any further because, well, they have done the bare-minimum.

Instead, there needs to be a displacement that occurs. This is the point of ‘whiteness studies’, and the importance of a relatively high ranking member of the guild employing and advocating for more of this in the discipline.

Now, this does not mean that everything has to be thrown out, that we need to wipe the slate clean, forget the past of the discipline (instead, noting the strangeness of whiteness allows from a more critical lens with which to view the history of the discipline). And, it also certainly does not mean that Horrell’s work represents some digression from everything that came before it. That would be insulting to those who have worked hard for years employing postcolonial criticism to biblical texts, which has profoundly shaped how directions in reading these texts, in exploring contexts, histories of oppression, and crucially challenging overtly confessional readings, and it would be profoundly racist, as if now that a well-known white scholar has spoken up the world is saved. While this has been a continual tension within the discipline, Fernando Segovia mentions in his essay ‘Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Biblical Studies’ that the initiation of the journal Biblical Interpretation mentioned the importance of a more pluralistic and public discourse around these texts within the discipline. The attempt to de-colonise the discipline has been a frustratingly long project, what he calls a continual struggle.

Sad JesusPointing to whiteness and its connection with Christianity underscores a difficulty with the discipline, one that I have noted over the years, and one that I previously (because of my confessional status) denied: the racial-religious dimension of the majority of the disicpline; the inability to recognise the hubris of claiming objectivity as well as the explicit ways that whiteness and Christianity position themselves as non-placed and invisibled.

I don’t actually have anything mind-blowing to say about the discipline that hasn’t been pointed to by others, most of whom are much better at expressing themselves (and more knowledgable) than I am. But, I do think there is a general tendency to eschew diverse methods, which is a real problem. It’s a problem because it is continuously pointed out, and yet change is always on the horizon. How can change happen, then? Introductions to the discipline need to strive to navigate these issues, and do so in such a way that does not assume a transcendent element in the usual ‘objective’ modes of the discipline. More senior scholars need to approach and do the dirty work that needs to be done, as well as make space for scholarship that furthers this discourse. Early scholars (many of whom have recognised the issues and are producing great scholarship) need to continue doing what they are doing. We need to strive to create spaces and make things happen that will drive change. Not change for changes sake, and not for entrepreneurial reasons, as if we are simply ‘indebted people’ who have been remade in the image of neoliberalism, striving in competition with others in order to produce the next cool thing.

If this can’t be done, the disicpline will continue on in the Sisyphean struggle of attempting change and challenging ideology perpetually. This is, perhaps, most likely. Can’t stop trying, though.  Maybe someone else has a master plan. I’m all ears.



When Everyone Knows Everything about Your Discipline: New Testament Edition

An anecdote:
A few Saturdays ago I was hanging out in a pub waiting for some friends to show up. Here I was, minding my own business and doing my scholarly duties. Yes, I was taking a few quiet moments to work on an article that I need to clean up, doing some reading and writing.

That day I also happened to be sitting by an older couple who engaged me in conversation (which, while nice, was a bit annoying as I was trying to do work). It turned out that the man, a retired physicist, was also trained in Koine, ancient Hebrew, and had written a book on the Bible. That he had self published.

Great for him, but what I found to be quite annoying was that he went on and on about what he thought about the Bible before moving on to Paul the apostle, who I happen to work on. And who also happens to be a polarising figure. He made some gaffes, but perhaps the most bothersome to me was the tired, old line that often goes something like: ‘Well, if Paul had been one of my students and turned in those writings as papers I would have failed him! He is always all over the place! Well, except for Romans!’
I get it. I really do. Paul can sometimes be hard to follow. We are, after all, reading letters delivered to communities; we also only see one side of a larger conversation. Information is limited. Which makes the cute comment about ‘failing’ him all the more annoying. Paul is not writing tightly argued, theological treatises. Paul isn’t producing systematic works treating all of our controlled theological categories. Paul isn’t writing to a professor.
It’s great that people have an interest in the Bible. I suppose it gives my work some legitimacy (although I stick to the margins of the discipline). But, this encounter reminded me that biblical illiteracy is something that goes a bit deeper than not knowing the stories, characters, or motifs that appear in a few dozen books that were written over centuries.

The man knows the languages, but his illiteracy goes a bit deeper, stunted by, perhaps, the hubris that one can easily understand the nuances of another’s discipline. Its a cute form of Dawkinsian screeds against religion.

This has been my useless rant for the day.