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.

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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.

Reconceptualising

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.

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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.