[Method and Meaning is available from SBL Press here; this is an extract from the Introduction]
There has never been a more diverse set of possibilities for understanding the
canonical texts of the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and the history
of the emergent Christian movement that was to become the Church.
Diversity in methods of reading the New Testament is of course as old as or
older than the texts themselves. The first few generations of Christians struggled
with basic questions of method and meaning in their own attempts to read and
respond to the scriptures of Judaism. These attempts, various elements of development,
interpretation and controversy, are documented both in the processes of
composition as well as in canonization; without them the New Testament itself
would not exist.
If the New Testament documents are themselves inscribed efforts at understanding
the Jewish scriptures as well as the person and teaching of Jesus, they
quickly became the objects of renewed interpretive debates, and the catalyst for
further literary production. From arguments over esoteric and philosophically
ambitious interpretation such as that of so-called Gnostics in the second century,
through the methodological differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene
schools in the fourth century, the key doctrinal and other disputes that characterized
ancient Christianity were centered on just how to read Christian and Jewish
Fundamentalisms, casual or assertive, are never more vulnerable than
when faced with the pluriformity of canonical scripture itself. While theological
debates both mirrored and fueled the ways Christian social formations developed,
the emergent institutional and cultural divisions between Churches were manifested
not only in preference for distinct interpretive methods, but in decisions
even about the actual canons to which those methods are to be applied.
Debates over the extent and content of scripture reflected contention over the
authentic borders of Christianity itself. This can be seen as when Marcion championed
a Gospel without supposed accretions, or when “Montanists” claimed the
ongoing reality of the Paraclete outside as well as inside the written word. From
the ancient divisions between groups aligned with Chalcedonian Christology
on the one hand, and others such as Armenian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian Christians
on the other, through the millennial schism between eastern and western
Churches, and on to the Reformation, each large and enduring division has been
accompanied by the entrenchment of discrepancies between canons. Those discrepancies
as well as the subtler, more diffuse, but equally profound cultivation of
differences in how to read those books accepted has lead to a lively debate.
Modern scholarship has added to these dilemmas, not only because of the
increased awareness of cultural and canonical diversity through more immediate
contact with different cultures and peoples, but also as a result of the discovery
and publication of new sets of ancient documents pertaining to, or even purporting
to be, scripture.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have raised unprecedented but unresolved problems
in the presentation of extra-canonical Psalms interspersed with the familiar
ones. The appearance of Ben Sira in Hebrew both there and in the documents
of the Cairo geniza has forced new perspectives. The Nag Hammadi codices shed
remarkable light on the ways scripture could be re-written in the process of being
read, as well as providing the now-famous Gospel of Thomas.
Despite the differences just noted, the varied Christian traditions of the late antique
and medieval periods had in common tendencies to weave biblical
traditions organically into their complex liturgical, spiritual, and doctrinal
constructions. They continued to use earlier methods such as allegorical interpretation,
if in new ways and with a new sophistication, tending at times to
sophistry. They continued to use biblical texts for devotional practices such as
lectio divina, and in the communal settings of eucharistic and other liturgies.
The Reformation brought the Bible to a quite new centrality in the West, via
the principle of sola scriptura and the explosion of biblical translations, exemplified
in the King James Version published four-hundred years before this volume, and provided its own layer of complexity to canonical issues. While an accompanying
emphasis on “plain sense” of scripture was common, the exposure of
the Bible to the light both of the resources of emergent humanism such as that
of Erasmus and of new emphases on evidence and rationality also heralded the
arrival of modern critical scholarship, whether undertaken in pursuit of new
theological wisdom, skepticism, or intellectual curiosity.
Like any other aspect of western thought, understanding of the New
Testament and biblical literature generally was impacted profoundly by the
Enlightenment and its successors such as Romanticism. Figures such as Spinoza
and Hobbes noted issues that later scholars were to pursue more systematically.
For the Hebrew Bible this was often the problem of Pentateuchal sources or the
authenticity of Isianic prophecies; the equivalent seed-bed for New Testament
studies was the Synoptic problem and the closely related issue of the historical
To a significant extent this volume reflects the current state of the modern
biblical scholarship that emerged in the West from that time forward. This has
come to include an array of technical and hermeneutical processes sometimes
worked out of as distinct “criticisms” but in fact often overlapping and interdependent.
These have been used to establish the textual detail, as well as the
canonical scope, of the New Testament; to consider its sources, literary composition,
influences, and historicity; and to examine it in its ancient social, cultural,
and religious contexts. This set of interdependent disciplines constitute classical
biblical criticism, which, while not necessarily a complete set of tools for considering
the significance of the ancient texts in the modern world, cannot be
dispensed with by any serious reader.
Before the mid-twentieth century, critical New Testament scholarship as a
tool for exegetical and hermeneutical purposes was a largely Protestant phenomenon,
enabled or allowed by the diffuse authority structures of those religious
traditions but not universally accepted. The arrival of Roman Catholic scholarship
in this modern sense was heralded by the encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, which
affirmed the use of philological, historical, and literary studies to support faithful
reading and understanding. This and other developments in scholarly ecumenism
have meant that debates in the academy around biblical interpretation often
have little correlation with expected confessional loyalties, and that even in New
Testament studies the contributions of Jewish and secular scholars can and must
have their acknowledged place, based on criteria of adequacy applicable in any
The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence not only of
additional methods, but also of approaches that generally assumed and often
acknowledged established critical scholarship, yet sought to go beyond it. One
broad set of methods has emerged from more recent philosophical and literary
theory, wherein the literary character of the text has been reasserted not merely
as historic artifact for genre analysis, but as a dynamic reality whose life is interdependent
with the act of contemporary reading. There have also been renewed
calls for theological engagement, in particular with the canonical text, with what
has been termed a “second naivety” that acknowledges the results of critical study
without reducing the text to them.
Scholars and readers have also become more aware of what was culturally
specific and historically conditioned in pursuit of method, even in studies
undertaken with “scientific” rigor and intent; that the assumptions of western
modernity were not absolutes, and that the reality of Churches and academies
dominated by white males was not irrelevant to the limits of scholarship or to its
future prospects. The relationship between such new readings emphasizing diversity
and liberation and what has been termed classical scholarship is not always
clear, and their interaction along with debate continues.
This volume in its
collective voice suggests that careful attention
to questions of method in interpretation offers possibilities for fruitful readings
of the texts themselves, and insights into other unavoidable issues for any who
would read with understanding.
More than this, it suggests that interpretive method is not simply an issue
that arises after the text, when as in every period individuals and communities
have considered and contended about proper ways to read; rather, the individual
writings and the canon of scripture are actually the products of such interpretive
questions, and cannot be adequately understood except with attention to them.