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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.


Despite the sub-head, the first thing to say about this third period (1980–2005) is: more of the same. Commentaries and monographs multiplied, the study of the ancient world advanced, contextualizing the New Testament better in its Hellenistic environment; textual criticism occupied its own niche, new translations were produced, and newly available texts (especially those rejected by the church) excited the media. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols., 1992) sums up much of the twentieth century's work, and renewed interest in the history of the discipline has already been signalled by our initial footnote. The Apocryphal Old Testament (ed. H. F. D. Sparks, 1984), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols., ed. J. H. Charlesworth, 1983–5), and an edition of the Qumran texts are never far from the New Testament student's desk. Wrede's 1897 call for a ‘history of early Christian religion and theology’ has been echoed by H. Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology (1990, 2nd edn. 2000), and answered by H. Koester (1980, ET 1982), W. Schmithals (1994, ET 1997), and K. Berger (1994). Wrede's insistence on tracing developments into the second century has been splendidly vindicated by P. Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus (2003) and C. E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (2004), and in Christology by L. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (2003), challenging W. Bousset's Kyrios Christos (1913, 2nd edn. 1921; ET 1970). Introductions to the New Testament, most notably by L. T. Johnson (1986, 2nd edn. 1999), U. Schnelle (1998), R. E. Brown (1997), and more recently P. Achtemeier, J. B. Green and M. M. Thompson (2001), D. Burkett (2002), G. Theissen (2002, ET 2003), and C. Holladay (2005), inevitably cover much of the same ground as earlier textbooks, though the shortage of non-German New Testament theologies has led ‘introductions’ to absorb much of that genre. Several New Testament theologies have been published since 1990, among them those of H. Hübner (1990–5), P. Stuhlmacher (1992–9; ET 2006), J. Gnilka (1994), G. Strecker (1996, ET 2000), W. Thüsing (2nd edn. 1996–9), F. Hahn (2002), U. Wilckens (2002–), and I. H. Marshall (2004). Further works on Jewish messianism, e.g. J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (1995), and W. Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (1998), have illuminated the foundations of Christology, and these have been surveyed by J. D. G. Dunn (1980, 2nd edn. 1989), M. de Jonge (1988), F. Matera (1999), C. Tuckett (2001), and L. Hurtado (2003). In the study of Paul ‘much more of the same’ includes experiment on a solid scholarly base: e.g. D. B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995), and T. Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (2000), and significant Jewish contributions by A. F. Segal, Paul the Convert (1990), and D. Boyarin, A Radical Jew (1994).

None of this is mere repetition, and some of it is innovatory, but it is progress along familiar lines, enriched by the developments already noted, the road widened by an upsurge in academic publishing and some media interest. This is clearest in historical Jesus research, where, since 1985, R. Funk's ‘Jesus seminar’ has gained a hearing for a minor reaction against the twentieth-century consensus that eschatology provides the key to understanding Jesus historically. That theory, advanced by J. Weiss in Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892, ET 1971) and popularized by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, ET 1910, rev. 2000), has dominated the study of Christian origins, but its intertestamental Jewish roots became less prominent as the New Testament was interpreted theologically. A new phase in historical Jesus research became apparent as the intensive new study of early Judaism brought with it a fresh emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness. This was signalled by the Qumran specialist Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew (1973). His title and non-theological perspective were significant, but his main contribution to Jesus research lay in reviving a nineteenth-century argument that Jesus' Aramaic phrase ‘son of man’ was not an eschatological title (that came later) but a circumlocution referring to himself, ‘a man’. The linguistic debate continues, but many now doubt whether the apocalyptic meaning from Dan. 7: 13 goes back to Jesus himself.

The full impact of modern Jewish studies and a shift from the theological perspectives of G. Bornkamm and of J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, i: The Proclamation of Jesus (1971), became apparent in E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985), Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (1990), and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). In Germany much earlier, Martin Hengel had preceded his monumental Judaism and Hellenism (1969, ET 1974) with a sparkling monograph on The Charismatic Leader and his Followers (1968, ET 1981), showing that a deep knowledge of Judaism was not incompatible with a passionate theological interest in Jesus. The same can be said of Gerd Theissen's writings on Jesus, from his popular narrative The Shadow of the Galilean (1986, ET 1987) to his standard textbook (with A. Merz), The Historical Jesus (1996, ET 1998) and (with D. Winter) his methodological study, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus (1997, ET 2002).

A similar theological and hermeneutical interest is evident in some English-language writing on Jesus, notably B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (1979), A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (1982), M. J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (1988), J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (1991– ), B. Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus' Vision of God (1996), N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), L. E. Keck, Who is Jesus? (2000), and J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (2003). Elsewhere the connection of Jesus research with Christian theology has sometimes been repudiated and often left implicit. The religious and social potential of such portraits as R. A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1987), Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet (1998), and J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991) is undeniable, but these historical reconstructions contain little explicit hermeneutical reflection.

As some of these titles indicate, an increase in knowledge of Palestinian Judaism from archaeology and intensive study of Jewish texts has brought not more certainty about Jesus, but more possible Jewish contexts in which to place this Galilean holy man (Vermes), charismatic (Hengel), eschatological prophet (Sanders), rabbi (Chilton), pharisee (H. Falk), revolutionary (S. G. F. Brandon), social reformer (Horsley), peasant (Crossan), or cynic (B. Mack and F. G. Downing). Perhaps Jesus fits neatly into none of these categories. How his central theme, the kingdom of God, was intended remains disputed, and with it how eschatology and ethics are related in his teaching. Whether he called himself a/the son of man and what he may have meant by it still depends on which of the sayings attributed to him are considered authentic. Why exactly he was executed remains debated: for example, in J. D. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (1995), a (polemical) response to R. E. Brown's monumental The Death of the Messiah (1994). Crossan's subtitle, ‘Exploring the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus’, reflects a persistent concern in New Testament research since W. D. Davies on Paul and P. Winter's On the Trial of Jesus (1961) to neutralize its anti-Jewish potential.

The distinctive feature of this new phase of historical Jesus research is its renewed effort to situate him in his Galilean context and reduced emphasis upon history-of-traditions analysis of individual sayings to determine the earliest strata and decide which may go back to Jesus. That work, however, continues, especially in the study of Q, where attempts have been made to detect an earlier, non-eschatological wisdom layer going back to Jesus. J. S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (1987), has in this way given (hypothetical) support to non-eschatological accounts of Jesus, such as those of J. D. Crossan and B. L. Mack. This theory has also found support in The Gospel of Thomas, which provides a possibly independent version of a few synoptic sayings and parables; but the non-eschatological character of this Gnostic text is more probably a reflection of its author's own viewpoint. The ongoing debate confirms that neither the study of early Judaism nor careful analysis of the gospel traditions should be neglected. It also confirms that while few certainties are available, the range of credible reconstructions is neither damaging to nor necessarily supportive of orthodox Christianity. One might suggest that the ongoing process of historical research is more important for theology than its disputed results.

Several recent books about ‘the historical Jesus’ have paid little attention to John's gospel, while acknowledging that it contains some reliable historical evidence. That is because its method is apparently to communicate the religious meaning of Jesus by the composition of new discourses rather than by reporting his actual words. One may ask whether John renders Jesus' intention correctly, but if answers cannot be verified historically, this is a question for New Testament theology rather than historical Jesus research. A main focus of Johannine study has accordingly been on these finished compositions, but scholars have continued to investigate possible sources. Thus J. Ashton's magisterial Understanding the Fourth Gospel (1991) discusses Bultmann's hypothetical ‘signs source’, promoted by R. T. Fortna to The Gospel of Signs (1970), and correlates this with the history of the Johannine community in its relation to the synagogue, but is primarily interested in the gospel's main theological themes. A recent (2001) collection of essays, Jesus in Johannine Tradition, edited by R. T. Fortna and T. Thatcher, explores the gospel's prehistory, and twenty-five contributions to a Leuven conference volume on Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel (2001) signal a flashpoint; but most recent monographs, such as C. R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (1995), and M. M. Thompson, The God of the Gospel of John (2001), concentrate on the literary character and theology of the gospel.

Jewish studies, sociological enquiry, and responses to anti-Semitism have combined in a similar way in the study of Matthew's gospel, where the evidence is clear, and in Luke-Acts, where it is not, and also in writing on the book of Revelation. The debate about Jamnia and Palestinian Judaism following the Jewish War (CE 66–73) has advanced since W. D. Davies (1964) and J. L. Martyn (1968), but the relationship of Matthew to its synagogue neighbour is as clear as that of John to the parent religion. A. J. Saldarini saw Matthew and his community as ‘deviant Jews’ in a collection of cross-disciplinary essays edited by D. L. Balch on the Social History of the Matthean Community (1991), and in Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community (1994) developed the similar thesis of J. A. Overman, Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism (1990). This was taken further by D. C. Sim, The Gospel of Matthew and Christian Judaism (1998). After nearly fifty years since the Second World War the redaction criticism classically represented by G. Bornkamm, G. Barth, and H. J. Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (1960, ET 1963), and by G. Strecker, Der Weg der Gerechtigkeit (1962), was thus complemented in the 1990s by a new centre of interest. As in historical Jesus research, some found envisioning the broader religious scene exciting, while others, such as G. N. Stanton in A Gospel for a New People (1992), have effectively defended and developed more traditional positions.

Despite being by far the largest work in the New Testament, the origins of Luke–Acts (many now treat this as a single literary work; it at least projects a unified theological conception) are less clear than its purposes (cf. Luke 1: 1–4) and the author's evident enthusiasm for Paul and his Gentile mission. Against the consensus that Luke was a Gentile or a ‘godfearer’, some have argued that he was Jewish, especially J. Jervell in a series of essays since 1962, and D. L. Tiede, Prophecy and History in Luke–Acts (1980). J. T. Sanders and J. B. Tyson claim that Luke is anti-Jewish, whereas the collection edited by D. P. Moessner on Jesus and the Heritage of Israel (1999) takes a positive view. The ‘Context Group’ led by B. Malina, J. H. Elliott, and J. J. Pilch continued its productions with The Social World of Luke–Acts in 1991, and feminist interpreters such as T. K. Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke–Acts (1994), have found much to criticize in this author whose presentation of women characters had generally met with approval. Here, as in Matthean studies, the research inaugurated by Conzelmann's redaction criticism and summed up in Fitzmyer's Anchor Bible Commentary (vol. i, 1981; vol. ii, 1985) has been enriched by new concerns.

A more seismic shift away from history-of-traditions approaches has been not to sociological and contextual studies but to modern literary analyses of the biblical narratives. The best-known examples in Lucan studies are by C. H. Talbert, R. C. Tannehill, L. T. Johnson, and J. B. Tyson; yet here, where the evangelist's theological purposes are historical as well as narrative, historical studies have unsurprisingly remained the most common. It has been in the study of Mark, where redaction criticism could make little secure progress in the absence of the evangelist's sources, and sociological probes such as H. C. Kee, Community of the New Age (1977), were constrained by lack of evidence, that literary studies of the existing text have proved most popular. From J. Dewey, Markan Public Debate (1980), D. Rhoads and D. Michie, Mark as Story (1982), R. M. Fowler, Loaves and Fishes (1981) and Let the Reader Understand (1991), M. A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel (1989), to several studies of J. R. Donahue, A. Stock, and E. S. Malbon, new literary approaches have here proved at least as valuable as the more traditional approaches powerfully represented by M. Hengel, H. Räisänen, and E. Best. The balance is neatly struck (seven literary articles, six historical) in W. R. Telford's indispensable The Interpretation of Mark (2nd edn. 1995). The best political and liberationist studies of Mark, C. Myers, Binding the Strong Man (1988), and R. A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story (2001), have a literary as well as a sociological dimension.

Several students of N. Perrin (1921–76) in Chicago worked on Mark, most building literary approaches on to historical criticism. The most inviting area for purely literary analyses was parable research, in which Dan O. Via, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension (1967), had advanced the American literary study of the gospels pioneered by Amos Wilder and William Beardslee. In Johannine studies, A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (1983), attended to the literary design of the text, and F. J. Moloney wrote a narrative critical commentary on the gospel (1993–8).

As his title indicates, Via's work was theological as well as literary, but structuralist approaches to the parables and several narratological approaches to the gospels moved further from theology than earlier historical studies. Among the surveys, Stephen Moore's Literary Criticism and the Gospels (1989) stands out for its theoretical brilliance and hints of post-modern perversity. Like A. Thiselton's more wide-ranging New Horizons in Hermeneutics (1992) and the various contributions to theological hermeneutics by H. Weder, F. Watson, and S. Fowl, it shows that ‘modern literary approaches’ cover a wide spectrum, in which only some dovetail with theological interests. One question posed for those who read the Bible as scripture concerns textual indeterminacy. For scripture to provide a norm for Christian faith and life, the intention of the texts remains crucial, but read as a source of faith and devotion, scripture, like other literary texts, constantly generates fresh insights unknown to the author, and here ‘pre-critical’ typological and allegorical interpretations are sometimes suggestive. In Germany Luther's exegesis has regularly attracted the attention of theologians, but work in the history of New Testament interpretation prior to the eighteenth century has been done largely by historians and students of English literature. The newly expanding study of the Bible's reception history by exegetes such as C. Rowland and J. L. Kovacs is therefore welcome. It is not a substitute for the basic task of historical exegesis, which requires linguistic and historical as well as literary skills, but a source of further insights. Its potential is clearest in the Evangelisch-Katholisch Kommentar series, especially U. Luz on Matthew (1985–2002, ET 1990– ); see also his Matthew in History (1994). Three commentary series in English have recently picked up this baton: the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (1998– ), the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (2003– ), and most notably The Church's Bible (2004– ) which translates substantial portions of the Fathers.

Modern literary approaches have thrown less light on the epistles. Historical exegesis guided by and stimulating historical hypotheses remains dominant here, but a lonely structuralist furrow has been ploughed by D. Patte. N. R. Petersen has integrated historical, literary, and social-scientific perspectives to interpret Paul's narrative world in Rediscovering Paul (1985), and ancient epistolography, forms, and genres have been further studied. An ancient line of literary enquiry has been reopened with the recent re-emergence of rhetorical criticism. H. D. Betz's Hermeneia Commentary on Galatians (1979) remains its most consistent application to a complete text, and his student and successor Margaret Mitchell has shown what this approach can achieve with her monograph on 1 Corinthians, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation (1991). Rhetoric was such a pervasive factor in Hellenistic education and culture that one might expect more, but it remains a question how deeply any of the New Testament authors were inculturated into it. D. E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (2003), provides an invaluable resource.

The ways in which literary approaches can fruitfully be combined with historical exegesis and reconstruction could be illustrated from many authors and standard topics. One example is R. B. Hays's contribution to the use of the Old Testament in the New, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989). The search for inter-textual echoes has become so common in secular literary criticism that its blossoming in biblical studies is no surprise.

Hays's earlier monograph on The Faith of Jesus Christ (1983, 2nd edn. 2001) had identified an underlying narrative substructure, the story of Jesus, as a generating feature of Paul's theology, and his subsequent masterpiece The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996) brought a literary sensitivity to the hermeneutical task. Comparing this with the theological ethics of an older generation, e.g. E. Lohse and W. Schrage, or the anti-theological thrust of J. T. Sanders (1975), indicates one ecclesial direction in which this central concern can be pursued, alongside the more secular social history (informed by anthropology) advanced by Meeks. Similar to Hays's combination of historical, literary, and contemporary perspectives in New Testament ethics is W. Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex (1988).

The early Christian prophet responsible for the Book of Revelation has challenged the ingenuity of literary scholars. The recent upsurge of interest in this text on the edge of the canon owes much to the millennium. Much has been written about it from literary, social-historical, sociological, liberationist, and reception-historical perspectives. The visual and imaginative dimensions of this text must be taken seriously, on account of both the damage and the inspiration its reception has wrought.

If Revelation is one text lately to have emerged from the shadows into which it was cast by the Greek Fathers and the magisterial Reformers, another is the Epistle of James. Luther's negative judgement on it was a reflection of his own agenda, and the fact that this text is in the canon invites New Testament scholars and requires New Testament theologians to engage with it. As a possible route into the now largely lost history of Christian Judaism, it appealed to the Jewish Qumran specialist R. Eisenman, whose eccentric but remarkable James the Brother of Jesus (1997) provoked several more conventional accounts of this key figure. The serious moral content of this writing perhaps makes more immediate sense today than the more profound theological arguments of St Paul. Some reaction against Paul's immense prestige since Origen and Augustine, some loss of confidence regarding the identity of Christianity, and some determination not to allow such considerations to interfere with the free play of and with literary texts are changing the shape of some New Testament syllabuses.

These remarks are themselves indicative of a new pluralism in biblical studies, extending far beyond the Western church and university scene sampled selectively here. The wider world offers a variety of perspectives beyond the liberation theology which has most impressed Western interpreters. Christian theologians will have their own ideas about what kinds of biblical study are most appropriate in their own varied contexts, but they cannot object to others doing other things with these public texts, and must surely celebrate their partnership with Jewish scholars in studying their Jewish-born Lord, his least and greatest apostle, and some unknown but highly influential messianic Jewish and perhaps Gentile writers. The plurality of interpretations is an even greater challenge to Christian identity than the historical diversity perceived within the canon earlier in our period. In the 1960s the ‘canon’ was labelled a ‘problem’ by some theologians, and a ‘canon within a canon’ was occasionally proposed. In the 1980s equally deliberate theological aims were pursued on a more conservative and even biblicist track in the ‘canonical criticism’ of B. S. Childs. But however valid a concentration on the (more or less) ‘final form of the text’ is for some literary and theological purposes, Christian theology is committed by its appeal to God in Jesus to raise historical questions, and that means also to go behind the relevant texts. However, the new emphasis on textuality and the newer emphasis on the reader are also of interest to religious readers of the Bible. Reader-response approaches, for example, have points of contact with kerygmatic theology, and both can serve the claim echoed in the appropriate formula at the end of liturgical readings of scripture: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord’ (in the witness of the text to God in Christ). That other approaches to these texts are also possible is but a part of life's rich tapestry.

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