The New Testament TodayThe New Testament Today
Mark Allan Powell
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An ecumenical team of scholars comprising James D. G. Dunn, Fernando Segovia, John Kloppenborg, Donald Hagner, Mary Ann Tolbert, John Carroll, Gail O'Day, Marion Soards, Richard Carlson, Pheme Perkins, and Eugene Boring - provides readers with current information on the scholarship in every portion of the New Testament cannon. The text also features chapters on two related topics: historical Jesus studies and reasearch methodology.

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Chapter One

Methods for Studying
the New Testament

* * *

Fernando F. Segovia

At the center of any academic discipline, subject, or field of study lies the twofold question of method and theory. At its root are the interrelated and interdependent questions of procedure and rationale: the question of strategy, of how to go about doing whatever it is that one does or wishes to do; and the question of framework, of why go about doing what one does or wishes to do in the way that one does. As a subject or discipline, the study of the New Testament is no different. To enter the world of biblical criticism, the world of the academic reading of biblical and related texts, is perforce to enter the world of method and theory. Such has been the case since the beginning of the discipline, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and is even more true today at the cusp of the twenty-first century. Several factors contribute to this heightened state of affairs.


To begin with, as in the case of both the human and social sciences, the academic study of religion has undergone major transformations in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Such changes have affected the study of Christianity as a whole, including the study of its earliest texts—the New Testament. These changes in large part involve questions of method and theory, and have ultimately brought about a drastically different approach to the understanding and exercise of the discipline. As a result, what is expected of any practitioner today differs radically from what was expected of all practitioners even up to the 1970s.

If one word could be used to characterize this change in expectations, that word is diversity. Up to the 1970s, New Testament Studies called for expertise in a single "umbrella model" of interpretation—historical criticism. This approach may have involved a variety of reading strategies and theoretical frameworks, but it also provided a distinctive and overarching mode of discourse across all models and methods. At present, the field demands expertise in several such umbrella models, each of which comprises a variety of methods and models as well as related modes of discourse.

Two cultural indicators serve to drive the point home. First, from a curricular point of view, courses with a focus on method and theory have come into being, by and large, only after the development of this diversity and plurality of umbrella models. Previously, such courses were unnecessary: method and theory could be absorbed through the various curricular offerings, all of which represented variations within the same umbrella model of interpretation. Today, and for the foreseeable future, such courses are indispensable. Second, from a personal point of view, my own life as a critic during the period in question proves highly instructive. My own graduate education (1972-78) involved training in one long-established critical formation. During the course of my first professional appointment (1972-84), two revisionary currents developed, demanding thorough revisioning on my part. In the course of my second professional appointment (1984-present), a further critical formation emerged, demanding yet further revisioning on my part. Such revisioning and multivisioning are only bound to increase.

A concomitant and important result of these changes involving method and theory in New Testament Studies has been a reconsideration of the tradition of academic reading or criticism as such. Up to the 1970s, consensus opinion among practitioners looked upon academic reading of the Bible as both inherently superior and hermeneutically privileged, as the one proper and correct reading of the texts. Such a view, while certainly elitist, was by no means gnostic: this was a reading that called for systematic and arduous training but that was also open to anyone able and willing to undergo such training. At present, this view finds itself under challenge from different, though related, directions. Academic reading is now approached as a tradition of reading, subject to critical analysis with regard to its origins, presuppositions, strategies, results, and agenda. It is but one among several traditions of reading, all similarly long-standing and comprehensive. Claims of hermeneutical privilege and inherent superiority are no longer a critical given but are themselves subject to analysis.

After all, as has often been pointed out, academic reading is a fairly recent tradition of reading the Bible. Today, scholars must study not only the history of academic reading as a discipline but also other traditions of reading the Bible. Such study has to include at least three such traditions: 1) the theological or churchly tradition, encompassing such different modes as dogmatic, fundamentalist, denominational, and liberationist; 2) the religious or devotional tradition, covering many beloved and enduring practices observed in daily life; and, 3) the cultural or popular tradition, encompassing the broad appropriation and use of biblical motifs, situations, and themes in cultural production at large.

The rapid proliferation of this genre of scholarly writing parallels a similar trend in other fields, both in the social and human sciences. In effect, methods and theories have become so numerous and so complex that introductions to method and theory have become indispensable tools for any field of study and research. For New Testament Studies, a field that by nature feeds on other fields of study and research, this development can only mean more extensive and disciplined attention to ongoing discussions in other disciplines. Today, one must become familiar with the origin, parameters, reception, and development of whatever reading strategy is adopted. As a result, New Testament Studies has become much more explicitly interdisciplinary in nature.

The advent of diversity, then, has brought about profound transformations in the definition and contours of the field. In matters of method and theory, practitioners are, first, called upon now to look intensively inward. At the same time, diversity has wrought profound transformations in the delineation and circumscription of the field, forcing a reconsideration of the discipline as one way of reading among several such ways of reading. Thus, practitioners are now forced to look outward as well as inward, toward other approaches to biblical texts and even toward the discourses and practices of other disciplines.

In the field of New Testament Studies, therefore, the twofold question of method and theory has not only become more prominent and absorbing but also more intricate and consuming over the last twenty-five years. Following major tectonic movements at work across the entire disciplinary terrain of the human and social sciences, the study of the New Testament has been compelled to reconsider and revision its approach to texts (its methods and models), its self-conception as a tradition of reading (its academic contextualization and perspective), and its location in the academy (its relationship to and engagement with other fields of study). A driving force behind such shifts has been the issue of diversity, which always exacts a heavy price. For the field as a whole, diversity has meant a heightened demand in matters methodological and theoretical, a need for ever greater sophistication, conceptual as well as practical, on the part of all practitioners. This state of affairs is bound not only to perdure but also to intensify.


Given such a state of affairs, such a legacy from the past and such a charter for the future, clearly little choice exists—short of a deliberate option for disciplinary blinders—but to come to terms with these major transformations in the discipline and the resultant need for ever broader sophistication in matters of method and theory. One way to do so is to approach or read the discipline like a story, constructing a narrative about its recent path, its present outlook, and its future prospects.

Needless to say, a variety of such stories is inevitable, but such variety is actually to be welcomed. First, it further brings to the fore the diversity that has permeated the discipline of late; the given multiplicity of methods and models is matched by a corresponding multiplicity of narratives striving to account for changes in the discipline. Second, it shows pointedly that there are different ways of tracing and accounting for the irruption of diversity. Third, it allows for comparative analysis among the various accounts advanced in terms of construction, strategy, and perspective.

Such is the approach I shall follow. By way of preface, I should explain that my tale of the discipline proceeds from an observing participant, a critic who has both witnessed and engaged in all of the tectonic shifts in question. The point of view from which this story is constructed looks upon it as a tale of progress and rejoices in the gradual unfolding of diversity. The plot of this story involves a threefold movement: 1) a period of stability, involving an initial umbrella model, sole and entrenched; 2) a period of crisis, involving the emergence of two other umbrella models, which effectively displace the hegemony of the existing model and begin to make of the discipline a competitive arena; and, 3) a period of resolution, of unstable stability as it were, involving the rise of another umbrella model, which turns the discipline even further into a competitive arena, while offering a full-fledged justification for the phenomenon of diversity as such. I characterize these three stages as follows: Diversity Bound; Diversity Unbinding; Diversity Unbound.

Diversity Bound: Historical Criticism. I have referred to historical criticism as the dominant umbrella model through the 1970s. In fact, a historical approach to the texts of the New Testament reigned supreme for about 150 years, from the formation of the discipline in the first half of the nineteenth century through the third quarter of the twentieth century—from that period of intellectual ferment after the French Revolution, when the study of Christian beginnings turns to the similarly nascent discipline of history for grounding, to that other period of intellectual ferment after the upheavals of the 1960s, when such study begins to look elsewhere for grounding. Remarkable internal stability characterized this period.

For reading the New Testament today, knowledge of this historical mode of discourse remains crucial for practitioners, not only because of its long duration but also because understanding the recent turn of events is impossible without a grasp of what preceded and motivated them. In its modernist attempt to break free of dogma and tradition, historical criticism sought to study the New Testament in the light of its context, broadly understood—historical, literary, social, religious. A variety of perspectives were available, depending on the specific focus of study: textual criticism; source criticism; comparative criticism involving matters religious, literary, or social; form criticism; redaction and composition criticism. Underlying all of these different approaches was a specific view of the relationship between practitioner and field—the ideal of "exegesis."

A wide historical as well as cultural gulf separated text and critic: the text was "out there"; the critic was "over here." The text represented historical evidence from and for the time of composition and called for contextualization. As such, it was to be read on its own terms, within its own context, and as evidence for the reconstruction of that context. Its meaning was univocal and objective, as was the path of history itself. To retrieve its meaning and to reconstruct history, however, required a decontextualization of the critic. Such retrieval and such reconstruction could be achieved only by means of a scientific method that guaranteed neutrality and impartiality on the part of the critic. For anyone to attain such a level of reading, a process of divestiture was in order: taking off presuppositions and taking on objectivity. With regard to critics, therefore, diversity remained bound: all practitioners were to become alike—universal and informed readers. While historical criticism pursued with relish the diversity of Christian beginnings as reflected in the New Testament, it frowned severely upon diversity at the level of interpretation.

Knowledge of this umbrella model remains essential today. From the point of view of historical criticism, reading the New Testament today requires a measure of sophistication in both the history of historiography, so that the model followed by historical criticism can be compared with other competing models, and contemporary historiography, a field that has witnessed enormous transformations as well.

Diversity Unbinding: Literary and Cultural Criticisms. I have also pointed to the emergence of two other umbrella models in the 1970s as the beginnings of a drastic change in the state of affairs of the discipline; I refer to literary criticism and cultural criticism. Voices of dissatisfaction with the traditional historical approach to the New Testament texts began to surface in the mid-1970s, swiftly developed into major critical formations through the 1980s, and continued to expand in diversity and sophistication in the 1990s. These voices of dissent came from different quarters, addressed different perceived shortcomings of historical criticism, and remained for the most part independent of one another. The result was a period of crisis that ultimately signaled the end of historical criticism as the dominant umbrella model and the rise of a plurality of such models.

Dissatisfaction was expressed with the way in which historical criticism approached texts. The fracturing (emphasis on textual rupture), excavative (emphasis on the preliterary stages of the text), and atomistic (emphasis on verse-by-verse analysis) tendencies of historical criticism began to be viewed as overlooking the text as such. The text, it was now argued, was worthy of analysis in and of itself, as text, with a focus on its formal features. Dissatisfaction was also expressed with the way in which historical criticism approached context. The pointilistic tendencies of historical criticism began to be seen as unstructured, impressionistic, even ethnocentric. The context, it was now argued, was worthy of analysis in and of itself, as context, with a focus on its social and cultural features. These voices of dissatisfaction produced an instability in New Testament Studies, such that practitioners began to look to other disciplines for grounding. Those concerned with texts looked often to the human sciences—literary, rhetorical, and psychological studies; those concerned with context looked to the social sciences—economics, sociology, and anthropology. In the process, the long-standing and exclusive association between New Testament Studies and historical studies drew rapidly to a close.

For reading the New Testament today, knowledge of the literary and the cultural modes of discourse proves essential for practitioners, not only because of their prominence and vigor but also because of their pivotal role in the recent turn of events. Gradually, a broad variety of approaches came into being, again depending on the particular focus of study in question. From the point of view of literary criticism, one finds structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism, narrative criticism, rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism; and deconstruction. From the point of view of cultural criticism, one finds socioeconomic (neo-Marxist) criticism, sociological criticism, and anthropological criticism.

With regard to the prevailing view of the relationship between practitioner and field in all of these approaches, a distinction is in order. For the most part, the ideal of exegesis remained unquestioned. In fact, both literary criticism and cultural criticism determined to outdo historical criticism by seeking to advance a more secure foundation and strategy for dealing with the text as text and the context as context. The basic perception was, in effect, that the task of contextualization—of reading the text on its own terms, within its own context, and as evidence for the reconstruction of that context—had not been properly executed.

At the same time, certain developments within both formations pointed to the first cracks in this ideal of exegesis. From the perspective of literary criticism, the concepts of univocality and objectivity did yield some ground, given the increasing emphasis on the plurality of interpretations, due to the polysemy of texts and the agency of readers. From the perspective of cultural criticism, both concepts yielded further ground, given the increasing focus on the socioeconomic and sociocultural dimensions of readers. Thus, while the scientific goals of retrieval and reconstruction as well as neutrality and impartiality prevailed, a certain erosion of these goals was evident. Consequently, while both umbrella models continued to pursue unreservedly the diversity of Christian beginnings, the first hints of diversity at the level of interpretation began to surface.

With respect to critics, then, this was a case of diversity unbinding. First, expectations regarding practitioners witnessed a fundamental change from one umbrella model to various such models. Second, expectations regarding the ideal of exegesis began, ever so slightly, to be relaxed. Needless to say, knowledge of these two umbrella models proves necessary today. Reading the New Testament today demands a measure of expertise in the broad traditions of literary and social studies, if one is to be self-conscious in approaching a text and dealing with context. Such expertise calls for critical awareness regarding the recent history and currents of the disciplines in question as well as the history of their use in New Testament Studies.

Diversity Unbound: Cultural Studies. I have further referred to the appearance in more recent times of another umbrella model—cultural studies—as the entrenchment of the drastic change in the discipline. It was not long before other voices of dissatisfaction came to the fore, now with regard to the literary and cultural critiques and programs as well. Such voices came both from inside and outside these recent critical formations, gathering strength through the 1980s and coming into their own in the 1990s. From the inside, the initial cracks noted above with regard to the traditional ideals of exegesis began to widen and deepen. From the outside, a momentous change was taking place in the ranks of a discipline that up to this point had been male, clerical, and Western. These two developments coincided with and reinforced one another and, in so doing, not only created a distinctive umbrella model but also justified the plurality of competing models. This was a period of resolution, therefore, involving stability—not the stability of uniformity, to be sure, but the unstable stability of pluralism. The discipline finds itself in this period today.

Dissatisfaction from the inside was inevitable, as the focus on the plurality of interpretations and the agency of the reader in interpretation continued to intensify. A number of voices began to argue that behind all retrievals of meaning and reconstructions of history—behind all methods and models—stand the real flesh-and-blood readers, who are always and inescapably contextualized and perspectival. Dissatisfaction from the outside became inevitable as well, as more and more outsiders to the discipline joined its ranks: Western women, men and women from the non-Western world, and women and men from non-Western minority groups in the West. Such voices insisted on the agency as well as the contextualization and perspective of real readers. In both quarters, such rumblings were directly aided by similar discussions across the disciplinary spectrum of the human and social sciences, which came together to form the subject of cultural studies, with its focus on issues of representation, power, and ideology.

For reading the New Testament today, knowledge of this ideological mode of discourse is absolutely indispensable. First, as the end result of the recent turn of events, it cannot but serve as the foundation for all future development. Also, this mode of discourse is where the discussion continues to rage in the academy at large, seeking the freedom to contextualize the reader as much as the text in any number of ways: gender, ethnic or racial provenance, socioeconomic standing, sociopolitical status and affiliation, socioreligious tradition, socioeducational level, socioacademic tradition, and so forth.

With this emphasis on the agency of contextualized and perspectival readers, the prevailing view of the relationship between practitioner and field leaves behind altogether the sense of the wide gulf separating text and critic—the text as "out there" and the critic as "over here"—and with it the ideal of exegesis. The basic perception of this model is that the traditional task of reading the text on its own terms, within its own context, and as evidence for the reconstruction of that context is fundamentally defective. Behind this task lies not, as required, a neutral and impartial reader but rather a reader that is very much involved, in any number of ways, in the task of retrieval and reconstruction. Indeed, for cultural studies such a reader is ultimately engaged in the construction of texts and contexts, and, given the enormous variety of real readers engaged in such a task, such constructions can only be expected to show widespread and conflicting diversity. As a result, the phenomenon of diversity is both explained and justified at a foundational level. For cultural studies, in the end, the task of contextualization becomes far more complex, equally applicable as it is to texts and critics; in fact, exegesis and eisegesis now go hand in hand.

With regard to critics, therefore, this is a case of diversity unbound. First, another umbrella model becomes part of the disciplinary repertoire, adding to the methodological and theoretical diversity already unleashed. Second, within this umbrella model, practitioners are called upon to contextualize themselves as much as the text—to acknowledge and analyze their social location and agenda as sharply as those of the text and to examine the relationship between such a text and such a reader. Finally, this umbrella model justifies diversity on the basis of readers as constructors rather than decipherers of texts.

Without a doubt, knowledge of this umbrella model is crucial today. From the point of view of cultural studies, reading the New Testament today calls for a measure of expertise in the congeries of studies that form cultural studies, if one is to be self-conscious in the construction of texts and contexts. Such expertise requires critical sophistication in the ongoing discussions regarding questions of representation, power, and ideology both inside and outside the discipline.


I referred at the beginning to a heightened state of affairs in matters methodological and theoretical within the discipline at the present time and accounted for it in terms of the diversity that has come to permeate the discipline in the last twenty-five years. In the preceding narrative of this turn of events, I proceeded to trace the irruption of diversity in terms of three stages involving a process of unbinding. The result of such unbinding, I have argued, has been a heightened demand on all practitioners with regard to method and theory: a need for ever greater sophistication in an ever wider array of reading strategies, theoretical frameworks, and umbrella models of interpretation—both inside and outside the discipline. Such, I have pointed out, is the heavy price always exacted by any process of diversity.

Yet diversity always proves enormously uplifting as well, and this is no less true with regard to New Testament Studies. Its benefits for the discipline can be readily outlined. Diversity has forced practitioners to become ever more self-conscious in their use of method and theory; ever more interdisciplinary in their understanding and exercise of the discipline—tying them closer to the human and social sciences and thus to the academy itself; and ever more self-conscious regarding their own contextualization and perspective in the world, where increasing globalization goes hand in hand with increasing differentiation.

Reading the New Testament today has become a far more challenging and exciting task. If the demands in method and theory have increased a hundredfold, so have their rewards. For now, such demands and such rewards are bound to continue and multiply, making the field even more challenging and exciting in the years to come.