I’d like to sum up my posts so far on the state of New Testament textual criticism – my original field of scholarship – when I entered into the field of student as a graduate student in the early 1980s by telling an anecdote. It has always struck me as rather amusing. (I am basing all this on memory, and as I’ve just written a book on memory, I am acutely aware of how frail this particular human function is. But this is exactly as I remember it!)
I was attending, for the second or third time, I suppose, the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. This is the professional meeting that nearly all scholars of biblical studies – mainly professors (and graduate students) in colleges, universities, and seminaries – attend every year. Today the meeting has probably 6000 or 7000 attendees. Back then it was probably half that.
At the meeting there are papers being read in different sessions, simultaneously – maybe 30-40 sessions going on at a time, in all sorts of areas: the theology of Leviticus, translation problems in the book of Job, feminist readings of Isaiah, the historical Jesus, post-colonial understandings of Paul, the writings of the Nag Hammadi library, and so forth and so on, world without end. Included in the proceedings are meetings of New Testament Textual Criticism, usually two or three sessions devoted to the topic a year, with six thirty-minute papers presented in each session, each paper given by an expert in the field on a relevant topic of his or her choice.
So, this time I was attending, in the early 1980s, I went to all the textual criticism sections. They were, as a rule, attended by about a dozen older white men (other sections have many dozens, sometimes hundreds of people attending). Among these scholars, in the time between papers there were conversations, and a general dismay and even anger that the work they were doing was not being taken as more important by other members of the New Testament professional guild.
In these textual critics’ view, their work was absolutely central to the study of the New Testament. But most New Testament scholars neither knew nor cared what they were doing, and they found that upsetting and disturbing.
So here’s the anecdote.
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