New Testament Scholarship—A Lament

Is it just me who sees the steep decline in the quality of New Testament scholarship? I don’t think so.

I look at the numerous textbooks that are being published—I know, these do not, let me repeat, do not count as scholarship—and they are full of all sorts of useless nonsense designed to keep the attention of a generation of students who have grown up on social media and Netflix. There are dialog boxes, sidebars, and, of course, colored pictures. If that is not bad enough, the more important problem is that many current seminary and graduate textbooks, if one judges content and writing level, are equivalent to what would have been used in undergraduate courses in years past. But no more. Now they are lightweight fare for seminarians and even graduate students.

The same observation is to be made, however, about a number of other volumes that purport to be important scholarship. I have identified several trends that are of concern.

The first trend is the lack of new ideas. How many books actually contain new ideas? Not that many. How many books with the same old ideas do we need? Far fewer than we have and than we continue to get. We don’t need another defense of an idea that has already been ably defended, especially if it represents itself as something new. These kinds of books often flourish as a theory is coming to the end of its useful service, and a paradigm shift is ready to occur. There is a reason why retreaded tires are not as good as originals.

The second trend is simply to repeat common knowledge. I saw a book recently that purports to be a scholarly monograph that has major sections repeating basic word identification, much like one might find in the old Zerwick/Grosvenor or the like. Besides the fact that the linguistic labels being used were woefully out of date (and pre-linguistic—see the comments in the next paragraph), the author gave no real explanation of how all of this purported information fit together and formed a cohesive and intelligible whole.

The third is to use outmoded models and frameworks, or to get confused about what one is doing. So many works continue to be written using language and linguistic paradigms that are from the pre-linguistic era. This is the major blight of most contemporary commentaries—where too many already abound and genuinely new ones rarely appear. Or what about the multiple volumes that purport to represent some big idea of Scripture? There simply cannot be that many grand narratives! I won’t comment on the modernist agenda at work here, but simply notice that to take this approach is not to do biblical studies but is to do theology, plain and simple. This is not New Testament studies but something else.

A final trend is to purport to do something new that is simply something old. I saw a book recently that tried to read a book of the Bible backwards, as if this is something new. This isn’t a new idea at all—this is simply called theology, where one takes the Bible and interprets it in a non-literary or non-linguistic way for other purposes. This is fine if this is what one is trying to do, but let’s not call it biblical studies. Let’s call it what it is, theology. So much of what occurs in contemporary New Testament scholarship is in fact not New Testament scholarship that avails itself of the best models and methods of interpretation but theology masquerading as something else.

So, where do we go from here? I suggest a moratorium on the banal and the simplistic and the outmoded. It would be a shame if that meant a moratorium on an entire discipline, one that I used to have much more respect for.

— Stanley E. Porter

2 thoughts on “New Testament Scholarship—A Lament

  1. The more PhD’s big schools accept–as if there were some necessary ratio between undergrad students and PhD students (surely the big boy American evangelical seminars are partly to blame)–and the more publishers keep clamouring to pump out glossy new academic catalogues so they can pay themselves, it seems this is inevitable.

    I.e. if it’s true that there’s an over saturation problem at some level of the discipline (graduating PHD #’s, publishing output), then it might be true that there is a mediocrity problem (again, at some level), in the sense that the qualities of originality and discipline (two necessary ingredients it seems for the scholarship you’re pining after) are more unique as the pool expands.


    • Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you are right that there are a number of factors contributing to the situation that I have outlined, and no doubt the churning out of PhDs by some schools and definitely the monetary demands of publishers, perhaps some in particular, help to drive the situation. The more people are involved the wider the variety and, it seems, the lower the level achieved, and that is then catered to and reinforced by publications, etc. The cycle has become and is vicious. This does not mean there is not always room for excellence, but it is not always recognized in the mass market world in which we live.


      Liked by 1 person

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