Saturday, 13 August 2016

Hermetic Specialization

I've received some push-back on FB from my friend Bill Heroman re: my post "A Tale of Five Johns." And that's fine: there's no point in discussing ideas if they aren't going to be genuinely debated. I'm not going to rehash that push-back, but I will state an observation that comes out of that. My primary interest in that post was to work out in practice my conviction that one of the recurrent problems with modern NT scholars is what we might call "hermetic" specialization. Specialization is good; it's necessary. No one scholar can do everything, so we specialize and then bring together the findings in our respective fields of study. Too often however this work of bringing things together never really happens. Synoptic scholars often tend to operate in isolation from Johannine scholars, and vice versa, and everyone just kinda leaves the Pauline scholars to do their own thing. But when specialists in NT history fail to interact with anything outside their narrow field of interest then what emerges is a disintegrated (in the literal sense: lacking integration) vision of Christian origins. One of the major tests of our historical hypotheses comes when we go about the work of integrating narratives about, say, the origin of John's Gospel and Letters, with narratives about the origins of Revelation, with narratives about the origins of Luke-Acts, etc. That's when we begin to see that we perhaps operate with suppositions in one area which are mutually exclusive to suppositions with which we operate in another (my favourite go-to example is a tendency to suppose that data from the Pauline epistles trump data from Acts, then to also argue Paul couldn't have written the Pastorals because they can't be fit into the Acts framework). It's the work of integrating "local" narratives into a "global" frame where the rubber really hits the road. Hermetic specialization fails to engage in such work. Anyone can describe in exhaustive detail a single puzzle piece, but that won't get one any closer to solving the puzzle. Finding how the pieces fit together, that's the challenge.

The way in which I am currently working to develop such an integrated narrative is via the dates of the New Testament texts. The question of date is not entirely an end on to itself. It's a way of focusing my investigation and arguments. I think that discussions about the dates of the New Testament need to include more than just considerations of the earliest and the latest at which a text could have been written. Of course, such considerations are necessary. They exclude the vast majority of years, narrowing down what in principle could be any time in the past to a relatively small range. But we need also to develop plausible narratives that demonstrate that the text in question could have been written at a particular time within that range, and that something like that time is more plausible than any other possible time. A big part of that is to show how the dates and their supporting narratives interlock, and a significant test of any chronological framework will consist of its coherency when narratives for all twenty-seven books of the NT as well as a half or so dozen other potentially more or less coeval texts (viz. Didache, 1 Clement, Ascension of Isaiah, Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermas, and Epistle of Barnabas) are brought together.

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