Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Beauty of Older Scholarship

I am learning to love older scholarship. And by "older" I mean pre-war. And by "pre-war," I mean before the Great War, i.e. the First World War, the War to End All Wars, i.e. the war that made the Second World War virtually inevitable. Historical accounts of New Testament scholarship often identify the First World War as a turning point. Without exaggerating, I would describe this turning point as follows. In the two or so decades prior to the war, NT scholars tended to focus upon what Lonergan would describe as "basic" history: who did what where and when. After the war there was a shift towards what Lonergan calls "special" histories, such as the history of tradition, the history of form, the history of redaction. The reasons for this shift are unnecessary to discuss here. Rather, it is sufficient to state that when one reads through the work of the pre-war period you sort of get the sense of an aborted project.

The NT historians of the pre-war years were building upon the work of titans such as Lightfoot and Zahn to produce remarkable insights into the origins of Christianity. Some of the work of that period has never really been surpassed. For instance, George Edmundson' 1913 The Church in Rome in the First Century remains one of the best basic-historical studies of the subject, simply because so little work has been done on the matter since then. It can be augmented greatly by works such as Lampe's excellent 1987 Die stadtrömischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten, translated into English as From Paul to Valentinus: Christianity at Rome in the First Two Centuries, which as its German sub-title (Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte) suggests, is a social history. Lampe is not doing basic history, not primarily. He does it of course, when necessary, but that is not his focus. Indeed, a focus upon basic history has all but disappeared within NT scholarship.

I think that this is deeply problematic. As noted above, in a real sense the multi-decade crisis that began in 1914 brought a premature end to the enterprise of basic history as it relates to NT studies. As such, there was yet much left undone, and some of our only studies on a number of basic-historical matters are now well over a century old. Edmundson's work on the Roman church remains excellent, and in many ways indispensable due to a dearth of comparable work, but it was written 103 years ago. And this is a problem, because basic history is basic for a reason. I love social history. It's really my primary passion. But social histories presuppose basic histories. They suppose that we know what was happening, and then attempt to make sense of that. An obvious example of this is chronology: if one wants to write, for instance, a social history of early Christian knowledge (to adapt a term from Peter Burke), then it makes a real difference whether the bulk of extant first-century Christian works were written c. 40-70, as per John Robinson, or 40-100 as per the consensus dates, or 40-140 as per the neo-Baurian school. Yet we continue to work with a chronology that was worked out in the main a century ago, and has been subjected to very limited testing since then. To the extent that our basic histories are as antiquated as they are, then to that extent our social histories will also suffer--as will our cultural histories, our histories of doctrines, our tradition histories, etc. As such, I find myself returning time and again to scholars such as Harnack, Lightfoot, and Edmundson, because they are really our best examples of NT scholarship focused upon basic history. If we are to generate basic histories that take into account everything that we've learned over the last hundred years then we have to return to where the project of basic history broke off. And I'm learning a lot from them.

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