Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

16

SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC CRITICISM AND LITERARY STUDIES

Prospects for cooperation in biblical interpretation

Vernon K. Robbins

During the last two decades both literary and social-scientific approaches to biblical texts have developed at an increasing pace, significantly changing the appearance and the substance of biblical interpretation. For some interpreters, these two approaches represent opposite interests: any marriage of the two produces either bastard or stillborn children. For other interpreters, some kind of merger is desirable or even essential.


DISCIPLINARY, INTERDISCIPLINARY AND ECLECTIC METHODS OF INTERPRETATION

The dominant mode of twentieth-century biblical criticism prior to the 1970s was disciplinary, and this was the mode in which literary and social-scientific approaches began their work. Disciplines of study emerged vigorously during the nineteenth century and began to represent the ‘true nature of things’ during the twentieth century. A discipline emerges when a group of people acquires authoritative status to guide research, analysis and interpretation. The major means for establishing a discipline is to identify certain phenomena for investigation and certain strategies for investigating the phenomena. Anyone who investigates the same data with different strategies is ‘out of the bounds’ of the discipline, as well as anyone who investigates different data with the same or similar strategies.

A disciplinary approach, therefore, is a power structure, and its inherent nature is hierarchical. An overarching model or method provides a framework for negotiating the use of subdisciplines and practices. During the first seventy years of the twentieth century, the disciplines of history and theology sparred with one another for ascendancy in biblical interpretation. Sparring between disciplines, of course, establishes an essentially hidden polarity that excludes a wide range of approaches from the realm of ‘serious exegesis’ of the Bible. Prior to 1970, data in the Bible was either ‘historical’ or ‘theological’, it could represent either historical theology or theological history but not something else.

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