Bridges in New Testament Interpretation

Interdisciplinary Advances

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Editor(s): 
Neil Elliott, Werner H. Kelber
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , April
     2018.
     330 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978702165.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Neil Elliott and Werner H. Kelber, editors of Bridges in New Testament Interpretation: Interdisciplinary Advances, aim to promote a scholarly research agenda and interdisciplinary approach to biblical topics that may not receive adequate attention in current New Testament scholarship. Readers will quickly notice that the eight contributing scholars from a variety of backgrounds present research on a variety of topics, such as  the role of power in shaping our understanding of history, socioeconomic history of Roman Palestine, and the historical Jesus in political and media contexts. The book is dedicated to a biblical scholar, Richard A. Horsley, and his research agenda to promote and give greater attention to voices and movements “from below.”

At the outset, I must state that reviewing an edited text presents a series of advantages and disadvantages of their own: the advantages include attention to neglected or new areas of research or resources, while the disadvantages include a lack of focus, exposure to the sheer volume of material, and no coherent set of themes or guiding questions or concerns to structure the presentation of material. Unless one is familiar with Horsley’s research agenda and interdisciplinary New Testament studies, the reader of Bridges in New Testament Interpretation may find the variety of concepts, research findings, and methodologies disjointed or loosely coupled together.

In order to find coherence, I strongly recommend that the key to reading this book is to begin with the introduction, chapter 9, and chapter 10 (in this order). In the introduction, Neil Elliott begins by stating the book is dedicated to Horsley and that contributors seek to build upon his interdisciplinary approach in order to “change the landscape of the field (1).” In fact, when reading the book with this in mind, the editors state that the goals of the contributing authors are to: (1) offer interdisciplinary explanations; (2) present their New Testament scholarship (“what has been learned”}; and (3) analyze or propose “what New Testament scholars may stand to learn” (1).

Chapter 9 by Noelle Damico provides insight on the motivating factors that informed Horsley’s scholarship and the current volume. Damico discusses at least three factors that motivated Horsley’s scholarship: (1) leitourgia (religious service for the public good; political and economic public service activities for the public good); (2) the exposition of the effects of power and power relations on non-elite actors; and (3) the principle of “consciousness + commitment = change” (234–35). If one reads the introduction and chapter 9 first, in my opinion, one will not feel that the first eight chapters of this text are eight independent research studies that are loosely coupled together under the caption of “New Testament scholarship.”

However, if the reader likes “all the facts” upfront—that is, research questions, concerns, themes, or principles clearly stated early in the book, one should also read the lengthy chapter 10 by Werner Kelber, before reading chapters 1 through 8. This chapter not only gives the reader an annotated bibliography of the work of Horsley and a review of the scholarship of the contributing authors, but also correctly builds upon chapter 9 by providing the answers to my initial questions: (1) Is this also a book that showcases a variety of methodologies? (yes); and (2) What concepts or themes are reflected in this book as discussed in the agenda of Horsley? Further, Kelber clearly states that “the historiography of Richard A. Horsley is not from above, but below, and people-oriented, and not great-men centered (303).” In addition, Kelber states that the “plurality of topics does not lend itself to organization around a central point . . . but Horsley’s work is made up of multiple centers that communicate with each other” (301).

Although the ability and the degree to which human agency is able to transform the self, representations of the self, and oppressive social structures continues to be an on-going debate in some academic circles (e.g., postmodernism, Marxism) Reading this text with a postmodern lens, it is evident that the contributors wanted to examine the emergence of human agency from below, and Elliott and Kelber want to make clear that New Testament scholarship should not neglect the intersection of religion and politics (255). Elliott asserts in the introduction that “bridge building” in New Testament studies should reflect Horsley’s three areas of concern: (1) crossing methodological boundaries, (2) including the voices and experiences of oppressed and marginalized people, and (3) grounding the work of scholars in the struggles of dispossessed people (11-12). Are these concerns reflected in the contributions of the authors?

I think the concerns stated by Elliott are indeed reflected in each chapter. Chapter 1 by Antoinette Clark Wire concerns the voices or stories of women. Wire examines the material and social lives of four groups of women during the ministry of Jesus. Using the two approaches of “story pathways” and “hidden transcripts,” Wire notes that a clear majority of women were not literate and their stories were not considered and were neglected. In spite of these systems of oppression, including the Roman Empire, and the social status and location of women, they were “remarkably effective” in their different contexts (38).

In chapter 2, Gerd Theissen examines the Jesus Movement and raises two questions: First, why did the movement come into existence?  Second, why did the movement succeed? Theissen argues that in the presence of a class divide between the upper stratum (Hellenistic reformers) and the lower stratum (the Jesus Movement), the emergence and success of the Jesus movement occurred as a response to changing empires, Jesus’ use of the oral traditions of the people, the appeal of a universalist message, a counter-intuitive eschatology, and the radicalized monotheism (56-61)

Finally, in chapter 8, Elliott presents a persuasive argument on examining the economic realities of the New Testament world. At first, I agreed with his assertion that some may find his study runs counter to the other contributions of the book (203). However, upon a closer reading, I think Elliott wants readers to unlearn commonly held assumptions about the poor—for example, Jesus’ statement, “the poor you have with you always.” Elliott prompts the reader to ask: Why are the poor with us always? Are they all lazy?

Elliott warns about the following: spiritualizing certain passages of the New Testament; labeling the poor without critical examination of economic-political systems; adopting the current trends of neoliberalism, which appropriates the gospel message (capitalism is supported and the preferred economic system according to Scripture); and blind acceptance of the gospel of wealth (208-209). Instead, Elliott proposes that “dikes and canals” need to be built, instead of bridges, in order to redirect New Testament studies focused on the ideology of capitalism, which “have invaded human communities” (216).

Biblical scholars, pastor-theologians, and laity will find this book on New Testament scholarship a breath of fresh air. Honestly, I have a number of books on the New Testament, and I have yet to find the interesting array of such topics as presented here. Did the contributors advance the research agenda and methodologies proposed by the Richard A. Horsley? It is safe to say each contributor affirmed Horsley’s agenda that was stated at the outset. New Testament scholars should: (1) offer interdisciplinary explanations, (2) present their New Testament scholarship (“what has been learned”), and (3) analyze or propose what New Testament scholars may stand to learn” (1).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph A. Deering is Adjunct Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, University College, and a licensed minister.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neil Elliott is Senior Acquiring Editor in Biblical Studies for Lexington Books/Fortress Academic. 

Werner H. Kelber is Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor Emeritus in Biblical Studies at Rice University.

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