De-Introducing the New Testament

Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories

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Todd Penner and Davina Lopez
  • Wet Sussex, UK: 
    Wiley-Blackwell
    , June
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $99.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781405187688.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this provocative and probing study, authors Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez re-evaluate and re-narrate the field of New Testament studies and the constitutive stories its practitioners tell in introducing the discipline to non-specialists. Their chosen strategy, what the authors call “de-introduction,” is not deployed as a new or better way to introduce novices to the field. Rather, Lopez and Penner attempt to use the lens of “de-introduction” to explore the field, defamiliarize it, interrogate it, and prod at its foundational assumptions. This results in a highly original contribution and a valuable perspective on what New Testament studies is, has been, and might yet be. Although relatively slim for a volume exploring the discourses and habitus of an entire field, Penner and Lopez successfully cover much ground with clear, well-written, and engaging prose. Unlike many monographs produced in New Testament studies, this was both illuminating and fun to read (see, for example, the subtle and witty jokes throughout).

The authors are able guides on this tour, and self-consciously “brand” their work as a kind of Foucauldian archaeological study, rendering unfamiliar what the field has taken for granted for generations (e.g., 31–33). The first chapter queries and critiques “the New Testament order of things” (25), and the epistemology upon which New Testament studies, and its flagship approach—historical criticism—are based. Chapter 2 explores the taken-for-granted approach in New Testament introductory textbooks of emphasizing particular contextual backgrounds (such as Jewish or Greco-Roman) against which the New Testament should be read. The authors make the interesting observation that, among many scholars, the reading of the New Testament against the background of Jewish/Judean or Roman imperial matrices often results in a narrative in which the New Testament, its characters, and composers are drawn as liberating heroes who win out over or against the oppressive Jewish or Roman religious and political regimes (107). New Testament studies, like most fields, prizes originality in research; it is thus not without irony that some “imperial critical” approaches can be so easily compared to earlier—and often anti-Judaic—readings. The authors explore approaches to material culture in New Testament studies in chapter 3, arguing that objects, such as texts, do not speak for themselves: they “are not fixed or transparent,” and “they do not work on their own; we put them to work for us” (122). The authors, thus, foreground the agency of the scholar in the contextualizing of material objects and the deploying them, in the modern study of the New Testament (161). In the final chapter, cleverly titled “Brand(ish)ing Biblical Scholars(hip),” Penner and Lopez contextualize the proliferation of methodological approaches within neoliberalism—the dominant economic model of the modern West—arguing that “branding” is “a critical means of performing a type of neoliberal subjectivity in New Testament scholarship wherein scholars construct and promote themselves as ‘brands,’ ‘sellers,’ and ‘consumers’ in relation to intellectual currents and content” (173). Newer approaches, such as identitarian or imperial critical readings, are often juxtaposed against the “old guard” of historical criticism. This juxtaposition, whether helpful or not (and it often is), is ultimately an act of branding, which is itself an outworking of neoliberal subjectivity (196).

This fascinating book raises important questions about the field of New Testament studies, and how scholars and students perform it. It represents the kind of careful, thoughtful work most valuable in our field: that which gives rise to new questions, and in-roads to exploration and interpretation. Readers, depending on their professional context and disposition, will grapple and at times differ with the authors’ de-introduction of the field. While I very much appreciate the authors’ comparison of newer, imperial critical readings to the older, often anti-Judaic readings of the New Testament, I was left to wonder if there isn’t some substantial truth to the claims that early Christianity presented real liberation from particular forms of Roman hegemony. That is to say: if New Testament scholarship can be criticized for its at-times nascent (and sometimes outright) anti-Semitism, does it necessarily follow that postcolonial or anti-imperial readings are simply re-performing an old script? No first century Jews—that I am aware of—made a common practice of public torture and execution; it was Rome that did that. With this in mind, and a critical awareness of the missteps of earlier scholarship, and subjective work of the scholar who chooses which background to emphasize, we may yet be on firmer ground to emphasize the liberative aspects of particular texts within the New Testament. Scholars of such empire-critical persuasions would nonetheless do well to heed the authors’ warnings that such contextualizations must not devolve into black-and-white readings that eschew too much nuance for ideological or theological purposes.

Despite this minor criticism—or better: critical engagement—I think that every academic discipline ought to have a book like De-Introducing the New Testament. Although written specifically about the field of New Testament studies, and particularly for its professional practitioners, the authors’ attempt at “excavating and unmasking the most basic categories and operative frameworks in the field” could be ported to other fields within religious studies and the humanities (ix). The ways in which any field is constructed and performed are not self-evidently the only options available. By “de-introducing” the field, Penner and Lopez illumine the stories we’ve told about it, and offer up new ones for its future. While written particularly for students and scholars of the New Testament, De-Introducing would be a welcome addition to the library of any scholar of religion, no matter the subfield. As a model for future studies on other subfields in religious studies, Penner and Lopez’s narration of New Testament studies should inspire other similarly fruitful “de-introductions” throughout our broad discipline.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Danny Yencich is a Ph.D. student in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Davina C. Lopez is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul's Mission (2008).

Todd Penner is the author of Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse (with Caroline Vander Stichele, 2009) and In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography (2004). 

Both Lopez and Penner conducted research for this book as scholars-in-residence at the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary/Columbia University between 2010 and 2011. In addition, they are both Senior Editors for the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies (2014) and have co-authored numerous essays together related to method and its consequence for interpretation in the study of the New Testament.

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Comments

Mark Caponigro

Yes, this book does indeed sound fascinating, and I look forward to seeing it. Meanwhile, those who like me have yet to read it will perhaps be, like me, curious to see what Danny Yencich is warning us about, re Jews and Romans. We may hope that more and more workers in NT studies and Christian origins are aware of the retrojection of anti-Judaic and even anti-Semitic sentiments, of ages-old tradition perhaps, into many an interpretation; fortunately we have Amy-Jill Levine to warn us that even now we must be wary. As a classicist, I can add that there is a certain reductivism regarding Greco-Roman culture, thought,and religion, accompanied by a dismissive attitude, now and again to be found in discussions of e.g. emperor-worship.

But Yencich may be referring to something other, something like a discovery of the "genius" of Christianity in the principled systematic rejection of "Judaism" (however that might be defined), or of Greco-Roman emperor-venerating polytheism. Well, good ideas remain as good as ever, until they're taken too far. We should hope at this point that workers (including preachers, and the authors of sourcebooks consulted by preachers, typical targets of Ms. Levine) might understand that Paul's re-interpretation of his own Jewish past, and his negotiation with the more traditional-Judaism-regarding people in Christian communities he knew, represent a very different phenomenon than what we see in the negative portrayals of Pharisees and/or Jews in Matthew, Luke, and John, post-destruction of the Temple and in the milieu of the conception of proto-Rabbinic Judaism, even if one or two of Paul's ideas may have influenced the latters' rhetoric (let's leave aside how they may have come to know of Pauline ideas, though that's a worthwhile issue). As for dealing with Rome, or "Rome," that should be understood to require so much nuance and sense of the topical and the occasional that no one who is serious could hope to pronounce anything systematic. Of course considerations of Roman power, politics and religion had a great deal to do with the compositions of Mark and (in other ways) of Revelation. But even Mark gives a nuanced portrait of Romans; and the composition as well of Luke and Acts in the 80s ought to convince us that we dare not say anything too simplistic. The NT scholar now working whom I most admire (alongside the late Raymond Brown), Bart Ehrman, likes the observations made by Michael Peppard (whom I also admire, and moreover have met him and heard him speak) regarding the christological title "Son of God": "ho huiòs to~u theo~u" is not quite the same as the Julio-Claudians' "divi filius," but one can agree that the idea of a connexion is worth exploring.

Anyway I fully follow the contention of Ehrman, who is himself by no means alone and eccentric, that the historical Jesus, "apocalyptic prophet," was himself not worried about ideologies that can be referred to as Jewish or Roman, and that a large part of the fascination in NT studies and Christian origins is how this varied group of Jesus-oriented people within a century after 30 CE accommodated the no less varied memories and traditions of that Jesus to very different circumstances of sociology, politics, religious aspiration, and literary creativity.  

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