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The contribution of modern critical scholarship to the study of either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament

Originally the preserve of Christian theologians, the study of the Bible has in recent decades been expanded by the application of modern methods of criticism, usually developed in other fields such as literary criticism or social anthropology.  Many of these fields grew out from or overlap each other, but the main fields of modern criticism which are the most relevant to the study of the New Testament in particular are the schools of social-scientific criticism, structural criticism, and the post-modern schools of reader-response criticism and deconstructionism.

Social-scientific criticism stands within the tradition of historical-critical scholarship which has been applied to the study of the Bible for hundreds of years. (Martin, 1999, p 125)  It can be placed in this tradition because it is concerned with increasing knowledge and understanding of the New Testament world, but it is a fresh approach because it does not merely assess the evidence of the Bible from a historical point of view, but seeks to understand more of the world described in the New Testament by applying modern anthropological and sociological methods.  Characteristically, it applies models garnered from other societies which have been studied at first hand by anthropologists. These societal models, if appropriately and sensitively applied, can illuminate aspects of the New Testament which were not well understood, such as the relationship of the new Christian religion with Judaism and the social make-up of Jesus' followers.

The most recent additions to critical scholarship come from the realm of postmodernism.  Two of the most influential are reader-response criticism and deconstructionism.  These theories, however, despite being influential and radical, have not been nearly as useful to the study of the New Testament as those discussed above.  Reader-response criticism rejects the supposition that there is a meaning in texts which can be extracted.  Instead, in the act of reading, "It is the reader who 'makes' literature." (Stanley Fish, quoted in McKnight, 1999, p 231)  Another branch of the theory holds that there may be a meaning in the text, formed by the author's intention, but this meaning is unknowable. (McKnight, 1999, p 232)  These views are radical enough when applied to fiction, but when applied to the New Testament, which is a collection of texts written as history and as letters to actual people, it becomes most unhelpful.  The reader is "freed" to interpret the text in whatever way he finds "satisfying" to his own concerns. (McKnight, 1999, p 240)  This may be liberating for some readers of the New Testament, but as any interpretation would necessarily only be applicable to the one particular reader who created it, this form of scholarship can have nothing to add to New Testament scholarship at large.  Reader-response criticism can be usefully used to investigate the "implied reader" of texts, (McKnight, 1999, p 240) which can tell us more about the New Testament world and early Christians, but in general reader-response criticism has nothing to add to Bible scholarship. 

Deconstructionism, which takes the idea of no fixed interpretation further, denying the possibility of even a reader-response interpretation (and staggeringly even the possibility of finding a referent for the proper name "Jesus" in the gospel of Matthew [Burrnett, 1991]) is of even less use.  This theory asks us to challenge our reading of texts which are biased by our history and the exercise of power, but it offers nothing to put in their place and holds that "no 'closure', no final, and indeed, no real result is possible in this quest." (Beardslee, 1999, p 255)  It is in a very pure sense pointless.  Rejecting the idea that interpretation is possible, it cannot contribute meaningfully to the study of the New Testament.  Other modern branches of critical scholarship, such as social-scientific and structural, have enhanced our powers of interpretation by bringing knowledge and understanding from other fields such as semiotics and anthropology.  It is these branches which have contributed most to the study of the New Testament in recent decades, rather than radical, post-modern literary theories which cannot be usefully applied to a text which is historical and theological in character, such as the New Testament.

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