Pauline Amnesia

(the following is a helpful post by Larry Hurtado)

Scholarly Amnesia on Paul

larryhurtado | September 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Categories: Uncategorized | URL:

Unintentionally having created a controversy that (in the words of one blogger) went “viral”, with what I presumed was the modest contention that those seeking a PhD in NT/Christian Origins should be able to read the Greek NT, and should also be able to engage at least scholarship in English, German and French, I will also reiterate another contention:  That scholars need to read old(er) books.  Otherwise, “scholars” blithely may assume to have discovered something that was long ago known and published, may ascribe some “new” idea to a more recent publication (when the idea was actually out there much earlier), and in general may deprive themselves of the riches of earlier scholarly work.

One scholar who is curiously overlooked today, sometimes not even cited, is Johannes Munck.  Two key works deserve notice by any Pauline scholar (and I shall not name those who curiously seem not to know Munck today, which include some widely-known figures in current Pauline studies).

Munck’s Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (ET, Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1959; German original, Paulus und die Heilsgeschichte, Copenhagen:  Munksgaard, 1954) remains hugely important.  It’s a series of studies, rather than a consecutively-developed work, but the studies all inter-relate to make an important, thought-provoking, and valuable total contribution.  E.g., in the first chapter, “The Call”, Munck clearly showed that Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience wasn’t a “conversion” but instead a powerful prophetic calling (an idea for which Krister Stendahl is now more commonly given credit, but Stendahl got it from Munck).

Munck also argued that Paul saw himself as a crucial figure in “salvation-history” (the divine plan for world-redemption), likely understanding himself in light of biblical texts, esp. from Isaiah.  Munck contended that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was intended to provoke the salvation of Israel (Paul having come to an eschatological vision the reverse of that held by the Jerusalem church).  Munck emphasize that Paul wasn’t really a theologian in any modern sense of the word, but instead his theological thinking was the consequence of his mission, and his letters (including Romans) were all conditioned by that mission.  There is a lot more I could cite from this work that justifies saying that everyone concerned with Paul should study it carefully.

Munck’s other insufficiently-known work is his careful exegeticial study, Christ and Israel:  An Interpretation of Romans 9–11 (Phildelphia:  Fortress Press, 1967; Danish original, 1956).  As only one example of the curious neglect of Munck’s work,  N.T. Wright’s exegetical study of these same chapters makes no reference to it (The Climax of the Covenant:  Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, pp. 231-57), although Munck’s reading of Romans is perhaps the most serious alternative to Wright’s.  E.g., contra Wright, Munck contends that Romans 11:25-32 shows that Paul continued to affirm an eschatological salvation of “Israel”, and that by “Israel” Paul meant the Jewish people.

Munck deserves to be cited and engaged as a major contributor to the late 20th-century “discovery” of Paul’s very Jewish-ness, and should be factored into the debates about the putative “new perspective” on Paul.  The flood of new/continuing publications serves the understandable purpose of getting scholars published (and so getting hired, tenured, promoted).  But, frankly, a good deal of it is  . . .  well, less than necessary reading.  But works like these by Munck definitely belong on the “must read” list, especially for Pauline scholars.

Scholarly amnesia on this or other topics doesn’t simply involve a failure to acknowledge and remember the contributions of earlier scholars.  We deprive ourselves of insights and provocative observations that can fuel our own.

  • Mike Helbert

    It seems that overlooking older material is sometimes encouraged by graduate level professors. While in seminary we were expected to use the most recent materials available for research/exegesis papers. Some professors put dates on acceptable sources, i.e. after 1990. When students grow up with apparent disdain for older sources, that will carry over into their subsequent scholarly research. Perhaps those who make these decisions should consider the legacy they are leaving by insinuating that newer is better.

  • Martin Smith

    While I’m no aspiring Biblical scholar, I have been taught to be wary of books that cite old sources, seeing as the scholarship could be very out of date.

  • David

    I am no NT scholar – rather a partly retired economist. But through this blog and other reading I am sticking my nose into this scholarship. At my congregation on Sunday we were commissioning a second generation missionary with his kids (third generation) to return to their fields – home base of which is South Africa. They grew up in Papua New Guinea – (grandparents now living in Australia) These kids are likely to to be strewn across Australia, Greece and Turkey.

    All this to say that their NT work is being built in the clash of cultures, as Paul’s was. They must take the message across language barriers, as Paul did. They must determine with the aid of the Spirit what parts of the Gospel are essential – also as Paul did.

    If it is difficult to find dissertation topics to find a job, get tenured and publish — maybe Paul’s route could be a means to those ends. He certainly had a job, he published and by only a mild stretch of the word – was tenured.

    Was reading George Ladd’s Blessed Hope the other day (another old scholar likely to be overlooked). The last chapter sets the priority of world evangelization clearly. Are we waiting for the final few language groups to be reached before the big day arrives? Would the emphasis on language development be usefully deployed in bible translation? Could new scholarship be forged out of missionary endeavors? After all the NT was forged from such stuff.

  • FoxRunImages

    Sounds a lot like what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery.

  • Wolf Paul (Vienna, Austria)

    This is also in response to Martin Smith …

    It is of course very different whether one does research and study on some technical subject like aeronautics, electronics, or nuclear physics, where there are truly NEW things discovered and developed every year, or whether one is studying subjects like languages, history, philosophy or theology, where truly NEW FACTS are much rarer, and it is mostly a question of NEW IDEAS or NEW INTERPRETATIONS which may or may not be better or truer than the old ones …