In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new section in my header that lists these interviews (including upcoming ones), so feel free to check out who’s next (which I post up there as soon as I know). I’m choosing to publish these interviews on Thursdays so that they don’t all get bunched together.
Here is the next in this series of interviews. This time it’s with Dr. Larry Hurtado, who is a professor and head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. There’s a video that floated around a few weeks ago you can also watch featuring him talking about the programs they have there.
First, tell us a little about yourself.
US-born, career developed in Canada, NT Chair in UEdinburgh since 1996, in second of a three-year term as Head of the School of Divinity, UEdinburgh. Married, three grown kids, two grandkids. Paid to research and teach in a subject I’d likely be willing to pay to study.
What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?
My own religious awakening (as a teenager) first motivated me to serious biblical studies, and those studies have only confirmed further my fascination with these texts and the religious developments of which they are expressions. I also like to try to contribute to shaping opinion and understanding in the field, and I am committed to open scholarly debate and dialogue.
What issues have you had to overcome along the way?
“Issues” to “overcome”? I’m not sure what is meant. One intellectual issue that I had to ponder early on and across the years (and I hope successfully) was how to engage with integrity the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts while also affirming their significance and function as scripture for Christian faith. It seems to me that both extreme “liberal” and “conservative/fundamentalist” views actually agree implicitly on the same premise (which I regard as fallacious, or at least not incontestably true): If the biblical texts are really historically-conditioned they cannot be “word of God”. Recognizing the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts, the extreme liberal concludes they cannot really function as scripture. Affirming the texts as scripture, the fundamentalist tries to dodge their historically-conditioned nature. Worse yet, both views are fundamentally boring! It would take more space than available here to lay out my own view, but in essence I think that it is theologically necessary to treat seriously the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts, and this is precisely integral to their scriptural function.
What is your favorite passage of scripture?
Oh, my! Too many to choose from. The Psalms are perhaps the most authentic texts of religious piety I’ve encountered. I suppose, however, that texts from Paul’s letters most frequently draw me to ponder on many levels, among them Galatians 2:19-20.
Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are working?
I’m trying to finish an overdue commissioned book on “God in the New Testament” (Abingdon Press). I’m also aiming to write a couple of contributions for multi-author volumes, one on the Son of Man issue, and another on what the visual/physical features of earliest Christian manuscripts tell us about the “sociology of reading” in early Christianity.
If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?
Again, my list would be lengthy, and has developed over the years. If by “everyone” you mean everyone committed to serious scholarly study, one general piece of advice would be to include key older works. For example, Deissmann’s Light from the Ancient East, Cullmann, C. H. Dodd (almost anything), and, yes, Bultmann (perhaps especially his NT Theology). Some of the most stimulating authors/works are those with which I’ve disagreed in some ways. We should read to learn, and to stretch ourselves, not simply to reassure ourselves.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing New Testament scholarship today?
To some degree, NT scholarship faces problems of Humanities disciplines in general, which include the diversity of approaches that now characterize the field, making it difficult to see if there is any coherence or focus to the field. But, having worked in large public universities for over thirty years, the basic lesson I’ve learned is that you must have your own vision, your own sense of purpose, your own focus, and you can’t rely on institutions or disciplines to provide these.
I suppose another problem is that of biblical studies in general: How to communicate the richness and excitement of the field beyond the circles of other scholars to wider circles of faith-communities and even the general public. NT studies are too important to be left to scholars alone!
I’ll also take the liberty of pointing to a couple of essays of mine in which I’ve tried to address the recent history/directions of the discipline and indicate some current/future questions:
–“New Testament Studies At the Turn of the Millennium: Questions for the Discipline,” Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999)
–“New Testament Studies in the Twentieth Century,” Religion 39 (2009): 43-57.
What areas do you think New Testament scholars will have to focus on in the next ten years?
Well, I think it’s unrealistic for anyone to say what others must do. Those involved in NT studies today are a greater diversity of people, with varying concerns and interests. But a couple of points (from others, if time/space permitted) I’d offer myself: First, whatever else the NT texts are, they are texts about religious beliefs and practices, and I think that NT scholars need to engage them as such. Sure, they also give us hints about social, economic, political circumstances, etc. But what prompted them and is their focus is a set of religious convictions and powerful religious experiences. Second, especially for scholars professing interest in a historical approach, the actual manuscripts themselves, their physical/visual features, provide us commonly-overlooked data that can inform us greatly. I’m often stunned to find experienced NT scholars who have never really spent any time acquainting themselves with these invaluable artifacts of earliest Christianity.
Where do you believe are the best places for a student to study the New Testament either as an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student?
It’s difficult (at least for me) to respond confidently, especially on undergraduate studies, for there are so many places, especially if you take a global outlook (as I’ve increasingly come to do in my years in Edinburgh). Even for graduate studies, there is an impressive selection internationally. I’d advise prospective graduate students to spend some time acquainting themselves with recent high-impact publications (noting authors and their venues), perusing web sites (for data on people, facilities, scholarships, etc.), talking to their teachers who are knowledgeable in the field, even contacting graduate students in programs to ask about their experiences. I’d offer some suggested criteria: (1) places with excellent scholars and research facilities and with a record of excellent supervision of grad students and readiness to give them time and support; (2) universities with strong “brand name” recognition in the field (like national currencies, not all PhDs are equal!); (3) places and scholars with the particular expertise and interests that correlate with those of the prospective applicant. I honestly think that Edinburgh is one of the best places for PhD work in NT internationally, but there are limits to our expertise, and for some topics we advise people to other places. Also, it is worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the differences in structure between European and North American PhD programs (note, for example, the information on our web site: http://www.div.ed.ac.uk/bphdb.html).
Lastly, if there is one piece of advice you could give to someone entering New Testament scholarship, what would it be?
Yet again, how to choose one?? I’ll ignore that and offer a few that come to mind! Languages: work on Greek of course (reading, reading, reading, both NT texts and more widely, such as Apostolic Fathers), and other primary-text languages (especially Hebrew, but also Latin if possible), and key languages of modern scholarship (German especially, and French). Context and perspective: aim to familiarize yourself with texts, figures, movements, issues, developments ca. 200 BCE to at least 200 CE! It’s in this slightly wider historical horizon that one sees the remarkable features of the NT texts. Commit yourself also to fair and self-critical engagement with scholarship. My PhD supervisor (E. J. Epp) insisted on one rule above all others, and I re-affirm it: Make sure that you accurately represent the views of others, especially those with whom you disagree. Cheap polemics are of no value to anyone. The NT texts and the scholarship on them will require the most conscientious self-discipline of mind and spirit, and the honing of critical and expressive abilities. But I think these texts are worth the effort!
Thank you, Dr. Hurtado, for being so gracious as to answer so many questions in such great depth. I truly appreciate it.