Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Studies in Theological Interpretation). By Markus Bockmuehl


Pp. 297 . Grand Rapids, MI , Baker Academic , 2006 , £14.99 .

Seeing the Word is the first volume in Baker's promising new ‘Studies in Theological Interpretation’ series, and comes from the pen of Oxford New Testament theologian Markus Bockmuehl, although it bears on its back cover his institutional affiliation at the University of St Andrews where for one year he was professor of biblical and early Christian studies. It is a drawing together and reworking of several previously published articles into a striking argument about the current state of the discipline and the need to envision (or ‘focus’) it in new ways.

The key point at issue, approached from several complementary directions, is the way in which the New Testament is both a historical document thoroughly couched in the contingent features of its time, and at the same time is a theological document bearing witness to Jesus as son of God, or to an apostolic witness understood as divinely ordained. This then is theological interpretation not instead of (nor even in tension with) historical enquiry, but alongside it – interacting with it in what Bockmuehl describes at one point as ‘a complex cocktail of questions about the place of rationality, ideology, and power relations in the act of interpretation.’ (p. 21)

The lengthy opening chapter (‘The Troubled Fortunes of New Testament Scholarship’) is a masterly review of current trends and practices in NT studies, developed from an earlier published version (1998). Much of what Bockmuehl says here is well-taken: the impossibility of keeping ‘up to date’ as a scholar, the ‘rise and rise’ of hermeneutics which threatens to delay for evermore the actual engagement with the text, the frustrations of negotiating increasingly abstruse ideological arguments about method without actually rooting the reading of the texts in church practice. He offers two hopeful ways ahead: by way of recovering the history of interpretation, and by way of asking after the ‘implied reader’ of the New Testament.

Chapter 2 takes up the latter route, in ‘The Wisdom of the Implied Exegete’, published earlier in the Ford-Stanton volume Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (SCM, 2003) as ‘Reason, Wisdom, and the Implied Disciple of Scripture’. Either title offers a fascinating corrective to literary-critical talk of implied readings. The piece ends with reading Luke 24 as a reversal of the hermeneutical fall implicit in the Eden narrative, before picturing Aquinas as an implied disciple, writing scripture commentary in the company of the voices of Peter and Paul (by way of an admittedly somewhat odd Flemish engraving of Aquinas surrounded by apostolic witnesses). Chapter 3 fills out the argument with an expansion of a brief 1998 piece on ‘Humpty Dumpty’ in NT scholarship: urging that too much emphasis on irretrievable diversity in NT studies has left the text, rather like Humpty, broken into a mass of pieces which cannot be ‘put back together again’. Such a reconstructive task Bockmuehl suggests represents a pressing claim on the agenda of NT scholarship today.

Subsequent chapters begin to climb this mount improbable of unifying theological reflection in historically sensitive mode. The standard playing off of Paul against Peter is challenged by way of a recovery of something like a catholic rule of faith. A case study of Cambridge scholar Edwyn Hoskins is used to urge an ‘evangelical catholic’ recovery of the theological subject matter of NT study, linking Christian origins with Christian faith. There is an intriguing study of ‘living memory and apostolic history’ where links are forged between the events of Jesus' time and the development of written texts and apostolic traditions which are thus irreducibly core to any handling of the subject matter of the NT. A lengthy final chapter explores the Jewish Jesus of contemporary NT study, again urging the incorporation of apostolic memory as a category in attempts to understand such issues as Jesus' view of Israel and of his mission. Bockmuehl is somewhat suspicious of the so-called ‘third quest’ for the historical Jesus here, suspecting perhaps that this does not attain to the theological focus appropriate to NT study as he is intent on reconceiving it. This chapter is vastly wide-ranging, perhaps too much so, though several pointers are offered to standard scholarly issues which need reassessing. A brief epilogue rehearses the points made – no real ‘conclusion’ is offered, partly by way of underlining the provisional and exploratory nature of this reconceptualisation.

This is a bracing and eminently readable manifesto for further change in NT study. The goal is explicitly theological, tied in to historical roots in apostolic tradition, and as such it makes for a fine first volume for the series it heralds. Bockmuehl's writing style is persistently fresh and provocative, at times indeed almost unable to suppress a sense of frustration with the scholarly world he inhabits. Critics may well suggest that the book is long on diagnosis and short on cure, and that what constructive steps there are seem not really to grapple with some of the difficulties with traditional modes of interpretation which ‘modern’ or critical approaches were precisely designed to address (the story of Aquinas conversing with Peter and Paul in his study certainly comes to mind here). And there is perhaps a little irony in a book which laments the impossibility of riding the wave of massive over-publication in current academia itself boasting a 40+ page fine-print bibliography of the latest and sharpest of NT studies, all, at least apparently, harnessed with ease toward the various argumentative tasks which Bockmuehl undertakes. But by the end one is ready for more, conscious that this particular opening salvo clears the decks with an unusual force, and wondering what might emerge next when the smoke begins to clear. On the evidence of this showing, it will be worth waiting for.