The Necessity to Bridge the Eastern and Western New Testament Scholarship

Posted: June 2, 2011 in General

Prof. James H. Charlesworth

(Professor James Hamilton Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament and Inter-Testamental Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary, USA).

This necessity and theme has defined my career since 1962 and probably earlier. Long before that date I sensed within church circles a blind focus on Paul and his journeys to the West. Left behind, and really unknown to many Christians, was the movement of Christianity to the East and the traditions associated with Thomas. Those who heard about Thomas assumed all accounts were pure legends, missing the movement of “the Good News” from Antioch to Edessa through Jewish communities.

Too many forgot the paradigmatic importance of Jesus. After all, do we not all agree that Christians claim to follow Jesus and not Paul? From the thirties to the eighties many NT scholars thought it was impossible to reconstruct Jesus’ life. Now, if one defines “biography” according to ancient historiography, leading experts conclude a biography of Jesus is possible.

Beginning in 1954, I became attracted to the novel ideas and perceptions in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The study of Semitics impressed me with a concept of time different from what I had learned. Time was trifurcated into fulfilled time and unfulfilled time, with a perception of the continuing activity of an act [esp. expressed through the participle that is not controlled by “past” and “future”]. Thus, the future could be “fulfilled time” and the past “unfulfilled time.” I found it odd that New Testament scholars had become obsessed with discerning if Jesus meant the Kingdom of God was present or only future. That is a myopic focus on Greek texts. Jesus had preached primarily in Aramaic and such distinctions of present and future would not be present. This example placards that West needs East.

Living intermittently, since 1968, in the Middle East helps me perceive that I have become one who lives both in the West and in the East. What defines the conflicts that highlight our news is not a clash defined primarily by land or even “religion;” it is a clash between East and West. The conflict is between two cultures. I once asked a revered Arab to be logical and consistent. I was rebuffed: “I will not think like a westerner.” Far too often we NT scholars have attempted to enter the New Testament world using the logic and philosophy of the Enlightenment.

We New Testament scholars have a much more complex task that we thought. The Bible was written by Jews; with the exception of Luke and he may have been a diasporic Jew (he certainly knows complex Jewish sources and traditions). Too often we brought our cultural baggage to exegesis and exposition. We ignored how different were those who shape our texts.

The Form Critics taught us that we had the same life concerns as the ancients; we were to focus primarily on Jesus’ call for decision. The sociologists taught us that we cannot “go there;” that the ancients are very different. Archaeologists have reinforced the sociological sensitivities that should now inform all exegesis and exposition. In Jesus’ world, all slept in one bed; archaeological examinations of pre-70 homes in Nazareth, Capernaum, and Yotapata inform texts in which a patriarch awakes and finds his grandfather dead beside him. That phenomenon shaped humans sociologically and anthropologically. Mikvaot and stone vessels and the rules for purity in the ‘Temple Scroll’ emphasize that we do not easily fit into that ancient world.

If there is going to be promising advancement in biblical research we all need “the other.” West needs East. The same is also imperative if we are to have a future with values and hope – or are we leaving our grandchildren with a world in which most will deem the Bible a relic, terrorists define any outing, all are deeply in debt, and no one can possibly dream?

  1. elfasura says:

    I have been hunting for a mind such as this, that is able to clearly distinguish between Eastern mind and the Western and have the humble acknowledgement that the Western paradigm is not the final one. In fact, while it is true that Western modes of thinking have been sought to be hammered via media and militaristic intent into other cultures to their detriment and this has led to hordes of Easterners turning into “Westerners” but carrying both resentment and conflict within. This is what one might term the success of “globalisation”. In this process, though, many aspects of wisdom from the East are being destroyed which might rreverse the downward spiral of the West itself. The issue lies with the predominance of Greek philosophy and theology. I would suggest that you read Richard Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. And Sujata Bhatt’s poem A Different History.
    More recently, I have also been discovering that by reading too much Paul and theology oriented in Greek philosophy, I have been missing the mind of Jesus and Hebraic thought processes that treat notions of time differently and many other such aspects. Another book I would recommend is Gates of Light – Gikkatilla, Joseph – Yale University Press. This book changed my understanding of Jesus’ mission and why He is THE SAVIOR radically.

  2. Thanks for the details about the works of Richard Nisbett, Sujata Bhatt, and Joseph Gikkatilla. I started searching for these for my reading. BTW, my attempt through the blog is not simply to widen the gap between the west and the east, but to bridge the perspectives for a wider impact. I am optimistic that through emphasizing the roots of Christianity/New Testament in the east and its growth and development in the west we can foster the studies of the NT much more stronger than ever before. I also believe that, as Prof. Charlesworth rightly points out, “west needs the east” and “east needs the west”. Your valuable suggestions toward this end are greatly appreciated. Do you have some more suggestions in order to develop this movement much more stronger in the forthcoming days, please!?

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