In the year between graduating from college and beginning graduate school, I stumbled on a book that profoundly changed the way that I thought. Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Fortress, 1978) presented a way of reading New Testament texts that thoroughly rooted them in their historical contexts. Theissen read these texts in a way that was less attuned to their surface arguments than to their social function. Behind every text there is a community, and attentive reading of opaque ancient texts can bring this community into light. This technique, I would soon learn in graduate school, is in one form or another basic to much of the study of early Judaism and Christianity. While later I would better recognize the weaknesses of this approach, at the time it opened to me an intellectual vista. It was exciting.
Last week I finally got to meet Gerd Theissen and tell him personally how much his work had meant to me. I also had the opportunity to hear his keynote lecture at the conference that I was attending. (More accurately, since the lecture was in German I followed along with a written English translation that had been prepared.) The lecture was a tour de force, a history of how New Testament scholars had engaged with social theory. In Theissen’s telling, New Testament scholars, particularly in Germany, were well attuned to sociological questions in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but then they stopped. They would not regain interest in these questions until the 1970s. In effect, Theissen argued (and I did clarify this with him afterward to make sure that I understood this), German NT scholarship stood still for some 50-60 years, only to pick up with questions that came primarily from the United States.
Now this brought me up short. If Theissen is correct, it would mean that the two world wars and the Shoah had no impact on German NT scholarship. This is disturbing for all kinds of reasons. What got my attention was one of the less important of these reasons, and that is the implications that this could have for the very kind of scholarship to which Theissen has been devoted.
Let me explain. One of the standard ways of interpreting much ancient literature is to correlate it with the historical context in which it was produced. This makes intuitive sense: Could Jews and Christians in the first two centuries actually fail, for example, to respond to Roman power and domination? The important historical conditions of antiquity anchor these texts and provide a context to interpret them. The texts do not float around abstractly.
Now the problem: If I were a historian far in the future reading 1950s German NT scholarship as scholars like Theissen today read the NT, I would have to account for these texts in the context of German’s wrenching material and moral scars at that time. How could the wars and their aftermath have had no impact on New Testament scholarship, of all things?
If the wars and the Shoah really had little or no impact on German New Testament scholarship, perhaps the great events of antiquity had little impact on some or many contemporary texts. Maybe the relative silence in many of these texts to contemporary events that strike us as having great import is to be understood not as a veiled response to historical conditions, but as indifference. Unless there are explicit statements in the texts, this would mean pulling back from attempting to explain texts as “responses to” great historical events.
I have learned a great deal from Gerd Theissen, but I hope that in this case he is wrong.