Posted by: Ken Brown | June 24, 2009

On Methodology

As I’ve read various people’s responses, I’ve been fascinated by those who gave a kind of intellectual biography of how they read the Bible, and I’ve been increasing curious how people read it now, particularly what methodologies they use for exegesis. Is your approach primarily historical—looking for, and trying to confirm or deny, the historical claims of the text? Or do you focus on text-critical issues? Broader theological or literary features of the text? Or perhaps you are more concerned with ideological issues like feminism or racism? Is there a particular process that you always use, or do you focus on different aspects of the text in different papers or publications?

To be honest, my methodology is pretty eclectic—probably too eclectic. Since I was raised in the church, my initial approach was practical and theological. I’ve always believed that unless the text has some sort of present applicability, the attention we devote to it is mostly wasted effort, and this remains the case even though my theological perspective has changed dramatically over the years. But while my interest in the theological meaning of scripture has continued, practical questions have rarely been prominent in my academic study of scripture.

My first formal training was more strongly focused on historical critical and grammatical issues, and was influenced by Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis (it was a required text in several classes), though I never fell in love with it. I also developed an abiding interest in text-criticism thanks to my intermediate Greek professor Kent Clarke, who got us reading, transcribing and comparing manuscripts early on. I still owe a great deal to Clarke (who also published my first, and so far only, book review), and also to Bruce Metzger and Kurt Aland, whose books I read closely, but since then my exegesis has been less focused on text-critical or grammatical matters.

Reading E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism had a huge impact on me, mainly because it showed the importance of reading the New Testament with its Jewish background rather than against it. The New Testament authors were all Jews, and were deeply influenced not only by the Jewish scriptures, but also by the traditions and practices of Second Temple Judaism. Exploring how the New Testament reflects this background remains one of my major interests, fostered especially by N.T. Wright, J.D.G. Dunn, and more recently Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Margaret Barker and various other studies on the Temple. This has also translated into an interest in Ancient Near Eastern culture when reading the Hebrew Bible, and here Jon Levenson, Jacob Milgrom and others have been strong influences.

Along side this, a number of courses I took both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student fostered an abiding interest in source and redactional issues (in “Historical Jesus” research, Deutero-Isaiah, Second Corinthians, the Pentateuch, and finally John). I’ve been pretty strongly influenced by Raymond E. Brown and J. Louis Matryn (and Rudolf Bultmann) in the New Testament, and Claus Westermann, Martin Noth and Baruch Levine in the Hebrew Bible (though Noth has always seemed to me much too quick to see sources in every textual difficulty). Work in the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX has further solidified this interest, and also strengthened my text-critical concerns.

Most recently, however, I’ve been strongly influenced by literary and so-called “ideological” critics. My first taste of these came from studying Job. David Clines’ Word Biblical Commentary includes a fascinating attempt to read Job according to various ideologies (including feminism and even vegan concerns!), which amused me, but sparked my interest.  The importance of these kinds of questions has since been confirmed by the work of Susan Niditch (on war in the Hebrew Bible), and most recently by Donna Nolan Fewell.

At the same time as I was reading Clines’ commentary, I also read an article on Job’s prologue by someone I cannot remember (it might have been Tod Linafelt) that emphasized that text’s peculiar use of the word “to bless” as a euphemism for “curse” (e.g. 1:11; 2:9).  The author of this article argued that this was intended to set up the rest of Job as an unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) question about God’s blessing and cursing, and whether we can really tell them apart. Later on, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative further sparked my interest in literary criticism, which has since been fostered especially by Francis Moloney’s work on John. Together, both feminist approaches and literary criticism have convinced me of the intentional ambiguity of the text, and its openness to a variety of interpretations.

My current approach reflects much of this background. These days, I’m less and less concerned with practical or historical questions, and in fact I often find myself annoyed at commentators who jump from what the text claims to what supposedly “happened” in history, or from what the text commands to what “should” be done today. It’s not that I think historical and ethical questions are unimportant, nor would I deny that the biblical authors often had such concerns themselves, I’m just concerned that these moves are often made much too quickly and confidently, and tend to obscure the literary, thematic and theological aspects of the text.

My own approach is a bit unconventional, as I tend to combine redaction criticism with a theologically- and contextually-focused literary criticism, which might seem contradictory (since redaction criticism is about taking the text apart, while literary and theological criticism are about reading it as a whole), but I think they balance each other well, and can lead to some interesting results. But in truth, I’m not always very rigorous in my approach, and I haven’t settled on any definite methodology. I basically just have a number of broad questions about the text: evidence of sources or redaction, theme, literary features, context and background, etc. that I explore and play off one another and see what turns up. This often seems to lead to interesting papers, but it isn’t very efficient, so I really feel like I need better controls on the process.

So I’m curious about how others approach the text. Do you have a clear process with distinct steps that you always work through, or are you more like me, with a number of rather diverse questions that you bring to bear, and just see where things play out. This isn’t a meme or anything, just a question: How do you approach the text in your academic study?


  1. This was a great post, and I feel bad that I’ve got other pressing deadlines keeping me from ruminating on it further.

    I have a pretty eclectic method too, and much of my journey parallels your, except that I haven’t gotten into redaction criticism. Nailing sources just seems too speculative. I sometimes wonder what redaction criticism on some of my e-mails would look like. (I guess nailing historical circumstances are too, so historico-grammatical becomes a problem.) It seems to me that a lot of meaning actually takes place in the elusive context outside the text.

    I’d like to say that more recently my approach has moved more towards a “big-picture” approach: What can I learn about the historical and social context? Within that context, what point does the writer seem to be trying to make? So I tend to appreciate more insights from socio-rhetorical (cultural) criticism and literary or narrative criticism. A lot of insights from social-scientific criticism are helpful too, but I get turned off by the bulk of speculative modeling that turns almost everything into an issue of honor and shame—terribly important, but not exclusively so. Then I wrap everything up with what Mark Powell calls “biblical reader response”- Chasing the Eastern Star. (In a way, I feel like some form of reader-response is what everyone has been doing throughout church history.) The irony is that my conservative friends would label me “liberal” for even mentioning reader-response, but I find their readings to be far more ideological than some of the post-colonial readings they often criticize.

    My “methodology” even for stuff presented to the church as a bit schizophrenic well. On the one hand, I’m digging into as much of the historical socio-cultural background as possible—which generally has little direct payback for the common people. On the other hand, I find myself doing a bit of proof-texting simply because a lot of people in the church won’t give me a hearing otherwise. I feel a bit disingenuous about this, but given the audiences it is hard to establishes trust in any other way, proof-texting frees breaks a barrier to help me present more big picture trajectories. The practical stuff for the church seems like re-packaging the same basic principles in different ways to get action; what we need to know seems more or less obvious. Maybe all the time we spend pursuing other topics is a form of denial or procrastination about getting down to business.

    Sorry, this was a bit stream-of-conscious. Thanks for giving me lots to think about.

  2. Thanks for the great comment, Ben! I agree about the speculative nature of redaction criticism and I’m generally hesitant to push it too far, but where it is well established (e.g. JEDP or Deutero-Isaiah) it can be a good jumping off-point. I also tend toward socio-rhetorical more than social-scientific approaches, ironically because I find the latter overly speculative!

    Your comments about preaching are interesting. I’m not a pastor so I don’t have to deal with that as much, but I’ve wondered how much of the insight into the text that I’ve gained through academic study actually translates into anything meaningful for the average person. I have to admit that the more I “know” about the text, the less I tend to speak up in group Bible studies. Something I need to work on….

  3. […] Ken has briefly cataloged most of these responses here, and has also provided a few statistics and reflections.  As I considered the question, I found it difficult to limit my list to five!  But here is a […]

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