I’ve almost finished the autobiography of F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: remembrance of Things Past. The book was published in 1980, I have seen it before, but it took a trip to Scotland to get me to read it. I should have come to Scotland sooner!
Professor Bruce describe how he switched from being a professor of classical Greek to becoming a professor of “Biblical Criticism and Exegesis.” One of his reasons was that he wanted to help evangelical Christians overcome their anti-intellectual bias. He also joined in several enterprises directed toward this goal: Intervarsity Fellowship and Tyndal House in Cambridge in particular.
When he moved to the University of Sheffield, he helped to establish a “secular” or nonsectarian division of biblical studies. His approach was “secular” not in the sense that it required unbelief or a suspension of belief, but that he approached the Bible historically and presented evidence and reason for his conclusions, as opposed to being bound by prior confessional or dogmatic conclusions.
James Crossley currently teaches in the biblical studies department at Sheffield, and he also is interested in a secular approach to the Bible. He does seem to define “secular” differently, though. In his book “Why Christianity Happened” he argues that it is preposterous for a serious historian to argue, for example, that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. How could a Muslim scholar, for example, join in such an investigation?
N.T. Wright has argued recently (as F.F. Bruce did in his day) that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical event and the best explanation for the rise of early Christianity. Wright (here and here) and Crossley (here and here) have exchanged their views recently.
One of F.F. Bruce’s most famous contributions was his commentary on Acts. Rather, I should say commentaries. He spent ten years producing his commentary on the Greek text of Acts. This was followed by a major commentary on the English text of Acts, where he attempted to answer the criticism of a reviewer of his previous book that it was a work of the head and not the heart, of erudition but not devotion.
In his commentary on Acts he expressed the belief that there is more historically valuable material in the book than had previously been recognized. A century earlier F. C. Baur of Tuebingen set forth his thesis that Acts was basically a work of fiction, an attempt by Luke to reconcile two competing versions of Christianity: a Jewish version represented by James and Peter, and a Gentile version advocated by Paul. Other theologians at Tuebingen in the 19th century gained a reputation for radical thought.
More recently at Tuebingen Professor Martin Hengel took a more historical approach to the NT. He is now retired, but taught his students that, if it is now impossible to master all the secondary literature on a subject, they should at least master all the ancient literature. Hengel believed that students of the New Testament should know all of the literature of the ancient world, from aproximately 300 BC to approximately AD 300, including the literature in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic (as well as Syriac and Coptic).
I will fall woefully short of Hengel’s standards for my presentation next month in Tuebingen (at a colloquium that is co-sponsored by his student and successor), but at least I have been motivated by the standards. I have been influenced by the kind of study recommended by Bruce and Hengel.