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Beyond Wikipedia: Renewing Forschungsgeschichte in the Age of Google Books





We find an irony here, in that classic German, French and Latin works are becoming most readily accessible at just the time that theological students are least prepared to access them. The reasons for this are complex and include the rise of English as a global language and the attendant shift in the production of English language theological literature. But the facility with which Google Books, Archive.org and other open-access sites provide a means of engaging with this material deserves to be met with a renewed emphasis on learning the classical research languages of the exegetical tradition. We need more German and Latin in our advanced theological studies, not less.



By David Lincicum
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow
Mansfield College, Oxford
david.lincicum@theology.ox.ac.uk
July 2012


Ah, the Forschungsgeschichte or ‘history of research’: many a doctoral student has cringed at the prospect of plowing through dozens of volumes and articles on their dissertation topic, many of them inevitably in foreign languages. And just as many reviewers have hastened past the resultant chapters, eager to reach the substance of the writer’s own contribution.

There is some truth in cultural stereotypes: German scholars have often excelled their Anglophone colleagues when it comes to chronicling the history of research. Some may consider that the perfection of this particular virtue converts it into vice, while others decry the unfair advantage of having German as a Muttersprache, but there are arguably important reasons to embrace the practice – and especially now, with the rise in availability of freely available, digital copies of older works.

With the ascendance of the interested reader and the (re)turn to reception history, we are more aware than ever of the situatedness of the modern interpreter. The questions we ask of biblical texts make sense to us as questions precisely because of the place we now take in history, the place into which history has thrown us. By recognizing and interrogating the scholarly tradition, we seek to find alternative answers to exegetical conundrums, to avoid dead-ends that have already been tried and rejected, to problematize the easy consensus that can take on an aura of obviousness if not critically questioned, to cure ourselves of interpretative amnesia and to recover lost voices that might have been heard if prevailing prejudices hadn’t silenced them. In this way, the ‘history of research’, rather than being a drily arcane foray into a museum of curiosities, can take on a productive and even paradigm-shifting function.

We find an irony here, in that classic German, French and Latin works are becoming most readily accessible at just the time that theological students are least prepared to access them. The reasons for this are complex and include the rise of English as a global language and the attendant shift in the production of English language theological literature. But the facility with which Google Books, Archive.org and other open-access sites provide a means of engaging with this material deserves to be met with a renewed emphasis on learning the classical research languages of the exegetical tradition. We need more German and Latin in our advanced theological studies, not less.

This unprecedented access to 18th and 19th century sources coincides nicely with the formative period of the current disciplines that make up biblical studies. Even in the collections of many major research libraries, one encounters works from this period that are either missing or poorly catalogued. But with the rise of Google Books, et alia, we are now in a position to re-interrogate the origins of our discipline without even dirtying our hands in the rare book room.

I’d like to offer one or two minor examples by way of illustration from some recent work on Ferdinand Christian Baur, the great 19th century Tübingen church historian and New Testament scholar.

The ‘Jewish Christianity’ Section at SBL recently undertook to re-examine the roots of the modern study of the slippery phenomenon of Jewish Christianity. Conventional wisdom had long been that F. C. Baur had more or less invented the concept in his famous 1831 essay on ‘The Christ Party at Corinth’. While a close reading of that essay would be enough to disprove the idea, the papers of the Jewish Christianity section, together with other recent work, have sketched an important prehistory to Baur, published recently as The Rediscovery of Jewish Christianity: From Toland to Baur.1 In the preface to the volume, F. Stanley Jones notes,

The technological revolution of the Internet in combination with the digitalization of large collections of incunabula and other early publications has furthermore now made it possible for the modern scholar to research the early modern period with resources that exceed the individual holdings of even the world’s greatest libraries. It is thus possible to rewrite the early history of biblical studies (not to speak of the intellectual history of the time) with greatly increased accuracy.2

It had long been known that the ideas of Baur’s predecessor, J. S. Semler, on Jewish Christianity bore a strong similarity to those of the English deists – John Toland and Thomas Morgan in particular. But the question was whether Semler might have known the opinions of Toland and Morgan or arrived at his conclusions independently, in a polygenetic coincidence. David Patrick, in a learned article from 1877, labors to demonstrate that Semler knew Toland and Morgan by means of his presence in Halle when a debate concerning their work took place, or by Semler’s role as a reviewer for the Nachrichten von einer Hallischen Bibliothek when the works of Toland and Morgan were reviewed.3 This is entirely plausible, but it is now also possible to add to this several direct references – discovered by a judicious use of Google Books – to works by Toland and Morgan in works written or edited by Semler.4 In this way the use of digital means is an aid to discovering another link in the important chain between the English deists and Enlightenment biblical criticism in Germany.

Second, it had long been thought that the earliest translations of Baur’s works into English were those made for the Theological Translation Fund of his books on Paul and the Church History of the First Three Centuries in the 1870s, over a dozen years after Baur’s death. But again, a controlled search in Google books discovers two partial English translations that were published within Baur’s own lifetime: a section from his Die christliche Lehre von der Versöhnung on Grotius,5 and a section on John from Baur’s important untranslated volume, Kritische Untersuchungen über die kanonischen Evangelien.6 While both are merely extracts, they appeared in American theological periodicals and add an interesting dimension to understanding German influence on the development of 19th century American criticism. And significantly, neither translation is mentioned in the most complete bibliographies of Baur’s works in English.7

Moreover, it goes without saying that writing on Baur today, as with other 19th century figures, is immeasurably more convenient than doing so even ten years ago: there is not a major work of his that is unavailable in full text online, while accessing his oeuvre beforehand would have required proximity to at least one and perhaps multiple research libraries. This is especially so since older books are least likely to be sent by interlibrary loan.

Neither of these examples is in itself an earth-shattering revolution. But the accumulation of a number of such cases through careful revisiting of the history of research could yield to a retelling of the mutual influences between German and Anglophone scholarship, and so provide a more nuanced understanding of how we’ve come to the critical conclusions and questions with which we operate today, or indeed call those normal practices into question.

There are undoubtedly new vistas to be had by close attention to the history of scholarship. To be forward-looking at this time, we need to be looking backward as well. Particularly now that many of the most important works in the history of exegesis are easily available to us, we can hope for a new generation of scholars that is not simply up to speed with the latest fads, but also deeply knowledgeable of the important critical tradition to which we are heirs.



Notes

1 Edited by F. Stanley Jones (History of Biblical Studies; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012). SBL’s History of Biblical Studies series is an important venture and a sign that attention to this history is on the rise.

2 Rediscovery of Jewish Christianity, ix.

3 David Patrick, “Two English Forerunners of the Tübingen School: Thomas Morgan and John Toland,” Theological Review 14 (1877): 562-603. I am indebted for my knowledge of Patrick’s article to James Carleton Paget, “The Definition of the Term ‘Jewish Christian’/ ‘Jewish Christianity’ in the History of Research,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (eds. O. Skarsaune and R. Hvalvik; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 22-54, repr. in his Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Antiquity (WUNT 251; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 289-324.

4 Semler mentions Morgan and/or Toland in his Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (Halle: J. Godofredi Trampii, 1767), 24-25; Christliche freye Untersuchung über die so genannte Offenbarung Johannis aus der nachgelassenen Handschrift eines fränkischen Gelehrten herausgegeben (Halle: Johann Christian Hendel, 1769), 314; Institutio ad doctrinam christianam liberaliter discendam (Halle: Carl Hermann Hemmerde, 1774), 78-82 (sect. 44); Versuch einer freiern theologischen Lehrart (Halle: Carl Hermann Hemmerde, 1777), 74-75.

5 F. C. Baur, trans. L. Swain, “The Grotian Theory of the Atonement,” Bibliotheca Sacra 9 (1852): 259-72 (an excerpt from Baur's Die Christliche Lehre von der Versöhnung).

6 F. C. Baur, trans. Alfred H. Guernsey, “The Gospel of John as Indicating the State of the Christian Sentiment of Its Times,” Biblical repository and classical review - American Biblical Repository, October (1849): 636-650.

7 The most complete bibliography known to me is to be found in Horton Harris, The Tübingen School: A Historical and Theological Investigation of the School of F. C. Baur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975; repr.: Leicester: Apollos, 1990), 263-74.





Comments (2)


I do agree, though the regime in the Uk that forces doctoral students to complete their work within a short time discourages topics that require a lot of reading of secondary literature. As an author, I am all too aware that nothing I say beyond even ten years ago is generally accessed; I have to repeat myself regularly if I want to stay within the conversation! But making biblical studies graduate students pass qualifying examinations in German (ideally at the Masters stage) probably ought to be our practice here, as it is in the best US Universities. There is an alternative - get into bible and culture or literary readings, where no deep delving into the history of scholarship (or often no foreign languages) is needed. Apart from the fact that most traditional literary-critical questions have been argued to death already, so that any new insight probably has to be quite radical, the trend towards researching the Bible as a cultural artefact looks likely to accelerate.
#1 - philip davies - 07/31/2012 - 04:01



Orthodox Anglican, as well as Deist, English thinkers had some international influence in that lively eighteenth century world. William Warburton, that polymathic Bishop, gets mentioned in Rousseau's Social Contract and in Heyne's edition of Virgil, the principal edition of its time. Perhaps The Divine Legation of Moses should come back to attention.
#2 - Martin - 08/04/2012 - 16:40






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