NT Wright and the state of NT scholarship – overfootnoting

Here’s what Bishop N.T. Wright had to say about the state of NT scholarship during the Moule Memorial Lecture, (Thursday, 5 June 2008 ) “New Testament Scholarship and Christian Discipleship” (full lecture pdf)

New Testament scholarship has always been subject to the danger of over-footnoting; that problem is now reaching epidemic proportions. The NT is of course the smallest set text of any academic speciality I know, and within that those who specialise in simply, say, Paul or John are treating themselves to a luxury unimaginable in almost any other discipline. But this means that study of secondary and tertiary literature thus regularly takes the place within the discipline that, in a wider area like Patristics or Rabbinics, would have been taken by the mulling over of other primary sources. And not only is this overfootnoting forbidding to the would-be student or researcher, which I’m afraid may be one reason why in the last generation comparatively few of our bright students have gone on into doctoral work and university teaching; it makes it seem harder and harder to accomplish anything, to arrive at a clear statement of something that needs to be said. Many books in the field now seem to have it as a badge of honour that only a third to a half of each page is actual text, with the rest being small-print footnotes. We have got to the stage – and this is particularly ironic when we consider the current debates about St Paul and the so-called ‘New Perspective’ – where writing in the discipline looks rather like the fifteenth-century commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, with comments on comments on comments on a text which was itself a synthesis of the Bible and the Fathers. Just as Luther and Calvin had to be bold and offer a fresh reading of scripture which was not encumbered with that massive freight, so there has to be a place, I suggest, not of course for a naive and unaware reading, but for a fresh engagement with the firstcentury sources themselves. . .

For guys like me that aren’t exactly the sharpest pencils in the box, it’s hard enough simply to master the secondary literature (to say nothing of the primary literature) . . . making a “contribution”? I chose New Testament studies with an eye on serving the church, but academically, I knew I was setting myself up for some extra challenges.

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7 thoughts on “NT Wright and the state of NT scholarship – overfootnoting

  1. Carl says:

    Wright has hinted at something similar to this in a previous (audio) lecture. Quoting Stephen Sikes, he said: The problem with being a theologian is that you have to say everything all the time, otherwise others will criticize you for not believing such and such. Over-footnoting would certainly seem to fall under this sentiment.

    I suppose I’m guilty of further infecting academic society: my Master’s thesis had over 600 footnotes. Sadly enough, I had to limit myself considerably with respect to primary sources, and considerably more so with respect to secondary sources; so it could have easily rivaled Keener’s commentary on John. 🙂 It was a rather exhausting experience. Worthwhile, but exhausting. I know that PhD is not going to be any different.

  2. If Bishop Wright is complaining about over-footnoting in NT scholarship, wait until he sees legal scholarship!

  3. Ben says:

    I’m sure legal scholarship is bad enough without any footnotes ;-).

    Carl, I remember hearing Wright say that.

  4. Alex says:

    Thanks for posting this. I think it can actually simplify things and even offer aspiring writers more of a chance for original thought to start learning the other way around. That is, to start with the primary sources and work forward from there. Secondary and tertiary source have a tendency to overgeneralize and mischaracterize to suit their own purposes, often unbenounced to them, and with no ill intended.

    So for the aspiring scholar, I say, quit going through the secondary research, and start from the ground up. There’s not footnotes to wade through there.

  5. Ben says:

    Alex, here’s the rub: you do all this original research, only to discover that someone said exactly the same thing twenty if not a hundred years ago. That’s fine as far as becoming a great teacher; the problem comes with the pressure to publish a scholarly “contribution.”

    But you are right on as far as secondary and tertiary sources. The fact is, either way, we have to master the primary material. We also tend to underestimate how our own contexts determine the questions we pose to the primary sources.

  6. Over-footing does not suggest lack of research (or laziness?) in primary sources. But it is good to hear that coming out from our own Bishop’s lips. But it is a reality in the discipline.

    Blessings,
    Lou

  7. Ben says:

    I actually wind up footnoting a lot, simply in recognition that someone has already said something similar. The thought that struck me most was not so much the footnoting itself; rather, there is an overwhelming amount of scholarship being produced on such a limited corpus. For sixth-rate thinkers like me – whose brains are already on tape delay – it’s just all that much harder to keep up. That said, I still wouldn’t want to be handwriting my dissertation. (There’s a trade-off.)

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