5513Many of the readers of this blog may already be familiar with this image. The painting is Simon Marmion’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, and Markus Bockmuehl uses this image on the cover of his important work Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study. Those who are familiar with Bockmuehl’s book will remember that he spends much of his introduction considering New Testament studies in the light of this image. Bockmuehl explains:

“In serious study of the Gospels, of greater importance than any archaeological or critical dexterity is an appreciation that a similar correlation frequently pertains between the empirical phenomena and the narrative gospel accounts of Jesus Christ. The student or scholar writing, say, about Jesus of Nazareth will in a sense find herself, like Simon Marmion, painting the biblical author painting Christ.

Two images of Virgin and Child appear on Marmion’s canvas, plain for all to see. It is significant that there are two and that the implied observer understands both the difference and the relationship between them. The temptation equally of the naïve and the doctrinaire, and one popularly associated with fundamentalism, is to assume that the two images must appear identical, or as nearly identical so as makes no difference. Another temptation, which more commonly affects those prepared to perceive and exploit the differences between the two images, is to declare one of them vitally important and the other largely irrelevant. On the spectrum of faith and unbelief, viewers inclined to skepticism would strip away all but the ‘real’ empirical appearance of Mary of Nazareth while those of a more ecclesial or fideistic bent may find all that ‘really’ matters is the icon of the Mother of God. 

The fact is that, for all their differences, the two images make sense only in relation to each other and only because they both denote the same reality. They perform different functions, but each interprets and validates the other. In a sense, each is the other. Exegesis fails to do justice to both if it denies either their difference or their sameness” (pp. 19-20).

Because this book and especially Bockmuehl’s reflection on Marmion’s work have significantly influenced my own thinking, it seemed an appropriate way to begin my blogging at Near Emmaus. Together they well represent one of my central convictions about New Testament studies and exegesis: study of the New Testament must always involve history, literary criticism, and theology, and all three must be done almost simultaneously. Let me develop this a bit more. Perhaps it is basic, but I at least need to be reminded of this from time to time.

First, study of the New Testament must always involve history because the New Testament makes historical claims, and so to history we must go. History is inescapable. Second, it must also always involve literary criticism because the history and theology of the New Testament are always mediated to us through texts. We have no other way of accessing them. Third, it must also always involve theology because this is the essential subject matter of the New Testament. It’s authors are consistently making claims of ultimate significance and almost always relating these claims back to historical events. Lastly, for any reading appropriate to the subjection matter of the New Testament history, theology and literary criticism must be done almost simultaneously, or at least never in a straight line. That is to say that the arrow connecting history, theology, and literary criticism never moves exclusively in one direction, as if we begin with history, then move on to the texts, and then to theology, or vice versa. Perhaps even worse is the notion that we begin with texts with one arrow moving towards history and another towards theology and never the twain shall meet. The arrows never move in a straight line from one subject matter to the next. The connection is circular. Our reading of texts informs our historical judgments and our theology. Our theology informs our historical judgments and our reading of texts. Our history informs our readings of texts and our theology judgments. This is both the glory (because of what it promises: the truth about the most important events in human history) and the curse (because of the variety of expertise it requires) of New Testament studies.

And now these three remain: history, literary criticism and theology. But the greatest of these is …. Well, if you think you have the answer, let me know in the comments or on twitter.