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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A German Landscape: Currents and Credits of Biblical Studies in Germany during the Past Decades

Before taking stock of German exegesis, I have to restrict my subsequent remarks by overtly stating my individual and subjective perspective on the issue: I am a white, western European, female exegete. To be even more precise, I am a Protestant and I am a New Testament scholar. Therefore, in the following, I will lay my focus on New Testament studies in a German, or better, German-speaking, Protestant context, even if I use the term exegesis without specification. Probably, many observations are adequate to the situation of the whole discipline and of both confessions, anyway. Besides, because of the limitation of time and space, I will have to simplify complex arguments and harmonize competing tendencies.

Germany was not only an important cradle of critical biblical scholarship itself; German exegesis also held a leading position within the international field of the discipline and concurrently participated in general theological or philosophical debates throughout major parts of the twentieth century (e.g., in liberal and dialectical theology). While the situation has changed since then in many respects, German biblical scholarship has only begun to reflect on its fading impact as concerns the international stage as well as broader discourses in theology or the humanities and social-sciences, not to mention general public debates.

The State of Affairs

Most of the research achieved in Germany during the last three or four decades was and still is indebted to historical criticism with its inherent emphasis on philological and historical analyses. Meanwhile, the — if even often controversial and short-lived but nevertheless fruitful — debates on new approaches to biblical studies (arising, e.g., from structuralism, deconstruction or new literary criticism) have almost taken place without German contribution on the level of theory (in contrast, for example, to France, Great Britain, and the United States). Regarding the practice, innovative methods are often adopted, if at all, only in a half-hearted or "domesticated" way and scholars applying them are viewed sceptically. This also pertains to more "established" methods such as feminist or socio-scientific exegesis. More acceptable are literary-critical approaches such as rhetorical, narrative, or reader response criticisms. That alternative methods in Germany are still met with reserve can be illustrated by Martin Hengel's account of the tasks of New Testament studies on the occasion of his presidential address towards the Societas Novi Testamenti Studiorum in 1993. Here Hengel rejects such new approaches as a "postmodern playground," resulting in an "anything goes" defamiliarization of biblical texts. Their arbitrariness made them inadequate tools for the interpretation of the venerable "book of books."[1] Instead, Hengel claims that the only appropriate way to understand the alétheia tou euaggeliou (1 Cor 15:11), the permanent truth of the Christian Kerygma, is to reveal what the New Testament author has meant and what he wanted to express with respect to his audience, his hearers and readers.[2] Though most German biblical scholars will not share this extreme author-centered position any longer, in his conservative disposition and the implicit devaluation of new trends as superficial and transient,[3] Hengel is nevertheless representative of a predominant inclination.

This conservative tendency does not only affect methodological aspects but also important issues or debates in research (e.g., the Third Quest for the historical Jesus and the New Perspective on Paul). Both are international discourses, yet mainly conducted in English and, in contrast, for example, to Scandinavia, with rather few initiative contributions by German-speaking scholars (exceptions are Gerd Theißen, Wolfgang Stegemann, and Michael Bachmann). If the results of these debates are reflected at all, this often happens with a considerable delay and from a rather sceptical point of view. Finally, though New Testament studies claims its position within the canon of theological disciplines, it has only little impact on general theological debates and exegetical research does not affect discussions within the church or in academic and public discourse.

When and Why?

But what are the reasons for this development? Let me try to suggest at least some answers. Thomas H. Olbricht has recently designated the time up to the First World War (1900-1915) as the "Germanic Period" of biblical interpretation.[4] Considering only the impact of the Form and Redaktionsgeschichte methods of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann (including also Hans Conzelmann and Ernst Haenchen), as well as the contributions of Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Käsemann to wider theological discussions, it is evident that German exegesis at least exerted an important influence until the end of, and some time after, World War II. Even if Germany no longer held the leading position, it still maintained a significant role in international exegesis as well as in systematic theological and philosophical discourses.

The years 1933 through 1945 severely shocked everyone, including biblical scholars. This resulted in an increased sensibility for a centuries-old tradition of anti-Jewish readings of the New Testament that were also supported by biblical scholars, not only German ones. Yet, corresponding to the larger political developments and the altered power relations after World War II, the higher critical agenda originating among, and having been dominated by, German exegetes became more and more disputed. The emancipation, especially of North American exegesis, from a German biblical-exegetical hegemonic hold was surely facilitated by English becoming the lingua franca of the scientific world. Thus, it is symptomatic of the current situation that a growing number of particularly American scholars only possess a basic knowledge of German while simultaneously the amount of German exegetical research translated into English is decreasing. Is Wolfgang Stegemann really right in blaming German exegesis for its provinciality and therefore entitling his account on the condition of New Testament studies: "America, du hast es besser!" (America, you are better off!)?[5] Is Anglo-American exegesis really at an advantage compared to Germany?

I suggest not. At least it seems as if those on the other side of the sea are not on the safe side either. This impression is corroborated by various recent observations by international scholars. Independent of their different backgrounds, implications and aims, there seems to be a general consensus that the main reasons for the current — poor — state of our discipline is related to the globalization and pluralization of society (or societies). In 1997, for example, Ulrich Luz devoted his presidential address to the SNTS group on the topic "The tasks of exegesis in a religiously pluralistic society."[6] Only a few months later, Larry Hurtado gave his inaugural lecture on "New Testament Studies at the Turn of the Millennium: Questions for the Discipline"[7] in Edinburgh. Hurtado argued that "the pluralising of our society (...) makes it even more important and relevant for the scriptural texts of the Christian faith to be a university subject."[8] One of the latest assessments has been presented by the SNTS president of 2004, Wayne Meeks,[9] who arrives at a rather similar assessment.

Given these other non-German assessments of the situation, one could conclude that Germany simply participates in a "global crisis" of exegesis. And there is some truth to that. But, coming back to Wolfgang Stegemann's longing look at America and his plea for methodical innovations, one must also assert that new methods are not per se fruitful (here Hengel is right), even though they do at least foster debates on methodology. While some scholars, such as Stanley Porter, have recently characterized the problems of North American exegesis as being caused by "fragmentation" and "multiformity" on account of too much theory, Germany's crisis is, in my perception, mostly due to a lack of theory (i.e., of methodological and hermeneutical reflection). So aside from the general "global situation," there is also a more specific cultural aspect to this matter.

On Our Way Out

As already noted, for the past decade or so a debate on the present state and on future perspectives of New Testament studies has been going on in Germany. Contributions to this discussion come, besides from those exegetes already mentioned, from scholars ...such as Stefan Alkier, Christof Landmesser, Eckhart Rein-muth, Jens Schröter, and Oda Wischmeyer.[10] An important stimulus of the debate is the growing discontent with the fact that the various exegetical methods, old and new, historical-critical and literary, diachronic and synchronic, are usually employed additively and without integration into a theoretical concept of text interpretation. Such an overlooked but strongly demanded text theory does not only have to consider the epistemological, linguistic, and philosophical presuppositons of each single method, but it also has to reflect the conditions of understanding and interpretation of texts in general. Fundamental to this striving for a theory of text-comprehension are the insights associated with the term "linguistic turn," which originated in various intellectual movements (e.g., analytical philosophy, structuralism) and was adopted in the humanities in the 1970s. Decisive for the linguistic turn is the recognition of language as structuring thought and constructing reality. There is no direct relation between the world created by, and in, a text and the non-linguistic reality to which it refers.

The question for the conditions of the comprehension of linguistic utterances relates (at least) back to the hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher for whom interpretation required the reconstruction of meaning. This has been refined by modern text linguistics and discourse studies, which characterize interpretation as a process involving producer/author, recipient, and text alike, yet still laying a strong emphasis on the reader. Very influential in this respect were the concepts of Wolfgang Iser, featuring the idea of an implicit reader, and of Umberto Eco, featuring the idea of a model reader. Both pay special attention to the active part of the reader in the act of interpretation. This cooperation (cf. Eco: "la cooperazione interpretativa") does not necessarily imply a conscious interaction, yet it does suggest permanent decisions as regards the actualization of specific aspects of the "cultural encyclopaedia" of the reader. This encyclopaedic competence is, for instance, performed when deciding between different possible grammatical or semantic choices a text offers and when filling gaps in the text. However, while this presupposition facilitates a pluralization of interpretation, it does not result in arbitrary perspectives, because every realization is restricted by certain predispositions of the text itself.

Turning to the German scholars mentioned above, while Wischmeyer explicitly defines her exegetical approach as text hermeneutics, Landmesser primarily seeks, by means of philology, to develop the "linguistic potential" of the New Testament texts. Alkier is predominantly engaged in semiotics and the ethics of interpretation, and Schröter (in a similar way but interwoven with postmodern issues in a more general mode, also Reinmuth) seems to envisage an even broader project by linking current insights of linguistics and theory of history. Schröter wants to strengthen ties between text, reality, and history, the junction being the idea of a (moderate) constructivism with its fundamental assumption that humans have no access to any ontic reality, but that all reality is dependent on knowledge and thus subject to construction. Adopting the above-mentioned linguistic perspectives, Schröter holds that the New Testament writings are comparable with any other text as they all constitute reality via the medium of language. But language does not only structure our access to, and perception of, reality, it also mediates between past and present. Drawing among others on the works Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White, Schröter emphasizes the constructive character of history in general, including early Christian history and our own perceptions of it. Thus, the quest for origins has to be regarded as a cultural construction as well. Faction and fiction, history and historiography, cannot be split up. The establishment of relations in meaning is an important prerequisite for the reception of the past, and meaning is not inherent to facts and reality but has to be created by interpretation. Thus, like all other historical texts, the early Christian writings describe the reality they relate to in a selective and interpretative way. But if we can acquire the past only in the mode of fictionality, Schröter demands as a necessary consequence that the question for the truth of history must not be identified and mixed up with that of its verification.

In short, it is in these newer hermeneutical developments in Germany that I see some significant hope for a renewed German-speaking contribution to the field of biblical studies and for a possible way out of the current state of isolation we are facing.

Concluding Remarks

It is not only generally to be welcomed that a discussion on theory has been inaugurated in German exegesis, but also that these efforts seek for an integral connection between exegesis and hermeneutics. An integrative theory that considers both the creative act of text interpretation, necessarily including, alongside an appropriation of the first century "encyclopaedia," the critical historical and philological skills that Hengel rightly, even if too one-sidedly, demands and the idea of the constructive character of history, appears to be a promising way out of the isolation of German exegesis. Of course, I'm not promoting here a return to German hegemony, but rather a move to "interdisciplinary" and "international" discourse and exchange. The constructive notion of reality and history draws on international discourses in literary studies, linguistics, historical, and philosophical sciences, and thus may inaugurate debates within the theological context as well as with non-theological partners. If all reality is linguistically mediated, this is also true for the biblical texts. As a consequence, we can only strive for an adequate interpretation, but not for the one and only true one, a point that is critically relevant in the debate within theology, national, and international. If there is no direct connection between the signs of a text and the designated non-linguistic reality, the biblical texts just provide one possible interpretation of reality. This recognition opens the space for dialogues with other, non-theological disciplines on the basis of a rational, negotiable methodological basis. Theology can then be an autonomous partner in the discourse on competing drafts of interpretation of the world, of history and reality.

Regarding the public eye, the idea of the constructive nature of reality and history may in fact be appealing precisely because it corresponds so well to our every day experiences. Our co-operation is asked everywhere — in the super market, at the cash machine, when having a coffee break at Starbucks or lunch at Burger King. We book our flights via the internet and print the tickets at the airport. So, why not cooperate in producing meaning?

Time will prove whether these ideas are fruitful. For the moment they offer a discourse and a promising path to be followed. Maybe this path will not lead us to blossoming landscapes; at least it might provide exegesis a place in the global village.

Heike Omerzu, University of Mainz

Notes:
[1] Cf. Martin Hengel, "Aufgaben der Neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft," New Testament Studies 40 (1994): 337

[2] "Aufgaben der Neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft," 349, 351.

[3] "Aufgaben der Neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft," 352.

[4] Cf. Thomas H. Olbricht, "Biblical Interpretation in North America in the 20th Century," in Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (ed. D. K. McKim; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 541-57.

[5] Wolfgang Stegemann, "Amerika, du hast es besser! Exegetische Innovationen der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft in den USA," in Die Kunst des Auslegens: Zur Hermeneutik des Christentums in der Kultur der Gegenwart (ed. R. Anselm et al.; Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999), 99-114.

[6] Ulrich Luz, "Kann die Bibel heute noch Grundlage für die Kirche sein? Über die Aufgabe der Exegese in einer religiös-pluralistischen Gesellschaft," New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 317-39.

[7] Published in Scottish Journal of Theology 52 (1999): 158-78.

[8] Scottish Journal of Theology, 159.

[9] Wayne A. Meeks, "Why Study the New Testament," New Testament Studies 51 (2005): 155-70.

[10] Stefan Alkier, "Es geht ums Ganze! Wider die geschichtswissenschaftliche Verkürzung der Bibelwissenschaften oder Aufruf zur intensiveren Zusammenarbeit der theologischen Disziplinen," in Religionspädagogik als Mitte der Theologie? Theologische Disziplinen im Diskurs (ed. M. Rothgangel and E.Thaidigsmann; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005), 165-70; and idem, "Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft - Ein semiotisches Konzept," in Kontexte der Schrift II. Kultur, Politik, Religion, Sprache (ed. C. Strecker and W. Stegemann; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2005), 343-60; see also Alkier and Ralph Brucker, eds., Exegese und Methodendiskussion (TANZ 23; Tübingen: Francke, 1998); Christof Landmesser, Wahrheit als Grundbegriff neutestamentlicher Wissenschaft (WUNT 113; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); and idem, "Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Weltbezug," in Herkunft und Zukunft der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft (ed. O. Wischmeyer; NET 6; Tübingen: Francke, 2003), 185-206; Eckhart Reinmuth, "Diskurse und Texte: Überlegungen zur Theologie des Neuen Testaments nach der Moderne," Berlineer Theologische Zeitschrift 16 (1999): 81-96; and idem, "In der Vielfalt der Bedeutungen: Notizen zur Interpretationsaufgabe neutestamentlicher Wissenschaft," in Die Bedeutung der Exegese für Theologie und Kirche (ed. U. Busse; QD 215; Freiburg: Herder, 2005, 76-96; Jens Schröter, "Zum gegenwärtigen Stand der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft: Methodologische Aspekte und theologische Perspektiven," New Testament Studies 46 (2000): 262-83; and idem, "Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft jenseits des Historismus: Neuere Entwicklungen in der Geschichtstheorie und ihre Bedeutung für die Exegese urchristlicher Schriften," Theologische Literaturzeitung 128 (2003): 855-66; Oda Wischmeyer, "Das Selbstverständnis der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft in Deutschland: Bestandsaufnahme Kritik. Perspektiven. Ein Bericht auf der Grundlage eines neutestamentlichen Oberseminars," Zeitschrift für Neues Testament 5 (2002): 13-36; and idem, Herkunft und Zukunft.

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Citation: Heike Omerzu, " A German Landscape: Currents and Credits of Biblical Studies in Germany during the Past Decades," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=549

 
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