Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 15, 2008

N. T. Wright on NT Footnotes

When I write a paper, I’m afraid that a good bit of my work consists of footnotes, and lengthy ones at that.  It was with great interest then that I read these insightful comments by N. T. Wright on footnotes in NT studies:

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 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 first-century sources themselves. I remember Henry Chadwick telling a doctoral candidate in Patristics that he should regard it as awarding a badge of honour if a scholar really deserved to get into his footnotes; whereas, in NT studies, footnotes have become themselves the badge of honour for the writer, the long-service medal for putting in all those laborious hours in the library. Of course we must discuss with our contemporaries, and take them seriously as we want them to take us seriously. But if we produce a mountain of scholasticism we are, in the long term, serving neither New Testament scholarship nor Christian discipleship. Third ways must be sought and found.

“New Testament Scholarship and Christian Discipleship,” The Moule Memorial Lecture, Ridley Hall, Cambridge (5 June 2008), 5-6; online: 


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