The Evolution of a Meme

It all started with Ken Brown’s five influential books/scholars meme in which those tagged were to name five books or scholars who have influenced their reading of the Bible (my responses here & here).  This evolved into Kevin Scull’s five influential primary sources meme (my response here) in which those tagged were to list the primary sources that had the greatest impact on their scholarship, understanding of antiquity, or interpretation of the Bible.  From here came Rick Brannan’s new Biblical Studies books we’re stupider for having read meme in which those tagged are supposed to list five books from at least three authors that are “mind-numbingly stupid.”  After having seen Rick’s meme Loren Rossen came up with one of his own.  Loren says:

I came up with another meme, however, something perhaps less negative and more constructive to ponder. How about the five biblical studies books or essays you think have made extremely important and necessary contributions to the field, yet heavily disagree with in spite of this? I have in mind scholarship you find yourself burning to agree with, or a closet fan of, envying the author’s critical acumen, applauding the fact that all the right (and perhaps long-overdue) questions are being asked, but regretfully finding most of the conclusions just plain unpersuasive.

I’ve yet to be tagged with Rick’s meme but Loren did tag me with his which I’ll answer here.  A quick word about my approach to this meme: I’m listing works that I believe have made a significant contribution or were especially well-written and enjoyable to read but not works that I necessarily “burn[ed] to agree with.”   So without further ado here’s my list:

Dunn is a first rate exegete, no question about it, and his insistence on reading a wide variety of primary sources to gain as good an understanding as possible of the Sitz im Leben of the NT is commendable, yet I found myself frustrated at the overly-confident manner in which he declared his conclusions to be correct and the way that he completely ignored or overlooked the implications of some of his exegesis.  His Adam Christology, while inventive (perhaps even innovative?), was not entirely (= at all) persuasive, especially as it pertained to his interpretation of Philippians 2:5-11.  I think Dunn’s most important contribution with this book is not that it “min[es] the low christology of the synoptic[s]” (as if such a thing existed!), but rather that it forced scholars to better articulate their understandings of Christ’s pre-existence and incarnation.  Before Dunn’s tome there was little of substance that ran contrary to the traditional view.  I don’t believe that he’s succeeded in effectively challenging it, but he has succeeded in making those who disagree with him be more clear on why they disagree.

Ehrman’s works are always fun to read because he writes so well, which is a rare trait for the majority of scholars who write anything worth reading.  The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is the scholarly material that stood behind his enormously popular Misquoting Jesus.  If you’ve read one then you’ve read the other, the major difference is in the end notes.  When it comes to all issues text critical there are few in the world that are on Ehrman’s level.  His breadth of knowledge concerning textual criticism is impressive to say the least.  Unfortunately, careful text critical work doesn’t translate into firmly supported conclusions for Ehrman.  In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture/Misquoting Jesus Ehrman displays this uncanny ability to actually know what ancient scribes were thinking as they copied their manuscripts!  The importance of this work besides highlighting significant textual variants that can affect one’s Christology or that were possibly affected by one’s Christology, is that it was the catalyst for Misquoting Jesus which got a lot of people who otherwise would have never asked any questions at all about the Bible asking them.   

  • Ernst Lohmeyer. Kyrios Jesus: Eine Untersuchung zu Phil. 2,5-11. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Jahrgang 1927/1928, 4. Abhandlung (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag, 2. Auflage 1961.

Having never been translated into English I’m dependent upon the descriptions of Lohmeyer’s work from the likes of Ralph P. Martin (see A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation & in the Setting of Early Christian Worship [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997]) and Colin Brown (see “Ernst Lohmeyer’s Kyrios Jesus,” in Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 [ed. Ralph P. Martin and Brian J. Dodd; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998], 6-42).  But anyone who has read broadly in the field of Christology knows just how far-reaching and influential Lohmeyer’s work has been.  If you scan a bibliography and don’t see reference to it then that’s cause for alarm.  Martin says that “[b]y any reckoning Lohmeyer’s lecture in its printed form serves as a decisive starting point in the twentieth-century interpretation of the passage” (“Carmen Christi Revisted,” in Where Christology Began, 1).  Nonetheless, for as seminal as Lohmeyer’s contribution was, and as much as I agree that whoever composed the so-called Christ hymn’s “mother tongue was Semitic,” and as much as I’d love for this so-called hymn to date back to before Paul because that would make an even stronger case for an early high Christology (which I think is fairly easy to make anyway), I’m forced to agree with Gordon Fee that Paul was the likely author and that this is not a hymn at all (see Fee’s “Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?,” BBR 2 [1992]: 29-46). 

Hengel’s work is as good as it gets and as I’ve said in the recent past, his scholarship is the kind that builds faith rather than destroys it.  The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ presents some solid arguments for the traditional Gospel authorship, but as solid as they were, and as much as I wanted to believe them, in the end they failed to convince.  That the evangelists’ names were appended to their Gospels from an early date doesn’t prove that they were there from the beginning, nor does it prove that even if they were that the authors were who they said they were.  Now I do think that good arguments can be made for the traditional authorship of Matthew and John, but I think it’s done on grounds other than what appears in Hengel’s book and even then it’s not so overwhelmingly conclusive that someone couldn’t disagree. 

And I’ll have to stop at four since I can’t think of a fifth book that I think made an important contribution or that I particularly enjoyed reading that I nevertheless disagreed with, although technically I counted two of Ehrman’s books so I suppose that is really five, anyway…  If one comes up I’ll be sure to update this post.  In terms of tagging I’m going to go with Bill Heroman; Michael Barber; Mark Stevens; Daniel Doleys; and Mike Aubrey because I want to see him slam Stanley Porter. ;-)




10 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Meme

  1. I wonder where Mike disagrees with Stanley Porter? Anyways, good list (except I can’t comment on the German source; my intro German does not take me very far yet). I agree with you about not being so sure about the whole emphasis on Adam Christology and the denial of pre-existence in Paul in “Christology in the Making”.

  2. Mike: It has something to do with verbal aspect or something like that. Completely esoteric stuff that only linguists know about, but it’s still fun to watch when they bicker about each other. ;-) Like I said, I’ve not read Lohmyer for myself although Colin Brown’s essay follows Lohmeyer’s outline and he offers plenty of commentary on Lohmeyer’s work. Ralph p. Martin as well as Gordon Fee also have plenty to say about Lohmeyer, so while I haven’t read the lecture itself, I believe I have a solid grasp of what he said.

  3. Nick:
    Interesting meme.

    Can you expand on what your problems are with Ehrman’s book? You mentioned Ehrman’s “uncanny ability to actually know what ancient scribes were thinking as they copied their manuscripts”. Can you elaborate on that? If I’m not mistaken he argues that scribes would alter texts to make them more clearly in line with the orthodx beliefs of the church (maybe in response to heretics or something). Do you disagree with that or something else?

    Bryan L

  4. Hey Nick,

    It seems like you can get your hands on almost any book from any publisher… Regarding the Carmen Christi, you may be interested in one of my professor’s recent monograph:

    I’ve never read it myself, but it seems to be connected with that particular German book along with other books in that stream of research. If you do get your hands on it, let me know how it is!

  5. Bryan: Ehrman speaks of things which he can’t possibly know. E.g., of John 1:18 he says:

    The variant was created to support a high Christology in the face of widespread claims, found among adoptionists recognized and supposed in Alexandria, that Christ was not God but merely a man, adopted by God. For the scribe who created this variant, Christ is not merely portrayed as the “unique Son.” He himself his God, the “unique God,” who is to be differentiated from God the Father, in whose bosom he resides, but who nonetheless is his co-equal. (Orthodox Corruption, 82)

    It’s not clear that a scribe created the variant that says ‘theos’ in the first place. But if that much were clear then it’s not clear why such a scribe would create it. Ehrman might offer a plausible theory on what happened, but he doesn’t present it as such. He presents it like he knew the scribe and what his motives were. That’s just a ready example, but the book is full of stuff like this. I just got home after 2 AM (!) and I’m really tired. Maybe I’ll write a post tomorrow with some more examples.

    Mike: It only seems like that. I’ve not had any luck with Cambridge University Press yet, or Yale University Press for that matter. I would imagine that your prof’s book would have had to interact with Lohmeyer at some point given his great impact on the subject. If ever I come across that book I’ll be sure to let you know what I think.

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