New Testament Studies as a theological and cultural studies discipline

The subject of the New Testament is perceived as a theological and cultural studies discipline which aims to contribute to making accessible religious communication and thus also communication in the world in general. Here we take a look at both the historical context of biblical writings with regard to culture at the time of their emergence as well as the conditions under which they are read against the backdrop of present-day culture.

These two poles – the cultural conditions under which the biblical writings were produced on the one hand and contemporary culture in the framework of which biblical texts are today read and handled on the other – together constitute the focal points of New Testament hermeneutics. These two poles are linked by the history of reception of the scriptures. That is why history of research and receptive aesthetic aspects are also given sufficient room. In order to do academic justice to these questions, interdisciplinary links between the subject of the New Testament and other disciplines, in particular Study of Religion, Philosophy, History, Classical Philology, and Literary Studies, must be established. It is necessary, with regard to the culture(s) in the framework of which the New Testament texts evolved, to take into consideration – alongside political, social, and economic history - especially also the diversified and complex religious history in antiquity, in particular Jewish religious history in the context of Hellenism and the Roman Empire. However, the Hellenistic and Roman ritual communities as well as the characteristics and aspirations of Hellenistic rulers and Roman state religion must also be taken into consideration with an open mind in order to understand the pluralist and conflict-ridden cultural setting in which the New Testament scriptures evolved.

Our New Testament courses therefore teach fundamental knowledge of ancient Judaism, the age of Hellenism, and the history of the Roman Empire. These fields mutually influenced each other and together left their mark on the historical framework in which the New Testament scriptures were produced and received. Judaism in the first century AD also exhibits the major cultural influence of Hellenism, which is reflected not least in the LXX and the composition of extensive parts of what is known as intertestamental literature and then also in all New Testament writings composed in the Greek language. Taking into account the complexity of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires, the ancient oriental religious, social, and economic history as well as political traditions must also be considered in conjunction with Old Testament Studies. Of ever-growing significance for both biblical disciplines is the examination of the Phoenician culture, which already in the pre-Hellenistic era acted as a cultural mediator between Greece and the Middle East.

Our historical studies centre on the question of how the religious, political, economic, legal, and social structures as determining cultural factors contributed to the construction of plausibility structures which the New Testament scriptures create and presuppose.

The subject of the New Testament may not, however, occupy itself solely with this historical perspective, but must also address the question of how biblical writings are received under present-day cultural, social, and economic conditions, since the question of the relevance of biblical writings for contemporary life in religious education in schools and in ecclesiastical practice deserves special attention. How are present-day plausibility structures constructed and what happens when they encounter those of biblical writings? This question requires interdisciplinary handling in a dialogue with those religious studies which focus on the present day, religious education, social sciences, philosophical epistemology and hermeneutics as well as the hermeneutics, methodology, and reception research of literary studies. Semiotics, as a fundamental transdisciplinary subject, is able to link these questions through a communication, culture, and interpretation theory which originates from sign theory.

The present-day conditions under which biblical writings are read are co-determined by the reception history of these writings. An interpretation of the scriptures in modern times can only be correctly undertaken if it bears in mind their links to their respective traditional and geographical location. Not only denominational premises are meant here but equally the reception of “biblical” writings in the Early Church, which led first to the evolution of the Canon, up to the legacy of the Enlightenment, which also has a determining influence on post-modern contemporary culture. It is therefore appropriate that one of the tasks of the Chair of New Testament Studies is to offer courses on the Early Church.

From a reception-oriented perspective on the subject of the New Testament, there are mounting demands on material and media. New Testament Studies then no longer have exclusively to do with the New Testament scriptures, but also with a critical monitoring of their reception up until the present day in literature, children’s bibles, painting, visual arts, music, video clips, films, and new media. In order to pursue these complex tasks, cooperation is continuously fostered with the disciplines of Religious Education, Practical Theology, Systematic Theology, Art History, Literary Studies, Musicology, Film Philology, Social Sciences etc.

The key objective of New Testament Studies understood in this light is to foster the theologically correct reading of biblical writings as an essential voice in our pluralist society and to preserve it as a religious and cultural means of identification in present times and thus to contribute to opening up communication in the world. Especially in the dialogue with non-denominational religious studies and the trialogue with Judaism and Islam, New Testament Studies as a theological discipline with denominational roots can contribute to developing an understanding of dialogue in society which does not aspire to harmony and identity but instead to difference and a peaceful culture of debate amongst all those who seek the truth. In particular Protestant theology, which shifts the location of the question of truth from the institution of the church to the individual believer, has the potential to deliberate in a conducive manner on the fundamental philosophical, religious, and theological problems of pluralist societies.