An Oxford chair of theology is secured through endowment

The Dean Ireland Chair of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture was originally funded through a bequest from John Ireland, Dean of Westminster from 1816 to 1842. Now a generous gift from the Fernside Trust has made it possible to endow the post in perpetuity.

Central to the study of the New Testament at Oxford, the chair is held by Professor Markus Bockmuehl of Keble College. Of his professorial title, he explains: ‘The term exegesis comes from a Greek verb meaning literally “to bring out”, or “bring to full appearance”. It is also used to mean something like “explication”.’

He observes that ‘the discipline of biblical studies has certain historical strengths which remain important to us; they have produced great insights, great discoveries and new perspectives on the biblical texts.’ He identifies these strengths as: text criticism – the establishment of critical texts based on existing manuscripts; literary criticism; linguistics; interest in history and in ancient context (both ideological and cultural); and the history of interpretation of texts.

These strengths, as the professor observes, have links with other disciplines such as history, classics, anthropology and sociology. Studying the Bible in the light of its ancient social and historical contexts, using the same methods as for a secular text, remains, he comments, ‘work of foundational importance – I think it continues to be one of our great strengths at Oxford.’

The force of these texts remains very significant, and this is all part of their footprint in culture, history and our experience.Professor Markus Bockmuehl

A newer strand of research is the study of effects and reception, which Professor Bockmuehl describes as asking, ‘What impact has this text had? How has it influenced thinkers in diverse traditions? How has it affected politics or actions, and what does that tell us about the force of the original text?’ He is particularly interested in the reception of early Christian texts in the first three centuries AD, and how these affected early Christian thought, practice and belief.

We should be aware, Professor Bockmuehl points out, ‘that we now inhabit a century in which religion is in the ascendancy worldwide. And it is both a source of tension and also a catalyst for change across different cultures in different ways.’ Linked with this phenomenon, part of his current research is ‘a project on the relationship between scriptural eschatology – that’s to say scriptural hopes for the future, which might be a messiah, resurrection, life after death – and politics and political aspiration. This has considerable contemporary resonance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.’

It can find dramatic expression in the form of terrorist acts which are partly motivated by the hope of paradise, or other violent conflicts such as the FBI’s 1999 siege of a sectarian compound in Waco, Texas, whose leader David Koresh was intensely invested in the scriptural hopes expressed in the book of Isaiah. But there are also less destructive resonances to be explored. Professor Bockmuehl adds: ‘One of the things that I’m interested in is why the same scriptural expectations for the future can give rise to profoundly constructive and peaceful instruments of change, and yet also sometimes create militant expressions.’

On a lighter note of biblical ‘reception’, the professor has also lectured to lay audiences on the fact that many elements of the Christmas story as we know it have no actual basis in the New Testament, but come in fact from the Apocryphal Gospels. He explains: ‘Surprisingly, there are several familiar aspects of Christmas that derive from traditions first recorded in the Infancy Gospel of James,’ dating from the second century AD. These include Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey, the brightness of the star, the nature of the ‘stable’ of Jesus’ birth, and several others. Professor Bockmuehl’s intention is not to debunk but to deepen understanding of the historical and textual sources of something which people may have long taken for granted.

He appreciates, and values, the fact that the texts he studies have remained central to the everyday lives of so many people worldwide. As he puts it, ‘It is the fact that the Bible is a religious book, and therefore not like every other book, that accounts for why we still have it – for why it’s still available for us to study. So one of the key concerns of my teaching and research is to recover an awareness of the Bible’s identity as above all a formative text of faith and hope – not just ancient artefact, but in some sense “word of life” for people around the world, both past and present.’

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