A Life in New Testament Studies kiwiconnexion practical theology

Posted By on October 18, 2019

David: Hello everyone. Welcome along to Live
On Air this Sunday evening. It’s with a great deal of pleasure that I’ve got Professor Paul
Trebilco from the University of Otago. He’s coming into us from Dunedin; the theological
centre of the universe as far as New Zealand is concerned, or at least as far as I’m concerned.
I’d like to begin, Paul just by asking you to tell us a little bit about your background
and what your professional career has been about.
Paul: Thank you David. So, I grew up in Christchurch. My father was a Methodist minister. I went
to Canterbury University and did Chemistry to start with, and contemplated going on to
do further study in chemistry, but at that stage I was not too sure about ministry, perhaps
partly because Dad had been a minister. I wanted to be really convinced of a call in
that direction, but I decided I wanted to do some theology. I was really interested
in the Bible in particular, so I came here to Otago back in 1980, and did a Bachelor
of Divinity degree at the Theological Hall, part of the Presbyterian Church’s set-up here
at that stage, as part of the university. So that was a three year Bachelor of Divinity
degree, and then I got hooked. It wasn’t quite what I wanted to do long-term, but I had the
chance to do a PhD. My wife Gill and I got married in ’83 and
we went together to the University of Durham where I studied with James Dunne who was famous
then – became even more famous within New Testament Scholarship as just a really significant
voice. So we had the time of our lives in Durham, doing four years there, involved in
St John’s College, an Anglican college, and then the big decision came as to quite what
I wanted to do. In ’83 I had candidated for the Methodist Church and had been accepted,
but the church very graciously let me go to Durham. I had six months in Onehunga Church
of Christ in the interim period between degrees, which was great, but came, went to Durham
and then discussions with the church, and just as I was in those discussions a job came
up at the Theological Hall. I’d never imagined coming back, but I applied and was appointed
in ’88, and here I am still, 30 years later – just amazing how time flies.
David: Well, it’s been a most distinguished career that you’ve had in New Testament. When
you first started, Professor John McCullock I think was also there lecturing in New Testament.
Paul: No, he left. David: He left?
Paul: He left, so it was thanks to him that I got a job.
David: Oh right. Paul: Yeah, so he went back to Trinity College
in Belfast, I think it was – yeah, that’s the right name – quite suddenly, and so the
position was advertised. Gavin Munro took over his position, and Gavin’s position became
vacant, and I was appointed to that. It was interesting; he was John in New Zealand, and
Cecil in Ireland. So I met Cecil McCullock, as he liked to be called in Ireland, a number
of times, but we never overlapped. David: At that stage, Knox Theological Hall
and the University of Otago were kind of linked. There was a Department of Religious Studies,
but since then these two have merged, and the department has gone from strength to strength
over decades now, and part of it under your own leadership. What would you describe the
student numbers currently doing theology? Paul: We have about 200 Equivalent Full Time
Students – EFTS, as we count them, which is about 500 individuals. So about 60 per cent
of those students are distance students, around New Zealand. For some reason people don’t
flock in vast numbers to Dunedin. The climate I think is always the explanation. So, since
1990 we’ve been doing distance programs, which has been wonderful, and actually our distance
students out-perform our campus students quite often. That particularly makes it accessible
to people who are not able to travel, people with families, people in employment; a whole
range of people throughout New Zealand and actually a number overseas.
So distance teaching has been great. We have about 45 PhD students. So the PhD numbers
have really grown, partly I guess because now we’re really the only place you can do
PhDs in most areas, in theology, with Auckland having changed its focus a bit. We have Masters
degrees; Master of Ministry and Master of Chaplaincy, as well as under-graduates. So
we’re doing BTheols or BAs in Religious Studies, so a very diverse student body, which is just
a great opportunity to have the various niches in which students fit.
David: Yes, and I think one of the real strengths of Otago University has been its keen interest
in the disciplines around theological studies. You particular area of expertise is New Testament
studies. How did you get interested in this sort of obscure book from 2000 years ago?
Paul: I was reflecting on that. I loved the New Testament; loved the writings of course.
I guess I partly found theology a bit philosophical for the way my brain worked, but I thoroughly
enjoyed studying Greek and getting into the texts and so on. So it just became quite a
natural sort of, yeah this is where I’ll end up. So I had some great teachers; Evan Pollard,
one of them – and yeah I just sort of fell in to the discipline really, and have found
it enormously enriching. One of the interesting things about New Testament
studies is that it’s such an eclectic and broad-ranging discipline. I’ve ended up doing
quite a bit of archaeology and inscriptions with Jewish and Greco-Roman texts. So the
one sort of sub-discipline within theology is very broad-ranging in its own interests;
some sociology, some social identity stuff I’ve done recently. So there’s a whole range
of literary studies of course, as well as language. So there’s a whole range of different
ways of approaching the New Testament, which makes it this really interesting and rich
discipline really. David: I’ve followed some of your lectures,
and one in particular I thought was outstanding, was looking at the fact that Christianity
had essentially spread around an ocean. I can’t remember all the exact phrases that
you uses to describe this, but it carried the very strong sense that from the outset
Christianity was never an isolated congregational affair. These little groups that Paul and
others started regarded themselves as neighbours looking across the Mediterranean. That excited
me enormously, and I think the thing about New Testament studies is this tremendous depth
of excitement that can occur when we do take the text out and suddenly start to unpack
it in the ways that you’ve been describing. What currently interests you? What grabs your
attention at present, Paul? Paul: I did a book a little while back on
the ways Christians referred to themselves – self-designation; brothers and sisters,
believers, saints, disciples – the way Christian [8:32]. So really it was; if two people met
on the street before the word Christian became really popular, because that’s really into
the second century – before that becomes the [8:45]. How would they actually be able to
identify themselves as members of the one movement? Would they have said, we are followers
of Jesus? Well, they would have said in the first instance about Jesus, but they would
have say they were family – they were brothers and sisters. They would have said they were
believers. They would have said they were saints – a really interesting usage of language.
So that got me really interested in how Christians thought about themselves. So, that sort of
is a window onto identity. I’ve just done a companion volume on the way
Christians talk about others – about outsiders, so in terms of unbelievers – how they talked
about Jews and Gentiles, sinners – and how some of those labels are used, but also as
a deconstructed – sinners are sinners no longer – unbelievers can become part of the fellowship
as believers, and so on – and how they thought about again, their group identity in relationship
to the wider world. I also did some work on Ephesus awhile back, and I’m doing a second
volume on that sort of Jesus to 450; what do we know about Christianity in Western Asia
Minor from the very early days right through to the fifth century? We know a great deal
about Ephesus and Western Asia Minor in terms of archaeology and so on, and I’m trying to
get into some of that material. So that’s the next little project on the way.
David: I think for the average Christian that sort of goes on pilgrimages from Australia
or New Zealand or America, through the Holy Land, and then into Asia Minor, and possibly
over to Rome, is part of the same pilgrimage cycle, probably Ephesus is the one that stands
out for everyone, because of the marvellous archaeological reconstructions of the ancient
city. I think you had an interest in Ephesus from the outset.
Paul: Yeah. My original PhD was on Jewish communities in Western Asia Minor, so in Western
Turkey, really as a background to Paul. So there’d been a lot of discussion about Paul
and Palestinian Judaism – Rabbis and [10:59] and so, but what about Paul interacting with
Jewish communities and all those cities he went through in Western Asia Minor? So that
was what I did my original work on, and I followed that up then with Christians and
Asia Minor, particularly in Ephesus. So that’s been a really interesting focus.
One of the issues in New Testament studies these days is diversity; how were different
groups different, and what did they have in common? One of the ways of looking at diversity
is by looking at regional studies; what’s going on in Rome, and what’s going on in Corinth,
and what’s going on in Antioch – what’s going on in Ephesus – how are these places networked
together – how do distinctive things happen – how do they describe their commonality in
Christ? So that’s been a sort of regional focus for my work, too.
David: I think all of that is tremendously exciting, but I also have a sense of some
of the difficulty that there is between the academy and the Church – that sometimes the
academy – by that I mean within the university setting, et cetera – some of the scholarship
can be stimulating for all of those who are interested in studying at depth, but that
scholarship doesn’t always trickle down quite so easily into faith communities today, into
churches and congregations. I may be making too much of this; what do you think, Paul?
Is there still a bit of a gap between pulpit and pew in this?
Paul: Yes, I think there is, and it’s different in different places I think. What I do most
of the time is to read scripture, and a lot of my classes are going through texts, Marks
Gospel – or I’m about to start a paper on Romans. Sometimes I think preachers perhaps
sit a bit of lightly to texts, and don’t really dig into the text – don’t use some of the
resources. Perhaps they are preaching thematically, which is fine. Sometimes I think the scriptures
are not dealt with as rigorously or as deeply as they might be. Sometimes I guess we have
different issues. As I say, I’m about to start teaching Romans. Now, there are all sorts
of debates raging about Romans that really belong in the academy, and eventually I guess
because there’s polarised opinions, scholarship comes to some conclusions, and those conclusions
end up in commentaries, and away we go, but sometimes those debates are important in the
academy, but perhaps not so important in the Church.
One interesting debate that comes to mind is the whole new perspective on Paul, which
is really interesting and important in terms of how Paul relates to his Jewishness, and
that does have all sorts of ramifications, but it needs to be digested in order to get
out there and to be relevant I think, to people sitting in the pew. We do a few things in
the department. We do a thing called faith thinking, which is sort of six-hour sessions
on – I’ve just done one recently on John’s Gospel; what can we say about John – let’s
dig into texts or themes in John, in three two-hour sessions. I’m doing one later in
the semester on Revelation. So we try to bridge those sorts of gaps. We do, as a department
– one of us does a monthly column in the paper, and we try and get some of the things we’ve
been thinking about down into the ODT. So we’re trying, and I guess partly our students,
too – one of the things I love about this job is seeing students eyes light up as they
really get to grips with a parable, or with a chunk of 1 Corinthians, or with how we understand
Jesus, and you know that they’re going to take that insight somewhere into a small group
or into preaching and so on. So I think it’s perhaps a long-term job, but we’re trying
to teach people how to read Scripture – how to understand who God is – Christ – the Spirit
– the Church, and I think those bear fruits but it’s a three- year undertaking, and it
takes awhile, but it’s vitally important. We try to bridge that gap between the academy
and Church as much as we can. David: Yeah, I think that’s one of the key
reputations of the old Knox Theological Hall, that it did do that, and that’s obviously
the function that’s now been taken up by your particular department. You mentioned just
a little bit earlier back that you were less interested in say some of the theological
debates – they were one further step away from the actual raw data of the New Testament.
I’ve got a personal question here. When I went to my first parish which was in Ashhurst,
Bunnythorpe and I’d never heard of the place called Bunnythorpe in New Zealand – please
forgive me, residents of Bunnythorpe – on the outskirts of Palmerston North. In that
parish I came across a man who had been in the Exclusive Brethren and he’d gone into
the Open Brethren, and then he’d become a Methodist.
He had taught himself New Testament Greek. He’d taught himself Hebrew. He was proficient,
and he had done vast amounts of study at trying to make the texts fit a little better. I became
aware that sometimes we can assume that the laity don’t know anything, when the reverse
might be true; they may know a lot more than the average new minister, beginning to try
and preach the Gospel. He related to the fact that I had learned the basic Greek and Hebrew
– it wasn’t quite my area of study, which was more Christian thought in history, but
from his perspective it was vital that every minister learn New Testament Greek. That’s
a discipline that I think is vital in terms of the craft of ministry. How many students
opt into Greek and Hebrew? Paul: We would have five to eight probably
each year doing Greek first year. So we do four years of Greek and Hebrew – do it all
by distance as well as on campus. So we’d probably have four to five people doing second
to third year Greek and Hebrew every year. So it’s something we’re trying to promote,
because there’s not a lot happening nation-wide in terms of Greek and Hebrew; it’s only with
us and at Laidlaw College. So, we think that sort of academic study is absolutely fundamental.
Obviously that’s what I do quite a bit of. I guess for me, the theological issues are
vital; sometimes it’s a question of digesting those in order to lead them into preaching.
I love doing workshops and seminars and evening sessions; those sorts of thing where you can
sit down, talk for a few minutes and then have quite a lot of engagement with people
– see where they are. So I enjoy preaching but I think the church should not put all
of its Christian education into preaching. There needs to be a whole lot of other stuff
where we’re engaging with each other, hearing each other, and then a chance for some really
good content. As I say, the new perspective on Paul has
lots of rich insights, partly because it’s a raging debate these days. It doesn’t fit
in the pulpit quite so well as in a seminar room, or in a place where you say some people
say this and some people say that – this is where they’re coming from – this is what’s
at stake in this debate – these are the insights that each is sharing onto Paul’s life in theology,
for example. I’m very interested in theology; I think it’s just a question of how one gets
those debates – gets into those discussions. David: Yeah. I think one of the big themes
in Christian thoughts in history is that actually most of the theology ideas that we tend to
discuss have been discussed at some point in the past; we just don’t realise the depth
of scholarship, particularly in the patristic period which
obviously didn’t cover everything, but it seemed to cover a lot of things. I’ve got
a particular question from one of our studio audience that I’d like you to consider. It
comes from Stuart Mannins. He’s been thinking about the prologue in John’s Gospel, and he
said, okay the prologue that he knows mirrors to some extent the creation mythology of Genesis
1 – so there’s that kind of quite well established link. I think it came from Philo. I’m not
100 per cent sure on that, but he then wondered whether the series of signs that you get the
development in the first part of John’s Gospel, had a kind of a parallel in other parts of
Genesis, and I wondered whether you had a possible answer for that, Paul?
Paul: Yeah. So, certainly the rainbow is a sign, isn’t it? The rainbow after the flood
is said to be a sign, in Genesis. I think the most likely background for science is
the signs and wonders language in the plagues, in the Exodus story. That’s the sort of indications
– things that are pointing beyond themselves to what God is doing. So I think that’s probably
the more likely place to look, rather than Genesis itself. Certainly they’re very steeped
in Old Testament language and Old Testament discussions, although John is doing something
different. I have a PhD student just at the moment who’s
looking at the signs in John, and is arguing that the crucifixion and resurrection is the
final and greatest sign, and that the other signs – the [22:14] sign and so on – various
other – there are six signs, but it’s a Johannine term for miracles in general – are all pointing
to the death and resurrection, which is the place where God’s glory is seen in. So I think
it’s that – for John, they have a bit of Old Testament background in the plagues perhaps
in Genesis, but they’re very much shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,
in a way of focussing particularly on the cross and resurrection as the final sign of
who Jesus is, and paradoxically in John, the final indication of God’s glory here in the
Cross and resurrection as God shows ultimately God’s grace – God’s God-ness – that God will
go even to the extent of remaking creation through the Cross and resurrection.
David: It’s interesting too, that in John’s Gospel it sort of starts with a question,
where Jesus says, what are you looking for? Stuart Mannins pointed out that’s the same
question essentially that God asks of Adam; where are you? I hadn’t really thought about
that before, so that’s why I put that one in. Paul, I’ve got another question from a
viewer, Max Thompson; he’s particularly interested to know why you wanted to organise a course
on the Book of Revelation? Paul: We have this thing called faith thinking,
where we run seven or eight short courses each year, and we actually do them in Invercargill
and do a couple in Auckland as well. We have a group of people who we get together every
year to help us shape these up and to make sure they’re relevant to the church. They
said to me; please do something on Revelation, Paul. I said, yes. So I guess they are aware
that Revelation comes in two categories; either people ignore it completely and have no idea
what the Book of Revelation is about, or people use it completely wrongly, I think as sort
of a map for – I guess it will be Donald Trump now who’s speech is somehow in the Book of
Revelation, where one maps off each bad thing happening in contemporary is so-n-so in Chapter
17 or whatever. So these people said, okay we want to know how we can read the Book of
Revelation responsibly. For me that’s about again, Western Asia Minor
– the area I’ve spent a long time studying. Ephesus being one of the seven churches, and
it fits very well into first century culture, in terms of Jewish communities, but also in
terms of the imperial cult and the dominance of Rome a empire, as well as having that vision
I think particularly in Chapters 20-22, of the future, of the hope that humanity has
for God to set all things right. So, I guess I was willing to get into this
complicated and controversial territory because I think the Book of Revelation has a great
deal to say to the church, both in terms of the interaction with culture, which is the
John’s messages of the church, to be very careful as to how it negotiates with culture,
and to guard its holiness and so on, as well as having a future hope that I think drops
off for some Christians in terms of the renewal of creation. So I probably wouldn’t have chosen
the Book of Revelation myself, but I’m looking forward to doing this course in September.
David: I think too, Revelation is interesting because later on in Christian thought in history,
we see different people treating it sometimes as being scriptural in the Canon, and sometimes
not in the Canon. That’s a fairly interesting debate I think between the East and the West
of the Church and between the various Protestant groups of the Church.
Paul: Yeah, very controversial. David: Very controversial. Paul, I want to
say thank you very much indeed for being able to join us in this broadcast, and I wondered
whether you would be able to have the final word; one possible thing or a couple of things
that you would want to say about a life in New Testament studies.
Paul: I guess I’ve felt myself to be enormously privileged over my number of years of teaching
and researching, of being able to do something I love. I’m a Christian. I’m committed to
the Lord, and to be able to study one of the treasures of obviously Christianity – the
New Testament – has been just an enormously enriching experience. For me, trying to make
it come alive, both in terms of understanding the text fully, but also in terms of its historical
background; what was it like to be a Christian in the first century – what sorts of interests
and concerns did they have – how did they relate to one another – what was at the heart
of their faith – those sorts of questions. What did it means to be a Christian in the
first century? Partly I think that’s interesting to me because
there are huge parallels between the first century and contemporary Christian life, where
we are a small minority, where we’re talking about identity – what it is to be a Christian,
how we relate to a difficult and sometimes negative culture around us that looks down
on Christian faith. There are enormous parallels between the first and second centuries in
our contemporary age. Some differences of course, but – so the New Testament has always
been a vital book, but I think it informs the Church now even more, or just as much
as always, because there are so many parallels between our contemporary situation of being
Christians, of being Church in Aoteoroa New Zealand, and the first century. We’re back
to very much in the situation, which is a situation in which the church can actually
cope and can thrive. We should see the New Testament as telling us that this is where
God is with us, even in difficult times. David: That’s a tremendous answer from one
of the tremendous characters of the church and academic study in New Zealand. Thank you
so much, Paul. We look forward perhaps to recording sometime in the future again.
Paul: Absolutely. Thank you, David. It’s been a privilege.
A Life in the New Testament tudies kiwiconnexion practical theology

Posted by Lewis Heart

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