In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emerging Approaches in New Testament Studies

  • Introduction
  • The Post-Linguistic Turn as Context
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Monograph Series

Biblical Studies Emerging Approaches in New Testament Studies
Todd Penner, Davina C. Lopez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0081


The study of the New Testament and early Christian texts has undergone major shifts in recent years. Discussion of such shifts has often focused on the “linguistic turn” and “poststructuralist” approaches that paved the way for scholars in the late 1970s and 1980s to reshape the interpretative landscape. Postcolonial, feminist, queer, gender-critical, and similarly inclined New Testament hermeneutical endeavors arose out of these earlier interpretive shifts. While these shifts are critically important for any understanding of the direction of New Testament research since the 1980s, this entry focuses on more recent developments in the field: those emergent approaches that might, in some respects, be viewed as responses and even reactions to some of the post-linguistic-turn methodologies. The context for these emergent trends in New Testament scholarship can be linked to major shifts in higher education in the first decade of the 2000s, which witnessed an increasing accent on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary interactions with subject matter (including an encouraging of cross-disciplinary engagements between the humanities and social sciences). For example, the rise of cognitive science, particularly its application in the social sciences and even in some humanities disciplines, has been a major influence. Further, the increasing emphasis on secularism in the academy, as well the discipline of philosophy undergoing a “turn to religion,” has also played major roles in the formulation of newer approaches. Other major influences are the entrenchment of media studies departments and, not in small part, the shifts that have taken place in higher education with the ascendancy of the “millennial” and “Gen Z” generations of undergraduate students. One of the major shifts in these newer approaches is that the Bible as cultural artifact is engaged in terms of its reception in diverse historical and social contexts, including an increasing interest in media, cinematic and otherwise. Likewise, the present sociohistorical moment is one in which interpreters must contend with the legacies of war and empire as well as the continuing dominance of empiricist ways of knowing. While social-scientific methods are still of value, these are increasingly merged with other modes of investigation, such as rhetorical criticism and social-location theory. The application of cognitive psychology and a turn to trauma and affect have just begun to make a substantive mark on the direction of New Testament interpretation. Similarly, while it remains to be seen what the long-term legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be in relation to global New Testament studies, it is clear that, at least in the United States, a post-neoliberal, post-“truth,” and possibly post-democratic political and economic situation, coupled with attacks on education and a national confrontation and reckoning with histories and ideologies of racial and other myriad injustices, leaves all humanities fields vulnerable and at a critical juncture. The study of the New Testament is not exempt. Whether and how New Testament scholars will continue to contend with the methodologically narrow questions and issues raised by theological and historical reconstruction and exegesis remains to be seen. Overall, then, any serious study of the New Testament in its current context needs to be attentive to these emergent approaches and the disciplinary shifts in inquiry that have resulted in live and often-unsettling questions that push against perceived and persistent disciplinary boundaries.

The Post-Linguistic Turn as Context

We contextualize emerging approaches in New Testament studies as responding, explicitly and implicitly, to the “linguistic turn” in Western philosophy. Until the twentieth century, philosophical discourses held that ideas existed beyond space and time, creating a universalism and transcendence where language functioned as a mere series of labeling terms for concepts and experiences that existed in an external reality. The linguistic turn developed in certain areas of philosophy and logic, alongside the growth of structuralist analytical tools such as semiotics. Through studying language as a series of signs and symbols, the linguistic turn maintains that language does not merely reflect an a priori reality; rather, language creates and structures reality in concrete historical and social locations. For proponents of the linguistic turn, there is no “reality” outside of expressions in language, and, as linguist Ferdinand de Saussure would have it, words denote ideas through oppositional differences that seem natural and universal but are, in fact, arbitrary and highly local, creating realities through elaborate systems of naming and categorizing. Such ideas have had enormous implications for the human sciences since the 1970s (see Tyson 1999). Bachmann-Medick 2006 charts such developments, while Payne and Barbera 2010 focuses on specific thinkers who have contributed to the linguistic turn in the humanities and social sciences. For historical work, assumptions that texts from the past are transparent reflections of past worlds have needed serious reworking (see Clark 2004). Implications of analytical frameworks engendered by the linguistic turn for the study of the New Testament, therefore, are not simply to be reduced to questions about how to read critical theory alongside sacred texts, although there is much to be gained from methodological shifts catalyzed by theoretical engagement (see Moore and Sherwood 2011, Liew 2018, and Coker and Elliott 2020). Critical questions for the study of the New Testament and related literature, since the rise of historical-critical discourses and after the linguistic turn, include whether it is possible to understand ancient worlds through such texts, how transparently the texts betray Christian origins and development, what the relationship between the present and past might be, how much the social location of readers matters in exegesis, and what nonecclesial appropriation of biblical texts does for interpretation (Penner and Lopez 2015). Emergent approaches respond to these and related questions, demonstrating a wide range of engagements, affirmations, and interrogations of the linguistic turn and its methodological challenges to what is taken for granted as “the way things are” in the production of knowledge.

  • Bachmann-Medick, Doris. Cultural Turns: Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften. Rowohlts Enzyklopädie. Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006.

    This book offers a thick description of the various trends in interpretation that have taken root since the turn of the millennium, offering excellent summaries of the “performative turn,” “reflexive turn,” “spatial turn,” and “iconic turn,” among others. The bibliographies for each chapter are thorough, and Internet resources are included.

  • Clark, Elizabeth. History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1pncqv1

    Clark has provided a great service by pulling together a discussion of the major shifts that constitute the linguistic turn. Unlike many introductions, this one is dense but quite accessible. She goes by period and thinker, and the superior organization provides a solid historical overview.

  • Coker, K. Jason, and Scott S. Elliott, eds. Bible and Theory: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Stephen D. Moore. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020.

    These essays, collected in honor of one of the pioneers of post-linguistic-turn biblical scholarship, offer a range of approaches on the question of how to understand and productively engage the intersection of critical theories and biblical criticism.

  • Liew, Tat-siong Benny, ed. Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating 25 Years of Brill’s Biblical Interpretation. Leuven, Belgium: Brill, 2018.

    Contributors to this edited collection reflect on, and critically appraise, the state of the post-linguistic-turn field of biblical scholarship.

  • Moore, Stephen D., and Yvonne Sherwood. The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.

    This brief manifesto attempts to mount an argument for how engagement with theory can make a substantive difference for interpreting biblical texts. Originally published as three separate essays in Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches.

  • Payne, Michael, and Jessica Rae Barbera, eds. A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323467

    An excellent and up-to-date reference work that provides substantive introductions to major thinkers and movements that have shaped the discourses and conceptions of the linguistic turn. The entries are generally even handed, and this text is a good place to start for initiates into the field.

  • Penner, Todd, and Davina C. Lopez. De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118432945

    Challenging some of the methodologies and trajectories central to the discipline, the authors use the term “de-introducing” to denote a practice of unmasking the most basic categories and frameworks in the field so that scholars might better understand and appraise what discourses are at work therein and what impact these have on constructions of the past.

  • Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Garland, 1999.

    Although published some years ago now, Tyson’s work offers one of the better introductions to the various subfields of critical theory, from feminist to gender, from postcolonial to deconstructivist criticisms. Tyson ably summarizes the major trajectories that shaped the current landscape of interpretation.

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