Adela Yarbro Collins reflects on a fruitful career of New Testament study
MRB editor Michael J. Thate recently spoke with Adela Yarbro Collins, the Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. Collins is the author of over a dozen books, including the magisterial Hermeneia commentary on St Mark’s Gospel and numerous academic articles. Thate asked her how she became interested in the field of New Testament Studies, how it has evolved in her career, and where she thinks it is headed next.
Michael J. Thate: Why is studying the New Testament important?
Adela Yarbro Collins: Many Christian believers read the New Testament for theological, ethical, and spiritual guidance. From an academic point of view, the collection is important as a historical source for the origins and history of earliest Christianity. One scholarly tradition approaches the New Testament as the church’s book and studies it in conjunction with the writings of the “Fathers” of the early church, the creeds, and the later history of Christianity. Another scholarly tradition, to which I belong, is historically oriented and studies the books of the New Testament in their ancient historical, religious, and cultural contexts. Works that provide information about such contexts are the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation, Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, and ancient Greek and Latin literature.
Another reason for studying the New Testament is that this collection has had enormous cultural influence, not only on Western civilization, but increasingly also in the global South. The discipline of reception history of the New Testament studies such developments.
MJT: How did you first become interested in being a New Testament scholar focusing on its criticism and interpretation?
AYC: When I was an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, California, I took an introduction to the Bible from Dean McBride, an introduction to Paul from Robert Hamerton-Kelly (Scripps College), and Contemporary Theology with Robert Voelkel. In Voelkel’s course we read Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. I was fascinated with the way these scholars discussed the historical Jesus and disagreed about his life and significance for theology. It was that course that led me to pursue the academic study of the New Testament. After I received the BA, I spent a year studying at the university in Tübingen (in West Germany at the time) and then enrolled in the PhD program in New Testament and Christian Origins at Harvard University.
MJT: In your 40+ years of teaching and scholarship, how have you seen the discipline change over the years?
AYC: I have been teaching full time for exactly 40 years. I began at McCormick Theological Seminary in 1973. They had a strong scholarly tradition in biblical studies. At the same time most of the students were preparing for ministry and had a strong practical orientation. Feminist interpretation of the Bible was just beginning, and some of the students, even some women, resisted it. I taught a course there entitled “From Adam’s Rib to the Bride of Christ.” Most of my courses were either introductory or exegesis courses. When I began women made up a small fraction of the student body, but by the time I left about half of the students were women.
I moved to the University of Notre Dame in 1985. There I taught undergraduates for the first time, which involved the introductory course that all undergrads were required to take and a course on Christian Scripture for the Theology majors. I also taught students in the academic master’s program and those in the MDiv program, as well as the PhD students. The PhD program in New Testament was part of a program entitled “Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity” (CJA). Regardless of which of these areas the students were specializing in, they all took courses and exams in Hebrew Bible, Ancient Judaism, New Testament, and Early Church. We had a year-long seminar, led by one faculty member in turn, in which all the faculty and graduate students in CJA participated. It was an enjoyable group of scholars and emerging scholars.
In 1991 I joined the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was there that I encountered various kinds of critical theory, which played a role along with a strong representation of historical critical methods. Feminist studies had developed into Women’s Studies and Gender Studies. In 2000 I began teaching at Yale, where a similar mix of historical practice and critical theory is represented. In my early years there, the concentration in Feminist Theology in the Master of Arts in Religion degree program became Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. During my time at Yale, I finished a commentary on Mark and have become interested in the relatively new discipline of reception history. My current book project is Paul Transformed: From Romans to Augustine.
MJT: If I could ask you to look into your crystal ball for a minute, how do you see the discipline developing into the future?
AYC: I can’t predict the future but hope that historical criticism will continue to be foundational in New Testament studies. No doubt new critical theories will come along that will continue to provide new perspectives and evoke new questions.