Analyzing Biblical Narrative
“In studying a document that’s 2000 years old, how do you come to new insights? You apply common research methods in new ways.” Tom Shepherd, professor of New Testament in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, has been involved in such research, and it is paying off in better understanding of both the early manuscripts of the New Testament and the history of early Christian communities.
He recently co-organized a conference in Belgium titled “Resurrection of the Dead: Biblical Traditions in Dialogue” along with New Testament professor Geert Van Oyen of Université Catholique de Louvain. The conference brought together an international group of scholars who presented papers on the topic. Peeters Publishers, a well-known publisher of religious scholarly articles, will release a compilation of papers presented at the conference, which Shepherd will co-edit. Included in the book will be Shepherd’s most recent paper, analyzing the ending of the Gospel of Mark in Codex Vaticanus and Codex Washingtonianus.
Using a new methodological approach, he combines narrative analysis and textual criticism to better understand Scripture. Textual criticism involves looking at variations of wording in Biblical manuscripts and, through the use of carefully formulated guidelines, determining as closely as possible the original text. Narrative analysis is used to examine literature, studying settings, characters, stylistic features, actions and historical context to determine what point the story is trying to make. Shepherd analyzes the same story in different manuscripts and then compares how their differences modify the point of the story. “These differences illustrate for us how, over time, modifications slipped in to the New Testament, changing subtly the meaning of the story,” he explains. “Our greatest interest is in getting at the original text the Apostles wrote, but it is also quite interesting to see how story modifications illustrate for us the theological development of the church through revised manuscripts.”
Shepherd’s study of the ending of Mark looked at two very different manuscripts. Codex Vaticanus has a text that ends at Mark 16:8 with the women fleeing from the tomb and telling no one because of fear. Analyzing this story, Shepherd found that its point was a call to mission: “The story can’t end like that! What are you going to do to spread the word?” Codex Washingtonianus on the other hand, has a much longer ending, including a paragraph not found in any other existing manuscript. It seems to emphasize both the power of the risen and ascended Lord and the role of church leaders as His emissaries in spreading the Gospel.
The conference in Belgium addressed the topic of resurrection from the dead in a variety of texts including the Gospels, the writings of Paul, the General Epistles, the Hebrew Bible, and Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. Jacques Doukhan, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis in the Seminary, also presented a paper at the conference. His paper dealt with the resurrection in the book of Daniel. According to Shepherd, the feedback from other scholars provides invaluable help in strengthening the paper.
Shepherd’s research interest in the Gospel of Mark began during his PhD studies at the Theological Seminary in a class taught by Robert Johnston. In the class, Johnston described a storytelling technique in the Gospel of Mark known as intercalation or “sandwich stories” where one story interrupts the telling of another story. Shepherd was intrigued and when it came time to choose a dissertation topic he decided to study these stories and try to explain their function. He found they utilized dramatic irony to teach truths about Christology and discipleship.
Several years later, he noticed that the national meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature did not have a study group focusing attention on the Gospel of Mark, although there were study groups for Matthew, Luke and John. “I’m a guy who likes to organize things,” he says, “and I saw a chance to get involved.” He gathered a group of well-known Biblical scholars who agreed to study the book of Mark. They eventually became the Mark Group in the Society of Biblical Literature. Shepherd has been involved with this study group for about 13 years. This process of continually finding new opportunities has taught him the vital importance of networking.
Shepherd believes that more experienced scholars should mentor younger scholars in research projects. “Out of the networking and collaboration come more opportunities for research,” he says. Andrews students have assisted him in his preliminary research and he encourages them to submit papers for review and publication in scholarly journals. Shepherd is currently working on a popular book tentatively titled “Inside Out Upside Down: Surprising Lessons from 1st and 2nd Peter.” The inspiration for the book stems from a class on these two Epistles that he teaches at the Seminary. He hopes to have the book finished this fall and released next year.