Beyond Isolation in Biblical Studies: An Interview with Francis Borchardt

1. Who are you and where do you come from?
My name is Francis Borchardt, and I was born and raised in New York. Although I spent significant time in Paris as an adolescent and Rome during my time in University, most of my youth was spent (wasted?) in the New York metropolitan area. 

2. What took you to Hong Kong?
I am now employed as assistant professor of Old Testament and Jewish Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary Hong Kong (LTS). I ended up here on the far side of the world after completing my doctoral degree in Old Testament at the University of Helsinki. My wife, who is a Lutheran minister in the Lutheran Church in Finland, found positions for both of us in Hong Kong while looking through advertisements. My responsibilities here at the seminary are varied, like many colleagues around the globe. I teach 4-6 hours per week, advise several MTh and DTh students, serve on several administrative committees, and take whatever free time I can to do research. I very much enjoy Hong Kong and my colleagues at LTS. The city is large and vibrant like New York, and the job is constantly challenging, but has been an enriching experience for me.

3. What are your current research interests?
Other than my project with the CSTT Centre of Excellence, I have been working for the past three years on research involving Judean ethnicity and nationalism in the first few centuries BCE and CE. This project essentially uses literary and physical evidence to provide a description of the ways in which Judeans might have participated in the processes of nationalism outlined in contemporary theories of nations and ethnic groups. The project will result in a monograph tentatively titled “The Birth of a Judean Nation?” Which I hope to deliver to the publisher in June 2016. Other than this large project, I have also occasionally been writing about the relationship between law and narrative and the way in which they are interpreted in early Jewish writings.

4. Your dissertation was a literary critical study of 1 Maccabees. What is your relationship with literary criticism nowadays?
I wrote my dissertation on 1 Maccabees, and it ended up being primarily a literary-critical (Literar-Kritik) study very much in the mould of late nineteenth and early twentieth century biblical studies. When I wrote the dissertation I was thoroughly convinced of the method and the results it yielded. In the past several years, as I have grown more familiar with post-modern critical theory, I have become more skeptical. Although I do think the method has the potential to reveal many interesting results in analyzing a given text (such as 1 Maccabees), I am no longer convinced nor particularly interested in what it finds concerning the historical development of a given text.

This is not to say that recognizing a text as a product of diachronic production is unimportant. I am just not sure that our methods closely approximate the complexity of the production processes in history. My current research has turned to theoretical questions about how to conceive of the different versions of texts we find in Judean (and Graeco-Roman) antiquity by looking to ancient texts that explicitly reflect on the ways in which and motives for which highly valued writings are “performed” in variations.

5. Why is your research important?
I don’t really know how to answer the question of why my research is valuable to the world without sounding self-important, but that’s never stopped me before.

I think first of all calling the field of biblical studies’ attention to the texts which both advertise and reflect on literary adaptation is worthwhile because it reveals something of the horizon of expectations of ancient writers as they transmitted and newly performed texts. For too long theoretical conclusions based on modern and post-modern perceptions of aesthetic value and coherence have been the basis of analyses of diachronic textual development. It is my hope that looking to the way ancients explicitly reflected on the nature of text and change will serve as a corrective to this methodological oversight.

Second, looking beyond the field of biblical studies, I think my work is important because it is one of a slowly growing segment of new studies in our field that are engaging in the broader discussions of the humanities. The story of biblical studies over the past century and more has been one of isolation. Biblical scholarship was isolated first from the humanities, and later from the rest of the theological subjects. Although many scholars employ social scientific or literary theory these days, we rarely successfully generate theory that can be employed by other fields in the humanities. I hope that my modest contributions aid in building a bridge back to the rest of humanities and reveal what we can contribute to answering the human questions.

6. Where do you see yourself in ten years as a scholar?
In ten years I hope to continue along my current path in scholarship by tackling the dark areas of our methods and assumptions in the field of biblical studies. I find myself increasingly interested in understanding why and how we investigate certain types of questions in our field, and I hope this curiosity does not cease. One particular area I would like to investigate after my two current projects reach some sort of completion is how to theorize the authority claimed by/granted to scriptural canon(s) in antiquity. That is, I want to question from where a particular set of literary works derives power and prestige and discern what separates it from other works. I think there may be much to learn from the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman contexts on this point. That may not take me to the end of the next decade, but I’m sure some other question will arise in the meantime.

Interview conducted by Ville Mäkipelto