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Paradigm Shifts and Early Christian Studies

September 7, 2010

I recently cited Thomas Kuhn’s description of a “paradigm shift” at the beginning of an article I was writing for a forthcoming edited volume. The quotation reads:

All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research. As this process develops, the anomaly comes to be more generally recognised as such, more attention is devoted to it by more of the field’s eminent authorities. The field begins to look quite different: scientists express explicit discontent, competing articulations of the paradigm proliferate and scholars view a resolution as the subject matter of their discipline” (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962] 84).

In his introductory essay in the grounbreaking volume, Trajectories Through Early Christianity,  James M. Robinson describes something just like this. He writes:

The vacuum created by the experienced inadequacy of the given table of categories is not merely the liberation of scholarship from prejudice but its end as an intellectual enterprise. A crisis in the basic categories of scholarship is a crisis at its foundation, a basic crisis for scholarship as such. Such a categorical crisis in a science can be met effectively only at the presuppositional level, in terms of recategorization. The Jewish, Greek, or gnostic ‘background’ or ‘environment’ cannot be mastered by reducing it to a mass of disorganized parallels to the New Testament; it must be reconceptualized in terms of movements, ‘trajectories’ through the Hellenistic world” (p. 13).

The importance of this insight for modern study of early Christian movements cannot be overstated, and his description of the problem looks a lot like what Kuhn had described a decade and a half earlier.

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