In N.T. Wright's newly published book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates, he provides a fascinating critique of Sachkritik (material criticism) and those scholars who use it. Sachkritik is the german word for material criticism (or subject criticism), which is the attempt by scholars to separate the subject (Sache) from the form of the subject is presented in the text to the readers, in an attempt to understand the true meaning of the text. Rudolf Bultmann is most famous for his use of Sachkritik in his Theology of the New Testament, and for this he receives the bulk of N.T. Wright's criticism in the first chapters of his new book. Wright disparages the Sachkritik scholars, by accusing them of presumptive arrogance, as if these scholars knew what Paul intended to communicate better than Paul himself.
(I've modified the formatting of quotation by including the footnotes in square brackets and linking directly to the books cited.)
Until we catch up with the complexities of such an enquiry—until, in other words, we allow a properly historical vision of Paul to take priority over later images—we will not advance towards a fuller understanding.
This process has been delayed by a scholarly move which is, in fact, remarkably unscholarly. So strong have been the traditions of Pauline interpretation in the western academy that many have assumed they knew, sometimes better than Paul did himself, what questions he was 'really' asking (despite what he actually said). [I add these parentheses because, of course, I once wrote a book with the hostage-to-fortune title What St Paul Really Said. In my case, the 'really' was implying a contrast, not with some of the ideas which happened to occur in Paul's letters, but with some of the interpretations given by both scholars and popular writers]. Unfortunately, the apostle did not have the benefit of a relaxed sabbatical in an accommodating twentieth-century scholar will have to do it for him. This generates a process (it seems too kind to call it a 'method') known as Sachkritik, 'material criticism', 'the interpreter's criticism of the formulation of the text in the light of what (he thinks) the subject-matter (Sache) to be'. [Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology, 42. The whole discussion (42-52) is important.] In other words, we know better than Paul what he 'really' wanted to say, and we now have ways of making sure he will say exactly that.
[e.g. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 198: what Paul wanted to say in 1 Cor 15 was that human existence both before and beyond death would be 'somatic' in Bultmann's sense; but Paul, whose 'capacity for abstract thinking is not a developed one', muddles this up with bodily resurrection. On Sachkritik see also e.g. Matlock, Unveiling the Apocalyptic Paul, 124 (noting that it seemed as though 'Paul deserved a hand up from the modern interpreter at those points where he found it beyond his power to maintain against the currents of his time his critical insights'); 126 n. 135, quoting Conzelmann, Current Problems in Pauline Research, 175 in summary of Bultmann's program to know better than Paul himself what he was 'really' saying, and like a wise sub-editor must help the author make his meaning clearer by slicing through all those awkward bits which didn't quite fit.
My other favorite example of his genre is Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 71, striking through Rom 3:1-8 like a tutor responding to an essay from a dull pupil: 'The argument of the epistle would go much better if this whole section were omitted.' In other words, 'I am determined that Paul should talk about what I think he was talking about, whatever ideas he may have to the contrary.' Whatever else this may be, it is not responsible historical exegesis.]
Wright, N. T. Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates.
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015. 33. Print.
Wright gives two fascinating examples of unscholarly behavior of Sachkritik scholars. The first is Rudolf Bultmann's correction is of Paul's belief in a bodily resurrection. According to Wright, Bultmann believes Paul has muddled things up because Paul's 'capacity for abstract thinking is not a developed one' (quoting Bultmann). Wright scolds Bultmann because (according to Wright), Bultmann understood what Paul intended to say better than Paul himself!
C.H. Dodd is also targeted but does not receive as many pages of criticism as Bultmann. I remember reading C.H. Dodd's The Epistle of Paul to the Romans and I was taken back by the audacious statements in it, such as the one Wright cites Dodd saying in the commentary that Paul should have not included Romans 3:1-8 in the letter! (The header image is inspired by this comment by Dodd). Dodd's commentary is unlike any other commentary on Romans I've read. Dodd's arrogancy is audacious in the way he corrects the epistle to the Romans, as if he knew better than Paul himself! Wright sums up Dodd's bravado well when he says "tutor responding to an essay from a dull pupil." Wright likewise disdains C.H. Dodd for comments such as: 'The argument of the epistle would go much better if this whole section were omitted.' In other words, 'I am determined that Paul should talk about what I think he was talking about, whatever ideas he may have to the contrary.' Wright concludes regarding Dodd, "Whatever else this may be, it is not responsible historical exegesis."
A close friend of Clement Dodd's family composed this famous poem about C.H. Dodd:
"I think it extremely odd
That a little professor named Dodd
Should spell, if you please,
his name with three D's
When one is sufficient for God."
Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Ed. Donald K. McKim.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998. 481. Print.
Lastly, N.T. Wright includes a statement of humility, because he himself, wrote a book title: What St Paul Really Said. So in the end, N.T. Wright is like the pot calling the kettle black in his criticism of Rudolf Bultmann, C.H. Dodd and all unscholarly Sachkritik scholars! I have benefited from all three scholars, and enjoy their books, and hope this promotes awareness and discussion of the good, the bad and the ugly of Sachkritic unscholarly scholars!
Related: A Theology of the New Testament, C.H. Dodd, n.t. wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Rudolf Bultmann, Sachkritik