Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Questioning Consensus

Biblical scholarship now operates with a few defining consensuses. Questioning the consensus can be okay. Overturning the consensus is nearly impossible. Sometimes the consensus position is solid and does not need to be overturned. There are several high-profile consensus positions, however, that are less than solid, yet questioning them is highly controversial. The consensus also differs depending on which side of the liberal/conservative spectrum one is on.

But those weak consensus positions should be questioned and overturned. Why do we love consensus so much? Consensus leads to a speculation being considered a fact which can be safely assumed as the starting point for further speculation. Think of how silly it sounds when you read books from the 1960s on the Deuteronomistic History that assume Noth's amphictyony. This was accepted as historical fact despite the lack of evidence for it. Eventually, it was abandoned.

Here's my list of the top 3 consensus positions that should be tossed out (or at least debated with an open mind to the evidence).

Top 3 Weak Consensus Positions (both secular and theological):

1. Q existed and was a source for Matthew and Luke. (Very questionable but Goodacre's fighting an uphill battle.)

2. Essenes are responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they lived at Qumran. (Admittedly, Golb's association with the alternative colors any chances of questioning this at present. However, all attempts to prove an archaeological or textual connection between Kh. Qumran and the DSS have been less than compelling. It's all speculation.)

3. The 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the final word on the inerrancy debate. Scripture is always fully in agreement with itself. (Defending a doctrine of Scripture against Scripture itself. If the Bible says this is the Book of Isaiah, then, by Jove, that means Isaiah wrote it.)

I'm sure there are more, but these are the three that immediately came to mind. Any debate on the relative weakness (or strength if you see it that way) of these positions? Any others that I should add to the list?


  1. Hats off to you -- especially for your number one.

  2. Howzabout 19th century literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible which was founded on extremely shaky developmental presuppositions. These days we have all of the benefit of proposing a series of discrete sources of the Pentateuch with no good way of figuring out how the Pentateuch got the way it did without jumping into wholesale speculation. But, good luck getting taken seriously if you don't feign sophistication by adopting a "consensus" position that isn't a consensus anymore, except to act as a litmus test to see if you're willing to break free of tradition.

  3. I didn't seem able to leave a comment earlier, so I wrote a post.

  4. I left a comment at Doug Chaplin's post.

    Basically, this is my list of "top 3 problematic consensus positions that I could think of at the time." Also, it is questionable whether #3 counts as a position of biblical scholarship. Rather, it is a theological issue. I was trying to think of issues where the "correct" position is assumed, not argued from evidence.

  5. For some reason the HTML didn't take to make my hyperlink live to my comment at Clayboy. Probably a coding typo.

  6. Tod,

    I was thinking about Pentateuch, too. The standard source divisions of Wellhausen are still common jargon, but "everybody" says the Documentary Hypothesis is dead. I don't know of any currently accepted consensus on composition of the Pentateuch. If anything, it's become infinitely more complex. Yet, we still use the neat little 4 source division to talk about it.

  7. After seeing Clayboy's trouble posting here, I thought I would check and see if my post came through, and apparently it didn't.

    Anyway, I want to mention a new critique against a consensus view of Genesis 12:1-3 that was recently articulated by Walter Moberly in his Theology of the Book of Genesis. He argues that Abraham's blessing (verse 2) is that people will say, after hearing the story of Abraham, "May you be like Abraham, who . . ." I have not explored this beyond reading Moberly's chapter, and I must confess to not having been overwhelmingly impressed by his argument, although I imagine this is due to my comfort in siding with the consensus.

  8. I suggest that "Q" is actually far from a consensus now. Most biblical scholars no longer believe in a single document "Q" and many approve of Luke's (not necessarily sole) use, or at least knowledge of Matthew. Even some published "Q" scholars I have spoken too, concede doubt in a literal "Q" as a single written Greek document. Arguments for its existence depend on the assumption of its existence and this is not defendable. Goodacre, on the shoulders of Goulder, has a sizeable following, not an uphill battle ... but he can fight me - but he knows that ;-)

  9. steph, glad to hear that Q isn't the monolithic consensus it used to be. I was basing my opinion on Mark's complaint about the treatment of the Synoptic Problem in the recent Intro to NT published by Baker. NT studies is out of my direct area of expertise, so thanks for the correction.

  10. James Crossley's forthcoming NT Intro has a far fairer treatment of the synoptic problem ... as well as everything else.