Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Am I a Specialist after all?

Does a research focus on Hebrew Bible in general actually make me a specialist? James Crossley has rightly pointed out the difficulty in defining what exactly makes one a specialist or a generalist in biblical studies (reacting to Michael Bird's SBL Forum article with Craig Keener which I mentioned here).

It's true that Bird and Keener didn't precisely define the terms, but they seemed to refer to a specialist as one who focused on a narrow field (such as Pentateuch or Paul) versus the generalist who could deal with the whole corpus of Hebrew Bible or New Testament and possibly also the background literature. In a sense, it's a false dichotomy when placed in those terms because it's very rare for anyone to be able to keep such a narrow focus. Teaching responsibilities would most likely require a specialist in Pentateuch to teach the whole Hebrew Bible at least in survey.  Plus it seems irresponsible to consider yourself a specialist in a narrow branch of Hebrew Bible without understanding how your niche fits in the broader context of the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, it's irresponsible for Hebrew Bible scholars to overlook the broader context of their corpus - ANE history and literature.

Crossley pointed out that in the grand scheme of things just being well-versed in New Testament or Hebrew Bible was not really being a generalist, but Bird and Keener had realized that saying, "Hebrew Bible and especially New Testament each constitute a relatively small body of writings compared to many other areas of discourse."

So, I think the definition implicit in the forum article's use of "generalist" and "specialist" was that a "generalist" knows the Bible in its context - context implies at least general knowledge of Old and New Testaments, Second Temple literature including Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, ANE history and literature, and Greco-Roman history and philosophy. Of course, there is always the risk of trading breadth for depth on many of these subjects, but I think having a broad general knowledge across much of it is necessary to have that deeper command of your niche area.

Maybe one's perspective on this issue is different from New Testament studies. Imagine picking up a book and just starting to read 2/3 of the way in. You're missing all the background, everything that built up to that point. Granted the "Bible" as Old and New Testaments is a later development in religious traditions, but the concept is valid. How can you understand any narrow specialized field of study without at least having a general command of the background material? I've often thought that what I've read in NT studies would benefit from a better understanding of certain concepts from Hebrew Bible and early Judaism, rather than the Greco-Roman focus that NT studies often take.

Am I missing something? The changes in our field, especially the recognition of biblical studies as a sub-discipline (in a sense) of religious studies, suggest having broad general knowledge will be a career essential. Perhaps I'm just odd for having interests and education that spanned the breadth of biblical studies and its background. Or perhaps it's just that my main exemplar of a model Hebrew Bible scholar is a specialist in Wisdom Literature who seems equally well-versed in everything from Pentateuch to Prophets to Proverbs to Syriac to Septuagint to Dead Sea Scrolls to rabbinic literature to Shakespeare to cognitive psychology. Oh, and ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, too.

Read everything . . . soon.

1 comment:

  1. this is good Doug. you are right that a generalist needs a broad overall understanding of the Bible and or the OT/NT. If at the doctoral level, well, of course they'll be specialist since their diss would have been pretty specific, no?

    I see pastors a generalits too.