Friday, August 12, 2005

What type of NT Scholar Are You? (updated again)

Sean Winter on Sean the Baptist asks "What type of NT scholar are you?", following on from a Michael Bird post Specialist or Generalist on Euangelion. Michael has a great "recipe for being a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none NT generalist", including the following tip:
If you can’t actually attend conferences at least read the seminar paper topics for various conferences like SBL, ETS, SNTS etc. Ask authors to email you their paper if you are interested in their seminar paper and you can’t attend.
I think that's a good suggestion, and I'd add: don't just go to papers in the narrow area of your own research -- try to take an interest in as many as possible. Always attend plenary sessions where possible. A related but key point I'd also add would be perhaps too obvious for mentioning, but still vital:
7. Talk to people: at the conferences take an interest in other people's research, and when they are working in an area you are not familiar with, ask them what one ought to be reading in that area. What are that person's pick of the last few years' books? What are the interesting ideas that deserve attention? Who are the "ones to watch" in that area?

Sean the Baptist goes on to quote a fascinating characterisation of the different kinds of scholar, from an assessment by John Knox of John A. T. Robinson:
"To be sure, there are many scholars so gifted and accomplished as not to be typical in either sense ... But for the larger number of us I believe one may say that the worker in New Testament studies will belong to one type or the other - to the more knowledgeable or the more imaginative. And I would maintain that the door to being a true, and even a distinguished, scholar is as widely open to the second type as to the first"

John Knox, "J. A. T. Robinson and the Meaning of New Testament Scholarship", Theology 92 (1989), 251-267 (here p.256)
It's a fabulous quotation, and I love the idea of being "as widely open to the second type as the first" -- what a great way of making sure that one avoids the pitfalls of both. I'd say that to answer Sean's basic question towards the beginning of our careers, as most of us bibliobloggers are, is a difficult one. We become associated with a particular narrow area because we have so far only published, on the whole, in the one narrow area, and that might make us appear to be specialists. Perhaps those who now appear "specialist" will in due course become "generalists". It's difficult to say. So I suppose it is something that one will be able to pronounce on more confidently when looking back at one's career rather than looking forward at it.

Here's a way of nuancing the question. What type of NT scholar do you most admire? I must admit to a fondness for what I would call "ideas" people, i.e. "the more imaginative" in Knox's characterisation. Fundamentally, my favourite scholars are those who have the ability to think exciting new thoughts, to rework existing questions in interesting new directions. I am thinking in particular of scholars like Michael Goulder (I know, surprise, surprise) who might be criticized on various fronts, but who will never be criticized for being dull. He always makes me think about existing questions in new ways. Whose books or articles would you always leap on?

The more I think about this one, though, I think the characterisation really is too simplistic to be useful. We can all think of work-a-day scholars whose special ability is to keep on top of a range of material, both primary and secondary, but the best scholars are those who combine imagination and insight with knowledge and wisdom. The greatest of all living NT scholars in my book typifies this combination, E. P. Sanders. He radically rethinks consensus positions, lucidly explicating his own views, at which he has arrived on the basis of extensive but careful reading of the primary materials.

Update (Sunday, 21.18): Michael Pahl comments on The Stuff of Earth. I agree -- "New Testament studies could use a little more romance"! I remember getting some funny looks from students once when I said that I was a romantic and rather liked some of the romance in Jeremias's parable scholarship, in spite of the fact that I agreed with very little of it.

Michael hits an important note here, the question of the extent to which your teaching load makes you a generalists, something Sean the Baptist had also mentioned before. I think that this is where many of us are -- our research requires us to specialize while our teaching requires us to generalize. It's a healthy mix and one that ultimately works for good. The broad range of our teaching often makes us think relevant and interesting thoughts that impact on the precise and more specialized area of our research. The key is that we turn those teaching necessities into long term research opportunities, so that we don't get stuck in a rut, always researching the same old area.

Update (Sunday 21.26): for Danny Zacharias on Deinde, this is a "blogger-cooler" discussion. I like the term, and the comments. (Yes, "water-cooler" discussions is a term used in the UK too).


Matthew Page said...

Where would you advise someone to start with Goulder?


steph said...

Absolutely - on Sanders.
And also definitely on Goulder: Farrer mentioned the idea, Goulder developed it creatively especially with Luke, and Goodacre examined it critically, expanded it and turned it into reality!

I think Crossan is pretty good too for developing methodology even if..