Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Specialization within New Testament Studies

While mowing the lawn, just after catching the Brazil v. Croatia match, I found myself thinking about a conversation I'd had with a recent Duke graduate about the perils of specialization in New Testament studies and I thought I'd share my musings here. What we have in New Testament studies at the moment more than ever is over specialization within the field. It is common for scholars to introduce themselves as a "Paulinist" or a "Synoptics person" or an "expert on Revelation", or a "Luke-Acts specialist". Now there is, quite clearly, a reason for this for recent PhD graduates. You've just spent the best part of three or four years becoming the world's number one expert on a particular verse in Luke, a particular theme in Galatians, a particular manuscript of the Gospels. You are the expert; it's your special project that you've proved yourself on and you deserve your PhD. But what comes next? If you are the world expert on Luke 12.13, is it the wisest thing now to become the world expert on Luke 12.14? (NB: these are all hypotheticals, drawn at random. If I have accidentally hit on anyone's actual research topic, please be assured that it is an accident!).

What I find surprising and disappointing is the way in which we allow ourselves to feel under pressure to stick within our particular narrow fields, to draw a circle around ourselves and only allow ourselves to play within it. Of course there are many exceptions, but most of the exceptions, those who are authorities equally on Jesus and Paul, on the Synoptics and John, on second Temple Judaism and Josephus, tend to be senior scholars with already established reputations. There are several extraordinary things about our over-specialization, and we tend not to notice them because we are so caught up in the system that we ourselves bolster. Let me list a few of the oddities and absurdities as I see them:

(1) There are very few New Testament Scholars who do not in fact teach a wide range of NT and related topics. Why is it that we think that we are competent to teach Paul but not to write about him, or to offer an introduction to New Testament course without having investigated carefully the topics we are pretending to be an expert on?

(2) Given that we do teach a range of topics, it is inevitable that we are all the time thinking fresh, original, publishable thoughts on those topics. Does this mean, then, that there are lots of fresh and interesting thoughts and ideas out there that are never seeing the light of day outside the classroom because we are allegedly not experts on the given topic?

(3) We need to remember that studying the New Testament is already a specialization itself. It's already subset of other bigger topics, Biblical Studies, second temple Judaism, early Christian history, Theology, etc., yet we treat it as if it is the global header under which we select some appropriate topic.

(4) One of the dangers of "Paulinists" not publishing on the Synoptics (and vice versa, etc.) is that the practitioners of the particular topics in question become rather entrenched in their ways of doing things, and it becomes difficult for others to penetrate the new field. And frankly, there is that feeling of a massive body of literature to get through, so we stick with our given topic all too easily.

(5) The conferences are so big that they encourage us to follow, to nurture our specialization. How often do I go along to a Pauline epistles section at the SBL Annual Meeting? Well, occasionally, but not very often. How often do I go to African-American Biblical Hermeneutics? Never, I am afraid. And so on. How is the field going to resist the increasing splintering unless we find some ways to encourage people to act differently?

So what can be done about this situation? Here are some thoughts:

(a) The key, formative moments are, I think, when our graduate students are doing their research. I think we need to encourage them not to think of themselves as a developing "Paulinist" or a "Historical Jesus expert" etc. I think we ought to encourage them to aspire to be a good, rounded scholar with things to say about lots of different topics.

(b) In relation to this, we need to encourage people to avoid playing safe. Take a few risks, explore different areas, don't be afraid of making an idiot of yourself.

(c) If you have done a good, solid Masters and some good, solid course work for your PhD, you are well equipped to see yourself as expert in a variety of topics. And one consequence of this is to be careful of PhD courses that don't encourage you to be broad.

(d) Teaching is key. As a graduate student, it is ideal to get as much teaching experience as possible, and to be as broad as possible in that teaching. But don't see the teaching as something you are competent in, but think of it as developing expertise.

(e) And now some advice to myself and people like me, i.e. those whose research and writing is primarily associated with one area but who have much broader interests. Avoid the comfort zone of staying inside your own natural hunting ground (sorry about the mixed metaphors). If you have an interesting idea on a topic outside that usual hunting ground, prioritise it, or you may never emerge. And think seriously about the following:

(f) Discipline yourself at the conferences to visit sessions outside of the ones you naturally associate yourself with.

(g) Don't just read what you think you need to read in a given area to keep your teaching up to date. Read widely.

(h) It is easy to think you need to read everything in existence on a given topic before you can write an authoritative paper on it. What I'd say here is: look at the top brass who publish widely. Have they read every last article before they go to print?

Brainstorm and semi-rant over for now.


Scot McKnight said...

Thanks so much for this. I think more and more of us ought to see ourselves in the field of theology, or at least wisdom, for surely we do more than find out "what happened" and learn about "what life is about." I thank you for this.

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Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your kind words, Scot. It's good to know that my rant was articulate enough to ring true. Now I need to try to act on these things myself, and try to lead by example!

Michael F. Bird said...

Mark, Good points. Some of us have to be "generalists" out of necessity rather than choice anyway. That being said, it is so hard to keep up on all the developments in every NT sub-discipline! Perhaps this is a topic for a "teaching biblical studies seminar" at SBL. I try my best to keep reading RBL reviews across the NT and read journals like Currents in Biblical Research to try stay abreast of things. I think another good idea is to arrange your research projects onto periods, after a Ph.D in John go into something different like Paul, then after a few years branch out into catholic epistles. Good post and very thought provoking.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Good stuff, Mark!
This is definitely wise counsel for my future. I did my master's work on Paul, but look forward to reading several books this summer about Jesus. I definitely don't want to get stuck in a rut by boxing myself into one area.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Re (5), I think that the conferences can further nurture the over-specialization in their scheduling, e.g. by putting Paul on at the same time as the Synoptics, say).

I think it helps to have colleagues in other specialities, and one can attend a session at least for that. For example, I never would have attended one of the post-modern sesssions if it weren't for Shawn Kelley giving a paper in it.

Whit said...

Prior to being a priest, I was an architect. Architects tend to be generalists and there was an old saying you might like.

"Architects must know a little bit about a lot of things. They continue to learn less and less about more and more, until they know practically nothing about everything."

As a priest, that might best sum up my type of NT scholarship ;-)

Scot McKnight said...

I'm right now blogging through Romans, and doing so by reading Tom Wright's Abingdon Commentary, and I find myself at times unable to understand commenters who operate with a different view of Paul. So, it has been a stretch for me.

Anonymous said...

What is your advise for someone who desires to do Ph.D. studies in related areas? What would be the specialized field to choose from or a combination of several? Is that even possible?

Christopher Shell said...

A few approving thoughts:
(1) The small picture does not exist, unless as part of the big picture, or rather the big reality.
(2) Enclaves and enclave jargons are precisely antithetical to scholarship insofar as they are decontextualised from the big picture.
(3) Bauckham began by studying history, and Goulder (significantly for statistical questions) economics. In both cases to the benefit of NT scholarship.

Colin Toffelmire said...


That was a great post. Like the other readers who have responded, this comes as a breath of fresh air. I'm just in the process of writing my MA thesis and I'm already feeling the pinch of over-specialization. My hope is that when (if?) I finally begin a doctoral program somewhere I am given the opportunity to branch out and study a variety of biblical literature using a variety of methodologies. I'll keep my fingers crossed that my future program and supervisor are open to this kind of thinking. Many thanks for an encouraging and challenging post.

J. B. Hood said...

Colin, I can't remember if Mark mentioned this in an earlier post or not, but American PhD (we call them "doctoral") programs do precisely this. Your first two years are spent studying broadly (lots of reading, lots of class time, some writing); your dissertation is maybe 40 percent of the size of a British dissertation, and one usually only works on it for a year.

Mark, I wonder if you have any comments on the relative benefits of the two systems? It's a subject of some debate I know.

AKMA said...

I'm intrigued that your comments, and others apart from Scot's first, tend to treat the question as "being competent to write and teach about other areas of the New Testament" -- while I'd propose keeping alive connections outside the disciplinary terrain of New Testament altogether.

That might be a related theological field (dogmatics, ethics) or a culturally-proximate field (Hellenistic literature, Judaica), or an interest that refines one's critical discernment (comparative literature, another period of history), or a divergent cultural area (indigenous cultures of the Andes, or contemporary Japanese culture).

One need not become the world's expert on a subject in order to make a considerable contribution -- as Mark's own work on Jesus films should remind us. And by engaging with critical discourses we aren't quite at home in, we stretch and test our critical judgment within our home field.