Thursday, October 26, 2006


A couple of things via Dr. James Davila at Paleojudaica, both on the subject of scholarship in the world of Theology and Biblical Studies.

First Davila makes note of the...well, vindication is probably an overstatement, but we'll call it the slight rehabilitation of Norman Golb's theories about the nature of the Qumran community and its famous library (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Golb has long theorized that the Scrolls are not a single sectarian collection (more or less the common view) but instead a collection of many varied Jewish writings collected and preserved at Qumran during the 1st century CE. I have very little to say about either theory. Though I am very interested in the Scrolls and I've read them all and read a good deal about them, the questions involved are far beyond my own expertise (which means they differ not at all from most areas in Biblical Studies). What I wanted to comment on is the beauty of Golb's insistence on his theory in the face of all but universal disparagement. I suppose you could just as easily call his attitude pig-headedness, but it's the kind of pig-headedness I love. It reminds us that scholarship is not a democratic venture and just because the majority endorses an idea, that doesn't give it automatic credence. All theories must be weighed carefully and considered with as much honesty, openness and curiosity as we can find.

Which leads me to the second note on scholarship via Paleojudaica. Stephen C. Carlson (check him out at Hypotyposeis) has recently released a book called The Gospel Hoax, which I understand to be a rather scathing attack on the authenticity of a putative Gnostic text called Secret Mark. I haven't read the book, and I have even less experience with Gnostic texts and Secret Mark than I do with the DSS, but that's not what I want to comment on. In his review of Carlson's book the well-known biblical scholar Bruce Chilton reminds us of one of the great dangers of any form of scholarship. I quote from his article:

No literature has suffered more from this problem [popularization] than that of the second century of Christianity. In the case of "the Secret Gospel," a modern researcher ( Morton Smith himself, or someone whose forgery duped Smith) has made up a Gnostic document in the attempt to manipulate scholarly discussion and public perception. The fact that this attempt succeeded for so long stands as an indictment of American scholarship, which prides itself on skepticism in regard to the canonical Gospels, but then turns credulous, and even neo-Gnostic, when non-canonical texts are concerned.

Now, I think that Dr. Chilton's suggestion that American scholarship is neo-Gnostic might be a bit much, and from what I've read I'm not entirely convinced that this problem is any more prevalent in America than in other milieus. That being said the general timbre of his comment strikes a chord with me. As a young (hopefully) future biblical scholar I do indeed feel the inclination of some in the scholarly community to default to a belief in the radical and fascinating for its own sake and the consequent pressure to follow this trend. This is, I'm sure, an inevitable consequence of the "publish or perish" rule. Interesting and edgy will always outsell strait forward and predictable. I'm not trying to imply that scholarship must be dull in order to be accurate, or that unorthodox ideas are necessarily poorly constructed. What I am saying is that even in the academic world the marketplace is often driving the bus.

All of this to say that scholarship, regardless of the precise form it take or it's exact scope of inquiry, should be an attempt to know more. That may mean the defense of the indefensible (or at least the wildly unpopular) or it may mean coming to terms with the less than sexy results of your thorough research. But we seek on regardless. So, here's to the seekers, be they edgy or pedestrian, mainstream or maverick.