By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature
If one searches for books with “unity and diversity” in the title, the top results seem to be in a few specific areas. Prominent among them are volumes related to biblical and religious studies: some that look at what unites and distinguishes the works of the New Testament and some that present different forms of Christianity.
It is also worth looking into unity and diversity in the academy as to how they pertain to biblical studies. Whether we consider methodology, goals, conclusions, or just the area that most interests us, as we pursue a greater understanding of this ancient literature, here too we find that there is unity and there is diversity.
It is easy to notice the ways in which the academy is divided along lines of fracture. Many of these stretch well beyond this particular field: divides between literary and historical approaches; divides between commitments more modern or postmodern in character; divides between theological and religious studies interests. And the list could go on.
Yet given that most academics are not only researchers but teachers in our areas of expertise, I suspect that most of us are aware of one of the pitfalls that can affect students when they are exposed to the diversity that characterizes not only the methods and approaches used in academic biblical studies but also the conclusions. We are prone to focus the majority of our attention on those topics and texts that are characterized by debates and differences of opinion among experts. How exactly did Israel emerge in the land of Canaan? How precisely are the Synoptic Gospels related to one another? Those areas that we agree on are glossed over much more quickly – and arguably with good reason. But the impression students in our classes and readers of our books may be left with is that there are very few conclusions about which we agree or in which we have a high degree of confidence.
Students in our time seem inclined from the outset to say that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and leave it at that. If they get the impression from us that everything is uncertain, there is a good chance that they will respond by simply picking whatever viewpoint they can find on the Internet that agrees with their already-existing views or assumptions. After all, if the experts can’t agree, doesn’t that mean that no one really knows for sure – and thus that I might as well choose the viewpoint I like the most?
If that is how we leave matters, then we have missed a crucial opportunity to teach important skills of critical thinking and information literacy. If we communicate only the diversity of scholarship, without giving a sense of the unity, there is a real risk that we will send students out into the world not only with the wrong impression but also lacking the skills needed to figure out whether or not there is a scholarly consensus and why.
The truth is that there is a great deal that unites scholars methodologically. While there may be exceptions, as a community we are committed to making the best sense that we can of the evidence and to seeking solutions to problems which do as much justice to as much evidence as possible. We use varied tools to answer an array of different sorts of questions. But there are many things we share, even at such a basic level as the conviction that understanding more and critically examining and investigating things is important, worthwhile, and beneficial.
There is a great deal that unites us in terms of what the scholarly enterprise involves. One of the things that generates the diversity of scholarly views is the requirement that doctoral candidates innovate and advance our knowledge and that scholars continue to push back the boundaries of our understanding throughout our careers by offering new ideas and new interpretations of data. But all those diverse views we proffer are part of a united scholarly conversation in which those new and diverse ideas are then set before the wider scholarly community for our colleagues to discuss, evaluate, and verify or refute our proposals about this or that matter.
And so too as educators we ought to unite in seeking to communicate effectively to students that this is how scholarship works. If a new book proposes a new idea, it doesn’t mean that there is no longer a consensus. The new idea is the start of a new conversation or a new sentence in an ongoing one. It is not necessarily the end of an old consensus, if there was one. And the only way to tell is to allow the conversation to take place, follow it closely, and see what emerges in the longer term.
We need to help students to understand that there are probably far more things that we agree on relating to the evidence than we disagree on.
We need to help them to understand that if there simply is no scholarly consensus, then the evidence that we have available probably isn’t enough to answer that particular question with a high degree of certainty one way or the other. And we also need to ensure that they understand that if the vast majority agrees on something, it isnt certain – but neither does the fact that consensuses that have been wrong in the past simply justify ignoring the consensus as though the agreement of large numbers of experts was a trivial matter, easily achieved.
Perhaps most of all, we need to help them understand that if more than one interpretation of certain evidence is possible, that doesn’t mean that any interpretation of the evidence is possible. There are far more viewpoints on matters related to the Bible to be found on the Internet than those that are actually compatible with the evidence.
In an era in which information flows more freely than ever before, people can simply pull out a device and find reliable information at their fingertips wherever they may be – if they know where to look and how to discern that which is useful and reliable amid the many voices that may not be.
Core academic values and methods, basic conclusions, and participation in the scholarly enterprise as an ongoing conversation – these are things that constitute the unity of scholarship. It is important to convey an accurate impression about such things if we are to effectively prepare students to navigate instances of diversity among scholars. Otherwise, we leave them prone to go with mere personal preference (which they could do without any training whatsoever) or to being manipulated by those who spin the evidence for their various ideological ends.
For in our digital age, it is not the memorization of facts that is crucial, but the cultivation of the skills needed to locate and identify reliable sources of information and the ability to discern what is worthwhile in the midst of the overwhelming flood of information that cries out for our attention.