Friday, May 03, 2013

"Most Scholars Think..."

More resources for interpreting the Bible are free online now than ever, or at least easily accessible.  There's blueletterbible, with easy access to free Greek dictionaries and analytical information. This site has an entire interlinear of the whole Bible for free. You think of a resource like Logos software, that bundles massive amounts of things.  There are incredible study Bibles the likes the world has never seen before.

So what do we mean when we say, "most scholars think..."?  This is the age old question of who counts as a scholar.  You can certainly get a certain impression of what most free materials seem to say.  The things for free or easily available tend to be King James type fundamentalist sources.  So do "most scholars think Ezra wrote Ezra"?  You might get that impression if your main sources are individuals like John MacArthur, who I would not consider a real Bible scholar.

A true Bible scholar on a particular aspect of the Bible is someone who 1) has advanced understanding of the original languages, especially in relation to the text in question, 2) knows the history of interpretation of that text, 3) knows the historical-cultural background against which that text has been interpreted, and 4) strives to be objective in relation to an inductive reading of that text.

The last one can lead to various debates. So a certain kind of scholar might be very knowledgeable on the first three but insist that certain presuppositions must guide the processing of evidence, rather than going with the most likely inductive reading of the text.

Suffice it to say, most of the free and most accessible materials tend to be ideologically rather than objectively driven. Most people have no idea what a world class Bible scholar actually looks like. And, unfortunately, these types tend to be locked in an office somewhere publishing expensive monographs no one has ever heard of.  This type of person may have no idea that Logos has buried them in masses of interpretive dung that is so cheap and easy to obtain. This type of person may not be a particularly good communicator.

So what am I to do if Walvoord and Zuck are cheap and readily available and give the impression that most scholars think Matthew was written in the early 50s?  "Most scholars" don't think this at all.  Basically, "most scholars" need to start putting things on the web for free or at east make it relatively inexpensive and readily available.


Burton Webb said...

I've been intrigued of late by the notion that AI might give us some insight into this question.

Algorithms have been written to mine esoterica for answers to the kinds of questions you pose. Some with more success than others, but I don't think any have turned to the genre of academic literature you describe in this post. Most are presently surfing the medical literature to find missed data that might help treat disease.

What an intriguing thought... Turning an AI loose on biblical literature to look for the interpretive trends in scholarly articles. Tracking that across the last 100 years would be interesting as well.

Ken Schenck said...

I can predict exactly what would happen, Burt. A refined AI would come up with a lot of "probable" interpretations that go against sacred cows. There would be a strong movement against the AI system. There would be conspiracy theories. There would be boycotts of whoever owned the system. There might be escalation to violence against it. There would be charge of demonic possession of the AI...

Ken Schenck said...

Actually, let me take it to the next level. Certain more sophisticated theologians would say that it was impossible for an AI to know what God's interpretation of a passage is because the AI would be operating on a "reductionistic" model that looks for the most likely interpretation from a standpoint of Occam's Razor. But, they would argue, this is the wrong presuppositional starting point. Apart from certain starting assumptions, they would say, you cannot come to the right conclusion. They would reprogram the parameters of the AI in accordance with a large number of boundary assumptions, rerun the system and come up with exactly the interpretations they started with.

Nathaniel said...

I find this tension very interesting. Where one must choose between availability and quality, availability wins almost all the time. And really, isn't this where much of what we know as culture and tradition come from: reflection on the thinkers that are available to a group of people.

Take St Augustine, for instance. With the exception of probably Donatism (and even this is debatable), his writings resolve no major controversies. Nor is he featured prominently at any major council (not even 2nd Orange). Nor is he the bishop of a major city. And yet, due to the volume and language of his writings, there is no other writer who looms so large in Western European, late-medieval theology. I'm not saying that is writings are of poor quality. But rather that much of his influence is due simply to availability. In fact, even today, in spite of centuries of a return to primary languages, several theological articulations found in Augustine borne out of poor early Latin translations are still prominent.

One thing I find interesting in modern academia is a strong push to preserve strong copyright even in the face of lack of circulation. This seems to me contrary to both the notion of peer review and the primacy of availability outlined above. I'm certainly not against a worker making his wage. But the paywalls such as JSTOR are, I think, hurting both the academic landscape as well as the public good of knowledge.

I'm not proposing any particular solution. But I do think that trying to resist the potential for free availability that computing gives us is a bit like fixing the Hoover Dam by plugging it with your finger.

Ken Schenck said...

I like it! Although I have not been particularly successful, I do pride myself on the availability of my thoughts over many a brilliant scholar locked in her office. I think, for example, of people like Joe Dongell and David Bauer at Asbury who are both far brighter than I am and even some of their well published colleagues... but no one but their students will ever know it. But me, I come up repeatedly in google searches on just about any topic. :-)

John Mark said...

A fascinating subject. As a former "Student" of Joe Dongell (at an FAS conference, I can attest to his fine mind.
For those of us who don't know the original languages, or even know who to read, what is our best course? The best commentaries we can afford? I have WBC, Interpreters and New Interpreters and a few of the NICOT and NICNT commentaries. I have used Hermeneia on Romans and have a bunch on Mark....I really have a pretty decent, I think, reference library (including several of the NBBC commentaries, which I think are good.) I dont have logos or any other software type stuff.
But is this the best way to go for an average person? Never made it to seminary, and my BA is not in religion, actually.

Amanda said...

This is cool!