A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Specialism vs. Generalism: False Dichotomy

Folks who know me well know I’m awfully opinionated about the need for scholars in any discipline to look beyond their immediate fields of research to other disciplines which might have direct bearing on their work. James Crossley takes up this issue here and I thought I would offer my 2 cents. My earlier post on my 5 fave books hints at my thoughts on this.

In general I think that certain disciplines have increasingly avoided involving themselves in relevant materials. I get the sense that this is particularly an tendency in literature-oriented studies. To give two examples, it is becoming increasingly uncommon, for instance, for latinists and hellenists to only know a modicum of Greek and Roman history, have little awareness of modern debates in those disciplines, to be unfamiliar with ancient political institutions, the disciplines of epigraphy or papyrology, etc. This has gone so far that, for instance, it was not uncommon for me to hear a professor say that he or she is not interested in whether Pliny’s letters have historical referentiality or what history actually lays behind Tacitus’ Histories because all that matters to him is the text itself and the literary persona (!). It’s equally uncommon for NT scholars to have only passing familiarity with other Greek dialects beyond the NT, epistolography, knowledge of NT papyri though not documentary papyri or the sense of the discipline as a whole, or a sense of the flow of Roman social, economic, and administrative history and the transformation of the empire from, say, 60 BC to 200 CE, though particularly the eastern provinces. The difference I think is that classicists more often willfully avoid the contextual data, whereas NT scholars are just unfamiliar with it (which is an important difference). Both tend to be absorbed by their texts and a small set of data related to the questions they ask of them. The same argument can sometimes be said for archaeologists and historians, though I think it holds less true. The reason I think is that ancient historians are so desperate for any data we can find, we’ll use just about anything. But by comparison to other historians of other periods, we definitely have our own other deficiencies.

It is legitimate to pose the question of how “general” is necessary if one primarily intends to write on Paul or Callimachus. Fair enough. Surely that can vary. Though what bothers me about questions like that is that it tends to come from an avoidist mentality–or in the worst cases, pure ignorance. Having a fair knowledge of the world around our literature doesn’t just help ensure that our work is accurate and not misguided–it doesn’t just guide our work to make sure we’re not coming up with the banal, anachronistic, or bizarre. More than that, it also provides insight that can help further how we pose our questions, information that can help refine and supplement or research, and lead to new discoveries. For that reason, I think we would also benefit from spending considerable energy becoming conversant across disciplines as well.

June 22, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. wow! You’ve had an explosion of posts! I also discussed this–this is all in a response to an SBL Forum article.

    Comment by Jared | June 22, 2009 | Reply

  2. Yeah, let’s see if this stead stream doesn’t peter out 🙂

    PS, where’s this SBL article?

    Comment by JD | June 22, 2009 | Reply

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