Re: NT Scholarship

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Jun 28 1996 - 07:17:28 EDT

At 5:18 PM -0400 6/26/96, Greg Carey wrote:
>I'm a PhD candidate in New Testament at Vanderbilt who teaches religious
>studies in a liberal arts college. Today I ran a survey of Web pages from
>various PhD programs, and I have a question: What should a NT scholar know?

I have read the question and the responses, particularly those of Edgar
Krentz and Edward Hobbs, with fascination and awe. I don't disagree with
any of what's been said, but it does seem to me that the question has been
phrased originally by Greg Carey in a minimalist/maximalist form: what
should a good PhD program require of its candidates is a minimalist
question, but what should a NT scholar know is maximalist.

It seems to me that in some respects the question has nothing to do with NT
scholarship specificially but concerns that larger question of what it is
to be educated in any real sense. And the approaches to this question fall,
it seems to me, into classical Platonist and Aristotelian perspectives: (a)
Platonist: one cannot really know anything without knowing everything; (b)
Aristotelian: one must know everything that falls within that natural realm
of science (we're talking about Wissenschaft rather than
experimental/mathetmatical science) that one is making one's professional
focus. Personally, I take the Platonist perspective, and ultimately I think
Aristotle did also: he may have sought to divide and conquer what is
knowable, but the "maestro di colui chi sanno" was well aware, like
Socrates, of the vast reaches of what he didn't know, and he knew, better
than his pupil Alexander, that what the scholar must conquer is nothing
less than the whole world. Or, as Aristotle himself put it, the fulfilment
of that mental faculty which is the most truly human part of a human being
comes in the limited participation possible for humanity in the mental
activity of God.

The original question is compounded thus to include the practical and the
ideal scope, and I think that responses thus far reveal both that the ideal
is impractical and that the practical is not ideal. The more we know, the
better scholars we are, but we can never know enough to be altogether
"good" scholars: what we still don't know marks off the limits of our
capacity to make sense of some of the questions and areas of research that
we may someday confront. So the "know-it-all" turns out to be a
"know-nothing." What else is obvious?

The question then becomes, perhaps--and this certainly was evident in the
answers posted by Ed and Ed (Editori illustrissimi--our most distinguished
real NT scholars--the rest of us are mere dilettantes and dabblers in Greek
and NT)--what are the practical and achievable boundaries of solid NT
expertise? As I remarked offline to someone a couple days ago, Edward Hobbs
has retired from more scholarly posts than I shall ever occupy, and I don't
think he has offered us more than a theoretical outline of the fields that
he has mastered THUS FAR. Greg Carey hits the nail on the head in
contrasting the value of literary theory and the value of knowing Spanish
(as a NT Scholar!). Well, I think one had better not shut the door on any
kind of knowledge, be it computer science or nuclear physics or Sanskrit
literature. If humanity is created in the image of God, then the image of
God to be explored has boundless horizons, and no one human being is ever
likely to explore them all.

Then, of course, there's the matter of experience, a matter of inestimable
importance and surely a SINE QUA NON. My son, who was then working on a
Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins wrote to my daughter, a freshman at
Washington University having trouble with Western Civilization, that "there
really isn't any possibility of making sense of history until one has lived
a lot longer and experienced a lot more than a college freshman is likely
to have lived or experienced." I might add that my son is not teaching or
researching history with that Ph.D., but writing briefs as a paralegal.

So them's my meditations on NT scholarship; perhaps Ecclesiastes expressed
them more eloquently. I certainly do think that humility is another SINE
QUA NON for the potential NT scholar but I am not really cynical about the
limitations of what we can learn and know about the NT so much as I am
awestruck at the vastness of what there is left to discover and learn while
life lasts.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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