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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Jack of All Trades and Master of None: The Case for “Generalist” Scholars in Biblical Scholarship

Michael F. Bird with Craig Keener

Young scholars beginning their careers in biblical studies may have to decide if they are to pursue a career as a “specialist” in one particular field like Pentateuch, Prophets, Paul, Petrine literature or be a “generalist” with expertise across a whole Testament, Second Temple literature, and often even rabbinic and early Christian writings. The attraction to the specialist track can easily be identified: (1) It is easier to master the primary sources of one specific area; (2) secondary literature in our guild is growing exponentially and it is impossible to keep up with the scholarly developments in more than one field; and (3) in terms of career prospects it is easier to develop a research portfolio, and thus secure tenure and promotion, if one sticks to one field of research. That said, the generalist track should also remain a viable and fruitful avenue for scholars to pursue as careers. In this short piece we will present a case for the value of generalists in biblical studies, that is, for the scholar who is “jack of all trades, but master of none.”

First, generalists are required in order to disseminate the work of specialists to a wider audience. Unfortunately, generalists and specialists in biblical studies have been known to mistrust each other. That is an unhappy state of affairs, since we need them both. Just as both basic and applied research fill useful roles in science, the same is true in understanding biblical texts. Similarly, the writer of a basic commentary for a lay audience needs to be informed by more detailed commentaries, articles, and monographs; these in turn need to be informed by the most detailed work by those who may devote a monograph to a particular Hebrew verb or the ideology of a pseudepigraphic document. Likewise, specialists need writers on a less specialized level to communicate the fruits of their research to a broader public. Writers in biblical theology, the history of ancient Israel or early Christianity must have some mastery of the larger picture in a way that can frame the diverse details coherently. (Of course, the scholar who has time and energy to work at every point on this continuum is a rare one.) Yet this interdependence frequently breaks down. We are all aware that popular religion often ignores scholarship. But sometimes even scholars writing on a more popular level ignore their colleagues’ more detailed work.

Second, the work of generalists is often more conducive to interdisciplinary research. The failure of collegial interdependence occurs on various levels. Some scholars, for example, speak of how “an ancient audience” would have heard a text, while exploring only one aspect of the ancient context (e.g., Cynics or Canaanites). Provided we know our limitations, we could learn much from the dialogue of specialists across disciplines, if we are willing. An Egyptologist contributing to a discussion of the Hebrew Bible would probably miss much of the secondary discussion on particular biblical books, yet could provide insights that Hebrew Bible scholars would usually not acquire without her contribution. A New Testament scholar specialized in connections with early Judaism or Greco-Roman rhetoric could illumine a variety of New Testament texts, yet be criticized by specialists in each of those texts for insufficient expertise in the secondary literature surrounding those texts. In his SNTS presidential address several years ago, Martin Hengel lamented the focus of New Testament scholars on our literary canon without sufficient attention to its context. He provocatively warned: “A New Testament scholar who understands the New Testament alone cannot rightly understand it at all.”[1] In this case, the problem is not that of specialists versus generalists, but of specialists failing to recognize the value of other specialties. “Early Judaism” is a broad discipline itself, but from the standpoint of New Testament scholarship, a “specialist” in early Judaism might shed considerable light on a variety of New Testament texts without being a “specialist” in any of those texts. We profit best when we can draw on both the “specialist” in Matthew (reflecting on Matthean literary patterns and secondary scholarship) and the “specialist” in Matthew’s early Jewish context.

Third, Hebrew Bible and especially New Testament each constitute a relatively small body of writings compared to many other areas of discourse (Renaissance literature, postmodern French philosophy, etc.). Especially in New Testament studies, disciplinary myopia and sometimes even a pinch of indifference towards other fields risk preventing concerted engagement and research with wider horizons relevant to biblical studies.

Fourth, the generalist may have an advantage over the specialist in the classroom. Typical universities and seminaries require most professors to deliver general introductory courses in their disciplines (and sometimes outside them). Academics may be expected to supervise masters and doctoral dissertations across a diverse array of topics depending on their students’ interests. In small liberal arts colleges it is not uncommon for professors to teach across both Testaments or be the only Hebrew Bible or New Testament professor on faculty. In this sense, being a generalist is a vocational reality; in order to provide good quality in teaching and research supervision, it is arguably a necessity.[2]

Fifth, historically many of the scholars of ancient or modern times with the greatest impact have been generalists. We have only to think of Jerome, Origen, Calvin, or within the last two hundred years the works of F. C. Baur, J. B. Lightfoot, B. F. Westcott, H. J. Holtzmann, Adolf von Harnack, and Adolf Schlatter to see that the impact that these scholars had was related to the depth and breadth of their writings. More contemporary scholars like Martin Hengel, E. P. Sanders N. T. Wright, James Dunn, and Jacob Neusner, though having a particular niche in which they cut their scholarly teeth, have produced works across the subcategories of their disciplines, revealing the value of operating trans-corpora or across the traditional subdisciplines. F. F. Bruce and Matthew Black (both British scholars) are the only persons in living memory who served as presidents of both the Society of Old Testament Study and the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas! But who would dare to aspire to such heights today?

Such observations may invite some younger scholars to wonder how one can cultivate generalist sensitivities. Several suggestions are helpful, though most scholars will not follow all of these.  (1) One obvious starting point is to develop competencies in as many of the ancient languages as possible. (2) To adapt I. Howard Marshall’s expression, one should endeavor to become the “master or mistress” of the primary sources and immerse oneself in the relevant literature of the ancient world.[3] That could mean placing a higher priority on reading the primary sources, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of reading all the secondary ones. (3) Hengel suggests that New Testament scholars (but the principle is equally applicable to other fields) should attempt to develop an expertise outside of the New Testament.[4] For instance, developing a side interest in certain writings from the Septuagint, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, or Apostolic Fathers would hone one’s scholarly skills. (4) Read book reviews and summaries of research over a breadth of areas. Journals like Review of Biblical Literature and Currents in Biblical Research can expand one’s horizons about the state of scholarship in other fields. Similarly, it could be beneficial to attend seminars, conferences, and papers on a wide variety of biblical studies and related topics. (5) In terms of research a generalist might stagger one’s research agenda over a number of areas as time progresses. (6) An additional strategy is to write works (books and articles) for both specialist and generalist readers. For instance, concerted study of the Aramaic of the book of Daniel might be accompanied by publication of a textbook on Jewish apocalyptic literature. Alternatively, study of the textual history of Romans might well be followed by a more general volume on the history of the reception of Romans in the first four centuries. One can stay in the preferred “zone” and still produce specialist and generalist works.

If the discipline of biblical studies is to avoid endemic fragmentation and overspecialization, where each scholar cares only for his or her own “postage-stamp-sized bailiwick” (to use Markus Bockmuehl’s colorful term), then some degree of generalization is required.[5] The extent to which all or some need to expand their interests and horizons is of course relative to situations, institutions, tastes, and interests, but hopefully we can avoid the dichotomy whereby narrow experts and overgeneralists, each mistrusting the other, are the only courses open. Biblical academia and those for whom we teach and write will always be in need of both specialists and generalists.

Michael F. Bird, Highland Theological College, UK with Craig Keener, Palmer Seminary, USA


[1] Martin Hengel, “Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft, NTS 40 (1994): 321; published in English as “Tasks of New Testament Scholarship, BBR 6 (1996): 67.

[2] A friend of Michael’s did a masters thesis on Paul in a university where the only biblical studies professor in the department was a specialist in the Nag Hammadi literature. At the outset, he was told by his supervisor that the only help he would get from him/her was correcting his spelling!

[3] Carl Trueman, “Interview with Professor Howard Marshall,” Themelios 26.1 (2002): 52.

[4] Hengel, “Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft, 356-58; “Tasks of New Testament Scholarship, 85-86.

[5] Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (STI; Brand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007), 35.


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