Biblical Scholarship and Academic Evidence: Is Less More?

In the writing of my dissertation, I had a number of academic mentors read my work.  Towards the end of my research, someone who I highly respect gave me this advice which came to mind again to me recently as I turn to new projects:

[the following is a paraphrase of what he told me]

“Nijay, when I read your work, I see that you often cite scholarship to support your ideas.  In fact, you often cite dozens of scholars in support of the particular idea you are arguing for.  While to others this might be sign of good research, to me it comes across as the opposite – it could appear as if you need to cite person after person in favor of a view because you can’t seem to defend it otherwise.  Make sure your argument stands on its own and use secondary sources to strengthen and extend an already secure argument.”

Well, needless to say this is was a heavy blow to me at the time.  At one point, this same mentor used the analogy that I was hiding behind my sledgehammer in my attempt to crack eggshells.  Yikes!  In the end, he was right.  I can’t say I made all the right choices in the writing of my dissertation – it was an important learning exercise, and it bears those marks (but I still think it is useful!).  I have vowed, though, to do better in my next few projects.  But I would commend to you Sean McDonough’s new Christ as Creator (Oxford) which exemplifies this confident style of writing that stands strong on his own arguments and research and I appreciate his minimalistic attitude towards footnotes.  Thus, I do endorse the “Less is more” perspective because it is true that you should be able to defend your argument with your own evidence.

A related issue is this: I often had so many notes and didn’t know what to do with them so I dumped them into the dissertation in the footnotes.  Sometimes footnotes can offer this service: check out this other info.  However, it takes discipline and wisdom to know what to leave in and what to leave out.  In these days, we are getting a little out of control with books regularly going over 1000 pages (reference books, commentaries, monographs, etc..).  Again, this can be useful, but for some it can be a signal of laziness or a desire to tell the reader everything you know (in my case, it was probably a sign of insecurity).  So, again, I vow to improve by being more discriminating about what to leave in and what to exclude.

So – less is more?  Sometimes.

Paul and the Law: A Very Basic Analogy

I am working on a very basic article on Paul and the law in Galatians and I wanted to offer a simple analogy which would represent both the positive aspects of the law and also why Paul was so concerned that his converts don’t slavishly (!) try to obey the Mosaic Law for justification.  Here it is: (I encourage feedback, but be aware that any illustration is going to be limited and only offer insight into one or two areas.  Also, I want to keep it simple!)

Imagine that Israel is like a car going on a trip.  Sin is like a rusty nail that punctured a tire and Israel is slowing down even to the point that the flat tire is doing some damage to the car.  The spare tire is like the Mosaic Law- a gift!  Something that will enable Israel to make the car drivable and to get to a safe place (using backroads, of course).  The car is ‘whole again’ with the spare tire (the Law).  But – a spare tire, for how useful and necessary it is, IS A TEMPORARY SOLUTION!  In fact, once you have driven the 50 miles that the spare is built for, if you continue on with it, it has become a liability and will eventually place you in a dangerous situation.  Also, a spare tire (the Law) is not meant to go on highways and drive at higher speeds – it has a limited usefulness, though it is necessary.  If the car (Israel) wants to complete its trip, it must have a new tire so it can get back on the highway…

The problem with Israel was that she was guarding and encouraging the ongoing use of the spare tire, even when the new tire had been acquired (‘when the time had fully come…’).  But because Israel had to get off of the highway to the destination and take backroads for safety, she was never going to get there without doing what was necessary to make highway driving possible again.  So, while the spare tire (as a concept) is both good and necessary, it fulfilled its purpose in the PAST and to force the continual use of it past its intended travel time is dangerous and counter-productive.

[There are lots of thorny issues about why the law is dangerous (see Philippians 3), but this analogy gets at the heart of the eschatological problems with the law.  I am influenced by Richard Hays in his work on this subject, though I think Wright would conceive of this similarly]