Friday, December 23, 2005

DSS, Physical Anthropology, and the NT Ivory Tower

Recently on the Bibilical Studies discussion list, ably hosted by Jim West (how can he do that AND have a life?), there was a discussion about how layman view scholars, and their interaction with the public. One point I made was

(5) There is no history of scholarly debate *out in public* in this field. Contrast that with the debates that are staged out in the open over, say, human prehistory, which have been going on in public ever since Huxley and Wilberforce. Any informed layman can read popular science mags, and there are dozens of books that not only lay out the ideas, but also the nefarious machinations of the various scholars against each other. Zillions of nature shows turn scientists into heroes and bring their theories right into the living room. When was the last time you read, say, a gossipy tell-all of backstabbing and throat-slashing among the Bible scholars that equaled the wonderful tale told in _In the Footsteps of Eve_ ? Maybe you guys are just too nice to each other :)

I thought of this today when re-reading an article over at Bible & Interpretation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Considering how obscure the subject matter really is, the DSS is rather well-known, in a hazy way, than many fields of Bible studies. I would bet good money that more layman have heard the phrase "Dead Sea Scrolls" than, say "Deutero-Isaiah" or "historical Jesus." Why? Because it is a tale full of greed, backstabbing, lawsuits, secrets, manuscript discoveries, and other fun stuff.

In many ways the DSS resembles the field of physical anthropology. That was probably the first time that a major manuscript find had been jealously guarded from the public view, in a way that was very reminiscent of the control finders exert over particular skeletons in anthro. By chance just this week I read In the Footsteps of Eve, a fascinating tale of professional and personal betrayal, in which one scientist found an ancient and important skeleton at a dig site and concealed it from his superiors at that dig for almost a year and a half.

Looking at palaeoanthropology, it is interesting to note that while the public gets excited about finds, it rarely sticks around long enough to follow the debates about the role of particular specimens in our overall understanding of human evolution. This may shed light on yet another problem critical studies have in gaining public acceptance. The DSS offered the public a "find" -- a new skeleton, one even whose closet was totally unexpected. Secret Mark also had this cachet, as does the Gospel of Judas, announced a few months back to great fanfare and little clarity. But for the most part, in NT studies the "finds" have already been made. NT studies is actually in the "interpretation" phase, the part where everyone tries to figure out what the evolutionary history of the evidence is. The public rarely shows an interest in that in other fields. Why should it do so in NT studies?

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