I knew my position on eclecticism (and the way I articulated it) was provocative. But I had received some excellent feedback during the process from trusted readers (at least one of whom is writing a HBCE volume — by the way, why is the list of contributors not freely available?), so besides being confident that I was representing the HBCE project and presenting the problems with eclectic texts fairly, I was hoping that the essay (which will take various forms in more than one publication) would engender thoughtful reflection.
But the negative assessment of this post surprised me (even after it was edited to remove some of the more egregious language). Initially I considered responding to the points seriatim, but I waited and slept on it (some wisdom does come with age) and concluded that it wasn’t a wise use of my time, since the post reflects a knee-jerk reaction, not a substantive engagement with my ideas. (And only later, with a little searching, did I discover that the author had written an MA thesis on the feasibility of eclectic editions of the Hebrew Bible, so in hindsight his reaction is not surprising.) I would ask other readers to step outside their well worn paths of thought and engage with the principles of my essay.
I do, however, want to point out one element in the critical blog post that is worth considering: the attitude of superiority that I’ve seen among some text critics, that the text critic is a “special sort of person.” It is presumptuous and arrogant to imply that “advanced competence in 5-10 ancient languages” makes such a scholar any more philologically rigorous or sophisticated than one who has achieved expertise in 1, 2, or 4 languages. It is also dangerously false to assume that learning numerous languages entails methodological and theoretical sophistication. Finally, “linguistically competent” is such a fuzzy phrase, it should be avoided. The blogger’s use can only refer to being able to “access” ancient languages (at some varying level of competence). He cannot (accurately, at least) be referring to the education it requires to engage the field of linguistics and carry out informed linguistic analysis.
Given that my essay began life as one section in an article about James Barr’s legacy, I think it fitting to conclude with a few a propos thoughts from his Comparative Philology [note that I have inserted “biblical” for “Semitic” in every case below]:
Our arguments here have some effect on priorities in education for biblical scholarship. The strong influence of comparative philological method may have produced an unfortunate overemphasis on comparative study in the training of students. The prestige and fashionableness of the philological approach often cause students to study a larger number of [biblical] languages than they can master. These languages are not mastered properly and all the effort does not lead to a thorough knowledge of the texts. … To observe this, unfortunately, is not enough to put a stop to the tendency. The intellectual prestige of the philological approach is reinforced by the apparent social prestige of linguistic polymathy. It continues to be widely supposed that study of a large number of [biblical] languages is the gateway to competence in biblical studies.
… In spite of our debt to comparative philology, Hebrew does remain a teachable subject in its own right; and, while the student must now always be aware of the contributions of cognate languages, he will, unless he is ready to study these languages thoroughly, be best employed not in gaining a smattering of them but in learning how to evaluate, in relation to his Hebrew knowledge, the suggestions made on the basis of them. This means that eventually adequate modes of communication and co-operation have to be built up between two kinds of scholar: (a) those who really know the cognate languages or some of them (can any now really know them all?) and ( b) those who only assimilate this knowledge within their own grasp of Hebrew. But we can at least do something to depreciate the false prestige which has attached to the polyglot ideal, and rebuild the picture of the Hebraist. The polyglot ideal, we may remind ourselves, by no means obtains in the Indo-European field; no one supposes that to appreciate Greek literature one must study all the Indo-European languages. (1968: 295-296, 298, emphases added)
Barr is here typically acerbic. And while his point was aimed at what he saw as the undue emphasis on comparative Semitic education in Hebrew studies, I obviously think the principles apply to all language study associated with biblical studies. Knowing one thing well is preferable to knowing many things moderately. And even knowing many things well does not mark a particular scholar as someone better or “more special” than those who have chosen to focus their time and skills elsewhere, such as in the equally complex task of reconstructing ancient Israelite history, or the bewildering complex world of archaeology, with its ever increasing technological sophistication. Regardless the number of languages or non-language research tools learnt, the point should always be the methodological rigor, the theoretical sophistication, and the consistent application of logic.
Note that I do not think that this criticism applies to those whose works (and persons) I have personally encountered, such as Michael Fox, whose Proverbs HBCE volume I have unfortunately criticized (I wish other volumes had been released!). It has not been my experience that Michael, for instance, ever considered himself superior to scholars working along different intellectual paths, such as historians of ancient Israel, BH linguists, or literary critics. He simply set out do perform the highest level of scholarship with the tools he already had or those he committed himself to add to his arsenal. May Michael’s sense of humour and humility, combined with a commitment to the best possible scholarship, be an example to us all.