Larry Hurtado on Expertise

Larry Hurtado has a post on scholarship and why he is suspicious of those who claim to have come up with a definitive solution to something despite not being trained in the relevant skills, languages, etc. I’ll quote it at length, since it says a lot that is important:

I have to say that it’s curious that someone with no training in a given field, lacking in at least some of the linguistic competence required (both relevant classical language and key modern scholarly languages), thinks himself able to find something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in that field who labor year-upon-year to try to discover anything new and interesting.  It’s also curious that, as is typical, the guy doesn’t submit his findings to scholarly review for publication in peer-reviewed journals or with a peer-reviewed publisher, but flogs his thinking straight out on his web site, complete with bold claims about its unique validity.  We mere scholars in the field, by contrast, do submit our work for critique by others competent in the subject.  We present at symposia and conferences where other scholars can engage our views.   We strive to get published in peer-reviewed journals and with respected publishers.  Even after publication, we hope for critical engagement by other scholars.

Now, of course, I believe in freedom of speech and thought, and I wouldn’t press for a gag on the sort of dubious stuff that I criticize here.  But in scholarly life the peer-testing of claims/results is absolutely crucial, and it’s really considered rather unscholarly (and so of little credibility) to present as valid/established claims that haven’t gone through such testing.  People (specifically those not clearly qualified in a field) have always been able to make bold claims about a subject of course, asserting their idiosyncratic “take” over against whatever view(s) is/are dominant in the subject.  But before the World Wide Web I guess it was much more difficult to get such unqualified opinion circulated.  Now, however, ”the Web” and the “Blogosphere” make it so easy.

But, frankly, when I’m shown something that hasn’t been through the rigorous scholarly review process (often, it appears, peer-review deliberately avoided), and comes from someone with no prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject, I’m more than a bit skeptical.  If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?

I can hear the responding claim that scholars in the field are uninterested in new discoveries and/or even that they conspire to keep new ideas from gaining acceptance.  But any such claim only further reveals the lack of familiarity with scholarly processes.  The field of NT/Christian Origins, for example, is now more diverse, with more approaches, more perspectives, than ever; and probably most scholars dream of being able to correct or refute some established view, or successfully lodge some new view, or publish some hitherto unknown or insuffficiently noted datum.  There’s no conspiracy to suppress novel work or findings that go against previous views.

Peer-review typically doesn’t mean quashing any new view.  Instead, it means that a submitted piece of work is studied to see if any relevant evidence or important other analysis is overlooked, or if there is something quirky and apparently wrong in method or assumptions.  I’ve certainly had articles accepted for publication in cases where the reviewers weren’t necessarily convinced but did agree that my argument couldn’t be faulted on data or method, and so my article deserved to get publication and thus a wider “hearing” by scholars.

So, how does some innocent peruser of the Web who isn’t an expert in a given field judge a claim about something in that field?  Well, is it being made by someone who appears to have the requisite training for that subject?  Is it from someone with an established reputation in that subject?  (And the Web now makes it fairly simple to check up on people.)  Or, if it’s from an emergent scholar, is the claim published in a peer-reviewed journal or from a respected published (who uses peer-review)?  If not, then I’d advise you not to bet more than a tuppence on it.

Think of the Web/Internet as something like a postal service.  You can send all sorts of things through the post (and much more via the Internet that wouldn’t easily or legally get into the post!).  So, simply because something is “published” on the Web doesn’t mean anything by itself.  The key questions concern the qualifications of the person authoring the material, and whether it’s been adequately reviewed and had critique by those competent in the field.

Hurtado’s last point is exactly why I focus so much attention on information literacy skills in my courses nowadays. If you remember ever getting a “newsletter” from a one-man “organization” that spouted crackpot theories through the mail, mimeographed from a typed and pasted original that was clearly an amateurish effort, you probably laughed at the idea that anyone would take its claims seriously. But today, word processing and web editing are easy, with most of the formatting and design aspects taken care of for you, unless you choose to customize them. And so it is easy to present ideas which have no real merit in a much more appealing packaging.

Peer review isn’t a guarantee of correctness. It doesn’t even always manage to keep things out that perhaps ought to be. It is simply a first point of entry, seeking to guarantee a bare minimum, namely that proper methods are being used and obvious data is not being ignored. And so if someone claims to have a definitive solution to a scholarly question, but doesn’t publish it in an appropriate scholarly venue, the chances are it is because they are not in fact offering something that could pass muster as scholarship. They aren’t even trying to present their ideas to the scholarly community, which is the only way that their real worth, or lack thereof, could be tested.

The irony, of course, is that the internet is full of people for whom such scholarly attempts at quality assurance are treated as evidence of a conspiracy, while the claims of people whose online assertions are subject to no quality controls are simply embraced uncritically.

On a related note, see Ben Stanhope’s post continuing the conversation I started on whether you need a PhD to understand the Bible.

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  • Chuck Haberl

    “If you remember ever getting a “newsletter” from a one-man “organization” that spouted crackpot theories through the mail, mimeographed from a typed and pasted original that was clearly an amateurish effort, you probably laughed at the idea that anyone would take its claims seriously.”

    Until that man was elected to the House of Representatives, and went on to become a perennial presidential candidate…

    • James F. McGrath


  • newenglandsun

    I don’t even use blogs for my research stuff. I wouldn’t even use your blog for a scholarly research project and you’re a scholar! LOL! Blogs are for opinions only. Although they can be a good platform to get ideas around and circulating.

  • $22933995

    As I read the quote by Hurtado the one name that came to mind was Richard Carrier.

  • Joe Wallack

    The irony is that Hurtado’s and your religion was created by those incompetent in the original languages.

    • James F. McGrath

      Umm, what?

      • 3SPARTUS8

        James — Technically and linguistically speaking, I think Joe is right. None of the NT writers/apologists were competent in Classical Hebrew or Aramaic. — D. C. Smith

        • James F. McGrath

          When one refers to the New Testament’s original language, one usually means Greek. And while their ability differs, the suggestion that none of them is competent in Greek is simply false. Of course, perhaps his point was that the religion was created by people who spoke Aramaic rather than the ‘original languages’ of Hebrew and Greek. But if that was the meaning, it certainly could have been expressed more clearly.

          • 3SPARTUS8

            No, I’m not referring to the New Testament itself, but to the writers who reinterpreted the Old Testament and who used street Greek to promote their new religion. Of course, I don’t know what Joe had in mind, but the language of ordinary people, especially those living the the Galilee region — before, during and shortly after the time of Jesus — was Aramaic.

            Maybe you couldn’t see or understand my meaning because something got into your eye? :-)

          • James F. McGrath

            I’m sorry, what? My last comment was responding to your comment and discussing what Joe may or may not have meant. Why are you now talking about me misunderstanding your meaning?

          • 3SPARTUS8


            There’s a couple of things going on here — email exchanges plus a lack of understanding on your part, — not only of Joe’s initial comment, but mine as well.

            My first response was to your “Umm, what?” which I took to be bewilderment about irony, language and the creators of your *religion*. I merely added my two cents worth as a clarifying factual statement about NT writers and their facility with ancient “Jewish” languages, which you can now reread, if you like. There’s nothing complicated or stultifying about it, so why not just take a deep breath and calmly respond to the words as written?

            FYI, I’m taking this tone because I sense condescension coming from your end. I guess the real question is: Why are you misinterpreting and then overreacting? (Or is it the other way ’round??)


          • James F. McGrath

            If Joe meant that the earliest Christians were incompetent in Hebrew, he could have said that. It would still be open to dispute, but at least his meaning would have been intelligible. By saying “original languages” he included (assuming he meant the original languages of the Biblical literature) Greek and Aramaic, which seemed and seems to me an extremely puzzling assertion, one that is self-evidently false.

            My question was a genuine one, trying to figure out what he meant and why he wrote it. I am still waiting for clarification, and it is not clear that you speculations about his meaning have explained why he chose to express himself in the way that he did. I think it best to wait and allow Joe to respond, should he choose to.

          • 3SPARTUS8

            I don’t think it matters why, but I’m willing to wait if you are. Hopefully, he will clarify what he meant. As for me, I don’t think any of the NT writers (with the possible exception of Matthew) were competent in the spoken language of Jesus or his Galilean disciples.