Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Where are the Scholars?

Separating-the-Wheat-from-ChaffLast week a friend pointed me to a web site where a guy, claiming expertise in something else (cryptography, I think, but it doesn’t matter) also claimed to have established beyond dispute and for the first time in modern scholarly studies the “true” meaning of a particular Greek word used by Paul. Moreover, on this basis the guy claims a radically different understanding of what Paul had to say on the topic with which this Greek word is associated. So, what did I think?

Well, 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.

-Larry Hurtado
“Expertise and How to Detect It”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I was reading the various articles and blogs I use for morning studies and came across this piece by Hurtado. It brought to the forefront something that Messianic Judaism and particularly the large number of Hebrew Roots bloggers seem to struggle with. There are a great many pundits in the religious blogosphere and, as Dr. Hurtado points out, not all of them are scholars in a strictly defined sense. And yet, like the individual Hurtado describes, that doesn’t stop most people from presenting an opinion as fact without any significant scholarly or educational basis.

Before continuing, I want to say that I don’t describe myself as an expert or scholar in religious studies. The purpose of my blog is not to lay down doctrine and theology as if I’m a teacher or instructor of any kind. My blog is simply an expression of my thoughts and feelings on any given morning. I ask more questions than I provide answers and even when I seem to present conclusions, they are my opinions and often, I publish them on the web to inspire conversation so that I can learn more from my readers. I do not fit Dr. Hurtado’s definition of a scholar nor would I ever claim to.

But what about scholarship in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces (I separate the two movements because to me, they don’t represent the same emphasis, at least in terms of population)?

I believe there is a growing scholarly expression existing within Messianic Judaism. Educational organizations such as The New School for Jewish Studies and The Messianic Jewish Theological Institute kinbaroffer the promise of an organized educational basis for producing scholars in this specific area of religious studies. I’ve not taken any courses from either school so I can’t personally attest to their quality, but there is at least an effort being made to build a valid, intelligent, and organized teaching framework from which to produce teachers and researchers within the Messianic Jewish space.

I’m less familiar with any organized group of teaching institutes within the wider collection of Hebrew Roots groups. The only two that immediately come to mind are TorahResource.com, which was founded by Tim Hegg and TNNOnline.net which seems to be edited by someone named J.K. McKee (I should say that I’ve met Hegg on several occasions and, while he and I may not always agree, I more than acknowledge his educational and scholarly background, however I’ve never met McKee and don’t know what he brings to the table, so to speak).

Dr. Hurtado continues:

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?

Obviously, Hurtado sets some very specific standards for information he’s willing to take seriously, which makes about 99% of the blogosphere unacceptable as sources of theological scholarship. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether or not either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots movements have any process in place for a “rigorous scholarly review process” and have access to writers with “prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject(s)” being addressed in their respective areas (I’m not being snarky here, I’m asking a serious question).

I do know based on my ten plus years of history within Hebrew Roots that it tends to be a magnet for just about anyone with an opinion. Some of the individuals presenting information are well-meaning and are trying to work through both intellectual and personal issues in regard to how they see Christianity and Judaism. Others, unfortunately, have theological axes to grind and produce vast amounts of dreck designed to provide religious “thrills and chills” but which have absolutely no basis in fact or scholarly research.

For example, I’ve heard people claim that the lost ark of the covenant was hidden underneath the crucifixion site of Jesus and that his blood “anointed” it. I’ve heard people say that the “lost years of Jesus” were spent with the young Yeshua traveling through India at the side of his “uncle” Nicodemus. I’ve heard some folks claim to have possession of the lost original Hebrew manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. I even read one individual say on a blog that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed was that the Jewish priests failed to share the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton with the nations of the world, thus preventing the Torah from going forth from Zion (see Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2).

All of that stuff is baloney, but it’s important to remember that Hebrew Roots is an extremely wide container and its contents are enormously varied.

yeshiva1I more or less regularly read a few blogs in the Hebrew Roots space, not because I agree with their opinions but so I can be aware of them. I absolutely avoid the kind of “crazy” material posted on the web that makes claim to the sort of “hidden truths” I listed above.

Mainstream Christian and Jewish educational and research foundations have a long, world-wide history and are well established, but the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements are in their infancy. I place Messianic Judaism as an entity in a rather narrow field in order to exclude the more “loosely defined” collections of non-Jewish folks out there who have shall we say, rather unusual and unsubstantiated statements to make. Unfortunately, that puts them in the same container as others in Hebrew Roots who are sincerely attempting to study and research the Bible in a manner that will provide illumination within their own context.

But at this point, I’m asking a question because I don’t know. Given the brief set of statements made by Dr. Hurtado (I provided a link to his blog post above), do either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots in its various forms, have or are they building an educational and scholarly system that would provide the same level of peer review and well researched papers as Hurtado describes from his own experiences as an educator and researcher?

One of the books produced by those I would consider established scholars in Messianic Judaism is Introduction to Messianic Judaism. Do you think this book would meet Dr. Hurtado’s expectations for scholarly and peer-reviewed work? Are there other books and papers that would do so within Messianic Judaism? What about Hebrew Roots? Do the writings of Hegg and McKee fit the bill? Are there others doing similar work within that space?

The Internet is a wild west show with no oversight and anyone can create a blog and start publishing anything they want within minutes. It’s important to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. In order to do so, where do we begin?

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11 thoughts on “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Where are the Scholars?”

  1. Hi James,

    Here are a few thoughts about peer review. The “peer” in “peer review” is used in a very specific sense: it is someone who has recognized expertise in the subject. For example, the scholars who reviewed my doctoral dissertation are peers in the study of rabbinic texts rather than people “just like me” (since I was only a graduate student at the time). You cannot have a peer review process without experts. Although it is possible for someone to become an expert through self-study, such people are as rare as hen’s teeth and the reason is very simple: 99.9% of people who have never been discipled in their field have not learned the basic habits of scholarship and have not been exposed to the sort of critique that would help them to avoid errors of method and fact. With very few exceptions, even the best of the self-taught are like talented basketfall players who have only played in pick-up games but have never been involved in organized basketball on any level and therefore have never been coached or received high-level input. I suspect that there are thousands of such basketball players, some of whom have a lot of talent but none of whom have learned the moves that are required even of entry-level NBA players. Becoming a professional player will depend on how others evaluate their talent, not on their own sense that they are NBA-quality. A true peer in “peer review” is someone who has been evaluated as an expert by existing experts.

    The review process is usually “blind”–that is, the reviewers are anonymous and therefore not subject to “peer pressure.” The peer’s job is straightforward: to help make the essay or book the best it can be.

    As far as I know, there is currently no such peer review within the Messianic or Hebrew Roots movements, including the case of “Introduction to Messianic Judaism.” Although the editors of the book are established scholars, they are not expert in all the fields covered by the book. As a contributor, I benefited greatly from editorial input, perhaps almost as much as I would have benefited from peer review, if only because the editors are generally familiar with the two subjects I wrote about and have a sound grasp of basic scholarly methodology. So there are ways to compensate for the lack of peer-review when generally knowledgeable scholars are involved

    Now, I’m sure that this will bore many of your readers, but let me offer another analogy. If you were in the market for a new house, would you rather have one that was designed and built by people who never learned their trade and whose work was not inspected by anyone or one that was built by trained people, then inspected by certified inspectors? This analogy reveals another aspect of peer review: even as a house build by trained workers and then inspected may still have serious flaws, peer review does not guarantee that the essay or book is correct, only that it avoids methodological and factual errors as much as possible. In other words, two essays on the same topic may both be peer-reviewed, yet reach very different conclusions. On the other hand, a scholar who is not habitually peer-reviewed has an astronomically higher chance of reaching unsupported conclusions.

    The point of peer review is to make things better. That doesn’t always happen, but the basic question is, “Everything else being equal, are we better off with writers who have been discipled in their field and who receive high-level input on their work, or by writers who receive limited input from members of their own group who themselves have not been discipled?”

    The real victims in all this are the readers who do not know that the book or blog post they are reading may be very deeply flawed in ways they cannot see. They may even contribute to their own victimization with negative attitudes about academic or traditional study. They may be unreasonably suspicious of, academic or traditional qualifications because they believe that they stifle spiritual life by making scholars conform to non-spiritual norms. They believe that “everything else being equal, we are better off with writers who have not been subject to such education.” Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots writers often contribute to this delusion by assuming an air of expertise that they do not have.

    As a Messianic Jewish scholar, I try to make up for the lack of peer review by submitting my work for review by a range of people, including both scholars and non-scholars. Before I received a significant amount of traditional and academic discipling, I thought that self-study was enough. I now know that it isn’t.

  2. Carl, your response was exactly what I was looking for. Not being an academic, it’s difficult for me to even correctly frame my question in this area. Believe me, I was implying no disrespect to any one in writing this blog post, but it was a good question to ask and you answered it brilliantly. The point is to help inform readers of blogs and books that just because something is in print (on paper or virtually) doesn’t mean it’s accurate, well-researched, or even rational.

    I think continually higher levels of integrity in scholarship is what Messianic Judaism is aiming for, at least as far as I can see, but of course, that doesn’t mean what’s being produced now isn’t valid or useful. As you said, we want a house that is built by trained and skilled workers and inspected by certified inspectors. Even then, the result isn’t guaranteed to be 100% accurate, but it’s a step toward making the information being presented within the Messianic Jewish space increasingly respected and valued.

    Thanks.

  3. “But the question we must ask ourselves is whether or not either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots movements have any process in place for a “rigorous scholarly review process” and have access to writers with “prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject(s)” being addressed in their respective areas (I’m not being snarky here, I’m asking a serious question).”

    They don’t have to have anything…As long as they read your biased blog, they get “educated…”

  4. “For example, I’ve heard people claim that the lost ark of the covenant was hidden underneath the crucifixion site of Jesus and that his blood “anointed” it. I’ve heard people say that the “lost years of Jesus” were spent with the young Yeshua traveling through India at the side of his “uncle” Nicodemus. I’ve heard some folks claim to have possession of the lost original Hebrew manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. I even read one individual say on a blog that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed was that the Jewish priests failed to share the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton with the nations of the world, thus preventing the Torah from going forth from Zion (see Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2).”

    And you also read that anyone who does not adhere to Rabbinic authority is compared to the sons of Korach….Just trying to keep equal weights and measures…..

  5. “Do you think this book would meet Dr. Hurtado’s expectations for scholarly and peer-reviewed work? ”

    And what makes Hurtado’s “expectations” credible? Who is he? Does Boaz needs to worry?

  6. Dan, I’m at a loss to understand why you are being so critical. I’ve tried to be as even-handed as possible in my inquiry and I said up front that I was asking my questions not to be “snarky,” but to learn more. Rabbi Kinbar’s reply was very elucidating and basically said that within Messianic Judaism, scholarship is progressing, and in some ways is still at a formative stage. He also outlined some problems to scholarship even when peer-review is involved.

    As far as my examples of the more “exotic” theories floating around out there in the Hebrew Roots world, I wanted to present the most “fringy” samples I could recall just to illustrate the extremes that are being published on the web as “information.” If you read my blog post carefully, you’d see that in no way do I attribute those statements to any Hebrew Roots bloggers I regularly or semi-regularly read. I also said that I believe there are many in Hebrew Roots who are honestly and seriously studying and exploring information to provide doctrinal illumination within that particular theological framework.

    Every person, which includes bloggers such as me, has a bias and in fact, no human being or organization can be completely bias-free. However, my point wasn’t to pick on anyone but rather, to shed some light on the nature and quality of educational and scholarly information being presented in various formats from the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces.

    Who is Larry Hurtado? Try this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_W._Hurtado.

  7. Hi James, I think the question you asked was a very valid question. I also thought that Mr Kindbar’s response was excellent. I think this is an important topic that needs to be addressed more often within the greater Messianic / Hebrew Roots movements, but it’s not necessarily something that will be remedied soon. As you mentioned, most of the Universities that operate within the Protestant / Catholic / Evangelical (not as much as the other two) traditions, as well as Judaism’s educational traditions, have been established over centuries. The modern day Messianic / Hebrew roots traditions aren’t even a century old yet, so it will probably take some time before either tradition would be able to have proper peer review systems in place.

    But, that doesn’t excuse any writer or theologian to submit his writing or work for criticism or input from other theologians. In fact, I would argue that anyone who believes their work is worth it’s salt will do this automatically. An maybe here is where the Messianic / Hebrew Roots traditions are falling short at times. Different writers from different perspectives (within these traditions) very seldom engage each other’s work on a shared platform. The Keshner Journal is probably a minor exception – although it tends to favor the Messianic Jewish tradition way more in content. Different writers from different perspectives within these traditions do engage each other’s work, but it tends to be within isolated blogs, websites or publications and not a shared platform. This is probably something that can add some real value to both traditions, where different “leaders” start engaging with each other’s work instead of just talking at and past each other.

    I also feel that we as readers have as much a responsibility within all this as the writers and here I disagree with Mr Kindbar who labeled the readers as “victims”. I believe every reader has the responsibility to seriously study and analyse the work which a particular writer produces and compare it against the work of writers from a different perspective. We tend to read the work of the people we agree with theologically, and very seldom engage with the work of those whose theology we “oppose” or disagree with. It’s only when we start listening to the many sides of the same argument, that we will be able to see a clearer (somewhat) perspective. But, that is every person’s own responsibility. If you decide to consume only chocolates and coca-cola – it’s not Nestle or Coca-Cola’s fault that you are malnourished.

    A third part that I think needs to be kept in mind here is that there is a difference between work produced for an academic level and work produced for congregational level. Dr Hurtardo’s work is very much based at an academic level, whereas 98% of work produced within the Messianic / Hebrew Roots traditions are for a congregational level. Right now there isn’t many theologians within the Hebrew Roots tradition that do engage at an academic level. This of course does not excuse good scholarship within work produced at a congregational level, but I don’t believe the same level of peer review and/or theological criticism is necessary at such a level.

    Sorry for the long post.

  8. Jaco said: This is probably something that can add some real value to both traditions, where different “leaders” start engaging with each other’s work instead of just talking at and past each other.

    I don’t know, for example, how often Christian research is examined, let alone peer-reviewed by Jewish scholars and vice versa. There are probably areas of overlap, but the identity of the Messiah may prevent the two scholarly traditions from talking to each other, at least very much.

    The same might be said for Messianic Judaism and traditional Christianity or traditional Judaism. Granted, they have a great deal in common and “mine” the same Bible in their research, but theological differences may make it difficult for them to communicate on topics of Biblical research across the “divide.”

    I also feel that we as readers have as much a responsibility within all this as the writers and here I disagree with Mr Kindbar who labeled the readers as “victims”.

    While we may want to apply caveat emptor to the consumer of theological texts, the average individual doesn’t have the educational background to independently verify the validity of what they are reading. Also, as I believe you mentioned, people tend to gravitate toward material with which they already agree, so they are unlikely to question the source of an opinion they already hold. Hence some people may be “victims” not only of the bad research they are reading but of their own lack of desire to challenge their personal preconceptions.

    In my own case, I have to disagree that all people only read and study material that agrees with their personal position. I reviewed the Arminianism vs. Calvinism debate at the behest of my Pastor, though I disagree with the entire paradigm and have suggested my own alternative viewpoint.

    A third part that I think needs to be kept in mind here is that there is a difference between work produced for an academic level and work produced for congregational level.

    Granted. Most of us consume material at the congregational level because educationally, that’s where we operate, but that material, at least in an ideal world, should be based on more scholarly and varified research on the same topic. Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, so I suspect most of what we read in popular Christianity and Judaism doesn’t have a solid, underlying basis in scholarship (but I’ve been wrong before).

    To some degree, it’s this last point that I’ve been trying to speak to in today’s blog post. Anyone who is not an academic and who is interested in Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots (or a certain amount of overlap) comes with either tons of curiosity or a bit of a bias. Since even highly regulated Christian and Jewish Biblical scholarship can have its drawbacks, how much more should we be paying attention to what we read in what I can only believe is a less developed (because the movements are so young) system of scholarship relative to Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots.

    I should point out that I believe many of the scholars currently operating in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots space were educated in more traditional Christian, Jewish, or secular educational institutions. For instance, David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, co-editors and contributors to the book Introduction to Messianic Judaism both received their doctorate degrees at Cambridge University. Tim Hegg of TorahResource.com received both his M.Div and Th.M from Northwest Baptist Seminary in Tacoma, Washington.

    As both movements mature, it’s conceivable that the scholars in their respective traditions will be educated within educational institutions that are clearly “Messianic Jewish” and “Hebrew Roots” (although in my awareness, Messianic Judaism seems to be leading in the development of its own schools), but currently, I see the majority of them being educated in universities and colleges that exist within other or wider frameworks.

  9. there is a difference between work produced for an academic level and work produced for congregational level.

    That’s an important distinction. I don’t think that peer-review is necessary for non-academic writing, but its healthy for readers to know the qualifications of the writer. My beef is with writings that present themselves as scholarly works–lots of footnotes, bibliography, many quotes from other writings (with their own translations) that are not generally accessible–but are actually aimed at a popular audience. The readers think they are reading a scholarly work (which carries an air of authority). The problem is compounded when movement leaders endorse books that they are either (1) not competent to critique and/or (2) have not read in depth. I still think that readers are, at least partially, victims if the movement’s leadership does not educate them about these things.

  10. I still think that readers are, at least partially, victims if the movement’s leadership does not educate them about these things.

    This feels like an extension of what happens in the church. Pastors, who (hopefully) have been educated in scholarship and research, preach the same old sermons that advocate the same old positions about salvation and redemption but never include any advancements or breakthroughs in Christian knowledge. Granted, a sermon isn’t the same as presenting a scholarly paper at an academic symposium, but it would be nice to have some of that stuff trickle down to the rest of us.

    On the other hand, a lot of people don’t want to hear anything new. Especially in a lot of Christianity, as long as a person believes they’re saved, that’s good enough for them. I’m fortunate to go to a church where the Pastor encourages everyone to read, read, read. However, in my one-on-one conversations with him, he sometimes tells me of how he has to limit sermons rather than present all of the different viewpoints on a topic, based on the format imposed by giving a sermon.

    People have to possess a certain amount of curiosity and drive to go beyond the surface level. That’s probably why many of the books found in Christian bookstores operate at the level of the largest common denominator.

    I’m not sure what to do to encourage the “average” person to “go deeper” except to present “deeper” material in easier formats and smaller chunks.

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