Scholar Joel S. Baden discusses the concept of consensus.

Apr 2013
Joel S. Baden

Joel S. Baden, "Against Consensus,", accessed on September 20, 2023

University of Arizona
Joel S. Baden
Internet Public

Against Consensus

By Joel S. Baden

Yale Divinity School

April 2013

Recently, one of my students, inquiring about the relationship between two biblical texts, asked me, “What’s the consensus on this?” A common enough question, especially from students who are just starting in the field. And, indeed, a common enough concept, one that appears with some regularity in scholarly works. But “consensus” is a problematic word, especially in biblical studies.

Perhaps my discomfort with the term stems from the deep and well-documented divisions among scholars in my particular field. There are, I think, only two aspects of the Pentateuch that most active scholars would agree on, namely, that there are some elements of the text that can be described as “priestly,” and that there are some that can be described as “deuteronomic.” But that, I think, is probably where the “consensus” ends. Which texts deserve which terms, and, in fact, what the terms themselves mean, remains essentially unsettled. In such circumstances, what could the word “consensus” meaningfully refer to?

Nevertheless, it is still used, on both sides of the debate. One hears of the “consensus” among European pentateuchal scholars, or the “consensus” among documentary scholars. (I’m sure that I am among those who have deployed the term in this way, probably more than once—this essay is as much an internal critique as an external one.) There is something particularly insidious about this use of the word. A consensus among only one segment of the scholarly community—among only those on one side of a debate—is not really consensus. That’s just agreement among those who are already defined by their agreement. Consensus is a useful term only when it refers to agreement between parties who are otherwise inclined to disagree. If a European pentateuchal scholar and a documentary scholar can agree on something—that there is priestly material in the Pentateuch—then you have something like consensus. But when it is used in the way described above, to refer to only one side of the debate, it does two things, neither of which is positive. First, it gives undue weight to the opinion of the group in question. “Consensus” is a strong word, and it carries with it an air of definitiveness. If one says that a particular claim is in line with the “consensus” of documentary scholars, the effect is to portray that claim as somehow settled. Second, it practically denies the existence of any alternative arguments. “It is the consensus of European pentateuchal scholars that there is no such thing as an E document”—there is nothing untrue about such a statement, and yet it works to dismiss, almost offhandedly, any argument in favor of E, without actually providing the rationale for that dismissal.

Most often, even when it does refer to something approaching authentic consensus, the term is employed as shorthand in place of presenting a full argument. Now obviously it is impossible, even in the longest of scholarly works, to fully work out every detail. But appealing to consensus is no replacement. If one is unable to bring every supporting argument in its totality, one ought to direct the reader to wherever that argument may be found. Too frequently, however, “consensus” is used as a sort of code for extensive and/or fundamental claims that have never been fully worked out, but that are assumed by many scholars nevertheless.

It is in this regard that we do our students, particularly, a grave disservice by appealing to the notion of consensus. “Consensus” replaces research and original thinking. Students learn most by being forced to go back to the basics, by having to argue from the ground up. There should be no commonly agreed starting points. “Why?”—if a student, or any scholar, cannot answer that question as it applies to any level of an argument, then how can the argument be tenable? Or, more to the point, how can anyone else be expected to accept such an argument? “Consensus” is a lazy notion, and it encourages laziness in students who, through exposure to it, become accustomed to beginning their research from it.

In the end, the history of scholarship, of human thought in general, has demonstrated over and over that “consensus” is really nothing more than a label for whatever idea is next in line to be overthrown by new data, new theories, and new methods. There is hardly a consensus left of the many that have been put forward over the decades and centuries. With the recent challenges raised to the notion of a Deuteronomistic History, one of the longest-lasting may have just fallen. Then again, the consensus that an idea is to be, or has been, abandoned is as problematic as the initial consensus itself. Biblical studies—again, particularly that branch which tries to reconstruct canonically obscured literary strata—is a branch of the humanities, not of the hard sciences. We trade not in facts, not in certainties, but in ideas, in possibilities. Rare indeed is the argument that can be fully discounted, or completely accepted. “Consensus” obscures this fundamental truth about what it is that we do. No claim, positive or negative, is ever so certain as to no longer require argumentation.

We may never stop using the word “consensus,” or the notions underwriting it. But at the very least we can recognize that it has a deleterious effect on the way our students learn how to think, how to argue effectively, how to engage with other scholars, how to contribute to the intellectual discourse of the field. And this, I think we can all agree, is something we should be wary of.

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