|Consensus new and old (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.