THOUGHTS ON BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP Part 1: I’m sorry, but that’s my Bible

This is four part series in which I ruminate on the identity and audience of secular biblical scholarship in view of comments made online by a number of scholars.

Part 1: I’m sorry, but that’s my Bible.

Part 2: Professor Noll, please loan your Bible to Richard Dawkins

Part 3: Davies, Avalos, and the ends of biblical studies.

Part 4: My Bible’s better than yours: Comparative religion and B.S.

I hope to have all parts up in a week or so.


Part 1: I’m sorry, but that’s my Bible.

Three Old Testament scholars have recently written articles available online that discuss the relationship between confessional and non-confessional biblical scholarship: Philip R. Davies, Hector Avalos, and K. L. Noll. I think that all three would recognize that there is a sharp distinction between the two kinds of biblical research but differ in how secular scholars should interact with the work of their more faithful counterparts or rivals. Each of the three make important points but, to my mind, do not place near enough emphasis on the question of who the audience of non confessional academics is or should be.

As a fairly vocal atheist who got his PhD in the Old Testament from the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and who wrestles constantly with this question, I have considerable sympathy with the recent article K. L. Noll of Brandon University in Manitoba published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 27, 2009). In “The Ethics of Being a Theologian” Noll reflects on the sad fact that many people, even academics, mistake the secular discipline for a confessional enterprise, and observes that many theologians are on staff in a number of religious studies departments in public institutions. He sharply criticizes the confusion between theology and secular biblical and religious studies.

In Part 2 I will respond to some aspects of Noll’s paper, in particular as they build on some ideas of the well-known atheist activist and Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins. As I will describe in the concluding paragraphs of this introduction, I understand secular biblical scholarship as having obligations to the wider society that correspond in some ways to how theologians have an obligation to their religious communities. This means that non religious scholars should critique incorrect or biased secularist declarations about the bible and religion as much as they would oppose fundamentalist religious views.

Offering an even sharper critique than Noll on the state of current biblical scholarship is Hector Avalos. He argues in his book, The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus Press), that biblical studies as it is currently configured is thoroughly religious in character and even secular work inadvertently legitimizes the Bible as a relevant document for modern moral and social discourses. He affirms that the true role of biblical academics is to convince people that that the Bible is obsolete. Philip R. Davies, however, takes Avalos to task in a post on the Bible and Interpretation site. His article, “Whose Bible? Anyone’s?” (July 2009), seeks reconciliation between secular and confessional biblical studies, and finds two common issues that both can address; the lack of biblical literacy in the modern world and the abuse of the Bible by religious fundamentalists.

In a blog post called “Philip Davies on the end of biblical studies”, (July 16, 2009, on Debunking Christianity) Avalos offers his response. Part 3 of this essay will Davies’ and Avalos’ thought and bring attention once again the question of who secular biblical scholarship should serve and how it should go about it. On the one hand, I will affirm that there are political implications of what we do, but stop short of Avalos’ academic activism. On the other, hand, Davies should not loose sight of the goals of secular humanist research. The fourth part of this essay will offer some more general ruminations on atheism, biblical scholarship, and religious studies.

In addition to the three aforementioned articles, a fourth is of interest; “For Whom Do We Write? On Biblical Scholars and the Church” by John Andersen (posted at his blog Hesed we ’emet (Aug. 2, 2009). This post encapsulates a number of issues raised by Noll, Davies and Avalos.  Anderson, writing from a confessional perspective to a religious audience, does not address secular biblical scholars but discusses biblical scholarship in its relationship with the church. He writes against an elitism in theologically centered biblical research.

One final clarification: I do not mean to imply by the previous sentence that one’s scholarship must be governed by the norms and doctrines of the church.  In fact, quite the opposite; biblical scholarship should seek to inform the church. Any good and responsible theology is, at bottom, biblically based.   …    The church and/or the synagogue may accept this word or it may not.  But it is a word that is worthy of being shared.  What good, then, is biblical scholarship if it stays within a particular, “elite” circle? If we are indeed the “elite” in this regard–and we may indeed be–then does that not all the more imbue us with a responsibility to not only our own faith community, but any faith community who will hear us?

For Anderson, academic biblical studies is at least in part an educational instrument of the church and synagogue. He is clearly not speaking for me. As an atheist, I recognize no particular obligation to teach “any faith community” anything. That is what pastors, rabbis, theologians and popes are for. It is hard to gauge how Anderson views academic biblical studies in its relation to secular research into human societies (including religious studies).

He seems to think of it as a confessional enterprise but one that operates on a very exclusive educational and intellectual level. Thus, he does not explore the issue of legitimacy that confessional approaches to the Bible face from the wider secular religious studies guild. As noted already, Avalos and Noll would raise these issues sharply while it seems that Davies would prefer to minimize their divisive impact. As noted by Davies, however, the secular biblical academic faces the dilemma that the audience that cares most about the Bible are believers. Davies, however, does not really develop his thoughts about the minority audience, i.e., other scholars engaged in wider religious studies.

I would argue that secular biblical scholarship would do well to accept the loss of Anderson’s “faithful” audience if the results of secular research strains the relationship with the church or synagogue too far. Non religious scholars should do more to recognize their intellectual home in wider secular researches into human history, culture and religion. This would involve championing comparative studies and the methodological discussions that this would require. It would also mean becoming familiar with research into other religious traditions from around the world and encouraging students to look beyond the ancient near east or the theological heritage of the west when planning their degree programs. It would also require helping students and scholars in other disciplines, better identify sectarian influence in biblical studies. There is a reciprocal relationship that needs to be more strongly developed. Studies of ancient Israelite and near eastern religion can be assisted by familiarity with research into the wider phenomenon of religiosity. Likewise, biblical scholars should not hide their lights under a bushel, nor should they be content to let it shine from a steeple. It should be seen by other religious studies scholars as offering a valuable and academically sound illumination on the complexities of religion.

One thing that disturbs me as a biblical scholar in a general religious studies department is the attitude of students and sometimes academics towards the grossly over-sharp distinction between “Western” and “Eastern” religions. Of course, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are hard to mistake for Hinduism or Taoism, but many students become interested in one set and fail to see the relevance of the other. Classes on Buddhism and Hinduism enjoy a certain exoticism while the “Abrahamic” religions are often disparaged as being overly simplistic, moralistic, legalistic, imperialistic and boring. Classes on these faiths are often thought to be designed to cater to the believer, and very many introductions to the Bible do just that, albeit sometimes perhaps unconsciously!  This is the continuing legacy of the way biblical studies has been taught historically and the institutional affiliations some otherwise secular universities have with denominational schools. It is not a legacy that the non religious scholar needs to hide in a closet, but it is one that needs to be addressed in a positive way, and the “guild of biblical scholars” should actively work to this end.

The refocusing effort I’m suggesting here need not result in incivility, disrespect, segregation or boycott. Moreover it need not entail the obligation to become an advocate against the Bible as Avalos would prefer (but neither does it preclude that). Still, it entails some obligation for social activity, as I will outline in Part Two. To my mind, the task for secular biblical studies is not to end the confessional reading of the bible or its use as a socially relevant document (although biblical scholars are free to engage in secular activism in their free time). Rather the task is to position secular biblical studies in at least as close a dialogue with the wider discipline of religious studies (and historical anthropology, etc) as it is with confessional biblical studies. I will have more to say on this on the final section of this series. But in turning to some thoughts on K. L. Noll’s article in Part 2 there is also another task laid before the secular biblicist, one not all that different from the task Anderson puts before the religious scholar.

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No Responses Yet to “THOUGHTS ON BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP Part 1: I’m sorry, but that’s my Bible”

  1. Qohelet Says:

    Hey, I’m a bible-reading atheist. I must be their target audience. :)

  2. K. L. Noll Says:

    Hi Jim,
    I look forward to the remainder of your comments. I confess that I am surprised by the sheer volume of people who have responded to what, from my perspective, was intended as a light- hearted clarification to my colleagues of a distinction most of us in this discipline take for granted. Especially, I am astounded by the number of theologians who falsely claim that my essay includes what they describe as metaphysical truth- claims for which there is no evidence. Commonly, for example, my observation that religions do not reveal a god and that sacred traditions replicate for reasons that have little to do with the claim’s content were misinterpreted as metaphysical rather than conclusions derived from data. The data are available in the academic publications cited in my academic publications, especially my article in Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008), called “Was there doctrinal dissemination in early Yahweh religion?” Future data may overturn the conclusions, but the probability of this is vanishingly small. Also, some theologians claim that my observation that the god of a sacred text is the sum of the words and has no independent existence is somehow a metaphysical claim. How absurd. Even the great theologians (Saint Augustine, Saadia Gaon, even the Dao de jing) recognize that words are symbols and are never identical to the realities they attempt to represent. So much for the most vocal theologians weighing in against me, I’m afraid. ‘Tis a pity, that. I will look forward to your future comments. Shalom, K. L. Noll

  3. Dr. Jim Says:

    Kurt, I don’t disagree with you on those points at all, but before I get into that any further, I’d just like to say thanks for encouraging Kira to attend our students conference in the Spring. We have a great time at it, and I think the students learn lots. I will be spamming you with the call for papers in a month or so!

    I’m really in the middle of a big identity crises about biblical studies, and I just about packed it in this spring and went back to selling hardware. I had a real problem trying to find my own voice and place in it. I’m a very much a fundamentalist atheist with brief moments of agnosticism and I’m more of a general religious studies guy than a lot of other biblical scholars. I find that at least in theory secular religious studies is a very different beast from confessional studies. In many ways, secular BSers have far more in common with folks who study the historical contexts of the Vedas than they do with confessional BSers who try to draw modern spiritual lessons from the Biblical text.

    I get torn between ideological purity–we study religion..we don’t do it.. and practical realities that the guild of biblical scholars has confessional and non-confessional people who are smart and can teach me lots of stuff. I cannot agree with Avalos that my job as a scholar is to convince the world that the Bible is obsolete and ridiculous. That’s not even my job as secular activist. My job as a secular activist is to minimize the political impact of theological–and primarily fundamentalist–readings of the Bible and other scriptures that undermine secular values while protecting the rights of everybody, including believers to state their mind and vote according to their conscious. I don’t want to end religion.
    As a scholar, I do not want to suppress theological readings of the Bible, but I do think that the secular BS needs to align itself more closely with general religious studies more closely, and isolate itself from theology more than it has.

    Davies recently published views that it would be nice if we all could get along, and I share that sentiment, but sometimes, the dirty laundry needs to be aired.
    I’m finding that my way forward through my self inflicted conflict to clarify just who secular BS audience really is or should be, and that is something I find lacking in a lot of the discussions of “insider” “outsider” issues.

    Anyway, if it seems that I’m nitpicking your piece, feel free to nit pick back!

    Best wishes,

  4. K. L. Noll Says:

    Thanks for your quick response. For my part, I shy away from the notion of “activism,” secular or confessional. The advance of our understanding of why humans are religious, what religion really is, and how it works, is its own reward. One hopes that knowledge translates into a better world, but academic research in any field ought to advance regardless, because one cannot know what the consequences will be. And as I wrote in my essay (with sincerity, though some seem to think I was being flippant), theology is certainly a fine and worthwhile endeavor. My only concern is the ethical issue, about which I don’t feel a need to add additional comments: the essay says what I wanted to say. Philip’s concern about “getting along” does not strike me as a problem. We do get along quite nicely, and Philip’s warm friendships with many theologians are testimonies to that. So, no need to sell hardware. There is much good work to be done. Shalom, K.L.N.

  5. John Anderson Says:

    Jim, thanks for interacting with my post. That said, I am surprised by how far from the truth you are in your description of my take on this matter. I might suggest reading elsewhere on my blog, or checking out my current article; I hardly think I’m doing cookie-cutter biblical scholarship, nor am I doing cookie-cutter theology.

    Your first paragraph describing my post is a huge overstatement. First, if you read my work you will know the confessional perspective is by no means at the fore nor seminal for my interpretive work. I don’t wish to hint that I have no biases in reading of texts–we all do–but these are hardly them. Your description states the polar opposite of what I intend to say in the piece you quote at length.

    You say I argue that “biblical scholarship needs to be reconciled with the needs of the church.” Absolutely not. The block quotation you provide should clarify this; scholarship written that is governed a priori by the norms and doctrines of the church is irresponsible, in a word. That’s not what I’m after. It appears to be a matter of trajectory. The church (or synagogue, or what have you) is not ‘the pope’ for my scholarship. Rather, my scholarship, I hope, will inform these communities of faith in meaningful and at times troubling ways. I trust you have read Brueggemann, Jim. Think of my scholarship in a vein similar to his massive OT theology; unsettling, yet biblical. Haunting, yet ignored. I see my role as keeping the church, synagogue, etc . . . . even the atheist, as you identify yourself . . . . honest in its engagement with the text and what the text says about God. There are hairy moments. And as I seem to have been saying a lot recently, God, Jesus, and the Cross should not be whitewashed.

    You also say I argue against elitism. Well, yes and no. I’m unsure “elite” is the best word here, but I have been privvy to some very poor exegesis on my tv on Sunday mornings and elsewhere. As a biblical scholar, I am formally trained and thus have a higher competence than others who are not in these matters. There is thus a sense of responsibility that seeks to insure others are ‘getting it.’

    You write that for me “biblical scholarship needs to be reconciled with the needs of the church.” Again, hardly. The block quotation you cite should clarify that in its first sentence.

    Put simply, what I was trying to communicate is a call to the church, synagogue, etc. to bear in mind the weight of the academic pursuits biblical scholars undertake. It is a call (bad word choice, eh?) to communities of faith to be responsible, realistic, and honest in their engagement with the text. I don’t hear a lot of sermons on Job. I don’t see a lot of people claiming God is complicit in deception, like I do. I do, though, see a lot of whitewashed images of God, Jesus, and the cross. And while I do hope tremendously that my scholarship informs other academics and advances the field in meaningful ways, I also hope it clarifies for others another characterization of God that is quite biblical. The call is to the church to take these images and handle them responsibly, not to the scholar to write “in service” to the church where “in service” actually means “in servitude to.” That’s hardly me. Servitude to the church. No, not me. Service to academia and communities of faith. Yep. Sounds like me. And if one or the other . . . . or both . . . . of those groups dismisses what I say, then they do. All I can do is offer the voice.

  6. steph Says:

    “Think of my scholarship in a vein similar to [Brueggemann’s] massive OT theology; unsettling, yet biblical. Haunting, yet ignored”

    Now that’s quite a demand 😉

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