SBL Aftermath

Well, I lived and made it home safe and sound.

My two papers went well, even though I left home with them both being about 40% too long. Here is a tip:


Both papers were for the new “Metacriticizing Biblical Scholarship” section, which I now find myself to be co-chair (with Rebecca Raphael). Rebecca presided over our first session in Chicago, after Stephanie Louise Fisher had to cancel (oh glum…). The first paper was “The Royal Scam: Josiah, Joseph Smith and Believing One’s Own Pious Fraud.”  Diana Edelman was a kind and merciful respondent. It ended up being about Josiah, the law book that was completely by accident found in his temple, and Joseph Smith and his forgery, the totally legitimate Book of Mormon. There was also a bit about “Fakelore” (i.e., invented heritage of “ancient” tradition and another bit about fraud being the modus 0perandi of religion, which I kind of qualified a little.

I might try to get the paper published (after some needed revision and expansion), so I won’t post it here, but here is the opening epigram and a couple of excerpts:

“Oh look, I found a book telling me not to bear false witness”  (2 Kgs 22:8 Revised Wiseguy Version)

Although it is employed in many apparently secular classrooms, Barry Bandstra’s Reading the Old Testament is not shy of analyzing the biblical material from expressly religious categories. Bandstra writes:

The critical issues of precisely when and where the book was written should not overshadow the overall impression that the book embodies a genuine testimony of Mosaic faith. Admittedly, the seventh-century BCE writer shaped that testimony, being sensitive to the issues of faith and life in the Judah of his time. Nonetheless, he felt he was presenting the essential thrust of Moses’ message. While shaping the words he put in Moses’ mouth, he certainly felt he was representing the Mosaic tradition faithfully. (4th edn. p. 183).

This is astounding. What is a “genuine testimony” as opposed to a false one? Can we tell the difference? Even if we agree that the story’s author genuinely thought he was representing the authentic mosaic tradition, it is a different thing entirely to say that the book achieves this goal without supposing we can sit in judgment on the authenticity of that! There is a tendency for biblical scholars to actually like the Bible for a variety of reasons—usually religious ones—and so the expression “genuine testimony” carries its own legitimizing implications. As a thought experiment to dismantle that, let’s take the example of an obviously forged book I think we can all agree is despicable in its intent and horrific in its implications: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here the malicious forgery and plagiarism are obvious. Yet, were Sergei Nilus and the others involved in its production and expansion into countless versions not “true believers” in the wickedness and machinations of Jews? Does their “genuine faith” in the myth of a Jewish conspiracy legitimize or excuse their actions, or make the accusation of forgery and deceit irrelevant?   Certainly not.


 Richard Bushman comments that newer historians of LDS history survey Smith’s miracle reports but tend not to not pass judgment. Bushman says that he was unwilling to follow the path of the “skeptical historian [who] has to make up a story with no factual support” in producing his own biography of Smith. He avoids the problem of the miracles by writing from the point of view of the participants and their experiences: which seem to me to be merely retelling a story with no factual support. Bushman writes, “If Smith was a charlatan, everyone who followed him was deluded—including myself and my Mormon friends.” Philip Barlow maintains that Smith’s writings reveal him to be “a man of genuine religious convictions.”  Well, so be it. 100,000 Elvis fans can be wrong, as can 12 million Mormons, one billion Muslims, two billion Christians and seven billion humans of all sorts of different persuasions. Belief is not evidence and neither is belief in other people’s belief. It is properly the subject, and not the premise, of critical scholarship of religion.

 My other paper, “On the Fairytales of Bronze Age Goat Herders: Ancient Israel as the New Atheists’ Foil” was lots of fun, and Mark S. Smith, the respondent, thought so too. Again, some tweaking here and there is needed. The paper simply asked what secular biblical critics should do about the New Atheists’ portrayal of ancient Israel and the origins of the Bible, which is, for the sake of the fight with religious conservatives, is quite inaccurate. I complained about the “Bronze Age Goat Herders Syndrome” that really goes beyond casting the Bible’s creators as a kind of immoral unsophisticated straw men and polarizes humanity into the “religious” and “reasonable”.

On the other hand I argued that biblical scholars should speak out for accuracy but not to the point of turning away from the skeptical, secular activists as they are actually getting an audience and challenging the privilege religion enjoys. I also argued that what is at stake is the further diminution of the humanities and social sciences as the New Atheist discourses tend to champion science over most other disciplines. That leaves so much of the human experience unexplained in any kind of real sense.  One snippet:

Of course, there is some overlap between the kind of secular world the New Atheists value and the intellectual space in which secular biblical criticism takes place. As is well known, Syro-Palestinian archaeologists and historians frequently bewail the sensationalism of media reports about new discoveries that cater to religious conservatives and those to whom we give the academically useful, if still poorly theorized, label, “religious nut-case”.

 Our discipline has pronounced political implication. The purely academic scholarly wrangling over how the Bible’s origins has been misappropriated into the intractable Israeli/Palestinian situation. As Davies and other so-called “minimalists” have found out, to attach the biblical mythology of Israel is to attract accusations of anti-Semitism while a number of Palestinian leaders say that “Historical Israel” never existed. Then there is the political wrangling over science and religion; evolution vs. creationists waging their own mythic battle with the demonic forces of a bibleless and godless society. Various moralists affirm the Bible as the one true basis for a just society. As many scholars have noted, when the press needs an expert opinion on the Bible or ancient Israel they often don’t recognize that there is a difference between the secular and the confessional biblical scholar, or that secular scholarship even exists.

NOV. 30-DEC 2

On Dec 1. I will be presenting that paper’s companion piece at Eschaton 2012 in Ottawa, “Reclaiming the Fairy Tales of Bronze Age Goat Herders: On the Virtues of the Giving the Devil His Dues” arguing that secularists should pay attention to more modern biblical scholarship and to pay a little more attention to the actual origins of the Bible. They will end up with a stronger case for secularism, and find that in some ways, the problems faced by the writers of the Bible in dealing with an often cruel, unfair world were not unlike our own. I hope I don’t get burned at the stake…

3 Responses to “SBL Aftermath”

  1. James F. McGrath Says:

    I still want to hear about the papers by Price and Salm!

  2. Mike K. Says:

    Hey Jim, I know what you mean about having to give two papers at SBL, but both your topics sound interesting. But, like James McGrath, I too am curious about the last two papers in the first session and how Diana Edelman (and the audience) responded.

  3. Bloggers Review SBL « Euangelion Kata Markon Says:

    […] much to drink.  Oh, and he has just added some reflections on the two papers he gave at the Metacriticizing Biblical Scholarship section, another session I think would have been fun to sit in […]

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