Posted on April 1, 2011 at 7:58 am by Dr. Jim
Duane Smith, the abnormally interesting blogger has posted some comments about his experiences at the Pacific Coast Regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He reports that some folks there appeared to use the term “antiquarian interests” as a negative reference to some scholarly pursuits. He said it was used ” a couple of times as if it were a synonym for prurient interests or maybe worse”. He adds,
Scholars who are also people of faith (no not all of them) used this expression while worrying about the question of secular scholarship within the SBL and worrying about those, like me, who think a secular Biblical Studies section at the SBL would be a useful counterpoint to some of the rather obvious sectarian goings on at the national meeting.
Duane’s response is that his “antiquarianism” is hardly disconnected from his interest in the modern world since the Bible is is a major factor in our culture.
If you study the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Rabbinic literature, Homer, the Qur’an, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Hobbes, Kant, or the host of other formative literatures with an eye to understanding what your civilization and culture is and how it got to be what it is, your interests can not fairly be defined as antiquarian. And the same is true if your abnormal interest is the formative literatures of someone else’s civilization or culture.
If we wouldn’t think a mathematical logician perverse for studying the Skolem normal form theorem, why would we think a secular study of King Omri of Israel somehow perverse?
I heartily agree. The attempt by some to dismiss the championing of secularism as an academic principle within the SBL by marking it as implying an irrelevant antiquarianism is something of a strawman. Examination of the use of the Bible in the modern world is a secular discipline (as opposed to advocating for the Bible’s use in modern ethics, politics, etc). Nothing antiquarian there.
For the secular historian (and no historian in the SBL should be doing anything other than secular history) the past does not exist in and of itself. One interests always relate in some way to the historian’s own world as Duane implies. Even if this subjectivity is held largely in check, the study of the ancient world in which the biblical materials were produced is no less important to the world of academia. Indeed, it is more relevant than non-secular historical scholarship. To imply otherwise is to diminish the fundamental root of all academia: curiosity at the world and how it works, be that in subjects labelled “natural science”, “social science” or the “humanities”.
The study of ancient religions is important because it opens a window on the larger issue of human propensity to be “religious”. The secular study of ancient Judah and its writings is one part of that giant puzzle and an important one since those writings still play into religious lives to this day.
Had the University of Alberta had a Sanskrit and early Hindusim teacher instead of two great Hebrew Bible scholars (Ehud Ben Zvi and Francis Landy) when I started my undergrad degree, I would be to my neck in the Vedas and Upanishads. I guess I do have “antiquarian” interests because I like ancient stuff. That being said, I also want to understand the complexities of human religiosity in all of its myriad of forms through the millennia.
Here is an observation, not supported by real research: it seems to me that scholars of non-Palestinian or even non-ANE ancient religions are more likely to have a more diverse interest in global religious phenomena, theory and methods than those who do are interested in ancient Israel and its neighbours. The ancient Sanskritists are more likely to read Durkehim, Geertz, etc etc. than are folks in the SBL.
There is something of an intellectual wall around the guild of biblical and ancient Israel studies, a legacy of biblical studies’ origins and continued involvement in modern religious discourses. The wall keeps the “barbarians” who would treat the bible as a scholar would treat any other collection of religious writings at a distance while admitting any approach that helps to preserve the Bible’s cultural prestige and many scholars’ perception of the Bible as deserving of special treatment because of its “uniqueness”. The wall is not as impenetrable as it once was, but it should not exist at all. Societies like the SBL that subscribe to humanistic and social scientific values should be interested in tearing it down. Dismissive labels like “antiquarian interests” for concern over such issues are another cheap attempt at reinforcing the ramparts.