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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Future of Biblical Studies

In the words of Amos 7:14, "I am neither prophet nor son of prophet," thus the following observations will be very tentative. One observation about the present seems certain: biblical studies is now a field without paradigms. This development has really snuck up on us quite quickly—when I was a Ph.D. student two decades ago, I knew that JEP and D existed, what their order was, how the archaeology of Israel helped us recreate the ideal Solomonic age, etc. I feel less certain about all of these, as a result of the research of my colleagues in biblical studies. It is quite ironic that we now know much less than we did twenty or thirty years ago. It would be an interesting exercise to try to find ten significant points that ninety percent of scholars of the Hebrew Bible could agree on. As a result, even when biblical scholars are talking about the same passage, their presuppositions are so different, they can hardly talk to each other. In addition, scholars spend so much time explaining and defending their suppositions that much scholarship is deadly boring, as it takes too long to get to the point.

Some scholars see the current situation as the result of the influence of post-structuralism; I am less sure. I don't imagine that we will ever return to the good old days, nor should we. I do believe, however, that in the following decades many of the major disputes now current will be resolved to some extent, and a partial, more tentative new consensus will be reached. This will make it easier for scholars to talk to each other, a welcome advance indeed.

This new reality of, let's say 2030, will have incorporated many of the discoveries of the last few decades. I believe that the Copenhagen school will triumph in the sense that we will stop writing biblical history by removing God and leaving everything else. Its main positive point, that historical events do not write themselves into biblical books, is incontrovertable. It will not succeed because the use of linguistics will show more clearly that, to paraphrase Lemche, "The Bible is not a Hellenistic Book." Thus, for most, biblical history will be much shorter and easier to learn, based on (1) texts where we have outside confirmation (e.g. the events of 701, 597), and (2) texts where internal evidence suggests that the source found in the Bible is generally reliable.

I think that this new scholarship will also be less Christian, a development that has already begun. This is a result of the influx of more non-Christians into the field, and the continued development of the study of the Hebrew Bible within religious studies rather than (Christian, largely Protestant) theology departments. I expect these trends to continue. But there are still a surprising number of unrecognized Christian preconceptions in the scholarship, though typically not of the blatant supersessionist type seen until recently. A more subtle set of Christian biases has replaced the ones I grew up with, even as the predominantly Christian world of biblical scholars becomes more and more engaged with Jewish perspectives.

One new perspective that will develop further, and may temper some Christian theological predispositions, is Jewish Biblical Theology. Judging from the very well-attended session of the SBL in 2003 devoted to Jewish Biblical Theology, and a volume of essays on this subject that is now being prepared for publication, this subfield is here to stay. The fact that many in the audience were not Jewish indicates that the interest in this field is beyond the parochial, and that it may also, in coming years, have an impact on general (largely Christian) biblical theology.

In recent years, there have been more studies that have looked at continuities between the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic world, much as it was fashionable once to look at the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament. When done carefully, these inquiries are constructive and illuminating—after all, the rabbinic world as well is heir to the biblical one, and we can learn much by reading backwards. This needs to be done with care—the same care that must be used when citing the New Testament in a critical Hebrew Bible commentary. Such use of post-biblical texts is very complex, and requires mastery of biblical, rabbinic, and Dead Sea Scroll texts. Scholars such as (Christine) Hayes, Fishbane, Zakovitch, and others have shown that the early texts illuminate the later ones, and vice versa—and as more scholars in the coming years have the range of tools needed to do this type of research, we will learn a great deal.

Unfortunately, the growing compartmentalization and overspecialization of most graduate programs, and their over-emphasis on methods rather than text-skills will make it more difficult to train scholars who can complete such studies. To complicate matters further, many American programs are not even making sure that their graduating Ph.D. students have strong knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. Unless corrective action is taken, there will be a chasm between the continental, British, and Israeli scholars, who generally know Hebrew well, and those in the States, who often emphasize methods that talk about the text rather than engaging it closely and carefully in the original language.

Borrowing methodologies can be good, and the field of biblical studies has been enriched significantly by using methods developed elsewhere. I fear, however, that young scholars are spending so much time on these methods, that they do not have enough familiarity with the biblical text to apply these methods to the text in a responsible fashion. Certainly, over the last decade, the result has been what I would call "the social-scientification" of the field, where the Hebrew text is being replaced by graphs and models. Too many of these studies reflect a better understanding of social scientific models than of the Hebrew texts that these models are trying to elucidate.

I am also concerned about the proliferation of literary studies of the Hebrew Bible, especially about the extent to which they are replacing, rather than working in tandem with historical-critical methods. Many scholars have either explicitly claimed that literary study and historical-critical study are incompatible, or they have explicated texts in a manner that suggests that they are. This is simply incorrect—literary methods may be used in conjunction with the historical-critical method. Why can't we distinguish the literary technique of "real" Jeremiah from that of the Deuteronomic Jeremiah? Why can't we discuss J as literature, and categorize how it differs from P as literature? Furthermore, I am very concerned that too many such studies reflect religious study of the Bible masquerading as scholarship, trying to show that the Bible is the best, most perfect book ever written.

The previous comments have highlighted my fears about the future—the loss of knowledge of Hebrew, more concern with external social scientific models and literary models than with the text itself, and a growing, difficult to discern new Christian bias entering the academy, to name just a few. I do not, however, want to be painted as a total pessimist. I highlighted some positive developments that I think will continue to inform us for the future. I see further strongly positive developments as well, including a much better understanding of ideology and its role in the production and preservation of biblical texts, and an absorption of feminist models into the academy. Finally, the last decade or two has seen a remarkable change in the way that ancient Near Eastern literature is used in relation to the Bible. Instead of being employed to "prove" that Bible is better—esthetically, morally, and in every other way—than the texts or surrounding cultures, ancient Near Eastern texts are utilized in helpful comparisons that allow us to understand, rather than to evaluate. Yet, due to the structure of most graduate programs and the deep skepticism of many universities toward (under-enrolled) ancient studies, there are too few scholars who truly control the cultures and languages of more than one ancient society, enabling them to really develop these observations. Too often these texts continue to be misused, especially due to lack of proper linguistic and cultural training and sophistication. In fact, it is quite possible that this lack of good training is responsible for the spate of studies on "The Bible and," where more and more scholars are looking at reflections of the biblical text in modern literature, or in Hollywood.

I am especially worried about the future of biblical studies within the humanities. It is no secret that the humanities are in a state of crisis in the university, as more and more students view college education as pre-professional education. A February 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education article highlights the "historical, comparative, and critical analyses the humanities provide." It states:

More than ever, we require the deep historical perspective and specialized knowledge of other cultures, regions, religions, and traditions provided by the humanities. ...Those questions— the province of the humanities— are vital and need to be recognized as such by universities, by society at large, and, we admonish, by humanists themselves. [1]



The biblical text will always remain a significant part of the seminary and divinity school world. However, if we want biblical studies to remain an important part of the secular college and university curriculum, we must advocate for ourselves by choosing very carefully how and what we teach. Source and form criticism, layers of redaction, and all sorts of other significant discoveries of the last two centuries have their place in the classroom. We must remember, however, that they are tools, means to an end, and that end is understanding the biblical text and how it does or does not resonate with contemporary society. I would go even further. We must emphasize that the Bible might represent a society that is technologically backwards from our perspective, but was nevertheless profound in its understandings of the human condition—and that these understandings should continue to inform the very different world that we live in. If we fail to make this clear to our students, the Bible will become a book of the past rather than a book of the future, and the prophecy of Daniel, "for these words are secret and sealed to the time of the end" will, to my dismay, be fulfilled.

Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

Notes

[1] Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldbert, "A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age," The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 13, 2004).

Citation: Marc Zvi Brettler, " The Future of Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=320

 
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