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The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Unspeakable in Biblical Scholarship

I read Professor Michael Fox's recent contribution to the SBL Forum ("Biblical Scholarship and Faith-based Study: My View") with appreciation and glee. Appreciation, because the piece evinces his characteristically level headed, sober, albeit provocative, style. Glee, because Professor Fox has called attention to a topic that is virtually taboo in biblical scholarship. I disagree strongly with some parts of his analysis. Yet I sense that his remarks may be a cause and an effect of a significant change. We are, after all, conducting this dialogue on the web page of the Society for Biblical Literature—an organization that has traditionally shown itself to be somewhat impervious to the charms of both self-reflexive scrutiny and secularism.

The unspeakable that I allude to in my title concerns what we might label the demographic peculiarities of the academic discipline of biblical scholarship. Addressing this very issue thirty years ago, M.H. Goshen-Gottstein observed: "However we try to ignore it—practically all of us are in it because we are either Christians or Jews." [1] In the intervening decades, very little has changed. Biblicists continue to be professing (or once-professing) Christians and Jews. They continue to ignore the fact that the relation between their own religious commitments and their scholarly subject matter is wont to generate every imaginable conflict of intellectual interest. Too, they still seem oblivious to how strange this state of affairs strikes their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences.

Be that as it may, we Biblicists—perhaps I should say you Biblicists—are a fascinating and sometimes laudably heretical lot. How many times have exegetes inadvertently come to conclusions that imperiled the dogmas of the religious groups to which they belonged? In The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, I ascribed a heroic function to biblical scholars, depicting them as (unwitting) agents of secular modernity.
I would note that Julius Wellhausen and William Robertson Smith were most decidedly not Voltaire and Marx. They were not cultured despisers of religion, but profoundly pious individuals. It is a world-historical irony that their heresies played a role in the continuing secularization of the Occident. Subsequent generations of Biblicists have followed suit, and by dint of their efforts they have legitimated and routinized the right of an individual to criticize the sacred. [2] As recent current events indicate, this is no mere cartoon heroism.

All honor, then, is due to believing critics past and present. This is why, incidentally, I deplore the current secular chic of denigrating all forms of religious thought. Indeed, the tendency of today's Celebrities of Nonbelief to depict theistic thinkers as dupes and imbeciles actually exemplifies the cultural impoverishment (and desperation) of today's freethinking movements. Secular intellectual culture is moored in the 90s, and by this I mean the 1890s. A more serious engagement with religious thought would serve it well.

But this does not mean that all is well with modern biblical research. For believing criticism should not be the most extreme form of religious criticism. In order to expand upon this point, let me return to Fox's piece. In his article he drew a distinction between faith-based Bible study and the "secular, academic, religiously neutral hermeneutic." We would both agree that faith-based Bible study has every right to take place in seminaries and religiously chartered institutions. I am a bit concerned, as I imagine he might be, by the degree to which explicitly confessional researchers sit on editorial boards of major journals, steering committees, search committees, and the hierarchy of the Society of Biblical Literature.

To their credit, however, faith-based scholars are often cognizant that they are engaged in a confessional enterprise. It is another category of Biblicist that, to my mind, is far more problematic. It is comprised of researchers who in every facet of their private lives are practicing Jews or Christians, but who—somehow—deny that this may influence their professional scholarly work (which just happens to concern those documents that are the fount of Judaism and Christianity!). This category extends to researchers in ancient Near Eastern Studies, who, anecdotally, are often very conservative in their religious views. It also applies, with some sectarian modifications, to many members of the American Academy of Religion. I am always amused to hear how some higher-ups in the latter society complain about the religious conservatism of the SBL—as if the AAR embodies the blasphemous spirit of Jean-Paul Sartre, Chairman Mao, and the Oakland Raiders of the 70s.

But I am digressing. When Fox speaks of a "secular academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic," I can only wonder from where this hermeneutic is supposed to emerge. In this discipline, there is no organic sociological base from which such an approach can develop. And this is because nearly every single one of my colleagues has entered this discipline qua Christian or Jew. (True, they sometimes exit as something else, but that's another story altogether.) What results is a situation in which biblical scholarship's "secular" wing is more like a reform religious or liberal religious wing. If one of the classic definitions of secularism centers on the holding of agnostic or atheistic beliefs, then biblical scholarship (and religious studies in general) is "secular" in a way that no other discipline in the Academy is secular. Does this invalidate the findings of biblical scholarship? Absolutely not. It does, however, point to a collective ideational drift in the field, one that makes it difficult to think or speak about Scripture in certain ways.

Now we can better identify what is not well with biblical scholarship. Composed almost entirely of faith-based researchers on one extreme and "secularists" on the other, the field itself is structurally preconditioned to make heretical insight difficult to generate and secular research nearly impossible. To the non-believing undergraduate who tells me that he or she wants to go into biblical studies, I respond (with Dante and Weber) lasciate ogni speranza. This is not so much because they will encounter discrimination. They might, but if my experiences are representative, they will more frequently be the beneficiaries of the kindness of pious strangers. There is a much more mundane reason for prospective non-theist Biblicists to abandon hope: there are no jobs for them.

Assume for a moment that you are an atheist exegete. Now please follow my instructions. Peruse the listings in Openings. Understand that your unique skills and talents are of no interest to those institutions listed there with the words "Saint" and "Holy" and "Theological" and "Seminary" in their names. This leaves, per year, about two or three advertised posts in biblical studies at religiously un-chartered institutions of higher learning. Apply for those jobs. Get rejected. A few months later learn—preferably while consuming donuts with a colleague—that the position was filled by a graduate of a theological seminary. Realize that those on the search committee who made this choice all graduated from seminaries themselves. Curse the gods.

Before this response begins to sound like the prelude to a class-action suit, permit me to observe that the type of discrimination encountered by secularists in biblical studies is precisely what believers working in the humanities and social sciences have endured for decades. The secular bent and bias of the American research university is well known. It is undeniable that many of its workers are prejudiced against sociologists, English professors, and art historians who are "too" religious. I do not know what the solution is, but I do know that two major neglected questions in our profession concern how religious belief interacts with scholarly research and how secular universities manage the study of religion.

In closing, let me mention that in recent years I have increasingly noted the presence in both societies of a small, but growing cadre of non-believers, heretics, and malcontents. Whether we have anything of substance to offer our disciplines remains to be seen. Of course, this begs the question of whether our colleagues will ever consent to listen to us.

Jacques Berlinerblau, Georgetown University/Hofstra University

Endnotes
1. M.H. Goshen-Gottstein, "Christianity Judaism, and Modern Bible Study," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 28 (1975) 83 (68-88).

2. These arguments are elaborated upon in my "'Poor Bird, Not Knowing Which Way to Fly': Biblical Scholarship's Marginality, Secular Humanism, and the Laudable Occident," Biblical Interpretation 10 (2002) 267-304, and The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 70-73, 116-129.

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org

Citation: Jacques Berlinerblau, " The Unspeakable in Biblical Scholarship," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=503

 
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