Biblical Research Findings for the Public
This paper was first presented at the 2006 SBL International Meeting in Edinburgh.
When a person collapses in pain at a large gathering, we might hear a call for expert assistance: "Is there a doctor in the house?" Sometimes I wish there were more summons for help from "a biblical expert in the house" to counter toxic notions about the Bible spreading in public forums. I speak not of informed debates on faith and moral issues, but about wildly speculative books, controversial films, or high-profile politicians and preachers who venture into biblical interpretation without reference to research findings in this field.
If a greater proportion of the public were equally concerned, we could optimistically imagine teams of critical biblical scholars moving to quell the diseased ideas and to patch up the intellectually wounded. But, realistically, most people feel they can handle—or ignore—provocative theories without the help of self-appointed biblical experts. Nor would they, or we, want to see theocratic societies develop in order to impose "correct" biblical interpretations.
Yet, we know there are a considerable number of people—when their curiosity is aroused—who are interested in hearing or reading well-informed views they can understand and trust. This desire is recognized by television producers and publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. Publications and TV programs have long sought to "explain" the ideas stirred up by films such as "The Passion of the Christ," novels like The Da Vinci Code,, and finds such as the long-lost Gospel of Judas and the disputed inscriptions on "the James ossuary." Some of what gets to the public may lean toward either blatant promotions or heavy-handed rebuttals. Fortunately, there have also been opportunities for articulate scholars to put the publicized theories into a better context and a critical perspective.
Some of you may have served as a "doctor in the house" for the news media, or in speeches and on panel discussions. Authors who can write articles rapidly and or speak comfortably before a TV camera are in demand. This phenomenon remains one of the best chances to act as a physician with a degree in biblical literature.
Speaking as a journalist who has written news articles and books about biblical research for years, I want to propose that more can be done in organized ways to enhance biblical literacy. The role of the Society of Biblical Literature would be important; its membership includes the best minds in critical biblical studies. All things considered, the SBL serves its constituency well in customary ways to facilitate good scholarship—a function important by itself.
Popularization Pros and Cons
Unfortunately, there is built-in resistance to popularizing biblical research findings for the general public. First, it is believed that complex, nuanced scholarly arguments tend to get "lost in translation" to readers and audiences unfamiliar with the terminology and background. Some contend that more harm than good results from such efforts. Nevertheless, academic specialists in other fields face this same problem but ably tackle the task.
Second, the academic demands on students and professors often discourage popular exposition of biblical research. Put another way, TV appearances and op-ed articles for newspapers do not normally contribute to faculty advancement. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School recently told me, "When push comes to shove in seeking tenure, articles you've written for popular publications won't help." Not only that, she said, when a professor—tenured or not—shares his or her ideas in the media "there are always questions from deans and others about whether you are making good use of your time." Finally, Karen King said, "it gets muddier in public media" if you are asked to take part in debates on culturally charged issues. The shouting and polarized viewpoints tend to run roughshod over a scholar's usual sense of decorum and dedication to accuracy.
Nevertheless, some scholars have derived great satisfaction—and sometimes extra income—in helping lay people and non-specialists who find critical biblical studies to be fascinating. Whether they are believers and non-believers, many are hooked for years in pursuits they never thought could be so stimulating and enlightening.
In addition, as Adele Berlin of the University of Maryland reminded me, a number of universities, colleges and seminaries are encouraging faculty members willing to share their expertise in the public arena. These institutions, through their news and public relations offices, not only write news releases but often arrange lists of faculty members by their academic specialties and expertise that journalists can consult on the campus Web site. Moreover, some Web sites take pride in noting faculty members who were quoted in prominent print and television news media, sometimes providing a link to other sites.
Pioneering Jesus Seminar and Bible Review
In the United States, we may be at a turning point for the cause of biblical literacy. Coincidentally in 1985, two different projects were started to make biblical research accessible outside the guild.
One was the Jesus Seminar founded by New Testament scholar Robert Funk. (A paper summarizing the group's news-making impact, "In Search of the Real Jesus Seminar," was given at this same meeting by Andrew Scrimgeour of Drew University.) Funk assembled interested scholars twice a year to discuss and cast votes on the sayings and actions of Jesus as described in the New Testament and apocryphal gospels. Funk said his Westar Institute project had two basic purposes: 1) to establish for scholars a core of sayings most probably from Jesus himself and those actions most likely to be historically based. 2) to challenge fundamentalist and literalist preachers for the benefit of people unfamiliar with critical interpretations of the New Testament. The Jesus Seminar's methods were criticized by some mainstream scholars although many of the group's collective conclusions resembled what one finds in SBL seminars and journals. I covered for the Los Angeles Times the second session of the Jesus Seminar in southern Indiana in the fall of 1985. It was a lengthy article, played on Page One, that included outsiders' criticism and a description of current debates in academia and churches on the historical reliability of the Bible. For five or six more years, I and many other reporters wrote about the Jesus Seminar and its effect on public awareness of critical scholarship, for better or worse.
A lower-key project launched in 1985 was the magazine Bible Review, started by editor Hershel Shanks of the popular Biblical Archaeology Review magazine. Shanks' Bible Review, called "BR" for short, had the same kind of glossy paper and color photos used in BAR magazine. A variety of scholars wrote articles or columns for BR, but judging by letters to the editor, some readers were aghast that editors and writers for the magazine did not treat the biblical texts as fully historical and accurate in authorship.
These two twenty-year ventures, however, suffered setbacks last year.
- Death took Bob Funk, the strong-minded Jesus Seminar leader. Although projects to examine biblical and religious issues remain on the agenda and the organization still conducts seminars around the country, two former Seminar leaders, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, are very active in other enterprises that explore biblical, economic and social issues with progressive church members via the Internet and seminars.
- Although BR's paid circulation was still more than forty thousand last year, Susan Laden and Shanks, the president and editor respectively of the non-profit Biblical Archaeology Society, said subscriber numbers and advertising were falling in the age of the Internet. They announced in the Winter 2005 edition that Bible Review would "suspend publication" and become a part of BAR. That has meant fewer articles on biblical research at present.
What Roles for SBL?
Did the SBL miss a chance to buy Bible Review while subscribers still knew it as a separate magazine? I don't know, and I don't know if such a purchase was financially feasible. Foundation grants might be crucial for a print magazine to survive, but reviving and revamping a popularly written magazine might not be out of the question. For comparison, I have worked since 2000 as news editor for the biweekly Christian Century magazine. The venerable magazine has increased its paid circulation annually in the last six years—thanks in part to good marketing methods and editorial improvements. The Century, it must be added, maintains a solid niche among mainline Protestant institutions and clergy—in spite of the declining numbers in ecumenical, mainstream churches.
Today, the Internet tends to be the preferred direction for many non-profit organizations to tell their stories. The SBL Forum website has included some articles of popular interest over the last few years, but it still has the feel of insiders discussing internal concerns. The look and content of SBL Forum continues to be reexamined.
The SBL, whose offices are in Atlanta, is reaching out in other ways. SBL officials are raising concerns to the Georgia Department of Education now that a law in that state requires educational guidelines to be written for elective courses in Old and New Testament in public schools. Other states are already offering non-devotional classes about the Bible in high schools. Last year, the non-partisan Bible Literacy Project published a student textbook titled The Bible and its Influence (see bibleliteracy.org).
Also in 2005, the SBL published a book with 273 short essays called, Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction (Edited by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray.) The paperback provides ideas for issues that arise in classes at the university level. Some essays are suitable for introductory courses while others are appropriate for an upper-level university or seminary classes.
Pathways to Public Accessibility
A final point for those in the SBL community who want to make biblical research more accessible to the public: You do not have to do it alone. Journalists, especially religion news specialists, frequently serve as mediators between the public and academia. Take some tips from the Academy of American Religion, SBL's office neighbor in Atlanta, which decided years ago to improve relations with media outlets. The AAR not only runs an annual contest for journalists who use scholarly sources but also honors one scholar each year for outstanding contributions to public understanding of religion—an award appropriately named after Martin Marty.
AAR's most ambitious move in this regard was to create Religionsource.org, which is used by many journalists to contact scholars on a great variety of religious subjects they are covering, conceivably even Bible-related topics. Scholars on the list include many outside AAR, including SBL members listed by their areas of specialty. The service was launched in August, 2001, and currently has funding from Lilly Endowment and Pew Charitable Trusts. This summer, with new AAR executive director John (Jack) Fitzmier in place—one who says he is eager to work with SBL on various projects—it should be possible for SBL to make fuller use of this Internet outreach to the news media.
What do news people call about? Sometimes they need comments on what I call "silly Bible stories." It may be in connection with the intermittent "sightings" of Noah's ark, near Mt. Ararat or in Iran. Calls might be occasioned by scientists who suggest that natural phenomena "explain" some biblical miracles. The star of Bethlehem has been an old favorite, but rarely are literary-theological motives cited in these news stories. A physician who years ago combined all four gospel accounts of the Crucifixion—and taking each as literal history—came up with an autopsy for Jesus' cause of death.
One story that ran April 6 serves as an example. Scientists who published an article in the Journal of Paleolimnology offered a reason why some gospels describe Jesus as walking on water. They said it might have been because the Sea of Galilee was subject to cold snaps some two thousand years ago and Jesus could have walked on ice floes. Alan Cooperman, a religion specialist with the Washington Post, quoted Wendy Cotter of Loyola University, Chicago, in his April 6 article on the theory. According to her, Jews in Jesus' time feared the force of the sea and also were familiar with the Book of Job, where God is described as the one who can "walk on the sea." The Caesars, too, claimed control of the seas. Cotter was quoted: "Christians were using the imagery that had previously been used by both the Romans and the Jews to show that a person has been given authority by God." That necessary element to the story, I regret, appeared only at the very end of the article—but it did get in.
Contrary to what some religiously conservative scholars believe, most journalists at major news outlets are conscientious and well meaning. In fact, news professionals and teachers have similar goals: Both deal with an ever-changing audience—whether they are students, readers or TV viewers. For every consumer with a genuine desire to learn, we know there are just as many who are only casually interested. We both prefer to address the avid learner, but we'd be fools not to do our best for the newly curious and others with minimal knowledge.
Another similarity: Religion news writers and Bible scholars become equally excited if their investigations allow them to conclude, "We believed before that a familiar biblical figure, place or practice meant this, but now we have new studies that tell us differently. And here is why it is significant for Bible understanding and to issues today." Some weighty examples come to mind—biblical texts illuminated by the social relationships of that period, the New Testament seen as a historical source for anti-Semitism, the reexamined historicity of the Exodus from Egypt, and identification of literary forms that shaped the story-telling in the Hebrew and Greek texts.
In our culturally polarized societies today, a common tendency is to give greatest credence to ideologically like-minded sources. But there are still open-minded people craving for non-partisan research and discussions. I think both good scholarship and savvy news reporting can fill this need.
John Dart, Christian Century magazine.
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Citation: John Dart, " Biblical Research Findings for the Public," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=567