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Did Delilah do in Samson, or was he really thevictim of antisocial personality disorder? Was there anything heroic about David'sdefeat of Goliath if the Philistine giant was in reality suffering from a braintumor as a result of an advanced case of acromegaly? Is there anything in theBible itself to support the idea that Noah's ark originally floated in theBlack Sea? And how biblically solid is the argument in favor of corporalpunishment by parents who believe they "spoil the child by sparing therod"?

These queries are a sample of bible-relatedstories that have appeared in daily newspapers over the past year or so. Eachtopic was the subject of at least one story, feature, or even editorial inwell-regarded sources such as the New York Times. What struck me in eachcase was that no reporter, editor, or editorial writer saw fit to contact abiblical scholar to provide background, commentary, or even a sliver ofperspective—in spite of the obvious biblical connections.

Observations such as these were the startingpoint of a recent talk I gave at the annual SBL Great Plains/Rocky MountainRegional meeting in March of 2001. I titled my talk, "Don't Fence Me...Out,"an obvious play on the famous Cole Porter standard. But unlike the crooner whoseplaintive cry is "don't fence me in," I have increasingly come tofeel like an outsider in my own field of specialization, Hebrew Bible/OldTestament, as the press and the general public characteristically look elsewherefor the expertise we biblical scholars are qualified to provide.

Now, it is true that stories centering on theBible regularly feature biblical scholars—although the term, as popularlyunderstood, is amazingly elastic. But even here researchers (especially literarycritics, so it seems) with little or no primary expertise in biblical languagesor ancient history are frequently given preference or precedence over those withrigorous training.

To answer the question, "Why aren'tbiblical scholars regularly consulted?" I have a number of explanations,some contradictory, including:

1) Many biblical scholars see no connectionbetween what they do in the library and the classroom and what happens in the"real world," some even priding themselves on this disconnect.

2) Reporters may be more comfortable talking tomembers of the clergy, many of whom work with the reporters on other sorts ofstories; the same people who provide sermons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundaysare frequently viewed as reliable sources on even technical issues when a storyis due on short order Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.

3) Biblical scholars, when queried by the generalpublic, often don't respond directly, succinctly, or clearly. Is it reallyhelpful, in response to reporters' questions, for a scholar to direct them tohis or her latest article or to scholarly tomes in German and French? It shouldbe enough to remember that most reporters are not budding graduate students.

4) Reporters may prefer to talk to experts inmore "scientific" areas such as physical medicine and psychiatry.Perhaps that explains why newspaper accounts of Samson's reputed ailmentscontented themselves with one group of psychiatrists confirming the findings oftheir brethren in science and knowledge of neurology was deemed sufficient topronounce Goliath a sufferer of serious hormonal disease.

5) There is a growing distrust of authority ingeneral and of authoritative statements about religion in particular. One thingI learned in the discussion period after my Denver talk was that biblicalscholars are not alone¾ across the board and without exception, people I met inother academic fields felt the same way: "Fenced Out"!

There are some steps we can take, individuallyand collectively, to right this wrong, assuming that we agree that there is a"wrong" to be "righted," for this is not a universally heldopinion. Many of us have heard bible scholars described as dull, or smallminded. We have been accused of authoring our own irrelevance by asking the sameold questions, in slightly new ways, to reach the same, familiar conclusions.There is something to these accusations, but the academy is not inhabited byonly one sort of individual; I have observed and continue to observe an enormousamount of excitement, creativity, even joy in our work. And at least some of uswant the opportunity to convey these to the public—not because we know all theanswers, but because we are indeed the experts in framing vital questions aboutthe Bible and its world, in surveying the range of possible answers, and incharting an array of itineraries from query to response.

With that in mind, I urge that: (1) AAR and SBLcontinue to expand upon their database of experts upon whom writers and editorscan call for comment or commentary; (2) AAR and SBL devote resources, comprisingtime and money, to help interested scholars develop and improve skills indealing with the press and as possible with the public in general (such skillscome more easily to some than others, but they can be learned); (3) we provideforums to discuss both methods and issues among scholars and between scholarsand reporters; (4) each of us consider contacting reporters and others in themedia even when there is no story, so that they become accustomed to think of usas possible sources; and (5) we, as individuals and as organizations, valuethose who work well in the popular realm as much as we do those who pursue moretraditional scholarship.

Let me close with something of a success story.Between the end of March and the end of July, I have been contacted by a numberof reporters about one of my popular culture interests: the Bible and ComicStrips. I like to think that those stories to which I contributed enrichedreaders' understanding of the issues involved and enabled them to make moreresponsible judgments. I intend to keep at it, and I urge others to do so too.If we don't, we will have only ourselves to blame when biblical studies areignored or, worse, misrepresented.

Leonard Greenspoon holds the Philip M. and EthelKlutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

Citation: Leonard Greenspoon, " Bible Scholars Need Not Apply: News Media and the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=49

 
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