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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession

Ideological criticism may be enjoyable when applied to others, but it is most sobering when applied to ourselves. After reflecting on the 125th anniversary of the Society of Biblical Literature and on my quarter century of membership, I have come to see the SBL as having a self-serving ideology that must be confronted if the SBL is to survive at all. Given the ever-growing irrelevance of biblical studies in academia, the SBL has increasingly become charged with stemming the death of a profession. The vast majority of SBL members are engaged in an elite leisure pursuit called "biblical studies," which is subsidized through churches, academic institutions, and taxpayers. Keeping biblical scholars employed, despite their irrelevance to anyone outside of faith communities, is the main mission of the SBL.

My position is better understood in light of the work of, among others, John Guillory, author of Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). He argues that canons are constructed mainly by academics (rather than by authors) to promote their own cultural capital. Shakespeare's works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as "knowing Shakespeare" helps provide entry into elite educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner.

Similarly, the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.

The idea that the Bible should be studied because of its influence or because "it does matter" overlooks repeated statements, by scholars themselves, that the Bible's influence and relevance might cease if it were not for the intervention of biblical scholars and translators. Since the intervention, successful or not, is selectively applied to the Bible (rather than to thousands of other non-biblical texts of ancient cultures), such an intervention becomes an ethnocentric and religiocentric mechanism by which biblical scholars preserve their own relevance.

Lest we think we are not a relatively elite and privileged class, consider a typical SBL Annual Meeting. In Philadelphia, most of us stayed, ate, and drank at the Hilton, Marriott, and other nice hotels. Meanwhile, homeless people were all around us. On occasion, I saw scholars nearly trample homeless people while rushing to yet another appointment or session, perhaps one on the supposed prophetic call to help the poor. We read papers to each other, but little of what we learn will feed the hungry or clothe the naked. Much of what we study is to fulfill our own curiosity and for our own enjoyment.

In the interest of self-disclosure, I should say that I am a secular humanist and a Mexican immigrant. So, in some ways I am on the margins of the marginalized in the Society of Biblical Literature. Despite growing up in a relatively poor background, I cannot deny that I am now part of a privileged and elite educated class. I have experienced real poverty, and this is not it. I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.

Hiding Irrelevance
The alien and irrelevant nature of biblical worldviews is admitted by many academic scholars. James Barr notes, for example, that "the main impact of historical criticism, as felt by the earlier twentieth century, has been to emphasize the strangeness of the biblical world, its distance from the world of modern rationality."[1] Likewise, the literary critic Lynn M. Poland, in evaluating the work of Rudolf Bultmann, observed, "Bultmann astutely perceived the central issues with which a specifically modern program for biblical interpretation must wrestle: the alien character of the worldviews represented in the biblical writings for twentieth-century readers."[2]

And one need not go far to see how different biblical worldviews are from modern ones. Biblical authors, usually elite male scribes, believed that the world was formed and ruled by a god who is otherwise barely recognized in contemporary texts outside of ancient Israel. Genocide was sometimes endorsed, commanded, or tolerated. Slavery was often endorsed or tolerated. Patriarchalism was pervasive. At least some same-sex activity was persecuted. Illness was often attributed to supernatural causation, and illness could be used to devalue human beings. The idea that the Bible bears "higher" ethical or religious lessons to teach us, as compared to those found in the texts of other ancient cultures, is part of an ethnocentric and religiocentric mythos.Given such admitted irrelevance and "otherness" of the Bible, the main sub-disciplines (e.g., archaeology, literary criticism, textual criticism, translation) and hermeneutic approaches (e.g., "reappropriation," "recontextualization") of biblical studies are simply mechanisms by which the relevance and value of the Bible and biblical scholars are maintained. Most findings, few of which are truly novel, remain locked up in journals and books most people will never read or understand. Whatever new knowledge is applied (e.g., new readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls), it is usually for the benefit of faith communities who read the Bible. The fact is that biblical studies is still functioning as a handmaiden to theology and faith communities rather than as a discipline relevant to those outside of faith communities (something unlike law, medicine, or even philosophy, which is also being marginalized).

In archaeology, new inscriptions, even the most fragmentary and the barely comprehensible, are announced with great fanfare when there is a remote connection to the Bible. Meanwhile, thousands of more complete texts of other cultures still lie untranslated. Euroamerican perceptions of what is important still dominate the entire Society, as witnessed by repeated full attendance at sessions on archaeological "artifacts" versus sparser attendance in sessions on more "humane" aspects of biblical studies, such as disability studies or non-Euroamerican understandings of scriptures.

Translations are the principal mechanism for maintaining the relevance of the Bible among laypersons. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, a conservative Christian critic of the "gender- inclusive" Today's New International Version (TNIV), notes that "as society changed and the Bible seemed increasingly foreign, a variety of attempts were made to make the Book more accessible."[3] The fact that Van Leeuwen admits that the Bible might remain "foreign" if it were not for the intervention of translators, means that translators don't so much respond to a demand, but rather attempt to halt or reverse the loss of demand for the product called "the Bible." Indeed, recent work in translation theory exposes how often translations serve to manipulate audiences.[4] Under such a rationale, for example, gender-inclusive translations often hide gender bias and misogyny that translators know would no longer be acceptable, particularly to coveted younger readers. In fact, the TNIV explicitly markets itself to eighteen to thirty-four year olds. Other translations are there to hide and render palatable everything from the anti-Judaism of some New Testament authors to the anti-familial statements of Jesus (see the Good News Bible translation of Luke 14:26). It is about keeping the market for the Bible alive rather than about elucidating biblical worldviews.

In light of the declining confidence in the historicity of the Bible, literary aesthetics have become increasingly important. But biblical aesthetics can be seen as yet another apologetic device to maintain the privilege of the Bible in academia. Witness the words of the famed aesthetician, Robert Alter, as he attempts to reconcile his personal enjoyment of biblical artistry with some serious purpose: "but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man and the perilously momentous realm of history."[5]

Alter's judgment is a subjective one, and we can just as easily argue that the Bible is no more beautiful nor has any better lessons to teach than many other texts. One could just as easily make the subjective judgment that at least some biblical texts are ugly, not to mention horrifically unethical, but we don't have many books touting that. That would be bad for business.

Reappropriation and recontextualization are perennial devices to keep the Bible alive. These devices help us wipe away genocide and many other forms of violence endorsed in biblical texts. Yes, believers do engage in such reappropriation of texts, but it is a different matter for academic scholars to engage in what is essentially a charade that should end. I do not mean to be so harsh in using the word "charade," but I don't know how better to characterize the idea that the Bible means or should mean whatever a religious community needs it to mean to keep it alive. The better question is, Why should the Bible be reappropriated or recontextualized at all?

A publishing-academic complex seeks to promote the appearance of novelty (another "new" Bible Dictionary, a "new" interpretation) and to expand the academic market value of biblical scholars. Indeed, the 1999 Annual Meeting Program book (p. 18) tells us that one of that year's General Sessions "will focus on agenting." The Annual Meeting program of my first SBL Annual Meeting in 1982 listed one main book under discussion (Ernest Saunders' history of the SBL), but by 2005 there were some twenty-four such books listed for discussion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder how much "agenting," rather than merit or true novelty, is responsible for the selection of the books deemed significant for discussion.

Religionism Is Still Central
According to the sociologist Burton Bledstein, the culture of professionalism in America began after the Civil War, amidst a struggle to validate an emerging middle class.[6] Between 1864 and 1888, a slew of societies arose with names such as the American Ophthalmological Society (1864), the American Otological Society (1868), and the American Chemical Society (1883). In 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature [and Exegesis] entered this milieu.

The first members of the SBL were Christian ministers. Despite the claim to more objective and historical approaches, a report of the 1887 meeting says that "Many of the papers disclose conservative to moderate positions with reference to critical study of the scriptures."[7] The denominational lines that were so obvious in the early days may have diminished, but the religionism has not.By "religionism" I refer to the idea that religion is essentially valuable and/or necessary for human existence (and even to be celebrated in the SBL). Being a committee member of units in both the SBL and AAR, I don't usually see members having problems accepting paper proposals with "theological" understandings of the Bible. Yet, many of my SBL colleagues are still puzzled by, or resist, any proposals for an "atheistic" approach that would radically deprivilege the Bible or expose the bibliolatry of the SBL. Bibliolatry is what binds most members of the SBL together, be they conservative evangelicals or Marxist hermeneuticians.The religionist orientation of the SBL is evident in the SBL Society Report 2004, which says, "The Society's connections with theological education have been strong throughout our 125 year history. We began a new initiative to renew and strengthen our ties with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).... We asked them what we could do to better serve their institutions and faculties.... We believe that the Society's mission to foster biblical scholarship is closely akin to the mission of theological education to prepare students through the study of scripture."[8]

In an increasingly global educational market, an academic discipline that is still perceived as serving the theological education of even one complex community of faith (e.g., the so-called "Judeo-Christian") will be doomed to irrelevance in secular academia. Instead of helping channel more students to theological education, it is better to encourage students to enter a profession more practical for humanity (e.g., food economists or lawyers for the poor).

The religionist orientation of the SBL is also clear in its list of presidents. To my knowledge, no president of the SBL has been an active atheist or secularist. On the other hand, many presidents have been ordained ministers and active in their respective denominations or religious traditions. It is not that SBL presidents must be secular. Rather, my argument is that the selection of an SBL president bespeaks how religious the SBL still is compared to other sectors of higher education.

The idea that the Bible should be studied because it is influential or because there is "demand" can no longer be so uncritically accepted. Most biblical scholars do not see themselves as complicit in the creation of that influence and privilege for the Bible. But scholars have helped to create this influence and bibliolatry by translating and "updating" this text while leaving thousands of non-biblical texts untranslated. Biblical scholars participate in the privileging of the Bible by not sufficiently emphasizing to students and lay readers how alien and irrelevant biblical notions are for the modern world.

Many past discussions of the future of the SBL focus on "more." Some say we need more student scholarships, more media attention, more internationalization, more inclusiveness. More recruitment and expansion represents a self-interested approach because it functions to keep ourselves employed. If we truly want to be more pluralistic and inclusive, then perhaps the main mission of biblical studies should be to diminish or end the privilege of the Bible so that, among other things, the thousands of long neglected or untranslated texts of other cultures can have more of a voice. If we were really doing a good job, then less people might want to read the Bible, not more. That would mean the end of biblical studies and the SBL as we know them.

All this, of course, assumes that literary studies will survive in academia rather than be exposed as yet another faculty self-indulgence subsidized by less socio-economically privileged people.[8] One thing is clear to me: If biblical studies is to survive in academia, it must move beyond its still religionist, Euroamerican, and bibliolatrous orientation and offer us a more convincing rationale for how it will benefit our broader world and not just faith communities.

Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

[1] James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1999), 554.
[2] Lynn M. Poland, Literary Criticism and Biblical Hermeneutics: A Critique of Formalist Approaches (AAR Academy Series 48: Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985), 5.
[3] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation," Christianity Today 45/13 (2001): 30.
[4] See, for example, Edwin Gentzler, Contemporary Translation Theories (2nd edition; Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2001); Theo Hermans, ed., The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation (New York: St. Martins Press, 1985).
[5] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 189.
[6] Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976).
[7] Ernest W. Saunders, Searching the Scriptures: A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982), 11.
[8] "SBL Strengthens Ties to Theological Education," Society of Biblical Literature Report 2004, 12 [cited 21 April 2006]. Online:
[9] Literature, as a whole, is fighting for its academic life, as exemplified by the apology of Frank B. Farrell, Why Does Literature Matter? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

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Citation: Hector Avalos, " The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2006]. Online:


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