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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Changing Demographics in Biblical Sudies

A quarter of a century ago when I proposed tooffer a course with the title "Women and the Bible," colleagues wereskeptical. Would I actually find enough bibliographical material to legitimatethe course? It was a scramble, but I did, using photocopies as well as printedmaterials, and stretching my own competence to include the scattered resourceson parts of both Testaments. I would have paid dearly to have a resource likethe Women’s Bible Commentary that Carol Newsom and I edited(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992, 1998)! Now I no longer offer acourse with that title, because the quantity and variety of materials make itimpossible to keep up with the literature, let alone to pretend competence inthe variety of methodological and perspectival approaches. And the Women’sBible Commentary barely serves to introduce the subject and to illustratethe various agenda that have been developed in such studies as Elisabeth SchüsslerFiorenza’s two volume Searching the Scriptures (New York, NY: Crossroad,1993 and 1994) and countless other anthologies and single-author volumes.

Similarly, the publication of Cain Felder’s TroublingBiblical Waters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989) and Stony the Road WeTrod (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991) and R. S. Sugirtharajah’s Voicesfrom the Margin (Maryknoll, NT: Orbis Books, 1995) made works by biblicalscholars from outside the dominant cultures of western Europe and North Americaeasily accessible for seminary, college, and university courses. They now are"classics" in the sense of a foundation on which journals,anthologies, commentaries, and monographs have built to form an exciting libraryof resources.

Recent years have also seen greaterdifferentiation of subgroups in both of those early categorical definitions bygender on the one hand, and origin outside the dominant culture on the other.This elaboration has made clear the variety of classes and national and ethnicorigins that differentiate women’s work within the heuristic category ofgender. Likewise, among the variety of national and ethnic groups who areclaiming their voices as biblical interpreters, the unique perspectives of womenare now evident.

The flourishing bibliography reflects greaterattention among academic institutions and scholarly presses and suchprofessional associations as the Society of Biblical Literature to the need forgreater diversity of voices in academic conversations. For example, more than adecade has passed since the SBL heard the unequivocal challenge of ElisabethSchüssler Fiorenza's presidential address, and since the inauguration of a working group (which later became a section) and a special lecture series on theBible in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the Caribbean, which subsequentlyspawned other culturally-defined program units. Several conferences have beenheld with the aim of expanding the pool of graduate students in biblical studiesfrom "under-represented racial and ethnic groups."

Some of that attention may have developed due topressure for affirmative action as a matter of justice. If we are honest,though, our self-interest as biblical scholars has been served as well. It issimply a fact that we know more about biblical texts and the worlds from whichthey emerged when they are studied from a wider variety of interests, concerns,commitments, and angles of vision. Even when we use essentially the samemethods, we ask different questions. New questions give birth to freshunderstandings. Context matters, not only at the point of hermeneutical orhomiletical response to texts, but from the very first reading of texts orengagement in critical study—a truth clearly evidenced in the Reading fromThis Place conferences convened by Mary Ann Tolbert and Fernando F. Segoviaat the Vanderbilt Divinity School and published in two volumes by Fortress Press(1995).

Plus c'est la même chose.

Why, then, am I not jumping up and down withglee, since I obviously celebrate the changes that have happened in the yearsthat I have been teaching New Testament? The answer is two-fold. First, peoplefrom outside the dominant cultures of North America and western Europe and womenfrom those cultures and from all racial and ethnic groups are still"under-represented," as the jargon of the SBL would call us. Whilethe numbers and the diversity of voices in evidence on the program of the AnnualMeeting masks that minority status somewhat, it becomes all too evident in theseminaries, colleges, and universities we represent. Far too many institutionshave no women or persons outside the dominant culture, or perhaps one in adepartment, who is assumed (by students and faculty colleagues alike) to be ableto represent all "other" perspectives. The burden of expectations tobe all things to everyone, to sit on every institutional committee, and toassume disproportionate advisory burdens makes it harder for such persons tomeet basic requirements of publication for promotion and tenure, let alone topursue their particular concerns and interests that would greatly enrich thediscipline.

The latter point introduces the second factor inmy diminished enthusiasm for the current state of affairs. That relates to thepersistent definitions of value and worth of scholarly work according to thetraditional canons of white, male, post-Enlightenment, European/North Americanscholarship. This influence is felt in two principal ways. First, the economicsof graduate study sends most students from the Two-thirds World to Europe orNorth America to carry out their doctoral work, since few programs are availablein their own regions. Few of the doctoral programs in those regions includefaculty from outside the dominant social location who can provide support andassistance for international students or those from the Fourth World ofmarginality in their own countries. Furthermore, few of those doctoral programshave changed in their requirements and expectations from the times when we"seasoned" scholars completed our work. Just as we have had toscramble to keep up with the challenges coming from scholars in the Two-thirdsand Fourth Worlds, so also many newly minted Ph.D.s find themselves unschooledin these new developments—or needing to have pursued them during theirgraduate study around the edges of their "real" work, even when thestudents themselves come from the regions and communities where such scholarshipis being engaged.

Once doctoral study is completed, the secondlevel of pressure comes to bear, namely to produce articles and books deemedcredible and valuable "scholarly contributions." Far too often, I hearjunior scholars speak with passion about issues on which they are eager towrite, but they say that they dare not do so, lest work on "women’sissues" or "ethnic concerns" be seen as detrimental to theirperceived value as scholars. They thus defer what could be their mostsignificant contributions until they feel "safe"—if indeed they everpick them up again. The Other becomes like "us," and they and we die alittle at the hand of "standards."

My real concern, then, is whether a decade fromnow someone will write another article for RSN noting the same evidenceof "progress," but echoing the lament of how small are the incrementsof change, and how slowly they come. I fear they may say, as I do, that thingsare certainly better, but I worry about the future of our discipline and ourcommunity of conversation.

Sharon H. Ringe is a Professor of New Testamentat

Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

Citation: Sharon H. Ringe, " Changing Demographics in Biblical Sudies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:


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