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Lately some scholars have wondered whether biblical studies should end. Among the reasons marshaled for such a fate are the historically and horrifically unjust uses of biblical literature. Indeed, a great deal of our work still does not address this conflicted heritage and, thus, fails to meet up to a somewhat basic test of "so what?" Yet, this is not always the case.

Historical and continuing uses of biblical or biblical-sounding arguments have had very real effects upon people, requiring a process of further ethical-political engagement and assessment. Given the lingering effects of the sexist, racist, imperialist, and heterosexist claims in such arguments (in and outside of the academy), "The Bible" cannot be viewed as an entirely harmless collection.

Focusing upon just such effects of biblical argumentation begins to steer the analysis away from questions about "the end" of biblical studies. Even if biblical studies were to end, and even if everyone were to stop reading the Bible tomorrow (an unlikely and perhaps unwarranted set of events), the effects of this literature and its field of study would likely continue. If the experiences "after" colonialism have taught us anything, it is that the effects of oppressive dynamics— material, cultural, or rhetorical —linger well past their governing imposition. Thus, given the effective and authoritative manner in which they have been, and are, deployed, it seems unlikely that the use of biblical-sounding arguments will come to an end in the foreseeable future. As a result, there is a strategic need to develop skills for engaging such argumentation, shifting the analysis from answering a disciplinary question to refining a transdisciplinary practice for such engagement. The thoughts expressed here aim to operate as a reminder or a "resourcing" of the possibilities for a transdisciplinary practice of biblical studies.

The move to this kind of practice is neither original nor without a history. When looking for resources for a critical engagement of gendered, sexual, racial, and/or imperial dynamics, one need not strain to find useful work by inspecting the most obscure corners, either within or outside of biblical studies. Rather, just within our own field, one can turn to the work set out by Musa Dube, Vincent Wimbush, Fernando Segovia, Kwok Pui-lan, or Theodore Jennings, among others. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in particular, has been one of the most persistent advocates for the critical-rhetorical practice of biblical studies as, and within, public-political discourse. Understood as an activity that can (and should) have a practical and ethical impact, biblical studies becomes responsible to the wider public, but most particularly to those movements for transformative change and social justice.

Addressing the Use of Biblical Studies

If one were to survey the landscape of current public-political discourse, most especially in my "home" country, the U.S., it seems that there is no shortage of biblical-sounding arguments in use. Indeed, given the current context of omnipresent and possibly everlasting war, there has been a burst of scholarly analysis of this particular administration's employment of biblical rhetorics.[1] Yet this is not the first, nor likely the last, period to use biblical arguments in public speech. It is precisely this history that is rarely, if ever, explicitly noted by those who use biblical or biblical sounding argumentation now. This should raise one's suspicion about the reasons for their use and heighten concern about the intended and unintended effects of such repeated use. It should also alert us to how often gendered, ethnic, sexual, and imperial dynamics are interrelated in these rhetorical practices.

In order for biblical studies to retain its critical place, then, it must elucidate and engage the historical heritage of how biblical arguments have been used toward oppressive ends. This reflects a process frequently extolled in Schüssler Fiorenza's work, that of a rhetoric of inquiry. A rhetoric of inquiry involves greater attention to, and evaluation of, past and present disciplinary practices, especially as they relate to dominant interests, assumptions, and frameworks. Our resources for a rhetoric on inquiry are not obscure; on the contrary, there have been a series of landmark collections by Schüssler Fiorenza, Cain Hope Felder, R. S. Sugirtharajah, and Stone, for example, to address these issues. The range of contributors and approaches within each of these resources testifies to the variety with which the issues are engaged. Furthermore, each of them does not "just" treat sexism, racism, imperialism, or heterosexism as solitary and isolated phenomena, but they frequently address how these dynamics are intertwined and mutually influential. These are examples of biblical studies at its best: working across disciplinary questions and academic domains to address matters of public relevance.

Given these kinds of dominating effects, Schüssler Fiorenza has argued that the contents of biblical texts should be marked with the label: "Caution, could be dangerous to your health and survival."[2] Schüssler Fiorenza is not alone in making such a determination. As Krister Stendahl wrote years ago:

I would guess that the last racists in this country, if there ever be an end to such, will be the ones with Bible in hand. There never has been an evil cause in the world that has not become more evil if it has been possible to argue it on biblical grounds.[3]

Because of these historical and contemporary uses of biblical argumentation, biblical scholars must continuously question to what ends we interpret.


The dominating ends to which biblical argumentation are employed are not simply a matter of the past. It is necessary for these arguments to be continuously addressed because they are still being applied in a variety of contemporary contexts. Thus, on a strategic level, scholars concerned with sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, nationalism, and imperialism cannot afford to ignore the domain of religious or religious-styled argumentation in so many of our current contexts. Whether we see it as legitimate or not, people continue to use biblical arguments to found or reinforce a variety of destructive social-political movements. Again, just in my immediate context, one might consider the recent panicked efforts of various states to "protect marriage" from lesbian and gay Americans, the infantilizing curtailment of reproductive rights across the country (but now most noticeably in South Dakota), the increasing feminization of poverty and the ritualized scapegoating of especially ethnic women for this lack of class mobility, and the muscular masculinism of militarized invasions and imperial-international interventions. Biblical claims have played a central role in some of the most frightening aspects of our contemporary landscape.

To not engage such argumentation is to cede a still vibrant and effective rhetorical domain to those moving against the safety, survival, and social justice of the disempowered. To adopt a supposedly neutral and value-free stance with regard to such efforts is not a bulwark and boon for academics, but a destructive lapse into complicity that works not toward justice, but an exploitative status quo. This might be a convenient and comfortable position of self-interest for most scholars, as we are mostly members of the upper and upper-middle classes. However, for those against whom biblical argumentation is still used, and those who attempt to stand in solidarity with them, this is not a viable option. We cannot afford not to prepare and enact a transdisciplinary practice of biblical studies. In order to recognize these kinds of argumentative effects, biblical studies need to cross disciplinary boundaries and learn from the contributions of feminist, anti-racist, postcolonial, and queer analytic practices. Furthermore, if these groups should have any hope of countering such problematic, but effective, argumentation, movements of social justice need the committed contributions of biblical scholars. Indeed, here is a primary way that the field of biblical studies can show its continuing utility and relevance for the contemporary context.

By undertaking or renewing a responsibility for our actions and their potential effects upon others, then, biblical scholars would find a way to enliven our inquiries. This is of immediate import for those still victimized by certain forms of biblical argumentation and aids in future critical thinking. Learning to identify the dynamics of gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, and empire in the first instance of past biblical arguments is a pragmatic and forward-looking technique for assessing all rhetorical forms, no matter where such argumentation appears (or reappears). Thus, biblical studies as a critical-rhetorical practice becomes worthwhile for an analysis of public-political speech in general, not just when it directly or explicitly relates back to the Bible. The scholar is ethically and politically compelled to be accountable to those who suffer under the imposition of such rhetorical and material conditions.

This approach might never entirely be completed. Instead, interpretation will be a continuously vigilant process, requiring the practitioner to be critically reflexive, especially as movements for change (even against their best intentions) have often managed to reinscribe dominating modes and mindsets. Once more, this might be the specific utility of crossing disciplines, that is, in order to heighten an awareness of multiply intersecting systems of subjection so as to identify their resurfaced coincidence and conjoined reinforcement.

Approaches Already Available: Stendahl, Schüssler Fiorenza, and Stone

The history of biblical interpretation is not wholly one of "bad news" when it comes to recognizing and resisting dominating rhetorics. It is possible to construct an alternate history of, and for, biblical interpretation, so that our field can be a resource against the oppressive ends to which biblical arguments have been used.

In recalling Krister Stendahl, we find that questions about the good of the public that uses biblical literature are not entirely new to the field of biblical studies. Stendahl was troubled by the anti-Semitic implications of the scholarly conceptions of Paul as over against a monolithic and univocal first-century Judaism.[4] In the same era, he became increasingly concerned about the conservative views of what most of his colleagues in the Church of Sweden held the Bible "says" about women's roles. Stendahl proposed that biblical studies adopt the mentality of a department of public health, since "the whole scriptural tradition has had a clearly detrimental and dangerous effect."[5] In Stendahl's early insights, the dangers of biblical interpretation must not be downplayed or hidden, but should be identified and countered. Yet biblical argumentation is not simply cast aside. Instead, "the problem calls for frontal attention to what I have called the public health aspect of interpretation. How does the church live with the Bible without undesirable effects?"[6] Thus, decades ago biblical scholars worried over the effects of interpretation and conceiving of ways to manage such dangers and difficulties as central to the task of interpretation.

Because of these efforts perhaps it should not be so surprising to find several key allusions to Stendahl in Schüssler Fiorenza's own efforts to initiate a paradigm shift that attends to the dangerous, destructive, and dominating dynamics of biblical interpretation. Suggesting that Stendahl's was "an ingenious proposal," Schüssler Fiorenza seeks to elaborate upon it to explicate an ethics of interpretation and a rhetoric of inquiry that will be concerned with a wider public health.[7] As early as her own SBL presidential address in 1987, she has argued for "an ethics of accountability that stands responsible not only for the choice of theoretical interpretive models but also for the ethical consequences of the biblical text and its subsequent interpretations."[8] This also becomes a matter not just of how "the church" lives with the text, but also of a responsibility to a wider public. Because political arguments often make public claims using the Bible and, thus, shape social and political life, biblical scholarship must have a wider audience than religious and academic institutions. As a result, Schüssler Fiorenza closed with remarks that might still echo today, as she called for "a responsible scholarly citizenship that could be a significant participant in the global discourse seeking justice and well-being for all."[9]

While the effects of this approach could be far-reaching and though Schüssler Fiorenza has been deliberately, vigorously, and repeatedly explaining and refining this paradigm in the years since 1987, it is still a paradigm rarely considered by biblical studies. One of the few exceptions in this regard can be found in Ken Stone's recent reflections in Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective (London: T and T Clark International, 2005). As a route to explicate his own reading strategies, Stone endorses Schüssler Fiorenza's refusal to choose between failing to recognize the negative effects of interpretation and rejecting the Bible because of these dangers. It is this combination of ethical evaluation with persistent critique (not abandonment) that Stone connects to the title's wonderfully apt pun of learning to "practice safer texts." Schüssler Fiorenza's approach can be extended by way of this analogy to the "safer sex" approach of contemporary AIDS activists, since safer sex also offers a route besides denying the risks of certain practices for HIV transmission or rejecting sexual activity absolutely.[10] Both Stone and Schüssler Fiorenza reflect a pragmatic approach to a situation that is potentially hazardous, but also possibly life-affirming.

Stone's concept of "safer textual practice" helps to refashion where the perils and problems lie in the process of interpretation. Safer sex emphasizes that HIV transmission is not attributable to the gender, number, or location of one's partners, but to very specific practices in particular situations. To make both sexual and textual practices safer, one should attempt to avoid or modify only these particular practices and cultivate safer practices of textual intercourse. Just as one might question the absolutism of the practices of denial or relinquishment, Stone argues that one cannot invest this practice with the hope of providing total safety. Hence, the emphasis is upon making interpretation "safer."[11] In fact, any argument that claims to offer complete safety or security is an argument almost always worthy of suspicion. As a result, a safer textual practice will need to be critically reflexive, evaluative, and pragmatic. It will be aware that certain "safer" messages work better for different people in different situations. Such practices should be adaptive and attentive to difference, as they cannot be simplistically universalized based on the effectiveness for only one population. If we are to seek safer practices for a wider public health, it remains for biblical scholars to develop ethically accountable and critically rhetorical engagements of such texts for a safer world. The dangers cannot be denied, but the task cannot be given up.

Joseph A. Marchal, Austin College


[1] For just one example, see the entries in Elizabeth A. Castelli and Janet R. Jakobsen, eds., Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[2] See Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 14.

[3] See Krister Stendahl, "Ancient Scripture in the Modern World," in Scripture in the Jewish and Christian Traditions: Authority, Interpretation, Relevance (ed. Frederick E. Greenspahn; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982), 205.

[4] See Stendahl, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 78-96. Reprinted from Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199-215.

[5] See Stendahl, "Ancient Scripture," 204.

[6] See Stendahl, "Ancient Scripture," 205.

[7] See Schüssler Fiorenza, "Paul and the Politics of Identification," in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation; Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (ed. Richard A. Horsley; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 40.

[8] See Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethic, 28. Reprinted from Journal of Biblical Literature 107.1 (1988): 3-17.

[9] See Schüssler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethic, 30.

[10] See Stone, Practicing Safer Texts, 8-9, 13.

[11] See Stone, Practicing Safer Texts, 13. Emphasis mine.

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Citation: Joseph A. Marchal, " To What End(s)? Biblical Studies and Critical Rhetorical Engagement(s) for a "Safer" World," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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