Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Graduate Biblical Studies: Ethos and Discipline

The most important kind of research in biblical studies is that which pushes the theoretical, theological, and ethical boundaries of the discipline in new and often unexpected ways: research that creates knowledge, not just repositions or restates it. For me, the goal of scholarship should always be the creation of knowledge, not solely its preservation or dissemination. Consequently, the best graduate education in biblical studies is one that educates, forms, and stimulates the growth of such creative individuals for the next generation. Truly creative scholarship always involves a combination of risk-taking and boldness with attention to detail and thorough comprehension. It also involves ethical discernment and rhetorical skill. I do not believe that there is only one kind of curriculum or program or teaching style which can produce such scholars, but I do believe there are many current programs that cannot or do not produce such scholars.

Indeed, I think that we are on the verge of, if not in the middle of, a crisis in doctoral education in biblical studies, and it is a crisis of creativity. For a number of reasons many doctoral programs encourage preservation over creativity and safety over risk-taking. There are many factors leading to this situation, I think, including the present "conservative turn" of many religious traditions, which then tend to funnel more financial support toward conservative or ideologically supportive projects, producing what L. William Countryman has called "domesticated scholarship" and "stables of domesticated scholars." 1 Another factor, which I would like to explore here at greater length, is certainly the internal multiplicity, perhaps even fragmentation, of the discipline itself.

I want to approach the question of graduate study of the Bible by considering the fragmented state of the discipline as a whole because I believe that fragmented state bears directly on present practices of teaching the Bible at the doctoral level. While all disciplines in the humanities are presently involved in renegotiating their boundaries under pressure from postmodernist critique, I believe that biblical studies suffers from even greater stresses and fissures than many, because of its anomalous structure. Most disciplines are traditionally organized around central research questions or approaches which define their realm of inquiry; thus, the historian and the literary critic may both work with the same set of texts, but the research questions they bring to those texts are distinctive to their discipline. In the case of biblical studies, the discipline itself is defined by a set of texts and their literary, philological, and historical contexts.

Now, it is certainly true that up until the middle of the twentieth century, historical and philological questions so dominated the study of the Bible that most biblical scholars could pretend to be united in a single set of research questions, as other disciplines were. As the literary and sociological studies of the 1960s and later undercut this pretense of methodological unity, the central role of the biblical texts themselves as the primary organizing structure of biblical studies became ever more apparent. If one worked exclusively or primarily with the biblical texts in their original languages, then one could call oneself a biblical scholar. The research questions characteristic of many diverse disciplines within the humanities could be brought to bear upon biblical texts by scholars, most of whom identified themselves as belonging to the same one discipline of biblical studies. We are now, as Professor Schüssler Fiorenza has indicated, working in a time of multiple paradigms, but while such paradigms may well be able to co-exist within the same field, as she argues, they are rarely, if ever, benignly disposed toward one another —— and that produces a major problem for biblical studies.

One way to portray the situation of biblical studies in the present would be to say that the postmodern blurring of disciplinary boundaries and the push toward interdisciplinary work characteristic of the humanities in general is presently the internal state of biblical studies as a discipline. We are an interdisciplinary discipline. Interdisciplinary research, which one might define broadly as the bringing together of distinctive research questions within the same project, is certainly one of the most creative and productive methodologies of contemporary scholarship; but it is also full of potential pitfalls. Not only does one need to know the research protocols of the various disciplines one employs to some significant depth, one also needs to learn to interrelate them in substantive and mutually productive ways. Indeed, interdisciplinary projects are often criticized by specialists in the disciplines employed for lack of depth or nuance—or sometimes even for lack of basic understanding. Moreover, one often has to contend with tendencies toward territorialism (i.e., debates over which discipline produces the best, most useful information). Finally, interdisciplinary research is in no way an escape from disciplinary structures, as some seem to think; to the contrary, because of its reliance on disciplinary interaction, interdisciplinary work depends upon clear boundaries and separate disciplinary structures.

Thus, interdisciplinary work serves to support the importance of distinctive disciplines and their specialized study, and in that support it actually pushes scholarship in the opposite direction from the current postmodern emphasis on blurring those same boundaries. In contemporary biblical studies, the ability to pursue various forms of interdisciplinary work has become almost a universal requirement for contemporary research, preserving the importance of training in specific disciplines and the tension between which discipline is "better." While language facility and some philology lie at the base of all endeavors, contemporary biblical scholars must be able to combine disciplines such as history and sociology, or literary and ideological criticism, or history and cultural studies, etc. Moreover, internal territorial wars between the various specific disciplines of study are commonplace and continual (after over thirty years of literary critical studies of the Bible, it is still not unusual to hear a commentator ask why such irrelevant work is being done at all). Many, if not most, scholars in each "paradigm" remain convinced that their questions and their approaches are the most, if not the only, valuable ones.

What, then, might all of this mean for shaping doctoral studies in Bible? If the common outcome for a PhD in biblical studies is the production of a scholar whose research follows that of their teachers, and if the kind of biblical scholarship most admired by their professors varies widely, then what counts as essential learning for biblical study will also vary widely. Indeed, I suspect that it is the broad spectrum of contemporary biblical research—and most importantly, the competition among its various groups—from philologists to historians to sociologists to anthropologists to literary and ideological critics to postmodern and cultural critics to feminists, queer theorists, etc, which under girds the considerable differences in the way present biblical scholars believe the teaching of this discipline should be shaped at the doctoral level.

If we shift the discussion from disciplinary requirements to the final formational outcome for the student, we do not solve the problem, though, for me, we may make it more interesting. To argue that the goal of doctoral study is to produce someone who is equipped to pursue justice for the world through academic study, regardless of which disciplines are employed, a position with which I happen to agree, is after all only one desired outcome among a plethora of competing outcomes for doctoral study. All curricula, I would argue, are organized in such a way as to encourage not only certain specialized learning but also certain personal formations, whether the formational aspect of study is openly admitted by faculty or, more likely, not. This formational issue is one that interests me greatly because I believe it is often less tied to particular disciplinary structures than to an apprenticeship status of the doctoral student to individual doctoral faculty, which occurs almost tangentially and often without conscious notice or plan, but is nonetheless massively important for the final outcome of doctoral study.

Whether we are talking about competing outcomes or competition between disciplines, we can see why many doctoral programs across the world today are beginning to display significant differences from each other. Beside the requisite language work, other forms of disciplinary education can vary greatly, depending on the allegiances of the doctoral faculty conducting the program. In addition, we can also begin to see why many doctoral programs remain stubbornly the same, regardless of the pressures of new methods of study. Such schools resist new paradigms because of the pressure of territorialism. Their doctoral faculties tend to replicate themselves and their disciplinary values in both their students and&mdsh;perhaps even more importantly—in any new faculty they hire to join their ranks.

Indeed, some schools prefer to hire mainly their own graduates to ensure that they perpetuate the school's ethos and disciplinary allegiances through future generations of students (I won't name names here, but you know who you are). Generally, these appointments are justified, not in the name of disciplinary compliance or formational similarity, which are really the operative motives, but instead in the name of "quality." The de-valuing of other paradigms of scholarship that is characteristic of territorialism makes such a claim seem much more valid than it actually is. Strong territorialism can so dominate the hiring and teaching within certain schools and departments that a uniform tradition of many decades—or even centuries—can result, a tradition, which in the end will almost certainly become stultifying, unerringly tendentious and deadly to any creative scholarly formation. These are the programs that do not encourage the development of a new generation of creative or engaged scholars.

In the United States, some schools, which had been caught up in such conservative traditions for decades, were challenged in the mid-twentieth century by the push toward affirmative action. As schools were forced to hire women and racial/ethnic minority faculty, who were often not the exact clones of existing faculty, the expected disciplinary and formational mold was fractured, widening the scope of student education and often producing more lively and engaging scholarship. The opening of the discipline to new methods of study and the opening of the discipline to new scholarly voices are, I believe, deeply related phenomena. It is not a coincidence that the creative methodological surge in biblical scholarship of the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s was paralleled by the growth within the discipline at large and specifically within doctoral programs of women scholars, racial/ethnic minority scholars, and third world scholars.

The tendency toward territorialism, self-replicating programs, and conservative, risk-averse scholarship was—at least momentarily—interrupted by new voices with different accountabilities. We seem, now, in my opinion, to be in danger of a strong re-assertion of territorialism in scholarship as well as in doctoral education, and this trend is, interestingly enough, paralleled by the leveling out, or in some places even the decline, in the number of female scholars and racial/ethnic minority scholars teaching in doctoral programs. As voices of difference recede, it seems, so does innovative and challenging scholarship. Thus, the resurgence of territorialism is one major contributing factor in this current crisis of creativity in biblical studies.

1 See L. William Countryman, Interpreting the Truth: Changing the Paradigm of Biblical Studies (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003).

Citation: Mary A. Tolbert, " Graduate Biblical Studies: Ethos and Discipline," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2003]. Online:


© 2017, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.