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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Suggestions for the SBL Itinerary

This is an opportune time for the Society. For good reason or ill, the adjective "biblical" has found its way into all sorts of public discourse. Where to place the Ten Commandments or whether Jesus had progeny with Mary Magdalene is the stuff of magazine cover stories and coffee shop talk. Like clockwork, this year's mid-December Time and Newsweek feature Jesus on the front cover, with major stories on "Secrets of the Nativity" and "The Birth of Jesus," respectively. Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow document unprecedented numbers of small groups meeting around the Bible in homes throughout the United States. Recent reports have it that, apart from general "introductions to religion," courses related to the Bible are the most frequently taught under the rubric "religious" in the nation's colleges and universities. Due to their contrarian views on the implications of biblical teaching for life in our world, Anglican bishops on both sides of the Atlantic have public profiles that, to many of us, were unimaginable a quarter century ago. And all of this and more comes at a time when, paradoxically, awareness of the Bible's content and message wanes. Whatever else can be said about this extraordinary array of observations, the importance of a Society whose mission is to "foster biblical scholarship" seems self-evident.

What a great time to be engaged in biblical studies! Folk in other fields might complain that we biblical scholars have nothing new to study, only the same texts to pore over again and again. What new thing can possibly be said? Where are the discoveries at the Dead Sea or Nag Hammadi to keep us occupied and fresh? The uninitiated might dismiss us as persons concerned with saying more and more about less and less: going down deeper, staying down longer, and coming up drier. But we have evidence in and outside the guild of the need for our work.

To what compass points would I call our attention as we contemplate the work of advancing biblical scholarship?

  • The SBL can provide much more by way of leadership in resourcing biblical scholars. The menu of possibilities is lengthy: the preparation and publication of critical texts from antiquity; the publication of relatively short-run monographs increasingly difficult to place at other presses, including university presses; the generation and maintenance of on-line data bases in support of biblical scholarship; and the ongoing work of moving our resources into electronic form. The gap between our own scholarly work and that in the natural sciences is perhaps widest here, with regard to what can be accessed anywhere in the world where internet capabilities can be found. With respect to such resources, what can institutions of higher learning and the Society do that individual departments could never do? What catalytic role might the SBL serve?




  • Let me push this first point further by particularizing one of its primary aspects. The SBL can play a more strategic role in resourcing study of biblical and cognate texts in the developing world of theological education. As persons from the East and the Southern Hemisphere have sojourned to postgraduate programs in the U.S., then returned to serve indigenous institutions in their homelands, we have become increasingly aware of the lack of basic resources outside of our university and theological school libraries for critical study at almost any level. Consequently, many of us regularly receive Macedonian calls [1] to provide books to libraries in the developing world of theological education, leading many of us to the realization that more libraries need assistance than we individually could ever have books to provide. Given the growing ubiquity of the internet, again, does this not suggest that the SBL could play a pivotal role in the generation and maintenance of electronic resources, basic ones at least? If at least a modicum of resourcing is unavailable to our international students as they graduate and return home, then the potential benefit of a graduate or postgraduate education in our institutions is significantly compromised.




  • This is not to say that the movement of scholarly thought is or ought to be merely from the West to other parts of the world. It does not require a futurist to recognize that fresh impetus and excitement for biblical studies will increasingly come from lands outside the U.S. and Western Europe. The SBL needs to find ways of practicing hospitality toward initiatives from the margins, including contextualized readings of our shared texts, the emergence of unfamiliar methods, and the publication of new journals and other media.




  • By "margins," though, I do not mean to refer simply to the map of global biblical studies. I also have in mind voices closer to home that, on account of the particular biases of critical scholarship as this has been exercised since the 1700s, have been effectively muted. This includes specifically theological work, which regards our primary sources not only as "the biblical materials" but as Scripture, and this points to renewed study in areas that would have been taken for granted in prior centuries—ecclesial reading of the Scriptures in relation to moral development, liturgy, homiletics, and so on. It also includes under-represented groups that in some areas have received more attention, but whose scholarship might still be regarded as suspect, perhaps not yet ready for inclusion in the category of critical study, including the work of women and ethnic minorities. To cite one example, given the changing face of the U.S. population and concomitant shifts in the churched populations over the next two or three decades, how will the work of Latino/Latina scholars be encouraged and received?




  • There is another way the SBL can take seriously its role vis-à-vis religious communities, and this is to consider the implications of the reality that many of its members come from theological schools that prioritize faith-based or ecclesially centered study and teaching of the Bible. I am thinking especially of the influence the Society wields, perhaps unknowingly or unintentionally, on what it means to be "scholarly" and, then, how criteria for promotion and tenure might be crafted. That is, theological schools especially need help from the SBL in defining what it means in this profession to be a "scholar." What role should the scholarship of teaching have in such definitions? The sort of synthetic work that manifests itself in undergraduate and graduate textbooks? The challenging work (done so well in the natural sciences by Antonio Damasio or Stephen Jay Gould, but so rare in biblical studies) of presenting learned scholarship in ways accessible to the non-scholar and in ways that help to shape the public mind about issues so easily bandied about in political debates and op-ed columns? The work of learning new languages, like Spanish or Cantonese, and their related cultures, in order for the work of biblical scholarship to be bridged into other, non-Western populations?




  • Even more pressing on account of the pending partings of the ways between the SBL and the AAR, the SBL is challenged to take with more seriousness the intellectual contexts within which biblical studies takes place. During the years of partnership with the AAR, those of us for whom the wider and more nuanced world of religious studies provided important context within which to situate biblical scholarship were well served, and with little effort on our part. When this can no longer be taken for granted, will biblical studies draw into itself or will the Society explore and initiate ways for us to account for the political, religious, and social contexts and sequelae of our work? How will we account for the institutional realities within and out of which we conduct our work? However this takes place—whether through the broadening of the Society's umbrella, through carefully chosen plenary and public presentations, through new partnerships with other societies, or some other strategy—this lacuna must be addressed.




  • With regard to serving its own membership more directly, let me make one suggestion to the SBL. The tactic adopted and now operative for the Review of Biblical Literature may have logistical advantages, but provides no guarantees of scholarly advantage. When people self-select to write a review for any book, scholars not looking for things to do are unlikely to be involved in the reviewing of books. This democratic procedure has the advantage of introducing new scholars, but also runs the risk of never involving seasoned scholars in critical, peer review of emerging work. Is there not some way that RBL could have it both ways? Could it not leave some books (or copies of books) for volunteer review, while assigning others to persons whose specializations are well-known so as to ensure substantive interaction?




  • Finally, and to end where I began, the SBL needs creative thinking about the public ramifications and the public dissemination of our work. Given the self-evident role of the content and study of the Bible, and the ongoing appeal to "biblical values," in public life, should the wider world not expect to hear from us? Is it not the case that the SBL could garner significant monies from partnering foundations concerned with these matters? For too long, the SBL has been guilty of hiding the light under a bushel.
Joel B. Green, Asbury Theological Seminary , joel_green@asburyseminary.edu

Notes

1. Acts 16:9; NRSV

Citation: Joel B. Green, " Suggestions for the SBL Itinerary," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=348

 
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