Oh Snap! Society of Biblical Literature is lame all around

Anyone interested in the state of Biblical Studies in North America should read this article:
The Chronicle: 11/10/2006: What’s Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?
It raises a lot of important questions about the kind of pedantic scholarship that biblical studies has cultivated. Clearly lay people are bored to tears by most of what biblical studies produces. It has carefully avoided anything interesting or truly controversal since the mid-ninetes. But what interests me is the critique that it has for religious education like that at BYU. Should the SBL intervene in BYU’s biblical studies classes to make sure that they are taught by professionals? Should they lean on BYU to insist that more “secularly” trained scholars be hired by the faculty? If the SBL had to produce a scorecard for BYU, how would it do? Finally, is this article right to emphasize the need for “secular” biblical studies at universities across the country?

UPDATE: One of the main NT blogs has some interesting reactions here.

  • Ben

    Quick thought – “But if nearly all biblical scholarship takes place within an explicit or implicit theological framework, then the discipline itself will flounder. For under such circumstances, critical and heretical appraisals of the Bible emerge infrequently.”Hardly true. The problem with SBL is… it’s not secular enough? Doesn’t promote enough non-sectarian critical thought? Give me a break. There’s little *but* critical and secular assumptions at work in the SBL conferences/journals. You could hardly identify someone’s denominational/confessional beliefs from the work done there…

  • HP

    Actually, I agree with quite a bit of what Jacques said about the need to revitalize and reintroduce the study of the Bible in our national discourse. But I think that he is being hopelessly unrealistic about the potential contributions of secular scholars to the national discussion. The largest group with a vested interest in the discussion is simply uninterested in scholarship that contradicts their truth claims about aspects of the bible (or the bible itself). You can’t have a dialogue when only one half of the conversation is interested in listening (and I don’t even know that either side would be interested in listen, as Berlinerblau fails to even acknowledge the specific influence of modern Evangelicals in his discussion (instead couching his arguments in more generic terms like “believers,” “seminarians,” and “secular scholars.”Nor is hermeneutics the obvious way out. A total devotion to hermeneutical research basically would make SBL MLA. We are not all here because we want to make use of undergraduate English degrees. Obviously, we should be more open to alternative interpretive approaches, but semiotics is not a white knight that will save us (especially when the wider perception of biblical studies is that hermeneutics is all that it is engaged in and therefore it has no real application to anything and doesn’t reflect genuine readings of the Bible). If you want to write about the Bible in a way that the populace will find compelling, you have to write with a certainty that escapes careful semioticians (and careful biblicists).Certainly, more work should be done to encourage popular Bible writing. That is why I am pleased to see the works of Bart Ehrman, Israel Finkelstein, and Richard Friedman get reviews in the publications that Berlinerblau mentioned. He is right about our being overly specialized. However, I don’t see a solution in the direction he wants us to head.

  • Anonymous

    “Clearly lay people are bored to tears by most of what biblical studies produces.”I don’t think so. I’d wager that no other academic field is read by as many non-academics as biblical studies. Take any SBL author and any physicist: which do you think was read by more dentists last month?Julie M. Smith

  • TrailerTrash

    Ben,It’s funny to hear you complain that SBL is too secular. There must be a great deal of suspicion in the SBL on both sides of the fence. I sit on the secular side so all I hear are complaints about how backward the SBL is. I guess it just shows that no one thinks the SBL has it right.HP,I agree with you on both counts. Biblical scholars should take more of a public role and that this is not likely to happen because conservatives see them as threatening. I’m not sure that I totally understand your point about hermeneutics. I think that you underestimate people’s desires to escape from “certain” interpretations. Maybe it’s just where I live, but people here breath freely when you tell them that the Bible doesn’t have a fixed meaning. Julie,I hear what you are saying, but as I understand it, the critique is that the SBL has not fully embraced the fact that its books are read by more people than those of physicists. As for most biblical studies being boring, from someone who is pretty close to the field, most of it is excruciatingly dull.

  • Handle

    I agree with Berlinerblau’s premise – biblical scholars need to reach out to educate a wider audience. Berlinerblau is interesting because he has a PhD in Hebrew Bible (NYU) and a PhD in Sociology (New School). He is aware of how important these issues are and yet how little attention they receive.As for BYU, I feel that any move towards implementing more secular methodologies is a step in the right direrction. Biblical scholarship has direct implications for LDS faith claims. How can we presume to be at ease with those implications if the scholars who address them are being fired by BYU rather than hired?

  • HP

    TT,It is my experience that people are looking for scholarship that confirms that what they already thought was true. For scholars, this may mean a general trend toward accepting the tentative claims of post-modern academia. For the popular audience, this probably means a confirmation that what their preacher says on Sunday regarding Biblical inerrancy. You won’t make much money by telling people that they are wrong (or, at least, not as much as you will if you tell them they’re right).Julie,I don’t think that the vast populace is at all familiar with the discussions found at SBL and, for the most part, they would find them seriously flawed and irrelevant because of the kinds of questions they ask about the text. I think that popular reading tends toward the sensational regarding the Bible (ie. Bible Code, Dan Brown, Unearthing the Bible, and so forth). This isn’t what you (generally) find at SBL.

  • g.wesley

    “If the SBL had to produce a scorecard for BYU, how would it do?” teaching the BofM as ancient scripture would definitely be a major black mark against byu on such a hypothetical scrorecard.

  • TrailerTrash

    g.wesley,Why would the SBL evaluate Book of Mormon classes? Wouldn’t it be similar to the SBL evaluating how muslim schools teaching the Koran? It has nothing to do with the SBL, so I don’t see them scoring BYU on this point.hp,If people only want to hear what they already believe, then how do you explain Dan Brown, Bart Ehrman, the Jesus Seminar, etc?

  • HP

    People love sensationalism. Dan Brown plays into it because he is saying that Christ got married. Bart Ehrman is (inadvertantly, I believe) playing into it, because he is saying that the Bible isn’t what you think it is. The Jesus Seminar is playing into it, because they are saying Jesus ain’t Jesus. It’s sensational and counter-intuitive. But, honestly, how many Evangelicals are going to change their mind because of something the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman said? For the committed, Ehrman and JS are just as fictional as Dan Brown. For that matter, there is a large audience of people who want to know better than those ignorant Evangelicals; I would assume that a lot of the interest (and a lot of the book reviews) come from that crowd and that those books will be read because they appear to prove what they already believe (the Bible is bunk).

  • g.wesley

    you’re absolutely right, from the SBL perspective the BofM is a nineteenth century text and is in that respect outside biblical literature. but that’s the point. as i’m sure you know, for SBL biblical literature is more than just the bible. it entails virtually any and every text that is historically relevant to the bible. at BYU the BofM is taught as a text that is historically relevant to the bible (i.e. biblical literature). but this is based on a host of assumptions ( e.g. that the golden plates actually existed, date to the fifth century AD, and were based on earlier records) which the overwhelming majority of SBL scholars do not share and would not abide. our friend ehrman, for instance, would probably laugh himself silly at the thought of the BofM being taught as ancient scripture and especially as historically relevant to the bible.

  • HP

    g.wesley,That said, there are plenty of places at SBL for devotional approaches to the Bible and I assume that scholars would take pieces that take the Book of Mormon as historically accurate to be devotional literature. As such, they wouldn’t be any more problematic than the Lutheran/Calvinist/Jewish sections. Those that are interested attend. That most aren’t interested is really more of a side issue.

  • Ben

    “It’s funny to hear you complain that SBL is too secular.”I wasn’t complaining. I just don’t see evidence of devotional/faith-based arguments or topics there. But perhaps this is just a semantic misunderstanding…

  • Jettboy

    I am one of those who likes to study Biblical textualization and history. However, I am also the kind of person who believes “hands off my faith!” If I want to read them I will. However, I am NOT going to let them tell me what I should or shouldn’t do to study the Bible or any other religious text. They must realize they are dealing not with one group of believers who seem to be those they are critical of, but many. In other words, what authority do they have to tell me how I should study my faith or who to teach it? I respect their research. That doesn’t mean I share their conclusions or their “Priests.”

  • Jettboy

    By the way, my post is more about how he sees a more secular Biblical Society going, and how the original post asks about such a society intervening in religious instruction. In a word: It is no one’s businesss what other people will or will not do with particular studies.


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