Don’t Do Bible! (but if you do, do it right!)

Don’t Do Bible! (but if you do, do it right!) January 19, 2015

K.A. Kitchen’s book On the Reliability of the OT

Many years ago now (in fact, more than I’d like to admit), I was approached by one of my undergraduate professors from Brigham Young University and given some well-meaning advice. I had just begun my graduate work pursuing a Master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic studies and this former religion professor was a bit concerned for my spiritual wellbeing.

“Don’t focus on Bible,” he said. “Because we’ve yet to have a Latter-day Saint pass through an academic program on the Bible and retain his or her testimony. Instead, choose an ancillary Near Eastern topic such as Assyriology, Comparative Semitics, Canaanite Languages, or even Egyptology. But whatever you do, don’t do Bible.”

I was a bit surprised to be honest. Now, I felt grateful (and still do) for the counsel and concern that this professor took in the academic journey I was about to begin. But even at that stage, for me, it was already too late. I had fallen in love with ancient Near Eastern studies, no doubt, but the world that had been opened to me by studying the Bible critically was too exciting to abandon. I would eventually finish that degree, only to obtain a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. In the process, I became a true convert. I fell in love, as they say, with a critical approach to interpreting the Bible because for the first time ever, complicated scriptural texts (books like Isaiah, for example) actually made sense.

It’s not that I wanted to abandon my traditional models concerning the development and meaning of biblical texts; in fact, on some level, it was very difficult for me to set them aside. I certainly didn’t want to lose my religiosity and spiritual connection to this material. After all, that’s what had sparked my initial interest in the first place. But a new exciting door had been opened to me that I could never again simply shut and pretend didn’t exist.

This wasn’t a question of liberal indoctrination, no, far from it. My professors made it clear I could adopt whatever model I wanted, so long as it explained the evidence. Those who suggest liberal indoctrination is what happens to scholars who study “Bible” in a university setting really don’t understand the journey. Many of us begin our academic quest because of a religious love for the Bible. We may be conservative Christians or Jews (it doesn’t really matter), it’s usually the same narrative. We have no intention of personally adopting critical models to explain our scripture from a humanistic angle. But we run the data, abandon sleep for a while trying to make it all work, and then eventually, most of us come to peace with the fact that if we’re going to explain what’s really happening with biblical texts, we have to account for things like contradictory voices in the Pentateuch, multiple distinct authors contributing to the book of Isaiah, and a lack of historicity in books like Joshua and Judges.

Most of us don’t abandon our traditional views easily, but eventually, almost all of us do. In the process, some become agonistic and completely set aside the Bible as a religiously authoritative text. Others of my colleagues find new ways to retain a spiritual connection to the Bible that factors in critical models. One of the main issues I’ve witnessed determining whether or not this process works is the scholar’s own religious community. How accepting are they with one of their own who because of academic inquiry understands scripture differently than they do? It’s not an easy issue. But with a new world of information accessibility, it is an issue that more and more religious communities are facing. What do we do with scholars in our midst and the youth who are exposed to their work?

Later I would come to realize that the advice I was given by my former religion professor was not unique. Scholars teaching Bible in conservative divinity school programs are often very similar to those teaching at my own alma mater. Uncomfortable with the prospect of addressing the Bible itself from an academic perspective, some of these brilliant men and women will instead focus on ancillary topics in the field (including the “history of interpretation”), only to return to their respective communities as an expert in “Bible.” Oftentimes these professors make significant contributions to the field of Near Eastern studies, but usually they don’t do it in Bible.

Perhaps one of the best ways to illustrate this trend is by considering a work that has gained quite a bit of attention with conservative Bible-believing groups, Kenneth Anderson Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen is a highly accomplished Egyptologist who also happens to be a Christian. Now, there’s no question that he is a significant figure in his own academic field. In his Egyptological work, Kitchen has published a highly impressive number of texts, maybe more so than any other modern Egyptologist. He has also made important contributions to our understanding of ancient Hittites and Assyrians. But Kitchen’s academic expertise is not “Bible.” And unfortunately, his theological zeal for this material often clouds his assessment.

I’m not going to take the time here to critique the entire book. Kitchen certainly has some interesting arguments, but unfortunately, from my perspective, the entire book is filled with serious misconceptions. Suffice it to say that in terms of my own general assessment, I agree with the review written by biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche for the Journal of American Oriental Society. Concerning Kitchen’s work, Lemche writes:

There can be no doubt that Kitchen is a competent Egyptologist with a profound knowledge of anything relating to ancient Egypt. His orientation in other parts of the ancient Near East is broad, although not as solid. His knowledge of Old Testament studies is partial and definitely out of touch with recent developments, and his defense of the integrity of such books as Isaiah will hardly be considered of any value except to the most evangelically oriented readers. Here as elsewhere his contempt for critical biblical scholarship will undoubtedly provoke biblical scholars simply to ignore his book, which is a pity since it includes a wealth of information and references-if not on biblical matters, then at least on Near Eastern documents that may be or may be not of interest to the biblical scholar…

The author [however] is abusing his role as an Egyptologist; he never engages in a serious way with biblical scholars, nor with students of the ancient Near East who are not members of his party, nor even with Egyptologists who may be less happy about his insistence on the historicity of the Exodus.[1]

So Kitchen fits the pattern I identified above. In the next two posts, I’ll share specific illustrations that support this assessment. I’ll draw upon Kitchen’s study as it relates to my own interests in the books of Joshua and Judges as “history.”

[1] Niels Peter Lemche, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament by K.A. Kitchen,” in JAOS 124.2 (2004): 376.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment