Do We Need Biblical Scholars?

Philip Davies

University Of Sheffield, England
June 2005

Reposted from  The Bible and Interpretation with permission


Can Biblical Scholars persuade others that they conduct a legitimate academic discipline? Until they do, can they convince anyone that they have something to offer to the intellectual life of the modern world? Indeed, I think many of us have to convince ourselves first!

Just before I began writing this essay, I happened to be reading two quite different books. One of these was Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain (New York: Random House, 1979), a series of essays in defense of the excitement of science and the need to make it better understood by the public:

The most efficient agents to communicate science to the public are television, motion pictures and newspapers where the science offerings are often dreary, inaccurate, ponderous, grossly caricatured or (as with much Saturday-morning commercial television programming for children), hostile to science. (45-6)

The other book on my reading table was The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible by Joseph Blenkinsopp (New York: Doubleday, 1992). The following words struck me:

Old Testament scholarship is, after all, one facet of the intellectual history of the modern world and as such is influenced by the presuppositions, often tacit, of the age in which it is carried on. (p. 6)

It is "the facet of the intellectual history," yes, indeed, but also one facet of the intellectual (as well as religious) life of every age, at least within Western culture. Some very great minds and influential writers have grappled with the Bible: Augustine of Hippo, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Newton, John Milton, Thomas Paine, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, to exemplify the great variety. In our own day, Biblical scholars study and teach in many universities around the world as part of the community of knowledge that these institutions comprise. They are professional colleagues of linguists, philosophers, physicists, anthropologists, political scientists, and engineers.

But what does biblical scholarship contribute to the intellectual life of these universities, let alone our general public discourse, our civilization? My colleagues and I at the Department of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield were once visited by a senior academic administrator as part of his duties in keeping abreast of research activity. How, he asked, did we (could we) conduct research on the Bible? Surely it had been written long ago and was presumably complete. After two thousand years of scrutiny, was there much left to say? This was the challenge from a fellow academic, an intellectual (albeit churchgoing). The idea of the Bible as an object of academic research (rather than presumably an elevated form of Sunday-school teaching) was not something he could easily comprehend. His ignorance was not facetious, but (more frighteningly) genuine.

Could this question have been asked of a department of physics or French? I doubt it: every educated non-academic is aware, however vaguely, of what in a general way is being studied and taught in these fields or can make a respectable guess. There are articles in newspapers and magazines and documentary programs on television that reflect the work of scholars in most areas. But what have we about modern research into the Bible? Carl Sagan complains that science is badly communicated; I think he is very lucky to be a scientist he might have been a biblical scholar. Then he would have something to complain about!

The problem, perhaps, is that the Bible is a book of "scripture." Not many Christians or Jews, for whom it is (in a variety of definitions) divinely inspired, are interested in the Bible intellectually¾ or even know how such an interest might be pursued. The one exception to this rule is provided by coverage of biblical archaeology and biblical history (which are virtually co-extensive in the public mind). But biblical scholarship is not centrally concerned about new evidence for "Noah’s Flood" or the site of Sodom or Gomorrah, or the "Christmas star." Another aspect of popular interest in the Bible is of "hidden mysteries"; but, again, hardly any biblical scholar is at all concerned with hidden "Bible codes." All these historical and literary fantasies are peripheral to, or even obstructive to, what most biblical scholars think of as their task. But such issues do absorb virtually all the attention of the public media. It is disappointing that such "poor science" is foisted on the public when similar kinds of programs or articles dealing with medicine or astronomy or even history would be pilloried and attract vehement protest from the relevant professionals (think of astrology or alchemy). The Bible is not a book of ancient secrets nor is its testimony to history the central question of biblical research, though the latter is certainly widely debated and recognized as a complicated and quite technical issue.

There is, then, a large gap between what biblical scholars do and what the majority of the public think they do (or should do). And this gap is curious because many Christian (and Jewish) leaders receive academic training and acquire formal qualifications involving academic study of the Bible whether in university theology departments or denominational seminaries (which are usually affiliated to, or even part of, a university). Many Christian churches thus seem to believe that a scholarly education in the Bible is a good preparation for the ministry or priesthood. In theory, that attitude should ensure a widespread awareness of what biblical scholarship is about, at least among worshippers.

What should these leaders learn about the Bible? What they will read in most modern textbooks written by biblical scholars is that the stories of Abraham and Moses are largely or entirely legend, not history; that the books of the prophets contain a great deal not written by those prophets; that David did not write all of the Psalms (if any); that ancient Israelites probably once worshipped a goddess alongside their god; that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; and that the stories of his birth and resurrection appearances display awkward contradictions and may well not be based on eyewitness accounts. These views are largely undisputed among biblical scholars and have the weight of a great deal of research behind them.

But most of these views and arguments get no farther than the edge of the campus; they are found in books written for scholars or students. John Robinson’s Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963) was a famous exception and was regarded as a cause célèbre when it appeared. When, a few decades later, a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, referred to the resurrection issue as "juggling with bones" and dismissed the idea of a literal understanding of the stories of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, he immediately came under attack not only from churchgoers and from the media but also from his fellow-clergy, many of whom had presumably been taught as students precisely what Jenkins was saying! It is hard to know how many might have privately agreed with him, but it seems that they felt his public remarks could cause them acute embarrassment if they were themselves challenged by one of their own congregation.

I cannot imagine a scientist or engineer, a professor of English, or a medical researcher facing the same predicament as the two bishops. My university colleagues in other disciplines are listened to as experts: what they say is taken to be a reliable opinion on the subject (whether that perception is true or not). I cannot think of any other university subject whose graduates disguise from the public what they have learned! Little wonder that the churchgoing public has no real idea of what biblical scholars do. Most nonbelievers are of course happy to delegate serious interest in the Bible to churchgoers (most of whom actually read very little of it). They themselves may think of it as a great literary work with an immense impact on the culture of the Western world, but do they conceive what a biblical scholar might do?

So biblical scholarship has problems both within the academic and outside world. In both camps, biblical scholarship is seen as a theological pursuit, and its struggle to establish itself as an autonomous discipline is of recent origin, and still ongoing. While I am fortunate enough to have worked in a Department of Biblical Studies, such departments are rare. In most universities, Biblical Studies is simply a sub-discipline of Theology and belongs to a separate Faculty of Theology. In Germany, this will be either Protestant or Catholic (several universities have both). In universities elsewhere, there are theological colleges, or seminaries, or Divinity Schools. Biblical Studies thus enjoys a varied degree of integration into academic life. Like Law Schools and Medical Schools, many of the academic institutions where the Bible is studied are devoted to professional training. But should the Bible be dealt with in such a context and not within the mainstream of the intellectual life of a university? Some of my colleagues in the United States are situated in departments of Religion or Religion and Philosophy or Historical Studies or Classics, or Humanities. And indeed, a rounded biblical scholar should have interests in linguistics, literature, archaeology, history, theology, anthropology, sociology and much else. Biblical studies is a typical, but demanding, humanities discipline, distinguished only by its object of analysis, not by anything else. It is not, for example, a religious pursuit, though it may be at times in pursuit of religion. While many of its practitioners may still be practicing Christians or Jews, there are strong secular impulses and an increasing tendency to critique the Bible from a range of modern ideological viewpoints: feminism, post-colonialism, deconstruction, social psychology, gay rights, discourse analysis, New Historicism. Biblical studies has already emerged from the womb of Theology, though the umbilical cord has not yet been completely severed. The discipline has its own learned societies the Society of Biblical Literature, the European Association of Biblical Studies, the Catholic Biblical Association of America. There are also numerous societies devoted to Old or New Testaments, the two main specialties to which the discipline is divided.

There remains, however, a great deal of public education to be undertaken. I am sorry to say that when I find myself in situations that suggest a long and enforced conversation with a stranger, I answer the dreaded question "What do you do?" in a rather cowardly way. I usually reply either that I study the Dead Sea Scrolls (which is true), or that I am a publisher (which is partly true), or that I am a scholar of religion (which is true, but also misleading). Of course, I should be more courageous, own up, and confess to being a professional biblical scholar. But do I want to suffer the indignity ("Oh, you teach Bible!") of having to explain": first, I don’t have any religious beliefs related to the Bible; second, my discipline is not part of Theology, and I am not a "theologian,"; and third, biblical scholarship is a real academic activity, like history, sociology or psychology?

Can biblical scholars persuade others that they conduct a legitimate academic discipline? Until they do, can they convince anyone that they have something to offer to the intellectual life of the modern world? Indeed, I think many of us have to convince ourselves first! Much of the secular work in our discipline has been conducted in the context of protest against, or opposition to, the long-dominant theological agendas of the subject. This gives such work not only a certain vigor but also obscures the vision that we are living increasingly in a secular world and that we have a public to address that does not regard the Bible as particularly interesting or important. But like virtually all European academics (and many elsewhere) I am paid out of public funds, and I have a duty to share with the public who pay me what it is I that I do and let them know (if I can) why they should continue to pay me. (Biblical scholars who are paid by their churches are a separate issue, and one I have tackled elsewhere in Whose Bible Is It Anyway? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

I am trying now to write a book that explains to the public what the Bible (in what follows, that means "Hebrew Bible" or "Old Testament") is and why it is interesting and relevant to them, not as a set of instructions from a deity, nor as an antique curiosity, nor as a cultural icon. Curiously enough, few accounts of the Bible actually engage in its intellectual and existential agendas but sell it short (in my mind) as either theology or literature. But nearly all ancient texts are theological (the gods are part of the world that humans inhabit) and of course by definition all are "literature." What are the biblical theories about human nature, history, ethics, society, justice? You can hardly open a page of a Bible without being confronted with philosophical questions of almost every kind. Of course, it takes both interest and education to identify and engage with the problem of how individuals and societies suffer for each other’s misdemeanors, how a single god can be unjust (unless "justice" is higher than the god), whether one can learn "rules for life" by experience, whether a perfect society is possible, whether death relegates humans to the level of all other living things, and more and more. My personal opinion is that the Bible is the outcome of an intellectual project, a creative and ambitious project, which ultimately bore fruit in the creation of two religions and, indirectly, others, and has proved more universal than perhaps its participants ever expected. Paradoxically, however, its influence has been due to its strong misreadings¾ typographical, literalistic, mystical, cryptic which have isolated it from philosophical texts, so that while we treat, say, Plato (another monotheistic mythmaker) as one whose thought is worth grappling with, we too often allow the Bible to seen in terms of "true" or "false," or as the property of a religious group. Secularizing biblical studies means also secularizing the Bible for a secular world, just as it was once sanctified for a religious world. That does not mean rejecting any religious value it has nor denying biblical scholarship to religious believers (it is a common and insidious belief that secularism is anti-religious when the opposite is true: it is tolerant of nearly all religion, so long as religion, of any kind, is permanently deprived of its ancient power of tyranny over individuals and societies).

In short, I would like to see biblical scholars reclaiming the Bible as their own, seeing in its authors an intellectual elite, aware of and engaged in the major cultural issues of their day, and presenting its ideas in a way that will capture the imagination of anyone interested in the eternal (and unanswered) questions of humanity. I suppose I had better start with some truthful answers on my next air trip.


  posted by Brian Worley    July 29, 2010        All rights reserved

To Return to the Main Page