Is biblical scholarship science or an artistic performance?

Jean-Philippe Rouchon - Chef d'orchestre by Augustin Rouchon

For the article I am writing I am looking closely at various proposals for understanding the structure of the book of Amos. Once again I am struck by the variety of positions scholars can take. The issue of course is the evidence we use to convince each other. We weigh that evidence differently.

For example Klaus Koch and colleagues grew to scholarly maturity in a world dominated by Form Criticism, they place great emphasis on the use of introductory formulae, and on changes of genre. So the phrase “Hear this…”

  • 3:1 שמעו  את־הדבר  הזה
  • 4:1 שמעו  הדבר  הזה
  • 5:1 שמעו  את־הדבר  הזה

They believed, as the process which produced the chapter divisions also believed, that these three introductions represented three blocks of material. (But note already some selection has gone on, similar phrases that lack the “this” do not mark sections in the same way:

  • 3:13 שמעו (also starts a sentence and a speech unit)

However the example in:

  • 8:4 שמעו־זאת

seems to start a unit, and includes “this”… Other information has come into play. There are similar issues, but perhaps even more ones that require judgment of an aesthetic kind when one looks at the “woe oracles”.

See: Klaus Koch, Amos: untersucht mit den Methoden einer strukturalen Formgeschichte, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 30 (Kevelaer: Butzon und Bercker, 1976)

Similarly a number of other scholars have proposed chiastic structures for all or part(s) of the book. These chiasms are sometimes similar to each other, though with interesting differences, but often they use different cues, and arrive at different results. Some rest mainly on verbal repetitions, others put more weight on repetition of themes, or content (like “a judgement against Israel”). In evaluating these we again rely on a sort of aesthetic sense, scholar X’s chaism convinces because it provides a “reading” of the passage, or the book, that “feels right”.

See: Jan de Waard, “The Chiastic Structure of Amos V 1-17,” Vetus Testamentum 27, no. 2 (1977): 170-177; a similar idea was proposed independently by Claude Coulot, Propositions pour une structuration du livre d’Amos au niveau rédactionnel Revue des sciences religieuses, extrait (tome 51, n°2-3, 1977) ([s.l.]: Revue Religieuse, 1977); J Lust, “Remarks on the Redaction of Amos V 4-6, 14-15,” Old Testament Studies 21 (1981): 129-54; N.J. Tromp, “Amos V 1-17: Towards a Stylistic and Rhetorical Analysis,” Oud-testamentliche Studien XXIII (1984): 56-84. Who all examined chiastic structures in 5:1-17, but compare Widbin, R Bryan. “Center Structure in the Center Oracles of Amos.” In Go to the land I will show you, edited by Joseph E. Coleson, Victor Harold Matthews, and Dwight W. Young, 177-192. Eisenbrauns, 1996. Or compare David A. Dorsey. “Literary Architecture and Aural Structuring Techniques in Amos.” Biblica 73 (1992): 305-30 with  de Waard, Jan, and William A.S. Smalley. In A translator’s handbook on the book of Amos. Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1979 on the book as a whole.

To be sure, both the form and the chiastic scholars attempt to support their arguments with scientific-sounding arguments, but in the end it is an aesthetic judgment which schemes are found convincing. The standard processes of scientific scholarship (like “blind” peer review) perhaps work well in the sciences and social-sciences, but do they work for more “artistic” fields? Could we rely on two other conductors to judge the worth of a third conductor’s reading of a particular piece? If we did musical performance would become much more tradition-bound and less exciting!

In the end we judge such performances by a complex process that includes the views of professional colleagues, critics and the general concert-going or CD-buying public. Perhaps such a process is also at work long term in biblical studies? But in the short-term, we play the peer review game, and perhaps also try to game the system to get our readings heard ;)

See: Paul Nikkel on Deinde “Trying to stay open-minded” and “An Open Return” the link to the DOC file that contained his ideas on open review in more detail seems to have been lost in the restructuring of the site.