The end of Biblical Studies in the West?

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Jim has published a piece of rhetorical bombast, of the sort that only one who so fiercely and often delights in castigating the depraved could manage, taking issue with claims by Hector (and others) that biblical studies as a discipline allied to ecclesial interests has a place in the academy (as a “study”).  It’s shortcomings of logic and charity have been ably pointed out (e.g. by Duane, of the self-avowedly abnormal interests). Beyond that it has stirred up an intense flurry of discussion on the Biblical Studies e-mail list, one which has skirted and (I think) in dozens of contributions made incursions across, if not set up camp on the other side of, the rules of engagement of that list.

For all its failings, and despite all its strengths, this opinion piece raises sharply the significant issues around the place of biblical studies in the academy, and the nature of biblical studies as a discipliine. I’d like here to offer my $0.02 worth:

  1. There are two sorts of study of “The Bible” currently pursued. They have different goals and methods.
    • One is the study of Scripture (The Bible, which name, since it comes from Greek meaning “The Books”, implies a committed stance towards the text[s] as those belonging to and constituitive of particular communities, this we might therefore properly call “biblical studies”.
    • The other is the study of ancient texts that have been significant for the development of Western culture. While it focuses on these texts because they are/have been perceived as Scripture such study does not consider them as such. We might call this “the study of ancient Christian (or Jewish) texts”.
  2. Up till now the same people have, by and large, performed both tasks. However, while either discipline might enrich the other they are different. Because they have different goals, methods and stance towards their object of study.
    • It has also caused students much grief, signing up for a course that they expected to be in biblical studies (as understood above) to in fact receive something more attuned to the interests and approach of the study of ancient Christian texts.
    • It has also caused some confusion and perhaps grief to teachers who have either had to act as if schizophrenically composed of two different personalities or to remain “in the closet” about significant parts of their being. (Both those doing SoACT while practicising Christians and those pretending to do BS while having no regard for the object of their study as Scripture.)

It is high time this motley confusion ended. Ban the names Bible, biblical and Scripture from all course titles etc. except where the text is in fact treated as the Scripture of a particular community. And by contrast ban the claim to “objective” (and so, I suppose, inherently modern) discipline.

There may still be many of us who elect to take part in both disciplines, but we could do so understanding that in their different contexts we are expected to play by different rules. Each discipline could enrich the other, not least by providing sparring partners ;) But what each is claiming to achieve might be clearer. The poor Society for Biblical Literature would either have to decide to change its name, take that name seriously, or perhaps divide into two sections ;)

Incidentally this divorce will cause little stir beyond the Western world, because there except when Western missionaries have carried their own training with them there has been little of the purely “Scientific” study of ancient Christian texts on offer ;)

2 comments on “The end of Biblical Studies in the West?

  1. Bob MacDonald

    I’ll add my penny – I haven’t found any difficulty with the critical approaches to the ancient texts except that there are many differences of opinion and little in the way of conclusion. I have benefited much from scholars whether they revealed their bias or not. I have doubted the assured conclusions of my youthful exposure – e.g. to the theories of decomposition of Torah or Gospel – almost from the first moment I saw them. Not as if I knew any better, nor as if I was a ‘believer’ then (I wasn’t) but just because they presented themselves as theory and theory has to be tested even as Hashem has to be tasted to see if it holds any good. I have even listened to the Copenhagen school and radical Dutch criticism. But they never hinted at what really moves me in the Books or in the necessities of my life. I can only conclude that for all their study – just like those young earth creationists, they don’t really know the length and depth or they weren’t putting it together with their study – though they certainly do have a lot of study at their fingertips – and of that I am occasionally jealous.

  2. David Hamilton

    Couldn’t agree more. Eliminate the language (canonical or other) that surreptitiously supports a religious interpretation. And the hostility that has been descried is not so much against the anthology of ancient texts as it is against the cultural hegemony of the believers who want to make sure that their’s is the only voice heard or considered valid.