More on the importance of Biblical Studies

Deane Galbraith left this little gem in the comments and it is well worth elevating to post status. It is much better when someone else does all the hard work.

At this time when the use of various scriptures is intimately tied up with every significant political, economic, social, and ecological issue you can name, we could certainly do with a bit of expert analysis and consideration… and a lot less of the thinly veiled apologetics currently posing as scholarship. For if so-called biblical scholars don’t undertake this kind of analysis, other experts in the humanities certainly will.

And they already are. After decades in which Christianity and religion were frequently dismissed in the humanities, we are witnessing a renewed interest in the Bible within fields such as history, literary studies, anthropology, minority studies, Jewish studies, etc, etc – and even within that once-perennially godless discipline, sociology. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the best biblical scholarship is currently presently being carried out outside the discipline of biblical studies itself. The “retreat to commitment” by the thick mainstream of confessional biblical scholarship has unfortunately coincided with this renewed interest in the Bible – and also in the Qur’an and Hadith, the Tanach and Talmud, the Mahabharata and Rāmāyaṇa, etc, etc – as central instruments in the functioning of our contemporary world. And that is, after all, the only place where these scriptures can be and are read. So we might well take a bit more notice of that fact.

If biblical scholars won’t contribute to the academic conversation, it seems the lesson is: everybody else will. NP Lemche mentioned Shalom Goldman’s informative Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (2010), to which might be added Jewish studies scholar Yael Feldman’s brilliant Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative (2010), sociologist James S. Bielo’s Words upon the Word: an ethnography of evangelical group Bible study (2009) and his edited volume, The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism (2009), historian Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2010), cultural historian Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson’s edited volume, The Lure of the Dark Side: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture(2009), a huge range of literary, art and visual arts scholars, and only one or two biblical scholars in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines (2010), literary critic Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (2010), English scholar Katherine Clay Bassard’s Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible (2010), literary scholar Mélanie Adda’s edited volume, Textes sacrés et culture profane : de la révélation à la création (2010), English scholar John Casey’s After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory (2009), and historian Pascale Quincy-Lefebvre’s edited volume, Marthe et Marie-Madeleine: Deux modèles de dévotion et d’accueil chrétien (2009) – all from the last year or so.

Now, other disciplines will have their particular insights in the study of the Bible and its reception, and I don’t doubt there will always be a value in the different perspectives which specialists in a particular field are able to offer. But shouldn’t biblical studies itself be a prominent voice in this recent turn to the scriptural? Why ever is it not? Could it be that too many of its practitioners have positioned themselves outside of the common discourse of the humanities? Are too many New Testament scholars, for example, far more comfortable listing apologetic reasons why Jesus was… gosh, really quite tremendous, than explaining why certain social constructions of Jesus – inside and outside the academy – are suddenly very popular in late capitalism? And do most of them have trouble distinguishing their Bourdieu from their Badiou? Is Mark S. Smith’s damning indictment of biblical scholarship still all too true today?:

“Perhaps beause of its historical roots in theology, the field of Israelite religion (not to mention biblical studies generally) remains one that does not generate its own general theoretical contribution to the humanities or social sciences.” (The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002, p. xxx).

There are plenty of reasons why this situation need not be the case. But it does seem to be the case at the moment.


One response to “More on the importance of Biblical Studies

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival נז (November 2010) | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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