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The End of Scripture and/or Biblical Studies

See Also:
To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche
In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy
Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship
Conservative Scolarship: Can We Talk?

By Tim Bulkeley
Carey Baptist College, Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School
November 2010

Biblical studies is a discipline divided. This division can be seen (or at least caricatured) in the institutions providing employment. Seminaries are religious organizations teaching the Bible to equip pastors and preachers to work in churches. Biblical studies is also taught in universities, which in many parts of the world are secular (often state-supported) institutions. The two types of institutional involvement suggest two very different approaches to the object of our study.1 After a long period when these differences were largely unacknowledged, or at least were not named as such (though I do remember as a student in the seventies that scholars on the conservative wing were regarded by my teachers as somehow less scholarly), in the last few years the gulf has begun to be acknowledged.

Some see the issue in crusading terms. For example Hector Avalos in his book The End of Biblical Studies2 (which has been significantly responsible for bringing this division into open discussion) wrote:

Our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture in the modern world.

More moderately, but tending in a similar direction, Niels Peter Lemche (recently here in Bible and Interpretation3) argued that:

...biblical studies never freed itself from the embrace of the Church. It originated among church people and never became an independent humanistic branch of science led only by the methods and ideals of humanistic scholarship.

On the other side, the essentially religious nature of the literature being studied is seen as an obstacle to its full understanding by atheist scholars or by agnostic scholarship.4 Thus, Jim West (also in Bible and Interpretation) once claimed:

Faith is the string which holds the pearls (of texts) together. Atheists and unbelievers didn’t write a word of it, transmit it, preserve it, or pass it along. No one can argue with the fact that the Bible is the book of the people of faith. It belongs to us. Not to the atheists. They are now and have been and always will be outsiders to it. Their point of view, then, is as mere observers.5

So, the issue at heart is about a basic attitude of either skepticism or trust towards the object of study. Jim West’s person of faith trusts Scripture;6 therefore, he argues, their relationship to this object of study is different from, and richer than, the relationship a skeptical reading permits. By contrast, both Avalos and Lemche see such committed reading as full of social and intellectual dangers. However, this talk of trust or skepticism may lead to confusion, for it sounds like the basic attitudinal difference which distinguishes the “minimalists” and the “maximalists” of recent arguments over the history of the people described in the Bible and of the biblical texts themselves. But this divide is not the same, for there are religious people who are minimalists with respect to history, as there are people who might be identified as historical maximalists who have no religious faith.

These two distinct genres of skepticism and trust should not be confused, for they are different. Yet comparing them may lead to useful clarification. The historical maximalist makes more use of biblical texts in constructing ancient history because, for some reason, they trust that the texts are more or less reliable earlier (and therefore perhaps more richly informed) constructions of the history that interests them. The historical minimalist distrusts the same texts perhaps precisely because they are constructions of a past, and all such constructions have their conscious and unconscious agendas that shape what is constructed.7

In terms of religious thinking, one group of scholars distrusts the Bible because it is, and has been, used by others to support and justify social and political programs that are at variance with the scholars’ ideas of what is moral and right. A nuanced form of this approach is found in Philip Davies’ attempt to motivate a collaboration of biblical scholars who might form a sort of moderate coalition, regardless of their own religious viewpoints or lack of them. His goals are, on the one hand, to combat the dangerous fundamentalists, and, on the other, to enlighten the masses (who, as many writers on these topics note, have become increasingly “biblically illiterate” over recent years or centuries).8

Such appeals are not entirely new; writing of German biblical studies in the eighteenth century, Michael C. Legaspi claimed:9

If the Bible were to find a place in a new political order committed to the unifying power of the state, it would have to do so as a common cultural inheritance. This was the great insight of German academics working at new and renewed institutions during the age of Enlightenment university reform. … ...they introduced a historical disjunction that allowed them to operate on the Bible as an inert and separated body of tradition. They used historical research to write the Bible’s death certificate while opening, simultaneously, a new avenue for recovering the biblical writings as ancient cultural products capable of reinforcing the values and aims of a new sociopolitical order. The Bible, once decomposed, could be used to fertilize modern culture.

This irenic state-supporting, and significantly state-supported, biblical studies seems ironically echoed in Davies’ article, and indeed in much of the talk of religiously skeptical biblical scholars today. The Bible on this vision is first neutralized by “criticism.” Its “claimed” moral superiority is “demonstrated” to be lacking. Many right-wing Christian extremists seem determined to provide evidence to support this project (not only in the USA, for in NZ not long ago such enthusiasts were using biblical texts to support their claim of a parent’s “right” to beat their child). After the moral authority of the Bible has been safely defused, then attempts to increase “biblical literacy” (in other words, the comfortable values of liberal Western middle classes insofar as they can be claimed to be present in biblical stories) can be supported and “incidentally” the employment of biblical scholars safeguarded.

Against such a pleasant vision, Hector Avalos’ calls for an end of biblical studies and the resurgent claims by religious scholars that it is precisely Scripture’s authoritative and confessional status that justifies the expense of supporting an educational and scholarly infrastructure devoted to its study must seem threatening indeed. Avalos’ program would see an end to the pleasant and, despite the pleas of near poverty by their incumbents, comfortable jobs for biblical scholars in secular universities. But so would the development of a study of Scripture freed from the trammels of modern Western skepticism, for such a scriptural studies discipline would “look” quite different from the biblical studies we have inherited from those eighteenth-century Germans.

What is needed is a frank recognition that there are two (related but different) disciplines studying the biblical texts. Then their practitioners need to identify more clearly what they do similarly and what they do differently. In such an environment, discussion of whether any, all, or no religious study of Scripture is scholarly might be possible without a slinging match. But that, of course, is not the world we live in, so we will no doubt continue to read abusive missives aimed from one set of trenches to another in the religious, as in the historical, wars.


1 NB. Some seminary Bible teachers do biblical studies as if they were in secular employment (it, after all, is how many of us were taught) and similarly university biblical scholars may teach the Bible with a deep religious commitment. This institutional caricature is intended to illustrate or suggest the divide, not to map it!

2 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus Books, 2007), 342.

3 Niels Peter Lemche, “Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary” The Bible and Interpretation (downloaded 10/25/10, nd).

4 By this distinction I intend to speak in the first descriptor “Atheist scholars” of the faith stance of the scholar, while by adding the second “agnostic scholarship” to indicate that similar approaches are often taken by people of faith who seek to investigate the Bible attempting to set aside for a while the presuppositions of their faith.

5 Jim West, “The Sackgasse of A-Theistic Biblical Studies” The Bible and Interpretation (downloaded 10/25/10, nd).

6 I will also distinguish “Scripture” used to refer to the collections of ancient texts (Jewish, Christian [of various confessions differently], Hebrew, Greek...) viewed as authoritative religious texts (in some sense), while using “Bible” when intending reference to the same collections when viewed as objects of academic study.

7 Ironically, of course, the historical minimalists must themselves construct a past to talk about.

8 Philip Davies, “Whose Bible? Anyone’s?” The Bible and Interpretation, nd.

9 “The End(s) of Historical Criticism”, The Bible and Interpretation, Michael Legaspi, n.d, which is based upon part of his book: The death of Scripture and the rise of biblical studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).