Monday, May 28, 2007

Hector Avalos on the End of Biblical Studies

Professor Avalos is publishing a new book due out in July, The End of Biblical Studies. I have already pre-ordered Professor Avalos' book. I will post a report on it after I have had a chance to read it and digest his opinions.

The description of it appears to follow his tough critique of our society and biblical studies in general. There are many points on which I agree with him (and am very glad to hear him voicing these points in the SBL open forum), and some which I do not (i.e., I do not see our work as necessarily elitist, completely irrelevant, nor do I think that none of us in the discipline is concerned for the poor - my husband in fact is a poverty lawyer).

The one point that continues to resound for me, however, is his statement,

"The fact is that biblical studies is still functioning as a handmaiden to theology and faith communities rather than as a discipline relevant to those outside of faith communities."

This is a point that I myself have been very concerned about in the past, and continue to be so. I am not sure how the field of biblical studies can ever be a serious field of historical study as long as it remains tied to and controlled by faith communities and their needs.

I think that the first step in the creation and survival of the discipline as a historical discipline in the humanities is to develop an uncompromising and unapologetic historical methodology (see sidebar for past posts on this topic). I don't think we have successfully done this yet because too many in our field are too concerned about the theological consequences of our findings. But theology has to be separated from historical studies. These are two separate disciplines, period.

The second thing we have to do is change the name of our discipline. We should not be a discipline that studies Biblical Literature. We should be a discipline that studies Religion in Antiquity (subsets including: Ancient Israel, Early Judaism, Early Christianity, and so on). We have been chained to the canon, and its preservation, because of faith concerns, not historical ones. It is time to make the change.

How different would our association look if we were to rename ourselves the Society for the Study of Religion in Antiquity or some comparable name? If so named, we would have to take seriously critical historical scholarship, and stop worrying about being caretakers of the Bible and the contemporary faith traditions that rely on it.



11 comments:

Geoff Hudson said...

As yet, I am not at all convinced that we have come near to discovering the true origins of Christianity, or the related Jewish/Roman history for which we are heavily dependent on the writings attributed to Josephus - for example, I just don't buy Vespasian ever fighting battles in Galilee.

If, for example, it could be argued beyond doubt that the real prophet of the New Testament kernal documents was not Jesus, but one Judas, what impact would that have on our world? Well Mohammed would be revealed as a false prophet for a start because he believed in Jesus. Orthodox Christians would be up the creek without a paddle at the loss of Jesus. And Jews would realise that they killed a genuine Jewish prophet whose philosphy was indeed a quantum leap leading to a wider acceptance of the same God by Jews and Gentiles.

But, biblical scholars would have to lose their best book salesman.

May be the universal religion will eventually be secular humanism. But there are still some important stories and lessons to be learned from past mistakes yet to be discovered.

David said...

I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholarship and a strong religious commitment were fundamentally incompatible. I wonder if it is possible to maintain a religious affiliation and be completely honest in following the research wherever it takes you. Believers will usually -- always? -- shie away from asking the toughest questions, those that call their faith into question in ways that cannot ignored without denial. If they do follow the research honestly, they tend to lose faith, as did Bart Ehrman.

Like Geoff (in my own words), I suspect we have not yet gotten through enough layers of accretion on the historical Jesus to really be comfortable that we have gotten to bedrock. And what if we keep probing and find that we don't like what we see?

Personal view: we are seeing the period of the death of our traditional religions, those that keep us anchored in the distant past. Hopefully we can do better by looking outside the ancient traditions. Not quite secular humanism, but spirituality without boundaries. Oops, that's called mysticism!

Judy Redman said...

David says: "I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholarship and a strong religious commitment were fundamentally incompatible."

I would be incredibly worried if people with a strong religious commitment didn't study their Scriptures in a scholarly manner. Biblical scholarship has been very important in how our society functions today. The abolition of slavery and women becoming more nearly equal in modern society have come about significantly because biblical scholars with a strong religious commitment have said "well, no, actually the Bible doesn't say that! You can function in another way and still be Christian."

I think what needs to happen is that people who are studying the Bible need to be clear about what they're trying to do. It is possible to study the Bible to discern how Christianity was practised and developed in the first few centuries after Jesus' death. In order to do that, it is absolutely essential to study the non-canonical writings as well as the canon. If you are ruling out particular texts on the grounds that they are heresy, you aren't looking at history.

It is also possible, though, to study the Bible to discern how Christians today should live their lives. If this is your aim, it is possible to do it without knowing much at all about the non-canonical writings, because one of the tenets of orthodox Christianity is that only the books of the canon are inspired and therefore useful for teaching etc. You can use the canon as a yardstick against which to judge other texts, both old and new. This involves, however, making faith claims about the nature of the available texts. I don't see any problem with this unless you are trying to claim that your conclusions are universally applicable and that everyone must live in accordance with your group's interpretations of the Bible, whether or not they are prepared to accept your faith claims.

Judy Redman said...

I meant to add that while good biblical scholarship is essential for good theology, I also think, like Avalos that it has an important function as a discipline in its own right, with relevance outside the church.

David said...

Judy,

The question is: As a scholar, are you prepared to go without hesitation wherever the evidence leads you, even if doing so puts you into a situation in which the evidence forces you to challenge the grounds of your faith commitment? Which would end up having the greater priority: the facts as they are currently known OR the faith that you treasure?

If a scholar has the type of faith commitment that will prevent them from following the evidence wherever it leads, or from asking tough questions that might call into question the very fundamentals of their faith, then they run the risk of avoidance or denial. They run the risk of asking only the comfortable questions, the ones that don't threaten anyone. Where is the integrity in that? I am not saying this is impossible, but I believe this kind of commitment to the integrity of research makes it difficult to sustain faith commitments. Either scholar or apologist.

To avoid the trap of canonicalization that April has referred to several times, how can we get beyond this without letting go of the canon as a point of reference?

Geoff Hudson said...

Judy

What is considered scholarly? For example, from what I see at present, I don't see text criticism on a knit-picking microscopic level taking us too far in discovering the origins of Christianity (which is what I am interested in). I suspect that the reason for this is that all the extant texts have been developed considerably from what must surely have been Jewish kernals similar in its ideas to the contemporary DSS. On a macroscopic level, I would look for use of the DSS as a priority in any scholarly treatment of Christian origins.

Yes one may learn more about Christian practises in the first two centuries from the extant texts alone, but not necessarily about the practises of the original Christians.

Bryan L said...

David,

You said,
"If a scholar has the type of faith commitment that will prevent them from following the evidence wherever it leads, or from asking tough questions that might call into question the very fundamentals of their faith, then they run the risk of avoidance or denial."

Can't the same thing asked of any scholar approaching the Bible? It's not like those with faith commitments are the only ones who would have this problem. An Atheist who denies the supernatural is going to have an equally hard time with the stuff he finds that questions the fundamentals of his philosophy.

Besides, you speak as if the "evidence" is self explanatory and not subject to interpretation, which itself is also ruled by the presuppositions and worldview of the interpreter. Seriously if anyone thinks they come to the Bible without certain commitments that might skew how they read the evidence then they are really mistaken.

Instead of speaking of this issue in the hypothetical or abstract I'd be more interested in seeing actual cases or situations put forth. What kind of situations are you speaking of? What evidence do you think would be a problem for those with faith commitments? How clear and self explanatory is that evidence and how much of it is left up to the interpreter and their methods and presuppositions? What evidence do we find that those without a Christian faith commitment would have trouble with?
Just some thoughts.

Blessings,
Bryan L

Deardorj said...

Brian,

Your points and questions are well taken by all, I should think. You wrote:
"What evidence do you think would be a problem for those with faith commitments? How clear and self explanatory is that evidence and how much of it is left up to the interpreter and their methods and presuppositions? What evidence do we find that those without a Christian faith commitment would have trouble with?

An example of mine is the evidence that not only is the present-era UFO phenomenon real, but the evidence extends centuries and millennia into the past. Those scholars who have not looked seriously into this evidence tend to dismiss it with a shrug or giggle. Otherwise, they would need to take Merkabah mysticism serously indeed, and "angels" and "star" of Bethlehem, etc. Similar attitudes on such can be reached by both Judeo-Christian scholars and atheistic scientists. Fear of loss of reputation and profession always looms large.

If you need to learn how extensive and strong the evidence is, use the internet with discernment or email me!

Jim Deardorff

Judy Redman said...

As Brian says, David's question about how scholars deal with material that challenges their basic philosophy/world view applies equally to atheists and people who practise faiths other than Christianity. Just as Christians have become atheists or agnostics as the result of their work, more than one atheist or member of another religion has been converted as a result of doing research to prove that the particular religion s/he was working on was wrong. I would also echo his question about what evidence might cause problems for people with faith commitments. It depends an awful lot on the nature of your faith commitment and there is a wide range of those within the banner of Christianity, for example.

The point I was trying to make is that it is quite OK for scholars to approach the extant texts with different questions, based on their particular interests and world views. If they are reasonably open, they will get different answers from the same text. So, someone who approaches Mark asking "What does this text tell us about early Christianity?" will get different answers to someone who asks "What does this text tell us about how Christians should act today?"

Both of these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask and it is not reasonable to try to insist that (other) scholars ask particular questions just because you want to know the answers. Up to now far more scholars haveasked the second question than have asked the first, but increasingly I see scholars asking the first.

Fuller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fuller said...

If I give Dr. Avalos credit for being genuine (and there is no reason to doubt that he is) then the questions are more related to "What does this text tell us about early Christianity" than they are to "What does this text tell us about how Christians should act today". The nature of any question that is honestly in the realm of true scholarship are historical, not behavioral. Pure research is not about behavior in and of itself, whether the discipline is engineering, biology, chemistry, or history. At the same time, being aware and honest about ones biases and prejudices when doing research - with biblical and related text or otherwise is crucial. Avalos is a secular-humanist and that world view will influence what he writes, what his initial sources are, who his friends are, who he listens to, and what circles he runs in - as all of our biases do. However, honest research and honest historical questions can still be asked of the ancient text; questions can be asked of text that are accepted by the various faith communities and of those manuscripts that are considered heretical. As a person of faith myself, it is crucial to discover what really occurred in history and having more and more communities attempt to remove their personal and professional biases as they attempt to find out what really happened is a very good thing. The book is now published and I hope to eventually read it, but I just learned about it as I ran across this site by accident.