I have been reluctant to become too involved in the controversy over biblical studies - not because I don't have an opinion, but because over the years I have come to realize just how complex this issue is. In many ways, it is a debate about idealism and realism, at least as it as played out in my own experience as a professor in the field.
When I first began teaching, I set up a proper curriculum in my mind at a liberal arts college in a religious studies department. I changed out the old curriculum which was canonically based with a new curriculum that did not include categories like "Old Testament," "Hebrew Bible," "New Testament," "Apocrypha" or the like. I did not want to continue to arrange the curriculum around religious categories that preferenced one particular religious tradition over another.
All went well until I offered my Christian Origins course. I enrolled six people. Then I offered my Ancient Israel course. Again I enrolled six people (not the same six, and in a different semester). Usually my courses enrolled 25-30, so these numbers were weird. So I decided to try an experiment. I changed the name of the Christian Origins course but kept everything else the same - course description, syllabus, exercises. I put it on the books as The New Testament and Christians Origins. The class enrolled at 25. I didn't get a chance to try out The Old Testament and Ancient Israel because I moved to Rice before I retaught the course.
Now I have thought about this experience a lot because it taught me something about the expectations of young people in America and their interests. The young people in my courses are not aware of the debates of the academy until they enroll and we get talking about them. What do most of them know? They know the words "Old Testament" and "New Testament" and they think they know what this means in terms of content.
Does the biblical canon influence us in America? Certainly, everything from politics (where I see the religious bible right moving to a hostile takeover [akin to what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention]) to literature. And wherever I have taught (Michigan, Illinois, Texas), it (as the "Word of God") has a prominent hold on a very large portion of our youth. And yet, in my experience as a teacher, these young people (before they enroll) know next to nothing about what the texts actually say, what the difference is between historical readings and doctrinal readings, how, when, and why the canon came together as it did and what the heck this means, and so forth.
So this has prompted me to create a 100-level course called "Introduction to Biblical Studies" (which I taught in Illinois for years) and now "Introduction to New Testament Studies" (which I teach here at Rice). In this course I cover everything from oral culture, literacy, manuscript traditions, development of canon, diversity of early Christianity, and historical readings (source, form, redaction, social scientific, feminist, tradition, rhetorical, literary, post-modern criticisms - and how these types of readings differ from doctrinal readings in terms of purpose and questions). Frankly, I wish that every college in America offered this type of course. It is unbelievable how much this information excites students and motivates them to want to know more.
There is another issue that we face in the academy. Jobs. There is a difference between seminaries, divinity schools, private (often religious-affiliated) universities, liberal arts colleges, and state universities. Each of these places has different needs in terms of teaching religion, and when you go on the job market, you need to be clear and honest with yourself about which of these types of departments you want to work in.
For a department in a religious-affiliated school, including seminaries, the concentration there is going to be teaching canonical materials, and often the historical method is trumped by theological hermeneutics. This doesn't mean that the historical method isn't taught, but that doctrinal issues and contemporary hermeneutics are going to be emphasized. The students who are enrolling in the courses are enrolling mainly to become ministers of a faith tradition, or who just want to learn more about contemporary hermeneutical readings of the material. Historical methods and linguistics are background or serve to support the doctrinal hermeneutics going on in the course. These schools need and want people in Old Testament, New Testament, Gospels, Paul, Systematic theology, Ethics, and so forth. There are a lot more jobs in these types of institutions than non-affiliated religious studies departments.
When non-affiliated religious studies departments post in Old Testament and New Testament, or Biblical Studies, what they are after is someone who handles the religious textual, exegetical and ideological traditions from a historical perspective. This is different from a post in Early Jewish or Christian Studies which is likely looking for a historian who handles social, political, gender and religious history.
The Society of Biblical Literature is a society that works with both of these constituencies, as does AAR. These are societies whose members include everyone from theologians, to philosophers, to historians, to textual critics, no matter the religious tradition studied. Neither society is exclusively secular or exclusively religiously-affiliated. Both interests are found among its members and its units.
It is not new news that there are over a hundred people who apply ever year and do not get jobs. In my time, fifteen years ago, it was even worse than this. In the eighties, PhD programs admitted many more people into their programs than could ever be employed by the market. This led to many people not getting jobs, and ending up with an enormous amount of debt that they couldn't pay off. And yes, they ended up driving cabs, or going back to law school. I ended up working in university administration part time for three years, until I finally got my first tenure-track position at Illinois Wesleyan. Helmut Koester is the one who encouraged me, telling me that the average wait was going to be 3 to 5 years post-graduation.
The universities sobered up to this fact and realized how unethical it was to continue to put out so many PhDs with so much debt and no way to pay. So in the nineties, they consolidated their funding. This meant that they began to let into the program far fewer people but funding each of these people more fully. This hasn't fixed the problem entirely - there are still PhDs that never get a tenure-track job - but it has helped - and it has made getting into PhD program highly competitive.
Where does this leave me in terms of my thoughts on the subject? I understand Koester's position on the reality of American religiosity and what this means for those of us who study and teach early Christianity. I understand Avalos' position to rid the historical study of early Judaism and Christianity from its canonical limitations (including the name "Biblical Studies"), because these limitations support religious and theological interests. I personally have negotiated this front by breaking canonical boundaries in my own scholarship, creating sections at SBL which cross canonical boundaries, and teaching beyond these boundaries. But this doesn't mean to me that the biblical texts aren't essential to early Judaism and Christianity. In fact, their importance reverberates for centuries and centuries, and yes, they are still with us.
In my opinion, teaching the bible is more important than ever in America. We are faced with the religious right taking over the Republican party, a party who has just reformed its platform to denounce abortion even in cases of harm to the mother and rape. How many of us are now seeing emerge in our communities public policies like teaching creationism as science? What is next?
So rather than debate the semantics of Biblical Studies, I say we need to concentrate on educating our youth about the history of the Bible and its influence, so that our young people will have the information to evaluate for themselves the claims that religious faith traditions make before it really is too late.