Professor Ronald S. Hendel recently published an opinion piece in Biblical Archaeology Review
(see “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies,” available online here
) in which he argues that “[in] recent years [SBL] has changed its position on the relationship between faith and reason in the study of the Bible.” We encourage all SBL members and other interested individuals to read the article in its entirety, then to join a conversation about the SBL and its standards for membership and organizational affiliations (see further below).
The questions that Professor Hendel raises are interesting and important, and we look forward to the discussion that follows. However, we first must clarify a few points of fact with regard to the article in question. In what follows, each “claim” is a summary of one of Professor Hendel’s main points, not a verbatim quotation.
Claim: The SBL has diluted its standards of critical scholarship, as evidenced in the 2004 change to the Society mission statement.
Clarification: The Society’s mission has been changed a number of times, but in no case did such a revision reflect a decreased commitment to the standards of academic excellence, nor did the changes dilute the standards of critical scholarship. One iteration of the Society mission, quoted in Hans Dieter Betz’s 1997 presidential address, seems worthy of consideration here. The SBL’s purpose includes “stimulat[ing] the critical investigation of biblical literature … [and] widen[ing] the conversation partners of all interested in biblical literature” (JBL 117 : 4). Throughout its history, the SBL has seen no inherent contradiction between “critical investigation” and including in the conversation “all interested in biblical literature,” a perspective that is consistent with the SBL’s current mission statement: “to foster biblical scholarship.” In short, “critical inquiry—that is to say, reason” has not been “deliberately deleted” from the SBL mission. SBL has never “removed the phrase ‘critical investigation’” from any initiative.
Claim: ASOR and AAR stopped meeting with the SBL “due to petty disputes among the leaders of these groups.”
Clarification: ASOR began meeting independently from the SBL in the late 1990s and has reaffirmed on several occasions since then its preference for a meeting in the same locale and just prior to, but independent of, the SBL Annual Meeting. In 2003, the AAR decided unilaterally to discontinue its joint meeting with the SBL. The SBL was informed of this decision at the same time as AAR members, who had no voice in the decision. Very soon after that decision, AAR began an intense review of the decision. In fact, part of the review led to the decision to meet in San Francisco at the same time, since SBL had already contracted to meet there. Since then, the SBL has worked tirelessly to restore a return to meeting in the same city and at the same time. In sum, the issues of SBL’s past and future partnerships with ASOR and AAR are complex and not due simply to “petty disputes among leaders.”
Claim: Since the AAR decision to discontinue joint meetings, the SBL has loosened its standards as to the types of organizations that can be included at the SBL Annual Meeting.
Clarification: The presence of affiliate organizations at the Annual Meeting has a long history, as evidenced by the 2001 program book’s listing of 237 “additional meetings” (i.e., meetings by groups other than AAR- or SBL-sponsored program units), some of which were sponsored by confessionally oriented or denominationally based groups. Further, even granting that the Society for (not “of”) Pentecostal Studies began meeting with the SBL only recently, one doubts that they would agree that they are “fundamentalist,” in light of the prominence they give to their dialogues with the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches U.S.A., the Wesleyan Theological Society, and the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the second example provided, began meeting with the SBL-AAR in 1972 and became part of the Annual Meeting program in 1993. The ASRS has met with the SBL continually. Suffice it to say that the ASRS’s meeting with the SBL is by no means a recent development, let alone somehow related to a claimed loosening of standards.
Claim: The current SBL environment, which includes instances of proselytizing activity as well as veiled theological denunciations of certain individuals or groups, is hostile to a critical approach to biblical studies.
Clarification: Although SBL invites vigorous discussion of all relevant topics, proselytizing activity is neither welcome nor permitted in SBL-sponsored events and publications and is inconsistent with the SBL’s core values: accountability, inclusiveness, collaboration, leadership in biblical scholarship, collegiality, productivity, commitment, responsiveness to change, communication, scholarly integrity, efficiency, and tolerance. Consequently, any instances of proselytizing activity should be reported to SBL staff. Further, we are unaware of any RBL reviews that even “hint” that anyone is “going to hell.” If any SBL member can point us to such a review, we will immediately remove the review and disavow its sentiments.
The discussion has been closed as of August 15, 2010. Updates and additional discussions will be posted on the Home page- In the News.
All responses will be vetted before being posted below; comments containing personal attacks or disparaging remarks about any group or individual will not be posted. Among the type of issues that might be discussed:
- To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?
- Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?
- If you favor a standards-based approach, what specific standards would you advocate for SBL membership?
95. Ivan De Silva
(posted August 15, 2010)
“My heart, for reasons of its own, gently grieves.” So ends Ronald S. Hendel’s apologia for letting his membership in the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) “lapse”. But even to the casual reader of his article, published in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2010), it is evident that ‘gently grieving’ is not what he is doing.
Hendel’s point is that SBL is moving away from an exclusively reason based approach to biblical studies and is reaching out more and more to Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups, which, according to Hendel, are at best on the fringes of distinguished academia.
Hendel lists one of the disasters that has resulted from this approach: SBL is now featuring book reviews from people who explicitly condemn the ordinary methods of critical scholarly inquiry and instead posit the religious authority of orthodox Christian faith. His ‘smoking gun’ in the latter case is Bruce Waltke’s recently published review of Mathew Fox’ second volume on the Book of Proverbs (published in the Anchor Yale Bible series). Hendel seems to think that Waltke’s views on Proverbs are based on faith and not on reason. After a brief comment on Hendel’s presuppositions I will restrict my comments to this complaint.
Hendel’s source of grief is that SBL is bringing together what the Enlightenment put asunder – viz., faith and reason. To Hendel, faith and reason are oil and water. They do not mix - especially not in biblical studies. For, as Hendel puts it in a neat tautology, “Facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.”
But surely this is flawed reasoning. For, while few would dispute the truth of the first clause, it is the rest of his sentence that is a problem. Because Hendel seems to be offering as a fact, what is really a presupposition or even an opinion. By juxtaposing his first clause, “facts are facts,” with the rest of the sentence, which is not a ‘fact’ (in the technical sense of that word), he confuses ‘fact’ with ‘presupposition’. “Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.” Fair enough, but that too is just an opinion. And just because Hendel and other scholars with similar presuppositions agree on it, still doesn’t make it a fact.
Hendel’s dualistic presupposition, that faith and reason do not mix in biblical studies, needs clarification. What exactly does he mean that they do not mix? Does he mean that scholars who do their work from a faith perspective cannot produce truly scholarly works, which can stand up to the highest critical scrutny? I don’t know but I think this is what he is saying. If so, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Hendel. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions have produced scholars who did, and continue to do, both – practice their faith and produce monumental works of biblical scholarship. It is hard to believe that Hendel can make this claim in light of this ‘fact’. And just to make sure we understand, such scholars do their work fully believing that the Bible they are studying is divine revelation. Their faith informs their scholarship and they view their studies as not merely for adding to the intellectual understanding of the Bible but also to further the kingdom of God. Hendel begins his article by quoting Pascal. I believe he does so out of context as Pascal would be the last person one could imagine supporting Hendel’s thesis. Pascal was not an Enlightenment dualist. Credo ut intelligam would have been his motto as it was to Anselm and still is to others.
It appears that Hendel thinks evangelical scholars who study the Bible will make pronouncements about it which they cannot justify on accepted scholarly methods. And when asked to defend their views will say something like, “I can’t prove it but I believe it based on faith.” Hendel tips his hat in this direction when he takes Waltke to task for claiming Solomonic authorship for the book of Proverbs.I will now focus the rest of my comments to this particular issue.
Hendel points to a sentence from Waltke’s review, wherein Waltke is describing the basic character of evangelical scholarship in contrast to critical scholarship that relies on reason alone. After quoting Waltke, Hendel claims, “Instead of reason, ‘faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ – as interpreted by evangelical scholars – should be the rule in Biblical scholarship. Waltke dismisses critical inquiry as an annoying nuisance…” But this is simply false and is academically dishonest. Try as I might, I could not find any evidence that Waltke dismisses critical inquiry as an “annoying nuisance”.
A simple question will demonstrate this: would Waltke have responded to Fox in discussion had Waltke thought Fox’s work an “annoying nuisance? I think not. Instead Waltke engages Fox at a scholarly and critical level raising questions of fact about the book of Proverbs. I suspect that if there is anything Waltke considers an “annoying nuisance” (Hendel’s phrase), it is the Troeltschian and Spinozistic presuppositions that Hendel, et al. bring to scholarship. But that is a discussion for another time.
What particularly irks Hendel about Waltke’s review is Waltke’s conclusion that: “The factual data validates Solomon’s authorship of Prov[erbs] 1:1-24:33”. Here Hendel fires a barrage of invectives, referring to Waltke as rationally absurd, religiously dogmatic and, later on, to carrying out partisan attacks. However, as far as I can tell, Waltke’s statement is not a conclusion based on “religious dogma.” Rather it is made after a thorough analysis of Fox’ arguments for dating Prov. 10-29 to the eight-seventh century monarchy. Waltke carefully weighs Fox’s critique of K.A. Kitchen’s data, which would date Prov. 1 – 24 to the Solomonic period, and concludes that Fox’ evidence does not overthrow Kitchen’s data. This is not religious dogma or rational absurdity; it is what scholars do with facts. That Waltke and Fox should reach opposite conclusions on the same set of facts ought not to surprise us. What ought to surprise us are accusations that one or the other is ‘rationally absurd’. Hendel does not want to accept that reasoning consists of both facts and reflection on those facts. And when reasoning one’s presuppositions come into play. Waltke and Fox interpret the facts differently. To accuse one of them of rational absurdity …now that is absurd.
Hendel does provide one reason why anyone who argues for Solomonic authorship of Prov. 1-24 is “rationally absurd”, viz., the book is written in post-Mosaic Hebrew - “as Waltke ought to know.” This chastisement is undeserved, since two paragraphs after affirming Solomonic authorship, Waltke writes the following: “the only putative evidence Fox offers for an eight –seventh-century date is the presence of Aramaisms in the text…But surely we ought not to assume that Aramaic was unknown in Solomon’s court. Accoding to the Deuteronomist, Rezon, ruler of Aram, was Israel’s adversary ‘as long as Solomon lived’ (1 Kgs 11:25).” Hendel does not offer any counter argument to this.
And I would add further, since Hendel intimates that Waltke “ought to know” (better?), that in his An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, P. 1.4.1, pp. 11-13, Waltke discusses the difficulty in dating a text’s composition from its extant preservation since in the process of transmission an original text may undergo archaizing, modernizing and smoothing. As an example Waltke refers to Gillis Gerleman whose studies compared the synoptic portions of 1 Chronicles with their parallels in the Pentateuch. Gerleman concluded that the Chronicler used a modernizing text type of the Pentateuch. In fact, Waltke’s own Harvard doctoral dissertation demonstrated that the Samaritan Pentateuch reflects a still further modernizing of the Pentateuchal text. Thus Hendel’s argument that the Proverbs are non Solomonic because the language is post Solomonic is simplistic. Note that Waltke does not claim the whole book to be from Solomon since the data will not support that. It is only for chapters 1-24 that he claims Solomonic authorship because here the data is cogent.
Finally, we must attend to the real problem that Hendel sees in SBL publishing Waltke’s review. He does not mind Waltke having his views, although nearly all that he has said points in the opposite direction. What he objects to is that such views go against SBL’s stated purpose, which, according to Hendel used to be “…to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.” (his quote). The problem for Hendel is that in recent years SBL has altered this purpose and now it is merely to, “foster biblical scholarship.” But in taking out the phrase, ‘critical investigation’, Hendel believes SBL has abandoned the place of reason in biblical scholarship. I disagree. As I see it what SBL has done is realize that things could not continue status quo ante. The rise of top notch evangelical scholarship has demonstrated that faith and reason are not incompatible. And to SBL’s credit they have come to recognize that to limit its membership only to those who hold to the dominance of reason, as opposed to the use of reason, in biblical scholarship, is simply wrong and have adjusted their orientation accordingly. Hendel ought to do the same. It is the presupposition that modern biblical scholarship must be carried out independently of traditional Jewish or Christian doctrinal affirmations that evangelical scholars reject. And they reject it because there is not one good reason for accepting that faith and reason are like oil and water. And merely pointing to all the foolish and false ideas some evangelical scholars have come up with will not do. One can easily construct a similar list of nonsense propounded by scholars with Hendel’s presuppositions.
Hendel’s article does not follow the axiom he claims ought to govern biblical scholarship: reason. The article is more an elitist diatribe than a reasoned approach that furthers the discussion. When he calls Waltke’s review a ‘partisan attack’ (not pausing to consider that he may be doing the same) and claims that in it Waltke hints Hendel is going to hell, one has to wonder where reason is in the discussion.
In conclusion, the specific comments of Waltke that Hendel finds offensive were originally made when Waltke commended Fox for seriously engaging with evangelical scholars. As indeed Fox has done by critically interacting with Waltke and Kitchen. It would seem to me, then, that Hendel should really be directing his invective at Fox instead of SBL. What Hendel should really be asking is this: “why is a ‘brilliant…Jewish scholar…’ (to use Hendel’s own words) like Fox critically interacting with a ‘rationally absurd’ and ‘religiously dogmatic’ scholar like Waltke? It would be interesting to see Hendel’s response.
 Hendel makes no attempt to distinguish that Waltke only affirms Solomonic authorship of the first 24 chapters of Proverbs. Hendel’s comments indicate that Waltke claims such authorship for the whole book.
 I owe this point to Bruce Waltke, in a personal correspondence.
94. Kay S. Richter
(posted July 14, 2010)
I am a pastor who has some post-graduate training. I’d be disappointed if some abstract “standards” were set for who can and cannot be a member of SBL. I joined before I had a master’s degree, and I have appreciated the opportunities to listen and respond and present (if I chose to submit papers). OTOH, I’d be disappointed if papers were presented that were shoddy work—badly supported arguments, statements without any evidence or ideas presented without a consistent use of the person’s choice of methods for analysis. I’d be disappointed in that sort of presentation, even if I agreed with the final conclusions of the paper.
I’m glad that SBL welcomes all perspectives on the biblical literature. All rigorous study of the biblical literature will show its own bias and priorities. Those who believe that unbiased facts about the past can be discovered and reported show a strong faith in objectivism. Those who believe that the perspective of faith is the only way to read the biblical accounts show a strong faith in the words of our ancestors and the process of passing down those words. I disagree with some perspectives that I’ve heard—some on the “liberal” side, some on the “conservative” side. I also believe that I need to continue listening to them, because I am a pastor and I need to learn to listen when members of the congregations I serve disagree with my perspectives.
I was disappointed to hear that Mr. Hendel and his colleagues were invited to a seemingly professional gathering, only to be subject to proselytizing efforts by the hosts of that event. If indeed it was NOT an SBL event, but one sponsored by the other group, perhaps we need to make it more clear which events are SBL-sponsored and which are not. I know what events I will and won’t be attending—I’ll stick with the “official” SBL events. I agree with Mr. Hendel that it is not professional to proselytize. Professionals present their views in the best and most convincing ways they are able. If someone happens to feel convicted enough to change their ideas (or their faith), that is a matter for a personal discussion outside of the professional setting. Should he and his colleagues show up at one of the congregations I serve, THAT would be a place for proselytizing. My professional responsibilities change when someone comes into that space and setting.
On one other matter … I was saddened when AAR & SBL meetings were split and glad to see that there has been some effort to put them back in the same places at the same times. I have a hard enough time getting to one meeting per year; two are positively unworkable … and I am a member of both SBL and AAR. Many thanks to those who are working behind the scenes to bring the various professional societies into a more cooperative venue.
93. Craig Keener
(posted July 14, 2010)
My own research interest has involved especially reading texts in their historical context. I have sometimes been shocked at “methods” I have heard presented at SBL (some of which are simply variations on forcing texts into the service of one’s ideologies), but not just in recent years. (It was more so nearly twenty years ago, before I knew which sessions to avoid.) For that matter, some older expressions of form criticism were rather speculative.
Nevertheless, censorship can hardly be the answer, and whoever would shape the criteria for censorship would likely splinter the discipline like early fundamentalists multiplying sects. Indeed, our conversation is enriched by voices from a variety of social and theological locations. African, Asian and Latin American scholars have provided insights that have challenged my western blind spots, both in terms of my methodological presuppositions and readings of texts I had not considered. (And not just from biblical scholars: for example, though Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts inform my reading of Genesis, many lacunae in my understanding have been reduced by reading it together with my wife, a historian from rural Congo, who has enlightened me about experiences of pastoralism, natural childbirth, the existential dilemma of infertility, and other elements of the text foreign to my own experience.) A range of other approaches likewise provide perspective. Certainly literary critics have directed our attention to the ideologies of texts that some of us more historically-oriented scholars left to ourselves would have neglected.
When we “play by the rules,” we are agreeing to a certain framework of minimally agreed-upon assumptions that allow dialogue, but this does not mean that these minimal assumptions are the only views that any of us hold. Many of us write for religious as well as academic circles; without some religious interests many of us would not have entered biblical studies. (For example, although an atheist can do biblical studies, I lacked the remotest interest in this discipline when I was an atheist.) NT studies would have been much poorer without Catholic voices such as Raymond Brown or Joseph Fitzmyer. Like Catholic scholarship a generation ago, evangelical scholarship (broadly defined) is maturing, and voices like N. T. Wright and (more traditionally historically-oriented) Craig Evans enrich the conversation. When Jewish, Christian, agnostic and other scholars dialogue, they can learn ideas they might not have considered on their own. Similarly, traditional critics rightly challenge more conservative scholars’ blind spots, but the latter sometimes also grapple with the extant evidence in disciplined ways that can challenge their less conservative peers’ blind spots.
It is important to “play by the rules” for the sake of dialogue, but apart from basic standards (like fairness) not everyone today agrees what all the rules are. If we are genuinely open-minded, we must allow challenges to overturn a previous consensus when better arguments come along. (For example, the “criterion of dissimilarity” once dominant in historical Jesus studies—implicitly used by some to support Jesus’ uniqueness—has fallen on harder times in this generation, as scholars increasingly recognize and affirm Jesus’ Jewishness.) If by contrast “the rules” constitute a set of traditional doctrines to which members of the academy must give uncritical assent, and other voices are excluded, there is little sociological difference between us and fundamentalists (except that we adhere to different sets of doctrines).
92. Mark W. Hamilton
(posted July 9, 2010)
Like most others, I’m in basic agreement with Professor Hendel’s desire to make sure that SBL is an organization of scholars who pursue rigorous study of the ancient texts and their historical ambiences. Not every approach to the Bible can find a place here, nor should it. Special pleading, appeals to unduplicatable experiences, and the sort of religious in-house talk that he rightly decries have no place in the academy because they detract from our aim of discovering what happened and why with the phenomena we study. Certainly he is correct that theological positions cannot legitimately be used as trump cards for essentially historical and literary questions, even if keeping them at bay may not be as easy as he seems to imagine.
However, the essay and especially some of the responses to it do raise important questions:
1. Is ideologically-focused criticism out of bounds in all cases, or only in some? What criteria help us decide?
2. Is theology (or some other form of existentially significant engagement with our texts) out of bounds, or only when it is “uncritical”? (Ruling it out altogether would exclude such luminaries as a Rudolf Bultmann or a Gerhard von Rad from our guild, surely an undesirable outcome.) As those of us who teach in seminaries know, systematic theologians can be very philosophically sophisticated people, and critical biblical scholars can profitably engage in work with them. The problem with the positions Hendel criticizes may not be so much that they’re theological as that they’re unsophisticated theology.
3. If what holds us together as a society is our study of the texts (and other artifacts) that arose in ancient Israel and its descendant traditions (especially Judaism and Christianity and to some extent Islam and later religions), what does critical study of the history of interpretation (including ecclesiastical interpretations) look like in the SBL? We have studied ancient interpreters for many decades. If there is a cut-off line, where is it, and why? To cut to the chase, isn’t there a place for study of modern traditions’ use of the Bible as long as the study is critical (accurate, fair, historically-oriented, non-proselytizing)? Or must we leave such study to the AAR?
4. In our quite proper focus on the historical and literary questions about origins and development of the texts assembled in the various books called the Bible, how do we avoid a narrowing of intellectual interest and a rigid attention to only a few permissible questions? We are talking here about disciplinary boundaries, which is always difficult. And we are talking about academic politics, which is even more difficult.
A different tack: out of curiosity, I went back to volume 1 of JBL to see what papers were presented in the first two SBL meetings. They included “On the Construction of Titus ii.13” (Ezra Abbot); “On Romans ix.5” (Timothy Dwight); “A Paraphrase of the Song of Deborah” (Thomas Rich); “The Babylonian Element in Ezekiel” (C. H. Toy); “On the Use of [Leb] and [Kardia] in the Old and New Testaments” (DR Goodwin); “On the Use of Psyche and Pneuma and Connected Words in the Sacred Writings” (DR Goodwin); “On the Construction of Romans ix.5” (Ezra Abbot); “Examination of Exodus xxxiii.7-11” (CM Mead); “The Everlasting Father” [mostly Isa 9:6] (TW Chambers); and “The Relation of Ezekiel to the Levitical Law” (Frederic Gardiner).
The founders’ concerns are recognizable as ours, and surely similar things appear all over our SBL program today, though in company with topics that our forebears surely would not have recognized. It makes me wonder if we’re not over-reacting.
Some musings from an early mid-career scholar.
91. Ivy Plank
(posted July 9, 2010)
I am a newcomer to Biblical Studies and to Sbl, and am looking forward to attending my first meeting in November
I think critical thinking informed by reason should be the tool of investigation in Biblical Studies, and that the subject should be devoid of special pleading; but, at the same time, the USA prides itself on freedom of speech and religion, of being a nation where all opinions are given an opportunity to be heard.
In my opinion, therefore, adherence to strict standards of scholarship should be SBL’s criterion for oral presentations or written works, not one’s belief system, whether that system can be described as faith or reason based.
In the RBL’s newsletters I have received, I have read several reviews of books that were written from a faith based point of view, reviews in which reviewers did not hesitate to praise scholarly methdology and/or, severely criticise what the reviewer considered to be loose scholarship. There has also been praise for evidence of sound scholarship and unfavourable criticism of weak scholarship of books written from a reason based stance. I think membership in SBL of both groups can be beneficial .
90. Richard W. Medina
(posted July 9, 2010)
I write in response to Mark S. Smith’s (# 47) and Alan Lenzi’s (# 63) proposal that Master’s level students not be allowed to deliver papers at the meetings. It underestimates the potential/capacity of some budding scholars to do serious research. Still working on my MA degree, I read two papers at the annual meetings for the program unit Wisdom in Israelite and Cognate Traditions. My participation was to a great extent an opportunity to interact with experienced scholars in the field on my research work. These papers turned out to be good contributions that were accepted for publication by foremost European journals. See “Job’s Entrée into a Ritual of Mourning as Seen in the Opening Prose of the Book of Job,” Die Welt des Orients 38 (2008): 194–210; and “Life and Death Viewed as Physical and Lived Spaces: Some Preliminary Thoughts from Proverbs,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122.2 (2010): 199-211.
I do not support that allowance of reading papers at the meetings be based on a doctorate pursued/earned. I think that the proper standard is in revising the quality of research in submissions. I am grateful to the program unit management for not discriminating me on a basis of degree-holding.
89. Ron Hendel
(posted July 6, 2010)
It seems to me that if Philip Davies, John Van Seters, and I agree on something (mirabile dictu!)—along with eloquent evangelical scholars (e.g. comment 68), distinguished senior scholars (including European scholars, comment 84 and the BAR comments page), and past presidents of SBL (see the link to Jim Sanders in comment 63)—then the problem is arguably real. The examples adduced by many members make it clear that academic standards have declined at the annual meeting and in the RBL.
I would like to revise my proposal regarding outside groups (comment 18). After reflection and conversation with my evangelical scholarly peers, I recommend that confession-oriented sections and groups be located in the “Additional Meetings” portion of the annual meetings, as they were prior to SBL’s outreach to such groups. This would restore the recognition of the discursive difference between humanities-oriented critical biblical scholarship and confession-oriented scholarship.
I wish to thank my colleagues for inviting me back into the Society. But I should clarify that I’m sticking my neck out not for my sake— I’m old, grouchy, and have tenure—but for younger biblical scholars, including my students, who need an authentic scholarly society (devoted to critical biblical scholarship) in which to grow and flourish.
P.S. If you’re not yet bored with my comments, see http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/know357930.shtml.
88. Tom Shepherd
(posted July 1, 2010)
My previous post led to some e-mail exchanges between Jeffery Stackert and me. I came to understand better his objection to the free book offer made at the session. I made the offer at the request of the publisher without considering the ramifications. I agree with Jeffery that it was not appropriate. It illustrated poor judgment on my part. I apologize for this. I stand by the other statements in my previous post.
87. Michael V. Fox
(posted July 1, 2010)
Grand pronouncements such as “… I will not denounce my belief in God and in Jesus in the name of ‘critical scholarship’”(in the SBL website discussion Ronald Hendel’s article) show a gross misunderstanding of the issues Hendel raised. He was not opposing the faith of individual scholars but disputing its relevance to critical scholarship (which is to say, scholarship) and its appropriateness in the scholarly arena. The glory of critical scholarship is that it lets Jews and Christians, atheists and Wiccans, to join the same discussion on the same terms. As soon as one adduces an item of faith as a premise—whether it be a “belief in God and in Jesus” or Torah from Sinai or dialectical materialism—those who do not share the premise are excluded from the discussion and simply turn to more interesting territory.
I do not see why scholars would even want to bring their faith into the scholarly forum. Waltke is quite capable of taking me on in issues of structure, dating, interpretation, and more without drawing his faith from his holster. Even his ideas about the Solomonic authorship of Proverbs, though obviously motivated by religious beliefs, can be legitimately (though dubiously) argued by scholarly criteria. When one imbeds faith-based ideas as premises of an argument, communication is at an end, though sometimes it is worthwhile simply to ignore the religious irrelevancies, as I do when reading Waltke’s fine Proverbs commentary. In fact, I barely noticed the offending sentences in the review. So while Hendel is right to condemn religious intrusions in scholarly venues, in practice the dangers may not be all that great. In our strange field of study, we learn to avoid such irrelevancies.
86. Richard Wood
(posted July 1, 2010)
I commend the powers that be in the SBL for notifying members of this article even if I am unsure of their positions or the reasons for their actions. While I subscribe to BAR I had not as yet read Ron Hendel's article, which I did find of interest.
Ron Hendel's words need to be heard and taken seriously. If some of his "facts" were misplaced he still made points which should be heard. Hendel decried the recent presence of various conservative Christian groups in the SBL. Yet such groups have been present for some time and are at most only a symptom of the problem. There have always been many different groups in the SBL, both formal and informal, pushing issues as well as different ideologies. The pushing has always had more of a political flavor than an academic tone. Conservative evangelical Christians are only one such group and even then it is only a minority within that group. The problem is the different ideologies which some people insist on pushing both in evangelical circles as well as many other groups.
Ideology stands over and against the reason for which Ron Hendel has argued. As I understand ideology is something every person has and it cannot be totally removed from any analysis of a biblical text. Even so it can be acknowledged and stated and what must be stated is that the various ideologies floating through academic circles today have become dominant. When ideology becomes the dominant aspect of a scholarly work there is a problem. When the ideology with which a person starts overrides reason and common sense then there is a problem with the ensuing scholarship. Much of what goes on today in the Society of Biblical Literature is a problem and in one person's opinion it has become a big problem.
At this point I have no suggestions about what to do. I am not sure allowing my membership to lapse is the right course of action as I enjoy the meetings and find them of worth. Even if I do not manage to avoid all the foolishness, and there is more than enough, I still find much of worth. But I do not hold out great confidence for the directions I see scholarship taking in the Society. Matters would be greatly helped if all people could examine their presuppositions, but such is not likely to happen anytime soon.
85. Mark A. Christian
(posted July 1, 2010)
If the discussion were to continue, increased participation by our German, French, Italian, and other international friends, who will hopefully continue to enrich SBL and attend the annual meetings, would be most welcome.
84. Ernst Axel Knauf
(posted July 1, 2010)
Reviewing the first 77 responses, I noticed that all scholars whom I happen to know personally (and respect) join Hendel's site of the debate. So do I. Statements of evangelical beliefs in SBL publications (and the inclusion of books which solely address an evangelical audience in RBL) are inappropiate and detrimental to the reputation of an a society with academic ambitions. It is one thing to have religious convictions (as does, I suppose, everybody participating in this debate, including me), but quite another to utter them at inappropriate places and to audiences who would prefer not to be preached, or confessed, at.
As for the relationship of faith and reason, it has been clarified, as far as I know, for Catholics by St Thomas Aquinas, and for Jews by Maimonides—tolle, lege.
83. Larry Hurtado
(posted June 29, 2010)
I find Hendel’s jeremiad a bit over the top, personally. Having attended SBL annual meetings fairly regularly since the mid-70s, I have noted growth and diversification in those attending, the material on display in the booths in the book-area, and the topics that form programme units. But I don’t see the cause for the alarm (panic??) that Hendel expresses. The diversification in membership and subjects covered goes back to the 60s at least, initially with the appearance of top-quality Roman Catholic scholars, more and more women scholars, Evangelical scholars, and scholars interested in various newer approaches, and in various demographics of scholarship. But that simply reflects the growing diversity in the study of the biblical texts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The SBL has become not only the major scholarly body in the study of biblical texts but also has sought to promote an engagement of biblical scholarship with the wider public. Hence, no bar to anyone registering for the annual meeting, and no bar to membership. I support that stance, and I don’t fear the SBL being swamped by alleged fundamentalists, anti-intellectuals, etc.
It is important that the SBL Programme Committee take seriously the approval of programme units and unit chairs. It is also important that programme unit chairs and steering committees take seriously the responsibility to ensure solid scholarship in papers and sessions. These sessions are places for vigorous *scholarly based* discussion and even disputation (as has often characterized sessions for many years), but, of course, not for religious conversion efforts.
Hendel’s reading of the AAR split from the SBL is simply misinformed, and suitable corrected by the recent announcement that the two bodies will re-commence joint meeting arrangements from 2011. In this and a few other matters, he seems unduly alarmist. Come on back, Ron, it’s not so bad!
82. Philip Davies
(posted June 29, 2010)
I am in general disappointed by the tone of most of the responses so far. There is an issue here: is the SBL a forum for study of the Bible or is it an scholarly society? It would be nice if the SBL could fulfill both aims, but it can’t. As a forum for study of the Bible, it can and should include any kind of program or group dealing with the Bible. But it doesn’t. As a scholarly society, it ought to insist that every program unit and every group with which it may be affiliated accept the principle of open, honest and critical enquiry. But it doesn’t. I do not blame the SBL for trying to compromise: compromise is not always the worst option, and it may well be the answer here. But if so, some more explicit guidelines would be a very good idea. And in the end don’t we want to spread biblical scholarship among those who are unfamiliar with it? Isn’t that our real goal in reaching out?
The question of faith versus reason is irrelevant. Any evidence in the public domain can be used in critical discussion. Most religious belief is predicated, at least partly, on evidence that is not public and beliefs that cannot be publicly demonstrated. This does not mean banning religion or religious belief, but only insisting that religious beliefs have the status of an unverified and unverifiable opinion and cannot be used to support a scholarly argument. One can and should discuss religious beliefs and traditions, and the role of religious belief in interpretation. But never affirm any of them in scholarly discourse.
There is an alternative: is to distinguish two disciplines: biblical studies and Scripture. Ideal in some ways, but difficult in practice. The two disciplines are so integrated historically and share so much common discourse (not to mention the inability or unwillingness of many publishers to accept the distinction) that such a distinction will be even harder to enforce that the distinction between scholarly and unscholarly.
81. Daniel Darko
(posted June 29, 2010)
It is part of academic practice to listen to Hendel’s concerns and frustrations in the attempt to strengthen our practices. I find the response at the SBL site apt and persuasive. Hendel may be right in insisting on critical scholarship but what is ‘critical Biblical scholarship? The fact that SBL meetings serve as platform for academic exchange, among other things, on the Biblical text (the sacred text for Jews and Christians) is the reason confessional elements are bound to find their way in our discussions. It is rather healthy to invite different positions to the table for a rich learning experience. I found it intriguing to hear a debate on the Holy Spirit in the only visit yet to one of the groups Hendel deems fundamentalist and I was positively surprised to see the critical engagement of the subject and the internal critique of certain stance within their ranks. The SBL has not departed from its objectives. Perhaps, we should encourage more open discussion on debatable matters while promoting Biblical scholarship that serves Jewish and Christian communities. Faith cannot be divorced from the study of sacred texts—even if a scholar does not deem it as such. Most of our members are of Jewish, Christian or some sort of faith background! ‘Denominational cleansing’ at SBL will not be healthy for us. Fundamentalism is not akin to scholarship but Hendel may like to revisit the criteria he uses in assigning the label ‘fundamentalism’ and clarify his view. Let us find a way to encourage critical scholarship without requiring the misnomer of a ‘faithless’ Biblical scholarship.
80. James Linville
(posted June 29, 2010)
I’m very much in agreement with Prof. Hendel’s piece, although I don’t know enough of the institutional history to comment on the accuracy of some of his statements.
I’m quite impressed by the quality of much work done by SBL members and often have no idea if the researcher is a devout or lapsed Catholic, Jew, or Mormon, or has always been an atheist or has recently converted to Hinduism. Still, there is an unfortunate privileging of “biblical” religious views and too much biblical exceptionalism at the SBL meetings. To talk of the Bible in ways that construe it as a completely different kind of work than any other religious document ever produced is a major compromise in academic principles.
The SBL should have more to do with scholarly groups dedicated to the study of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, or Taoist religious texts and cultural contexts than it does to Christian or Jewish groups seeking an intellectual engagement with their scriptures as an act of faith.
The SBL needs to separate the practice of a religion based on the Bible from the academic study of the Bible. The two are very different things. It does not mean that the adherence to religion teachings is wrong, silly, or ill-advised. It is just a matter of what kind of speech is contextually appropriate for a scholarly meeting. We like to have openness in class rooms, and yet we do not turn them into free-for-alls.
I’ve been concerned about the SBL for some time. When ruminating on whether to attend last year, I came came across a few items in the online program book and related sites that made me think twice, although I did end up attending. I’ve commented on my reservations elsewhere online, but for what it is worth, here they are rephrased.
The Christian Theological Research Fellowship program unit featured a paper called “Catastrophe Transformed: Suffering Together as the Dependent Body of Christ” whose abstract takes a decidedly unacademic position. An excerpt: “Societal efforts to resist human frailty and finitude have succeeded so well that people have come to believe that suffering and death should not apply to them, despite every evidence to the contrary. Then, when pain does come, when life ceases to go according to plan, it seems unprecedented, unfair, and catastrophic. This modern autonomous self thus suffers the incongruously heightened vulnerability of an endangered illusory self-sufficiency, an illusion to which the gospel offers an alternative both truer and more fully human: baptized into the body of a suffering Lord, they unite in interdependence; their solidarity equips them to endure suffering; and their willingness to share the suffering of their neighbors obliges them to put their strength and resources at the disposal of others.”
The offense is found in the assessment of the gospel as “truer and more fully human”. How this could pass muster for an academic conference is beyond me. Who can judge what is “more fully human”? Would the SBL accept a paper that argues the Buddhists have a better grip on what is human?
The session “Bible in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions”, while a fully valid topic for discussion, is also meant to “offer a forum for biblical professors and scholars from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions … to engage in critical study of the role of the Bible in eastern Christianity, past and present.” Why do they need a special session? Could not a Jew or a Catholic or a Wiccan learn enough about the role of scripture in eastern Orthodoxy to make a suitable contribution? Why is it kept in-house?
The Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship advertises itself thusly: “This distinctively Christian research organization is devoted to the exploration, development, and dissemination of the theology of T. F. Torrance and other theologians contributing to this endeavor. The society exists to promote and sustain fellowship and truth-seeking (fides quaerens intellectum) in theological reflection upon the Christian faith, within the mainstream of the Christian Church and tradition in light of the theological legacy of Thomas F. Torrance. We are a Christian Fellowship serving the Christian faith and the renewal of the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Certainly examining the influence of Torrence’s theology on the church is a valid academic enterprise. But serving and renewing faith is not a scholarly enterprise and the SBL should not align itself with that. Here the lack of demarcation between the practice and study of religion is plainly evident. Let me suggest that the meetings of this Fellowship be advertised in the SBL program only insofar as other church or synagogue services are advertised for the convenience of the faithful who may wish to leave the meeting and attend them.
I should add, however, that there is often too sharp a dichotomy drawn between secularists and the faithful. The polarization does not serve us well. Most religious people are not anti-intellectual fundamentalists and most secularists are not angry, self-centered spewers of radicalized rewritings of Dawkins’ polemics. I don’t see “secular” as meaning anti-Church or “atheist”. There is a certain professional agnosticism that is adopted when other religious traditions are studied. No one goes about the study of ancient Norse religion to glorify Thor or to denigrate the long dead Norsemen’s belief in Odin. We seek to understand that religious/cultural matrix as best as outsiders can.
The same should be true of the study of the religion of ancient Judah and its products, or the Bible as the scripture of the Church or Synagogue throughout their long histories. Religious insiders should not have to pretend to be outsiders, but should direct their work as if to outsiders and shape it to fit within the kind of academic conceptions and perspectives that are typically used in the study of other peoples’ religions. This need not exclude most religious people from making valid contributions to scholarship as is amply demonstrated over and over.
Still, I can appreciate that it may be beyond what some SBL members are comfortable with, but the SBL needs to be cognizant of its relationship to the wider disciplines of Religious Studies, History, Social Sciences and so forth. For instance, a paper implying that the ancient Israelites really were wrong to worship Baal should be as out of place in the SBL as a presumption in a Chinese studies conference that the old dynasties really did change when they lost the Mandate of Heaven due to abandoning ancient ideals.
Where the line should be drawn is whether one needs to appeal to some extraordinary power or quality to explain the origins, character or continued relevance of the text to a variety of religious groups or whether the academic enterprise is meant to serve the particular purposes or affirm the particular beliefs of a religious group showing reverence or claiming special insight into the text.
Contrary to what some SBL members have written elsewhere (most recently see the Bible and Interpretation article by Jim West (http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/sack357908.shtml), the Bible as the particular possession of the Church or Synagogue whose meaning is only accessible to members is not the basis for scholarship. Rather, it is part of the set of religious ideas surrounding the use of the Bible in modern religious contexts and, as such, should be regarded as the subject of critical scholarship, not its premise. It is is part of the boundary marking that virtually all religious groups do.
As a parting shot, consider a group calling itself something like “The Atheists Bible Study Fellowship” that claimed to study the Bible to further the “Atheist Agenda to rid the world of the influence of Religion” sought to hold meetings alongside the SBL. Would there not be an uproar? I myself would object most stridently against its inclusion. But this is just the flip side of the coin that is common currency in the SBL at present although, I must restate that hardly every believer considers the trades in it as an expression of their scholarship! There remains a lot of secular work done at the SBL but it is not as compatible with faith-based scholarship as many members hold.
The SBL’s mission should be the secular critical study of the production and role of the biblical materials in culture as only one facet of the long and complex history of human religiosity in general. This would put in on par with the secular study of other religious traditions from around the world and through time. The SBL cannot be all things to all people, and in many ways, a smaller SBL would be a stronger one, and more compatible as with the AAR.
79. J. Harold Ellens
(posted June 29, 2010)
I have read, and studied with care, Ronald S. Hendel’s opinion piece, Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies, in Biblical Archaeology Review, for Jul-Aug 2010. I have a two-sided response that is founded upon my 55 years of SBL membership and prompted by the fact that I am an editorial board member of BAR. I joined SBL when we met at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University every year and listend in awe to the great partiarchs of the biblical studies fields, never spending any time in sessions in which young scholars were trying out on members of the Learned Society their innovative and frequently untutored ideas. SBL has radically changed since 1956. However, two things must be said of Hendel’s piece.
First, he is correct in his claim that the SBL used to be a society in which rather esoteric literary, historical-critical, and formgeschichte research was presented almost exclusively in the programs of our annual national conferences. Today that is no longer so. The pre-conference and post-conference programs now tend to be sessions and workshops that present a philosophical or socio-psychological burden or worldview, rather than concentrating on the treatment of the biblical text. Moreover, in contrast to programming before the “young turks revolution” back in the late 60s, the conference book now lists annually a rather large number of program sessions which are ideological rather than text critical in nature. These include, as Hendel notes, programs that promote Fundamentalist Theology, Evangelical Theology, and other conservative worldviews.
Second, Hendel is wrong regarding the judgment he makes about this fact. He has forgotten that Christianity is not a biblical set of objective truth, Judaism is not a biblical set of objective truth, Zionism is not a biblical set of objective truth, the notion that the Jews have a special right to the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is not a biblical set of objective truth, historic liberalism is not a biblical set of objective truth, Tillichian theology is not a biblical set of objective truth, Barthian Studies is not a biblical set of objective truth, Catholicism is not a biblical set of objective truth. These are all ideologies, as much as is American Fundamentalist Evangelicalism. Let me particularly emphasize that this is the case with liberal world views which probably gave permission to higher text criticism in the first place. Liberalism in any tradition is as much a dogmatic ideology as is Fundamentalism. Moreover, all the “objective” critical biblical text studies are inevitably biased by the ideology of the scholar who is doing the work. Additionally, any scholar who claims he stands on no religious ground and so has not religious bias, must acknowledge, if he or she wishes to be honest, that his a-religiousity is a bias that he or she will inevitably bring to the work.
Consequently, unless we choose to have a society in which we institute a cadre of thought-police, we must keep the society equally open, as a forum for idea exchange, for the form-critics, literary critics, Tillich society, Barth society, Philo society, and the like, but also for the Zionist discussion, the Evangelical discussion, the atheist discussion, ecumenical dialogue, The Jesus Seminar discussion, the Nag Hammadi discussion, the Qumran discussion, and for various new and unconventional critiques of historical biblical criticism. Our job as seasoned scholars and as a society, is not to repress this dialogue, but to chasten it in the program sessions with solid biblical text critique. The difficulty is that the Evangelicals attend the “liberal’s” or text critic’s sessions but the “liberals” do not attend the Evangelical sessions. I see the Evangelicals annually in the Hebrew Bible and Judaism sessions. I do not see Hendel in the Evangelical sessions very often. It has always been so in all the Learned Societies.
Indeed, it is my judgment that the example that Hershel Shanks consistently defends and courageously carries out in the philosophy and content of Biblical Archaeological Review, is precisely illustrative of the trajectory that SBL should continue to pursue. I think our society is alive, well, on track, and headed for a great unfolding future.
78. Ron Troxel
(posted June 29, 2010)
The more I contemplate the questions about standards for membership suggested for discussion, the more inapt they seem as a response to Hendel’s op-ed. I am not in favor of restrictions on membership in the SBL, nor do I think such restrictions would address the issues Ron has raised.
The charge that Hendel wants individuals’ to purge themselves of faith commitments misconstrues his point. He complains about proselytizing because he wants to hold his own commitments without overt interference. And he complains about religious folk who import their convictions as signposts for their scholarship because it damages critical inquiry.
The claim that faith commitments (or the lack of them) must find expression in scholarship is false. In fact, subjecting one’s ideological assumptions to examination is part of critical investigation. If our assumptions are not at stake in our research, then such “scholarship” is a predetermined game. As one respondent acknowledged, even the understanding of faith undergoes change through research. That dialectic is hardly distinctive to biblical scholarship, inasmuch as faith-commitments are never formed or maintained in isolation from other experiences in life. Claiming that faith alone determines one’s view of life and the Bible is as naïve about human psychology (particularly in the light of research in neuropsychology) and theology as claiming that faith and reason can be dissected.
What is needed is not a return to Cartesian assumptions about the individual establishing her/his existence through the exercise of their reason, but a recognition that our views of the world are a mixture of inherited and idiosyncratic assumptions that demand scrutiny in the light of others’ critical observations. By winnowing and sifting such observations we are able to revise and sharpen our own perceptions and contribute insights back into the communal discussion. This is the essence of critical investigation.
The demand is not for members of the SBL to sacrifice ideological commitments, but to work within the disciplines (agreed-upon paths of critical inquiry) of the SBL’s discrete program units. To subject the Bible to theological inquiry might be appropriate in a session on biblical interpretation as practiced within a particular faith community, but would be illegitimate in a session on the composition of the Pentateuch. To assert one’s theological convictions about the Torah’s composition in that setting would depart from the literary and historical questions that discipline that inquiry. The ability and willingness to engage in that process should be the only requirement for participation in the SBL.
77. Ralph Hawkins
(posted June 28, 2010)
I am saddened by Ronald Hendel’s decision to not renew his SBL membership, and would encourage him to reconsider. Dr. Hendel has made important contributions to scholarship, and I think that the Society would lose a valuable member were he to withdraw. With that being said, however, I do believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard. While some scholars may think that more conservative groups should not be a part of SBL, I know of a number of SBL members who are somewhat conservative or who might even call themselves an “evangelical,” but they consider themselves to liberal to be a part of the Evangelical Theological Society. They have dropped their membership there and consider SBL their scholarly home. I think SBL’s “broad umbrella” of inclusiveness goes a long way toward making it the dynamic scholarly organization that it is.
I do not think the Society should establish a standards-based approach to membership, i.e., that there should be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership. The reason I feel this way is that, over the years, I have met numerous non-specialists, including rabbis, pastors, priests, and interested laypeople, who attend the meetings regularly because they enjoy sitting in the meetings and learning about various aspects of biblical studies. I met two men, one who was a pastor and the other a business owner, who were good friends and had made it a habit of attending the meetings together every year for over ten years. A year or two ago I met a mother and her daughter, both laypersons, who were attending together for fun, simply because they thought it sounded exciting. I could go on. Instead of viewing the presence of such people at the meetings as an unwelcome intrusion, it seems to me that we should view it as an opportunity to raise people’s awareness about biblical studies.
As for the issue of having members who may be more conservative than ourselves in the meetings, I think we would be embarking on a dangerous path if we were to try to establish some kind of policy as to what level of belief is too much for participation in SBL. Can one be a deeply devoted Orthodox Jew to be a participant at SBL? Or must one be Reformed? Or even secular? Can one be a member of the Church of God? What about Episcopalians? I know I am being ridiculous, but how can we establish a litmus test for faith with regard to membership in the SBL? I don’t think that would be appropriate at all.
In this regard, I think tolerance is a virtue. When we present papers, we expect our listeners to be tolerant, and we are tolerant of the ideas expressed in the papers of others. When we present papers, we are all seeking to persuade our listeners to either adopt our point of view or at least acknowledge that it is reasonable. I have sat in numerous sessions and listened to papers during which speakers have tried to convince me of something I haven’t agreed with; for example, that Israelite ethnicity was invented in the Persian period or that Jesus never lived. My point is simply that I recognize up front that I do not have to agree with everything that is said in a session or in a given paper. But tolerance means allowing others to not only hold but also vet their views. As someone who holds a high view of Scripture, I have appreciated it when those who may have disagreed with me sat quietly and listened to my papers, and I have tried to give them the same respect by listening to their papers, even when I may not have agreed with their conclusions. I think this kind of tolerance is what creates the opportunity for a dynamic exchange of ideas, and I have been grateful to be able to be a part of such an organization. I hope Ronald Hendel will choose to remain a part of it, too.
76. Tom Shepherd
(posted June 28, 2010)
I write in response to the post by Jeffery Stackert’s post number 25 in regards to the meetings of the Sabbath in Text, Tradition, and Theology Consultation meetings in Boston 2008. I am the co-chair of this consultation and want to clarify some issues. First, the consultation was established with a steering committee that includes scholars from two groups with special interest in the study of the topic—Christians (yes, Seventh-day Adventists), and Jews. My co-chair is a rabbi. The intent of such a mix was and is to encourage dialogue between people coming from different perspectives. Second, the title of the consultation was chosen to encourage wide participation and involvement in discussions. The consultation was established at the time of the divide between SBL and AAR. I asked the SBL leadership if we should focus the consultation more narrowly or more broadly. I was told more broadly and thus the name was chosen with the perspective of appealing to people who might continue attending SBL meetings but that might have expertise extending beyond SBL’s typical areas of focus. There was no attempt in the title to suggest some ulterior theological motive. Third, the consultation does not have, did not have, and will not have proselytism as its purpose. That would be out of harmony with the purpose of such meetings in the public forum setting of SBL. Fourth, I am trying to remember the booklet that Jeffery referred to in his post. To the best of my recollection, it was an academic book published by Andrews University Press. As I recall, an announcement was made that to get the book one had to go to the AU Press booth to get the free copy. I did not think of that as proselytism, nor do I now. Fifth, I was at the business meeting that Jeffery mentions and my memory of events is different than his. I openly welcomed suggestions from a variety of perspectives. I remember his comment and, actually, the subsequent meetings of the consultation have followed the lines of focus on the study of biblical and other ancient texts on the topic as he suggested. I am sorry for the impression he went away with and wish he could have been at our meetings last year in New Orleans where there were interesting and spirited discussions that, as far as I know, all participants found useful, stimulating, and in keeping with the reasoned scholarly principles of SBL. Sixth, I did receive, after our 2008 meetings in Boston, a strong critique and criticism from a participant (not Jeffery). This was responded to promptly and our steering committee took very careful stock of the issue and laid plans for our 2009 meetings accordingly. I received no further correspondence from the person who complained and trust that my response to him was satisfactory. We recognized that our first sessions in 2008 were somewhat bumpy and needed improvement which we worked diligently to correct. It is my conviction that our 2009 meetings and our upcoming sessions in Atlanta give strong evidence of a steering committee that took note of the problems and took the necessary steps to correct them. I invite all interested parties to come to our sessions in Atlanta and see for themselves.
75. W. E. Nunnally
(posted June 28, 2010)
I am a Pentecostal scholar who actually has only a small dog in the fight. I am not a member of SPS (because its interests lie outside my areas if expertise and interest), but I have many colleagues who are. I can assure you that no member is a “snake handler.” Most are academics whose formal training matches or exceeds that of Dr. Hendel. In addition, SPS is often criticized for being too liberal!!!
I am intrigued by Dr. Hendel’s references to the works of Pascal, Spinoza, Waltke, and Shakespeare. It appears that he has misunderstood each, at least once resulting in a contradiction in his letter (paragraph one versus paragraph two—faith and reason either have or do not have anything to do with one another—he cannot have it both ways).
Thanks to those who worked on the SBL response to his letter. I think it represents a balanced and measured approach that I believe more accurately reflects the true relationship between faith and reason (that relationship that Dr. Hendel says doesn’t/does exist!).
74. Ron Hendel
(posted June 28, 2010)
A note on terminology. Historically, a fundamentalist Protestant is one who subscribes the “Five Fundamentals” defined by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910. The first of these is the inerrancy of Scripture. More recently many such individuals and groups prefer to refer to themselves as evangelical. As George Marsden notes, “neither fundamentalism nor evangelicalism is a clearly defined religious organization.” In general, he writes, “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something” (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p. 1). There are now “neo-evangelicals,” “moderate fundamentalists,” and other subgroups. James Barr, the late Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, clearly critiqued the contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist arguments against modern critical biblical scholarship, see his Fundamentalism, and the more reader-friendly sequel, Escape from Fundamentalism. Also very informative are Mark Noll’s books, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, and his brave critique, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. (Noll, an evangelical scholar, is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.)
73. Mary H. Schertz
(posted June 28, 2010)
I am grateful both to Professor Hendel and to SBL for raising some important questions. The relationship between historical critical readings of biblical texts and confessional readings of the same material is, I think, an important and fascinating one. I would contend that historical critical readings are not without “faith” nor are confessional readings uncritical. I weary easily of postmodern relativism, but surely we are mature enough as a guild to name and work with the mythologies operative in historical criticism alongside its serious benefits. I also weary easily of dogmatic readings, but surely we mature enough as confessional readers to acknowledge and use critical tensions.
I do not know if Professor Hendel would characterize Mennonites as fundamentalist. We are not. I do shudder to think what Mennonite thought and life would be like without the dedicated contribution of Mennonite biblical scholars, scholars who have also made a contribution to SBL, over the years. SBL has provided space for the Mennonite Scholars and Friends to meet for the past 25 years. It has been an important setting and I hope it continues. SBL seems to me to be exactly the right venue to carry on this conversation about the interdependency of historical critical and confessional reading.
72. Ron Hendel
(posted June 28, 2010)
Let me propose a brief thought-experiment. Imagine that the SBL was really a scholarly society devoted to the critical study of the Bible as a humanistic discipline. It would not only embrace the practical and epistemological norms of critical scholarship—what Ed Greenstein calls the rules of the game (comment 44)—it would also embrace the moral entailments of the principle of academic freedom. That is, if an SBL member were to be fired because s/he exercised reason and critical judgment in scholarship, the Society would publicly censure that institution. I would have been proud if the SBL had done this when Ralph Klein was fired from his institution for using historical criticism (comment 17), or when Bruce Waltke was forced to resign from his institution a couple of months ago. The SBL should be devoted to these principles, instead of waffling in a state of epistemic and moral relativism (comment 60). Note that in my BAR piece I criticized Waltke for violating the norms of critical scholarship in his RBL review, but I defend his right to academic freedom and critical scholarship as a general principle. There is no contradiction here—critical scholarship has moral implications, which a Society devoted to it must stand for. Perhaps this thought-experiment is merely a dream. But I think I’m not the only one.
71. Judith A. Streit
(posted June 28, 2010)
Let me see if I understand … If I, a trained biblical scholar, attend an SBL annual meeting, I will be rubbing elbows with the untrained, just like I do in my classrooms, in my Quaker meeting, and in the grocery store? And this is a problem? I am confused because I do not feel diminished or threatened in such settings. Let me paraphrase the wise advice of a personal hero, Gamaliel (Acts 5:34): if professionally untrained SBL participants are a bogus phenomenon, they will die a natural death; if not, why would we cut ourselves off from a possible source of wisdom?
70. Ron Hendel
(posted June 28, 2010)
I would like to correct the misimpression of comment #56 that one of my remarks in BAR is a slur to feminists. When I refer to “the cultured despisers of reason” and include “some postmodernists, feminists and eco-theologians,” I am trying to make a wry allusion to Schleiermacher and to be truthful. Some scholars of these stripes (including friends of mine) have indeed criticized the validity of reason, arguing that it is, in one way or another, a constructed and repressive ideology. See, e.g., the clear survey by Charlotte Witt, “Feminist History of Philosophy,” /Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/, online: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-femhist/: “In addition, feminist philosophers have argued that the philosophical tradition is conceptually flawed because of the way that its fundamental norms like reason and objectivity are gendered male.” She describes the arguments of some feminist critics for this position (most prominently, Luce Irigiray) and the arguments of others who oppose it and embrace the philosophical tradition of reason (perhaps most prominently, Martha Nussbaum). So I really mean “some” in my remarks. The article in the footnote is an excellent treatment of this important topic.
69. Patricia Elyse Terrell
(posted June 28, 2010)
Mr. Hendel succeeded in stimulating a rousing religious discussion sufficient to draw many responses, similar to Robert Bellah’s coup in the 1960s. Hendel may have desired the fame, or, as Bellah was poised to get the U.S. out of Vietnam and Hendel appears to be trying to get Christianity out of SBL. He was clearly offended by someone sufficiently to confront the integrity of hundreds of SBL scholars. What sort of scholar presumes to offer an inflammatory SBL position paper based on his own personal hurtful experience? The SBL graciously acknowledged his complaint about proselytizing as an unjust offense.
The American SBL is a vital part of religious and biblical scholarship because American universities teach religious subjects, but unless they are a church-sponsored institution, U.S. universities and colleges do not teach Christianity, seminaries do. Cathedrals were the first universities and, with today’s Christian education operating as seminaries, most utilize 21st century critical methods. Churches teach Christian facts based upon biblical study, repeated religious events that test the veracity of its precepts (scientific falsification), and partake in a liturgy as a devotional drama of its history. Christian teachings are based on repeatable experiences the way a scientist repeats an experiment to test its truth or falsity. SBL is an assembly for biblical studies and Christian teachings like no other. Immature and mature thinkers drink from one another’s founts of knowledge. If one needs a bit of guidance into better research practices, be helpful.
Hendel’s view of objective scholarship turned reason on its head. All human lives are uniquely shaped by events and emotions, which challenge any possibility that one might be objective. These emotional and relational variations make one a sense extending instrument in evaluating the subject matter. Similarly, different denominations of the Christian Church formed when groups identified personal events with particular biblical principles that validated their shared experience, be they Catholics, Mennonites or Pentecostals. The denominational mosaic is a very beautiful collection of carefully studied and tested biblical values, each holding differing views about the best route to Christian goals. Mr. Hendel lauds Pascal for not letting Church get in the way of scholarly investigations. When the Church is the primary resource for Christian education, what point is Hendel pursuing by citing Pascal’s exclusion of the church?
SBL consists of many amazing scholars who are sense-extending instruments of a Reality that is greater than ourselves and is still very much who we are, including Mr. Hendel if he were brave enough to investigate the history laid bare before him.
68. Stephen Young
(posted June 28, 2010)
Since I both agree with the substance of Professor Hendel’s criticisms and am a graduate of the seminary where Hendel’s chief “fundamentalist” example once taught (Bruce Waltke; Westminster Theological Seminary), I thought I would chime in here. Following the comments below by Andrew Tobolowsky (he and I are in the same doctoral program and have discussed this topic numerous times) and Jeffrey Stackert, I take academic, historical, and critical inquiry to mean scholarship determined by the broadly agreed upon conventions of the university. Evidence used must be assessable by the methods and tools of naturalistic humanistic study. Arguments and hypotheses must operate within the same sphere and, in particular, be falsifiable and not treated, even tacitly, as self-authenticating. Appeals to “evidence” or positions that social, historical, scientific, anthropological, etc. tools and methods cannot adjudicate do not belong. These rules, if you will, determine how one plays the game of academic, historical, and critical scholarship—which I have long thought SBL existed to enact and to foster.
I voice concerns similar to Hendel’s not because I think an evangelical cannot play the academic, historical, and critical game well—I should hope this is not the case since I share certain religious commitments. Rather, I think many want a place at this card table but refuse to play consistently by the rules. When an evangelical’s views about the Bible’s “inspiration” (something not assessable within the academy) involve constraining his or her historical scholarship on that data set such that, for example, any analysis representing an error or contradiction in that data set is necessarily wrong, his or her work does not constitute historical-academic scholarship. Such “special rules” —whether used overtly, as is often the case in more “in-house” evangelical publications, or covertly, as is often the case within more “mainstream” or “secular-academic” publications such that the unstated “special rules” still factor into the analysis—are utterly arbitrary from the standpoint of the university or critical setting, especially since one cannot assess or falsify them with the tools available to a historian, sociologist, scientist, literary-critic, and so on.
The point here is not that approaches to biblical literature with various un-academic (in the way I use “academic” here) concerns and religious commitments factored in lack validity in general, just that they are not legitimate academic, critical, historical, and university enterprises. If evangelicals want to suspend the rules and methods of academic inquiry, deploy them selectively, claim that they do not apply to explorations of the Bible, or assert their inadequacies then they can do so—just not at SBL and its related publishing venues or other professedly academic-historical-critical venues. Evangelicals who want to do work characterized by “special rules” that are not up for debate can have their own “special rules” societies and publications; for example, the Evangelical Theological Society. To the extent they, or anyone for that matter, want to play at SBL’s table, they must play according to the rules while there. This does not constitute an ethically questionable “closed-minded,” narrow, dismissive, or intolerant attitude. Would we consider an academic math society “closed-minded” for excluding the work of someone whose religious beliefs require 2+2 = 5 every third Saturday of the month and who constrains his or her work in that university-society setting with that religious belief?
Of particular relevance in this discussion, some evangelicals seem to attempt to conceal their unwillingness to play by the rules at SBL. Far too often I read a RBL review of a book written by an evangelical that, at some level, goes about its study according to the “special rules” of evangelical scholarship (this includes engaging in demonstrably flawed or limited historical work for reasons obviously related to various religious commitments) and the reviewer not only fails to point out such serious academic flaws, but worse, extols the book as some apex of academic and historical sophistication. If someone will not review according to the basic standards of modern scholarship, he or she should not be allowed to publish in RBL. The same goes for publications in JBL and presentations at SBL outside of specifically designated theologically or ideologically oriented groups.
I single out evangelicals here because of Professor Hendel’s focus and many of the comments. Also, to be clear, I certainly think people of varying religious and ideological commitments should participate in SBL, JBL, and RBL. They simply should not constrain their contributions by non-academic commitments; or only do so in sessions specifically designated for work oriented by such commitments. Obviously I have mapped a certain understanding of “academic” and “critical” onto SBL here. Others certainly have a different vision for SBL and, thankfully, we can all discuss it together.
67. Jonathan Bernier
(posted June 28, 2010)
Perusing the SBL’s official “Clarifications” as well as members’ responses to Prof. Hendel’s piece, I notice two recurrent critiques: first, that Prof. Hendel makes an unsustainable distinction between faith and reason; second, that he misrepresents, whether willfully or not, certain policies and procedures of the SBL (that is surely the implication of the “Clarifications”). Let us consider not simply the validity of these critiques but in fact their relevance to his basic thesis.
Let it be granted that Prof. Hendel pushes this distinction a bit more forcefully than I would. Let it also be granted that one’s faith is always in some sense foundational to one’s scholarship. Let us also substitute “faith” for the more inclusive term “worldview.” Now, of course, our worldview does not so much interfere with my critical faculties but rather is their necessary precondition. That is to say, I can pursue the critical study of the Bible precisely because I hold a worldview which allows me to do so. This leads to what I think are the most salient points of Prof. Hendel’s critique: not all worldviews are created equal, at least not when it comes to providing the necessary intellectual bases for cultivating the critical study of the Bible; and the critical study of the Bible is in endangered whenever such worldviews are treated as equally capable of cultivating such study. Thus I tend to think that pointing out the overlap between “faith” and “reason” does not so undermine as enrich and ultimately support Prof. Hendel’s argument.
Let it also be granted that not everything Prof. Hendel says might be fully accurate. Do inaccuracies in detail necessarily cause the central thesis to fall apart? Not unless the inaccuracies negate statements logically necessarily for the thesis to stand; and I am not convinced that any do. For my own thinking, there is sufficient reason to think that there is a problem in the SBL in the very fact that a well-known, well-respected, scholar, with a long history of association with the Society, detects a change within the Society with which he is uncomfortable enough to let membership lapse.
I have long suspected that there will be no large steps forward within Biblical scholarship until the discipline as a whole engages in open and frank discussion about exactly what we are doing. What are the narratives with which we approach our work? What are the worldviews upon which these narratives are predicated? Are some worldviews simply incapable of cultivating critical scholarship? I see Prof. Hendel’s piece as a contribution towards such a discussion, and I think that a very good thing.
66. John Byron
(posted June 28, 2010)
While I think that Professor Hendel is overreacting a bit, I also find myself identifying with some of his concerns. I think that the term “critical” should be in the SBL mission statement. I do not want to go here a paper that is followed by an altar call. Proselytizing, by any religion, is a direct violation of the intent and spirit of the meeting. One respondent below suggests that when such incidents happen that the individual(s) should be disciplined. How that would happen I am unsure. But I have witnessed this type of negative behavior in other instances which I think illustrate the challenges we face.
In the 2007 meeting held in San Diego, I attended the review session of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I thought the reviewers did a good job at both praising and critiquing Bauckham. But the whole thing unraveled when Jame Crossley asked an important question about the nature of miracles. If the gospels contain eyewitness material can we also, then, consider the miracles to be authentic (i.e. they really did happen). Bauckham affirmed his openness to the possibility of miracles. There was a small, but polite interchange between them, which reflected opposing viewpoints expressed with respect for one another. Some in the audience, however, began to interject and even shout as they tried to affirm the authenticity of the miracle accounts. I am ambivalent on the topic of miracles. But I also do not think that attempts to shout down someone with whom we disagree are reflective of good civil, academic behavior. The point of the meetings, I thought, was to engage with others, not to create a movement for apologetics.
The second situation also happened at San Diego. I was in a session where a presenter was promoting what can only be described as supersessionist anti-Semitism. I do not know his faith stance nor if he even has one. But this kind of behavior also should not be tolerated. I am happy to say that this time the audience was not only shocked, but openly challenged him. But I will also note that they did it respectively. Not by shouting him down, but by asking pointed, critical questions about his work. Although this NOT the kind of presentation that the society wants to promote, the response was appropriate.
The above two situations, in my opinion, represent the challenges we face. The second situation, however, demonstrates how an academic community should handle such challenges. I think it is naive to ask those whose investment in biblical studies has a faith component to either leave it at the door or not attend the meeting. For many, a faith centered reading of the Bible was how we first became interested in the topic. Simply throwing out labels like “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” seems to be unappreciative of the wider scope of the faith community, whether it is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Since the Bible is ultimately a book of faith rather than history, I cannot see how we can avoid aspects of faith. On the other hand, using the meeting as a bully pulpit to promote one’s view (whether evangelical, agnostic or atheist) has no place.
65. Benno A Zuiddam
(posted June 28, 2010)
One would wish that Prof Hendel had addressed his concerns to the SBL instead of the BAR.
I would hate to see the SBL go in a defensive mode on this.
Scholarship does not stand or fall with inventivesness or the consensus (secular or religious) of the moment, but with the integrity with which its object of study is treated. With recognitions of one’s suppositions and faith assumptions, whichever these may be.
The primary sources of study for the SBL are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. A primary matter of concern and of scholarship should be that we treat our primary sources with integrity and not censor our object of research. In other words, if our primary sources proselytize, convert, be politically incorrect, warn about the broad way that leads to destruction, confront readers with a pit prepared for the devil and his angels with also people ending up there; we should let these sources speak. Treat them with integrity even if you disagree, or the world around you does. This is part of proper scholarship. We shouldn’t be there to further particular fundamentalist or secularist agendas. Neither have exclusive claims to scholarship.
Scholars shouldn’t be ventriloquists of particularly favourable political winds, but do justice to their object of study. As far as I am concerned, members should be allowed and even be encouraged to debate, agree and disagree about the validity and possible implications of statements and conclusions in the primary sources. In gentemanly fashion of course. Be it heaven or hell, real or imaginable. Isn’t that what scholarship is about? Lets get on with it!
64. Oliver Carter
(posted June 28, 2010)
Firstly, allow me to say that I have always been, and am, grateful for all the time and energy spent on, and thought and work put into, building such a great and learned society. I have always been proud to be a member—an associate member, specifically. I must admit that I was a bit taken by surprise upon having first received the e-mail from SBL, and having carefully read professor Hendel’s opinon piece; and then SBL’s response. As an expatriate (in a certain pragmatic sense) who has been keeping an eye on the US scene from Japan, however, my next thought was, ‘I shouldn’t be.’ In my humble opinion, Dr. Hendel’s opinon piece does possibly admit of a little more emotion than what might be needed, yet I do not overly doubt (as evidenced by responses so far, as well) the material degree of truthfulness in some of his concern. While I am not as active in my biblical studies these days, I still have this ‘picture’ in mind—from publications and personal contact with some who have published—of a learned society. In this respect, I would tend to expect the same degree of critical thinking one would expect for scholarship, as I would with the other societies I happen to be a member of (The American Association for the Advancement of Science; Society for Neuroscience; The New York Academy of the Sciences). I concur with Patrick J. Madden’s proposal regarding the question of ‘standards-based approach to membership’ (if such is not already in place) yet would suggest a certain back-up system of review (if you will) in order to keep it from being too strict in some cases, or overly lenient in others. I also appreciate Prof. Hendel’s input in this discussion too, as well as most others.
While I would otherwise comment on details, if this were the right medium for such, I reason that it is not, and thus will only posit that we do—in as objectively viewed and falsifiably a manner as reasonable—live in a very pragmatic world now; with the vantage point of the passage of time and the empirically gained position in which that has more firmly placed us. I would thus argue, in following, that these biblical texts which act as a ‘database,’ as it were, are not, and ought not be, in any way excused (nor their resonably deduced and argued intent) from the rigor of as objective as possible, critical investigation and testing. This, in my mind, makes for good scholarship (be it for the humanities or the sciences): and at the bottom of my membership card, it gives the mission statement as saying ‘Foster Biblical Scholarship.’
Thank you for allowing me this moment of voicing my position here.
63. Alan Lenzi
(posted June 28, 2010)
I broadly agree with the sentiments that Ron Hendel has expressed in his BAR essay, even if I would have said it a little differently.
“To foster biblical scholarship” is a toothless motto that undercuts the SBL’s scholarly purpose. That’s ironic, I know, because “scholarship” conjures up the ideas of critical methodologies, critical thinking, the use of evidence, and the free exercise of inference-to-the-best-explanation kind of reasoning. One might also believe “scholarship” means remaining open to the possibility that one’s most cherished ideas about the data are wrong. But this is not the case for everyone in the SBL. For some, the Bible is much too important to subject it to this kind of (normal) scholarship.
As Hendel pointed out, there are such scholars, who divide scholarship into two and only two groups: those who really on faith and those who rely on reason. We’ve all seen the quote. Honestly, it’s professionally embarrassing to see a senior member of the guild, who is technically among the most competent, assert a faith position about what the Bible is to him and his co-religionists in such romantic tones and then contrast that view with what most scholars hold on the basis of an intellectual framework that is widely, nay, exclusively used in ALL OTHER FIELDS of research. Why does the SBL stand for this kind of thing in its review publication?
I’ve asked that very question to the editorial board in a concerned email, provoked by a few extremely poor, uncritical RBL reviews. The reply I received essentially stated that they do not feel it is their place to judge the worldview of its contributors. Rather, they feel that reviewers should be free to say whatever they like in their evaluations of books. To disallow certain views in their publication would be to silence some worldviews, especially those in the minority, and to give a stamp of approval to others. In other words, exercising editorial prerogatives in certain matters would be an exercise in cultural and intellectual (and religious ?) hegemony.
I value free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of religion. But scholarship is about discrimination, discriminating between good ideas and bad ones, good interpretations of the data and bad ones. That’s what the peer-review, editorial process is all about. It DOES exercise a kind of hegemony over publications. So when people start saying things based on faith instead of reasons and said assertions are tolerated by the editors of scholarly publications, then there is implicit consent that such constitutes scholarship. Is that what we want in the SBL?
Although worldviews shape a person’s life philosophy and often influence their scholarly agenda, worldviews should not be allowed to man-handle ideas and issues that can be squarely based on evidence and they should not be allowed to privilege an ancient text with special methods and claims just because some people (even some of our own SBL members) hold it to be of religious value. If we are a scholarly organization, then we ought to demand that our members base their conclusions on evidence and plausibility within an intellectual framework that is evidence-based, not faith-based. Not all worldviews are created equal. And not all claims appealing to (religious) presuppositions are in fact legitimately rooted there. Some are held despite the evidence simply for dogmatic reasons. The SBL should not make itself complicit to such flabby thinking.
I am not saying that people of faith (or Evangelicals) should be excluded from the SBL and its publications. I am not suggesting we go on a witch hunt or set up a humanist manifesto that all members must sign. Nor am I saying that non-faith-based scholarship is objective and without flaws. I am merely saying that interpretations of the biblical text that are only rooted in assertion, particularly assertions that come from religious (though one could also include political) dogma, should be strongly and officially discouraged (exclusion will always be impossible) from scholarly discourse in the SBL.
The Bible is a historical and literary artifact that arose from a human culture a couple of thousand years ago that has had an enormously influential reception among countless groups and cultures. The same methods and tools used to look at other such artifacts and their reception/interpretation ought to be the ones we use on ours. Those tools have proven remarkably useful to our understanding. If biblical literature is more than that to some—and it clearly is, let them talk about that in their religious and theological societies.
Scholars who’d rather celebrate their faith in the object of our inquiry (biblical literature) in contrast to the rest of us who’d rather work on the object of our inquiry on the basis of evidence and inference to the best explanation don’t belong in a learned society rooted in Enlightenment ideals.
The SBL’s motto ought to be “to foster critical biblical scholarship.”
Concerning membership: What lies at the root of this issue is what one thinks the SBL ought to be. I think the SBL is a historico-literary learned society not a theological society or venue for religious dialogue. In light of that, how might we define our collective goals and create an environment of discourse so that we can all participate with intellectual rigor and without allowing religious views, which are understandably but also notoriously pervasive, to steer our collective identity?
My answer: I think the Society should define its activities as an explicitly intellectual, humanistic enterprise (as argued above), and it should be more restrictive in terms of membership.
The problem of open membership is most evident, in my experience, at the regional meetings, where I have heard a presenter assert that biblical law is more humane than ANE law because it is really true (i.e., from god), a student give what amounted to a homily with an academic veneer, and a person report a visionary experience she’d had. Is the SBL the appropriate venue for this kind of thing? Of course not.
Full membership in the SBL should be restricted to people with an academic doctoral degree (PhD, not a DMin) from a reputable graduate program. Student membership should be restricted to academic doctoral students. We should make it harder to be a full member instead of easier.
The SBL currently has an associate membership status for people interested in the SBL but without credentials. Associate members can attend the meetings but not present papers (or organize sections, groups, etc.). This is a perfect means of participation for undergrads, master-level students, pastors, or others, who might enjoy the annual meeting or the book fair.
Furthermore, given the functions of what we study for contemporary religion and the fact the membership in a learned society can give credibility to one’s position, it does not seem unreasonable to inform potential applicants for membership about the Society’s orientation to academic Biblical Studies. Namely, the application should make it very clear that all members of the Society engage the Bible as a product of and influence on human culture. Whatever else the Bible may be, we can all agree to this. By joining, members implicitly agree in principle to the practice of using the same critical faculties and exercising the same kinds of judgments on the Bible as one might use on, say, an Assyrian royal inscription, a non-canonical gospel, or the reception history of a Greek myth. In other words, it should be clear that members of the SBL do not privilege the Bible with a special mode of inquiry or shield it from critical scrutiny.
I am not suggesting that people in Biblical Studies with a religious commitment are not scholars or not welcome. That is obviously ridiculous. I am suggesting, however, that whatever else one might think the Bible is, we can all agree that it is manifestly a human document and therefore that it is most appropriately engaged in a humanistic manner in a learned society like the SBL. This provides a common ground upon which we can all discuss the text.
This issue isn’t a new one. James A. Sanders, former president of the SBL, raised similar concerns about the Society some time ago with an an institutional slant (see http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=670). I’m glad Ron Hendel’s bold opinion piece has finally opened up an opportunity to voice our opinions in this matter officially and collectively.
62. Adela Yarbro Collins
(posted June 28, 2010)
I think that the word “critical” (as in “critical biblical scholarship”) should be put back in the SBL mission statement. I also think that there needs to be much more quality control in choosing reviewers and accepting reviews for RBL and in the acceptance of papers for the Annual Meeting.
61. Justin James King
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am very glad that the SBL has taken Prof. Hendel’s critiques seriously and have invited the membership to engage Prof. Hendel’s essay.
1) As a student who is working towards an M.A. in Biblical Studies I am very excited that the SBL has an open policy regarding my membership and participation in the SBL. I have never felt sidelined because I have yet to earn a Ph.D. or because I am coming from a position of faith.
2) The dichotomy between faith and reason is false and naive. The scholarly world has been well served by scholars of faith (Jew and Christian alike) who read from both a position of faith and of critical examination and exploration, just as it has by the unbeliever. It is ridiculous to assume that faith only affects scholarship, and never scholarship faith. Of course my faith (I am Mennonite) affects my scholarship. It affects what questions I ask, how I ask them, and how I go about answering them. But my faith has never been completely affirmed by my study. I often come away from the text having to reevaluate what I believe. My scholarship has seriously challenged many of my axioms, and I have been well served. For example, I do not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus or that every word the Bible is a historically accurate. I believe in evolution AND Genesis 1 and 2, I believe that Job is a masterful work of Hebrew literature, a myth if you will, AND is true, I believe that the books of Chronicles are historically inaccurate AND are true, esp. when read as Utopian literature......
3) If I was asked to leave my faith out of the equation for participation in the SBL I would leave the SBL. This would be for two major reasons. First, If I was asked to leave my faith at the door and I tried, I would be lying in saying that I have fully detached myself from my faith. Such a thing is impossible! And I could not in good conscience say that I am leaving my faith at the door. Postmodernism has shown that we cannot be truly “objective” and fully remove ourselves from out contexts, nor is such a thing desirable. This does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we all have an axe to grind, regardless if one is reading the Bible from a position of faith or not.
Second, I will not denounce my belief in God and in Jesus in the name of “critical scholarship.” I am a person of faith and I am a critical scholar and I will not violate my integrity as a believing Christian and a scholar to be a member of the SBL. Further, I will not ask the non-believer and non-Christian at the SBL to violate his/her integrity either. The SBL is served by the plurality of voices present in its membership.
What about the amazing scholarship of folks like Walter Brugemann, Phylis Trible, Ben Ollenburger, Bill Mounce, etc. who are working from positions of faith? Do we exclude their voices?
4) If there are folks who have proselytized at SBL meetings they need to be disciplined. Their actions hurt every member of the SBL and violate the space created by the SBL for scholarly engagement.
5) I do not support a standards based membership. Some have recommended that it be based on degree earned. What then does one do with scholars such as the eminent David Clines? He has an academic record that most Doctors envy. Just because one has a Ph.D. or Th.D. does not make one a better or more legitimate scholar than a person with an M.A. or an M.Div. Why is an M.Div better than an M.A. (as has been suggested)? Is it the third year of study? If that is the case what about folks like me who take three years to finish an MA? If it is the pastoral element of the degree, then what about folks who have never been pastors. Besides the M.Div. is primarily a North American Christian degree. One cannot go to the UK or to the Continent or to a Jewish seminary and earn an M.Div.
6) I am concerned by Prof. Hendel’s caricatures. He slings “fundamentalist,” “evangelical,” “Pentecostal,” and “conservative” around without ever defining them. That is just as bad as slinging “Jew” around without ever defining it. There is a movement in Christianity (particularly among Mennonites and other Anabaptist) which is seeking to redefine “evangelicalism.” Much of “popular” Christian evangelicalism in based in Constantinianism, it is imperialist, supercessionist, triumphalist, culturally violent. However, scholars such as Alan Kreider and Walter Sawatsky, not to mention the late John Howard Yoder, are seeking to redefine “evangelical” in a truly Biblical sense. Further, not every Pentecostal is a fundamentalist nor is “conservative” synonymous with “fundamentalist.” Prof. Hendel is making HUGE generalizations about Christians, lumping all believing Christians together in one group. Stereotypes and caricatures are damaging to academic freedom and critical engagement among scholars because they are narrow minded, just like the literalist approach to the Bible of fundamentalism.
Because Prof. Hendel is leveling such serious charges at the SBL and scholars of faith, I would like to see a more nuanced critique with things more clearly defined as well as taking into account the response by the SBL, esp. regarding Prof. Hendel’s incorrect critiques of the SBL regarding the AAR, ASOR, and other affliate groups involvement (or lack there of) with the SBL.
60. Rebecca Raphael
(posted June 24, 2010)
If the SBL is to be an academic, scholarly organization, it must clearly uphold the standards of critical inquiry appropriate to a knowledge-seeking enterprise. Thus, I agree with Hendel’s overall thesis, which points to issues that have concerned me for several years. The scope “all interested in biblical studies” does not adequately ensure the academic nature of the mission; adherence to the methods of historical, literary, and sociological investigation are also necessary. Even debates about methods need to recognize some common epistemic ground—and goal.
Is this exclusionary? I suppose so, but the exclusion is based on a common, coherent mission with a shared commitment to certain methods. The SBL needs to recognize that some parties “interested in biblical studies” fall outside of this scope, not because of the parties’ conclusions, but because of their rejection of appropriate methods. Biophysics organizations do not sponsor sessions on the humors theory, geologists do not pretend to dialogue with flat earth theorists, and astronomers do not recognize geocentrists as engaged in a common enterprise. While all of these prior beliefs could be considered under the rubric of the history of science, it is a category mistake to think that current advocates of such positions are doing the same thing, methodologically, that working scientists do. If we need historical, rather than scientific examples, let us consider whether our colleagues in history should welcome Holocaust denial under the heading of “those interested in the Holocaust,” or should give a stage to the claim that the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery as an equally valid interpretation of the events leading up to that conflict. That people believe these things, and why they believe them, are appropriate objects of historical inquiry; but it is intellectually dishonest to treat these ideologies as different historical methods that should be welcomed. If the SBL is to be a serious academic organization, it needs to draw a similar line on what methods best conduce to knowledge—and which do not.
Nothing I have said has any bearing on the faith commitments of individual scholars; the only salient question is whether the work is truly academic.
I would like to know whether the SBL is prepared to support an epistemic realism, under which not all views are “equally valid” and not all “methods” are part of a knowledge-seeking enterprise; or whether, on the grounds of some epistemic relativism, it refuses to make the kinds of distinctions that the humanities, social sciences, and sciences make. The SBL’s position on this question will demonstrate whether it sees itself as a scholarly organization supporting a field of knowledge, or as something else.
59. Ron Hendel
(posted June 24, 2010)
One further thought: The mission of the American Council of Learned Societies is “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.” If the SBL is no longer devoted to the humanistic study of the Bible—and I see no indication of such devotion in its mission statement and core values (revised in 2004)—and actively promotes groups and scholarship that are antithetical or hostile to the humanities, then I suggest that the SBL is morally obligated to resign from the ACLS. I suppose that many members of the SBL would welcome such a decision.
58. John Van Seters
(posted June 24, 2010)
On the whole I strongly support the position of Hendel, both in his protest over the decline in a serious commitment to critical scholarship as it has evolved over the centuries from the enlightment, and over the concern that the organization is being overrun by confessional based approaches to the study of the Bible. Even if one were to quibble with some of the details of the criticism of SBL that have been offered, for anyone whole has lived with and in the organization over the years ( became a student member in 1957), the transformation is indisputable. It is very likely that the whole organization with be taken over by a majority of those who support a faith-based intertretation of the Bible and denigrate the “old Fashion” critical methods of biblical studies. The response of SBL to cite instances from the program to support this claim is not helpful because one does not keep an archive of old programs to clutter up one’s study. To me the point that Hendel makes is indisputable for anyone who has been in the society over the last few decades. Those who attach Hendel’s position appear to be precisely those who are in favor of changing SBL into a loose collection of individual faith-based groups who have the chance to get together to do their own thing under the guise of a scholarly organization.
I would also strongly object to the kind of proof-texting that SBL and some others responding to Hendel engage in. The SBL response quotes Hans Dieter Betz’s 1997 presidential address when he cites one of four objectives of the society by stating that its purpose is to “widen the conversation partners of all interested in biblical literature” but this is never viewed by Betz as an alternative to critical study but which must always be within the framework and space where “critical inquiry can take place” and is to be “kept free from external interference by religious institutions, political policies, ideologiacl warfare, and commercial exploitation.” In fact, that is the danger in which the SBL now very much finds itself.
Even more problematic if the citation from the presidentail address of Sandmel in which what he was trying to say was exactly the opposite to what Jason Hood suggests. He has not inviting all of these different confessional voices into the society but praising the fact that Jew, protestant and catholics could all meet together and agree on the use of the same critical method so that their religious affiliation was nowhere evident in the discussion. Indeed, in those days a Sandmel was chosen as president for his scholarship and not for any other reason, and that is what pleased him so much.
On the matter of affiliated groups of various religious organizations, what SBL describes as a “long history” and then illustrates this by the 2001 program, points to a rather young respondant. The fact is that a decision was made, perhaps in retrospect rather unwisely, to allow some groups and organizations to meet at the same time in a loose affiliation with SBL but without the same restrictions that SBL itself imposed with its principles. In time those on the fringe worked their way into the program itself so that the distinction can no longer be recognized. This development has been disasterous. At the same time the organization which was once so democratic in structure with a large and lively annual meeing of all participants at a prime time in the program has now been reduced to a cabal attended by a select few and totally autocratic in its proceedures and actions. It is this group who have long run the show and who have introduced all of these new developments of transformation without any widespread dialogue within SBL itself. If one does not belong to this group, then one is cut out of any participation and any chance to express an anternate view. I have been known for expressing myself on some of these issues in the past in disagreement with the establishment. Consequently, I have never been approached to be a member of council or any other office, let alone president and have been completely marginalized. And I am not alone in this. I have been a member for over 50 years, but I have never been recognized in any significant way, although I believe that I have contributed significantly to this society in many ways.
I also find it somewhat amusing that SBL was so quick to respond to Hendel when he published his criticism in another popular journal. JBL recently an article by three post-modernist scholars (An Elephant in the Room, 128  383-404) in which they challenged a response by scholars committed to historical-critical method. Since it was published by SBL, I contacted them/it to see if they were prepared to provide a forum for such a response. They have no suggestions, so I published by response in JHS. SBL is not serious in creating any scholarly dialogue unles they are under some pressure to do so. Their programing is very tame and makes little attempt to engage in important and interesting issues.
But enough. I hope that Hendel has started some serious discussion on the important issue. Who knows. It may even get a major piece in the annual program?
57. Robert Imperato
(posted June 24, 2010)
Thanks for this communication. SBL is descending in its credibility. It is not necessary to shut down the intellect to be a person of faith.
56. Naomi Graetz
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am new to SBL (this is the third year I am a member). I find it telling that only one woman (Amy Anderson) responded to the request for feedback. Furthermore why has no one responded to the following slur: “The battle royal between faith and reason is now in the center ring at the SBL circus. While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists4 and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting.”
As a feminist, an occasional postmodernist, and one who admires eco-theologians (some of my best friends are....), I find it dispiriting and insulting to find myself included in the group of “cultured despisers of reason”. Of course the author will say, that his hedge word “some” protects him from critique--but his generalization is still unwarranted. And Footnote #4 does not help: “For a thoughtful critique of postmodernist and feminist critiques of reason, see Genevieve Lloyd, “Maleness, Metaphor, and the ‘Crisis’ of Reason,” in Louise M. Anthony and Charlotte E. Witt, eds., A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2002), pp. 73–89. The conjunction of some postmodernists, feminists, and fundamentalists in this regard is, to put it mildly, ironic.” Notice the “some” word again! Ironic isn’t it, the use of academese hedge words. Perhaps I should be happy that at least feminist are described as “cultured”.
55. T. M. Lemos
(posted June 24, 2010)
I concur with Ron Hendel that there are perhaps too many groups allowed to participate in the Society of Biblical Literature conferences and that some of the faith-based groups do affect the atmosphere of SBL, making the conference far more conservative than those of most other large academic organizations. This is reflected at times in section topics, in the questions and responses of audience members to those participating on panels, and in the overall atmosphere of the meeting. I also wonder whether it is reflected in the general lack of ethnic diversity at SBL.
Another problem with the participation of so many groups in SBL meetings—and with these meetings overall—is that there are FAR too many sessions at the national conference. The overabundance of sessions, in addition to making it difficult to attend all of the panels in which one is interested, severely dilutes the quality of papers. There are hundreds of sessions, each requiring four or five papers, and the sessions need to be filled. It is not surprising, then, that too often, the papers presented are not of top scholarly quality. This is so much the case that I no longer attend very many sessions at all. I cannot imagine that I am alone in this, and the tiny audiences present at many sessions reflect, I think, that there are too many sessions and that the sessions are too often mediocre. The participation in SBL of groups that do not hold the academic standards normally expected of professional scholars certainly seems to contribute to this unfortunate mediocrity.
Clearly, Ron Hendel is not alone in holding the stances and impressions on these matters that he does. I have heard many others voice the concerns he has voiced, and so I am rather surprised that the SBL leadership seems angered by his piece. Are many of his concerns not the very same ones that led AAR to split, however foolishly, from SBL? Were not some of the same concerns expressed by Jacques Berlinerblau in a piece in the Chronicle in 2006? As an SBL member, I would have preferred a more thoughtful and less technical, legalistic response to Hendel’s essay than the one presented on this page; the one found here hardly addresses his overarching concerns at all.
54. Ron Hendel
(posted June 24, 2010)
Since the anonymous SBL author and others have taken me to task for naming the Society for Pentecostal Studies and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, see the following:
_Society for Pentecostal Studies_: A former president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies writes: “in the case of the SPS, institutions that do not value academic freedom and serious critical inquiry I can do without.” She resigned her presidency after one year. See Arlene Sanchez Walsh, “Pentecostal Scholars Call for Academic Freedom,” online at http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/2366/pentecostal_scholars_call_for_academic_.
_Adventist Society for Religious Studies_: See post #25 by Jeffrey Stackert, University of Chicago Divinity School.
There are other groups that now operate sections at the annual meeting that do not accept the principle of academic freedom, but since I don’t want to make more enemies, I invite you to peruse the annual meeting program.
53. Eric Ortlund
(posted June 24, 2010)
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Dr. Hendel’s article. A few thoughts:
1) The very fact that SBL is encouraging public discussion of Dr. Hendel’s article casts doubt on some of his claims--and I think the intelligent comments which have already been posted, both in favor of and against Dr. Hendel’s article, already show that the putative dogmatic atmosphere to SBL is overstated.
2) Would it be too much to suggest that part of the frustration expressed in the article arises from the fading legitimacy of critical methods in our “postmodern” environment? I’m always a little confused when biblical scholars refer to “reason” and “critical methods” without defining what they mean by these terms or defending their use. Surely these ideas have been rendered problematic (although not impossible) in recent decades? The fact that one finds papers read at SBL from both classical critical perspectives and newer, ideologically charged ones (whether feminist, theological, or whatever) is itself a sign of intellectual health--and to disbar such perspectives because they are not “critical” or “reasonable” enough (whatever that means) would be unfortunate.
3) If I could speak in favor of Dr. Waltke’s review—I realize Dr. Waltke made some strong statements which would offend some readers. But Dr. Hendel’s assertion of an absolute dichotomy between faith and reason (an assertion itself without argument) is potentially just as dogmatic and offensive. Second, Dr. Waltke’s review of Fox’s commentary was glowing in its praise—and the disagreements registered where argued for, not merely asserted. (Waltke’s own commentary contains [for example] extensive arguments for a pre-exilic context for much, but not all, of the book of Proverbs; Dr. Hendel’s selective comments about Dr. Waltke’s review does not give a balanced impression.)
4) As an evanglical SBL member who has published articles in mainline journals (UF and JSOT), I understand that I am speaking to a mixed audience, that I cannot make assumptions I would in evangelical circles, and that the claims I make need to be argued for. While I don’t feel competent to comment on standards for SBL membership or scholarship, I’m happy to listen to a scholar from any sort of perspective, critical or otherwise, as long as they make sound arguments and help me understand the text better. Surely that is what is meant by SBL’s mission to “foster biblical scholarship”?
52. Peter H. Davids
(posted June 24, 2010)
While Ronald Hendel has brought up some legitimate concerns, I believe that he is, in a sense, “barking up the wrong tree.” When I first began to attend SBL meetings roughly 35 years ago, there was a tendency to exclude some voices from the SBL world. The ones that I noticed were the evangelical voices (a true fundamentalist would not wish to dialogue in the SBL world). Such scholars met in their own meetings and dialogued with themselves, which, I believe, was to everyone’s detriment. What I have noted over the years is that I began to see individual scholars entering the wider scholarly dialogue. To some degree this was due to changes in their own world, for they were able politically to risk dialogue in the wider arena, and to some degree this was due to a more welcoming atmosphere in the SBL world, as various groups (I think in particular of the Institute for Biblical Research) received a warmer welcome and formed a bridge for these scholars. This has, I believe, enriched the whole scholarly world. Bruce Waltke, as Hendel appears to admit, has a wealth of linguistic knowledge that he brings to the Hebrew Scriptures. And when he argues for the positions that Hendel views as faith-based, he does so, as Hendel’s quotation shows, on the basis of what he believes to be historical data, rational arguments. Now Hendel (and I) believe that he is misreading the data, but in that the argument is rational, not fideistic, it can be discussed in a SBL context. I have myself disagreed with Waltke on a number of issues, but the discussion has been at the level of the evidence in the text, not similarities or differences in faith stances.
(I might add, that in some ways it is ironic that Waltke was cited in that he he recently been pressured to resign a teaching position because of his unequivocal support of an evolutionary origin of humankind and its compatibility with a scholarly reading of the text of Genesis. He was willing to follow the facts as he understood them to the conclusions that they warranted, even at the cost of his job.)
I am also personally thankful that SBL has made room for those with faith commitments. For a number of years I would “skip out” of Sunday morning sessions so that I could attend some church in the area. In recent years I have been thankful that more than one associated group has provided opportunities for worship within the structure of the SBL program, whether it be the AABS arranging for a Eucharist on the Friday evening or the IBR arranging for a one hour generic Protestant worship service on the Sunday morning.
This leads to a further point that allowing for acknowledged faith commitments within the general structure of SBL meetings is a mark of scholarly maturity. From a psychological perspective I know that “objective” scholarship is a myth, that we all have biases, and that we do better scholarship when we acknowledge our faith and other commitments “up front.” That does not mean that one does not engage in rational argument, but that one recognizes that one’s glasses are tinted. As we acknowledge which glasses we wear, we help ourselves and others to understand our arguments better. If we trying to live in a schizophrenic world of purely rational scholar who does not admit that he or she has a faith (or non-faith) position, on the one hand, and person of faith (or non-faith) on the other, we are probably fooling ourselves in both of our worlds.
I do think that SBL would do well if it had a standards-based approach to membership. I would set the standard as having a Ph.D. or equivalent doctorate in one of the disciplines under the umbrella of SBL or having a university level teaching position in biblical studies (one could say, part- or full-time). This would allow for both the scholar who has focused on teaching, and is slowly working towards a Ph.D., and it would allow for the scholar who has a Ph.D. and engages in serious scholarly research, but supports themselves through some other form of work (such as church or synagogue ministry). One could, of course, put in the requirement of significant publication, but that would require more work on the part of the leadership of SBL, for someone would have to determine whether this or that publication was significant. This would rule out the dilettantes and those who attend the meetings for some other reason than scholarly discussion. It would also mean that a graduate student generally needed to finish or nearly finish their work before making a presentation, although one might make a student member category. And one should give program units the ability to invite scholars from other disciplines that they believe have a contribution to make to their program unit.
I think that this would strengthen the SBL program and perhaps help SBL avoid having individuals attending with agendas that are other than academic and scholarly.
51. Charles Scriven
(posted June 24, 2010)
Hendel knows nothing about the Adventist Society for Religious Studies. It is NOT a fundamentalist group, and is now and then pilloried by conservative members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
50. William H. C. Propp
(posted June 24, 2010)
Bully for my UC colleague and old friend Ron Hendel, for extricating himself from a problematic relationship! His column “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” has made me question my own association with the Society of Biblical Literature.
As with all decaying partnerships, there is responsibility on all sides. I think Hendel joined the SBL with certain misconceptions. He is shocked that, since the organization dropped its official commitment “to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures” (emphasis added) in 2004, he henceforth must rub shoulders with, and even suffer harassment from, “creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers.” Personally, ever since I began attending the national SBL conference in the 1980s, still in the critical investigation era, I have always been slightly weirded out. I would say, with some hyperbole to be sure, that I felt like an astronomer at a conference attended mainly by astrologers. We know a lot of the same stuff, but our purposes are very different, and our takes on certain matters are totally irreconcilable, theirs being a mixture of modern discoveries with inherited theories from Late Antiquity. That’s I felt, as a secular biblical scholar, among the religious majority at SBL. But I put up with it, because it’s like the world, you know. You have to deal with lots of types of people, and they have to deal with you.
What I (and Hendel) should have realized more clearly is that the SBL is a priori a Christian organization—not that it seeks to promulgate Christianity, but that its conceptual framework is irredeemably Christian. Before Hendel began to worry about holy rollers, he should have asked why he was voluntarily associating with scholars of the New Testament. Fine people, most of them, but what has their field to do with ours? Only in a Christian context would these academics, with their advanced knowledge of Greek, Latin, Coptic, Mithraism, Roman history, etc., be grouped with us Old Testament scholars, with our Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptology, etc.
After reading Hendel’s piece, I suddenly realized, after decades in the field, that I am not and never have been a biblical scholar, nor even an Old Testament scholar, nor an expert in the Hebrew Bible. I am an Israelologist; I do most of my research using the Library of Ancient Judah.
The neologism “Israelology” is a little vague, but no less so than calling the study of Mesopotamia “Assyriology.” As for the “Library of Ancient Judah,” this is the only unbiased designation for the Old Testament-Hebrew Bible-Tanakh I can think of. (I have always been indifferent to the OT vs. HB vs. TNK debate, which is basically about the order of the books, just as I stay calm when contemplating the relative merits of the Dewey decimal and Library of Congress cataloguing systems.)
Here’s the only problem: the American Israelological Association would have very few members, even if it joined forces with the Society for Judean Literature. For economic reasons, it would probably have to meet alongside the SBL, and we’re back where we started. Being constantly reminded, whether in my classroom or in professional meetings, that my conceptual framework differs utterly from most with whom I interact, is the downside of being a professional Israelologist. The upside is the privilege of being paid to spend a lifetime loitering in the Library of Ancient Judah.
49. Leo Perdue
(posted June 24, 2010)
I have been concerned with the increasing evangelistic flavor of some of the neo-evangelical scholars in SBL meetings (national and local), not only in advertising their religion but also in promoting a decidely biased view of biblical interpretation. Some evangelicals are excellent scholars, but the radical, true believers really bother me. I am not sure what to do except to say that SBL is devoted to biblical criticism that does not seek to evangelize or distort interpretation. We need to be careful that we do not discourage the diversity of scholarship we have by allowing evangelicals to undercut this. Chairs of sections and other groups should be chosen and encouraged not to allow this tripe, and SBL needs to be careful about book displays, some of which are already offensive.
48. Jonathan D. Safren
(posted June 24, 2010)
My interest in the Hebrew Bible is strictly scientific, and therefore I am not interested in remaining a member of an organization which has taken on a religious character. What does the SBL have to say to defend itself from this accusation?
47. Mark S. Smith
(posted June 24, 2010)
My thanks for the invitation to respond. I generally agree with Ron Hendel’s claims. My sense that the SBL reformulation of his claims and the SBL response to his claims are well couched, but his points still strike me as true.
1. It is fine to quote Professor Betz, but his address is hardly an official SBL document. let me comment on the statement, “Throughout its history, the SBL has seen no inherent contradiction between ‘critical investigation’ and including in the conversation ‘all interested in biblical literature,’ a perspective that is consistent with the SBL’s current mission statement: ‘to foster biblical scholarship.’” Perhaps this official stance needs study. It sounds fine as long as all persons of strong personal convictions, religious or otherwise, were and are prepared to censor their more doctrinal sentiments lying beyond the scope of the practices of study and research that members share as a whole. A priori, there may be a zone of discussion beyond this scope in which the particular religious viewpoints may come into play, but if so, these need to be handled by their adherents with a considerably great level of respect for others (and vice-versa); and this needs some discussion and consideration.
On the issue of dilution of scholarship, it seems that in recent years SBL has permitted students in Masters programs to give papers. I very much welcome students at all levels, but entry into a doctoral program or the completion of at least one year of a doctoral program should be required of all who give papers at meetings.
2. Petty differences between the heads of SBL and ASOR did in fact play a role in their split. The response to the claim about ASOR omits this in its response; to pass over it is to suggest that it is not being refuted. The response refers to what ASOR has decided since the split, but of course this all goes back to what went into the event of the split, and it is not clear to me that much energy has been directed into repairing this relationship (maybe a good deal, but this has not been communicated by the SBL to me as a member). We have been diminished by our loss of our relationship with ASOR.
3. The inclusion of groups as noted by Hendel is indeed disturbing for an academic organization. Affiliation with such groups should be vetted for their commitment to critical, scholarly research. Even if this is difficult to ascertain, professional organization do have to make some critical decision about its affiliations.
In short, the response by the SBL helps to point up some questions that deserve further scrutiny and thoughtful consideration. We should be grateful to Ron Hendel for raising the issues and we should be grateful to the SBL organization for this process of responding.
46. Royce M. Victor
(posted June 24, 2010)
I strongly support Hendel’s views. I think the SBL should go back to its original mission statement: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”
45. William Settles
(posted June 24, 2010)
Professor Hendel has made several relevant points. First, the break with ASOR and AAR is unfortunate and reflects a loss of intellectual resources for conference participants from all of these organizations. I had the pleasure of presenting a paper at the Midwest conference a few years ago. The meeting was held jointly with a conservative Baptist theological organization. In my session was a Baptist minister whose presentation was quite dogmatic and utterly lacking in scholarly content. When I attempted to raise a question regarding method and interpretation, this presenter summarily rejected any questions that might challenge his viewpoint.
I have not attended the Midwest conference since that time. I realize that there is a broad spectrum of approaches to the biblical literature. However, I believe that scholarly discipline must prevail in our work.
44. Ed Greenstein
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am grateful to Professor Ronald Hendel for raising the issue of faith and reason in biblical scholarship and in regard to the activities of the Society of Biblical Literature in particular. I was not aware of some of the affronts to approprate academic discourse and activity to which Professor Hendel pointed, and it is good to hear, from the SBL executive’s replies, that people in responsible positions within the Society will deal with infractions of what we might call the professional code.
Clearly all of us who engage in biblical criticism of whatever kinds have a complex of academic and non-academic affiliations as well as a mixture of intellectual and other types of views. When we come to perform our work as academicians we cannot help be affected by our diverse influences and perspectives. We are, after all, people. Within the Society, for the past three decades, groups and individuals, among whom I count myself, have tried to help us become more aware of who we are and where we stand when we practice our trade.
However, when we engage in our professional activities as biblicists within the context of the Society, I have always felt it is important to work within the parameters of acceptable academic discourse and conduct. I have always understood that sectarian views of any kind must find expression, within the academy, in critical argumentation and acceptable academic method--or be relegated to other situations. During my time in the biblical field, for close to four decades, what has been acceptable theory and practice has expanded enormously and, to my mind, happily. But common to all theory and practice, so far as I am aware, is critical reasoning and argumentation based on what is defined by us as evidence. Most important for a large and diverse academic group like the SBL is a set of rules of the game, so to speak, to which all players must subscribe. We all have beliefs, but the rules of the game, as I have always understood them, call for argumentation based on some form or line of reason--the highest common denominator of any academic practice. By accepting this rule of the game, scholars with many diverse views and beliefs can play together, can engage with each other. Those who do not accept such a fundamental rule cannot play this game as their systemic violations of the rules ruin the game for everyone. They can find a different institutional setting and play a different game there.
I am not familiar with the groups that have come under Professor Hendel’s criticism. But I would like to know that the broad principles of inclusion (and exclusion—you can’t have one without the other) that I have delineated are uniformly applied within the Society. Otherwise, the Society will cease to be the inclusive academic organization it has been.
One word to Professor Hendel: Ron, come back and help assure from within that the Society continues to be what it should be.
43. M. Gefaller
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am a graduate student member and working on my dissertation. I have not had the broad experience with SBL that most of those who are responding have had. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Professor Hendel is approaching the issue as thought reason and faith were mutually exclusive endeavors. While I certainly believe professional objectivity is necessary in biblical studies, I cannot concur that reason operates apart from faith or faith believes apart from reason. Both influence our personal worldviews to a greater or lesser extent.
However, it seems to me a deeper issue is addressed here. Professor Hendel’s comment about proselytizing stands out as I read his article. If this is the underlying complaint, or a contributing factor to his comments, the SBL meetings are not the venue for such activities. If, however, Professor Hendel wishes to say that the his method is the only legitimate form of inquiry in the face of other methods, which have sprung up in conjunction with the remarkable advances in anthropology and archaeology enlightening scholars concerning the milieu of the ancient world, then I must take exception.
I joined SBL because I understand it to be a forum for the advancement of knowledge in biblical studies encompassing many methodologies. Again, my experience with SBL is limited. Nevertheless, what I perceive Professor Hendel to be expressing is more of a personal issue than a professional one. There are better ways of addressing his concerns than attacking SBL in BAR.
42. Removed at the request of the responder
41. Mark A. Proctor
(posted June 24, 2010)
Having read Dr. Hendel’s work, I find it surprising that such a well-intentioned piece could be in several respects bereft of what it seeks to affirm: disinterested, reasonable, critical scholarship. Although Hendel rightly affirms the need for academic rigor, his lack of precision with regard to such simple matters as the names of scholarly associations (AAR and SPS), his careless appeals to hearsay and speculation on important issues (“some of them proselytize,” “one group invited some Jewish scholars,” and the reasons he provides for the break between the SBL, AAR, and ASOR), and his pejorative swipes at underrepresented groups (he naively describes Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists as snake-handling fundamentalists) effectively discredits what might otherwise prove to be a worthwhile article. By writing in this manner, Hendel essentially betrays the very thing he claims to hold dear and so demonstrates the difficulty (some might say the “impossibility”) of partitioning one’s passion from one’s reason. These two vital elements of the human anthropological makeup should acquire a healthy balance, for both inevitably find expression.
40. Paul A. Rainbow
(posted June 24, 2010)
If some biblical critics who separate faith from reason feel that the quality of scholarly discussion at SBL meetings is compromised by others whose faith and reason interact, is it not for the former to win debates at the level of public discourse, rather than to seek to privilege their own point of view by the power politics of memberships (whether ruling others out from participation, or opting out themselves)? If the argument is hard to win hands down, why is that?
39. Mike West
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am not a student, I have no PhD. I would hate to cut out of the Society by some rule that would make the SBL an esoteric instrumentality of an aloof academic prelacy. You fortunate scholars and seminarians are the leaves of our little vine, and you know the sun and the wind. Why be upset if the roots have a little dirt on ‘em?
38. Alan Cooper
(posted June 24, 2010)
Those interested in the history of scholarship on this topic might wish to (re)visit Jacques Berlinerblau’s essay, “What’s Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?” in the November 10, 2006 issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education. See also the letters in the January 12, 2007 issue and Berlinerblau’s response to them (February 9). Also Michael Fox’s challenging posting on the SBL Forum, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View,” http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=490, which provoked many responses, including an interesting one from Berlinerblau, “The Unspeakable in Biblical Scholarship,” http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=503 . On the way the field has been transformed over the years—mostly for the better, in my view—may I immodestly recommend my article, “Biblical Studies and Jewish Studies,” in the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, edited by Martin Goodman and published in 2002. I use a lot of this material in a seminar on “Methods of Biblical Interpretation” in order to stimulate discussion among the students about what it means for them to be members of the “guild.” I wonder if my friend Ron and those who are responding to him know that they are walking along a well-trodden path. By an odd coincidence, last year I was invited to speak on “A Jewish View of Historical Criticism” in the SBL Christian Theology and the Bible Section (sic!). It was a terrific session, with both panelists and audience deeply engaged in the topic. It manifested the openness, eclecticism, and diversity of the society nowadays, in vivid contrast to the (critical) methodological dogmatism that predominated in my student days. Unlike Ron, I feel more comfortable now at the annual meeting than I did in the old days. There’s plenty of stuff at the meeting that I don’t like or that I think is silly, and guess what: I don’t go to those sessions.
37. Mark McEntire
(posted June 24, 2010)
I am very pleased to see this debate taking place. Determining what is and is not appropriate as part of our annual meeting is a difficult task, as it should be. It is a task in which the full membership should have a voice, so I am glad to read all of the comments on this issue. It is obvious that Ronald Hendel has been hurt by some experiences with SBL. He has been a very valuable member of our guild, and I hope we have not lost his participation permanently. We should also assume that others have had similar experiences, but have chosen not to make their complaints public. I appreciate Hendel’s willingness to make his grievances public, thus generating this debate. He continues to serve the society well by doing so.
I also appreciate the response on the SBL page, though I agree with at least one previous commenter that it would be good to have a name(s) attached to this response. Hendel has made some assumptions which are factually incorrect, but these do not invalidate his expression of his own experiences at the annual meeting. In comment #25, Jeffrey Stackert has offered a clear and specific example of the kind of behavior that should be out of bounds at the SBL. On the other hand, I think that such occurrences are relatively rare. I have been to the annual meeting fifteen times, have probably attended about 200 section meetings, and have never seen anything like this myself.
In the twenty years since I began attending the meetings, they have changed in some very good ways. The participation in the annual meeting is noticeably more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender. The society has even embraced work that specifically addresses the role of these identities in the Bible and in the reading of the Bible. When I began attending meetings, there was very little discussion of pedagogy, and I got the sense that discussion of the subject was frowned upon. This was surprising, since for most of us teaching students about the Bible is our primary professional activity. Today, not only is there a specific section called “Academic Teaching of the Bible,” pedagogical issues are addressed directly and indirectly throughout the meeting. The tremendous success of some recent SBL publications on pedagogy reveals that this was a subject many were eager to talk about. I still hear a grumble here and there that our meeting should be about scholarship not pedagogy, but I think the vast majority of the membership recognizes that this is a false separation.
It is true that the annual meeting is not as narrowly construed as it used to be. This has some great benefits, as I have described, and it also has some costs. The increase in size and variety of what SBL offers has made “quality control” more difficult. A high level of academic quality and integrity has always been and should always be a defining characteristic of the SBL. I teach at an institution which has a faith tradition. We have undergone serious changes in terms of official structure in recent years and have had to ask hard questions about defining and maintaining our identity. Throughout those discussions, I have attempted to describe two very different approaches to this task: (1) Focusing on the center, and (2) Patrolling the boundaries. I have consistently advocated for the first of these two approaches. I think the drawing an analogy to the SBL is apt here. In terms of establishing and maintaining a clear center, I wholeheartedly endorse the first of Hendel’s proposals in comment #18, and I think that his second proposal is probably a good idea. The third proposal, however, feels more like patrolling the boundaries. Being open, inclusive, and broad in appeal, means that there will be elements of the meeting that make some us uncomfortable. I am not advocating an “anything goes” approach, but I do want us to err on the side of inclusion.
36. Peter Giancana
(posted June 24, 2010)
Please allow me to reiterate what some have said. In reviewing the SBL membership policy, please make sure that “outsiders” like myself continue to have access to the JBL and reviews, for our own enlightenment. The suggestion of Rob Abramovitz seems reasonable.
A year or so ago I was largely ignorant of the disciplines of biblical research. I did not now where and how such research was conducted, and who participated in it. Nevertheless, I knew I needed to find out. There had to be something of a much higher quality than my local Christian bookstore might normally carry. Certainly, there is nothing on my television worthy of my attention. I consider that finding the SBL was an answer to prayer.
Prof. Hendel’s remarks are about standards and mission statements. From my point of view, whatever standards and policies you implement, they must answer the several questions posed by Caleb Crainer (June 23):
“Who is going to care about serious biblical scholarship when the next generation of young American’s do not seem as interested in religion in general?” I submit that the SBL does need to reach out to persons like myself, non-biblical scholars, happy for the chance to listen in on a non-dogmatic, standards-based, discussion of all things Bible. I suspect that there are enough of us to make a financial difference to an organization like the SBL.
“Who is going to care about us when the bible assumes the obscure irrelevancy other ancient documents have fallen into?” The Bible’s everyday prominence has waxed and waned over the centuries. If we are entering a period of decline, the SBL should prepare for that by making the most clear and most strident mission statement that it has ever made, with rigorous standards to back it up.
“Who is going to care about learning Greek and Hebrew when Mathematics, Genetics, and C++ become the useful languages of our society?” If the SBL fails to communicate why Biblical scholarship should matter to the average American, or how biblical scholarship has improved the lives of the average American, then eventually, no one will care. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s remarks in Cosmos: when the angry mob came to burn down the library at Alexandria, there was no one to stop them.
“What wisdom will we have to offer?” Indeed.
So, has the SBL satisfactorily replied to Prof. Hendel’s concerns? Not yet.
35. Martin J. Buss
(posted June 24, 2010)
The presence of Christians that hold to opinions about the history of biblical literature different from others (for instance, different from mine) has been beneficial to both sides. From my point of view, which is “liberal,” concrete analyses by others has been repeatedly helpful in regard to detail and in challenging standard orthodoxies, just have been sharp attacks by atheists, which, in my opinion, have often not been well supported At the same time, the presence of such persons at the meetings has been very helpful for liberalizing the evangelical community, a process that has had, again in my opinion, had a salutary effect on life in the U.S.. In short, I am all in favor of “live and let live.”
At the same time, there are some problems to which I want to point. One involves the current policy of JBL to insist that submissions be anonymous. It seems to me that this policy has led to a partial filtering out of contributions by established scholars, for they can hardly remain anonymous, and to a favoring of scholarship that is extremely well footnoted with references to other scholarship but strike me as not being “liberal.”. I am ambivalent about this development, but some reduction of an insistence on anonymity may be in order.
Another problem may well be the presence of groups the members of may do not wish to participate in the meetings of SBL itself. The advantages of interaction that I have cited apply, of course, only if interaction actually takes place. Of course, some scholars may be happy if those who have not participated in SBL so far do not crowd out potential presenters of papers that are more “orthodox” by SBL standards.
In short, I favor a free flow of ideas, including those of persons who criticize others for not being sufficiently devoted to bettering human life and those of persons who wish to be as neutral as possible in their scholarly contributions. Recently, the US public has entered into a spirit of mutual rejection that I find most unappealing. Can we set a better example? The scholarly community should expect normal scholarly standards--including documentation of relevant data, references to the work of other scholars, and openness about one’s own agenda—but it should avoid orthodoxy.
34. Tom Thatcher
(posted June 24, 2010)
1) To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?
In the first instance, I agree with Prof. Hendel that SBL should maintain a strictly neutral ideological posture in its promotion of biblical scholarship. Program units that promote proselytizing practices should be reprimanded—and, I might add, should be advised of the utter hopelessness of their efforts—and RBL essays should be screened to eliminate assessments based on the faith tradition or ideological position of the reviewer. In the same vein, the editorial policies of SBL publications should reflect an attitude of inclusion while censoring partisan rhetoric. Discourse of this kind is divisive, does not advance the Society’s stated mission to “foster biblical scholarship,” and should have no expression through the organs of SBL.
At the same time, the strength of this Society lies in the breadth of its membership and the diversity of its voices. To deny an individual scholar, or an entire class or scholars, a place on the program because of his/her/their ideological position is a dangerous move. To do so under the guise of an attempt to promote “critical reflection” is no less tyrannical, and no less dangerous, than to argue that feminist or postcolonial voices should not be heard.
I myself have been centrally involved in the formation of two SBL units, both of which regularly feature papers and discussion from a very wide range of perspectives. These voices have included Jewish scholars, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals—indeed, as a program unit chair, the inclusion of multiple voices has been a top priority in scheduling. Experience teaches me that dialogue of this kind generates broad and substantial interest in key issues, and also opens new channels of conversation between scholars who do not normally engage one another. Of course, Prof. Hendel is entirely correct that a partisan, proselytizing spirit would destroy this environment. But to suggest that the activities of these marginal individuals and units calls for a essential reorientation of SBL’s mission and purpose goes too far. SBL has iternal mechanisms in place to address issues of this kind, and in such situations I remain confident in the Program Committee’s ability to monitor and, when appropriate, to dissolve units that violate standards of cordial academic dialogue.
To turn to a second point that Prof. Hendel mentions, I have also contributed to, and regularly read, RBL, and my own work has been reviewed in that venue numerous times. I entirely agree that RBL reviews—and, indeed, all academic reviews in any venue—should assess the works in question on the basis of their own merits and on their own terms. This is not a matter of preference, but an essential point of professionalism, and one that the editorial board of RBL is obligated to enforce. Two points, however, are relevant in response to Prof. Hendel’s observations. First, if the RBL editorial staff has erred in any regard in this area, they have done so with a view to promoting free expression and with minimal censorship. I personally am aware of, and have been involved in, situations where the editorial staff of RBL refused to revise reviews of their own personal publications even when their own work was unfairly critcized. I would rather see RBL adopt a posture of this kind than a posture in which the editors feel at liberty to force reviewers to operate within a narrow ideological framework that makes it impossible to express legitimate concerns. Second, in my view, RBL’s sole criterion of judgment in editing reviews should be professionalism, not ideology. Prof. Hendel discusses at length a comment by Bruce Waltke that he (Prof. Hendel) judges inappropriate for a scholarly review. In another age, and one not so long ago, similar judgments would have been passed on reviews that reflected feminist or queer perspectives. I personally do not see that unnecessary censorship is in line with a spirit of free critical inquiry, especially in instances, such as Prof. Waltke’s review, where the reviewer is simply stating a fact about her/his own social location and how this location impacts his reading of a text (as a sidenote, one can scarcely miss the irony of Prof. Hendel’s characterization of Bruce Waltke as a “fundamentalist,” in view of recent events in Prof. Waltke’s career). Does RBL need to state the obvious rule for reading any book review and print “caveat emptor” at the top of all communications?
Finally, Prof. Hendel’s point about SBL’s recent policy to schedule parallel meetings with other scholarly societies is well taken, yet I would reply with an observation and then a question. Observation: Prof. Hendel’s comments are essentially inaccurate at several points, inaccurate to such a degree that it surprises me that BAR would publish them in this form. Specifically, his characterization of the Society of Pentecostal Studies (of which I am not a member) is essentially inaccurate in a way that specifically misrepresents the position of many of its members, and his sweeping generalizations about AAR’s decision to refrain from meeting with SBL—a decision that was controversial even within the ranks of AAR, and which did not reflect the position of a large percentage of the constituency of that organization—are essentially unfair to SBL. One may accurately state that AAR’s leadership cited, among other concerns, that they did not wish to meet with an organization dedicated to the study of confessional literature. I regret that decision but respect it; at the same time, I do not think that the leadership of SBL should make decisions that are driven by the concerns of another professional society. Question: What criteria would Prof. Hendel propose for a) determining which scholarly societies are worthy to meet with SBL, and b) the means by which SBL can forbid such societies from booking hotel and convention space in the same time and place that SBL is meeting? On a), obviously AAR meets Prof. Hendel’s unstated criteria, despite the fact that many program units within AAR are explicitly driven by ideological concerns (a fact that in no way detracts from the rigorous academic standards of their proceedings); such criteria should, however, be articulated and discussed explicitly by a wide range of SBL’s constituency, not simply assumed under the guise of unstated standards of “critical reflection” (a point on which, I believe, Prof. Hendel would hearily agree). On b), Prof. Hendel is obviously concerned that SBL makes efforts to accommodate the joint meetings of various societies, so I admit that my above characterization in “b” is perhaps unfair. I simply wish to raise the point that SBL, like any academic society, must use great care in determining the criteria that would limit its involvement in joint projects with other societies, especially when SBL shares many common members with these societies and in view of the impression such a move might give about our discipline.
All that said, I wish to stress the following, and I should have said this at the outset: as an SBL member, program unit chair, and SBL Publications series editor (RBS, NT), I am truly and sincerly sorry if any program unit or any public organ of SBL has ever endorsed “proselytizing” activities, and I am sorry if Prof. Hendel personally has been offended or hurt by these efforts. Such activities fall outside both the professional standards of our industry and the specific mission and charter of SBL. As a volunteer “leader” within the organization, I personally vow to do all in my power to prevent this from happening again, while at the same time leaving place for all voices and perspectives to find a place. I trust that others will do the same.
2) Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?
No, for two reasons, one philosophical and one practical. Philosophically, I do not subscribe to the view that scholarship should be cloistered; our discourse is a public discourse on matters of supreme importance to Western cultural history. Practically, the actual content of the SBL program—the papers and discussions at various sessions—is already regulated at the level of program unit management. Put another way, it falls to the chairs of the individual program units to insure that all discussions in their sessions are appropriately professional and in line with the larger purposes of the organization. Unit chairs and steering committees that fail to uphold these standards should be removed by the SBL Program Committee.
If anything, and at most, the situations that Prof. Hendel describes perhaps suggest that the SBL Program Committee should feel free to take a more directive posture in insuring that program unit steering committees do not allow their sessions to become venues for proselytizing, and that acceptable standards of academic discourse are maintained. This might be achieved, in a prelimiary way, by vetting applications for new program units more rigorously, particularly with regard to the professionalism and intentions of the unit chairs. Of course, the members of the Program Committee are not, and cannot be, experts in every field; I refer here to the Committee’s enforcement of general standards of professionalism. Here again, however, I would interpret the Committee’s reticence in taking such action in a way quite different from Prof. Hendel’s reading. Prof. Hendel interprets this posture as an effort to expand the financial base of the Societies’ annual meeting by diluting its scholarly mission---another claim that I view to be unfair, and am surprised to see espoused in such a sweeping fashion and without supporting documentation in a venue such as BAR. I instead interpret the Committee’ posture as appropriate caution in an attempt to insure the participation of the widest possible range of voices and perspectives.
In summary, I see no need for standards of membership, and feel that the issues Prof. Hendel raises do not relate to membership, but rather to program unit management and editorial policy. More careful attention to these issues, using current SBL policies and infrastructure, would sufficiently resolve the legitimate concerns that Prof. Hendel raises.
Thanks very much for considering these comments, and to all of you for your ongoing partnership.
33. Patti Rutka
(posted June 24, 2010)
Either Professor Hendel is lying that he or other Jews were proselytized at an SBL meeting, or it happened and SBL is unaware of it (or denying it). If it did happen with a particular group, it can happen again, and that is reprehensible and contrary to that for which SBL stands, as you point out in your response. Be warned and act accordingly. That its (supposed?) occurrence inspired what is not, in fact, discretion or cowardice but a passive-aggressive response on Professor Hendel’s part should not surprise anyone except Christians who continue to remain unaware how offensive proselytizing is to Jews. If the proselytizing did occur, I would have hoped several people would have spoken up more forthrightly after the incident(s).
As to the ASOR/AAR supposed squabbles—aren’t all human disputes about carving out territory ultimately petty? That people often die over disputes does not raise the original dispute above pettiness. Of course SBL ought to maintain its critical inquiry standards, but opening the door to setting standards will increase pettiness as well. It may become unlikely that a person writing, say, midrashic fiction would be admitted to SBL unless a bibliography were supplied for such novels or short stories. Tripping occurs when there are too many hoops to jump through.
Professor Hendel must have been pretty hopping mad to take to his pen in such a manner. But, you know what they say: opinions are like a particular part of our anatomy responsible for excretory functions—everybody has one.
32. Gus Konkel
(posted June 24, 2010)
Hendel confuses faith with fideism. Hendel lives by faith as does every mortal on earth. His faith need not compromise his intellectual inquiry; he has no basis to impugn those of other faiths as being less intellectually honest than he is in their pursuit of knowledge. Members join SBL because it represents the best of honest intellectual pursuit. Proselytizers have much more useful places to spend their time.
• To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?
The society has refrained from discriminating on the basis of educational institution or religious affiliation as it should.
• Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?
The only appropriate standard is in maintaining the quality of research in presentations. These control the usefulness of meetings. If anything, there are times when it might appear that zeal for political correctness has been responsible for weaker presentations.
31. Jonathan Parker
(posted June 24, 2010)
As a member of SBL, I am disappointed in Dr Hendel’s characterization of Dr. Waltke’s review. Surely Dr Hendel can see that a Dr Waltke’s argument against the ‘sufficiency of reason’ has a storied past with many other prominant scholars sharing a similar mix of faith and reason together and that this is far from ‘[directly attacking] the applicability of human reason to the study of the Bible’. I can well understand his desire to not be prosyletized, but does he really want an SBL where no one is allowed to even discuss the dynamics of faith and reason as they applied to the study the Bible (of all things!)?
30. Removed at the request of the responder.
29. J. Edmund Anderson
(posted June 24, 2010)
When I received the email from SBL regarding Ronald Hendel’s opinion piece I was intrigued. In any organization there must be the freedom to openly dissent and debate a whole host of issues related to that organization. I, for example, do not particularly agree with every single decision SBL makes, but by and large I think it is an important and worthwhile organization.
Hendel’s criticisms can be summed up in the following way: He feels the “proper” critical study of the Bible is the kind that is ruled solely by reason, without letting religious faith have any bearing on the facts. (As Hendel says, “facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.”) Therefore, he feels certain decisions by SBL had “muddied the waters” so to speak between “faith” and “reason.” Or more properly speaking, he feels that SBL has allowed some to “inject faith” into what should be a completely rational and academic institution.
Hendel then puts forth three pieces of evidence to support his view: (1) the decision by ASOR and AAR to dissolve their links with SBL, and the subsequent bonds that have been made with various “evangelical and fundamentalist groups,” (2) supposed book reviews in RBL that condemn “ordinary methods of critical scholarly inquiry” and argue for “the religious authority of orthodox Christian faith,” and (3) certain stated positions of Bruce Waltke regarding the study of the Bible. Hendel’s concludes by claiming that there is a “battle royale between faith and reason” in the center of the SBL circus. Because of SBL’s “cow-towing” toward Christian fundamentalist groups, Hendel has let his SBL membership lapse. Quoting Shakespeare, Hendel says that “the better part of valor is discretion,” and that perhaps it is more reasonable to avoid conflict on this issue.
My thoughts are many regarding Hendel’s opinion piece. My initial reaction was that if discretion is the better part of valor, and if Hendel wants to be reasonable and avoid conflict, it certainly seems odd that he would write an opinion piece in which he makes some pretty serious accusations (with very scanty evidence to back them up) and indulges in some fairly outrageous and unsubstantiated attacks (to my knowledge there has been no articles or seminars at SBL involving creationists, snake-handlers, or faith-healers).
The root of Hendel’s criticism of SBL can be easily traced back to his view as to what consists as true critical biblical scholarship. In articulating his view within his first two paragraphs, Hendel makes it quite clear that he is a thoroughly “modern” biblical scholar. He fundamentally believes the Enlightenment notion that “faith” and “reason” pertain to completely different domains of experience. They are, in his own words, “like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused.” I would like to point out, though, that very view is unreasonable, uncritical, and unscholarly. It is “fundamentalist” in its own right.
Hendel’s first point of faulty reasoning can be seen in his treatment of Pascal. Now, Pascal was right to make a clear distinction between the religious faith of the Catholic Church and scholarly pursuit of facts in the realm of the physical sciences and mathematics. What Hendel, and many other modern-Enlightenment biblical scholars, has erroneously done is try to make the exact same distinction when it comes to the study of religious texts of faith. Historical-critical methods are invaluable when it comes to understanding a variety of historical and textual issues, but when it comes to actually reading a biblical text and trying to understand its meaning, since it is a religious text of faith, to refuse to allow it to be understood from the viewpoint of that faith is to, in fact, blind the reader from truly understanding it. When it comes to the study of the Bible, “faith” and “reason” cannot be divorced; they must work hand in hand.
Unfortunately, it has been this tendency within historical-critical studies over the past 300 years to treat “faith” and “reason” as oil and water, and to ultimately disregard “faith” as having any say in the discussion of biblical texts at all. The result of this tendency has led to some very uncritical and unreasonable scholarly positions being embraced.
Let’s look at the scholarly work in New Testament studies regarding the “Q” gospel as an example. Historical-critical methods have shown that indeed Matthew and Luke probably got much of their material from Mark. (In fact, I would further argue that Matthew simply takes Mark’s general outline and elaborates considerably on many points, whereas Luke completely disregards Mark’s general outline and rearranges his material completely.) Furthermore, historical-critical methods have also put forth the reasonable assumption that since Matthew and Luke include additional material that is not found in Mark, they got this additional material from some other source (i.e. “Q”). This historical-critical argument is reasonable, critical, and scholarly.
Now, where this additional material came from is anybody’s guess. Maybe Matthew and Luke had access to another early source or maybe they had their own material—we just don’t know. Therefore “Q,” properly understood, really simply stands for “additional material.” There are considerable problems, though, when historical-critical scholars start basing certain conclusions and making certain claims regarding this hypothetical “Q document” that does not exist and of which there is no evidence. Therefore, when scholars claim that “Q” must have been the earliest account of Jesus’ life because it does not include any mention of the resurrection, such a claim is completely uncritical, unscholarly, and foolish circular thinking. They define “Q” as being the material that Matthew and Luke do not share with Mark. But then they “reason” that since all three gospels share a resurrection account, “Q” must not have had one. Where is the critical thinking or logic in that? Furthermore, it is completely mind-boggling when certain scholars actually quote “Q”—how can you quote a document that doesn’t exist?
My point is this: this type of “reason” that holds absolutely no respect to the final form of the text and that assumes that the scientific method can answer everything is, in fact, a form of modern-Enlightenment fundamentalism that is itself uncritical and unreasonable. At the very least, good biblical scholarship should have enough “faith” in the text itself as it is given to us, and then exegete that.
Let’s also look at the various Feminist and LGBT/Queer papers and seminars that are a part of SBL and AAR as another example. Without wanting to disparage them at all, we must ask a basic critical question: do they foster a true exegetical understanding of the biblical texts? Can they be interesting? Of course. Can they foster discussion of a number of contemporary issues? Probably. Do they promote and foster true exegetical biblical scholarship? Not that I can tell.
I remember as a graduate student reading a feminist reading of the book of Revelation. From a strictly scholarly and critical position, I simply could not see how the author could make the astounding claim that for John, the abyss in Revelation 20:1-3 represented the “vagina dentata.” It didn’t seem critical, scholarly, or exegetical in any way. Nevertheless, articles like that still get published and accepted in scholarly circles like SBL. Similarly, LGBT/Queer readings of the Bible are equally uncritical and equally accepted. Is it really scholarly and critical to speculate that Jesus and John might have been lovers or that Paul might have been a repressed homosexual? Is there any historical or textual evidence at all to back those speculations up? No—therefore such readings are, by definition, not scholarly or critical.
Nevertheless, they are given a place at the SBL table. I obviously with them, but I’m not about to renounce my membership simply because I happen to disagree with SBL for allowing them a say. I just choose not to attend the specific meetings at the SBL annual conference that focus on Feminist and LGBT/Queer readings of the Bible. I think they are unscholarly and uncritical—but that doesn’t mean that the entire SBL is unscholarly and uncritical. Why would I quit SBL when there still is so much that is good about it? For Hendel, therefore, to quit SBL simply because there are now two “fundamentalist groups” that have joined SBL seems to be truly ridiculous.
Finally, it is shocking at just how uncritical Hendel’s criticism of Bruce Waltke really is. What Hendel is really objecting to is the fact that Waltke doesn’t share his particular preference to completely divorce “faith” from “reason.” To accuse Waltke of “attacking the applicability of human reason to the study of the Bible” is complete foolishness—there’s no other way to say it. Just try reading through Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology: over 1000 pages of scholarly work that is indebted to higher biblical criticism.
Waltke’s point is really quite simple and reasonable: when it comes to studying these biblical texts of faith that are religious by their very nature, one must allow the faith of the writers and the community to which the texts were written to direct one’s understanding of the texts. Simply put, faith and reason work together as one wrestles with the meaning of religious texts of faith. What Waltke is objecting to is the very kind of modern-Enlightenment fundamentalism that Hendel, unfortunately, ascribes to: that “faith” and “reason” are like oil and water, and to leave any room for “faith” in the exegesis of biblical texts is to somehow taint true inquiry. I might not agree with every one of Waltke’s conclusions regarding a whole number of specific biblical issues, but I would never dream of making such a wild and uncritical accusation that Hendel has made. Does anyone seriously think Waltke simply dismisses all critical inquiry as an annoying nuisance? Such hyperbole might be expected by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, but not any serious biblical scholar who claims to value critical thinking and reason.
What today’s biblical scholars have to acknowledge is that after 300 years of dominance of the historical-critical method in biblical studies, despite the vast amount of good it has provided in our understanding of the biblical texts, there have come to light a number of cracks in its foundation. Repairs have to be made because the historical-critical method has not gotten everything right. Why should that surprise anyone? A blind and optimistic “faith” in the autonomy of human reason alone to be able to fully understand religious texts of faith without any reference to “religious faith” is, in fact, unreasonable, uncritical, and not rooted in reality. It’s not an “either/or” issue. It is a “both/and” issue.
28. Lizhou Tan
(posted June 24, 2010)
As a student, I think Ronald is right in distinguishing facts and worldview beliefs. Facts are things that are universally acknowldged or something that can be proved from those self evident truth. The question is whether the text he raise is absolute facts or it is just some archaeological hypothesis. If we can say that we will never question that Deuteronomy is written by people after Moses and we can 100% conclude that the author of Deutoronomy does not get material from Moses. Then we can say that Ronald is right because what he says is truth. faith should not be contradicted to the truth. But if his arguement is not 100% truth or is just a dominate view among biblical scholars, he is wrong in his attempt to driving evangelical scholars out of SBL. If a topic or a theme is debatable, we need to leave room for scholars to debate. if a topic is an undebatable truth, then it is not necessary for us to debate anymore. so it is not the research topic for SBL because SBL promote “critical inquiry”. Critical inquiry should be topics that can be debated. In that sense, I would say that Ronald is contradicted to his statement. If Deutoronomy authorship is 100% post Mosaic, then it is not a topic for “critical inquiry.” If not, then Ronald is wrong in claiming that this topic cannot be discusssed. such is a self contradicting statement. So, I think if there is a slim chance that Deuteronomy authorship is Moses, We should allow the conservative scholars to have their voice to be heard in SBL. This is another type of persecution and we will never want to see it in academic circle to see such persecution in postmodern age.
27. Jason B. Hood
(posted June 23, 2010)
Hendel has claimed that wider inclusion results in an abandonment of critical engagement. I cite from Sandmel’s famous Parallelomania article in JBL, which was the published version of his presidential address at SBL:
Two hundred years ago Christians and Jews and Roman Catholics and Protestants seldom read each other’s books, and almost never met together to exchange views and opinions on academic matters related to religious documents. Even a hundred years ago such cross-fertilization or meeting was rare. In our ninety-seventh meeting we take it as a norm for us to read each other’s writings and to meet together, debate with each other, and agree or disagree with each other in small or large matters of scholarship. The legacy from past centuries, of misunderstanding and even of animosity, has all but been dissolved in the framework of our organization. Would that humanity at large could achieve what has been achieved in our Society.
In this spirit, and from this historical perspective on the Society’s value, it is not clear to me why evangelicals, liberation theologians, Mormons, Adventists, Pentecostals, Marxists, or any other group with a particular ideological commitment should be unwelcome in a group whose “norms” include debate and agreement or disagreement. Fencing the Society would result in less critical thought and more animosity, fostering an unwanted return to “the legacy from past centuries.”
26. Mark Mattison
(posted June 23, 2010)
Personally I believe the only standards for membership in the SBL should be an agreement with the mission, vision, and values of the SBL. Anyone who supports these should be permitted the privilege of supporting the SBL with paid memberships regardless of academic achievement or status.
25. Jeffrey Stackert
(posted June 23, 2010)
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ron Hendel’s piece in BAR and the larger issues of membership and scholarly profile that the SBL currently faces. While both the SBL leadership and Ron know the history of these issues better than I do (and are welcome to quibble over any particular “facts”), I am in strong agreement with the sentiments that Ron expresses. I have been quite unimpressed by several of the reviews posted on RBL in recent months. I know that, in addition to Ron’s treatment, such reviews have been the topic of some discussion online and thus need no further comment from me.
I will, however, describe a specific experience that I had at the 2008 SBL annual meeting in Boston that exemplifies exactly what Ron laments. I presented in a new SBL program unit, “The Sabbath in Text, Tradition, and Theology.” I found the name somewhat suspicious. I thought, “What is accomplished in an SBL venue by adding Theology to Text and Tradition?,” but I didn’t overanalyze it. I learned quickly in the session what the significance of such a change was for the organizers. The program unit was strongly oriented toward Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) dogma in its leadership, general trajectory, and list of presenters. The papers that were offered were in many cases homiletical rather than academic and critical. In many cases, they lauded the glory of the Sabbath and its observance--not in historical sources but within modern religious practice and as normative for it. Moreover, more than one paper ignored or avoided critical issues in the biblical and other texts treated, presumably out of religious objection to the leading conclusions within scholarship, conclusions reached through methods of critical, humanistic inquiry. Most appalling, however, was the overt attempt to proselytize by the SDA organizers of the session (as an aside, I would characterize SDA as at least oriented toward fundamentalism, even if not part of the Princeton group of the late 19th century; as I understand it, SDA affirms such things as a literal six day creation and have a generally “literalist” hermeneutic, hallmarks for American Christian fundamentalists). The session chair offered a free book on the merits of sabbath observance (from an explicitly SDA perspective) specifically to any attendees who were not sabbath-observant. After the session, I stayed for the business meeting of the consultation (it began immediately upon the close of the session, and I was on the panel and thought it would be noticeably rude to get up and leave). The gist of the business meeting discussion was, “This was a great session, but we mainly did Bible. I think we should do more church history and theology and homiletics!” I objected, suggesting that the SBL is not the right venue for such pursuits. The unit organizers were noticeably cool to my comments. I know that such objections were also raised with the organizers after the 2008 annual meeting, but, as far as I know, no responses were ever offered from the organizers to those who participated or who signed up for subsequent emails from the consultation. I felt blindsided in the session and business meeting by what appeared to be a highly sectarian, anti-critical, and proselytizing group masquerading as an academic consultation at a professional academic society. In my opinion, this consultation at the 2008 annual meeting in Boston tarnished the scholarly integrity of the SBL.
I think that the SBL should be open to both religious and non-religious members and participants. Yet the methods employed within it should be the methods of critical, humanistic inquiry. Arguments and conclusions should be based on available, tangible evidence that is critically evaluated, not creed. Both religious and non-religious scholars can engage productively on this basis. If confessional groups are to meet concurrently with the SBL, their sessions should be clearly marked as such in the program. I do not think that they should be SBL sessions.
Finally, I would recommend putting a name to the responses to Ron Hendel offered already on the SBL website and in the email sent to the SBL membership. There is no one named “SBL”, as the email was signed--indeed, as a member of the society, a piece signed “SBL” could be attributed at least in part to me, and I did not write it. To my mind, in addition to its substance, one of the merits of Ron’s piece is the fact that it comes from a real person who stands behind what he writes.
24. Charles Dickinson
(posted June 23, 2010)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to Professor Ronald Hendel’s essay “Farewell to SBL: faith and reason in biblical studies.” Let me start by taking issue, not with the intentions, policies, and inner workings of the SBL (of which I am a member), but with Professor Hendel’s first paragraph. There he tells us that “faith and intellectual inquiry … are like oil and water, things that do not mix … facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts,” and to illustrate his contentions appeals to the “brilliant mathematician” and religious near-fanatic Blaise Pascal who, he says, “did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations.” But for one thing Pascal was not exactly a Catholic in good odor with the French Catholic establishment of his day, but one tainted by the soon-to-be-extirpated heresy of Jansenism; and for another one could argue that it was precisely the world-denying Manichean strain of his Jansenist beliefs that ultimately persuaded Pascal to abandon scientific work altogether.
But let us move to the more distinctly theological question of whether faith and reason can mix, especially when it comes to biblical scholarship. Anyone versed in the history of modern (post-1648) critical biblical scholarship knows that, despite its exciting beginnings at the hands of such miscreants as Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza, critical biblical scholarship has almost from the beginning been pursued by unbelievers and pious believers alike. If unbelievers such as Hobbes and Spinoza criticized the Bible and the received wisdom about it in order to undermine the authority of those who used it for their own ecclesiastical and/or political ends, others did so precisely in order to reform and enlighten the anciently received faith by appealing from it to an even better biblically instructed and thus more vital and enlightened faith. One thinks here of such scholars as Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91) and Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who—sick of the “pietistic sanctimoniousness” and ahistorical dogmatic theology respectively of their day—turned instead to the Bible to found respectively the “scientific study of the New Testament” and a truly “biblical theology” (Kümmel).
Today, it appears, the biblical guild is of equally mixed provenance. For every devout student of his own scriptures, it would seem, there is another of a very different faith, or no faith at all. And so, no doubt, it should be. For just as Voltaire was amazed to find the London Stock Exchange composed of believers and unbelievers of all stripes, peaceably conducting their business together, so today, for example, many Christians are secretly or openly overjoyed to find Jewish New Testament scholars—unburdened by at least one set of dogmatic presuppositions—far outstripping those Christian scholars who too often already know what they must find before even turning to the Bible.
Diversity exists. Diversity and difference remain. Vive la différence!
23. Nathaniel Gamble
(posted June 23, 2010)
Having read Ronald S. Hendel’s article in Biblical Archaeology Review and the explanatory comments you presented on the SBL website, I have determined to respond with this feedback.
First, as a general comment, I think an ongoing discussion about Hendel’s concerns should be encouraged, and I thank you for suggesting and being willing to facilitate such a discussion. Second, I think Hendel’s remarks were both libelous and inaccurate; they are demonstrative of an individual who feels strongly about these matters, but who is also vastly ignorant regarding certain policies of and groups possessing relations with the SBL.
Specifically, I am a student member of the ASRS, or Adventist Society for Religious Studies. While I obviously have not been a member of this organization for as long as many of the senior (and founding!) members of this group, to my knowledge and that of many of the senior members of this group, we have never in all our time as an existing body of scholars or as an organization with a relationship to the SBL, attempted to foist our particular confessional views on others, castigate persons of other faiths or no faith traditions for not believing as we believe, or have published any defamatory article or scholarly work through SBL (or another other venue of which I am aware) claiming certain individuals were “going to hell.” Hendel has not produced any bit of substantive evidence that we or any other group has done this in any way. The certain Jewish leaders he refers to in his article are not mentioned by name; the specific group who acted intolerantly is not called out on their actions; and the supposed confessional literature placed in their hands sounds vague enough to fall into the realm of “suspicious”. If certain people in any of these groups have committed such activities, which are a breach of the operating principles of the SBL and its constituent meeting groups, then I personally want to know who has done this and which groups are culpable of this breach. By not informing the SBL of the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” of such an occurrence, Hendel has basically committed an act of concurrence with this intolerance by allowing the particular group with its specific members to get away with this behavior! Let us not make hasty generalizations, use red herrings, or hurl ad hominem attacks in stating positions regarding SBL and scholarly groups; arguments of substance need not rely on cheap parlor tricks of rhetoric, but will stand or fall on their merits of reasonableness and congruency.
Further, I feel that Hendel’s focus on the the Seventh-day Adventist and Pentecostal scholars associated with SBL is an act of prejudice. He indicts ASRS and SPS of being fundamentalist (yet does not define the label, as if assuming that every member of SBL knows exactly what he means by its usage), but says nothing specific about the mass of pro-Evangelical groups that have been meeting regularly in connection with SBL over the past several years. Seventh-day Adventists are not the only Sabbatarian scholars in attendance at SBL meetings, nor are they the only (or prominent) Sabbath observers in meeting as the ASRS. As well, Pentecostal scholars are not snake-handling, back-water folk from Appalachia; they are level-headed, serious-minded scholars who take pride in engaging in critical biblical research. In short, his argument against the inclusion of these two specific groups, along with other “fundamentalist groups”, appears to Adventists (and probably Pentecostals) as a thinly-veiled religious attack on individuals who hold confessional beliefs and have a desire to engage in biblical scholarship, simply because of their privately held religious beliefs. I don’t think the Adventist scholars who are members of the SBL would be unreasonable in desiring an apology from Hendel.
Finally, as to the other matters at hand, I think the SBL has done an outstanding job of trying to let Evangelical scholars (and others) participate in conversations regarding biblical scholarship, while still maintaining a policy of biblical research that doesn’t rest on the laurels of the status quo or the confessions of religious bodies. I don’t think there is a necessity to have a standards-based approach to membership in the SBL, apart from an expectation that scholars connected with the society will 1) endeavor to critically engage the biblical and extra-biblical texts in question, 2) endeavor to use reasonable and logical arguments in taking positions, and 3) endeavor to remain true to their consciences with regards to the conclusions they reach regarding these texts. Any standard beyond this would most likely shut out voices from scholarly conversations in biblical studies, which the SBL wishes to foster among professionals across the interpretive spectrum.
I recognize that some of my feedback, while an attempt to be objective, might have more bearing on Ronald Hendel personally rather than the broader discussion. If you wish to post any of my comments, please feel free to select those portions of my feedback which are most relevant to the matters at hand, provided that my specific comments are not taken out of their context. Thank you very much.
22. Jared Byas
(posted June 23, 2010)
As a student member, I don’t feel like it’s my place to give constitutive feedback but I do want to comment on your response to the piece. I was concerned after reading the article (that what he was saying was true) and would have remained concerned for some time if it weren’t for your response. But I have a hard time thinking that Professor Hendel will press the matter further after having read your well-stated response. I think you clarified things swimmingly and I will continue to be a part of, and support, the SBL. Thanks for your professional handling of the piece and for being wise enough to open the floor for dialogue among the SBL members.
21. Amy Anderson
(posted June 23, 2010)
As a textual critic who is also a Pentecostal, I was astonished at Professor Hendel’s article, and I question how he came to draw such conclusions. His description of Pentecostals as fundamentalist, for example, demonstrates that he is not at all familiar with this group, and has apparently made his judgments without having attended sessions of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. His lack of academic rigor in this one small item leads me to question everything else he claims. Perhaps it is Professor Hendel who is being unduly influenced by his own belief system, which seems to reject the idea that a person of faith could also be a scholar.
I have always been impressed by the theological breadth of the SBL annual meeting. It seems to me that the various topical sections do quite a good job of vetting their own presenters and moderators, and of seeking a balance of content while allowing for vigorous disagreement. For that reason, I would be reluctant to see any sort of standards-based approach introduced.
I’m actually not clear on why SBL is giving Professor Hendel’s article so much attention. He has had his say and dropped his membership. Perhaps we should leave it at that.
20. Ron Troxel
(posted June 23, 2010)
In point of fact, Hendel is right: neither the mission statement nor the “Strategic Vision Statements” include any mention of “critical thought” or “critical investigation.” In fact, the “Strategic Vision Statements” speak broadly of “Facilitat[ing] broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives” and “Offering members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development as teachers and scholars.” These may be noble goals, but they are far different than demands for rigorous critical investigation of biblical literature. Consequently, Hendel is justified in his perception that the Society has relaxed its former insistence on this matter.
Second, the SBL’s response did not acknowledge one of the most serious (and justified) charges that Hendel made. Waltke’s review of my colleague’s book was little more than a pretext for propounding his conviction about the application of certain faith-commitments to study of the Bible. I have already written a letter to the editor of RBL protesting the publication of Waltke’s review, but I think it necessary to say here that Hendel is not hallucinating when he speaks of offensive and divisive material appearing in SBL publications.
In sum, I found your “clarifications” gave short shrift to some serious and reasonable concerns from a respected scholar. As much as I endorse the acceptance of multiple voices and approaches within the SBL, I find your treatment of Hendel’s concerns an unfortunate whitewash.
19. Bill Skelton
(posted June 23, 2010)
Please maintain the SBL’s enlightened policy of open membership.
Though I have no formal scholarly affiliation Biblical Studies are my passion and the SBL meeting is a high point of the year for me- and my name is legion. The SBL is the only entry for people like myself into Biblical Scholarship and I am certain the field benefits from the perspective and questions of interested outsiders like myself.
As for the idea that we should be “shocked, shocked!” at the admitting to the SBL meeting of groups having their origin in faith based organizations, anyone attending the Pentecostal Societies meetings, for example, will find their scholarship no less critical or intellectually informed than what is typical for SBL presenters. In any case the concept of objective or purely cerebral scholarship is a chemera, in my opinion at least. Positions held but scholars are clearly influenced by their faith or ideological stance or lack of it. As N. T. Wright observed, “Do I have an agenda. Of course I have an agenda. We all have agendas. Let he who has no agenda cast the first stone.” (Quoted from memory: Forgive inaccuracies.)
18. Ron Hendel
(posted June 23, 2010)
Although I am no longer a Society member, I would like to offer a few comments. First, I appreciate the genuine concern that the SBL is exhibiting. Second, I note that my concerns seem to be widely shared, based on the flurry of e-mails from established biblical scholars that I have received over the past several days. With an eye toward getting the discussion moving, I would like to propose the following changes to the status quo.
1. Put the word “critical” back into the SBL mission statement, yielding the phrase: “to foster critical scholarship.” (I note that someone has created a Facebook page titled: “The SBL should put the word “critical” back into their purpose statement”; see http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-SBL-should-put-the-word-critical-back-into-their-purpose-statement/126774120693094?v=wall&ref=ts.)
2. Move the RBL back into the oversight of the JBL editors. The decline in quality arguably began with its autonomy.
3. This is a more difficult one: Outside groups should be allowed to operate their own sections at SBL only if they endorse the principle of academic freedom, i.e. the free exercise of critical scholarship. Implementing this rule would require some courage, but I think it is absolutely essential in order to ensure academic respectability.
Finally, I wish to note for the record that in 2007 I was informed by an SBL officer of outreach plans, in the wake of the separation from AAR, “to invite other organizations to be a part of our formal program. The intent is to broaden the program and support areas where our members ‘live’ academically. At the moment this has included several organizations from the evangelical tradition, but this focus is not the overall goal.” In a subsequent communication, the SBL director added, “Fortunately SBL has no litmus test,” and he directed me to the change in mission statement in 2004 to explain why “critical investigation” of biblical literature was no longer an operative criterion.
Thank you for considering these proposals.
17. Ralph W. Klein
(posted June 23, 2010)
I think Ronald Hendel is misinterpreting what is happening at SBL or has experienced a facet of SBL that I have never observed.
In 1974, at Concordia Seminary, my colleagues and I were dismissed for using historical criticism. That was an outrage, IMHO, but I have always welcomed the chance at SBL to hear and dialogue with more conservative (and more liberal) scholars. I am miles apart theologically from Bruce Waltke, but I have learned much from his work on Hebrew syntax and even his biblical commentaries.
In a recent review in RBL, a commentary on Daniel was discussed written from an inerrant perspective. The reviewer defended the author’s right to write a commentary from that perspective, but chided him strongly for questioning the integrity of critical scholars. I thought that was a very appropriate review.
SBL is such a wonderful feast! I find myself trying to decide among four or five lectures at each hour, and I gladly avoid topics or methodologies that seem not to be helpful (to me, but no doubt helpful to many others).
I hope that ASOR and AAR rejoin us for the annual meeting someday. Many younger biblical scholars who teach in college religion departments find that they have to teach their specialty and world religions, ethics, or church history. Bringing our organizations back together would help them participate in discussions outside their primary research focus.
As a former Academic Dean, the split of our organizations causes a considerable hassle for searches.
Finally, I hope that Ron Hendel keeps coming to SBL. I have always treasured his scholarship.
16. Removed at the request of the responder
15. Patrick J. Madden
(posted June 23, 2010)
I think to be a full member of the SBL that a Ph.D. (or the European equivalent) in Scripture or “related discipline” should be a requirement.
Those without a doctorate should be “associate members.” To join they would need to be sponsored by a full member.
Those working toward a terminal degree in scripture or a related discipline could be student members.
14. Jason Poling
(posted June 23, 2010)
In light of Prof. Hendel’s tantrum I thought it might be useful to bring this up to you again. I wrote the proposed Forum piece below after reading several RBL reviews that I considered hostile to the people Prof. Hendel thinks have taken over SBL. I did not get any response beyond this email from Sharon Johnson, but I expect that addressing the concerns of someone like me is (rightly, and I mean that) low on your list of priorities.
I presented my concerns, I hope, in a spirit of humble appreciation for all SBL has to offer, and in hopes of encouraging it to be more truly what it claims to be. I continue to be grateful for the opportunities I have to benefit from SBL publications and events, even if I am one of those ignorant Bible-thumpers.
13. L. Mark Bruffey
(posted June 23, 2010)
Christianity has been self-authenticating for two millennia. Hendel seems to think the society should invoke standards that would exclude Augustine, Calvin, Luther—even Barth and Ratzinger for that matter. When Hendel can stand in their shoes, then give him a little more attention.
Now that the Dead Sea Scrolls have become a moot issue, perhaps they need something else with which to stir up trouble over at BAR. Is it a wise move to yield to Hendel so much attention? BAR isn’t exactly known as the apex of scholarship itself. Maybe it’s BAR that’s having the money issues. On that platform, Hendel has his feet firmly planted in thin air.
Why respond so seriously? Faith vs. Fact is passe … except for those in whose hands modernity finds itself clutched ever so tightly, ever so tightly, ever so tightly.…
Relax. This is the 21st Century.
12. Robert Arthur Bailey
(posted June 23, 2010)
I read Prof. Hendel’s opinion article and your discussion of it.
I think your present standards of membership in SBL are appropriate, namely, anyone interested in the study and discussion of Biblical literature.
11. G Thomas Hobson
(posted June 23, 2010)
Hendel’s line “faith has no business dealing in the world of facts” is incredibly arrogant and intolerant of any viewpoint other than his own. The fact that SBL’s openness making someone like Hendel so mad, increases my respect and support of SBL.
10. Rob Abramovitz
(posted June 23, 2010)
The SBL has allowed too many evangelical voices into the discussion. The peer review process should be strengthened and the reviewers chosen with care.
As a minimum standard of qualification for full membership should be an M.Div, D.Th or Phd from a fully accredited institution. Student membership should include those studying for such a degree. There should also be a classification for associate members for those who do not qualify for full membership. These would have the same benefits as student membership. The associate members would pay the full member cost, but would not be allowed to publish within the SBL auspices (nor would they qualify for student competitions).
9. Nathaniel Cooley
(posted June 23, 2010)
Upon reading Dr. Ronald S. Hendel’s article, one is immediately struck by his use Pascal as a defense for his position. Pascal in his Wager defends the notion that reason can be the deciding factor in converting to Christianity (See Pensees 835 and Thomas Morris, “Wagering and the Evidence”). The purpose of the Wager was to show the practical reasons for accepting Christianity if one were to set evidence for/against Christianity at 50/50. Pascal did not see any reason to separate faith and reason nor should SBL.
The problem I have with this article is that it assumes that proper way of doing Biblical scholarship is through Critical studies. If one wants to argue for the exclusive of other methodologies, one should arrive at that position - not start there. The faith-reason split is a false dichotomy. The opposite of faith is unbelief. And the position of unbelief affects the way one does scholarship as much as the position of belief. Bultmann’s question is appropriate here: “Is exegesis without presuppositions possible?” The answer, as Bultmann acknowledges, is no. Critical methodology is not immune to presuppositions. If the intention of SBL is to engage in Biblical scholarship, then it should not be dissuaded from including scholarship from different backgrounds. Having scholars from different backgrounds (religious and non-religious) enriches the community by exposing philosophical (and theological) blind spots. Though I personally disagree with those who are skeptical of the Bible’s inspiration, I find value in examining positions from Critical scholarship. They are often quite insightful and helpful in aiding one to understand the text. It is because of this that I hope that SBL continues to open its doors to scholars of all fields.
8. William J. Fulco, S.J.
(posted June 23, 2010)
I really am not satisfied with SBL’s “clarifications” to Hendel’s article. On some factual matters such as the simultaneous meetings with AAR and ASOR (of which I am an active member), the response deserves merit, but it really does not answer the underlying problem of atmospherics. I have long since stopped going to SBL meetings because every year the general level of scholarship seems lower and less “scholarly.” More and more of the papers presented are ideological or confessional or meant to persuade rather than inform. The social dimensions, such as conversations around the book tables, meeting folks over meals, etc., have also changed markedly in this direction as well. I do read many of the on-line SBL book reviews and enjoy them, but not the meetings and progressively, not the on-line Journal either. So despite many of the particularities of Hendel’s position, I think he’s touched on something that has genuinely eroded the usefulness of the SBL in the world of Biblical Scholarship.
7. Caleb Crainer
(posted June 23, 2010)
After reading Hedel’s article, and the SBL clarifications I was left with a few thoughts of my own. Namely, that it seems that if the SBL seeks to include scholars who adopt a different set of critical tools for study, then it might be wise to articulate what standards of “objectivity” ought to be upheld. Hendel’s suggestion that one side adheres to “reason” while “fundamentalists” do not is absurd, both operate out of logical systems they themselves have constructed. Both appeal to what they consider to be the indisputable ”facts.” Perhaps we as a society would do well to revisit the reasons many “critical” foundations of our scholarship have been established as such. I think Hendel is a courageous and insightful scholar who cares deeply for this field. Conversely, typically conservative scholars comprise a large population of teachers in biblical studies that might remain uninformed about the advances of modern scholarly technique. We could all brush up on our Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and Ricoeur as our “human sciences” discipline once again articulates legitimacy.
Hermeneutically, it will not suffice to assert that “our side” is rational and others are nonsense … rather we all need to be held to high standards of a question-asking methodology that looks at a wide field of evidences and philosophical insights to help us discern responsible movements within our field. That’s not the willy-nilly side of postmodernity, it is the hyper-critical genius from burgeoning interests. Hendel leads by example when he points out strata of Hebrew language. If scholars wish to assert that the Torah was written by Moses, they must also be held to evidential standards.
Instead of an unfortunate influx of close-minded ideological studies, instead, I see including our neighbors who do not have centuries of critical tradition under their collective belt to learn alongside us as we continue to revisit these difficult questions. This could be an amazing opportunity to calmly and responsibly respond and firmly disprove fundamentalist biblical claims to those who perpetuate obsolete propaganda. It will also be an opportunity for those of us who are well-aquainted with Spinoza to see how our own ideologies are always influencing our “critical reason.” It is time that we learn to contextualize biblical studies and to clearly communicate these directives to those who see what we do as glorified “bible study.”
As our churches and synagogues continue to lose vital membership, we cannot assume that we can financially sustain our scholarship indefinitely. Who is going to care about serious biblical scholarship when the next generation of young american’s do not seem as interested in religion in general? Who is going to care about us when the bible assumes the obscure irrelevancy other ancient documents have fallen into? Who is going to care about learning Greek and Hebrew when Mathematics, Genetics, and C++ become the useful languages of our society? What wisdom will we have to offer? The SBL along with ASOR and AAR have valuable and needed insights to bring to an increasingly divided culture, but we will have to model how we employ such wisdom ourselves in this very discussion before we chide others for their scholarly postures.
6. Removed at the request of the responder
5. Richard C. Miller
(posted June 23, 2010)
I see Hendel’s article as a more or less accurate diagnosis of the present state of SBL. I do not think that the so called “clarifications” that you offer provide a proper intelligent response to his critique. Instead of hearing the general spirit of his criticisms, you have effectively deflected and dismissed the core elements of his concerns. SBL has indeed become overgrown with “faith-based” scholarship. I find SBL, on principles of academic and intellectual honesty, to have become utterly embarrassing. I brought a friend to the San Diego meeting and had to apologize afterward for countless experiences that we faced that demonstrated gross intellectual dishonesty and chicanery all with subtexts of “faith-based” sociology. I have gotten to the place where I find only perhaps 10-20 of the sessions to be of acceptable quality and integrity regarding the discipline as I have come to understand it. We live in a land that is still heavily under the proverbial spell of these ancient texts, and it is our duty to isolate ourselves sufficiently and to shed authentic philological light on their meaning in history. This task is daunting and nigh impossible without a society that has erected and enforced proper intellectual boundaries and academic standards of discourse.
While in some minor technical areas Hendel’s critique may seem mistaken, the core thrust of his diagnosis is spot on. I feel it is the moral duty of the present executive membership swiftly to remedy and rectify this horribly compromised situation.
4. Bob Cargill
(posted June 23, 2010)
i’ll provide more thoughtful responses to your three questions after fiscal year close ;-)
i did want to say that i’m proud of you (the sbl leadership) today, and proud to be a member.
3. Nathan MacDonald
(posted June 23, 2010)
The SBL’s clarification on this matter is very helpful and confirms my suspicion on first reading the Hendel piece that some of the developments cited were accidental or misunderstood rather than part of a concerted plot.
The SBL’s piece does not substantively address an issue that I do think should be on the table: the apparent lack of editorial control in RBL reviews. The RBL reviews is the most important context for reviewing biblical scholarship since it allows the reviewer considerable scope, it is accessible via the internet, and the RBL newsletter ensures a wide readership within the guild. I well appreciate the impact of RBL since whilst I have published numerous articles and review, I have rarely (if ever) received any comment from colleagues unless directly solicited, except for the two RBL reviews I have written where I received almost immediate comment from fellow scholars.
The importance of RBL also entails responsibility and I am not convinced this is in evidence. There are some outstanding reviews on the site—substantive, learned and engaged reviews of important scholarship. There are, however, examples of reviews (and Hendel cites one good example, but there are some others) where the review is written as though for consumption by a circumscribed religiously-defined group or where implausible opinions about biblical texts are asserted. By implausible opinions I mean opinions that could not be and have not been defended through a rigorous peer-review process so as to be published in a leading Biblical Studies journal.
I am not saying that reviews should not be provocative, challenging or cutting-edge. Nor do I wish to be unrealistic about the contested nature of almost every question in our discipline. Nevertheless, reviews can be so written so as to be inclusive—this can even be the case where they note that a book may or may not appeal to one part of the biblical studies constituency. In addition, reviews can be written to the standards that would be expected of a peer review journal. (Indeed, RBL grew out of reviews in JBL.) In both cases I see no reason why RBL editors should not return reviews to reviewers and ask that sections be rewritten. I have not seen any evidence that this has taken place. As far as I can make out editorial control is relinquished once the decision has been made to assign the book to a reviewer. It is time that this was corrected. With thanks for your consideration
2. Andrew Tobolowsky
(posted June 23, 2010)
As a PhD student in, technically, Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean with a focus on the Near East and Greece, I have, personally, zero interest in providing a forum for “all voices to be heard”. Scholarship that is not credible, that is, scholarship that is based on faith rather than reason is, in my view, the number one enemy of Biblical scholarship as a serious field. In none of the other fields that I study, in what is increasingly understood I think everywhere as a multivalenced field—by which I mean, we increasingly understand that Israel is not to be understood without recourse to the context of Canaan, Mesopotamia, Egypt et. al—would it be permissible to even imagine an argument that is not founded on real evidence. That such is present at SBL masquerading as the right of everyone to have a voice is, in my view, actually the continued propagation of a stigma that negatively affects the work of the whole community.
That there is never a report of an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia without some reference to Abraham having slept there, so to speak, is bad enough. That many people whom I tell about my academic career immediately assume that I am to be a reverend or some such (though I am Jewish) is the same. But that the views of a scholar based on archaeological evidence and critical inquiry are to be placed on an equal footing with those whose “scholarship” can not be separated from the desire to prove the Bible correct is a true crime. You cannot possibly pursue a real investigation when you know already what you must find and I, like many of my brethren, do not accept that tolerance, in the academic community, is a suitable substitute for systematic inquiry, however subjective “truth” remains.
1. Daniel Harlow
(posted June 23, 2010)
I think Hendel needs to grow up a bit. The clarifications on the SBL website indicate to me that he has made a mountain out of a mole hill. I am no fan of conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism, but I am a big fan of inclusiviness. Of course proselytizing activity should not be permitted at SBL meetings. But any and all credentialed scholars serious about study of the Bible should be welcome at the SBL. To me it is ludicrous that people who have confessional interests in and faith commitments regarding the Bible should be excluded from the SBL. Evidently Hendel has forgotten that the Bible is a collection of writings by ancient people—Israelites, Jews, and Christians—who had faith commitments! If postmodern critical approaches of all types are welcome at the SBL, scholars with religious identities and interests should be welcome as well.