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The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Biblical Studies and Study BiblesCarol Newsom

(The location of this session is new, make note in your program book.)

Biblical Studies and Study Bibles: Intersections for a Wider Audience (S19-139, 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM, Sunday, Room: 146A - CC)

The SBL Forum invited two participants in the session on study bibles at the SBL Annual Meeting in November to offer their preliminary thoughts on the issues surrounding the use of study bibles. Readers are invited to share their own experiences with, or thoughts on, study bibles either by writing a response to this article, or by attending the session in November.

Carol Newsom offers the following comments:
Although I've been involved with study bibles in many different capacities (I've assigned them, I've written for them, I've been an editor of them), I remain somewhat ambivalent about them. On the one hand, the benefits are obvious. The biblical text is not self interpreting, and there are all kinds of things that readers need help with. Who or what is "Hepzibah?" or "Mene, mene, tekel, u-parsin"? When exactly did Hezekiah reign? Who were the Assyrians and why do they show up here? Without some helpful hints from the editors and their compatriots, the Bible might well be a deeply opaque book to many readers, even those who have been nurtured within various faith communities. Within the scholarly community represented by the SBL, I think we would all agree about the value of study bibles for clarifying these sorts of issues.

But study bibles almost never stop at that point. I cannot think of a study bible, past or present, that does not, at the same time that it attempts to clarify some basic factual information, also attempt to persuade the reader to a particular kind of reading that the editors of the study bible favor. On the one hand, I'm very much in favor of this activity. I am a teacher, after all, and I belong to a scholarly society whose aim is to "foster biblical scholarship." The study bibles to which the SBL lends its imprimatur and the study bibles to which we, as members, variously contribute tend to advocate the historical-critical method of interpretation. That seems to me to be an excellent use of our expertise combined with the marketing prowess of various publishers with whom we make common cause.

But I begin to have qualms about the phenomenon of study bibles when I survey the increasing "niche marketing" of study bibles. Not only are they increasingly religious and denominationally specific, but also age, gender, and lifestyle specific. At a certain point, a study bible geared to a 14-17 year old white, evangelical, middle-class, suburban girl strikes me as having far too much to do with what is likely to be in the annotations and in the marketing and far too little with what is in — what should be — a disorienting and disturbing biblical text that undermines cultural complacencies. (The same could be said of a study bible aimed at 18-25 year old gay, male, urban Episcopalians, though to the best of my knowledge this particular study bible does not yet exist.) I fear that this kind of study bible uses the bible merely as a pretext to argue a particular perspective.

At the same time, I do think that a certain measure of religiously distinguished perspectivism is valuable in study bibles. For many years I have assigned the JPS Tanakh as the text for my "Introduction to Old Testament" course at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, though I regretted the fact that it contained no annotations to help students with unclarities. I was thus delighted when the Oxford Press Jewish Study Bible came out, since now my students can not only encounter what is to them an unfamiliar translation and canonical arrangement of biblical books but also a form of interpretation that is, at least in part, different from what they are familiar with.

If I were to envision the "best practices" that might evolve from the phenomenon of diverse study bibles, it would be something that our new internet technologies might make possible-a kind of high tech, inter-religious "miqra'ot gedalot." I would love to assemble for my students a biblical text surrounded by (at least) four kinds of commentary — mainline protestant, evangelical protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Or one could construct a similar dialogical volume constructed around North American, Eastern Orthodox, Latin American, African, and Asian Christian perspectives. A Jewish seminary might construct a quite different assemblage of traditional and contemporary Jewish annotations. As one can imagine, the possibilities are truly endless.

The great gain in the proliferation of study bibles is the multiplication of interpretive voices. The danger is that, in print format at least, niche marketing can lead to enclave interpretation. The promising possibility is that new technologies can facilitate comparative interpretation. And, of course, the corresponding danger there is that infinite access defuses critical evaluation. In the end, there is no substitute for a community of critically engaged interpreters and teachers who can help students negotiate the value of the traditions within which they were raised, while engaging the wide variety of different perspectives brought to bear by others who read the Bible from other religious and intellectual positions. But that's what belonging to a living tradition has always entailed.

Carol Newsom, Candler School of Theology

Barbara Brown Taylor offers the following comments:
At Piedmont College, the vast majority of my students have never laid eyes on a study bible. They own devotional bibles of many kinds, along with theologically loaded bibles such as the Scofield Reference Bible, but almost none of them own the Oxford Study Bible until I require it for class. The benefit in this classroom context is that the study bible offers them biblical information without theological interpretation. They are also able to see manuscript variations both in the text and in the footnotes, so that they are compelled to wrestle with the complex history of the Bible's composition and transmission. If I had to name one pitfall in using study bibles, then I would name the faith crisis that ensues for many students once they begin to view the bible academically as well as devotionally. But that's not the study bible's fault, is it?

The study bibles with which I am most familiar assume a high level of commitment from readers who are able to read long stretches of dense print without nodding off (I am thinking now of excurses as well as the essays in the back). What are often missing are eye-teasers such as graphics, maps and boxes with provocative questions in them that might convince readers to spend their time reading a longer article. In the excurses and essays themselves, it would help to recruit writers with a gift for using accessible language that makes the text sound alive instead of like something stuck on a pin.

On the question whether the term "reference bible" be used alongside "study bible" in promoting study bibles, for my students, at least, the term "study bible" is a better match with the bible studies that many of them attend in their churches. "Reference bible" sends me right back to Scofield, which is another reason why I prefer "study bible." At the college level, something like "The Dig Deeper Bible" or "Student Edition" would be more attractive than "reference bible."

I have used study bibles in church and classroom contexts with excellent results, for the reasons highlighted above. If there is a danger in the use of study bibles it may be in a reader thinking that reading a study bible all alone is an adequate substitute for studying the Bible in community with other people.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Piedmont College

Other participants in the panel are:

John Dart, Christian Century Presiding
Harold Attridge, Yale University, Panelist
Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist

Comments on this article? email: forum@sbl-site.org
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.

Citation: Barbara Brown Taylor , Carol Newsom, " Biblical Studies and Study Bibles," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=592

 
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