Bible Scholar on an Airplane
I am a Bible scholar. I teach Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism in a Department of Religion at a liberal church-affiliated institution, and thus I go about many of my days knowing, for the most part, that those around me basically understand and affirm what I do for a living and may even find it to be of use from time to time. My non-university-related life, however, is fraught with considerable peril, and any hope I may have for being understood or affirmed is perhaps Panglossian even if joyful. This is especially true when I am a Bible Scholar on an Airplane.
Each time I take my seat in an airplane, I am faced with a problem of existential proportions. It is a dilemma, really, one brought on not by fear of flying or anxiety about the physical integrity of the plane or its pilots (I try not to think about those things). My flying dilemma is borne of the unknown neighbor, that companion who has by random chance — or some exceedingly complex algorithmic computation — been assigned the seat next to mine.
To get to the point, the dilemma is this: When I wish to pull out the papers I need to grade, or the text I am translating, or the manuscript I am proofreading — or, heaven forbid, the latest book about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Gospel of Thomas I would like to be reading — how will I proceed? Will I guard the titles of my books or the headings of the papers? Will I make it abundantly clear that I am not open to or available for casual conversation about matters of religion? Will I take the risk of piquing the interest of my neighbor, whose expertise in and curiosity about my work derives primarily from her lingering enthrallment with Dan Brown's latest hit? (Raise your hand if you know this experience.) Or perhaps will an evangelical impulse be aroused within my flying friend, and will this become for him a providential meeting of potentially kindred spirits, the occasion to revel in the glories of God's Word as he understands them?
In a process related to this dilemma but not limited to it, I have developed over the years several different responses to questions about "what I do for a living." In the right settings — namely those in which my words are unlikely to be misunderstood or misconstrued — I am perfectly happy to discuss my livelihood and engage people on topics in which I am heavily invested, and I may even claim the Bible scholar epithet. But despite some happy occasions, my dilemma persists; whatever the actual odds of finding myself in an undesirable situation, the danger always lurks that my interlocutor will readily make assumptions about me and the real nature of my work — assumptions that may or may not correspond to my own. He may find my approach to the study of the Bible to be too liberal, overly academic, unnecessarily constraining, exceedingly parochial, heretical, anachronistic, tedious, narrow, or pluralistic. In other words, what I do can become more about who he is and what he thinks I should be doing. This is a problem that I suspect generally does not obtain in the life of the accountant and the salesman, or for that matter the chemist or the mathematician.
Though the problem regarding the "what I do for a living" question is broader than the Bible Scholar on an Airplane dilemma, the latter helps to underline and perhaps to illuminate the nature of my existential worries and the impact that social context has on my professional self-understanding. When am I a Bible scholar? And when am I a historian? When am I a theologian (almost never, probably not enough)? When am I a philologist (just once on my count)? What are my constituencies and what would it (I) look like if I were to face them all at once?
Forgive me if this all sounds at best like the guarded behavior of a scholarly introvert or at worst like the pretentious arrogance of a biblical illuminato (or even like the benign, self-conscious ruminations of a young Bible scholar who has yet to move into a comfortable relationship with his professional identity). Let me be clear: I do not think that scholars of biblical literature are (or should be) in the business of keeping and caring for the esoteric knowledge of the elite in-group. In fact, my thinking is to the contrary. It is profoundly important that we continue to find ways to translate for the broader world just what it is we do and why it is important that we do it.
But do we have to do this on airplanes? What are the limits of our obligations as scholars, teachers, and figures of at least some kind of public responsibility? Should my work become a topic of public interest even while I am uncomfortably confined to my allotted (and purchased) twelve square feet of space in a metal tube hurtling through the heavens at 500 miles per hour? I mention these questions not because I intend to answer them, but because the Bible Scholar on an Airplane is a vexed phenomenon, it is the tragicomedic episode that points to the life I (and many of you) have chosen.
On a recent trip, the algorithms placed me next to a man wearing a sweatshirt with a religious riff on a popular brand name: "GAP — God Answers Prayers." This man, after receiving an affirming comment from a passenger across the aisle, started handing out his business cards. It turned out that he was in the evangelical-sweatshirt-printing business, and the print he was modeling was of course available for purchase through his online store. It wasn't clear whether there was a special deal for those wishing to help spread the good news, but for the right price and a prêt-à-porter attitude one could shoulder at least part of the burden. Though I do not wish at present to argue the question to which his apparel offered such an unequivocal answer, I will register a complaint: that sweatshirt caused me some consternation-it stirred up my own equivocations and stymied my true desire to cozy into Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus or William Dever's Did God Have a Wife?, or at least to be able to do so without fear of the consequences.
Which brings me back to my dilemma, and to a question: Who among you would in this situation take the chance of pulling out your Rahlfs or Nestle-Aland, or your 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra? How indeed would you then enter into and navigate the inevitable interaction with Mr. Sweatshirt? How would you explain that the text you are reading —the Wisdom of Solomon, say — is indeed in the Bible, just not the one he reads? Or that the text critical edition of Jeremiah you're working on really shows what a mess has been made of this book in its various stages of transmission? Are these things you really wish to discuss while whisking through said heavens at said velocity in said confined space? Consider the implications carefully, you Bible scholar: you are being watched.
I recognize and appreciate the fact that this Society is a congeries of diverse personalities, cultures, and confessions and that as such there are those of you who might view the airplane as a wonderful place to meet people and share ideas. And I am also aware that I performed my own pre-judgment and caricature on Mr. Sweatshirt and that just because someone sports optimism about the efficaciousness of prayer doesn't mean he is going to dress me down for holding certain views about the Bible. But I also suspect that my dilemma is not mine alone and that some of the same thoughts run through the minds of many of my colleagues who find themselves in similar situations.
The Bible Scholar on an Airplane dilemma is not limited to scenarios involving evangelical Christian sweatshirts. Indeed, the contours of this dilemma are probably as variegated as are the scholars of this discipline, given that our field displays a rather dazzling variety of approaches, methods, and materials available for study, some combinations of which might bring us into controversial territory.
I recall a story one of my professors once told about a flight he took to Tel Aviv. He was at the time eager to begin reading a book purporting to show how the story of Masada was mythologized in the context of the modern Zionist movement. As he cracked the book on the plane, he was intensely aware of those around him and shielded the book's title from view — behavior to be associated more with reading Salman Rushie's Satanic Verses in Tehran than with opening a book on the modern reception of the Masada story in a shuttle somewhere over the Mediterranean. But his actions were informed by his knowledge that the world of the Bible scholar is laden with possibilities for misunderstanding and even deliberate subversions of the evidence the scholar might wish to bring out into the open. Whether he embraced the thesis of the book is immaterial — it was in his professional interest to know its contents, and the subject was intriguing even if controversial. In any case, whether the archaeological record supports or refutes the "Masada myth" is not — is never — the sole question at stake, and the "facts" may or may not fit into one framework or another. My professor was right to worry and to take measures not to disclose his identity as one who cares about such matters. I would have done the same thing.
The scholar of the biblical world must tread lightly on hallowed ground at the same time that she digs and churns it with her spade. These are commitments that can be difficult to balance, and the tensions they produce can be profound. These tensions come to the surface each time a Bible scholar gets on an airplane and finds her way to the seat given to her by fate, actuarial science, the Spirit of God, or whatever it is finally that determines such arrangements. If this scholar is anything like I am, it will be with some trepidation that she pulls any work out of her bag and becomes a Bible Scholar on an Airplane.
Samuel Thomas, California Lutheran University
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Citation: Samuel Thomas, " Bible Scholar on an Airplane," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=604