Friday, June 18, 2010

Hendel: Farewell to SBL

Anyone interested in the ongoing tension between faith and reason in what passes for biblical studies today will want to read Ron Hendel’s piece in BAR titled “Farewell to SBL.”

I fully agree with Hendel that SBL should be focused on critical investigation of the Bible, free of overt religious proselytizing and theologically-motivated biblical interpretation.

Here is Hendel remarking on Waltke’s recent review of Fox’s Proverbs commentary.
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, like the scratchy sound of an old LP. This is in the midst of a review of a brilliant scholarly commentary on the Book of Proverbs, written by a Jewish scholar, in the Anchor Yale Bible series.
On the one hand, I give Waltke the respect he has earned as a scholar, and I am happy to listen to his views. But when he says such rationally absurd things as “the factual data validates Solomon’s authorship of Prov[erbs] 1:1–24:33” (which belongs to a post-Solomonic stratum of Hebrew, as Waltke ought to know), and when he asserts that Moses wrote the laws of Deuteronomy (which are written in post-Mosaic Hebrew), we are clearly not in the world of critical Biblical scholarship at all. This is religious dogma, plain and simple.
I was equally incredulous reading Waltke’s assertion that Solomonic authorship of Proverbs was “factual.” (See the discussion here on that review and Waltke’s position.) Hendel continues, pointing out why this growing trend for the SBL to accept non-critical Bible scholarship is leading closer to full validation of their non-critical and dogmatic views.
Why is this a problem? Certainly Waltke is entitled to his views. The problem is that the SBL has loosened its own definition of Biblical scholarship, such that partisan attacks of this type are now entirely valid. When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”3 The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry—that is to say, reason—has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster.
This trend in the SBL likely explains the odd reviews that Alan Lenzi pointed out on his now-gone blog this past spring – confessional, dogmatic, non-critical reviews published by RBL (like Waltke’s, for example).

For my part, I had found secular biblical studies and the forum provided by SBL to be an intellectually stimulating middle ground where those of us of all faiths (including no faith) could discuss the Bible from a critical, academic point of view, free from dogma and religious divisions. I was surprised, then, to find scholars blurring the line between confessional faith and factual argument even last year at the annual meeting.
What’s to be done? We can’t all just let our memberships lapse and leave the society, can we?


  1. So many of these highly educated literalists are just boring, drilling in mid air, no wood to penetrate. I dislike all forms of power mongering. I had no idea that the SBL had changed its mission (I myself am not an unbeliever. I wouldn't bother with the ancient texts if there was nothing to witness to and no problems to be delivered from.)

  2. I completely agree. The rule for thumb in an academic context, as opposed to a church, should be the use of publicly available evidence and argument rather than simply appealing to private revelation (a Christian scholar would never accept such a argument if it was made from a scholar from another religious tradition). I am fine with working in a Christian context and discussing the theological implications of a text, but I just don't think SBL or reviews in RBL is the appropriate place to do it.

  3. I enjoyed the post. I wonder, however, how reasonable it is to "discuss the Bible from a critical, academic point of view, free from dogma and religious divisions"? I suppose it is indeed possible but such an approach seems to have its own bias.

  4. I'm not saying we don't all have presuppositions that affect how we read the text. My statement above is a bit idealistic but the goal is to focus on something like a neutral middle ground built on evidence rather than all the side trails of religion where a leap of faith is often necessary to get there from the evidence alone.

  5. Yes, one of the things Hendel seems to be worried about is the erosion of a common ground that people of sometimes radically conflicting metaphysical and religious commitments can share. Arguments based on textual and physical evidence that make the fewest possible assumptions and rely on the richest background of documented human culture and practice can be pretty fraught too. But I think they're only way we can hope to be fair to both scholarship and religion.