The internet is alive with the sounds of musings about the appropriateness of various types of scholars doing biblical research. The discussion revolves around a recent article by Ronald Hendel in Biblical Archaeological Review, a useful, if sometimes overeager, magazine. In it Hendel laments the policy of the Society of Biblical Literature, a professional group to which I have belonged for nearly two decades, of accepting overtures from evangelical groups in return for money they are able to bring in. The Society’s web page has a rebuttal and has invited discussion. I prefer to give my views on my blog – a place that I consider neutral territory.
I am not privy to the inner workings of the SBL. I have served as a chair of one of the program units in the annual meeting for several years, but I do not pretend to know the politics behind the scenes. I joined the society, like most young scholars, to find a job. Since that has never happened I have not become more deeply involved since I have no institutional base. It is clear, however, that over the past years conservatively motivated groups have felt an assonance with the Society, given that it is the gateway to academic respectability. The problem is that conservative/evangelical groups approach the Bible with doctrinal shackles firmly locked in place. Fearful of angering their image of God, there are questions they simply can’t ask. Secular or unaffiliated scholars are free to go wherever they believe the evidence leads. In the job market, the evangelicals are better placed to find work. In the wider academic world, however, their work is suspect.
Little did I realize as I laboriously worked away on my dissertation that many evangelical scholars flock to the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, providing, as it does, a way to avoid critical interaction with the Bible. They may thus become “Bible scholars” while leaving the confessional virgin Holy Writ intact. I entered ancient Near Eastern studies to get to the bottom of it all – to explore the origins of the Bible itself. All of us end up interviewing for the same jobs.
At the end of the day what it comes down to is an issue I’ve addressed before: who has the right to interpret the Bible? The answer often distresses scholars. It does not require a Ph.D. to read and interpret the Bible. Most times an advanced degree is a decided liability. A friend has recently pointed out that scholars write for scholars, intent on demonstrating their erudition while losing all public credibility. I’m not sure where the debate will end, but when it’s over not a ripple will be felt among the general public. The Bible will continue its reign in American society unchallenged.