Wasting our Breath

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.

8 thoughts on “Wasting our Breath

  1. Henk van der Gaast


    BAR has wonderful articles and I find the bible impossible.

    That’s why its so wonderful.

    As you guys know, I am not a believer of any sort and I rely on all the lectures and articles i can lay my hand on.

    Its a big beautiful picture!

    Just so mind numbing that something so old can be so much today!!


  2. Steve, I totally understand your frustration. There are too many Evangelical PhD’s who can’t think outside the box with jobs that don’t require them to. Meanwhile, highly skilled, critical thinkers sit in New Jersey. The field is upside-down, thanks to the power of mass religion in America and the money flowing into conservative institutions. But, despite all of this, we can’t just roll over in the SBL and let it be taken over by people who don’t want to ask the hard questions. It may all seem academic to reform the SBL. And it is. But if we don’t maintain the SBL as a place to do critical scholarship, where will critical scholarship be done? Without a reasonable voice, there will be no one to stand against the idiocy of some pulpit preachers or fringe group exegesis. Everyone has the right to study and interpret the Bible. But the SBL ought to make it their goal to study and interpret it RIGHT, critically, carefully, responsibly, and with academic and intellectual rigor and integrity. Although I’ve grown tired and have been considering leaving for a couple of years now, I believe the SBL must maintain a high standard.

    BTW, scholars almost always write for scholars. But the exceptions are important. There’s a need for trained, critical scholars like Ehrman and Pagels to write for the general public. You should do it, too. You’re a great writer with lots to say. Critical voices often get more coverage and balance out the tens of thousands of books coming from the denominational presses.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Thank you for your very kind words. I’m afraid I’ve grown a little apocalyptic in my own mind; there seems to be no end to the money the Evangelicals can muster while Rutgers’ religion department is facing several vacancies and I’m sitting in their backyard trying to sell lemonade to survive. SBL is in the same boat — they need money and liberals just don’t have it. I have been trying to write more popular stuff, but without institutional credibility I’m of little interest to reputable presses. I just try to do what I can through my blog.


  3. Thats quite a mouthful Steve!

    I am not familiar with the society or controversy mentioned. It feels timely, however, that I read this post as I have had recent experiences with a number of very highly-educated intellectuals that left me very uncomfortable and scratching my head in bewilderment.

    I work in a field populated largely by non-intellectuals. Yet we provide a product and service that is quite widely purchased by a higher proportion of intellectuals than our competitors.

    Yet I see no distinction in the applications of common sense in my dealings with intellectuals and non-intellectuals. In fact, I have experienced a number of very highly educated people complicate the process of transacting business with us to a level that is to their own detriment.

    I have yet to witness that higher education produces any greater liklihood of higher quality of life. I guess I am saying, I have recently been unimpressed by the conduct and decision making of individuals who one would assume by virtue of their credentials would be wiser.

    So how is it that biblical intellectuals would be in any position to glean more or less from the Bible than anyone else?

    In fact, your post seems to suggest that some intellectuals appear to weave their own web that they then end up snared in. The very pursuit of their higher knowledge of the Bible appears to perhaps deprive them from the objectivity that may reveal more to them. In this respect, instead of their education being a gateway to enlightenment, it is confining and restricting.

    What a twisted paradox eh?

    Life is full of them.




    • Steve Wiggins

      You’ve got a good point, Chaz. Those of us trained in Bible, I believe, along with Alan, have a great deal of balance to offer society. Our society generally distrusts those who are “intellectual” whether we are the good variety or not. My real concern is that secular universities, where reasonable study of the Bible (and all aspects of religion) may occur, have systematically tried to distance themselves from such study. That leads to many ill-informed individuals proclaiming expertise on a subject they understand poorly. Just this week I left my class only to run into a street preacher trying to convert my students. I just got in my car and drove away.


  4. I don’t want to belong to a professional society where people want to convert me, and where they hint in their book reviews that I’m going to hell. As a scholar of the humanities—and I might add, as a Jew—I do not feel at home in such a place.

    I think the main issue arise from the doctrine of salvation (heaven vs hell mentality).

    The reason evangelical scholars are so adamant in their belief is because of their fundamentalist soteriology — and it is poison, no matter what religion it appears in.

    They are adamant in protect their doctrines or anything which may have implications in them because people go to hell for what they think.


  5. If poor scholars can marginalize good scholars, there is a problem defining scholarship. It is in fact what scholars do and the greater part of the value of scholarship for those who question its value.

    Scholars preserve us from charlatans who believe they speak the language of heaven itself.

    Scholars can’t prevent the History Channel from paying for poor scholarship. Extraterrestrials can indeed help Moses cross the desert as well. It is up to society to turn its face and listen.


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