I’m confused. (Well, no surprises there.) I just read the cover story in last week’s Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald. No, the story didn’t confuse me. Nor did the fact that the Bible appeared on the cover of a major news weekly. What confused me is that the article says nothing new. Well, no doubt it will be new to many readers. The fact is, however, that anyone with a serious degree in biblical studies (and believe it or not, there are so many of them that jobs can’t be found for them all) knows all of this stuff already. What’s more, they have known it for decades. Scholars tend to write for other scholars. Some see the best-selling trade titles by publishers like Harper Collins making the New York Times bestseller list and imagine that their monograph on the obscure meaning of an obscure word in an obscure verse of a book that most people don’t even know is in the Bible will do the same. It won’t. Most academic monographs sell in the hundreds (not thousands or millions) and at the low end of the centuries mark at that. They are bought by libraries and read by peers only. In them we argue (for yes, I have written such books) important points that can only be understood by those with specialist training, and think we’ve changed the world. Newsweek gives the lie to that.
Long ago it became clear that scholars were failing to connect with the average person. That is the person who turns on the television and hears and sees the people Eichenwald shows to be impostors, and believes them. They are, after all, on television. The biblical scholars who know that these obvious fallacies are simple-minded are too busy trying to get tenure in a market—yes, a market—that finds education an annoying necessity. We won’t hire anyone without a college degree any more, and so we need universities. Universities, however, won’t hire without signs of erudition, including books that most people on the search committee can’t understand because they specialize in something different. Oh, and those studies must be published. Whether they are read or not is merely, well, academic.
Meanwhile the public doesn’t know that biblical scholars have long ceased debating the age of the world, the flood, the resurrection, or the end of the world. Scholars have bigger concerns on their minds: how am I going to teach more courses and still produce those learned disquisitions that a dozen of my closest colleagues will read and rebut? And serve on all those committees? And participate in the branding of the university, because, we all know that people will buy a trusted brand? Meanwhile on center stage are politicians who know nothing about the Bible beyond the fact that it brings down votes, big time, and they are telling us what they think it should say. Chances are most scholars of the Bible won’t read Newsweek to find the answers. I didn’t even know about it until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. Like most people I’m just too busy to notice. And a little confused.