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Elitism, Colonialism, and the Independence of Biblical Studies: Reflections on the Lemche-Avalos Debate

Roland’s Heading 1

Lemche asserts, without evidence, that the Bible is increasingly important in our modern world. Avalos, by contrast, is caught: on the one hand, he argues that the Bible is increasingly irrelevant, but on the other, he argues that the Bible is a dangerous book, so much so that its influence should be eliminated from our world. Both are correct, but not in ways they would expect.

See Also:
The End of Scripture and/or Biblical Studies
To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche
In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy
Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship
Conservative Scolarship: Can We Talk?

By Roland Boer
Visiting Scholar
Centre for Gender Research
University of Oslo
November 2010

In a recent article – “Why Biblical Studies are Necessary”1 – Niels Peter Lemche takes Hector Avalos2 to task for advocating the “end” of biblical studies as we know it. Lemche argues that “scientific” biblical criticism, with its distinctly European (and especially German) pedigree, is needed more than ever to keep those who dwell in the “dark jungle of biblical superstition” from misreading and misusing the Bible. And it is and should be, he argues, a discipline that is distinct from the church or theology since it analyzes the text in objective scholarship terms.

In part I agree, as I too would like to enable at least some form of biblical scholarship free from the need to teach and undertake research “of benefit to the church,” as it was once impressed upon me when I taught at a theological college in Sydney. But in many respects, I also find Lemche’s article troubling, for reasons that will appear in a moment. First, however, I should point out the renewal of this debate has been sparked by the publication of a collection I edited called Secularism and Biblical Studies (London: Equinox, 2010), in which contributions from both Avalos and Lemche appear. In fact, Lemche’s article in Bible and Interpretation is a direct response to Avalos’ piece in that collection to which Avalos responded in turn3 …. The conversation goes on.

So what is troubling about Lemche’s argument? Five items come to mind: relevance; relations with the church; singularity of method; implicit colonialism; and common readers.

1. Relevance. Lemche asserts, without evidence, that the Bible is increasingly important in our modern world. Avalos, by contrast, is caught: on the one hand, he argues that the Bible is increasingly irrelevant,4 but on the other, he argues that the Bible is a dangerous book, so much so that its influence should be eliminated from our world.5 Both are correct, but not in ways they would expect. Contrary to Lemche and in support of Avalos, the Bible is far more irrelevant than many biblical scholars like to imagine, at least in places like Europe.

Let me offer a few sobering statistics from a country close in demographics to Denmark (where Lemche teaches), namely, the Netherlands.6 If the Bible is read at all, it is by a highly educated, Protestant minority. (By contrast, if the poor read any scripture, it is the Qur’an.) Both possession and use of the Bible continues to decline sharply in what has been termed “Bible fatigue.” A paltry 13 percent of the Dutch population read the Bible on a regular basis. Further, 87 percent of those who do not read the Bible want to have nothing more to do with it. Of the dwindling group of those who read the Bible, only a quarter regard it as offering moral guidelines as to how one should live and act, and even fewer see it as a source of inspiration. And if we focus on that even smaller group of those who do seek inspiration, then they simply do not see the Bible’s central message as either world domination or transformation or a call to end inequality or poverty. Instead, they are interested in personal security, salvation, Jesus as the truth, Jesus as the light in the world, a handhold, and a lesson for life.

Assuming we can extrapolate the Dutch results to Denmark, then Lemche is a scholar of a text that has appeal to a rapidly shrinking minority of wealthy Protestant individuals. Not quite the superstitious hordes rushing from the jungle to seize the world (more on that image in a moment), unless, of course, Lemche wishes to apply that image to China (as I hope he doesn’t). My sources in China tell me that the latest figures put the number of Christians, mostly Reformed, at 110 million. The closest any European country comes in total population is Germany, with a shade over 80 million people. Add the whole of Scandinavia’s total population (about 25 million), and we are still not close to the number of Christians in China. In order to add to the difference in perspective, I was told by a publisher in Shanghai7 that a characteristic first print run for a specialist book in biblical studies is at least 5000 – and that sells out within months. Compare scholarly print-runs in Western, English presses, and you get at most 500 copies, often less.

So the Bible is far less relevant, precisely in those areas focused on the Atlantic where Lemche and even Avalos teach. Yet the Bible is far more relevant in areas that still seem to be off their scholarly radar.

2. Relations with the church. Lemche argues that biblical scholarship has managed to separate itself from the church and establish itself as a “scientific,” objective academic discipline, at least in European universities. In this respect, he seeks to counter Avalos’ argument that what appears to be independent biblical scholarship is not really so. Let us see if this is really the case. To begin with, the model Lemche adopts is one espoused by his hero, Johann Phillip Gabler, who, in 1787, suggested that:

the biblical scholar must read the Bible free from any interference from religious communities, as a secular humanistic discipline. Then the biblical scholar would hand over the results of his investigation to the systematic theologian who was responsible to “translate” the Bible in such a way that it became relevant to modern people.8

The biblical scholar does relate to the church, now as a (semi-) independent scholar who hands back the results of his “objective” research to the church’s theologians. Is this not the model of Lemche’s own recent The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster, 2008), in which he wishes to hand something back to the church after spending years undermining the historical claims that may be made concerning the text?

Further, the Faculty of Copenhagen, where Lemche teaches, has a long, historical connection with the Danish state (Lutheran) church. Candidates for the priesthood are accepted only if they have degrees from the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, ensuring a steady flow of students and – may I suggest – Lemche’s own position. Indeed, a not uncommon career path for biblical scholars even today is to spend some time as a priest in the church while awaiting the possibility of a teaching or research position at the faculty of theology.

3. Singularity of method. Following on from the previous point, I would go so far as to argue that the method Lemche espouses is actually quite suited to the needs of the church. But what method is that? German-inspired, it assumes that there is only one way to interpret the Bible, and that with three steps. One first undertakes a translation of the text, with all the necessary syntactical, grammatical, and text-critical work required; then one makes a “paraphrase” of the text in order to bring out its meaning; finally one undertakes the strict exegesis, leading the meaning out of the text, which happens to coincide rather closely with what the author(s) meant. The whole method goes by the title of “exegesis” and is regarded as the basis, the first step before any other questions may be asked of the text – concerning gender, class, sexuality, colonialism, reception, and so forth. But these other questions are all strictly secondary, coming after the basic method which is free of such ideological matters. So entrenched is this approach that the opinion is often voiced that these other, “secondary” methods are actually anachronistic; only one method is appropriate to the text itself.

The problems with these assumptions about scientific exegesis are many, not the least of which is whether it applies the “scientific” method, that it is not anachronistic, and that it is “objective” (which is really a code for another agenda). I will not revisit these old debates here since they have been well worked over in literary criticism outside biblical criticism. However, let me focus on one area where the method implicitly suits the church very well: once you assume that this is the only way to interpret the Bible, you cannot avoid the assumption that there is one “right” meaning that such a method needs to uncover. I am tempted to propose the formula: one method, one meaning, one church, one God.

4. Implicit colonialism. Now it is time to return to Lemche’s image of the jungle of superstition. Obviously he uses it for polemic effect, wanting to paint his conservative opponents as primitive jungle dwellers who have not yet seen light of reason. Unfortunately, it is also a deeply colonial and gendered image: the dark, tangled, virgin jungle that must be penetrated by the brave European “explorer” who seeks to bring civilization to the primitive masses. The image also evokes monkeys who swing from the jungle’s trees. As a freighter ship captain said to me a couple of years ago in regard to his Kiribati crew: “pay peanuts and you get monkeys.”

But is it just an image? Might Lemche have used another image to convey his sense that fundamentalist believers, indeed any believer at all, should be kept far from the Bible? I suggest it runs deeper than that, for the elitist, Euro-centric depiction of biblical criticism has resonances across former colonial spaces. For example, in Pacific Islands such as Tonga, the model of biblical interpretation is still European-derived, bearing with it a complex and increasingly contested colonial authority.9 There the method speaks not of battles with church control, the history of theology faculties in universities, but of the history of invasion, occupation, and relegation to second-class colonial subjects.

5. Common Readers. All of this leads to my last point concerning common readers. What Lemche’s proposal does is deny everyday, un-scholared readers access to the Bible. On the one hand, I can see why: he wishes to block the readings of fundamentalist Christians (especially of the US variety), Christian Zionists, anti-Muslim xenophobes, Islamic extremists, and others, from abusing the Bible for violent ends. Yet, in doing so, he does not see the systemic and covert violence of his own position, which is to deny access to the Bible for the vast majority of ordinary, common readers.

In this respect, his position comes close to the church indeed, for it has traditionally – in its Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant variants – wished to control readings of the Bible. Only the clerical elite knows how to read the Bible properly, or so the argument goes, so you common people need to listen to them in order to understand it properly. Thankfully, in both cases, people tend not to listen and do their own thing anyway.

Does this mean that I agree with Avalos rather than Lemche? On some points, yes; on others, no. In the end, Avalos espouses an idealist position close to that of the “new old atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris10), namely that the Bible is bad for us so it should be neutered and banned. The problem is that the Bible, as a literary text, does nothing on its own, nor indeed does a collection of ideas, beliefs, and doctrines known as a religion. Only people do. On that score, I agree with Lemche.


1 Niels Peter Lemche, “Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary,” Bible and Interpretation, October 2010.

2 The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007); “The End of Biblical Studies as a Moral Obligation” in Secularism and Biblical Studies (ed. Roland Boer. London: Equinox, 2010).

3 “To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche,” Bible and Interpretation, October 2010.

4 “In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy,” Bible and Interpretation, April 2010.

5 “To What End?”

6 See Hans de Wit, “‘It Should Be Burned and Forgotten!’ Latin American Liberation

Hermeneutics through the Eyes of Another.” The Bible and the Hermeneutics of Liberation, eds. Alejandro F. Botta and Pablo R. Andiñach. Semeia Studies. Atlanta: SBL, (pp. 39-60), pp. 63-4.

7 Vi Horae Press, Shanghai, which happens to be translating and publishing at least one of my books. See

8 “Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary.”

9 Jione Havea has made this point on numerous occasions, most recently in “Releasing the Story of Esau from the Words of Obadiah.” The Bible and the Hermeneutics of Liberation, eds. Alejandro F. Botta and Pablo R. Andiñach. Semeia Studies. Atlanta: SBL, pp. 87-104.

10 See further, Roland Boer, “The New Old Atheists,” Australian Marxist Review 50 (November): 10-19. Also available at