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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
and
To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche
and
In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy
and
Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship
and
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.



Notes


1 Niels Peter Lemche, “Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary,” Bible and Interpretation, October 2010. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/mistake35920.shtml.

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. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/resplem357927.shtml.

4 “In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy,” Bible and Interpretation, April 2010. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/literate357930.shtml.

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 www.vihorae.com.

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 http://www.cpa.org.au/amr/50/amr50-03-new-old-atheists.html.


Comments (5)


I didn't say:" Lemche asserts, without evidence, that the Bible is increasingly important in our modern world," but: "It is as if every day it is gaining in importance. It is also remarkable that its importance is growing especially among a certain group of people who have never read it, or at best read it under the guidance of some religious guru."

Who says that the people I am referring to can be considered "modern" people, except in the banal meaning that they are alive today. In many ways the group which I refer to could be considered pre-modern, and if I am right, we are talking about a sharpened conflict between knowledge and ignorance. But, please remember that the situation is different in the USA from the one in the EU. The Vatican has so much control over the Catholic majority here that it will not drift too far away from the path of knowledge. Here the priests are supposed to guide their communities through the pass between Scylla and Carybdis. Most ministers of Protestant churches have got their education in state sponsored institutions and brought up as traditional historical-critical scholars. Free schools are here but they are always trying to be accepted because of their scholarship as part of the academy. The freelance system of the US is not known.

Neither did I say: "since it analyzes the text in objective scholarship terms." I wrote: "It originated among church people and never became an independent humanistic branch of science led only by the methods and ideals of humanistic scholarship," without implying that this scholarship is objective, or even "neutral." Like humanistic scholars, biblical scholars have to chance as the surrounding academic world is changing. Roland Boer should know. At least I referred to this when I answer Bulkeley.

As to the relevance of the Bible, Roland Boer may have a point. Yesterday our news reported a dwindling support for the inner mission, but also a generally increase among young people of religion reflected by a growing number of theological students. It is also correct as noted by James Barr, many years ago that fundamentalists refer to the Bible without reading it. It is always fun when Jehovah Witnesses turn up, but run away as fast they can when I give them a lecture in biblical exegesis. Here at least we may basically be in agreement.

However, the following interpretation of my position is not very precise: "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.," is not correct. If Roland Boer reads the article again, I mention (The Old Testament between Theology and History) that biblical scholars never succeeded, and that a growing desperation became evident because they couldn't live up to Gabler's project.

Roland Boer's interpretation of traditional historical-critical scholarship is not without merit. As a matter of fact, I included similar ideas in The Old Testament..., a book which by the historical-critical scholars of the old school was seen as my final settlement with this long ruling method. He should also get to my old article "Are We Europeans Really Good Readers of Biblical Texts and Interpreters of Biblical History?" JSNL 25 (1999), pp. 185-99, questioning exactly the relevance of historical-critical studies.

The argument in the final part of Roland Boer's article is correct. And close to mine as in "Guns do not kill, people do!" published by himself. Protestant readings definitely turned the Bible into a weapon used in colonization ("How Christianity Won the World," SJOT 23, 2009, 103-121).

The consequence is that Roland Boer and I may be much more in agreement than imagined by those who read his new contribution. However, we probably part in my acceptance of my own tradition, not because it need be better but because it is mine.
#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/11/2010 - 13:05



A brief response to Niels Peter (whose work I admire and use frequently). As I said in my response, at a deep level I agree with you concerning the need for freedom (however limited that may be in real life) from the complex influence of churches on biblical interpretation. And I even agree that such freedom may be an ideal (Gabler) that is ultimately unattainable. However, it looks like we now agree also that no discipline can be neutral or objective.

All the same, I would like to correct Niels Peter on a couple of points. First, the statement concerning the Bible's growing importance is made without any supporting evidence: "It is as if every day it is gaining in importance. It is also remarkable that its importance is growing especially among a certain group of people who have never read it, or at best read it under the guidance of some religious guru." I have offered at least some statistics to show that the Bible is increasingly unimportant in many parts of the world.

Second, as I tried to make clear (and as Niels Peter recognises late in his reply, albeit by referring to an earlier publication of his own), I want to widen these debates beyond the Atlantic focus. It is not merely a case of the EU, in all its variety, versus the USA. Most of the world lies outside zone.

I had hoped that Niels Peter would answer my question concerning the gendered colonial image of the "jungle" of ignorance and superstition. As also the question concerning the implicitly elitist need to tell others how to read the Bible. I know I am guilty of this myself and I get as frustrated as Niels Peter when I read rubbish about Noah's ark or Abraham's toothbrush, but I am the last one to assume that I have superior knowledge, especially when common readers have insights scholars simply cannot see. Here I refer to the work of Gerald West (among African churches) or Avaren Ipsen (among prostitute readers of the Bible) or Jione Havea (in the Pacific).
#2 - Roland Boer - 11/11/2010 - 15:24



Dear Roland,

I admitted that you might have a point about the number of people who really reads the Bible. My argument is part of some speculations of mine about how many people do really read, not only the Bible but literature in general? 50%? no way, 25%? hardly, Then 10%? maybe; would like to see some statistics. Maybe one of the reasons why religious people do not read any more is the alternative of the internet and programs like Viasat History with a BAR like (or worse) covering of biblical matters. Watching such programs is definitely to many of us a painful experience but somehow, people must be watching them or they would not have been made.

So the Bible could gain in importance without broadening its readership.

As to me and post-colonial studies, I gave two references. The one about European Readers was originally presented as a lecture at a conference in Stellenbosch in 1996. Gerald West was there and he liked it, so I must have said something of interest (for him).

I am also sometimes making approving references in front of my students to an African bishop's demand that we should write a new Bible, as the old has been occupied by European intellectuals and changing according to their standards.

I do not think that we are in any disagreement when it comes to alternative voices, and the read thread of a lifetime work has been to show that historical-critical scholarship was neither historical nor critical, as it ended up as a WEM project, which ended in a cul-de-sac, creating a societal monster, ancient Israel, which happily did never exists, except in the brains of biblical scholars (WEM: White, European, and male). Thus historical-critical methodology may not be the best point of departure when approaching a literature whose authors did not share a WEM-origin).

Ignorance and superstition has more to do with problems that arose in the context of historical-critical studies, within the WEM society. In an upcoming article I claim that the Jesus to be burned by the Great Inquisitor (in Karamazow) is the historical critical Jesus, the historical Jesus, who would be a danger to the church. The church does not need this Jesus, so who really does?

Fundamentalism arose when traditionalists were confronted with historical-critical scholarship, as a response to it. As one evangelical student once confessed, when he was assigned an essay about Luther as exegete and had read Luther: But Luther is not a fundamentalist! My answer: what had you expected?

I do not claim superiority. As I wrote, I belong to a certain tradition, and in many ways I stay with my tradition, maybe because I am a traditionalist myself.
#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/12/2010 - 05:31



I think it true that ideas, texts, books etc. influence (ie cause) people to take certain actions. People influence people mainly when they have or appear to have powerful ideas. The influence of books grows when they are read in many successive generations and alluded to in the writings of those generations.
The Bible is less believed in and less read than it was, at least in the West but its place in tradition, reinforced by successive allusions and reworkings, is still significant. On the other hand the importance and bitterness of disputes on topics of religion has, I think, grown.
If there's such a thing as meaning in the world texts can to some extent be read objectively - passage x is alluded to, or contradicts, passage y/ reflects or opposes or belongs to the same genre as passage z which comes from some other literary source.
No?
Not to deny that people have points of view and prejudices and that some discussions of most topics are conducted on the assumption that everyone involved shares the same assumptions - some discussions of football (religion) might assume that everyone present supports the same team (church). But many people welcome and need some validation or test of their opinions by a discussion in which these assumptions are discarded - or not compulsory - and which therefore have something of an objectivist spirit. These discussions set some limit to the bitterness and separation of intellectual and popular factions and that is why they are quite important.
So let's keep discussing the Bible objectively. And often.
#4 - Martin Hughes - 11/13/2010 - 14:17



"What Lemche’s proposal does is deny everyday, un-scholared readers access to the Bible. . . . 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."

Enjoyed the post, but have one comment on this portion. In my opinion, it is not Lemche’s position that denies access to the Bible to the vast majority of ordinary, common readers. Rather it is the Bible itself, which is written in a language, culture, and context completely alien to anyone who does not have the skills and education necessary to understand what it could or could not be according to the waves of time from which it emerged and back into which it was meant to contribute.

The only thing that the majority of ordinary, common readers can do with "the Bible" is treat it like a blank slate on which they write their own whims and contexts. I would argue that to stand in such a place is very literally to not have access to “the Bible” because anything it might have been or was meant to be doesn’t enter into the equation. It would be like giving a two-year-old a microscope. The vast majority of ordinary, common readers have as much access to the Bible as a two-year-old does a microscope. Sure, the child may find some wonderful use of it that has something to do with their context, but that use will have nothing at all to do with what the miscroscope was originally made for and it will completely bypass the access that the microscope brings to those who have a trained and educated knowledge of the sorts of things one might otherwise do with it. The two-year-old child is denied access to the microscope simply because s/he is a two-year-old child and it is a microscope.

"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."

This brings to mind what Adam and Eve did in the Genesis account. From within their own context, they were not suited to partaking of the fruit of the tree, but they didn't listen and did their own thing anyway. I tend to agree with the teaching of the Genesis story. If, indeed, there is something divine in or of "the Bible," i.e., if it holds the knowledge of good and evil within it, all those who do not share and understand its nature should stay away, otherwise it will only bring curses upon them and banish them from the paradise that might have been available to them. "Thankful" is not the word I would choose to describe that outcome.
#5 - slaveofone - 12/02/2010 - 19:42






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