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What’s Not so Secular about Introductions to the Bible?







What’s Not so Secular about Introductions to the Bible?

All scholars should have some basic expectations of Introductions in non-religious institutions, and one of them should be that an introductory textbook should not reflect a religious bias. An introductory textbook in public academia should emphasize an empirico-rationalist and descriptive approach. It should be secular.



By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
December 2010



INTRODUCTION

There is no such thing as a perfect Introduction to the Bible.i The range of topics one could cover is too large and diverse, and there is little consensus on much of anything in biblical studies. Approaches range from the traditional historical-critical approach to postcolonialism, but they don’t all receive equal treatment in Introductions. Our student demographics are changing rapidly, and so we have to modify some of the expectations we might have had even ten years ago about how much background students should have in the Bible.

Of course, some of these perceived deficiencies may have a lot to do with the fact that our specialties do not receive the attention we think they deserve. For example, as a scholar of ancient health care, I often think that health care issues are given little or no attention in introductory textbooks. In particular, I think that more time is given to discussing ancient pots and jars than to discussing health care in ancient Israel. While not everyone might have used a collared rim jar, one hundred percent of all ancient people eventually had a health problem. One hundred percent of all ancient people experienced an irreversible metabolic challenge—better known as death-by the time they were probably in their forties. But, judging by introductory textbooks, few, if anyone, ever got ill in biblical times.

But even if complaints about Introductions are based on inattention to a scholar’s individual specialty, all scholars should have some basic expectations of Introductions in non-religious institutions, and one of them should be that an introductory textbook should not reflect a religious bias. An introductory textbook in public academia should emphasize an empirico-rationalist and descriptive approach. It should be secular.

And while many scholars describe themselves as doing historical-critical studies of the Bible, the fact is that religious and theological biases still exist where there should be none in modern critical studies of the Bible. I will give two general examples before I concentrate on Introductions proper.

Within archaeology, we witness the statement of Andrew G. Vaughn in The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions:

I am proposing that instead of trying to reconstruct a history of Israelite religion, the task of Old Testament theology should be to incorporate this type of “traditionalizing” program with narrative readings (such as Frei and Alter) or rhetorical readings (such as those presented by Brueggemann). If we as archaeologists and historians do not undertake such a task, it may not be impossible to write a history of Israel today, but the resulting history will be ignored by the larger audience that desires a theological payoff. ii

In contrast, a secular approach affirms that any work in history or archaeology should not be undertaken in the pursuit of a “theological payoff.” No other area in the social sciences or humanities that utilizes historical or archaeological data ever thinks of a “theological payoff,” and so biblical studies will be doomed to extinction in public academia if it continues this sort of agenda.

Within Textual Criticism and Literary Studies, we have the example provided by Carroll Stuhlmueller in Harper’s Bible Commentary, where he issued this comment about the textual problems in Psalm 35:

The Hebrew text is not well-preserved, overloaded perhaps with glosses and corrections, so that translations differ in their reconstructions. If God can speak through an ungifted though religiously inspired person (cf. Ps. 31), likewise God’s normative word can come through canonical texts damaged in transmission. iii

Harper’s Bible Commentary was written under the co-sponsorship of the Society of Biblical Literature, which had no problem approving of someone who promoted the idea of “God’s normative word” in a scholarly commentary.

In any case, after nearly 20 years of teaching Bible courses in public universities, I can see at least four ways in which Introductions still reflect religious biases:

A. Bibliolatry, which refers to the idea that the Bible is a superior collection of books that merits special attention.

B. Use of theological rationales

C. Ethnocentrism: promoting the superiority of biblical culture

D. Little or no criticism of ethical positions in the Bible compared to praise for biblical ethics.

A. BIBLIOLATRY

Bibliolatry refers to the idea that the Bible is a superior collection of books that merits special attention and a continuing authoritative role in modern society. I don’t deny that the Bible has been a most influential book in civilization, but it is the reason that scholars give for that influence that is more crucial to my complaint. Indeed, Introductions usually never even hint that the reason for the Bible’s influence has little to do with any inherent beauty or value, but with the fact that it was made important by imperialistic agendas and elite canonization processes.

Many biblical Introductions seem to assume an essentialist view of the Bible’s value that is supposedly recognized by vast popular demand. That is to say, the Bible’s importance is obvious to many people and so we are to serve those needs. In this view, biblical illiteracy is bad for our civilization. We must have biblical literacy to be educated citizens or informed about western culture. Stephen Prothero, in his recent plea for religious literacy, views early America as a sort of Edenic Age from which we have fallen, and even titles his Chapter Three as “Eden (What We Once Knew).”iv

The truth is that biblical illiteracy has been normative for most of Christian history. For most of the last one thousand years, many Christians, especially in Catholic traditions, were discouraged from reading the Bible in the vernacular languages. The noted historian of European literacy, Robert Allan Houston, observes, “[b]oth clergy and laity normally equated illiteracy with orthodoxy.”v

Although the Bible was translated into Anglo-Saxon in the Middle Ages, few laypersons or peasants actually could read in Anglo-Saxon England. Such Bibles were meant principally for clerics and monks. The Oxford Constitutions of 1408, promoted by Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, prohibited the translation of the Bible into English. Translations were deemed as “dangerous” (Latin: periculosa) to the faith.vi

A hero of modern biblical literacy advocates would be Thomas Cranmer, the Protestant archbishop of Canterbury during the English reformation of King Henry VIII and Edward VI. Cranmer’s preface to the 1540 edition of the Great Bible had this directive: “When ye be at home in your houses, ye apply yourselves from time to time to the reading of holy scriptures.”vii Bible reading as an obligation for everyone was, therefore, a new phenomenon in the English and broader Protestant Reformation. The idea of universal biblical literacy originated from the upper echelons of Protestant power.

Accordingly, modern biblical literacy advocates usually offer a historically Protestant view of biblical literacy (Cranmer, not Arundel). Cranmer’s directives also demonstrate that reading the Bible often has been part of an imperialistic top-down agenda. That is to say, Bible reading was encouraged by those in power in order to further Protestant agendas rather than because there was some clamor among the populace for more Bible reading.

Yet, Cranmer’s encouragement to read the Bible did not seem to have helped all that much by the mid-1700s. The fact that biblical illiteracy was a worry at that time is evident in the work of Bishop Robert Lowth, the famous proponent of “parallelism” in Hebrew poetry. In his book, On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), he lamented:

It would not be easy, indeed, to assign a reason, why the writings of Homer, of Pindar, and of Horace should engross our attention and monopolize our praise, while those of Moses, of David, and Isaiah, pass totally unregarded.viii

Lowth, indeed, was worried about a declining knowledge of the Bible and the ascent of non-biblical authors.

We see a similar lamentation in 1903, when Herbert Horwill published an article on “The Bible in Public Schools,” in the revered Atlantic Monthly. Horwill cited a report of the National Educational Association indicating that “familiarity with the English Bible as a masterpiece of literature is rapidly decreasing among the pupils in our schools.”ix Not surprisingly, Horwill’s solution was to have more biblical education in schools. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have similar lamentations from Prothero and Schüssler Fiorenza.x So, it looks as if biblical illiteracy has been normative for about two thousand years, and that we have had only a few oases here and there where one can point to biblical literacy as a highly valued commodity.

In fact, surveys repeatedly show that current Christian populations, when left to their own devices, do not seem too interested in Bible reading unless convinced otherwise by their authorities. In particular, Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion published a comprehensive survey on American religion, which showed 21.9% of Mainline Protestants and 33.1% of Catholics “never” read Scripture.xi

Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza has objected that my statistical observation “conveniently overlooks that, according to these statistics, there are still 78.1 percent of Protestants and 66.9 percent of Catholics who do read Scripture.”xii I had already addressed this objection elsewhere, but briefly this objection overlooks that negative readership and positive readership are asymmetric categories.xiii That is to say, “not reading” the Bible is much more definitive and absolute than “reading” the Bible. “Reading” the Bible can have many levels of attention, while not reading the Bible has only one – zero.

Thus, to say that 67% of people are reading the Bible does not really mean it is highly relevant for 67% of people surveyed. For we know that even those who read the Bible focus on a very small portion of it and apply even less. In The End of Biblical Studies (2007), I referred to the study by Daniel J. Estes, an evangelical scholar, who focused on how modern Christians perceive a continuity between themselves and various Biblical texts. He concluded that the highest level of continuity (= applicability to me) is relatively rare. xiv

I do believe, though I have not proven it scientifically, that if we were to go verse by verse, I would suspect 99% of the Bible is not being applied at all in modern America. That is to say, only one out of every 100 verses would be seen as applicable. Try that with Leviticus 25 or all of Leviticus, for example, and you will see what I mean. Michael Coogan’s observation is pertinent here, “[a]lthough the Bible is acknowledged in theory as an authority, much of it has simply been ignored.”xv

So, biblical literacy is being promoted by those who have an interest in retaining the professional study of the Bible and does not really come from the masses below. That is why any thought that we can “democratize” biblical studies is an illusion because the masses are not interested in reading the Bible except when pushed by upper echelons and the ecclesial-academic complex. As it is, note the paradox of publishers citing inflated sales figures for Bibles as proof that the Bible matters, and religion professors complaining that few people are actually reading the Bibles being sold.

Given this brief history of biblical illiteracy, I would like to see Introductions pay more attention to how canonization processes promoted by the professoriate and ecclesial entities have led to the maintenance of any supposed value for the Bible in the modern world. These issues involve the role of academics in constructing canons that are meant to further the interests of an academic professorial class.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital,” the literary critic John Guillory characterizes cultural capital thusly: “If there exists a form of capital which is specifically symbolic or cultural, the production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of this capital presupposes the division of society into groups that can be called classes.”xvi

Guillory argues that constructing a canon creates “cultural capital” because mastering a particular set of books distributes power in a society. It has little to do with literary quality, which itself is a social construct. Furthermore, those who construct the canon are not the authors, but rather the mass media (e.g., Oprah Winfrey’s book club) and the professoriate, who create the curriculum and select what they deem to be representative works.

So, from a Guilloryian perspective, Shakespeare’s works are read not because they necessarily have any higher literary value than many other works we could name but because “knowing Shakespeare” might function as a credential in elite circles. Indeed, when asked what differentiated the Bible from Shakespeare, Phyllis Trible, the renowned biblical scholar, could only reply “I ask myself that question, and if I had a clear answer, I would give it to you.” xvii

In fact, the inclusion of English literature is relatively recent in university curricula. As Gerald Graff reminds us, in 1895 it was possible, even at Yale, to go through four years of college without hearing the name of a single English author or the title of a single English classic.xviii Indeed, Biblical aesthetics is really another form of bibliolatry (i.e., we must the study the Bible because of its supposed superior literary beauty).

Furthermore, this effort to promote biblical literacy depends on the illusion that there is such a thing as “THE Bible.” Just consider the fact that the text of our New Testament is a hypothetical reconstruction that is identical to no single manuscript extant in the first few centuries of Christianity. Our canon could have been made of many combinations and include books we don’t consider part of “biblical studies.”

In sum, Introductions need to emphasize how “the Bible” is partly the construction of scholars (ancient or modern). Introductions need to make clear to readers that the power to define the Bible resides mostly with ecclesiastical authorities, as well as with academic biblical scholars. So even if believers hold “the Bible” to be relevant, it is because clerics and scholars have not divulged how much of it is constructed by scholars. Introductions should acknowledge that promoting interest in reading the Bible is coming from the top, not from the bottom.

B. THEOLOGICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS

If our field is to be as historical and secular as any other in modern academia, then it should not entail any theological assumptions. Yet, these assumptions do continue to exist. One obvious one is the frequent titling of Introductions with reference to a Christian view of the Bible. Thus, an introduction titled, “Reading the Old Testament,” obviously already reflects a Christian view of what Jews might call the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible.

The use of “Old Testament” has been an issue in my own college course catalogue. Some of the justification is that, in a culture where the majority are still Christians, a course titled “Hebrew Bible” will confuse students who might not know that the Hebrew Bible is also known as the Old Testament. Enrollments would plummet.

There certainly is a lot of truth in this assessment. However, once students are enrolled, there is no need to continue to perpetuate any theological biases of this sort.

One example of how we perpetuate religious biases is the manner in which we speak of biblical deities. In any other historical disciplines---let’s say Greek religion—we never speak of their supreme god, as “God.” We usually don’t use “God” when we refer to Zeus. The same should apply in the Bible. We should act analogously to what we do in Greek religion and call the highest god by their name: Yahweh, Elohim, or whatever other name is used in the text of the Hebrew Bible (the NT, of course, does use theos more consistently, and so presents a different case).

As it is, the Hebrew Bible still retains a monolatrous, not monotheistic, view in many of its portions. I am not even convinced that the New Testament is monotheistic, judging by the large number of demons that it acknowledges as having powers on earth. In this case, I do think that Bandstra is a bit better than most Introductions when he at least poses the question of whether the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 is intended to emphasize monotheism, or simply affirms that Yahweh “is only one God for them.”xix Coogan also states that it is only in Second Isaiah that “for the first time, in biblical literature we get a clear statement of monotheism.”xx

Otherwise, even in the texts of Bandstra and Coogan, we still do not get enough sense of how often biblical authors acknowledge the existence and powers of other gods (e.g., Genesis 1:26, Deuteronomy 32:8, Judges 11:24; Psalm 82). Some narratives don’t make much sense without plainly recognizing that biblical authors do think other gods exist and have powers, as in the case of how the Egyptians were able to duplicate some of Moses’ miracles (Exodus 7:22), and how the Moabites were able to defend themselves by human sacrifice (2 Kings 3:26-27).

C. ETHNOCENTRISM

Frank or implied expressions of the superiority of biblical religions and cultures is yet another method by which Introductions perpetuate religious biases in our Introductions. For example, Christian Hauer and William A. Young remark:

The monotheism of the Israelite Torah tradition and its inclusion of relatively rare (for that age) absolute law do not constitute its sole distinction. Also notable is its persistent egalitarianism.xxi

Yet, my own reading of the Bible shows a very persistent inegalitarianism. Here are a few things to note:

-Absolute law has no relation to egalitarianism. Inegalitarian laws

can certainly be phrased apodictically.

-There are masters and slaves in Hebrew society, a situation which is structurally inegalitarian.

-There is a difference between the treatment of Hebrew slaves, which can serve a limited time, and non-Hebrew slaves, which can be owned forever (Leviticus 25:44-46).

-The idea that aliens can also partake of Israelite religious ceremonies usually omits the fact that such participation is also a sign of equal ritual submission to the Israelite god. Being equally under submission does not really qualify as “egalitarianism” when refusing to submit can bring death or punishment (see Deuteronomy 31:12ff).

-Both the Old and New Testaments are androcentric (despite noted attempts to mitigate this view), which is structurally inegalitarian.

This idea of some persistent biblical egalitarianism, of course, is part of the long history of the idea of “ethical monotheism,” which began to permeate the scholarly literature in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.xxii This idea was the result of seeing biblical religion in a more evolutionary manner. Particularly popular, even today, is Edward Burnett Tylor’s otherwise outdated unilineal model of religious evolution, which posited the following stages: animism > polytheism > monotheism.xxiii

Within biblical studies per se, we can already see this evolutionary approach in the work of the Charles Darwin of biblical scholarship, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), who remarked: “It was Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah who introduced a movement against the old popular worship of the high places; in doing so they are not in the least actuated by a deep-rooted preference for the temple of Jerusalem, but by ethical motives.”xxiv

Sometimes, such evolutionary ideas are expressed in “trajectorialist” form. Trajectorialism acknowledges that things are not up to modern standards in the Bible but are headed in the right direction. Thus, Michael Coogan tells us that, in regard to slavery, “the Bible is the beginning of a trajectory leading toward full freedom and equality for all persons.”xxv

The bibliolatrous bias of this trajectorialist statement is apparent insofar as it is not clear why Coogan believes the Bible should be credited with “the beginning” of any trajectory, especially if we find pre-biblical or non-biblical texts in antiquity advocating the practices valued by modern people. Thus, why call it “incipient” when it could have been described as “continuing” earlier traditions?

Trajectorialist arguments can support the slavery side quite well because slavery waxed and waned in many periods. Thus, if one takes any particular period when slavery is waxing, one can argue that this represents the end-point of the trajectory. If slavery is waning, one can argue God wanted that decrease.

And there is nothing inherently more “ethical” about monotheism than about polytheism. In fact, Regina Schwartz, among others, has argued that monotheism is inherently violent insofar as it automatically creates insiders (those who worship one god) and outsiders (those who don’t).xxvi The fact is that many, if not most, of the practices and ideas that are enshrined in the Bible would not pass muster if we applied a contemporary standard such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) by the United Nations.

My recommendation, therefore, is that Introductions become much more self-aware of how they are part of a long history of elevating biblical ethics and culture at the expense of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Introductions should emphasize that monotheism is not necessarily more ethical or better than polytheism of Israel’s neighbors. Introductions should emphasize how dissimilar biblical cultures were to our own norms instead of emphasizing continuity with our civilization.

D. UNBALANCED ETHICAL EVALUATIONS

Related to the above undercurrent of the superiority of biblical culture is the lack of negative judgment or minimization of judgments concerning some of the ethical concepts and practices endorsed in the Bible. To say that we cannot judge ancient cultures by modern standards is patently false because we do so when we praise the Bible for its “egalitarianism” or when we say that it was more humane for its time, etc. The fact is that we are ALWAYS judging the Bible by modern standards at some level.xxvii

Indeed, if we are going to credit the Bible with ethical advances or praise its “egalitarianism,” then we should be balanced on the other side. As mentioned, saying the Bible has a persistent egalitarianism is to judge it by modern standards. So my problem is that we do that with the positive but not so much with the negative. That is to say,

we show our religious bias by being unbalanced in the positive evaluations of biblical ethics.

Consider Bandstra’s Reading the Old Testament where he says that the laws of Lex talionis indicate the following:

While such physical retaliation may seem brutal, in fact, it was humane in its day. Specifying restitution in kind prevented resort to harsher means, typically the death penalty for such offenses.xxviii

But I am not sure how “humane” it was regarded even in its day. For example, Hittite law systematically replaced death penalties with fines for many offenses. If laws of Lex talionis were regarded as “humane,” then why did the Hittites feel a need to change them at all? Thus, Law 166 of the Hittite Law Code demanded the death penalty for appropriating another man’s farmland. But Law 167 says “But now they shall substitute one sheep for the man.”xxix In other words, the very symbol of the Christian substitutionary atonement had a preceding parallel in Hittite law.

There is no empirical evidence provided that Lex talionis lessened “harsher means.” In addition, it is not clear why we cannot characterize Lex talionis as a brutal and harsh means in itself.

And why not say “less brutal” rather than say “humane for its day”?

By that standard, almost anything could be regarded as “humane for its day.”

In speaking of the institution of herem, I see also Bandstra’s Reading the Old Testament as minimizing its horrors in the following descriptions:

First, the narrative may be an idealization...Second, we must remember that this period of Israel’s history was unique. What may be demanded at that time in holy war does not necessarily apply to later periods. Holy War was instituted only to give Israel a homeland in Canaan and cannot be generalized as a religious principle for all time.xxx

Here I see theological claims being presented as historical statements. For example, who made up the rule that Holy War cannot be generalized as a religious principle for all time? Indeed, Introductions usually have little trouble showing how certain principles in the Old Testament changed or were generalized in the New Testament (e.g., salvation for Israel generalized to salvation for everyone) and so why should we judge any generalization of Holy War to be any different from the generalization of salvation?

And why should killing women and children, even if only as an “idealization,” be made more palatable because it was meant to give one group a homeland? When do we treat “idealizations” of genocide as less reprehensible than when they are actualized? So instead of portraying Holy War as justified when it is done for “unique” reasons or for particular times, why not institute a zero-tolerance criterion that would say that any scripture that at any time expresses idealized or actual endorsement of genocide forfeits its right to be an ethical authority in modern society?

After all, no one thinks of explaining Mein Kampf’s genocidal ideology in the same way even though we could also argue that Nazi Germans were simply using genocide for a particular purpose or for a unique agenda that was not meant to apply to all places and all times.

Why not use the United Nations standards to judge biblical ethics if we are going to judge those ethics at all (and trying to explain the permissibility of Holy War for “unique” reasons is to use our own standards anyway).

There are a few examples where Introductions leave the impression that some ethical issue is settled when it is clearly not.

In their discussion of Philemon, Hauer, and Young, state:

Paul uniformly showed respect for the ordering of society. He did not challenge the institution of slavery. But he did direct a Christian slaveholder to a higher law, the law of love, which should cause him to forgive a runaway slave and accept him as a brother in Christ. This letter shows how Paul put into a particular instance his belief that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person (Galatians 3:28).xxxi

Admittedly, there is not much space to discuss all the intricacies of Philemon, but Hauer and Young give no hint of how controversial this view of Philemon is. It is not at all certain that Paul is acting much differently from other writers in ancient Rome. It is not at all clear that Paul is even thinking of Galatians 3:28, which arguably has more to do with the equal opportunity to be reckoned as Abraham’s seed rather than as any statement of equality between slave and master.

Consider Seneca (ca. 4 B.C.E. -65 C.E.), the Stoic philosopher, who tells his readers in his forty-seventh epistle: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. And as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you.”xxxii

Qualitatively, nothing in the NT compares to the extensive and thoughtful advocacy of fairness for slaves in Seneca’s forty-seventh epistle. Seneca admonished his readers to “remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”xxxiii No amount of socio-rhetorical prestidigitation will save Philemon or the New Testament from its pervasive acceptance or endorsement of one of the most vile institutions known to humanity.xxxiv

Thus, a better way to describe Philemon would be to say that Paul seems to be asking a master to treat his slave much as some Romans directed better treatment of slaves. It need not have much to do with some distinctive Christian superior way of treating slaves.

Again, the emphasis on continuity with the ethics of surrounding cultures needs to be more emphasized than it is in some cases.

Indeed, one can argue that slavery became worse in the New Testament because it did not acknowledge some of the term limits for slaves that we find in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, I wholly concur with Margaret Davies, who concludes that “a comparison with Deuteronomy and Leviticus, shows the New Testament represents an impoverishment of traditions.”xxxv But I don’t see any Introductions that make that point.

CONCLUSION

My criticisms should not be construed to deny that there has been much progress toward the publication of Introductions to the Bible that are descriptive and based on the historical-critical method. In general, Introductions do a relatively good job in this regard compared to what I could muster some 30-40 years ago.

Yet, there are still too many religious biases that must be eliminated. Bibliolatry is perhaps the main one, and Introductions must strive to give students the sense that the construction of the Bible’s importance has not really come from below, but rather from imperialist and elite agendas, including that of the biblical studies professoriate. Parity with other religions is still a challenge, especially in how we refer to biblical deities in comparison to how we refer to deities of other religions.

I do not think that the solution is to “democratize” biblical studies if that means using the Bible as an authority to promote democratic mindsets. Rather, the very idea that the Bible is an authority to democratize serves a very conservative and Eurocentric position about the Bible’s importance in guiding social change. It simply perpetuates a Judeo-Christian view of the importance of this text in redeeming or helping civilization.

For me, overthrowing the authority of the biblical text is the only mission of any liberatory program. In my liberatory agenda, Introductions to the Bible eventually will not be necessary because they will have done a good job in showing how irrelevant the Bible really is to modern society. Or, at the very least, Introductions will have shown that the Bible is no more important than thousands of other ancient texts we could be reading instead. By learning to share space with other ancient texts that have been neglected, we can begin to approach a true democratization of all the ancient voices that have been silenced by the over-emphasis on biblical texts.


Notes

i This is a slightly edited version of the paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Ideological Criticism Section, on November 20, 2010.

My thanks to Dr. Barry Bandstra and Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who engaged in a very constructive dialogue in that session.

I use a capitalized “Introduction(s)” to refer to the genre of academic introductory textbook(s) on the Bible.

ii Andrew G. Vaughn, “Can We Write a History of Israel Today?” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 385.

iii Carroll Stuhlmueller, “Psalms, “ in Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 449,

iv Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know---And Doesn’t (New York: HarperOne, 2007). This section incorporates part of my essay,

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

v Robert Allan Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education 1500-1800 (London: Pearson Education, 2002), 161.

vi Thomas Arundel, Constitutions of Oxford (1408) at http://www.umilta.net/arundel.html.

vii Thomas Cranmer, “Preface to the Great Bible.” English text at http://www.bible-researcher.com/cranmer.html.

viii Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1839; reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 22.

ix Robert Horwill, “The Bible in Public Schools.” Atlantic Monthly (September, 1903): 296-304, my quotation is from p. 296.

x Prothero, Religious Literacy; Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space (Louisville: WestminsterJohnKnox Press, 2009).

xi Christopher Bader, Kevin Dougherty, Paul Froese, et al. American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights into the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the U.S.

(Waco, TX: Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, 2006), p. 14, Table 2.

xii Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies, 40.

xiii Hector Avalos, “Author’s Remarks on The End of Biblical Studies,” Anduraru: The Bulletin of the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern and Afroasiatic Studies 4 (Fall, 2008):7.

xiv Daniel J. Estes, “Audience Analysis and Validity in Application,” BS 150 (April-June, 1993):219-29.

xv Michael Coogan, , “The Great Gulf Between Scholars and the Pew,” in Biblical Studies Alernatively: An Introductory Reader, ed. Susanne Scholz (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 2003), p. 7

xvi John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), viii.

xvii Phyllis Trible, “Wrestling with Scripture [interview with Hershel

Shanks],” Biblical Archaeology Review 32, no. 2 (March/April, 2006):49.

xviii Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

xix Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament, 168.

xx Coogan, The Old Testament, 408.

xxi Christian E. Hauer and William A. Young, An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into

Three Worlds (6th edition; Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005).

xxii See Theodore M. Vial and Mark A. Hadley, Ethical Monotheism, Past and Present: Essays in Honor of Wendell S. Dietrich, Brown Judaic Studies 329 (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2001). For popular expressions of ethical monotheism, see Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 368-69; Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 110-113.

xxiii For a recent view of this unilineal scheme, see Fiona Bowie, The Anthropology of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 14-16.

xxiv Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (1883; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1983), 47 (Wellhausen’s italics). See further, Douglas A. Knight, ed., Julius Wellhausen and His Prolegomena to the History of Israel, Semeia 25 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983).

xxv Michael D. Coogan, “The Great Gulf between Scholars and the Pew,” in Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader, ed., Susanne Scholz (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2003), 11

xxvi Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

xxvii On the reticence of scholars to judge the biblical god, see Roger N. Whybray, “‘Shall not the Judge of the Earth do What is Just?’ God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,” in Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right? Studies in the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw, ed. David Perchansky and Paul L. Redditt (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 2; See also, idem, “The Immorality of God: Reflections On Some Passages in Genesis, Job, Exodus and Numbers,” JSOT 21 (1996): 89-120; James A. Metzger, “Where has Yahweh Gone? Reclaiming Unsavory Images of God in New Testament Studies,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 31, no. 1 (2009):51-76.

xxviii Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament, 141.

xxix Hoffner, The Laws of the Hittites, 133-34. See also, Samuel Greengus, “Some Issues Relating to the Comparability of Laws and Coherence of the Legal Tradition,” in Theory and Method in Biblical and Cuneiform Law: Revision, Interpolation, and Development, ed., Bernard M. Levinson (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 65-72.

xxx Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament, 215-216. For a more general critique of how biblical scholarship often functions as an apology for biblical violence, including Holy War, see Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).

xxxi Hauer and Young, An Introduction to the Bible, 304.

xxxii Seneca, Epistles, 47.11 (Gummere, LCL): sic cum inferiore vivas, quaemadmodum tecum superiorem velis vivere. Quotiens in mentem venerit, quantum tibi in servum liceat veniat in mentem tantundem in te domino tuo licere.

xxxiii Seneca, Epistles 47:10 (Gummere, LCL): Vis tu cogitare istum quem servum tuum vocas ex isdem seminibus ortum eodem frui caelo, aeque spirare, aeque vivere, aeque mori!!

xxxiv For an example of the unsuccessful use of socio-rhetorical criticism to redeem the pro-slavery stance of some NT books, see Ben Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Mich., 2007). Witherington quotes this very epistle by Seneca (The Letters to Philemon...p. 79). Also, Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, 2 volumes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

xxxv See Margaret Davies, “Work and Slavery in the New Testament: Impoverishment of Traditions, ” in The Bible in Ethics: The Second Sheffield Colloquium, eds. John W. Rogerson, Margaret Davies, and M. Daniel Carroll R., JSOT Supplement Series 207 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p. 347.


Comments (6)


The ideal introductory textbook should accept the possibility of the supernatural and emphasize the need for religious bias. Your methodological naturalism has attempted to take the supernatural out of the Bible and now you have targeted religious biases. If we believe in creation, then we seek out the creator. Religious bias is necessary when you consider that there can only be one reality that is in accordance with fact, whether you can verify it scientifically or not.
#1 - Arthur Chrysler - 01/02/2011 - 09:12



The various rationalizing tendencies that Prof. Avalos outlines look like attempts to repackage and resell traditional Christian triumphalism and exceptionalism. What it all seems to make clear is that for some "scholars," the goal is not a better understanding of the facts but the preservation of denominational hegemony.
#2 - M. Buettner - 01/04/2011 - 17:14



"The ideal introductory textbook should accept the possibility of the supernatural and emphasize the need for religious bias."

So, should we have introductions that allow the possibility of the supernatural when reading Homer? How about Plutarch? Herodotus?

Methodological supernaturalism has not yielded any knew knowledge about the world, so it has no currency when secular universities are invovled. If you want to allow for the possibility of the supernatural, you can do that in church.
#3 - J. Quinton - 01/12/2011 - 13:27



"So, should we have introductions that allow the possibility of the supernatural when reading Homer? How about Plutarch? Herodotus?"

No, because the writings that you mention make no supernatural claims. The Bible, that the secular universities now wish to study, claims to be the Word of God (II Timothy 3:16 and I Thessalonians 2:13). With a claim like this, one must consider the possibility that it is not a lie.
#4 - Arthur Chrysler - 01/13/2011 - 08:27



Odd, the Homer that I read makes numerous "supernatural claims." As for the relationship of divine inspiration to ancient poetry in general, see, for example, Plato's Apology 22a-c. It's debatable whether the Bible actually makes the claim for itself as a whole that it is "the Word of God," but even if it does, it's far from being the only ancient writing to make a claim of that kind.
#5 - M. Buettner - 01/14/2011 - 09:52




Rhetorically, I usually find myself in agreement with Hector Avalos on his position to secularize Biblical studies, but I can not help feeling that he seems naive in his assessment in that he has completely neglected to understand the one main reasons Biblical studies exist (especially in the U.S.), so let me be frank and specific here: MONEY!

The Christian religious industry is a powerful multi-billion dollar financial world with its own lobbyists in Washington, DC that is not only guaranteed special protections under the United States Constitution, also enjoys added layers of special legal protection on the state level.

By the term “religious industry”, I am referring to a vast financial empire with Christian book sells totaling more than $2.3 billion annually (up 5% for 2010), followed by Christian music with nearly 50 million albums sold last year. This industry also employs tens of thousands of people in everything from denominational supported colleges, universities and seminaries, to full and part time lay and ordained church staffs, to the huge personal and powerful empires of the televangelists whose family operated and family owned businesses are controlled by religious CEO’s who own and fly their own jets with salaries ranging from a low of 5 hundred thousand to a high of 5 million dollars a year. This religious industrial “Cash Cow” is so embedded in the U.S. economy that its imprint “In God We Trust” (that is, the Biblical God) is ironically carried the very currency that keeps this “God” front and center even as subjective and controversial as it maybe.

Secondary, with the cost of tuition at state universities averaging $400 per credit hour to the highs of private schools at $1,272 per credit hour, most students are looking for an investment of their time and money with the underlying goal of Biblical courses often gearing them towards one of professional degrees now offered by the many sectarian seminaries.

In conclusion, for Professor Avalos to think that Biblical studies can attain the same objectivity as Classical Studies (whose gods and religions are not only viewed as long dead, but whose “false gods” were in direct competition with the “true” naissance Judeo-Christian religions) is a proposed paradigm shift that has more in common with the very myth he seeks to depose than reality.
#6 - Harry H. McCall - 01/14/2011 - 18:49






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