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Knowledge and Power in Biblical Scholarship

Knowledge and Power in Biblical Scholarship

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
June 2010

In his article, “Does the Center Need an Extreme?,” James Crossley raises some interesting and important points, although I think there are some fuzzy parts too. He argues that my critique of the increasing influence of evangelical and fundamentalist scholarship at SBL constructs an extremist “other” whose existence is in fact necessary for my own social and epistemological position. Moreover, he argues that my critique has the effect of justifying structures of power –and their ill-effects—in which the modern academy is implicated. In other words, he performs a nice critique of my critique, using neo-Marxist and postmodern strategies, which I think is salutary. I agree that we should be self-conscious of the implications of our intellectual arguments, and that discourses of power and knowledge are always intertwined to some extent.

Where I would want to draw some clearer distinctions—although it is difficult—is the difference between critical scholarship and apologetics masquerading as scholarship. Both kinds of discourses make claims and arguments, and both are implicated in the dialectics of power and knowledge. But the former has virtues, particularly in the context of the modern university, that escape the latter. I think that Crossley would accept this distinction, since he writes in a previous article that “the critical study of the Bible can be misunderstood as academics at prayer,” and he extols the value of “the critical study of the Bible as an academic discipline.” The problem at hand is how to preserve the critical study of the Bible in a professional society that has lowered its standards to the degree that apologetics passes as scholarship.

Crossley gets one part of my position quite wrong, which may be a function of my occasionally abbreviated style. In my BAR column, I write:“While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting.” Crossley takes me to task for characterizing feminists and eco-theologians as “despisers of reason” without qualification. But I do have a qualification – I say “some” and I have a footnote to the debate within postmodernism and feminism about whether reason is tainted by sexism or hegemonic bias, that is, with phallogocentrism (in Jacques Derrida’s and Luce Irigiray’s term). So I plead not guilty to painting as extremists all postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians. Only some of them.

In a general sense, academic (or any other) discourse needs disagreements to keep the dialogue alive, interesting, and honest. At its best, academic discourse has a self-regulating character, in which sound arguments and reasons will prevail over weak and unwarranted ones. This is as close as academic discourse gets to “truth” – it is a discursive process that never arrives at the whole truth, but with honest effort will construct more adequate and instructive models for understanding. It is a multi-voiced Socratic dialogue, which requires both humility and erudition.

If someone argues that a critical argument is wrong because it is “idolatry” (as in one recent reviewer asserted in the Review of Biblical Literature, the book review organ of the SBL), I would say that this is a category error within the humanities. It is apologetics masquerading as scholarship, and not scholarship itself. This is the difference about which I urge that we be vigilant. I have no problem with someone using such criteria at the Evangelical Theological Society, which operates by its own discursive rules, and of which I am not a member. But in the humanities there are rules of the game that, if egregiously and continually violated, destroy the credibility of critical discourse. If to say this is an assertion of power, then I’m happy to use what little power I can muster.

Comments (10)

the last little dig at members of the ets and the intimation that those poor folks aren't doing scholarship is wrong and silly.

if that wasn't the intention of the paragraph, it was poorly worded. if it was, again, its a gross generalization that demonstrates a serious lack of fairness.
#1 - Jim - 06/30/2010 - 09:55

I'm trying to make a logical point, not a polemical point, in the last paragraph -- there are categories of evaluation that are irrelevant and inappropriate in one setting that may be relevant in a different setting. My mention of the ETS as an example was not a "dig," but a reference to a different discursive context than SBL. I meant no offense.
#2 - Ron Hendel - 06/30/2010 - 14:30

thanks very much for the clarification. it's very helpful.
#3 - Jim - 06/30/2010 - 15:07

Thanks for your comments. I understand them better here than in your other presentations.

I do wish you would distinguish between two different claims.

1. Some conservatives, sometimes, play a game that is different from critical scholarship, and argues from non-textual "confessional" evidence. I agree that they should not do so at the SBL, and might do better in another forum.

2. Some conservatives, sometimes, argue from textual evidence incompetently and tendentiously. These do not necessarily play a different game or belong to a different organization; often these same people also argue from non-textual (confessional) evidence incompetently and tendentiously. SBL usually (rightly) rejects their papers and reviews, though some slip through; their own confessional organizations also usually(rightly) rejects their papers and reviews.

By confusing two issues you pay conservatives both an undeserved compliment and an undeserved insult. The undeserved compliment is to assume that they really are good at playing another game (besides critical scholarship); often they are not. But the undeserved insult is to assume that their critical incompetence (arguing tendentiously and not from evidence) is a result of their conservative goals; often it is not.

I still think it is rather harder than you suggest to decide ahead of time which arguments can be argued critically, from textual evidence, and which cannot. In an SBL which has over-reached in incorporating conservatives, of course some conservative arguments will be uncritically presented, and we must guard agaisnt them. But in an older SBL which excluded conservative voices, some historical-secular arguments (e.g., the assumption that miracle-accounts must be fabrications) were also presented uncritically.

Do you mean to suggest that no paper can ever explore any theological question through strong, critical, evidence-based, textually-rooted argumentation? Or do you mean to suggest that such papers can be written, but should be excluded from the SBL? Because you mainly cite papers that are not critical and evidence-based, you do not make it clear which of these is your position.

Finally, I think that you have an overly-rigorous (and a bit outdated) view of the value-neutral requirements of scholarly rhetoric. Rhetoric is not evidence, and should not be made a primary basis for critical judgments. But in the midst of making critical judgments, of adducing evidence and analyzing ancient texts, people always reflect on why such texts matter at all. Shakespeare scholars can and do call their sources, and readings of their sources, "beautiful" and "ugly." Religious scholars can and do call their sources, and readings of their sources, "ennobling" and "superstitious" and "idolatrous." You are certainly right that some in the SBL (not only conservatives) now seem more interested in making such value-judgments than presenting evidence. But I fear that an over-sensitivity keeps us from learning from others' value-judgments--perhaps especially those which we do not share. And policing SBL to remove all value judgments may only conceal other, equally uncritical judgments.

None of this is meant to detract from your basic point, about the importance of critical, evidence-based scholarly discourse. I hope that my own work, even if it pursues questions that are religiously motivated and includes rhetoric you may find unfortunate, embodies precisely the form of critical argumentation which you so passionately defend.
#4 - Jonathan Huddleston - 07/09/2010 - 13:00

Dear Jonathan,

You make some very cogent distinctions. My comments have been focused on the first issue, viz., that the discursive categories of religious apologetics are inappropriate at SBL (even though they may be appropriate in other, explicitly confessional, contexts). The second issue concerns bad scholarship. I agree with your point that bad scholarship occurs both within the humanities and within confession-oriented scholarship. The peer-review process at SBL should screen out bad scholarship of all stripes, although it has not consistently done so.

Regarding theological scholarship, I should note that I enjoy reading self-reflective, critical theology. In my view such discourse is -- and should be -- welcome in the appropriate sections of SBL. But it is important to make a distinction between critical theology and unreflective apologetics. It may be hard to draw this line clearly, but it may be homologous, in some manner, to the distinction between good and bad (i.e., competent and incompetent) scholarship of any kind.

In my view, the challenge for critical biblical theology is that, in order to merit the adjective "critical," it must be pursued without relying for its argumentation on confessional credos (e.g., inerrancy, plenary inspiration, rule of faith, etc.). Since I'm not a theologian, I hesitate to opine on how to do this.

I'm not saying that critical biblical scholarship is value-free, but simply that it must be critical, reflective, and devoted to the intellectual standards of humanistic scholarship. Critical biblical scholarship should not only historicize the biblical text, but also its own interpretive practices. But I emphasize that this does not entail intellectual or moral relativism. Not anything goes.

These are all important and difficult issues, which deserve attention if we want to keep our academic field healthy and alive. I don't claim to be able to solve them, but I do think that SBL has lost its way as a learned society and needs serious reforms.
#5 - Ron Hendel - 07/10/2010 - 13:15

Thank you Prof. Hendel for both your penetrating insight into the proper diagnosis of the deleterious state within which SBL finds itself historically and your academic courage to confront head-on what is patently unacceptable according to an academician's proper social and methodological integrity. The field now owes you a debt of gratitude for setting in motion what I can only hope will eventually become a satisfying solution to the very concerns you raise.
#6 - Richard C. Miller - 07/13/2010 - 04:03

Dr. Hendel, your most recent post sounds rather more conciliatory than your BAR article, or even the response to Crossley above. I appreciate it very much. But I still wonder whether you have been allowing rhetoric on both sides to obscure the real disagreement (or agreement?) about what counts as the "intellectual standards of humanistic scholarship."

Your own rhetoric that was most off-putting in the BAR article came near the beginning, when you suggested that faith and reason must be kept separate. Many of us do what we do--self-reflectively, critically, even in a self-historicizing way--precisely in an attempt to combine faith and reason. We have yet to hear a convincing argument that our attempt is simply out of bounds. It is quite helpful (if humbling) to be told when we are failing to argue with due attention to rigorous reasoning, or failing to support our claims with solid evidence. It is less helpful when we are given anecdotal and imprecise examples of why the attempt should not be made.

I wonder how closely you have examined even your claim that accusing one's opponent of "idolatry" is a "category error within the humanities." Perhaps I am reading the wrong works in the humanities, but I seem to remember one of my favorite literary scholars (perhaps Stanley Fish, Umberto Eco, or Howard Bloom) accusing a fellow critic of idolatrous argumentation--argumentation that treats as eternal and ultimate what is really temporary and contingent. This struck me as a critical (if somewhat philosophical) challenge, which raised important methodological questions.

Those of us who study ancient texts can find special interest in noticing when scholars' commitment to their own quasi-deities (empiricism or idealism, historicism or realism) resembles what the sources would call "worship" or "idolatry." The charge seems quite critical and self-historicizing, even if (or precisely because?) it looks rather different depending on the commitments of the person making the charge.

If you are not committed to complete neutrality, I am not sure why you regard this sort of charge as uncritical and un-self-reflective; your unargued objection that such a charge is "not scholarship itself" strikes me as, itself, rather un-self-reflective and uncritical.

Of course, I am merely exemplifying the fact which receives, perhaps, too little attention in your BAR article: arguments about what is (and is not) "critical" or "reflective" or "historical" have been goind on for decades or centuries. Recourse to such adjectives cannot, alas, resolve the problems you seek to address, because the impossibility of actually defining such adjectives is itself the problem. Those of us who do remain in SBL will continue slogging on, much as the society has slogged on since the beginning, attempting to sift through more and less persuasive arguments without any hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes "scholarship itself."
#7 - Jonathan Huddleston - 07/14/2010 - 15:14

Dear Jonathan,

Perhaps it will clarify to cite Max Weber, who thought about these issues deeply. Here's an excerpt from "Wissenschaft als Beruf" ("Scholarship as a Vocation"):

"Wissenschaft ('scholarship') today is a 'vocation' organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe. This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation....
Now you will be inclined to say: Which stand does one take towards the factual existence of 'theology' and its claims to be a 'science'? Let us not flinch and evade the answer. To be sure, 'theology' and 'dogmas' do not exist universally, but neither do they exist for Christianity alone. Rather (going backward in time), they exist in highly developed form also in Islam, in Manicheanism, in Gnosticism, in Orphism, in Parsism, in Buddhism, in the Hindu sects, in Taoism, and in the Upanishads, and, of course, in Judaism. To be sure their systematic development varies greatly.... All theology represents an intellectual rationalization of the possession of sacred values. No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the person who rejects these presuppositions. Every theology, however, adds a few specific presuppositions for its work and thus for the justification of its existence. Their meaning and scope vary....
They regularly proceed from the further presupposition that certain 'revelations' are facts relevant for salvation and as such make possible a meaningful conduct of life. Hence, these revelations must be believed in.... Then the question of theology is: How can these presuppositions, which must simply be accepted be meaningfully interpreted in a view of the universe? For theology, these presuppositions as such lie beyond the limits of 'science.' They do not represent 'knowledge,' in the usual sense, but rather a 'possession.' Whoever does not 'possess' faith, or the other holy states, cannot have theology as a substitute for them, least of all any other science."

For the full text, see

On your other concern, the use of the pejorative apologetic term "idolatry" -- meant straightforwardly (not metaphorically) as the worship of false gods -- clearly violates any plausible construal of the norms of critical scholarship; see the book review in RBL at
#8 - Ron Hendel - 07/14/2010 - 19:05

Dr. Hendel,

First, thank you so much for providing the Weber quotation and link. I am unsurprised that Weber was lurking in the background! I'm sure that you are aware that Weber's formulations are no longer (if they ever were) taken for granted in the humanities, any more than in biblical studies. I note in passing that the passage which you cite has an oddly philosophical, even dogmatic tone--that is, it is neither supported by nor assailable by any particular evidence.

Weber's view of theology (fideistic, quasi-mystical, and sharply circumscribed) is fairly prominent in German Lutheranism. It serves a particularly useful foil to the old German academic view of scholarship, and may indeed have been invented for that very purpose. I would be interested in investigating how many theologians would accept Weber's account of their practice--and, for that matter, how many historians, sociologists, and literary critics would accept Weber's account of their practice.

In other words, I find this whole question (what scholarship is and should be) extremely important and interesting, and think that Weber's essay would be an excellent starting point for a discussion. But such a discussion cannot happen if non-Weberians are excluded from academic societies--or, for that matter, if Weberians take their toys and go home when they encounter divergent views on what constitutes critical academic discourse.

Second, I was unable to access the specific review whose link you so helpfully attempted to supply. I have consulted a few dictionaries, and continue to think that what you call the straightforward and nonmetaphorical meaning of "idolatry" is simply not what the word means. There are other words for those who follow a different god than my own; to use such words is hardly even a criticism (the person so accused would presumably simply respond, "Yes, I do worship a different god than yours, and what of it?"). Idolatry is a more specific and more interesting charge, and in my experience is always met by a clarifying protest: "No, I do not intend to worship Mary, or the wooden icon, or the textus receptus, or the historical-critical method. If I did worship such idols, this would constitute a fallacy and would weaken my own position."

Again, I am fully sympathetic toward anyone who is simply uninterested in who worships what, and only wants to know what the ancient sources say. But I myself can never completely abandon the attempt to gain wisdom from, and join a conversation with, the people who wrote those sources--a conversation which (among other things) sheds light on what we also worship, and why. I think that this ongoing conversation can be pursued through critical, academic, non-question-begging, pluralistic, open, self-reflective theological inquiry. Am I right in thinking that you claimed to welcome such inquiry at SBL?

In the end, then, perhaps quoting Weber or attempting to separate faith and reason are not the most helpful ways to make sure that biblical scholarship (whether theologically oriented or not) remains critically and academically rigorous. On the other hand, I will happily join you in shooting down any formulations (including mine or yours!) that fail to meet the evidentiary standards that have gained academic critical scholarship its just reputation for rigorous argumentation.
#9 - Jonathan Huddleston - 07/16/2010 - 11:50

Dear Jonathan,

It is not my concern to describe the task of biblical theology. As James Barr says, "the concept of biblical theology is a contested concept," and he spends 700 pages substantiating this thesis (in The Concept of Biblical Theology). Of course, he does much more than this in the book.

I would say that Max Weber's thought is still vital in the humanities and social sciences; see recently (for biblical studies) Eckart Otto, Max Webers Studien des Antiken Judentums: Historische Grundlegung einer Theorie der Moderne (2002); and David Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (2001). There's even a recent book on The Postmodern Significance of Max Weber's Legacy (2005). So in the estimation of many scholars, the old guy's still worth listening to. One of the imperatives of scholarship, in my view, is engaging with intelligent scholarship of the past, which helps us to refine our views and relieves us of having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, in each generation.
#10 - Ron Hendel - 07/16/2010 - 16:10

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