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On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire

The exchange between Niels Peter Lemche and Hector Avalos underlines the concern which many of us have biblical studies has had with critical studies. The self-censorship which governs the individual imagination of the believer also plays an at times prevailing role in the systematic mobbing with which so many professional scholars and university institutions influence our field by defining the limits of acceptability for the public expression of our critical thought. While this censorship is most apparently and egregiously related to perceived threats which such thought might pose for “faith,” such mobbing is also encouraged by political goals which are directly supported or threatened by religious traditions. The following account is motivated by hopes of greater openness and honesty in our scholarship. It was written in the course of responding to a request from the editor, Mark Elliott, that I expand on and clarify the conflicts and debates, which had surrounded the acceptance and publication of my dissertation. The account is personal and deeply rooted in memory. Its objectivity is limited by that perspective and, of course, the feelings associated with it. It is offered as but a single example of a still chronic problem faced by many critical scholars, a problem which, over the past 50 years has hardly ever been addressed by the universities, let alone such societies as the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society of Biblical Literature or the American Schools of Oriental Research, which, nevertheless, have occasionally claimed dedication to critical research.

See Also:
Creating Biblical Figures
A View from Copenhagen: Israel and the History of Palestine

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
April 2011

My dissertation, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham, was completed in June of 1971. At the beginning of the winter semester, it was submitted to the Catholic Theological faculty in Tübingen in fulfillment of the dissertation requirement for the PhD. Herbert Haag of the Catholic faculty (first reader) and Kurt Galling of the protestant faculty (second reader) were appointed to judge the dissertation. Following their written judgment, the dissertation was accepted by the Catholic faculty during the spring semester in 1972, with the etiquette summa cum laude. PhD examinations for the theological degree (the “Rigorosum”), involving ½ hour oral examinations in the 8 fields of Catholic Theology were, as I remember, set for February, 1973. I sent copies of the dissertation to the Society of Biblical Literature’s monograph series and to the Catholic Biblical Association’s monograph series, seeking publication.

As I was then employed as a research fellow on the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft’s project Der Tübinger Atlas des vorderen Orients and was responsible for developing maps on Bronze Age settlements for both Palestine and the Sinai and Negev, I travelled to Jerusalem to carry out some 5-6 months archaeological research through the Autumn and winter of 1971/ 1972. During this period that I was in Jerusalem, I was invited to give a series of 4 two-hour seminars on the results of my dissertation at the École Biblique in Jerusalem. These seminars were attended, by, among others Profs. Abraham Malamat and Shalom Paul of the Hebrew University, both of whom responded very positively to my seminar and became life-long friends. I also was invited to give individual lectures on the same topic at the British School of Archaeology and the Hebrew University. Copies of my as yet unpublished dissertation were given at this time to Abraham Malamat, to the library of the École Biblique and to William Dever, the director of the American Schools.

After returning to Tübingen in the early summer of 1972, I received a response from the editor of the Catholic Biblical Monograph Series, Joseph Fitzmeyer, to the effect that, as I had submitted the work to them unsolicited, it was being returned unread. I also received an answer from the SBL monograph series that they had sent the manuscript to their reader (James Ross), and that they must reject it on the basis of its inadequate academic standards and “irresponsible” historical reconstructions. When I showed these letters to Kurt Galling, he spoke with Georg Fohrer, who was at that time editor of the BZAW series, and he, in due course, arranged the publication of my dissertation in this series with de Gruyter in Berlin. In spite of considerable, further delays in preparing the manuscript for the press, the dissertation was published in the BZAW series very early in 1974.

Already in the Fall of 1972, as I began preparation for my PhD examinations in Catholic theology, the first personal confrontation, based in a principled objection to my dissertation occurred. As Hans Küng, with whom I had studied Systematic theology, was on leave for a research semester, I was assigned to take my examinations in dogmatic theology from the professor of systematic theology, Joseph Ratzinger. When I spoke with him concerning bibliography for the upcoming examination, he explained to me that a Catholic could not write such a dissertation as I had and that I would not be receiving my PhD from their faculty in Tübingen. I must point out that the shock with which I met this statement, at the time, caused me to fixate my thoughts on the first phrase: that a Catholic could not write it ... but I had! ... and what then was I, if not a Catholic? ... and then: why couldn’t a Catholic write it? In that short time, I sensed the coming alienation from friends and colleagues in the Catholic faculty with whom I had worked and shared my life with for nearly ten years. I was closed out of Narnia as I moved into what was to be a long period of conflict and disagreement, culminating in the rejection of my PhD candidacy and my finally leaving Tübingen in 1975. Although compromises and alternatives were sought, with consideration, for example of my taking my degree with the Protestant faculty in Tübingen or with another Catholic faculty, such as the faculty at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland. These, however, did not prove to be acceptable, at times by me and at times by the faculty suggested. Finally, in the summer of 1974, Leonard Swidler from Temple University in Philadelphia, suggested that I come to the Department of Religion there to take my degree. This I accepted to do and, registering for the academic year in 1975-1976, I received my PhD with the support of the lecturer in Old Testament studies, Robert Wright, from Temple, in May 1976.

The book, Historicity, had been published early in 1974 and was already a significant issue of discussion and debate at the IOSOT congress in Edinburgh that year and my Tübinger Atlas volume on the Bronze Age settlements in Sinai and the Negev was published the following spring. The first response to my book of which I was aware by John Huesman in his presidential lecture at the 1974 annual meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association, who warned of a new hypercriticism in biblical studies. 1 At the Philadelphia meeting of the local chapter of the Society of Biblical Literature (I believe this took place in the early spring of 1976) a plenary session lecture was given by Dean McBride, from Yale University, which presented a strong and detailed critique of my dissertation. Even though I had been explicitly invited to attend the lecture and to give a response to it by the meeting’s coordinator, Jeff Tigay, during the discussion after the actual lecture, I was repeatedly denied a chance to respond to either McBride or other criticisms raised during the lengthy discussion period, except with a single question. No one protested the procedure of the meeting. In May, 1976, when I came up for the oral defense of my dissertation at Temple University, James Ross from Virginia Union Theological Seminary asked the faculty that he be invited as a special opponent, that he might debate and challenge my thesis. This debate lasted some 2 hours and was at times very antagonistic and strongly opposed to the acceptance of the thesis by the faculty. Temple’s faculty, however, unanimously granted me the PhD degree, with the etiquette: summa cum laude.

During the whole of this period, the reaction in the States to my dissertation, both from within the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, was consistently negative, with a large number of review articles, criticizing and rejecting my work, my competence and my integrity. Attending the 1975 and 1976 annual meetings of the CBA and SBL and applying for some 45 teaching positions over this two year period, I received not a single response to or acknowledgement of any of my applications. In striking contrast, I was however asked to teach a number of part-time courses in Hebrew Bible from 1976-1979 at the University of North Carolina and was strongly supported in this by both John Van Seters and Jack Sasson, but the scholarly debates away from Chapel Hill were invariably harsh and negative. The first review of which I was aware, which broke this negative pattern, was the review by Matityahu Tsevat in the JBL of 1976. I was also invited to contribute an article on the Joseph and Moses stories for the new Israelite and Judean History, which was being prepared by John Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller at Emory University. The negative pattern of reviews, however, largely continued uninterruptedly. This pessimistic development was enhanced occasionally by, for example, a response to my letter of application for an assistant professorship at Harvard. This application was returned to me unopened, merely initialed FMC, as head of the search committee. There was also a letter from William Dever, quondam head of a search committee to fill a vacancy at the University of Arizona, making a “friendly” request that I withdraw my application for the position. After 1980, I lost track of the public debate for the most part. To the extent that I had kept up with it, it had been so consistently and mercilessly critical as to reject every conceivable contribution I could wish to make. As an unemployable scholar, I was very vulnerable and it broke my heart, erasing all the respect I once had had for American scholarship as an institution. At the very few local and national CBA and SBL congresses I was able to attend, the papers I offered to give were consistently rejected without explanation, even during a period when no other topic in fact competed with my and Van Seters’ work as a topic of interest at the very congresses in which I sought engagement. In contrast, my applications to speak at meetings of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the international IOSOT meetings were accepted, though I could not obtain travel grants to honor these invitations.

I had gone through a divorce, had taught three years in a St. Paul high school, had been a handyman and had become a journeyman house painter. I had also just begun my own business in the Fall of 1984, when I received a letter from the École Biblique, telling me that I had been awarded their annual professorship, which involved teaching at the École for a semester. The annual professorship was funded by the Catholic Biblical Association and I had been recommended for the honour by William Thompson (whom I had never personally met). I came close to refusing the appointment, but in the end I could not and left for Jerusalem in the late summer of 1985. It was not long before I discovered—with the help of the École’s fantastic library—that the project Van Seters and I had begun had really become almost mainstream in the course of the 1980s, not least because it had been so strongly supported in Germany, Holland, Denmark and England. Any self-congratulation, however, was short-circuited by the unfortunately heavy criticism which the École received—being openly accused by Sara Japhet of the Hebrew University of anti-Semitism for having appointed me to their annual professorship. Although I was ostracized by the Albright Institute, I worked well with the people at the British and German schools and got along well with Malamat, Paul and others from the Hebrew University and various colleagues and friends from the Department of Antiquities whom I had known from my earlier work on the Tübinger Atlas. At the end of my tenure at the École, I was appointed as director for the École Biblique’s UNESCO-sponsored project: Toponomie Palestinienne, which dealt with the integrity of ancient place names in modern Palestinian toponomy and, among other things in a work which was primarily one of historical geography, criticized the Israelis for de-Arabicizing Palestinian toponomy and doing damage to this region’s cultural heritage. When the project was accused of “anti-Semitism”, UNESCO dropped their support after Saudi funding was withdrawn.

I, of course, was unemployed again and, having returned to the States, took up painting while applying for an NEH fellowship for a book on the “History of Israel.” Thanks to Jack Sasson’s support, I received a one year fellowship which led me to the library of the Chicago Oriental Institute. There I met Gösta Ahlström and we had lunch together for many wonderful months. He recommended me for a teacher replacement job at Lawrence and from there I moved to the Jesuit University of Marquette in 1989, without once picking up a paint brush. Once in Milwaukee, however, serious problems faced me: on the one hand, from conservative Catholics at the university who well knew of Ratzinger’s opposition to my dissertation and, on the other, from a local rabbi, whose name I have repressed, who considered me a pacifist. In the conquest of the Iraq war, this was easily, however carelessly, translated as an enemy of Israel. As I was a pacifist and politically public in Milwaukee, I found it very difficult to avoid the associated accusation, given my experience and knowledge of daily life in Palestine. In the middle of these debates about Iraq, pacifism and the role of Israel in American politics, I was happy at Marquette, accumulated and loved my students, and continued writing my Early History of the Israelite People. It was also awkward at Marquette as I was also, internationally, the best known scholar in a faculty of 31 members, but I did not have tenure—and Marquette was at best a moderate and very conservative faculty. Tenure review had been set for Spring of 1992. I brought Philip Davies to Marquette for a semester and Lemche for lectures. I was happy and the votes for tenure were, I imagined, 30-1 in my favor. In the spring of 1992, a long and very favorable review of my Early History of the Israelite People appeared on the front page of the London newspaper, Independent on Sunday and was quickly picked up by the Sunday Times, and countless papers thereafter. Marquette University was the proud host of its greatest horror: a critical historian. Votes shifted and I was out of a job.

At the annual meeting of the SBL in New Orleans in 1990 I finally met Niels Peter Lemche and we immediately became fast friends. I invited him to Marquette to give a lecture to my students. When he came, he suggested I apply for the professorship which was open in Copenhagen. However, knowing how jealously professorater were guarded in Europe and, doubting very much whether any would wish to give away such a prize to an American, I did not take him seriously. And, besides, at the time I had 30-1 votes in favor of my getting tenure and I was teaching at a place that was very close to my “roots” (The title of a book published in the 1980s), so I smiled and said I was very happy where I was. That was over Thanksgiving turkey. When a few months later my Early History appeared and was unfortunately so favorably reviewed and I so suddenly and consequently lost support for tenure, I wrote Niels Peter to ask him whether he had been serious about what he had suggested concerning the post in Copenhagen. I not only was surprisingly and unexpectedly available, I was looking at an almost certain future of unemployment (I was 53 at the time). He became serious and before the year was out I received two dozen red roses and a request that I join the Copenhagen faculty as professor in Old Testament Exegesis. I arrived in Copenhagen in May, 1993 and lived happily ever after.


1 John Huesman, “Archaeology and Early Israel: The Scene Today” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34 (1975), 1-16.