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Secular Values and Biblical Scholarship

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
August 2012

I am a biblical scholar, I adhere to no religion, and I do not think supernatural beings exist, or if they do, that we have any mutual business. According to one often-voiced opinion, I can therefore have no moral values, no ethics. But I can and do, and these are in fact shared with most people, including those who are religious. They include individual human freedom under the rule of law, democracy, equality of race, colour, sex and religion, and freedom of speech. These values reject theft, murder, tyranny, discrimination, intimidation, colonization and slavery. None of these values can be shown to derive from religion, and certainly not from the Bible—on the contrary, many religions and their scriptures are opposed to them. Neither Yahweh nor Allah can be quoted as bestowing any of them on humans. From where do they come, then? Quoting the American Declaration of Independence, we might say that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident.’ But we haven’t always seen them as such, so more likely they have partly been learned, by experience and through reflection. As a species, I think we have developed more refined moral codes, whether or not we live by them any more obediently. But whatever their source, the fact is that we have a consensus in most countries and societies (and articulated by the United Nations) that these are shared human values.

These values regulate my personal, social and political life—and also my professional activity as a biblical scholar. Obviously, not believing in any kind of god, and respectful of human science, I do not subscribe to biblical metaphysics, while its ethics only rarely meet the modern secular values listed above. I obviously do not accept that ‘God’ chose ‘Israel’, nor gave it land, nor did he send his ‘son’ to earth. This does not mean that I despise Judaism or Christianity, or religion in general: secular values are actually built on a foundation of tolerance and respect (not distinctly religious values before the secular age). But I do not accept that my profession should differ from any other academic discipline in admitting any kind of religious bias or ideology into its practice. The notion that I should necessarily identify or even sympathize with what I study is surely a nonsense, unless I teach in a seminary, in which case my work is not purely academic.1

As a secularist, the collaboration of Jewish, Christian and non-religious scholars in what we now call ‘Hebrew Bible’ scholarship is very pleasing: it has, among other things, virtually banished that supersessionist genre of ‘Old Testament Theology’ from the field and opened up so many avenues of understanding the literature. I also welcome the fact that New Testament and Christian anti-Judaism have been openly debated and acknowledged, and that the genocidal and xenophobic language of some of the Hebrew Bible is also widely recognized.2 I welcome, too, the use of ‘non-Jewish’ to replace ‘Gentile’ and assume (this has never been formally debated) that my Jewish colleagues would not assert that they are intrinsically superior to non-Jews or indeed qualitatively different in any special way from the rest of humanity, including me. To be even-handed, I also declare a dislike of ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ as being value-laden.

But beyond this reconciliation between Jewish and Christian Hebrew Bible scholars, I see further issues for secular values. As a historian of ancient Israel, Judah and Judaism, I perceive my work harnessed to beliefs and activities that contravene these values. I observe, for example, a State of Israel—for whose existence I can accept some secular reasons—that is using the Bible, archaeology, and a biblical discourse in which ‘Israel’ is the object of divine favour, to repeatedly disregard international law, human rights conventions, and United Nations resolutions (except the one that gave it birth), and is colonizing land that it does not have a right to (the total of Israeli West Bank settlers is now 350,000). This regime has bulldozed homes, villages and olive groves, inflicted collective punishment and detained persons contrary to the Geneva convention. Such behavior concerns me professionally. I have been, for example, invited to attend conferences in Jerusalem, a city illegally ‘unified’ by a regime now seeking to minimize non-Jewish habitation by dubious means, including archaeological excavation, land development and extensive Jewish settlement (‘population transfer’ has been going on in Israel ever since 1948, in fact). Historical research, especially archaeological survey and excavation, are being illegally conducted (Gerizim, for example), and historical artifacts with which I have to deal in my work are appropriated from what is legally non-Jewish territory.3 (Quite regardless of international law, I cannot, as a secular scholar, see in what sense the West Bank could be said to ‘belong’ to the Jewish ‘people’).4

My problem here is not with Judaism, with which I have no more quarrel than with any religion;5 there are numerous Jewish groups and individuals as appalled as I am with the State of Israel’s policies.6 Nor with Christianity, many of whose adherents likewise stand for the secular values being defied: the US Presbyterian Church has also recently taken action in protest against Israel’s economic exploitation of its occupied territory.7 As I said, secular (i.e. humanitarian) values are everywhere.

But what if the SBL (or any academic society) chose to hold a conference in Jerusalem, a city much of which is illegally occupied and administered? My secular values would oblige me, as they did once in the case of South Africa (another state that practiced apartheid) to refuse to attend, and to voice my objections. I would want to continue talking to Jewish audiences and working with Jewish biblical scholars. My problem is only with a political regime whose leaders behave in a way that would draw heavy condemnation if encountered elsewhere, and, more importantly, with a disciplinary ethos that seems willing to exempt this particular state from universal principles of right and wrong.8

The values that the State of Israel are currently violating are shared by secular and religious people alike. But for me this is not just a political issue but one of professional ethics. I have already been drawn into the battle by being called ‘anti-Semitic’ for purely scholarly opinions, from those who bracket out Judaism and Israel from any general rule about academic freedom. Others have had their tenure threatened on such grounds (and in past times I might have been sacked because of pressure by the Church!) I believe that as human beings and as scholars, we should try to live and work by our shared values. I wonder whether other scholars who maintain these secular values feel the same way about visiting Jerusalem, or even travelling to Israel. If not, I would like to know why, and especially if they think their profession has had any influence on their attitude. I am willing to be persuaded from my opinion, but only as long as this willingness cuts both ways. An open discussion is long overdue, partly in the context of the continuing debate about secular values and biblical studies, and partly because the Bible and politics have never stood apart from each other—and why should they? May I remind you that humanitarian values have usually won, even by somewhat paradoxically coopting the Bible to their cause. But with that I have no quarrel!


1 My first University degree was in Hebrew and Arabic and I studied both Bible and Qur’an, both Mishnah and shari’a. I might indeed have become a scholar of Islam instead. But as it was, by fate or accident, I continued with Hebrew, and with not too much regret.

2 Given the fact of considerable Christian and Jewish anti-Islamic sentiment (which is of course returned) I think we have to reject the term ‘anti-Semitism’ as applying only to Jews.

3 Antiquities are generally agreed to belong to the country in which they are found, regardless of their origin. Legally, the Qumran scrolls, while Jewish in origin, were not found in Israel and do not belong to it. But similarly, Islamic artefacts found in Israel do belong to it.

4 Is Judaism a religion or a nation/people? It is a religion. Can one be a non-religious Jew? Yes: I am a non-religious Christian, by virtue of upbringing, culture, customary observations (Christmas, Easter, not Passover, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Hajj). In secular discourse, ‘Israeli’ is a nationality.

5 But there are omens of larger clashes between religious and secular values. One thinks of the banning of the burqa in France. Another pertinent example from a German court in Cologne is a ruling that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent to the procedure. ‘The child’s right to physical integrity trumps freedom of religion and parents’ rights’ it said. This is another battlefield and I’m not going there. I see it as a debate within secularism, which upholds both the right not to be physically disfigured and the right of religious expression. Religious groups have little of value to contribute to this, other than special pleading—since nearly all of them condemn female circumcision.

6 I will mention here just one such organization: Jewish Voice for Peace (, which recently completed a successful campaign to persuade the giant American mutual fund TIAA-CREF to sell 73 million dollars of Caterpillar stocks from their socially responsible investment fund because Caterpillar bulldozers have been used to destroy thousands of Palestinian homes and orchards.

7 The General Assembly of the US Presbyterian Church also recently passed a resolution to boycott settlement goods with 71% of the vote; divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation was defeated by a margin of two votes.

8 I do not wish to omit my criticism of a past British government that thought it right to deceive Arab leaders and to dispose, without the agreement of the existing inhabitants, a portion of their land for colonization by others. The subsequent armed response to the colonization, and brutal repression of it, are a familiar scenario to ex-colonial powers. By now we surely have learnt the lessons of the past and know how to react to the suppression of the right of self-determination.