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Talking Postmodernism

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
August 2011

Lately I’ve been thinking about the kerfuffle between modernism and postmodernism in biblical studies. This is a consequence of some annoyed responses to a brief remark in a column that I wrote last year in which I disparaged “the cultured despisers of reason—including some postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians.”1 (Note the word “some,” not all.) I thought that this was a fairly innocuous comment since it is well-known that many postmodernists—including Derrida and Foucault—and postmodern feminists—including Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous—disparage reason as “logocentric” or “phallogocentric” (both are Derrida’s neologisms; the latter was elaborated further by Irigaray and Cixous) and as an instrument of power (“it is made for cutting,” as Foucault famously said). But making this remark upset some biblical scholars whose practice of postmodernism does not disparage reason. This is a kinder, gentler postmodernism than that envisaged by its founders. In my view, this is all to the good.

Since I have implicated myself in this discussion, I would like to take a step further and respond to the invitation by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh to engage in conversation about these issues. Their invitation was issued in an article titled, “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible.”2 The elephant is postmodernism, and they correctly assert that historical-critical scholars have ignored the elephant for too long. I agree with their diagnosis that there is a problem of lack of communication and that it is incumbent on historical-critical scholars, such as myself, to come to terms with postmodern theory and practice, particularly in the work of biblical scholars who self-identify as postmodernists.

The article begins with an epigram from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” (This is from Beyond Good and Evil, a classic of philosophical modernism and an important source for postmodernism.) Now, while the nod to Nietzsche is appropriate—he was a classical philologist after all, and in my view a superb proponent of the historical-critical method—the implication is that the authors regard the historical-critical method as a monster, and they are postmodern heroes fighting the monster. This is not a good basis on which to begin a conversation. Already I’m Grendel, and they are Beowulf (or fill in your own favorite adversaries, perhaps St. George and the Dragon?). I still want to engage, but the monster part is off-putting. Okay, I’ll step past this un-welcome mat.

As one expects, authors give a general characterization of postmodernism, which also serves to indicate the salient problems in the historical-critical method:

Postmodernism is characterized by diversity in both method and content and by an anti-essentialist emphasis that rejects the idea that there is a final account, an assured and agreed-on interpretation, of some one thing—here the biblical text or any part of it. (384)

They later fill out this definition by adding that postmodernism is also characterized by a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” “a desire for ideological self-criticism,” and “open debate among interpreters.” Also “postmodernism seeks to open up spaces for other voices, especially those of the dispossessed and marginalized.” These are all laudable goals and should be part of the theory and practice of all biblical scholars. I am totally convinced. Am I no longer a monster?

But wait, none of these characteristics are distinctive to postmodernism. I would contend—and here’s my contribution to the conversation—that all of these are basic values of modernist scholarship, and are indeed basic to the theoretical underpinnings of all historical-critical scholarship. If historical-critical scholars don’t teach and practice these virtues, then shame on them. (And shame on me if I haven’t lived up to these goals.) These conditions of critical scholarship derive from various strands of Enlightenment philosophy, which one finds in Spinoza, Bayle, Hume, Kant, Herder, and others. Any theoretically self-conscious guide to modern critical scholarship should address such matters. I personally recommend Marc Bloch’s classic, The Historian’s Craft. Our field would be much more self-conscious and critical if it were to make this book required reading. (Then maybe go on to Hayden White and then back to Spinoza and Nietzsche.)

There is one important detail that I would want to discuss and argue about further. I may be misunderstanding this point, but is it really the case that a scholar—whether modernist or postmodernist—can reject the very idea or possibility of an “assured and agreed-on interpretation” of “the biblical text or any part of it”? What about the meanings of words, or details of grammar, or simple issues of textual variation? Can’t we all agree that mayim means “water” in Hebrew? If we can start with the semantics of words, then maybe we can build up a responsible body of “agreed-on” knowledge that we can all work with. In fact, I think we all do this already. BDB is a damn fine dictionary, as is the Great Scott. We all, in fact, do start with the same facts of language and text. Maybe these details are not theoretically interesting (although I would disagree because I think the theoretical implications are fascinating and far-reaching).3 But perhaps we can grant that at the pre-theoretical level, we do live in the same scholarly world—we need linguistic and textual skills to do anything—and that we therefore agree this far. Maybe I could convince my interlocutors of this minimal situation of scholarly agreement. Maybe, as Ibn Ezra said, we should begin with “the ropes of grammar.”

But I think we would disagree on this issue at a higher level of generality. They write later in the article that a particular type of “criticism is postmodern because of its diversity and because it offers many different voices without needing to decide which one is right.” As I understand their position, their construal of postmodernism is committed to epistemic relativism, or at least epistemic agnosticism. This is a problem because they also say that “Postmodernism does not reject the need for rigor in the analysis of actual texts.” But here’s the rub—how is it possible to have “rigor” in the analysis of texts if there are no criteria for rightness and no desire “to decide which one is right”? What’s the difference between rigor and lassitude, or between scholarship and bullshit? (I use the latter term in its philosophical sense.) If there is no place for critical judgment regarding rightness in scholarship, then anything goes, and one can’t argue against any position—including the scholarship of fundamentalists or the guy who shouts about the Bible on the campus quad. Or the guy in Oakland who calls himself a biblical scholar and predicted the end of the world (and the rapture) on May 21, 2011. Whoa, it’s a slippery slope.

Levity aside, this is an important issue. Are there criteria for rightness in scholarship or are there not? Are the criteria solely political ones, i.e., which argument serves my political objectives best (for improving society, empowering the marginalized, etc.)? Or are there rational criteria that we all implicitly or explicitly assume in our scholarly practices? I think that there are, although it is difficult to articulate them, perhaps because they are so much a part of our habitus as scholars—and even as speakers of language. These are issues on which we can agree or disagree, or we can work on their conceptual archaeology together.

So here’s my contribution to the discussion for the moment. I want to emphasize that this is and ought to be a constructive conversation about important issues. The invitation to discuss has been made, and I thank the scholars who issued the invitation. My hope is that some bridges can be built and perhaps even some will walk across. I personally promise to bring refreshments (and maybe my electric guitar) for the post-discussion party on the other side.


1 “Farewell to SBL,” BAR 36/1 (2010), 28; available online at

2 JBL 128 (2009), 383-404.

3 E.g., R. Hendel, “The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Prologue to a New Critical Edition,” VT 58 (2008), 1-28.