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Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary

Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
October 2010

A response to Hector Avalos’, "The End of Biblical Studies as a Moral Obligation."1

A response from Hector Avalos is Here

1) Three years ago Hector Avalos published his The End of Biblical Studies.2 In this book, as well as in his more recent article, Avalos invites biblical studies to close down because it is basically dishonest: keeping something alive which should today by all means be called irrelevant to the modern world and to theology. I haven't seen many reactions to Avalos' book. Most likely the community of biblical scholars has chosen to ignore it in its usual way. If you don't mention it, it will probably go away by itself, and we can carry on as usual.3 The problem which Avalos points out is, however, much too important to ignore. This policy of ignoring will only help to broaden the gap between theology, including biblical studies within the academy to which biblical studies thinks that it belongs, and the public.

Avalos supposes that the Bible is obsolete and gets a disproportional amount of attention in the modern world. He is undoubtedly right, and at the same time basically wrong. Although outdated in many respects, the Bible is far from irrelevant to the modern world. It is as if every day it is gaining in importance. It is also remarkable that its importance is growing especially among a certain group of people who have never read it, or at best read it under the guidance of some religious guru.

2) It is obvious that Avalos' mistake is a fundamental one. It is absolutely clear that he writes for members of the academy. Avalos' world is the academy which long ago emerged from the dark jungle of biblical superstition. It is the world of Wissenschaft, including both science and humanities as is normal in universities formed according to the European "universitas" tradition which speaks of a unity of sciences. At the moment, Avalos identifies his world as the world of the Bible today; he is severely mistaken. He represents a minority, indeed a very small one, consisting of university people, scientists, and scholars in humanistic disciplines -- in short Wissenschaftler. And he is correct when he argues that this group has many reservations when it comes to the mechanics of biblical studies (not to mention theology which to most is a discipline that has little affinity with the ideals of the academy). However, this minority represents only a small group within western society (and here it is not necessary to speak of other competing societies).

The overwhelming majority has never left the "jungle" of superstition. The Bible is important to this majority, not because it is intellectually obsolete, but because for them it represents a defense against modernity (not to mention what followed after modernity). In recent times, the jungle has even tried to overgrow the academy in order to stifle any critical occupation with the Bible. While we, on the one hand, have always had the sensational discoveries of Noah's ark, the grave of Jesus, or splinters from the holy cross or the different endeavors to promote alternatives to modern science as it developed after Darwin, on the other hand, we find the intrusion from so-called conservative scholarship a pretension that it is a kind of critical scholarship, which it certainly is not. I dealt with that subject some years ago on this site4 and at length in an article in The Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament.5 An answer was later published here by V. Philip Long,6 probably the leading spokesperson of a group of conservative scholars attempting to gain acceptance by critical scholars.7 Long's answer demonstrates precisely the tactics conservatives employed to gain credibility (which I reviewed in my article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament). There is no reason to repeat that argument here. Creationism and various forms of dispensationalism do not gain credibility because of the support of conservative scholars. On this Avalos and I are in total agreement. The academy does not need this type of scholarship.

3) However, because of its continuing popularity among the religiously-inspired laity, we cannot dispense with biblical studies. On the contrary, the present situation calls for a truly critical engagement with the Bible, bringing the study of the Bible back to the beginning of critical biblical scholarship, and sifting from it all those directions which have no really critical basis but are still solidly embedded within the jungle of pre-scientific theory. So far I do not think that one Nobel laureate has ever spoken in favor of creationism.

What really happened is that biblical studies never freed itself from the embrace of the Church. It originated among church people and never became an independent humanistic branch of science led only by the methods and ideals of humanistic scholarship. It has thus been a problem to many German theologies of the Old Testament (and hardly at all recognized as a problem by other biblical theologies) that the separation between theology and biblical scholarship was never a success, or rather that biblical scholars failed miserably in establishing an independent forum for biblical studies.

It all began almost 225 years ago at the inception of critical scholarship, when the correct procedure for biblical studies was explained by Johann Phillip Gabler in his address to his new faculty colleagues at Altdorf in 1787.8 Too few have had the energy to sit down and read Gabler's Latin, but because of modern translations into English and German, there is no longer any excuse for ignoring him -- except for the usual reason that someone might feel uncomfortable doing so.9 Gabler's main line was a demand that biblical studies should gain their freedom from dogmatics -- we should perhaps say the control of the Church. Basically Gabler asked for the separation of perspectives: the biblical scholar must read the Bible free from any interference from religious communities, as a secular humanistic discipline. Then the biblical scholar would hand over the results of his investigation to the systematic theologian who was responsible to "translate" the Bible in such a way that it became relevant to modern people. Gabler even refers to the irrelevance of the Bible when it came to the position of women in his own time -- Avalos was neither the first nor will be he be the last to mention the irrelevance of the Bible. It is sad to say that although subsequent generations of "so-called" critical scholars recognized the importance of Gabler's program, they never truly succeeded in liberating themselves from the Church, a church which, by-the-way, took up its old practice of suppressing whatever it considered to represent a danger to the Church. The only difference today is that the limits of church control have narrowed down to theology itself. Outside of the Christian academy, the Church is largely ignored. The Church is no longer allowed to burn heretics in public.10

4) But what would happen if Avalos' program is followed and critical biblical studies became a thing of the past? We might end up in a situation where the laity will still abuse the Bible for its own purposes. We can take Christian Zionism as an example, a North American branch of Christianity supporting the politics of modern Israel at all costs to secure the return of Christ.11 As Gore Vidal mentions in his essay "Armageddon," this direction is basically anti-Semitic, but without an Israel in Palestine there will be no return of Christ and no final battle at Armageddon.12 In a situation when the opposing force, which is certainly no longer Judaism, is claiming the Qur'an as its reason for battling the Christian west, we could soon end up in a situation where two world religions, because of their uncritical reading, are using two books as the common reason of a new global "thirty years war." Whatever we do, we might end here, but it is at least our duty as biblical scholars to try the best we can to prevent any Christian abuse of the Bible as a program for a war with a different religion. It is not only that it is read uncritically as an improper guidebook for modern life in sophisticated western civilization, it is simply a dangerous book, far too dangerous to be left alone in the hands of an uncritical Christian environment.


1 Published in Roland Boer, Secularism and Biblical Studies (London: Equinox, 2010), 85-100.

2 Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

3 Though Jim West did raise the issue in his essay for Bible and Interpretation titled “The Sackgasses of A-Theistic Biblical Studies,” accessed 26 September, 2010, his voice was solitary.

5 "Conservative Scholarship on the Move," Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 19 (2005), 203-252.

7 Long has been active in a series of publications claiming credibility as "critical " scholarship, including Victor H. Long, David W. Baker , Gordon J. Wenham,, Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), and V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman, Iain W. Provan, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: 2003). I have reviewed both volumes in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 123 (2003).

8 By mentioning Gabler here, I am not ignoring earlier critics like Baruch Spinoza, but they were loners in a pre-critical world.

9 The easiest way to get to Gabler's lecture, "De justo discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus," is the translation by John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldrige, published in 1980, and reprinted in Ben C. Ollenburger, Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future (2nd ed.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004), pp. 497-506 as "An Oration on the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each."

10 More on Gabler in my The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster, 2008), pp. 257-263 and passim.

11 Cf. the recent study of this direction within Christianity by Shalom Goldman, Zeal for Zion Christians, Jews and the idea of The Promised Land (Chapel Hill: The University of Northern Carolina Press 2009).

12 Cf. Gore Vidal, "Armageddon," in his collections of essays Armageddon?: Essays 1983 - 1987 ( London: Deutsch, 1987).

Comments (7)

So you agree with Avalos that the Bible is pure evil, not only "an improper guidebook for modern life" but "simply a dangerous book". You differ from him only in your argument that biblical studies should continue precisely for the purpose of showing the Bible to be so evil. In fact, for the same reason biblical studies must continue to be dominated by those who share your "critical" perspective. It would be terrible if the conservatives were allowed a voice.


Indeed, do not leave the Bible to the Christians. *They* might be biased. *They* might be naive. That would be terrible.
#1 - Jeremy - 10/23/2010 - 00:04

We all need some idea of the ideal and the sacred, though we don't all think that God (a being in whom the ideal and the sacred are realised) exists.
If we want and need to take part in the debates of our own societies we need to have some understanding of how those societies of ours have approached sacredness. In the West, that means we should make some study of the Bible.
The Bible is a very powerful text, engaging the mind in many ways, including setting many puzzles. No book without these qualities would become the sacred book of a major civilisation. It is these qualities which give the Bible an influence which does not need to be supplemented by relevance in the sense of supplying an immediate answer to the problems of life in the way that a manual answers problems about the use of equipment.
Clearly, Professor Lemche is right at this point: this influence should be experienced directly (no one should just submit to the Church in these matters) and carefully. Those who will do anything to show loyalty to the Bible except read it for more than a few minutes are workers of destruction. Those who try to study the Bible patiently and objectively are doing a good work.
But what is sacred is dangerous and the danger arises because it is so difficult for each and every one of us to show that our reading of the Bible (or indeed our preferred version of anything) is the objective authentic one. Authenticity is as slippery as an eel.
I agree with Professor Lemche that Christian Zionism is inauthentic but there are arguments to support it and engagement with those arguments leads to a very painful discussion about the Xtian/Jewish relationship. That's the other thing about authenticity, apart from its elusiveness. It's that the most authentic version of any tradition may not by a long way be the most acceptable.
#2 - Martin Hughes - 10/23/2010 - 10:28

For Jeremy,

You should get to my article, "Guns do not kill, people do!" mentioned here. Then you will probably understand -- well, maybe not (in light of the content of your commentary) that there is not something particular dangerous about the Bible. The Bible does not kill, people who read the Bible have killed -- and that right through history. And that is the argument, also here.

The Bible is just a book as other books, characters on paper (today). Of course, if you think of it as the words of God and nobody else, then you might find consolation in Isa 45:7.

I do not share this kind of superstition. I do not believe in a God that demands genoicide -- for a starter -- or bless who smash children against rocks.

So Jeremy, I think that your comment is an example of misprision. You read something which is in your mind, and not in my little article here.

#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/23/2010 - 11:29

Part of the problem being ignored here (and elsewhere in these discussions, as far as I can see) is the institutional location of biblical scholarship (at least in the United States). A quick glance at the SBL jobs page yields the following phrases in the job requirements: "Applicants must have a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, an active involvement in church life, a commitment to the school’s evangelical identity and confession..." "Preference will be given to candidates with an M.Div. degree, prior ministry experience, and the demonstrated ability to mentor students in a curriculum that emphasizes vocational and spiritual formation..." "All qualified applicants for these positions must be professing Christians and be active, faithful members of a congregation..." "Candidates should also possess ministry experience, and a Christian faith commitment and lifestyle..." "The position provides opportunities for teaching a range of required and elective courses in the M.Div. and M.A. curriculum, including a practicum that coordinates biblical texts with preaching and worship."
Now, there are a limited number of jobs at state schools where these kind of overt confessional commitments are absent (replaced in most cases by a less open, and hence, less honest, required commitment to the orthodoxy of religious pluralism, but that is a different problem). Nevertheless, the handful of people working at these state schools are not the majority of the guild of biblical scholars. They are a minority among seminarians, divinity schoolers, and professors at religiously affiliated colleges. The kind of biblical scholarship that Prof. Lemche envisions has only a very limited number of institutional homes where it could conceivably be carried out. Until that changes, the prospects for a humanistic approach to biblical scholarship are not good.
#4 - deafguy - 10/23/2010 - 21:45

Dr Lemche, thank you for your response. It is helpful to distinguish misuse of the bible from the bible itself and to point out to me that you were indeed making that distinction.
I take your point here.

However, I did get the impression from the article that your attitude against the bible was stronger than that. To you, it seems, not only can the bible be misused but it is actually a bad thing in itself. This impression was actually strengthened rather than weakened by your further comment that, "I do not believe in a God that demands genocide -- for a starter -- or bless [those] who smash children against rocks."

I think it is fine for you to have that personal perspective and for you to bring it to bear strongly on all your biblical studies, as clearly you do. But it is a *personal* perspective ("*I* do not believe"). And because you think it is acceptable for you to bring your own personal perspective to bear on biblical studies you therefore have *no ground*, rational or ethical, to preclude others from bringing to bear *another* personal perspective on the same field of study.

That seems to be all Long is asking for. Some study the bible with a decidedly negative attitude toward it. Others study it with a decidedly positive attitude. No one is "neutral". So let all sides engage in academic debate with each other while granting the opposing sides academic respect. Otherwise it is fairly blatant that you are privileging only your own personal perspective.
#5 - Jeremy - 10/23/2010 - 23:55

Dear Jeremy,

It doesn't work. I had an earlier entry here: Conservative Scholarship—Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion: On Behalf of the Dever-Davies Exchange, The Bible and Interpretation, 2003.

A more complex article on this can be found here:

Conservative Scholarship on the Move, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 19 (2005), pp. 203-252.

It is simply that I demand that biblical studies must follow the rules of scientific scholarship (and remember that we in Europe use a different meaning of science, splitting it up between several subdivisions like natural science and humanistic science). If you do not follow these rules, it has nothing to do with science. There is no middleway.

These discussion have been a repeated topic on the biblical studies list, so maybe if you browse the archive you will find a lot more.

Niels Peter Lemche
#6 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/24/2010 - 05:28

I think it's appropriate to quote I Corinthians 2:11-14 here, "For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."
#7 - A B Chrysler - 10/25/2010 - 08:14

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