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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Avalos supposes that the Bible is obsolete and gets a disproportional amount of attention in the modern world.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 Although outdated in many respects, the Bible is far from irrelevant to the modern world.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).