The Chronicle Review

What's Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?

November 10, 2006

This is a great time for the Bible, but can the same be said for biblical scholarship? That is most likely a question that won't be addressed later this month when biblical scholars descend upon Washington for their annual conferences. The Society of Biblical Literature, for its part, will assemble a sizable chunk of its 6,000 members, few of whom, I would surmise, will be considered any sort of national security risk. As far as academic societies go, the SBL is about as unthreatening and placid as they come. "Edgy," "controversial," or even "relevant" are not the terms that spring to mind when trying to describe its activities. The SBL, of which I've been a member since the early 1990s, is allergic to even thinking clearly and critically about itself, or listening to the concerns of its members.

As for the Bible, well, it is living large again because America is in the midst of a religious revival. What some call the Third and others the Fourth Great Awakening is born of the resurgence of conservative Christianity. Among evangelicals, fundamentalists, neo-evangelicals, and Pentecostals, the centrality of Scripture to Christian life is taken as a given. It is estimated that these groups make up roughly 25 percent of the electorate. They also appear to have been the vanguard of the so-called "values voters" in the 2004 campaign. The awesome power of their ballot has not been lost upon Democratic strategists. No one should be surprised that 2008 presidential hopefuls now routinely pepper their rhetoric with scriptural allusions. The consequences of the electoral and demographic rise of "Bible-believing Christians," as some like to call themselves, are not difficult to discern. As they soar in the nation's public life, their cherished text soars with them.

Both the country's current president and his predecessor accord Scripture great esteem. "Religious special-interest groups" aggressively factor scriptural ideas into their policy positions. Across America groups on the religious right, but increasingly on the left as well, presume that the Bible offers instruction regarding social issues such as research on human embryonic stem cells, poverty, the environment, homosexuality, abortion, public-school curricula, and so on.

Next week when we start one of the last joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the SBL (a parting of the ways will be initiated in 2008), it's a good time to ask why biblical scholarship isn't sharing in all of this good fortune. One would imagine that with Scripture on the comeback trail, this would be something of a golden age for biblicists. The SBL, founded in 1880, should have the same cultural cachet as PEN or the Brookings Institution. It should be the impresario of an immense stable of talent, one that it dispatches to the media on a quotidian basis to explicate the rejuvenated Bible for both the general public and assorted high-culture types. Queries and concerns about Scripture ought to be routinely directed to an academic society whose thousands of members constitute the world's most knowledgeable body of experts on all matters biblical. The SBL should be to the Bible what FIFA is to soccer.

It is always difficult to prove that an academic society and an academic discipline are underperforming. In one form or another, I have been cheerfully trying to validate this point for the past decade. So let me offer a few indexes of the society's collective malaise:

  • Consider that the most popular and widely discussed books about the Bible are almost never written by biblicists. On the down side, there is the execrable The Bible Code — a book claiming that urgent prophetic communications are encrypted, often diagonally, within the Hebrew text of the Bible. On the level of serious scholarship, I find it quite telling that some of the most influential studies — the ones that get reviewed in the major journals of opinion such as The New York Review of Books, The Nation, Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement, what have you — are written by professors of English and comparative literature. To give a recent example, Harold Bloom has released a quirky, unforgivable, but deliciously provocative book entitled Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. In 2006, as far as I can tell, it has generated more media commentary than any other work of scholarship focused on the Bible in the past year.
  • Consider that "biblical studies" as a college major is not exactly a booming industry. In secular universities, a department devoted solely to biblical studies is virtually unheard-of. When an undergraduate takes a class in Scripture, it will most probably be a survey course. In all likelihood, that will be the last course he or she takes in the Bible, and it will not prepare the student to engage the text's awesome complexities. The campus biblicist — assuming there is a biblicist on the faculty — is usually mothballed in a religious-studies department as opposed to an autonomous biblical-studies program. He or she (and I know of very few secular universities with more than two biblicists on the payroll) is trotted out ignominiously with other members of the diverse religious cast wherever a theatrical display of ecumenical spirit is required. For better or for worse, American undergraduates major in religion, not in Bible.
  • Consider that many secular universities don't even have a full-time position in biblical studies. Biblical scholarship is underwritten by theological seminaries — be they independent or affixed to universities. In a recent piece in the online SBL Forum, I called attention to the fact that something like 95 percent of jobs advertised on the SBL site's "Openings" list are placed there by nonsecular institutions. That there are few positions out there for nonbelievers is a fact that consistently fails to alarm the overwhelmingly religious membership of the SBL. But here is a reading of this situation that might concern them: There is absolutely no growth in our field. Secular universities have made the most minimal commitment to the study of Scripture, in spite of the role that the Bible has played in the philosophical, literary, and artistic heritage of Occidental civilization. Were it not for the aforementioned sectarian seminaries, there would be few places on earth for a biblicist to ply his or her craft.
  • Consider that in nearly half a century, maybe since the time of the biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, not a single biblical scholar has emerged as a public intellectual either nationally or internationally. Let me cite a few names from the bestiary of public intellectuals to give you a sense of what types of thinkers and styles of argumentation we are missing. No Hannah Arendt. No Pierre Bourdieu. No Cornel West. No Catharine MacKinnon. No Cynthia Ozick. No Noam Chomsky. No Bernard Lewis. There are undoubtedly many formidable biblicists out there. That almost none of them are known beyond their own denominations or the pages of the Journal of Biblical Literature is sobering.

As a family man, I have always found that there is one handy rule of thumb to abide by when confronting crisis: Establish blame. Who is to blame for the anomaly that biblical scholarship takes as its object of scrutiny the most widely read and interpreted text in the history of the species, yet few in America or elsewhere listen to biblical scholars?

I am going to spend the balance of this essay placing the blame on the Society of Biblical Literature itself. Now don't get me wrong. There is plenty of blame to go around. We scholars have done little to rectify the situation, what with our boring books and our excesses of anti-charisma. Academic presses, which are really good at turning down manuscripts, are really bad at actually developing, marketing, and selling the ones they accept. Secular universities have cynically forsaken biblical studies. At best they outsource instruction in this area to the local seminary. At worst they hire neighborhood members of the clergy to get the job done. Those cost-saving measures have the added advantage of minimizing the risk of unsightly campus controversies. After all, how critical of Scripture, how critical of dogma (their own or someone else's), is a priest, rabbi, or minister likely to be?

But if a first stone must be cast — and it must — then it should be aimed squarely at the SBL. I don't mean to imply that the society is more unimaginative or bureaucratically blinkered than any other academic association. Nor do I deny that many truly intelligent, decent, and committed people work for it. I loathe conspiracy theorists, so I don't think that sinister forces are at work down at headquarters in Atlanta. What I wish to say is that the SBL lacks a vision. That is because it does not understand itself, or its membership, or its anomalous position in the comity of academic disciplines. It can't have a vision until it sees itself for what it really is.

The most fundamental misconception that the SBL has about itself is that it is just another academic society, like the American Sociological Association or the Modern Language Association. Accordingly, it conducts itself like all academic societies do. You know, it throws regional, national, and international conferences. It publishes a couple of journals. It provides scholarships for underprivileged members, etc., etc.

The SBL's promotional literature doesn't acknowledge a peculiarity about the society that strikes nearly every outside observer: Its membership is most decidedly not like that of any other academic society. The overwhelming majority of its practitioners work in the confessional contexts of seminaries and divinity schools (confessional as in confession of faith, not as in The Closer) and through their work pursue ends relevant to those contexts. Now please understand: I have no problem with this per se. I am not one of those Stalin-like secularists who won't rest until the last rosary bead has been ground into a fine dust. Let theology flourish.

But if nearly all biblical scholarship takes place within an explicit or implicit theological framework, then the discipline itself will flounder. For under such circumstances, critical and heretical appraisals of the Bible emerge infrequently. And if they fail to emerge, then biblical scholars will fail to provide the public with the essential information needed to make informed decisions about the rising use of Scripture in American public life. On an issue such as stem-cell research, for example, biblical scholars could play an important role. If the SBL could better promote their scholarship, and if that scholarship went beyond microtheological disputes, they could readily challenge facile evangelical readings that insist that according to the Bible, a zygote is a human being.

The SBL cannot address the situation, because it cannot bring itself to acknowledge the confessional underpinnings of the enterprise. It conceives of itself as just another academic society, when in fact a large percentage of its membership — I would guess no less than 80 percent — consists of believers who work in institutions that many in the secular academy do not see as even being part of academe. (I find that secular condescension quite unjustified.) Of the remaining 20 percent employed in secular universities, I would estimate that 90 percent of those are graduates of theological seminaries.

The fact that so many biblical scholars labor in, or are graduates of, institutions with the words Saint, Holy, Jewish, Sacred, or Seminary in their titles creates a rather intriguing paradox. The SBL must remain steadfastly neutral in its governing practices. Part of the society's survival strategy, I would imagine, consists of remaining impartial. It can't, for example, have six consecutive Southern Baptist presidents. It can't schedule 20 sessions at the national conference on the Book of Leviticus and the development of early Jewish law. For there to be progress in the empire, there must be peace. And for there to be peace, the empire must espouse neutrality. The SBL has to make sure that all of these disparate religious groups are granted equal time, representation, access to resources, and so on.

Strange as it might sound, the society's governing ethos, as I have described it, amounts to a sort of reluctant pseudosecularism. There is one reading of secular government as a government that does not favor any particular religious constituency. Rather, its mandate is to make sure that religious life in general prospers. This can be referred to as soft secularism. The soft secular stance is not critical of religion, but supportive of it.

In the SBL, this reluctant secularism is so soft that it degenerates into an ethos of ecumenicism. In fact, this is really what the society excels in: fostering interfaith dialogue. And now let me raise my glass: The SBL has successfully created a sense of community among its religiously diverse members. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants routinely exchange ideas, work together on volumes, and organize steering committees, conferences, and so forth. They also conduct a rich interfaith conversation. It's a bit hypocritical and platitudinous to my ear — but as history has shown, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews are capable of so much worse. Yet I have to ask: Isn't this more properly the purview of the National Conference of Christians and Jews? What business does a putatively academic association have in the ecumenicism industry?

Also, an ecumenical vision has real drawbacks. Over the years, it has come to my attention that the society is plagued by issues of academic freedom. That is a dirty little secret and rarely discussed publicly. The incidents I know of almost always occur in a (nonunionized) seminary, and they usually involve a scholar who feels that he or she was silenced, denied promotion, or run out of town precisely because his or her thought ran afoul of denominational dogma.

In a field whose operating principle is ecumenical banter, there is little place, or tolerance, for the heretic. The SBL exerts tremendous efforts to get differing religious groups to speak to one another. The internal squabble of the heretic, however, has no useful place in this scheme. On the contrary, it is an embarrassment that subverts the logic of confessional communities working in concert with one another for the greater good. Please recall, however, that some of the very best thinking in the history of biblical scholarship has come forth precisely from heretics. Please also recall that intellectual work, by its very nature, often inclines toward dissent. I think of Barrington Moore Jr.'s observation that the university is where heresy is institutionalized. There is always the danger that a scholar beholden to an ethos of disinterested inquiry will trespass upon dogmatic boundaries. That's what scholars do. And sometimes that's hard to do, or dangerous to do, down at the seminary.

Another problem: Under the mistaken assumption that it is an academic society like any other, the SBL has encouraged scholarly specialization. In so doing, it has always favored philology and archaeology, all the while avoiding the more capacious domain of hermeneutics. The study of how Scripture has been interpreted across history, and in contemporary society, has traditionally held little interest for a society that places a premium on the examination of ancient languages and artifacts. But the study of hermeneutics really forces one to be a generalist. It is a diachronic enterprise through and through.

Let's say that you are interested in studying depictions of Queen Jezebel in music and art. You will need to know about descriptions of her in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin (if not all three). You will need to know what the learned rabbis and fathers of the church had to say. Then you will need to look at renderings of the queen in, say, 16th-century France and 20th-century Ethiopia. In other words, you will need to abandon any pretense of being a specialist.

The Bible is a civilizational document, one that runs the course of history. So any attempt to study its continued interpretation must be interdisciplinary, and the scholar in question will have to step outside of well-defined fields of inquiry. But because the SBL models itself after specialist academic associations, it cannot speak to the very complexity of its own subject matter.

My sense is that the really interesting work being done in the field is on the question of interpretation. Postmodern scholars — when they can suppress their desire to evangelize for the fringe left — have played a pivotal role in developing this line of inquiry. I think, for example, of the thoughtful and adventurous scholarship of the University of Sheffield exegete David Clines. Yet looking at back issues of the Journal of Biblical Literature, I get the impression that hermeneutics is not part of what biblical scholars do.

True, there is the younger, smaller, upstart Biblical Interpretation. But why can't the society's flagship journal acknowledge that the Bible is relevant to biblicists outside the temporal frame of antiquity? As I see it, the SBL is abandoning this issue to the American Academy of Religion. And because a (messy?) divorce is in the works, why should the AAR gain custody of one of the most beautiful children? (The true causes of the coming separation are — as with everything in the academic study of religion — shrouded in mystery. On its Web site, the AAR devotes a good deal of space to explaining its rationale for splitting. On its Web site, the SBL, true to form, completely ignores an issue of great concern to its members.)

There is, of course, nothing objectionable about scholars' engaging in extremely narrow and focused research. God bless the microspecialist who scrutinizes eastern Aramaisms in The Wisdom of Ben Sira. But should the entire field be cast in his or her image? Can philology and archaeology alone illuminate a document whose trajectory runs across the entire breadth of Occidental civilization?

In light of these remarks, a few recommendations are in order. First, the SBL desperately needs to know more about the identity of its own practitioners, and it needs to share that information with its members. I would like to see a census, if you will, of the rank and file. The questions of interest to me: What percentage of members practice in theological institutions? What percentage work in a university not affiliated with any denomination? Of the latter, how many did their graduate work in seminaries? What is the denominational breakdown of the society? Is the persistent rumor that the SBL is dominated — if not overrun — by conservative Christians true? Does this explain the oft-heard accusation that the society takes an overly reverent, uncritical attitude toward the Bible and religion in general? And does this explain why the society has done so little to explore Scripture's aforementioned comeback in American politics? I hear comments about the society's evangelical tilt all the time. I don't know if they are accurate, but I (and many others) sure would like to find out.

More questions: Which secular universities have a biblicist on the faculty? Which do not? As a conversation starter, I would suggest that the SBL adopt the goal of creating 100 new positions in biblical scholarship in the next decade in secular universities. (Seminarians, naturally, are encouraged to apply, but universities should be mindful of the importance of having secular scholars on staff.) This would mean making the case to academe (and the public at large) about the Bible's central and enduring place in humanistic inquiry. I might also recommend that the society get a little nasty. It should aggressively caution secular universities against excessively outsourcing biblical instruction to either theological institutions or part-time clergymen. This is no slight on theology — it is simply a question of creating more job opportunities for beleaguered graduate students.

Next, the SBL must recognize that it is not like other academic societies and use that to its advantage. Unlike the discipline of, say, modern German literature, biblical scholars can legitimately claim that there are upward of a billion people worldwide who are already familiar with, and perhaps interested in, what they study. The society has to find a way to connect with lay audiences. I do not know why that happens so infrequently, but scholars must take some of the blame here. Maybe readers tune biblical scholarship out because it is incomprehensibly specialized and physically painful to read. Further, so much of it comes from a specifically and recognizably confessional angle that I wonder if readers are skeptical of the "neutrality" of those who write about the Bible.

The society might think of recalibrating the ratio of specialized studies to more-accessible ones in its own publication series. Not everyone can be writing about hapax legomena in the Book of Enoch. I propose a series developed in conjunction with a major trade publisher. There, top-flight biblicists would be advised by professional editors as to how to craft their messages for a cultivated lay readership. From there, let the professional marketing departments do their magic.

As for academic freedom, something needs to be done — urgently. The obvious move is to call for a "blue-ribbon panel" of SBL members to investigate disputes regarding alleged infringements of scholarly freedom. Then again, how would any given seminary feel about having its internal affairs judged by scholars who themselves are members of seminaries affiliated with rival denominations? (Alas, that is where the ecumenical niceties would cease.) Here, I have no answer. I only know that the problem exists, and the SBL is the only entity that can even begin to address it.

Last, the society needs to devote thought and resources to the creation of a form of biblical scholarship that goes beyond theology and ecumenical dialogue. That would require exploring ways to speak about the Bible that are not specifically Jewish or Episcopalian or Lutheran. In so doing, the SBL would be required to suspendor, ideally, abandonits ecumenical model. In its place, a harder secular model would be advocated. Its motto: "Criticize and be damned!"

Jacques Berlinerblau is director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the author of The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 12, Page B13