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Phil Sumpter

This made me think of one of my favourite Childs quotes:

"I do not come to a hitherto unknown subject, but to the God whom we already know. I stand in a community of faith which confesses to know God, or rather to be known by God. We live our lives in the midst of confessing, celebrating and hoping. Thus I cannot act as if I were living at the beginning of Israel's history, but as one who already knows the story, and who has entered into the middle of an activity of faith long in progress.” (OT Theology)

Rick Wadholm Jr

I have actually had some other members of SBL suggest that my membership should be revoked because I am explicitly confessional and because I question the viability of 'secular' Biblical studies (not that there is nothing they could contribute, but ultimately what is their point). There are certainly strong feelings involved in coming together to discuss things when there are competing worldviews among the participants.

dave b

seriously, John, when can we expect this kind of modern intellectual arrogance to disappear?! I admire you for your persistent engagement with it.

it's funny how many of these evaluations are qualified with statements like (and this is a quote from Lenzi in the comments on one of his posts): "I know there are problems with secularism, philosophical, political, and practical." Ironically, he acknowledges problems with secularism but it seems he's happy to have faith in it as an ideal and work with it as an assumption!


That's why SBL is a special place: secular-minded and religiously-minded scholars cross swords with each other.

Some of the most interesting debates are between scholars of very similar confessional stances.

The same holds true when it comes to sessions which assume a strong perspective as a starting point like feminism. Do feminists agree on everything? Of course not. It is more accurate to say that they do not agree on much of anything. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Alan Lenzi

John, I did not say anything against describing ancient theology or talking about historical theology. That's fine. That's important. But I don't think contemporary, prescriptive/normative theology has any place in SBL. OT Theologies, as I understand the enterprise, are often normative. To the extent that they are, they should be discussed elsewhere.

"Specific cultural loyalties" are one thing. We can talk about that kind of thing. But scholars who are making transcendental claims that CANNOT "be tested and refined in light of the evidence and interaction with a broad range of secondary literature" ought to talk about their claims elsewhere.

Dave B. says, "Ironically, he acknowledges problems with secularism but it seems he's happy to have faith in it as an ideal and work with it as an assumption!" First of all, EVERY philosophical position has problems. If there was one without problems, there would be no disputes. My admission is to show that I am aware of the historical and practical issues that secularism raises. They are many, Take, e.g., the debates Charles Taylor's work has incited. Or, think of, e.g., how secular America continues to struggle through the separation of church and state. These issues are not, however, as problematic as people making transcendental claims about what a HISTORICAL artifact MUST be (i.e., the Bible is inspired and should be treated in a special manner because it is inerrant, etc.). And I don't have "faith" in secularism. That's silly. It's your rhetorical attempt to define my methodological agnosticism as a religious value so as to level the playing field ("we all have faith in something."). I don't buy it. It's equivocation.

Rick, What's the point of Americans studying French literature? What's the point of Germans studying the American Civil War? You don't have to be an insider to study another people's stuff. Why can't Christians get it into their heads that the Bible is (at base and at least) a historical artifact that is important to understanding the development of Western Civilization. Why wouldn't secular scholars study it? I will say, however, that the longer I remain in the field, the more I wonder how a secular person can put up with the nonsense in the field.

Think about biology or astronomy as a field. Don't you think there are Christians and religious people working in those fields? Do they invoke a special method in their journal articles because they believe god created the world or set evolution in motion. Bracketing out ID types, generally one's philosophical/religious commitment to a god does not interfere with one's scientific work. No special methods are allowed. No special treatment. Why can't we do the same in Biblical Studies? What about American History? English Literature? Can one argue that America is what it is because god providentially caused it? Who would buy such an argument? What scholarly journal would accept that as a historical argument?

Biblical Studies continues to have an "exceptionalist" mentality that often alienates it from the other Humanities. This needs to change.

Ken Penner

You mean Carolyn "Lyn" Osiek, right? President of SBL in 2005.


Thanks, Alan, for your patience in pursuing this subject. You have a gift for discussing openly what one more often hears in confidential or semi-confidential contexts.

I have problems with your proposal which requires a compartmentalization of scholarship whose sole aim is to describe, from scholarship whose aim is to move hearts and minds and impact the future direction of informed thinking. It's an unworkable dichotomy.

I know you are trying to construct a more limited target to heap scorn upon, but in practice it cannot be done. A broad cross-section of scholars, not just some conservative evangelicals, think of their scholarship primarily as a means to an ideologically determined end.

The best work in our field has often been done by people with huge axes to grind. Take Wellhausen as an example. Yes, he realized that his research did not serve the interests of Protestant theology. He wisely and correctly resigned his theological position. But note that a fair bit of what he wrote, an absolutely brilliant scholar who still repays study today, is worse than nonsense. It is a form of "higher anti-Semitism." Nonetheless, it would be wrong to dismiss his scholarship for that reason.

Another example would be Brevard Childs. It is hard to think of a scholar with a better articulated theological and scholarly agenda. Note how his influence has been extraordinary, and far beyond the confessional bounds in which he so self-consciously worked. And it's fine if this part of biblical studies does not interest you. You are welcome to describe it cursorily as an negative object lesson and otherwise ignore it. As do colleagues in the field of the philosophy of religion, often, with respect to authors like Mircea Eliade.

The field of biblical studies is uniquely subject to the problems all fields of intellectual inquiry are subject to. That is, it is the playground of people who are deeply love (hate) the texts and/or a presumed reality behind the texts.

I think secularists would be well-advised to leverage that situation for their own ends, rather than complain about it.

Regardless, the playground quality of biblical studies is not going away any time soon.


Thanks, Ken, for catching that. Not Cynthia but Carolyn. It's fixed now.

Rick Wadholm Jr.

The difference between Biblical studies and such studies as Astronomy, Biology or French quite honestly that none of those fields make absolute claims upon the beliefs and practice of humanity. The Bible however does make such claims and as such belongs to a different class of study and inquiry. The Bible is not first and foremost an artifact to be dissected and analyzed, but the Word of the Living God that confronts and changes us.



Of course, the field of biblical studies does not make absolute claims upon the beliefs and practice of humanity, though the Bible does, and many biblical scholars have built their life around their understanding of the absolute claims of the Bible.

Rick Wadholm Jr

I agree about the absolute claims and which is actually making the claims (the Bible is making such claims and Biblical studies deals with such claims). Perhaps I should have worded my reply more clearly to that effect, however I was making a distinction between the Bible and other fields of study (as opposed to simply Biblical studies and other fields of study). I was attempting to reply to Alan's question about why such confessionalism is (and should be) involved in Biblical studies as opposed to other fields of study. Not to in any way deny that those of us who are confessional should be involved in ALL areas of study and inquiry, but simply to recognize that Biblical studies belongs to a universal claims category (only because of the Bible as that which is studied, but recognizing the non-universal claims of Biblical studies) that other fields of study (by-and-large) do not. Not sure if that clarifies my stance (or just muddies the waters). I appreciate your inciteful posts and comments John. Blessings.

Alan Lenzi

John, Evangelicals and other conservatives are the easiest to talk about because they are so blatant about their commitments (see Rick's comment). But I wouldn't limit my comments to them.

Rick, What you say proves my point entirely. But . . . lots of different texts, peoples, and traditions make universal ultimate claims about reality or life or whatever, some of which invoke deities or higher powers to justify such claims. The Bible is not unique in this regard, just the most (in)famous here in the West. If biblical scholars did a little work in the broader field of Religious Studies or sociology or anthropology, they'd understand that and they'd see how other scholars treat such claims (through a myriad of different methodological tools). The Bible may be everything that you say it is, but those claims have no bearing on how a historian / literary scholar approaches the text. NONE. The Bible is still a human artifact. It is MOST CLEARLY AND INDISPUTABLY that. It's still an ancient document. It is VERY CLEARLY an ancient document. And these things, these human aspects of the text, are the business of scholarship. The contemporary transcendental claims people impute to this ancient text are not clear to many and are properly the business of believers and theologians, and I'd like to see them take their wares out of the SBL.

John, I understand the difficulty in making a clean break between normative and descriptive, between religious and secular. There will always be problems. But by and large it's not that hard to talk about the textual history of Jeremiah from the perspective of the evidence. If, however, one assumes that there MUST be one, inerrant, correct version of that book or that there must be some textual stage that we can call THE canonical text, well, that starts to distort the historical reconstruction. It clouds the waters.


A historical curiosity: in the ancient church, the claim that the Bible leads into all truth (a stronger claim than inerrancy) was made without prejudice to the particular text form of its component parts. In other words, the claim applied equally to the "Septuagint" (in whatever form), Jerome's Vulgate from the hebraica veritas, and the "originals" (if only in theory, since hardly anyone read Hebrew and Aramaic among Christians after the parting of the ways).

As a believer, I see no reason whatsoever to depart from that view of the ancient church. It's a perfect example of how a *higher* view of scripture than mere inerrancy delivers one from the dead-ends of that doctrine as formulated by many.

So here I am, Alan, just as relaxed as you are in the face of the tremendous textual variety which characterized the transmission of the texts which came to make up the Hebrew Bible in Second Temple times. But you knew that already.

Alan Lenzi

I know, John. As far as I can tell, you behave very well in academic contexts, even if you are a very strong believer. :)

Seth Sanders

May I offer that Alan and John may be equally wrong here?

Rick's statement that biblical studies makes "absolute claims upon the beliefs and practice of humanity" is no joke; it's what makes biblical studies *politically* different from Shakespeare studies. The question is whether Rick's amendment can follow: if the Bible itself, but not the rigorous study of it, makes claims on us, how do we know what those claims are?

If scholarship *can* tell us about those claims, then the results of scholarship must be able to change the Bible's claims on us. We all know that in the past, people have felt that they do. And naturally, that's why so many feel that so much is at stake in biblical scholarship (it's also what routinely bothers Doug Mangum in his excellent posts about apologetic thinking; people begin reading a text with high stakes already in place).

The decisive thing seems to me to be epistemological: whether we *already know*, and think theologically, or whether we are willing to explore wherever evidence and argument take us, no matter how surprising, uplifting, or disturbing--whether we think philosophically. The freedom to think philosophically might profoundly deepen our faith, it might lead us to radically transform it, or it might lead us to cast it aside entirely. Who knows?

If I want to take Brevard Childs seriously as a thinker, I would have to say that he has cast his vote decisively against what I call philosophy and Alan calls critical scholarship: his confession that he comes "to the God whom we already know" and acts "as one who already knows the story." Childs was a smart man who reflected long and hard on these things, so I think we should take him at his word. He already knows God, and he already knows the bible's story because he is in it. I am not sure if I would dare try to rewrite such a story.

It would seem that, for someone in Childs' position, no evidence or arguments in the universe could fundamentally affect the story he knows, because he's in it. Each new piece of evidence or argument could potentially threaten to transform him and his life in the most capricious and destructive possible way. Wouldn't he be crazy to be open-minded about at least some scholarly debates?

I leave aside the question of whether much of critical theory, ideology or gender critique counts as philosophy (short answer: does it come to the table with high stakes already in place? Is it willing to radically revise them? Then probably not.)

It's funny, I actually have Childs' copy of the Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael in my office right now...



I like the distinction between philosophy and theology that you make, and I would grant that Childs lacks a "philosophy" which would allow him to be "de-centered," if only temporarily as part of an epistemological feedback loop, through constructive (as opposed to defensive) engagement with religious traditions other than his own and with philosophical movements.

That's a limitation Childs' approach has, which he nonetheless avoided to a remarkable degree in his OTL Exodus commentary before he became a fully consistent thinker; consistency is perhaps overrated and may indeed be the hobgoblin of small minds.

Nonetheless, all believing biblical scholars are in the same boat as Childs, Jews and Christians alike. They are in the story they study. The God in whom they believe is in some sense or another the same God who speaks in the text.

Nonetheless, the Hebrew Bible represents a story within the story for Jews and Christians. That being the case, both Jews and Christians can rewrite the story within the story even if they dare not rewrite *the* story, if that makes any sense.

It is constitutive of Western culture since the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment that believers have.

American Jewish scholarship, American Protestant scholarship, and, to a lesser extent, American Catholic scholarship have rewritten the biblical story in transformative ways. The same is true, beginning earlier, in Europe.

The Bible as read through the prism of American Jewish scholarship - hardly monolithic - with authors like Berlin, Greenberg, Fishbane, Tigay, Brettler, Levenson, and Levinson as guides (shorthand here for the entire stable of JPS Study Bible authors plus), does not have a whole lot in common with the Bible as read through traditional eyes (a point Kugel makes very effectively).

Just as clearly, the Hebrew Bible as read with the help of Brueggemann, Fretheim, Trible, Perdue, Goldingay, Waltke, and Walton (sorry to leave out so many excellent authors) is not my grandmother's Bible either. Nor is the Hebrew Bible as read with the help of Vawter, Lohfink, and Zenger anything like the OT once read by Roman Catholics.

As I've read more widely, I've become so darn ecumenical it's disgusting - all the while feeling able to drink from the wells of my own faith tradition more deeply than ever.

In some ways, my model would be people like Franz Rosenzweig, Emil Fackenheim, and Emmanuel Levinas. Each wrote creatively for a universal audience with strong points of departure, philosophically and theologically (in that order cognitively, though not necessarily existentially).

I'm just thinking out loud, but I would suggest that "the story within a story" structure of the Jewish and Christian faiths creates an enormous amount of territory in which inquiry can be fearless and unblinkered. At least as much territory as that available to, say, adherents of critical theory or a movement of emancipation.

Alan Lenzi

Seth, I don't know how what you said makes me wrong. Political difference of the object studied does not necessarily entail a methodological difference. Also, the Bible does not make claims on us; contemporary/historical interpretations of the Bible do for those who believe. It's an important distinction. By saying the Bible makes the claims, you've privileged the believer's view. That's fine if you're interested in contemporary religion and how contemporary believers interpret the text. But I'm interested in the Bible as an ancient text and how that audience understood it's claims. I'm not going to allow the contemporary believer's framework to steer the historical investigation.

The issue is epistemological. I agree. And if you're saying believers, due to their commitments, can't or often won't bracket out certain things to engage philosophically with the Bible, I think we agree again. I'm not sure, but maybe you're also saying that since so much is at stake for believers, that we have no business to expect them to be really open-minded about everything, to think philosophically, openly, risking everything. If that's the case, then I would say we do disagree. If there's too much at stake, they shouldn't put up a guise of historical inquiry to serve or to justify their theology.

John, I don't know what you're saying precisely. My best effort to understand leads me to believe that you are saying this: scholars, working within their believing framework, have nuanced the "story" they are part of without abandoning the larger "story" (i.e., the faith). So, you are saying, they can sort of think philosophically. I agree, they can, to the degree that they are willing to be open to the idea of change. That degree varies significantly, which is why some believers have resisted critical scholarship while others have accommodated to much of it.

As for Childs, apart from his commentaries, I've not cared for his work. It's too theological. I'm not interested, never have been. Perhaps Brettler influenced me against the whole canonical approach. It looked like Gerhardus Vos' brand of biblical theology with a critical twist. Blech.



With respect to Childs' commentaries, my guess is that you find his early OTL Genesis [correct to Exodus] more helpful than his recent OTL Isaiah. I know I do.

The best available example of canonical exegesis I know of is that of Michael Fishbane in his JPS Haftarot commentary. It won't appeal to you. Why? Because, as all believers do, Fishbane treats the Bible not only as a *source,* but as a *resource.* Here is a Sharon Stone (not that one) quote that elucidates the distinction:

"It is something of a paradox that the Bible is universally recognized as one of the major foundations of Western Enlightenment thought, and yet few in the academy today attempt to “think with” the Bible. Instead, the Bible is relegated to history: it receives mention in courses on the history of political or legal thought, while its own history as a document is the centerpiece of biblical studies. In short, it is viewed as a source of, not a resource for, new ideas."

Hebraic Political Studies 4 (2009) 203.

In the SBL of your dreams as I understand you, people who treat the Bible as a resource would be banned, or at the very least, would be required to censor themselves in mixed company insofar as they do.

It's not going to happen. Just be glad that SBL meetings are unlike a conclave of constitutional law professors, *all* of whom treat the constitution as a resource.

For the rest, you understood me just fine. I was trying to make a historical, not a prescriptive observation: since the Reformation and the Renaissance, scholars, working within their believing framework, have exercised a surprising amount of freedom in revising their community's understanding of the "story" [the biblical story] without abandoning the larger "story" (i.e., the faith).

Whether they have done so for philosophical, theological, or "just plain" historical reasons, that is what they have done, and continue to do.

It's a great intellectual adventure. Per se, it is not inimical to faith; on the contrary. The history of SBL is of a piece with all of this. Perhaps you remember Jonathan Z. Smith's recent presidential address. He praised the situation to high heaven (admittedly, not for all the same reasons I do).

Be thankful. There is less ugga bugga to listen to at an average SBL national meeting than there is at a conclave of philosophers of religions, so many of whom, having dedicated their lives to the study of religion, decide to invent one of their own.

Alan Lenzi

Childs' OTL Exodus is what I'm sure you meant to say.

I think the Hebrew Bible is a historical and literary resource for many. Nothing wrong with that. But scholars need not take its claims as their starting point. That's all I'm saying.

The fact that the SBL is more religious than ever and does not look to change anytime soon made me seriously think about not renewing my membership. But, I did. Someone needs to keep the believing scholars honest and on their toes.

Alan Lenzi

BTW, I'm not talking about a ban on people or thought police in the SBL. I merely wish the SBL would make their critical stance more explicit. That's all.

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    by James Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. Judaism and the Bible in the news; tidbits about ancient Judaism and its context
  • Pastoral Epistles
    by Rick Brannan and friends, a conceptually unique Bible blog
  • Pen and Parchment
    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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