Ron Hendel is Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies of the University of California, Berkeley. In a piece for the July-August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hendel claims that SBL - the Society of Biblical Literature - “has changed its position on the relationship between faith and reason in the study of the Bible. . . . The problem, as I understand it, has to do with money.”1 (HT: James Davila). Hendel points to the following shifts:
[I]nstead of distinguished academic organizations like ASOR and AAR in the fold, we now have fundamentalist groups like the Society of Pentecostal Studies and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies as our intimate partners. These groups now hold SBL sessions at the annual meeting.
Hendel is a top-notch scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He contributed the commentary to Genesis in the HarperCollins Study Bible prepared by SBL, the organization he now takes to task. He is preparing the Yale Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis and is the general editor of the Oxford Hebrew Bible - for a dyspeptic review of this project; see Hugh Williamson’s Biblica article here. Is Hendel’s piece another example of scholarly dyspepsia, this time written for BAR? Perhaps. BAR is an outlet which is known for its commitment to the virtue of intemperance. It also reaches a large subscriber base most of whom have no way of knowing whether the facts as Hendel describes them are actually facts. If for no other reason, Hendel’s piece deserves a review. Despite all the fireworks, I conclude with an ardent plea in which I invite Hendel to renew his membership.
First of all, it is odd of Hendel to speak of ASOR and AAR as if they were former partners of SBL. Joint ASOR/SBL/ASOR meetings took place this year in the Pacific Northwest Region, the Rocky Mountains – Great Lakes Region, and the Upper Midwest Region. Just examples! Good-faith negotiations are in progress such that the national meetings of AAR and SBL will be joint again. ASOR on its part will have its annual meetings back-to-back with those of SBL this year and next year: November 17-20, 2010: Atlanta, GA; 2011 [SBL: Nov 19-23]: San Francisco, CA; 2012 [SBL: Nov 18-22]. That is the usual practice.
Secondly, it is odd of Hendel to speak of organizations like SPS (The Society of Pentecostal Studies) as “fundamentalist groups.” Pneuma, the journal of SPS, is published by Brill. You know, Brill of Leiden/Boston/Köln, not Grasshopper, Tennessee. Pneuma is an international medium of discussion of scholarly issues in the field of Pentecostal Studies. The Society’s annual meetings involve people from Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal backgrounds. SPS combines an ecumenical vision with an undiluted confessional stance. Is that a problem? If it is a problem, what are we to do with “postmodernists, feminists and eco-theologians” (Hendel’s diction) some of whom are less committed to what Hendel refers to as “reason” than the people of SPS? After all, “the cultured despisers of reason,” no less than those of religion, are legion. Many, I note, despise both. That, I submit, is the new fashion.
But Hendel’s target of choice is circumscribed to “creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers.” A good thing if you ask me, since, at the UC-Berkeley, there are few of those, and more than a few “postmodernists, feminists and eco-theologians.” It’s always better to pick on people you are not likely to run into in real life.
Unless you go to an SBL meeting. SBL’s problem is that all six categories just named are represented at its national and international meetings, or at least five of them, not to mention militant atheists who think the Bible is a perpetual crime against humanity the contents of which should be exposed as evil and kept away from children of all ages.
The outcome, and here I agree with Hendel, is a “circus.” I fully expect to see a paper listed in the next SBL Annual Meeting program guide entitled “Snake Handling in Exodus 4:1-5; 7:8-13; Mark 16:18; and Acts 28:1-6 relative to the Symbolic Snake of Judaism in Protocol III of the Learned Elders of Zion: An Eco-theological Postmodernist Perspective.” Enough to count towards tenure at an expensive small liberal arts college near you.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists – or, more colorfully, “creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers” - are people Hendel thinks SBL seeks to attract. He isn’t happy. The neighborhood is going downhill. I have a solution! To satisfy those who are perturbed by the number of evangelicals and fundamentalists who haunt the halls and podia of SBL meetings, why not establish a quota system? It's been done before. Or perhaps those of us who identify as evangelicals might wear an identification marker, a sticker on the forehead which says, “I’m a Bible-thumping Christian, but I’m taking pills for it.” Let’s get creative here.
The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) also schedules its meetings back-to-back with those of SBL. A nefarious plot, a vast right-wing conspiracy. Still, I don’t see why that should bother Hendel - nor does he suggest that it does, or that he’s even noticed. This year, many people will hear the likes of N. T. Wright at the ETS meeting in Atlanta (November 17-19) before hearing the likes of the presenters in the “Biblical Criticism and Literary Criticism” session entitled “Situating Lament” on November 20 at the SBL meeting. I point this out because Hendel notes that the object of the SBL according to its mission statement is no longer “to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures,” but to “foster biblical scholarship.”
Hendel is spot on in noting the shift. But the change in the SBL mission statement reflects that shift. It’s a bit misleading to think of the statement as a promoter of it. Funny thing, though. ETS presenter N. T. Wright’s cultural loyalties are closer to those of Hendel than to those of the presenters in the SBL “Biblical Criticism” session. Wright is committed to investigating antiquated things like the history of ideas in Second Temple Judaism and situating the historical Jesus in that context, as if history and the “first sense” of biblical literature (what its authors intended to say to the people they wrote for) might matter to someone in their right mind in the 21st century. Wright reads his Bible in the original languages. He is likely, I submit, to purchase a copy of the Oxford Hebrew Bible if it comes out in his lifetime.
Whereas the presenters in what passes for a “Biblical Criticism and Literary Criticism” session at SBL have long since moved on. They have other fish to fry. The “critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures” in the sense dear to Hendel and the author of this post, things like text criticism, J, E, D, and P, the history of the religion of Israel, the formation of the canon, is not the focus of the "biblical scholarship" they "foster."
Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that SBL features a “Biblical Criticism and Literary Criticism” session in which Fiona C. Black of Mount Allison University will speak on “When Babylon is Not Babylon: Psalm 137 and the Caribbean Hermeneutical Space;” Erin Runions of Pomona College, on “Torture by the Book: Psalm 137 after Abu Ghraib;” Gerald West of University of KwaZulu-Natal, on “Senzenina? From lament to restoration in Job 42:10-17 and in the context of HIV & AIDS;” and Andrew Wilson of Mount Allison University, on “Famous Last Words: The Intersections of Forgiveness and Lament atop Golgotha.” But the situation is paradoxical.
Hendel lets his SBL membership lapse not because of the ongoing shift in focus in the guild from rusty old things like (1) the text fewer and fewer read in the original languages, (2) the cultural matrix from which it comes, and (3) the productive difference that obtains between the truth-claims made in the text, those made in the Jewish and Christian traditions, respectively, and those we might wish to make, with the truth-claims of the text “defended” before negotiating a response, to (4) the text as a data dump of sometimes violent, sometimes agreeable metaphors to take existential issue with or affirm with a symbolic nod at most to the traditional concerns listed in (1) – (3).
Not because of that shift in focus, which invests land-grant institutions and other secular places no less and probably more than institutions with a confessional stance, but because a few more Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists are in attendance at SBL national meetings than a decade ago, Hendel lets his membership lapse. Really now.
Wait a second. I want Ron Hendel in the SBL tent pissing out, not outside the tent pissing in. Here’s a guy who, the last time I heard him speak at an SBL meeting, said “I believe in J, E, D, and P.” My eyes get misty just thinking about it. Hope and change I can believe in.
The guild mourns the recent decease of Moshe Greenberg and Jacob Milgrom, two pioneering American Jewish scholars who investigated the biblical text with great critical acumen. It is their model of scholarship which Ronald Hendel upholds. Scholarship that is critical and constructive at the same time, open to engagement with “others,” the cultural loyalties of which are nonetheless deep and wide.
With bottomless passion Greenberg and Milgrom sought to describe and Hendel continues to describe a credible outline of the history of the religion and literature of ancient Israel. That’s why Hendel gets all worked up when a colleague “says such rationally absurd things as ‘the factual data validates Solomon’s authorship of Prov[erbs] 1:1–24:33.’” He is not the only one (see comments). But that is no reason to leave SBL. That is one more reason to stay.
1 One thing I will not do is pretend that money has nothing to do with it. As the Sages said, אין קמח אין תורה. The endowed chair Hendel occupies at the UC-Berkeley is named after Norma and Sam Dabby, for whom The Norma and Sam Dabby Talmud Torah Center, an Orthodox Jewish school connected with the Kahal Joseph Congregation in Santa Monica (an Orthodox Sephardic Synagogue) is also named. I am equally appreciative of the charitable giving in both senses, and I would think Hendel is as well, though he claims that faith and reason relate to one another as oil to water. Perhaps they do for Hendel. For some of us they relate in another way. As someone once said, fides quarens intellectum.