The Biblical and ANE Studies at the Periphery

There is a large mass of scholarship in countries that belongs to the “periphery.” Though I am not personally fond of the term “periphery,” I use it because it fits with a situation in which a few countries concentrate the bulk of studies and financial resources of this specialized field, while others can only dream of having such an accumulation of resources. Scholars living in the periphery, albeit struggling with difficulties unthinkable for their fellows in America and Europe, have presented innovative ideas that with time were incorporated into the world’s scholarship.

By Juan Manuel Tebes
Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina
Universidad de Buenos Aires
September 2010

Recent articles in Bible and Interpretation, such as Hector Avalos’ “In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy” and Philip Davies’ “Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?,” have discussed at length the state of biblical scholarship and, more broadly, the studies of the ancient Near East. It would seem a truism to indicate, whichever position these articles advocate, they only make reference to the state of scholarship in America and Europe, traditionally – and with good reason they are considered the “center” and “cradle” of biblical and ANE studies as we presently know them.

However, there is a large mass of scholarship in countries that belongs to the “periphery.” Though I am not personally fond of the term “periphery,” I use it because it fits with a situation in which a few countries concentrate the bulk of studies and financial resources of this specialized field, while others can only dream of having such an accumulation of resources. Scholars living in the periphery, albeit struggling with difficulties unthinkable for their fellows in America and Europe, have presented innovative ideas that with time were incorporated into the world’s scholarship (think about the issues of colonialism and post-colonialism, dependency theory, center-periphery, deterioration of the terms of trade, “enclave” economies, etc.).

Of course, particular conditions vary immensely from one country to the other, conditions that have to do with different histories of research, academic background, culture, religion, and financial means. Some countries have more strength than others in certain fields. For example, I would be reluctant to call biblical scholarship done in South Africa as “peripheral,” keeping in mind the long history of research in this country in this particular field. Therefore, here I would like to concentrate on the condition of biblical and ANE studies in Argentina, and if possible see similarities and differences with other countries.

Biblical and ANE Research in Argentina

In a process similar to other places, from the beginning biblical and ANE studies developed separately in Argentina due to historical and cultural factors. Although Argentina is a predominately Catholic country, the society today is heavily secularized. Since the late 19th century, the State promoted a policy of secularization of the society, with some important exceptions, has been followed until now. Both State and Church are separated and (again with some important exceptions) religious education has not been allowed in public schools. Most importantly, only since 1958 were private universities allowed to operate alongside state institutions of higher learning.

Argentina is by definition a country of immigration, and in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries a vast wave of immigration, composed predominately of people coming from Europe (especially Italy and Spain), transformed the country. According to the 1914 national census, 30 % of Argentina’s population was foreign-born, a figure that reached a 60 % figure in the city of Buenos Aires. In this melting pot of peoples, all branches of Protestantism and Judaism coexisted with Catholicism. Argentina possesses the third largest Jewish community in America and the largest in Latin America.

Biblical scholarship emerged as part of the curriculum of non-university religious institutions, and particularly in the faculties of theology, such as the Catholic Facultad de Teología (founded in 1915, now part of the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina), the Protestant Facultad Evangélica de Teología (1884) and Facultad Luterana de Teología (1955) – both now theInstituto Universitario ISEDET – , the Colegio Adventista del Plata (1898) – now the Universidad Adventista del Plata – and the Conservative rabbinical school Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (1962).

In retrospect, it is obvious that ANE history emerged later than biblical studies, being largely restricted to national (state) universities. Argentinean interest in “orientalism” goes back to the late 19th century when Dardo Rocha brought some ancient Egyptian mummies from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities at Boulaq. Academic teaching and research, however, began much later, in the 1960s. That decade saw the founding of two institutions in Buenos Aires that began the ANE studies in Argentina: the Instituto de Historia Antigua Oriental (IHAO)1 of the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Escuela de Estudios Orientales of the Universidad del Salvador.

With time, other institutions with interest in the ANE studies emerged, such as the Programa de Estudios Egiptológicos (now Unidad de Investigaciones sobre el Cercano Oriente Antiguo, Instituto Multidisciplinario de Historia y Ciencias Humanas, CONICET) (1990), the Centro de Estudios de Historia del Antiguo Oriente (CEHAO) (2002) of the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina – both formed with people coming from the IHAO –, and similar centers of research in other cities, such as Mendoza and Rosario. Among the few scholarly associations that exist are the Catholic Sociedad Argentina de Teología (1970) and scholarly journals like Cuadernos de TeologíaRevista TeologíaAntiguo OrienteRevista Bíblica, and Revista del Instituto de Historia Antigua Oriental.

The Problems

Argentina lags behind most western nations in the state of its biblical and ANE scholarship, facing many problems, some common to other developing countries, while others idiosyncratic to the Argentinean research apparatus.

Among the former, one should note the low level of investment of both the state and the private sector in university education and research. Although this problem is general to the academic circles, it notoriously impacts the Humanities and Social Sciences, fields traditionally considered “non productive.” The lack of funding impacts directly on the local academic research: scholars’ salaries are absurdly low by US and European standards, and it is the norm for a professor to teach in more than one university in order to get a decent stipend.

Once considered the most promising country in Latin America, Argentina was hit by a series of economic crises in the last 35 years (1975, 1982, 1989-90, 2001), which doubtless had their toll in the academic sector. With each crisis came a halt in the acquisition of books and journals for the specialized libraries, funding for research projects, money for publications (particularly journals: just check the years of any academic publication, such as IHAO’s Revista, to see how each new “series” stops short with every economic catastrophe), scholarships for students and fellowships for researchers. Not surprisingly, many scholars have chosen to continue their careers abroad.

A market-related problem is the current level of poverty existing in Argentina, though low compared with other Latin American nations, it is extraordinarily high for the Argentinean historic standards. Poverty affects between 15 % and 30 % of the population, according to various sources. Aside from the human suffering involved in these figures, it is obvious that the local editorial market for any field has a ceiling impossible to penetrate without an improvement in the current socioeconomic conditions.

A pervasive problem that surpasses the field of ANE and biblical studies is the ridiculous concentration of institutions of higher education and research in Buenos Aires. Except for a few institutions, all centers of ANE and biblical research are located in Buenos Aires. Students and scholars not affiliated with a university with such centers but living in Buenos Aires can at least use their libraries or attend their conferences. With important exceptions, people living in the provincias (the inner country) are restricted to expensive trips to the national capital or to conferences given by people coming from the capital.

Other factors are related to the organization of the academic studies. Similar to the situation in the United States and Europe, in Argentina biblical studies and ANE scholarship are profoundly separated by cultural, historical, academic, and even market-related reasons. In terms of academic organization, biblical research is still heavily concentrated in religious institutions, such as faculties of theology, seminars and churches. In these institutions, the curricula of biblical studies are deeply intertwined with fields such as theology and church history. Unlike biblical research, ANE scholarship is done mainly in state universities where this kind of study is included in the larger field of history, with particular emphasis on humanities and social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, political science, economics and archaeology. While this separation is not a bad thing per se, a main problem is the almost complete lack of communication between the two spheres.

It is true, of course, that the objectives of both spheres are different from the start; however, greater contact or, for that matter, any contact at all, may strengthen both sides. For example, schools of theology may benefit from a larger exposure to other humanities and social sciences and, particularly, from courses on ancient Israel/Palestine history that are based on archaeological and epigraphic evidence as much as on the biblical narrative. State universities may immensely benefit from a broader curriculum in ancient languages. Few or no ANE languages form part of the curriculum of history graduate programs, which are largely restricted to extra-curricular courses; anecdotal evidence indicates that students perform better in language courses inside the university curriculum than outside it.

Signs of Change

There are signs, however, that things are slowly changing. Some of these signs are just the other side of the coin of the problems I have pointed out. Academic research in Argentina has several advantages over other countries in Latin America. Despite the past economic crackdowns, the country still possesses a respectable middle class that, albeit being disproportionately concentrated in the large cities, is the main provider of students and scholars for any field.

More relevant to our field, Argentina is and will be for a long time the home of different religions, reassuring the heterogeneity of the local biblical scholarship.

So far from waning, the federal government has in the recent years allocated more financial resources for research; particularly, there has been an increase in the number of graduate and post-graduate fellowships in the CONICET (the National Research Council), while CONICET’s Research Career has started accepting applications for the first time in years.

Accreditation of universities began with a much-resisted Law of Higher Learning in 1995, creating the National Commission of University Evaluation and Accreditation (CONEAU). Despite strong criticism on CONEAU’s regulations – particularly accusing this governmental body of infringing upon the universities’ autonomy and of creating a “boom” of new private, market-oriented universities – for the first time universities are evaluated and ranked according to international (if loosely applied) standards. To be sure, accreditation is not an infallible system, but it is a necessary evil in the Argentinean context (cf. the recent discussion on accreditation in the US between Jim West and Hector Avalos).

It is a cliché, but a true one, to say that the Internet is revolutionizing all areas of life; in fact, it is an intrinsic part of academic research in Argentina. Communications between Buenos Aires and the provincias, and between Argentina and other countries, have rocketed in the last 15 years, making the geographical distance no longer an excuse, both for students and scholars alike. Nowadays it is completely normal for students to obtain “virtual” Master degrees or attend courses engineered in the USA or Europe. Meanwhile, local scholars cope with numerous daily email exchanges with colleagues abroad.

For those who grow up waiting for the next issue of the few journals with which the local specialized libraries had a journal exchange or for the photocopies brought by friends coming back from abroad, online academic databases such as JSTOR and EBSCO constitute a treasure. Sure, these tools are not free and they never were meant to be free, but at least in Argentina all universities have a subscription to one of the two online archives. The Ministry of Education provides free access to all state universities.

An extremely welcome initiative of the Society of Biblical Literature is the Online Book Page of the International Cooperation Initiative meant to provide free access to academic books to people living in developing countries. All these developments have enormously reduced the time involved for the production of research papers and theses while at the same time increasing their quality.

The Internet has also made possible the viability of long duration and relatively inexpensive common enterprises between local universities and foreign institutions. An endeavor I am personally involved with is the Ancient Near East Monographs (ANEM), a joint venture between the CEHAO and the Society of Biblical Literature. ANEM aims at publishing high-quality, peer-reviewed monographs on all fields of biblical and ANE research (cf. Alan Lenzi, “Why You Should Submit Your Manuscript or Proposal to the Online, Open-Access Ancient Near East Monograph Series”). While academic online publications are rapidly expanding on the Web, ANEM is a unique partnership between a US-based and an Argentinean institution.

A new trend is the increasing contact between academic religious institutions and state universities. In a slow but permanent process, institutional agreements are being signed and are fostering the exchange of scholars and students between both spheres. To some extent, this trend reflects a better use of the few human and library resources available, yet it also entails a growing awareness in some institutions of what potential partners can offer in terms of neglected fields of study.

In conclusion, there is a lot to be done in Argentina.Some lessons are taking time to sink in, like the importance of ending the long-established practices of clientelism, favoritism, and nepotism in academia. However, while the path is full of obstacles, Argentina and a few other Latin American nations have an endowment of assets: a relatively strong, well-educated middle class; a large university system; an established editorial market; an attractive currency exchange rate; and a growing Internet usage. I personally believe—and indeed have made effort in the past towards this task—that the common work between scholars at the center and periphery will be rewarding.


 I thank Roxana Flammini for reading an early draft of this article; of course, any errors and opinions expressed in it are my sole responsibility.

1 In the early decades, the IHAO focused heavily on Egyptology, due to the influence of its founder, Abraham Rosenvasser – a scholar with an early interest in biblical studies and, later, Egyptology. Between 1961 and 1963, he co-directed, along with French Egyptologist Jean Vercoutter and his students, particularly Egyptologists Perla Fuscaldo and Alicia Daneri Rodrigo, the excavations of the ancient Egyptian fortress of Aksha (Sudan). Rosenvasser had founded an Institute of Ancient History in the Universidad de La Plata, but after his retirement, the institute was closed and the material of its rich library dispersed (see Virginia Laporta, “Karnak, Mendes and Thirty Years in Egyptology: An Interview with Alicia Daneri Rodrigo”, Damqātum 4 (2008).

Comments (2)

Thank you for this informative article, I thoroughly enjoyed it. National contexts notwithstanding, I imagine this situation can be applied to most Latin American countries where the problems of poverty and "periphery" are seemingly insurmountable.

Thankfully, as you rightly noted, the internet has been quite helpful in mitigating these problems. Let us hope that the (to my mind) even larger problem of communication between various academic schools, that is between biblical studies and ANE and the wider Humanities can come to an acceptable end.

Thanks again for this!!

#1 - Ernesto - 09/13/2010 - 03:57

Thank you for sharing with us your experience. I am a chilean theologian, who is studying abroad, and I can say that you are right in your appreaciation. There are a lot of differences between South american institutions and european universities.

Un abrazo!!!

#2 - Carlos - 10/22/2010 - 06:58

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.