Knowledge and Power in Biblical Scholarship

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
June 2010

In his article, “Does the Center Need an Extreme?,” James Crossley raises some interesting and important points, although I think there are some fuzzy parts too. He argues that my critique of the increasing influence of evangelical and fundamentalist scholarship at SBL constructs an extremist “other” whose existence is in fact necessary for my own social and epistemological position. Moreover, he argues that my critique has the effect of justifying structures of power –and their ill-effects—in which the modern academy is implicated. In other words, he performs a nice critique of my critique, using neo-Marxist and postmodern strategies, which I think is salutary. I agree that we should be self-conscious of the implications of our intellectual arguments, and that discourses of power and knowledge are always intertwined to some extent.

Where I would want to draw some clearer distinctions—although it is difficult—is the difference between critical scholarship and apologetics masquerading as scholarship. Both kinds of discourses make claims and arguments, and both are implicated in the dialectics of power and knowledge. But the former has virtues, particularly in the context of the modern university, that escape the latter. I think that Crossley would accept this distinction, since he writes in a previous article that “the critical study of the Bible can be misunderstood as academics at prayer,” and he extols the value of “the critical study of the Bible as an academic discipline.” The problem at hand is how to preserve the critical study of the Bible in a professional society that has lowered its standards to the degree that apologetics passes as scholarship.

Crossley gets one part of my position quite wrong, which may be a function of my occasionally abbreviated style. In my BAR column, I write:“While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting.” Crossley takes me to task for characterizing feminists and eco-theologians as “despisers of reason” without qualification. But I do have a qualification – I say “some” and I have a footnote to the debate within postmodernism and feminism about whether reason is tainted by sexism or hegemonic bias, that is, with phallogocentrism (in Jacques Derrida’s and Luce Irigiray’s term). So I plead not guilty to painting as extremists all postmodernists, feminists, and eco-theologians. Only some of them.

In a general sense, academic (or any other) discourse needs disagreements to keep the dialogue alive, interesting, and honest. At its best, academic discourse has a self-regulating character, in which sound arguments and reasons will prevail over weak and unwarranted ones. This is as close as academic discourse gets to “truth” – it is a discursive process that never arrives at the whole truth, but with honest effort will construct more adequate and instructive models for understanding. It is a multi-voiced Socratic dialogue, which requires both humility and erudition.

If someone argues that a critical argument is wrong because it is “idolatry” (as in one recent reviewer asserted in the Review of Biblical Literature, the book review organ of the SBL), I would say that this is a category error within the humanities. It is apologetics masquerading as scholarship, and not scholarship itself. This is the difference about which I urge that we be vigilant. I have no problem with someone using such criteria at the Evangelical Theological Society, which operates by its own discursive rules, and of which I am not a member. But in the humanities there are rules of the game that, if egregiously and continually violated, destroy the credibility of critical discourse. If to say this is an assertion of power, then I’m happy to use what little power I can muster.

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