‘On Interdisciplinarity in Biblical Studies’

By C.L. Crouch
Lecturer in Hebrew Bible
University of Nottingham
January 2015

Biblical scholars have a reputation. Inheritors of the mantle of the Queen of the Sciences through our theological forebears, we think of ourselves as the pinnacle of academic pursuits both humanistic and scientific, able to draw freely on the results of other scholarly disciplines in the pursuit of our own ends. This theological genealogy gives biblical scholars great scope, opening interpretive windows and doors through the insights of a widely diverse range of intellectual perspectives – from the traditional linguistic, philosophical and historical right through to the biological, legal, psychological, anthropological and beyond.

These perspectives, without question, have often proven fruitful, shifting the point of view from which the biblical texts and their wider worlds are perceived, refining our understanding of the human condition and contributing to more sophisticated interpretation. At the same time, however, our use of this immense intellectual library has been fraught with pitfalls. Having been thoroughly trained already in biblical studies (one hopes), the temptation is to trust our interpretive and intellectual integrity to our extant disciplinary expertise; rather than attempting a corresponding level of expertise in a second (or third, and so on) discipline, through which we wish to shed additional light on our primary biblical texts, we skate contentedly along the discipline’s surface, avoiding the churning waters of the depths. Pursued in this manner, however, interdisciplinary contributions to biblical studies are but a pale imitation of the possible.

Part of our problem is a tendency to forget that other disciplines – even and including the hard sciences – are still disciplines, like our own: merely the fact that a biologist – or an anthropologist, or a lawyer, or an archaeologist – has argued in favour of something is, in and of itself, no more reason to adopt her or his conclusions than it would be a reason to uncritically adopt the conclusions of any given biblical scholar. There is no shortage of articles and books added to the biblical bibliographies each year – but we are fully cognizant of the fact that some of these are decent, some are exceptional and some are downright dreadful. The discernment of which we are perfectly capable within our own discipline, however, tends to fly out the window as soon as the title of the journal or monograph series is sufficiently alien; we neglect to subject the arguments of these other fields to the degree of rigour and cross-examination which we would apply to contributions to our own field.

Part of this, of course, is that the critical appraisal of an individual contribution to a subject is nearly impossible without having attained a solid background in that discipline. Faced with an entire new field to master – often in the absence of any assurance that the time and effort expended in its mastery will be worthwhile – the temptation is to pick and choose the bits and pieces which look promising and to abandon the endeavour as soon as something which works for the primary object of interest, the biblical (con)text, has been found.

Yet, without a degree of breadth of knowledge about the field in question, we can hardly be trusted to judge the robustness of the method or model we wish to transfer to our own work. Is this a widely held and thoroughly tested consensus, or a fringe opinion? The latter may, as it happens, prompt productive and useful questions for the analysis of biblical texts, but the nature of this interdisciplinary engagement will be different, more speculative and exploratory, than in the case of a well-established system. If a method or model is widely held, what are its origins and what are its weaknesses, which might affect our ability to effectively apply it to an ancient text? By merely dabbling in another discipline, we leave ourselves wide open to the pursuit of blind alleys and the undue influence of marginal theories and methods, as well as the uncritical adoption of conclusions inextricably rooted in non-transferable contexts.

The danger here is, on the one hand, self-evident. Having proved our ability to operate intelligently within the parameters of biblical interpretation, we trust ourselves to ourselves; rather than admitting our novice status vis-à-vis a new discipline, committing ourselves to the comprehensive study of its history, its recent developments and its current trends, we dabble. Playing fast and loose with other disciplines’ work renders us jacks of all trades and masters of none – able, perhaps, to maintain a passable conversation over cocktails, but collapsing if subject to an intensive grilling.

Yet in fact the danger is much more substantive. More than making biblical scholars look fools in the eyes of colleagues properly trained in these disciplines, a haphazard attitude to the results of other scholars does our own research no favours either; it leaves us vulnerable to blunt assessments which are devoid of the nuance and sophistication which our original resort to the fruits of other disciplines was intended to introduce. Without a full and informed engagement with the breadth and depth of the scholarly literature in a field, our analyses are naïve and superficial, floundering in generalities.

If we want to integrate the insights of other disciplines into our interpretation of biblical texts and contexts – and we should – we must develop a culture in which the expectations of such engagement are high and the standards are robust. Though we cannot (and should not) demand second (and third, and so on) degrees in other subjects prior to allowing ourselves to broach an interdisciplinary project or study, we must hold ourselves to a depth of engagement which is sufficient to enable the intelligent, nuanced and critical use of other disciplinary perspectives. If we fail in this charge we do our own discipline a great disservice, as we squander the wealth of these other disciplines’ contribution to the interpretation of the primary object of our intentions: the biblical texts themselves.

Comments (4)

Agreed. Out of curiosity, what do we do when the epistemological "givens" of another discipline are contradicted by data from biblical or ANE studies, and vice versa? As someone doing a joint PhD in anthropology and Syro-Palestinian archaeology/social history, I deal with this a lot.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/03/2015 - 21:29

Well, do like I did when finishing Early Israel, Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy (1985) for my doctoral degree: It mostly consisted of an anthropological analysis of what I then considered as Early Israel. A professional social anthropologist who had worked among Pashtun nomads for most of his life was one of the evaluators and he accepted what I had done. What I did was to read the anthropological studies on Middle Eastern societies based on field studies, if not the field reports themselves, and then to form my own opinion. One thing I learned from this was that anthropology does not provide answers but possibilities, broadening the range of possible explanations of a social phenomenon.

The worst thing is the biblical scholar who has read the proverbial "book" in some other field and here found his clue to his analysis of biblical issues, not knowing the status of this book within its own field. You have met this scholar many times. Like when a journalist interviewed a young anthropologist and asked about his opinion of Levy-Strauss: Oh, he is a classic -- but we don't read him anymore! That was when a great many of biblical scholars were constantly referring to Levy-Strauss.

The other side of the coin is the biblical scholar who believes that he or she can understand the texts because they can read them in Hebrew and Greek, without having much idea of the epistemological issues involved in interpreting ancient texts. Liverani once (in the 1960s) wrote about the lack of knowing what to do with texts: People in oriental studies know a lot about languages, but have no clue how to interpret their texts. They spent their time learning these difficult languages and forgot to get acquainted with other fields.

It is a serious problem when biblical scholars playing with history have no clue about the epistemological discussion among historians at large -- hermeneutic discussions were unknown in the old days of Noth and Bright, just have a look of the status in their histories. It is also a problem when biblical scholars have never read much in the way of modern studies of scientific behaviour like Wittgenstein, Popper, and more. Therefore we have the most elementary blunders committed in biblical analysis, still relying very much on such things as circular argumentation and assertions.

#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/05/2015 - 08:59

FYI, Levi-Strauss never went away, his ideas just evolved when put into the hands of others. Foucault denied being a structuralist, but you can see the influence of Levi-Strauss in his writing, especially in the way he plays with binary oppositions. You can see it in Derrida as well. Edward Said spawned an entire school of thought, and he explicitly draws on Levi-Strauss in "Orientalism." Marshall Sahlins, though retired, is still alive and well, and he's on a mission to rehabilitate a modified version of Levi-Straussian thought synthesized with Ricoeur, Geertz, and Bourdieu, among others.

The people in anthropology who don't read Levi-Strauss represent an old guard in the discipline that is still dominant (and has been since the early 2000s), but its dominance is slowly on the wane. The way they try to circumvent this is by restricting the definition of anthropology to "ideological critique of power." Anyone who wants to talk about culture or history, and to place power in that context, or study things that are not directly related to power, is deemed "un-anthropological."

The North American four-field system of anthropology (biological, cultural, linguistic, and archaeology) is falling apart because of this, actually. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is dominated by socioculturalists, because most members of the other three fields have become completely alienated from the factions that dominate the AAA. Biological anthropologists and linguists (other than sociolinguists) mostly stopped going a long time ago. Archaeologists have held on longer, but are slowly leaving since a 2010 decision changed the AAA mission statement's definition of anthropology from "the science of human culture" to "the study of human culture," which many archaeologists took as an "F you" from the anthropology of science crowd, whose work often amounts to critiquing science as an ideological prop of "Bourgeois-Western-Colonial-Capitalist" hegemony, without bothering to engage with what actual scientists think they're doing, let alone what they really are doing. The discourse of science (and any other cultural practice the Foucauldians get their hands on) ends up being totally divorced from the people who produce and consume it. Kind of takes the "anthro" out of "anthropology."

My prediction is that 20 years from now, the US will have a lot more UCLA-style "interdisciplinary archaeological institutes" (perhaps even actual archaeology departments like you guys have in Europe!), since the agenda in North American archaeology is becoming increasingly incompatible with the agenda of the power-holders in North American anthropology writ large.

#3 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/05/2015 - 20:39

Dear Robert Jennings,

What has all of this to do with the theme of Dr. Crouch's article? Apart from showing that you know some ma,es ... they are all (almost) here. It is remarkable that most of those you mention are French, so I guess that you read French. I hope that you will show one day when you have finished your studies, how all of this can be usefull in biblical studies and I do hope that you understand the idea of not having read only one book.

Sorry, if I sound a bit irritated.

#4 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/06/2015 - 20:23

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