Secular Values and Biblical Scholarship

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
August 2012

I am a biblical scholar, I adhere to no religion, and I do not think supernatural beings exist, or if they do, that we have any mutual business. According to one often-voiced opinion, I can therefore have no moral values, no ethics. But I can and do, and these are in fact shared with most people, including those who are religious. They include individual human freedom under the rule of law, democracy, equality of race, colour, sex and religion, and freedom of speech. These values reject theft, murder, tyranny, discrimination, intimidation, colonization and slavery. None of these values can be shown to derive from religion, and certainly not from the Bible—on the contrary, many religions and their scriptures are opposed to them. Neither Yahweh nor Allah can be quoted as bestowing any of them on humans. From where do they come, then? Quoting the American Declaration of Independence, we might say that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident.’ But we haven’t always seen them as such, so more likely they have partly been learned, by experience and through reflection. As a species, I think we have developed more refined moral codes, whether or not we live by them any more obediently. But whatever their source, the fact is that we have a consensus in most countries and societies (and articulated by the United Nations) that these are shared human values.

These values regulate my personal, social and political life—and also my professional activity as a biblical scholar. Obviously, not believing in any kind of god, and respectful of human science, I do not subscribe to biblical metaphysics, while its ethics only rarely meet the modern secular values listed above. I obviously do not accept that ‘God’ chose ‘Israel’, nor gave it land, nor did he send his ‘son’ to earth. This does not mean that I despise Judaism or Christianity, or religion in general: secular values are actually built on a foundation of tolerance and respect (not distinctly religious values before the secular age). But I do not accept that my profession should differ from any other academic discipline in admitting any kind of religious bias or ideology into its practice. The notion that I should necessarily identify or even sympathize with what I study is surely a nonsense, unless I teach in a seminary, in which case my work is not purely academic.1

As a secularist, the collaboration of Jewish, Christian and non-religious scholars in what we now call ‘Hebrew Bible’ scholarship is very pleasing: it has, among other things, virtually banished that supersessionist genre of ‘Old Testament Theology’ from the field and opened up so many avenues of understanding the literature. I also welcome the fact that New Testament and Christian anti-Judaism have been openly debated and acknowledged, and that the genocidal and xenophobic language of some of the Hebrew Bible is also widely recognized.2 I welcome, too, the use of ‘non-Jewish’ to replace ‘Gentile’ and assume (this has never been formally debated) that my Jewish colleagues would not assert that they are intrinsically superior to non-Jews or indeed qualitatively different in any special way from the rest of humanity, including me. To be even-handed, I also declare a dislike of ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ as being value-laden.

But beyond this reconciliation between Jewish and Christian Hebrew Bible scholars, I see further issues for secular values. As a historian of ancient Israel, Judah and Judaism, I perceive my work harnessed to beliefs and activities that contravene these values. I observe, for example, a State of Israel—for whose existence I can accept some secular reasons—that is using the Bible, archaeology, and a biblical discourse in which ‘Israel’ is the object of divine favour, to repeatedly disregard international law, human rights conventions, and United Nations resolutions (except the one that gave it birth), and is colonizing land that it does not have a right to (the total of Israeli West Bank settlers is now 350,000). This regime has bulldozed homes, villages and olive groves, inflicted collective punishment and detained persons contrary to the Geneva convention. Such behavior concerns me professionally. I have been, for example, invited to attend conferences in Jerusalem, a city illegally ‘unified’ by a regime now seeking to minimize non-Jewish habitation by dubious means, including archaeological excavation, land development and extensive Jewish settlement (‘population transfer’ has been going on in Israel ever since 1948, in fact). Historical research, especially archaeological survey and excavation, are being illegally conducted (Gerizim, for example), and historical artifacts with which I have to deal in my work are appropriated from what is legally non-Jewish territory.3 (Quite regardless of international law, I cannot, as a secular scholar, see in what sense the West Bank could be said to ‘belong’ to the Jewish ‘people’).4

My problem here is not with Judaism, with which I have no more quarrel than with any religion;5 there are numerous Jewish groups and individuals as appalled as I am with the State of Israel’s policies.6 Nor with Christianity, many of whose adherents likewise stand for the secular values being defied: the US Presbyterian Church has also recently taken action in protest against Israel’s economic exploitation of its occupied territory.7 As I said, secular (i.e. humanitarian) values are everywhere.

But what if the SBL (or any academic society) chose to hold a conference in Jerusalem, a city much of which is illegally occupied and administered? My secular values would oblige me, as they did once in the case of South Africa (another state that practiced apartheid) to refuse to attend, and to voice my objections. I would want to continue talking to Jewish audiences and working with Jewish biblical scholars. My problem is only with a political regime whose leaders behave in a way that would draw heavy condemnation if encountered elsewhere, and, more importantly, with a disciplinary ethos that seems willing to exempt this particular state from universal principles of right and wrong.8

The values that the State of Israel are currently violating are shared by secular and religious people alike. But for me this is not just a political issue but one of professional ethics. I have already been drawn into the battle by being called ‘anti-Semitic’ for purely scholarly opinions, from those who bracket out Judaism and Israel from any general rule about academic freedom. Others have had their tenure threatened on such grounds (and in past times I might have been sacked because of pressure by the Church!) I believe that as human beings and as scholars, we should try to live and work by our shared values. I wonder whether other scholars who maintain these secular values feel the same way about visiting Jerusalem, or even travelling to Israel. If not, I would like to know why, and especially if they think their profession has had any influence on their attitude. I am willing to be persuaded from my opinion, but only as long as this willingness cuts both ways. An open discussion is long overdue, partly in the context of the continuing debate about secular values and biblical studies, and partly because the Bible and politics have never stood apart from each other—and why should they? May I remind you that humanitarian values have usually won, even by somewhat paradoxically coopting the Bible to their cause. But with that I have no quarrel!


1 My first University degree was in Hebrew and Arabic and I studied both Bible and Qur’an, both Mishnah and shari’a. I might indeed have become a scholar of Islam instead. But as it was, by fate or accident, I continued with Hebrew, and with not too much regret.

2 Given the fact of considerable Christian and Jewish anti-Islamic sentiment (which is of course returned) I think we have to reject the term ‘anti-Semitism’ as applying only to Jews.

3 Antiquities are generally agreed to belong to the country in which they are found, regardless of their origin. Legally, the Qumran scrolls, while Jewish in origin, were not found in Israel and do not belong to it. But similarly, Islamic artefacts found in Israel do belong to it.

4 Is Judaism a religion or a nation/people? It is a religion. Can one be a non-religious Jew? Yes: I am a non-religious Christian, by virtue of upbringing, culture, customary observations (Christmas, Easter, not Passover, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Hajj). In secular discourse, ‘Israeli’ is a nationality.

5 But there are omens of larger clashes between religious and secular values. One thinks of the banning of the burqa in France. Another pertinent example from a German court in Cologne is a ruling that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent to the procedure. ‘The child’s right to physical integrity trumps freedom of religion and parents’ rights’ it said. This is another battlefield and I’m not going there. I see it as a debate within secularism, which upholds both the right not to be physically disfigured and the right of religious expression. Religious groups have little of value to contribute to this, other than special pleading—since nearly all of them condemn female circumcision.

6 I will mention here just one such organization: Jewish Voice for Peace (, which recently completed a successful campaign to persuade the giant American mutual fund TIAA-CREF to sell 73 million dollars of Caterpillar stocks from their socially responsible investment fund because Caterpillar bulldozers have been used to destroy thousands of Palestinian homes and orchards.

7 The General Assembly of the US Presbyterian Church also recently passed a resolution to boycott settlement goods with 71% of the vote; divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation was defeated by a margin of two votes.

8 I do not wish to omit my criticism of a past British government that thought it right to deceive Arab leaders and to dispose, without the agreement of the existing inhabitants, a portion of their land for colonization by others. The subsequent armed response to the colonization, and brutal repression of it, are a familiar scenario to ex-colonial powers. By now we surely have learnt the lessons of the past and know how to react to the suppression of the right of self-determination.

Comments (34)

Philip thank you for speaking honestly and from the heart about an issue far too many are both unwilling to consider and especially unwilling to address so forthrightly.

#1 - Jim - 08/02/2012 - 16:33

In 1813, H.C. Ørsted, the inventor of electromagnetism, travelled widely in Germany. At the same time Napoleon with his last "grande armée" was also travelling in Germany fighting numerous battles ending with the disaster at Leipzig in October. Not a word about these events in Ørsted's letters. Evidently another example of the scholar who tries to ignore reality.

Reading Philip Davies' apropos here, I dare say that scholars are notoriously dishonest. If we look for an honest scholar, it could be Johannes Hempel, at that time editor of Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, who in 1943 closed down his journal with the words that he was now going out to fight Bolshevism. It was not a clever decision and it followed him for the rest of his life, but he was honest. Strangely―or is it really?―his main work was Das Ethos des Alten Testaments (1938), the ethic of the Old Testament.

Philip is reacting against dishonesty in biblical studies and reacts as a victim of a furious series of attacks which have branded him as well as I, Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam as antisemites, Nazis and many more similar things. It is called the maximalist-minimalist debate but it has really been a campaign conducted to eliminate what could be dangerous for the Zionist foundation story for modern Israel as found in the Old Testament. In many ways the debate was hijacked by religiously and politically inspired persons who had no intention of dealing fairly with anything that could be considered problematic to the story of Israel in ancient as in modern times. Never has history and scholarship been abused to such a degree, and biblical scholars have in this way become useful idiots of a modern political program.
If biblical studies with the special twist called Old Testament studies is to regain any kind of respectability among other humanistic disciplines, it is necessary that it comes to grips with reality and begin to follow the rules of other disciplines. If not, we might be at the end of critical biblical scholarship.

#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/02/2012 - 17:08

Two brief comments/questions. I wonder how propositions can be self-evident if many people sincerely deny them or would, on reflection, find them strange?
Secondly - though there's no point denying that our politics influence everything else we believe - is it not possible for what people say under the influence of their political beliefs to be true, even if their political beliefs are gravely mistaken? A truth can't imply a falsehood but a falsehood can imply a truth.

#3 - Martin - 08/02/2012 - 20:56

What started as a pawn in the Great Game became a king after the Balfour Declaration. Population transfer has always occurred in the Middle East with the changing of the religious guard. I anticipate there won't be nearly as many Alawites living in Syria this time next year.

#4 - Jordan Wilson - 08/03/2012 - 03:44

Sidney Hook proclaimed in his autobiography; "The one indispensable role of colleges and universities is teaching." More than once Davies has argued the sanctity of secular higher education and the triumphalism of Humanism, and this pleases many or some or whatever. What is not acceptable is the unwarranted broadside opinion-cum-factual attack against the State of Israel and "occupied" Jerusalem (apartheid state, expansionist, usurper of land), warped definition of Judaism (religion only), redefiner of terms ("antisemitism": IS hatred of Jews, only), and on. Cheap shots I do not expect from a respectable scholar..At the 2011 SBL Annual Meeting in San Francisco I was called to my face "bigoted" when I asked a worker at a JEWISH peace table (JVP ?) why are working on the Shabbat disseminating anti-Israeli propaganda. I sought a peaceful exchange; I received instead verbal curses and veiled threats. I did not deserve the accusations and innuendos of that Sabbathcide. Sadly its credo permeates the ant-Zionist section of Davies essay.

#5 - Zev Garber - 08/03/2012 - 15:52

Thanks for your thoughts. It is to the great shame of those of us with religions that the higher ethical impetus has often come from those with a secular perspective.

I do wonder, though, where the line is between objective historical research and the modern political situated nature of resources. Is visiting Jerusalem (or Amman or Tehran) even for the purposes of research itself a political statement on its own?

#6 - Jason Silverman - 08/03/2012 - 15:55

I don’t doubt that Philip Davies’ call for biblical scholars to participate in an academic boycott of Israel is done in good faith. Reasonable people can disagree about such issues, and I certainly question the wisdom of this tactic. However, when Niels Peter Lemche seconds the motion by appealing to Johannes Hempel as exemplary “honest scholar,” reasonable people must cringe. Hempel was a notorious anti-Semite and Nazi propagandist, who boycotted Jewish authors as editor of ZAW and tainted biblical scholarship with his racist bile. For example, he wrote in ZAW in 1942: “the opposition between the Third Reich and the Jews comes to the fore as a struggle over life and death.”* After WWII, Vetus Testamentum was created as a civilized alternative to ZAW, which Hempel continued to edit until 1959.

Lemche is correct that Hempel would certainly support a boycott (and worse) of anything Jewish. To hold up Hempel as a biblical scholar to emulate in a protest against Zionism is morally outrageous. Philip – with friends like this, you don’t need enemies.

* Translation from Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, 2008), 170.

#7 - Ron Hendel - 08/03/2012 - 23:13

Why have you published such a biased and uncritical piece by Davies? Since when is his political agenda appropriate in discerning Israelite history? Where is the outcry for Syrians, Sudanese, or even Iranians? Palestinians have choices and they prefer not to make them. This piece does not reflect well on your web magazine.

#8 - Harold Janowicz - 08/03/2012 - 23:25

It's highly creditable to my mind to bring questions that lie unstated behind the overt questions out into the open.
On the other hand I would be sorry if it turned out that there is no such thing as scientific bible study, only a battle on behalf of the political ideas of our time. I place great faith in impartial reading and assessment of texts.
If we want to have a scientific or impartial reading we need to ask the Popperian questions: In what circumstances would a given hypothesis turn out to be wrong? I am, to use old-tech language, a record stuck in a groove here. Though maybe not the only one.

#9 - Martin - 08/04/2012 - 15:53

Part 1
The reactions to Philip Davies here are very much what to expect. However, that he hid hard is clear from some reactions such as the ones from Zev Garber and Ron Hendel. I will concentrate on these and leave out the more naive propaganda, such as Jordan Wilson who thinks that one crime makes the next legitimate, and Harold Janowicz who comes the obligatory protest against something he doesn't like.

ad Zev Garber: It is not immaterial what is taught at universities and colleges. It is rather decisive. To argue that universities should just teach is leading nowhere. Also universities in countries ruled by dictators do teaching. There is no space where scientist and scholars can be left alone and don't have to care about the world in which they are doing their scholarship.
That Zev Garber does not like the anti-Zionist bias of Philip Davies is hardly difficult to understand. It is clear that modern Israel and its followers―mainly in North America―have tried to censor biblical scholarship to conform with Israel's chosen foundation story. Maybe you should also read the other side. They have a quite different foundation story. Recent works by Nur Masalha (The Bible and Zionism, 2007, The Palestine Nakba, 2012), Ilan Pappe (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006) and more are recommendable, and then you will know more about what has happened. The reaction of a well-known and respected Israeli scholar to Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People ( 2009, Hebrew original 2008) is typical: The worst book ever written, sloppy scholarship, and I have no intention of reading it. A typical reaction from those who do not want to know more, especially when it becomes an embarrassment. However, in light of your experiences at the SBL 2011 meeting, it must be sad to Israeli Jews to see how Israel has simply lost Europe because it has become clear over here that we have been cheated.

#10 - N. Lemche - 08/05/2012 - 15:44

Part 2
ad Ron Hendel: I am sorry that your abilities to understand irony do not extend to understand the irony of my case. Of course I know that Hempel since the beginning of the 1930s belonged to Hitler's Christian supporters. It is not the problem at discussion here. The problem is that this guy was the one who honestly said what he stood for and decided his actions accordingly. Whether or not his acts were abominable is another matter, and here we definitely are in agreement. But you probably also know what he wrote in the ZAW when he returned. You may be right about the Vetus Testamentum, however, it is rather the outcome of the creation of the IOSOT, created by Aa. Bentzen and his colleagues after the war to get European biblical scholarship going again. It is hardly a coincidence that Martin Noth was a member of the first board, and that Albrecht Alt wrote the first article ever in Vetus Testamentum--in German.
Neither Alt nor Noth signed any document against the third Reich and its ideology. They were never part of die Bekenntniskirche and therefore stayed in office. Other German theologians were members, and paid dearly like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was murdered by the Nazis in 1945. If not murdered, they were removed from their office, such as the fathers of Rolf Rendtorff and Klaus Koch, two well-known post WW II German OT scholars. The case of Alt and Noth is very much as described in the movie Taking Sides about the denazification of Wilhelm Furtwängler. It is not an excuse in such a situation where these German scholars were situated not to take side but to remain "neutral" and absorbed with scholarship. Philip Davies makes this very clear.
I am surprised of the ending of your mail. I did not say anything like this. This is slander in the usual style used by so many North American scholars during the maximalist-minimalist debate.

Finally Jason Silverman has a really important question to ask. The question is, however, does such a thing like "objective historical research exists"? And has it ever existed? We are always caught by the political situation. It is when scholars ignore this fact that the problems also for their scholarship begin.

#11 - N. Lemche - 08/05/2012 - 15:45

Thanks Philip for this thought-provoking post. I'm not sure what the correct professional response to the "aparteid" policies of the state of Israel should be, but if you or others chose to boycott occupied Jerusalem on ethical grounds I would respect that decision.

#12 - Ryan - 08/05/2012 - 17:05

From Reuters Oct. 28, 2011, " Arabs made a "mistake by rejecting a 1947 U.N. proposal that would have created a Palestinian state alongside the nascent Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview ..." This and other missed opportunities by the Palestinians have lengthen this struggle, and increased their suffering. Unfortunately, Davies' suggestions appear to be misplaced. Perhaps a boycott should be directed at the Palestinian Authority until they finally engage the Israelis seriously. Not sure what the PA is accomplishing by refusing to negotiate and extending the current stalemate. It only strengthens forces in Israel who oppose the two-state solution.

#13 - Jose Castro - 08/05/2012 - 17:46

Let me get this straight. Lemche continues to praise the honesty and courage of the Nazi biblical scholar Johannes Hempel: “this guy was the one who honestly said what he stood for and decided his actions accordingly. Whether or not his acts were abominable is another matter.” I’m sorry, but I find this position abominable. The idea that Hempel’s “honesty” should be a role model for biblical scholars – in the context of a call to boycott Israel – is morally grotesque. And Lemche has the chutzpah to disparage Alt and Noth, who opposed Hempel and the Nazis in small but explicit ways during the Nazi regime. (E.g., Noth cited Jewish authors in a 1940 article, which could have landed him in Dachau or worse.*) I see no reasonable alternative to the conclusion that, like Hempel, Lemche has no moral credibility and is an embarrassment to biblical scholarship.

*See Rudolf Smend, From Astruc to Zimmerli: Old Testament Scholarship in Three Centuries (Tübingen, 2007), 201.

#14 - Ron Hendel - 08/05/2012 - 17:50

As I said, Ron Hendel does not have the intellectual capabilities to distinguish between irony and reality.

Of course Hempel was a nasty character--do I need to repeat again and again what I said? but he choose side, and we both agree that his choice was a wrong one. That Noth and Alt should have displayed civil courage is nonsense. After all, Noth published in the ZAW as late as 1944 ("Israelitische Stämme zwischen Ammon und Moab", ZAW 60m 1944, 11-57. I believe that the editor was Johannes Hempel.

And the slander is left, so who is the pride of biblical scholarship here?

But you are continuously distorting my views so it is hardly of any use to discuss what you write.


#15 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/05/2012 - 18:09

and to Jose Castro,

This is not a discussion about Palestinian politics, it is a discussion about supporting the master story of a society that has been practizing aparftheid vis-à-vis its Arab population since the beginning of statehood.

Read the relevant literature. including propaganda from both sides. And think for yourself.


#16 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/05/2012 - 18:13


And to follow up with some literature showing how ambiguous Hempel's acting was, on one hand clearly part of the set-up of the Third Reich, and trying at the same to save the OT for Christianity, including the knowledge of Hebrew.

He was never a fighting soldier but military "Pfarrer".

Some interesting reading here:

Weber, Cornelia, " Die »Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft« unter ihrem Herausgeber Johannes Hempel von 1927 bis 1959," Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte / Journal for the History of Modern Theology, Volume 5 (2), pp. 193-227,


Cornelia Weber, Altes Testament und völkische Frage
der biblische Volksbegriff in der alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft der nationalsozialistischen Zeit, dargestellt am Beispiel von Johannes Hempel
Cornelia Weber (Tübingen: De Mohr, 2000)

But basically his behaviour was not correct, no doubt about that. It is, however, also interesting that Noth participated in the publication of the ZAW in its last War-years. I am in no doubt that Noth did not share his viewpoints.


#17 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/05/2012 - 19:02

Lemche seems to think that someone with an opposing view has not read the pertinent literature or has been swayed by propaganda. He says this is not about Palestinian politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is just as much about Palestinian politics as Jewish politics. The choices both sides made are absolutely essential to the present circumstances in Jerusalem. Lemche is not interested in moving this conflict past old slogans. Davies is calling for pressure on Israel to rectify the situation with the Palestinians. Lemche is not. He prefers to reference Sholomo Sand, whose writings about Jewish history and racial and biological connections have been thoroughly discredited by historians and genetic studies. My interest is solving this conflict and moving quickly toward a two state-solution. In my opinion, Palestinians leaders are stuck in the past and have shown little vision in breaking this impasse. Davies is calling for a boycott based on Israel's intransigence. As Davies stated "I am willing to be persuaded from my opinion, but only as long as this willingness cuts both ways." Well, here is another opinion that cuts "both ways." Pressure must be placed on both Israelis and Palestinians.

#18 - Jose Castro - 08/05/2012 - 20:33

Niels Peter Lemche's response misrepresents my critical comment on Philip Davies "anti-Zionist bias." What I questioned is why a very clear anti-Zionist political agenda is clothed in an essay dealing with the merits of non-bias secular scholarship. I see flaws in Davies opinionated facts on Jews, Judaism, and the Land of Israel. Respectfully disagree but do not make light of my sincerity or suggest a reading list from post-Zionist historians on the true intent of the Founding Fathers of the State of Israel. Know your sources before you suggest in a public forum a reading list, some of which are marginal (Sand) or changed position (Pappe). Further, I don't need to be told what a proper teaching moment is about. I have written articles and edited books on "the Methodology in the Academic Teaching of ..." (since 1988). I see my role more as a knowledge-facilitator and less of a knowledge-dispenser and certainly NOT a Zionist autocrat as you sneeringly suggest. Lastly, the SBL statement, what are you smoking? My reference to the Jewish Peace table fiasco is because from the Peace advocacy I expected tolerance and respect of differences. I received neither, and from you, Prof.Lemche,I receive a cautionary warning that Europe (scholarship) will never again be the victim of Zionist duplicity. Amazing grace.

#19 - Zev Garber - 08/05/2012 - 22:51

Since discussion of modern issues is fully accepted here, may I make two points:

First: Modern Zionism saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews who left Nazi Germany and settled in then mandatory Palestine. At that time, 1933-1939, doors of other countriers were closed to them. These are historical facts. This is why 'Zionism' is a source of pride.

Seond: The repeated approving references by Lemche to a German's "honesty" for joining voluntarily one of the most barbaric military campaigns in recorded history, that is the unprovoked German attack of Russia, is beyond belief, and beneath comment.

As for their constant personal attacks on those who refute their statements and reject their positions -- such intolerance can be expected from their biased anti-biblical dogmatism.

Uri Hurwitz

#20 - Uri Hurwitz - 08/05/2012 - 22:58

Dear Uri,

Why did it take you so long? Our staunch defender of Zionistic politics!

Rereading this thread, Philip Davies wrote about his position as a secular scholar, applying humanistic principles to his perception of the world and seeing the modern Jewish State of Israel not conforming with much of what has been stated as ethic behavior, especially not towards its Arab population.

In this connection the theme was broadened to include the general attitude of scholars living in their ivory towers, ignoring the world. As is written over the main entrance to my university: Coelestem adspicit lucem. I made the mistake―perhaps a deliberate one―of introducing the irony of a scholar with a nasty background who publicly proclaimed where he belonged. It gave some people here a chance to come out in the open showing lack of understanding of what this is really about, honesty, although for a bad case. As I said and repeated, it was not about Johannes Hempel making the right choice, which he certainly did not, but it was about Hempel who dared to say where he stood. Now a couple of people here have shown their cards, trying to divert the discussion from its subject, which is: Are biblical scholars (the OT variety) only the servants of a political ideology that recommends ethnic cleansing, apartheid, theft of land and oppression of the other, or are they independent minds who have the ability to apply the ethics of modern Christianity and Judaism? This debate was opened by Keith Whitelam (The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, 1996), but the majority of OT scholars decided to ignore it and remain in their towers, although this invention did harm people.

Now Israeli pressure has created a new "nation", the Palestinian one, and they are beginning to get their story together. It will be interesting to see how it develops as an alternative to the Zionist one. The Samaritans may join in as it is becoming more and more obvious that their ancient history was silenced as well.

At my fist stay in Jerusalem back in 1974, the was an inscription on a wall not too far away from Mea Shearim: Zionism and Judaism are two very different things. Having problems with Zionism does not mean that you have problems with Judaism

Niels Peter Lemche

#21 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/06/2012 - 16:08

If I understand correctly, Lemche seems to admire Hempel for attempting “to save the OT for Christianity, including the knowledge of Hebrew,” despite his admittedly deplorable Nazi ideology. There is no “ambiguous” acting here – Hempel was a “German Christian” who tried to incorporate Christianity within Nazism. As for his attempt to “save the OT,” he stated clearly his motive: “it is National-Socialist as a preoccupation solely with a Germanized and Christianized Old Testament.”* Similarly, his defense of teaching Hebrew was grounded in Nazi pedagogy: “to clarify [to the student] the essential difference between his own Aryan thought and Semitic thought … [demonstrating vividly] how deep are the racial differences.”* There is nothing in the actions of Hempel to admire, and no “honesty” except that of a committed Nazi professor of Old Testament.

*Both quotes are from Cornelius Weber, Die »Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft« unter ihrem Herausgeber Johannes Hempel von 1927 bis 1959," Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte / Journal for the History of Modern Theology 5 (1998), 206.

#22 - Ron Hendel - 08/06/2012 - 17:32

I didn's say "admire" or expressed admiration. Stop distorting what I am saying. I said that he was honest about his (bad) choices, which other people were not. I also said that his was a bad choice.

My words: "As I said and repeated, it was not about Johannes Hempel making the right choice, which he certainly did not, but it was about Hempel who dared to say where he stood".

and to continue, it was not a good place where he choose to be. But you are deliberously distorting my text maybe to escape discussing what is the material point of Philip's essay.

So, please, get back to the essay. I would like for example to know your standing when it comes to Zionist apartheid as displayed in Israel of today. I would like to know about your objections to the politics of the government vis-à-vis the occupied territories, and the government's continuous disregard for international law. As long as you do not show your cards, you are the last person to take up any moral stance.

And something about which you have no idea of is the situation in Europe in those fatal years, when thousands of people made bad choices and were punished because of that. That is OK but in some cases we may ask why they did so? E.g., Scandinavians encouraged by their governments (also in Denmark where we did not have a Quisling) who joined the SS-divisions Viking and Nordland, and there were thousands of them, but many of these had faught in Finland during the Winter War against Russian agression. It is so easy to criticize afterwards when you have no such choices to make and see everything from a modern perspective.

In Hempel's case he belonged to the Nazi movement, definitely, but there are things about him that reminds me about e.g. Nietzsche who joined the rank during the Franco-German war. That was Bismarck's war on which to found the German empire. Although neither he or Hempel carried any guns. Hempel served as a chaplain.

And just one final point: I am not a descendent of people who faught with the Germans. Rather I am a child of the resistance movement (both parents), and active in that part of the country that organized the liberation of Danish Jews.

We have quite a fine record through with our Jewish Danes. Thus not one ended in Auschwitz. Sad that the general attitude in Denmark is changing against Israel and who is to be blamed?


#23 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/06/2012 - 17:59

Unlike Philip Davies, I am not a biblical scholar, but one need not be in order to take issue with several assertions and axioms. Surely it would surprise most Bible readers to learn that Scripture takes no positions against murder and theft – given that these are 2 of the big 10. Whether the Bible takes any position (pro- or anti-) colonization and discrimination, on the contrary, is doubtful. Since these are modern constructs, it can only be modern expositors who make the Bible fit their agendas on these topics. When Davies sets his secular ideals against those of the Bible, he overlooks important scholarship in the last decade (e.g. Sheehan, Legaspi) who have demonstrated the centrality of the rehabilitation of the Bible to the 18th century academy and to the Enlightenment generally. And on the subject of “academies,” Davies would do well to drop his disdain of those scholars who work in seminaries as “not purely academic.” That rhetoric is ad hominem credentialism, not a substantive argument – Davies should take a look the impressive roster of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to take but one counterexample. As to the hypothetical Jerusalem conference Davies imagines, both Hebrew University campuses (Givat Ram and Mount Scopus) are within the area assigned to Israel in the 1947 Partition -- the international law that Davies appeals to as an alternative to biblical justifications. I don’t blame Davies for not wanting to attend a conference in Hebron on political grounds – I wouldn’t either. His position, however, delegitimizes Jewish presence anywhere in Jerusalem. Finally, we come to the credential presented by Davies (and so many others) as proof of scholarly respectability – lack of sympathy with the principal text around which his discipline is built. As Judah says to Joseph “What shall we say… How shall we plead? (44:16)” l learn from scholars (Bal, Berlinerblau, Bal, Moore – even Davies) who see deconstructing the Bible as their primary task. But I also learn from scholars whose hermeneutic seeks to reveal the literary genius of HB; the importance of canon and reading communities; inner-biblical developments within HB and its legacy to later commentators. All this, and much more, can interest the Bible reader – so why not the Bible scholar too? Davies’ position, in the end, seems as illiberal as the text he sees as the root of so much ill.

#24 - Alan Levenson - 08/06/2012 - 21:15

Lemche writes that Johannes Hempel was “an honest scholar,” one of the few professors of Old Testament during WWII “who dared to say where he stood.” He compares him to Philip Davies, who is honest in stating his support of an academic boycott of Israel. He also compares him to Nietszche. I submit that Lemche’s comparison is odious. To be a Nazi during the Third Reich required no honesty, only opportunism and moral cowardice. (Hempel was rewarded with a professorship at Berlin and editorship of ZAW.) Lemche is similarly honest in describing his critics as “idiots” who are solely motivated by Zionist ideology. This kind of honesty, in my view, is unconscionable and deserves to be condemned by biblical scholars.

#25 - Ron Hendel - 08/07/2012 - 03:38


"Idiots" must stand for your own interpretation. But you are simply continuing to distort my viewpoints. It reminds me of what happened to Noth and his fellow German scholars who were labelled "nihilists" and worse by Albright and his people. Or the tirades of Bill Dever against the minimalists. It took me years before I understood that this kind of distortions and misprisions were part of a political game rather than of a scholarly discussion.

Once in Copenhagen twenty years ago. Van Seters was attacked from the left. He was very pleased because he was now off the hook. The fire from the Cross-clones were now directed against what was soon to be called the minimalists. Are we in for the same kind of distortions and attacks?

At least you do not seem to have any intention to show your cards. I have no idea about your position to what is going on in the Middle East and especially Israel.

Honesty or dishonesty ... your choice.

To Alan Levenson:

Visiting Kent Richards we were discussing the size of the SBL meeting compared to, say the IOSOT ones. Kent dryly remarked that there were hardly more scholars in the narrow sense (university people) present at a SBL national meeting that at a IOSOT one. The rest was college and high school teachers. We don't have this blend of everything in Europe, and Philip Davies academic career has been within our set-up.

The remark about hating the Bible is ridiculous, and I do not think that you find that in Philip's article. It was about the limitations of its impact and it applies boyth to the OT and the NT. It is about the limitations of the Bible in a modern context. Here Gabler's remark from 1787 is important that in a modern society (his) there is no reason to follow Paul's recommendations for the position of women.

However, Harnack might after all be right: that the only reason for keeping the OT within Christianity in the 10th century must be intellectual laziness. Christianity could do without it, it seems, or we could write a new bible as some African bishop once recommended. Then we could leave the OT to Judaism. It would not be our concern any longer. And now we are at it, Harnack had no connections to the people who later became Nazis but his son was executed as part in the plot to assasinate Hitler in 1944. Just in case that somebody should misunderstand what is said.


#26 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/07/2012 - 04:40

sorry, severe misprint:

for However, Harnack might after all be right: that the only reason for keeping the OT within Christianity in the 10th century must be intellectual laziness


However, Harnack might after all be right: that the only reason for keeping the OT within Christianity in the 20th century must be intellectual laziness

#27 - Niels Peter lemche - 08/07/2012 - 09:32

The more Lemche insists on praisimg the honesty of Hempel in WWII, the more pathetic his position becomes.

He misdirects the discussion again and again to modern political issues with sometimes amusing consequences.

For instance, he mentions approvingly an inscription near " Mea Shearim" in Jerusalem. Such inscriptions were put up by the tiny group of Neturei Karta. He and they share one quality: narrow-minded intolerance. Funny soul-mates indeed!

In a different thread Lemche in effect asked this blog to muzzle another respondent whom he did not like (#8. 7/30/2012). Typical minimalist behavior.

Overall, Bible and Interpretation appears under an unprecedented onslaught of the minimalists, with Lemche galloping fiercely hither and yon to protect the wings. Does one sense a take over attempt?

In the meantime I recommend to all three to read some Zionist literature so they will know what they are talking about.

And for N P Lemche, in view of his Hempel position, I have a simple message in German:
Ich moechte mich mit Ihnen nicht mehr duzen.

Uri Hurwitz

#28 - Uri Hurwitz - 08/07/2012 - 21:05

To Uri Hurwitz who wrote "Overall, Bible and Interpretation appears under an unprecedented onslaught of the minimalists, with Lemche galloping fiercely hither and yon to protect the wings. Does one sense a takeover attempt?"
Thanks for alerting us to the growing minimalist threat to our site. Since one of the editors was a colleague of Bill Dever, a major nemesis of all minimalists, at the U. of Arizona, and two others are graduates of his program, we are well trained to detect any minimalist putsch of Bible and Interpretation.


#29 - Editors - 08/07/2012 - 22:44

Perhaps one last note to Uri who has not yet understood what this is about:
I will say no more about Hempel. Like Ron Hendel you are simply distorting what I said―evidently for political reasons (I cannot believe that you cannot read). I believe that even the most ignorant person would now have understood what it was about. However, to say that this discussion is not political, it has been ever since Philip Davies wrote his contribution. But perhaps it is too much to ask you to read Philip's statement before you join the discussion.

My question from 30th of July was a question: How a certain attack by Mr. Grena could be accepted.

Let me quote from Grena's mail from the same day:

"You, on the other hand, are guilty of the Special Pleading fallacy because I'm sure you don't hold other inferences to the same level of skepticism (e.g., since you don't believe the Bible contains a revelation from God, you probably believe the first forms of life came from non-life, for which there is no scientific evidence whatsoever)."

You see, Uri, if you did your home work properly, you would probably have known better than to use this example. A Christian apologist must be somewhere out of line from your standpoint. But in the political climate where you may belong, every argument seems OK.

Zionist literature? Good grief, what do you think we have been doing for the last, it will soon be fifty years? I also have the advantage of having a burning Zionist living next door in the shape of one of my daughters in law, Yael, daughter of Etan Vilenchik (only surviving soldier in his platoon in the Golan in 1973, and a war hero in Israel). So I get an update on a daily basis. Now this should not be a continuation of the Garfinkel discussion. but it is really about historical matters, and now also as seen from the perspective of cultural memory. That discussion will have to wait for another occasion, but before I come back to that you should probably get acquainted with people like Derrida, Foucault, Jan and Aleida Assmann and more. Just that you are prepared for the discussion that will come.

As to duzen, it was never a subject here. We were never at that level.


#30 - Niels Peter Lemche - 08/08/2012 - 07:17

I am pleased that the essay provoked some response. I was afraid it might be ignored on the grounds that no-one wanted to talk about these things. As I see it, my definition of secular values has not been challenged, nor the facts I related about the breaches of international law and conventions. In fact, I think there is little 'opinion' in my piece. I am disappointed that there was no real engagement from those disagreeing. I have read Zionist literature, and I am not anti-Zionist, but only anti some forms of Zionism. As for the Palesitnians: no, they are not completely innocent either, but that is another issue and does not mitigate Israel's behaviour. Nor is it something that might affect the behaviour or conscience of a biblical scholar. So I would still like to see the facts that I presented contradicted (no-one has done that yet) and some arguments as to why these should be considered according to a different ethical code than the one I described. So far all the negative comments have been sidestepping the issue. Does somebody want to present a different set of facts and a different ethical code? That is the only kind of response worth dealing with and frankly that is what I think my piece deserves. I shall wait to see if I can get a reasonable debate with anyone. And I am sure that those who have supported my position would like to see such a response, too.

#31 - philip davies - 08/08/2012 - 08:28

To Phillip Davies: I believe that the facts that you presented in your essay should be considered according to a different ethical code than the one you described; accordingly, I agree in full with your later comment that this is the response that your piece deserves.

Secular, humanitarian values, as you say, happen to be everywhere. These values (which you cite at the begininning of your essay), sound very fine: “individual human freedom under the rule of law, democracy, equality of race, colour, sex and religion, and freedom of speech”. It is true that these values certainly do not derive from the Bible, whereas the alternative ethical code that I have in mind does. It comes from the New Testament. You may be familiar with it given your training as a biblical scholar.

The essential thing is that we should love our enemies. This is not a value that appears to be anywhere unlike the values that you share with most people ‘including those who are religious’. I understand that you do not accept that ‘God’ chose ‘Israel’ – be that as it may; OK, ‘nor did he send his ‘son’ to earth’. But, now, you tell me. How shall we consider these breaches of international law and convention given the ethical code of the Prince of Peace. I’m not talking about the ethical code that you described.

#32 - Christopher Russell - 08/09/2012 - 12:52

Brilliant! (in the English sense)

#33 - Mark Erickson - 08/09/2012 - 18:00

Ah, the wilful ignorance of those who 'know' that God is on THEIR side. I've seen absurd appeals to emotion (Sabbathcide (arf), implying of Nazi sympathy and Jewish hatred.

What I've seen is the shifting of blame onto the victims ('the Palestinians have choices they refuse to make), an absurd misunderstanding of Prof. Lemche's use of the word 'honesty' (Hitler was very honest about his loathing of the Jews, Communists, Slavs, Gypsies and disabled), and apologia for apartheid, discrimination and brutality.

I've no expectation of making headway against those who are the subject of my reply; but I do know that it's the religious who drive me away from religion with their smug and narrow stupidity.

#34 - Sean - 09/05/2012 - 16:44

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