Biblical Studies: Termination or Salvation?

By Joseph B. Tyson
Professor emeritus of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
February 2011

Recently I had an opportunity to re-read The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos.1 I read it shortly after it originally appeared but had not kept up with the subsequent comments from Avalos, his supporters, and his opponents. After reading through some of the essays on this web site, I went back to the book to read it in light of the comments.

It seems to me that, in the book, Avalos intended for us to interpret the title to mean that he is calling for the termination of biblical studies. He did not appear to be describing the desired purpose of biblical studies or holding out a noble goal for us. He was, quite simply, calling for the termination of biblical studies as an academic enterprise. Avalos, himself a biblical scholar, indicted the entire enterprise: translation; textual criticism; archeology; the study of the historical Jesus; literary criticism; biblical theology. He then focused on the institutions that support study of the Bible—colleges, universities, seminaries, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the related media-publishing complex.

According to Avalos, the basic problem is that all these enterprises and institutions stress the importance of a book that fosters violence, racism, sexism, and oppression. For the most part the Bible is irrelevant to modern times, and it embodies a harmful ethical tradition. Further, scholars have not really come up with anything convincing about biblical history. On the study of the historical Jesus, for example, he writes, “The quest for the historical Jesus is an abject failure. After hundreds of years, and probably millions of person-hours, reconstructions of Jesus are no better than the one of Reimarus in the eighteenth century.” (Avalos, 2007:212).

In an essay on this web site, however, Avalos clarifies what he intends in the title. In the essay, “To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche,” he writes, “First, ‘the end of biblical studies’ contains a double entendre. In one sense, ‘the end’ refers to the termination of biblical studies as currently practiced. In a second sense, ‘the end’ refers to the purpose of biblical studies.”2 This is a helpful clarification, since most of the rhetoric in the 2007 book seemed aimed at the destruction of biblical studies in the academy. It was only in his conclusion that Avalos tipped his hand, when he laid out three alternatives for the future of biblical studies:

  1. “Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world

  2. Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise

  3. Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world” (Avalos, 2007: 341).

I was surprised to find that Avalos favored the third, rather than the first, alternative. He wrote, “I do not advocate the first option, at least for the moment, because I do believe that the Bible should be studied, if only as a lesson in why human beings should not privilege such books again” (Avalos, 2007: 341). Now it seems that Avalos’s intent is to summon biblical scholars to locate their work firmly within the humanities and rid it of theological influence.

In my opinion, Avalos has a strong case. Although he does not make this argument and may well object to it, a case could be made for excluding the Bible from academia on the grounds that it belongs to the churches. The Bible is a collection of books, brought together by religious leaders and designed to function as the authoritative guide to religious life. Differences in the content of the Bible attest to the fact that various religious communities regard it differently and define authority in different ways. In this sense, the Bible was constituted by the churches and belongs to them. It functions as authority for those churches that formed it and continue to interpret it. But such authority has no place in the academy. In colleges and universities, it is criticism and the struggle for objectivity that are called for, not an acknowledgment of canonical authority. But in my judgment this does not mean that scholars should avoid examining biblical books for potential historical and sociological information, or literary and ideological value. Ideally, such studies would not privilege the Bible but would rather treat it as other potential sources are treated. The study of Christian origins might well make use of some books of the New Testament but would not limit itself to canonical literature. The Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles are important resources, but so are the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Paul.

Having said this, I have to wonder if Avalos has it right when he condemns the academy for promoting the significance of the Bible. At one point he writes, “Our brief history demonstrates that many professors of biblical studies acknowledge that the privileging of the Bible by the modern world would probably end if it were not for their intervention.” (Avalos, 2007: 302). The implication is that the academy is guilty of upholding the significance of the Bible. I find his argument at this point unconvincing, as if somehow he has lost sight of the significance of the Bible in the churches—those very communities that explicitly proclaim its authority. In fact, it seems reasonable to argue the contrary of Avalos’s contention: If biblical studies ceased in universities, colleges, and seminaries, the privileging of the Bible in the churches would almost certainly continue and increase. The churches and the academy would be left without resources to challenge whatever biblical interpretation might come from uninformed but charismatic proclaimers.

To be sure, Avalos does not suggest that university professors teach their students to follow biblical teachings. What he maintains is that they fail to stress the irrelevance and moral deficiency of the Bible. Indeed, relevance becomes a major test for Avalos, and at this point he seems to be wearing clerical rather than academic garb. A Christian preacher wrestles with the relevance of the Bible, or some part of it, every Sunday morning. Even if he may see himself as taking a side opposite to that of most preachers, Avalos is still working with the same issue as they. But is this an appropriate question in the academy? Clearly many non-biblical fields might fall short if relevance is set as a test for academic appropriateness. HHHow relevant is it to study Homer or Shakespeare? What is the relevance for a post 9/11 world of the study of 3rd century Rome or the Napoleonic wars? I would argue that the insistence on relevance is a slippery slope. What seems irrelevant in 2011 may seem quite different in 2021. We close our options for future cultural change if we lose that scholarship that might now seem irrelevant.

Avalos, speaking as a secular humanist, calls on us to stress the moral deficiencies of the Bible, and surely he has much to draw on. Here also he sounds more like a preacher (an antiἀ-Bible preacher?) than a scholar. In my judgment, the job of the scholar is to examine a text from a perspective that is open to both the good and the bad, not to stress only the one or the other. To be sure, we frequently fail to live up to this ideal, but it is our goal nevertheless. Yes, the Bible does have stories of oppression, and it elevates patriarchy and, sometimes, violence. But are there not also maxims that speak of our obligation to the poor and narratives that elevate loyalty, justice, and good will?

Avalos includes an important clarification in his essay, “Six Anti-Secularist Themes: Deconstructing Religionist Rhetorical Weaponry:” “Contrary to the objections expressed by many of my opponents, I am trying to save biblical studies in public academia, but saving it requires a thorough reorientation and secularization. Faith-based approaches in biblical studies need to realize that their days in public academia are numbered if they don’t fully integrate with the approaches we find in the rest of the Humanities and Social Sciences.”3 If it were not for the obvious religionist nuances, Avalos’ book might have been entitled, The Salvation of Biblical Studies.

Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

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