The End of Scripture and/or Biblical Studies

See Also:
To What End? A Response to Niels Peter Lemche
In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy
Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship
Conservative Scolarship: Can We Talk?

By Tim Bulkeley
Carey Baptist College, Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School
November 2010

Biblical studies is a discipline divided. This division can be seen (or at least caricatured) in the institutions providing employment. Seminaries are religious organizations teaching the Bible to equip pastors and preachers to work in churches. Biblical studies is also taught in universities, which in many parts of the world are secular (often state-supported) institutions. The two types of institutional involvement suggest two very different approaches to the object of our study.1 After a long period when these differences were largely unacknowledged, or at least were not named as such (though I do remember as a student in the seventies that scholars on the conservative wing were regarded by my teachers as somehow less scholarly), in the last few years the gulf has begun to be acknowledged.

Some see the issue in crusading terms. For example Hector Avalos in his book The End of Biblical Studies2 (which has been significantly responsible for bringing this division into open discussion) wrote:

Our purpose is to excise from modern life what little of the Bible is being used and also to eliminate the potential use of any sacred scripture in the modern world.

More moderately, but tending in a similar direction, Niels Peter Lemche (recently here in Bible and Interpretation3) argued that:

...biblical studies never freed itself from the embrace of the Church. It originated among church people and never became an independent humanistic branch of science led only by the methods and ideals of humanistic scholarship.

On the other side, the essentially religious nature of the literature being studied is seen as an obstacle to its full understanding by atheist scholars or by agnostic scholarship.4 Thus, Jim West (also in Bible and Interpretation) once claimed:

Faith is the string which holds the pearls (of texts) together. Atheists and unbelievers didn’t write a word of it, transmit it, preserve it, or pass it along. No one can argue with the fact that the Bible is the book of the people of faith. It belongs to us. Not to the atheists. They are now and have been and always will be outsiders to it. Their point of view, then, is as mere observers.5

So, the issue at heart is about a basic attitude of either skepticism or trust towards the object of study. Jim West’s person of faith trusts Scripture;6 therefore, he argues, their relationship to this object of study is different from, and richer than, the relationship a skeptical reading permits. By contrast, both Avalos and Lemche see such committed reading as full of social and intellectual dangers. However, this talk of trust or skepticism may lead to confusion, for it sounds like the basic attitudinal difference which distinguishes the “minimalists” and the “maximalists” of recent arguments over the history of the people described in the Bible and of the biblical texts themselves. But this divide is not the same, for there are religious people who are minimalists with respect to history, as there are people who might be identified as historical maximalists who have no religious faith.

These two distinct genres of skepticism and trust should not be confused, for they are different. Yet comparing them may lead to useful clarification. The historical maximalist makes more use of biblical texts in constructing ancient history because, for some reason, they trust that the texts are more or less reliable earlier (and therefore perhaps more richly informed) constructions of the history that interests them. The historical minimalist distrusts the same texts perhaps precisely because they are constructions of a past, and all such constructions have their conscious and unconscious agendas that shape what is constructed.7

In terms of religious thinking, one group of scholars distrusts the Bible because it is, and has been, used by others to support and justify social and political programs that are at variance with the scholars’ ideas of what is moral and right. A nuanced form of this approach is found in Philip Davies’ attempt to motivate a collaboration of biblical scholars who might form a sort of moderate coalition, regardless of their own religious viewpoints or lack of them. His goals are, on the one hand, to combat the dangerous fundamentalists, and, on the other, to enlighten the masses (who, as many writers on these topics note, have become increasingly “biblically illiterate” over recent years or centuries).8

Such appeals are not entirely new; writing of German biblical studies in the eighteenth century, Michael C. Legaspi claimed:9

If the Bible were to find a place in a new political order committed to the unifying power of the state, it would have to do so as a common cultural inheritance. This was the great insight of German academics working at new and renewed institutions during the age of Enlightenment university reform. … ...they introduced a historical disjunction that allowed them to operate on the Bible as an inert and separated body of tradition. They used historical research to write the Bible’s death certificate while opening, simultaneously, a new avenue for recovering the biblical writings as ancient cultural products capable of reinforcing the values and aims of a new sociopolitical order. The Bible, once decomposed, could be used to fertilize modern culture.

This irenic state-supporting, and significantly state-supported, biblical studies seems ironically echoed in Davies’ article, and indeed in much of the talk of religiously skeptical biblical scholars today. The Bible on this vision is first neutralized by “criticism.” Its “claimed” moral superiority is “demonstrated” to be lacking. Many right-wing Christian extremists seem determined to provide evidence to support this project (not only in the USA, for in NZ not long ago such enthusiasts were using biblical texts to support their claim of a parent’s “right” to beat their child). After the moral authority of the Bible has been safely defused, then attempts to increase “biblical literacy” (in other words, the comfortable values of liberal Western middle classes insofar as they can be claimed to be present in biblical stories) can be supported and “incidentally” the employment of biblical scholars safeguarded.

Against such a pleasant vision, Hector Avalos’ calls for an end of biblical studies and the resurgent claims by religious scholars that it is precisely Scripture’s authoritative and confessional status that justifies the expense of supporting an educational and scholarly infrastructure devoted to its study must seem threatening indeed. Avalos’ program would see an end to the pleasant and, despite the pleas of near poverty by their incumbents, comfortable jobs for biblical scholars in secular universities. But so would the development of a study of Scripture freed from the trammels of modern Western skepticism, for such a scriptural studies discipline would “look” quite different from the biblical studies we have inherited from those eighteenth-century Germans.

What is needed is a frank recognition that there are two (related but different) disciplines studying the biblical texts. Then their practitioners need to identify more clearly what they do similarly and what they do differently. In such an environment, discussion of whether any, all, or no religious study of Scripture is scholarly might be possible without a slinging match. But that, of course, is not the world we live in, so we will no doubt continue to read abusive missives aimed from one set of trenches to another in the religious, as in the historical, wars.


1 NB. Some seminary Bible teachers do biblical studies as if they were in secular employment (it, after all, is how many of us were taught) and similarly university biblical scholars may teach the Bible with a deep religious commitment. This institutional caricature is intended to illustrate or suggest the divide, not to map it!

2 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Prometheus Books, 2007), 342.

3 Niels Peter Lemche, “Why Biblical Studies Are Necessary” The Bible and Interpretation (downloaded 10/25/10, nd).

4 By this distinction I intend to speak in the first descriptor “Atheist scholars” of the faith stance of the scholar, while by adding the second “agnostic scholarship” to indicate that similar approaches are often taken by people of faith who seek to investigate the Bible attempting to set aside for a while the presuppositions of their faith.

5 Jim West, “The Sackgasse of A-Theistic Biblical Studies” The Bible and Interpretation (downloaded 10/25/10, nd).

6 I will also distinguish “Scripture” used to refer to the collections of ancient texts (Jewish, Christian [of various confessions differently], Hebrew, Greek...) viewed as authoritative religious texts (in some sense), while using “Bible” when intending reference to the same collections when viewed as objects of academic study.

7 Ironically, of course, the historical minimalists must themselves construct a past to talk about.

8 Philip Davies, “Whose Bible? Anyone’s?” The Bible and Interpretation, nd.

9 “The End(s) of Historical Criticism”The Bible and Interpretation, Michael Legaspi, n.d, which is based upon part of his book: The death of Scripture and the rise of biblical studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Comments (7)

As an interested amateur, I've been watching this discussion go back and forth with a certain degree of perplexity. I seem to be more sympathetic to the "outsider" approach to Bible scholarship, perhaps mainly because I'm a non-Judeo-Christian but also because I'm aware of the very negative sociopolitical effects of tendentious readings of scripture. The creation-vs.-evolution conflict is an obvious example, as is the proof-texting use of Deuteronomy to promote ultraconservative social policies. But that doesn't mean I believe Biblical scholarship should just go away. On the contrary, I think it could play a very positive role, but only if operating outside narrow dogmatic or sectarian confines. For example, the discipline could help open (or restore) alternative interpretive frameworks, providing a counterweight to restrictive schemas such as the concretizing approach that is loosely referred to as "literal." I also believe the placing of scripture in historical and textual perspective (for example, in the way Bart Ehrman has done in "Misquoting Jesus") can be helpful in dislodging people from their exceptionalist and triumphalist preconceptions. One might argue that continuing to treat the Bible differently from other texts is a "privileging" of it, but it seems to me that the book's special status in overall society means it deserves special attention until such time as its disruptive or destructive power has been neutralized. Clearly, that time is not yet upon us.

#1 - M Buettner - 11/02/2010 - 17:40

Both religious and historical disciplines would benefit from studying the biblical texts "rightly divided"
Ephesians 2:11 - TIMES PAST
2:13 - BUT NOW
If, as we study the bible, we place what is being read into one of these three categories, understanding it becomes easy.
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15).

#2 - A B Chrysler - 11/04/2010 - 12:03

In his The End of Scripture and/or Biblical Studies,Tim Bulkeley is arguing in favour of two separated ways of reading the Bible: on one side faith committed, and on the other a secular reading.
I would argue that there are several more ways of reading the Bible and several more ways of handling it, e.g., readings from the viewpoint of postcolonial studies, liberation theology, feministic theology: You name it. We do not need to limit our reading to the two mentioned ways.
However, who is doing the reading? The lay or the professional, the minister/priest/vicar? And for what purpose?
Now Tim Bulkeley seems to favour the religiously conscious reading as the most rewarding for a religious person. It could be that he is right; I am not entirely sure about that. After all every reading involves a construction process. Some may say that a religious reading of the Bible is rewarding because it is sacred literature, by nature religious scripture. How can we know that? Because of a belief in verbal inspiration or the like? Or because somebody has told us that it is sacred literature or because of tradition? My argument is that it is the minister/priest/vicar who tells his congregation that it is sacred scripture. It is the minister/priest/vicar who constructs the sacred meaning of the text. And true, I suppose that some of us has gone so far in deconstructing everything that we accept everything to represent construction, also the constructor himself.
In my recent article here I referred to the division between the Church's way of handling scripture and the professional exegete's way of doing it as established by Johann Phillip Gabler almost 225 years ago. Gabler did not say that the Church's handling of biblical texts were of secondary importance, but asked for permission for critical scholarship to do its job without interference from the Church and to be respected for it. He also asked the Church to pay attention to critical reading. To anyone except the hard-core fundamentalist this should be obvious, and the religiously oriented reading should respect the interpretation of the learned community, and include this in their religious interpretation. Otherwise they are simply lying to their congregations, simply because they must be advocating a kind of double truth.
This does not say that critical academic reading has succeeded. On the contrary, it ended up construing something that has never existed, the ghost of ancient Israel, the primary invention of historical-critical scholarship. We -- or some among us -- have spent many years in deconstructing historical-critical scholarship, showing that it represents a cul-de sac. One of the problems of this direction of scholarly reading has been its incorporation of many aspects which it borrowed from a religious reading which prevented -- as has been said by biblical scholars for many years -- Gabler's project to succeed. The separation never occurred. It will thus be possible to see Hector Avalos' strong stand against academic reading as a defense of Gabler's project. These academics never gave up being religious readers of the Bible. They could not free themselves from the embrace of their Church(es) and at the end they turned out to be not historical-critical at all.
Tim Bulkeley's assertion that a religious reading is more rewarding because it is up to the expectations of religious people is simply wrong. In his eyes a traditional reading is valuable because it conforms with a certain tradition. It can, however, be completely wrong and misleading if this tradition has moved in a wrong direction, or has become meaningless. It is no more than another construction.

#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/04/2010 - 15:14

Thanks for an interesting comment Prof Lemche. I could argue that you have misrepresented what I said, but that would be to quibble and split hairs. Instead I'd like to take up some points from what you write and follow them further, if you are willing?

But first, a comment on what we agree about. Much study of the biblical texts in "the academy" (perhaps especially in the USA) has not achieved Gabler's separation from religious concerns. I would argue that the reverse is also true, much reading of Scripture in seminaries has become ensnared in Atheist assumptions.

Therefore, I argued, we should recognise agnostic and believing reading of the same texts as two different activities. Naming them differently would help with this.

The most difficult part of that exercise (one I only hinted at in the short opinion piece) would be discussing the potential place of Scripture Studies in the academy alongside Biblical Studies. All knowledge is a construction, shaped by prior commitments. Agnostic as well as believing stances are both such commitments. So, a case can me made for such a co-existence. But since that discussion would be about money and power it would be heated. Perhaps that is why we have not had it, but have preferred to pretend the problem does not exist. As you pointed out in your piece that I cited above (

However, when you write in your comment: “My argument is that it is the minister/priest/vicar who tells his congregation that it is sacred scripture. It is the minister/priest/vicar who constructs the sacred meaning of the text.” We must part company. As someone who grew up among the heirs of the Anabaptist wing of the reformation, I affirm that religious professionals have no special right to claim authority in reading the text. Indeed they are professional (that is employed) only so long as their congregation continues to wish to employ them. Each and every community of readers constructs the sacred meaning of the text afresh for themselves. In the light of the tradition in which they stand. That is how the rule of popes and bishops was ended, and how slavery came to be understood as wrong.

This is where I start to have problems, for demagogues often sway groups of people to accept their daft ideas. The Young Earth Creationist groups in the USA are obvious examples. But one does not put out such a fire by using fire, it needs watering. And here is where I part company from you and Philip Davies, for the skeptical response seems to be to be merely a return of fire ;)

#4 - tim bulkeley - 11/04/2010 - 17:50

Well, I am not so sure that I misunderstood you. Every reading is a
construction, and this is as valid to the \"believing\" reading - whatever
it may be; there are many different kinds of beliving readings - as to the
reading you call \"agnostic.\" And more, you are yourself a construction as
much as I am and therefore you decide what to read as well as I do. I
believe that here at least we are in agreement.

Being a Lutheran Christian employed by a state faculty (since 1479) does say
that I share your idea that we are all ministers of faith, and that the
professional minister has no special position, except that he or she is
employed as a specialist, e.g., in explaining the Gospel to the congregation
every Sunday. It does, however, not say that a religious reading - and you
need to explain what you mean; I could take it as an evangelical kind of
reading, and then our ways separate - represents a superior way of reading
biblical texts. I do not think that this is your position, or need to be.
The interesting thing is how far your place within theology (Anabaptism of
some sort) decides what you read. Then we are back to Gabler because it says
that you interpretation is dictated by what your Church believes in. Then we
are back to another benchmark of Christianity, its sectarian roots.

Historical-critical scholarship was liberation theology when it appeared
asking for independence from the Church. Barr has made this point, and
Gabler\'s program is based upon it. It ended in a cul-de-sac partly because
the Church never let it alone, which is one of Avalos\' points: mentally
most biblical scholars cannot separate between academic exegesis and
religiously committed reading. Nevertheless the (post-)modern scene is more
rewarding because of the many options presented to us. However, the academic
exegesis is still around, simply because it allows for the deconstruction of
also religiously based interpretation.

The truly insulting part of your contribution has to do with the label
\"agnostic reading.\" You count me as an agnostic. Maybe in light of your
religious background, but then you cannot have read the fourth part of my
2008-book including a discussion of OT and biblical theology over the last
hundred years. Here you side with people like Bill Dever attacking their
opponents of being, well, agnostics, simply because they are of a different
opinion. This assertion can, of course, be falsified, and even

#5 - Niels Peter Lemche - 11/05/2010 - 16:02

Hi, again, Niels Peter, and again thank you, I am finding this conversation really stimulating, what a shame others aren't joining in (polishing their presentations for SBL no doubt ;)

A filmmaker and an astrophysicist may both study the light of the sun, but the two disciplines are seeking understanding for different purposes. They are two disciplines, so we do not expect their practitioners to use the same methods, though from time to time the results (or even perhaps the methods?) of one may be useful to the other. It may even be that the same person practices both. Why should we assume it is different when studying biblical texts?

Implied in your last comment is the question of what sort of reader I think I am. And it could be useful if I try to answer it.

In terms of religion I grew up as an heir to the Anabaptists, my churches (local communities) then as now were passionate about each and every (all together, with the different voices heard) person's responsibility to read Scripture. It does not always work of course, and usually some voices are louder or more authoritative (in practice if not in theory) than others, but even the ideal provides some protection from the demagogue pastor. My reading of Scripture then is coloured and inspired by that vision.

In this vision of “church”, of course, there is little place for some central body or received tradition to tell me how to read, though as you note all readings are shaped by the readers' lives and experiences.

I start from the presupposition that each person and community should read Scripture for themselves. They then need to seek to test that reading against others. Therefore it needs to be reasonable, and reasoned. But it does not need to fit the categories of 19th or 20th century materialism. It does, however, also need to fit the central and obvious teaching of Scripture. I still think Menno Simmons start at defining what this perspicuous teaching is provides a good starting point: “The Word is plain and needs no interpretation: namely, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself. Again, you shall give bread to the hungry and entertain the needy.”

#6 - tim bulkeley - 11/06/2010 - 17:41

Sorry, I did not deal with the most important point. I did not label your reading of the texts as agnostic, though you may have identified it that way using my terminology and descriptions. As I was using the phrase it was not intended to be a description of the faith stance of the person, but of their reading. Some reading of Scripture assumes it to be Scripture and so to communicate a divine message. But we can, and many of us do, approach the same texts as we would a piece of Ugaritic literature, seeking not divine messages, but mundane information. Such a search for historical, social, linguistic information for its own sake was what I intended to describe as "agnostic" because it claims not to know (or indeed perhaps be interested) in whether or not some divine meaning might be found in the texts being studied. If the term offends you perhaps you can suggest a better one?

I would prefer to avoid "academic" as that already answers (before even asking) the question concerning whether some form of theological reading can be "academic".

#7 - tim bulkeley - 11/06/2010 - 17:52

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