hendel’s must-read critique of sbl

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

Cal Berkeley’s Dr. Ronald S. Hendel has written a letter in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) that all biblical scholars should read. In his “Farewell to SBL,” Hendel examines the loss of the ‘critical’ part of biblical scholarship in the SBL. He laments the apparent exchange of critical investigation and rational scholarship for fundamentalists and charismatics, all for the sake of an increased membership and a few extra dollars. He highlights this very issue – the removal of the word ‘critical’ from SBL’s mission statement:

I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.” The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry – that is to say, reason – has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL.

I agree with the good doctor from the University of California. The moment that critical scholarship is abandoned and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are entertained as equally authoritative, scholarship has lost its way. While the SBL should welcome all comers, its authority lies in its pursuit of academic excellence, not the appeasement of all points of view. For while the democratization of knowledge fostered by the Internet is a welcomed and beneficial advance in the accumulation of knowledge, the authority and credibility of scholarship comes from the training and expertise exercised in differentiating the credible from the problematic, the veritable from the sensational. The authority of scholars comes from the creation, cultivation, preservation, and dissemination of verifiable knowledge and critical scholarship, not from ecumenism or the sheer size of its membership. The SBL should embrace the critical method, not a popular membership, for after all, the SBL is a society, not a church, and the letters designate a conference of scholars, not an ecclesiastical order.

(For those interested, there is a facebook group dedicated to putting the word ‘critical’ back into SBL’s purpose statement.)

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19 Responses

  1. Well said, Prof. Cargill. I don’ think I could have expressed my feelings on the issue any better. Critical examination must remain the “cornerstone” of any discipline of scholarship.

    Sincerely,

    Michael

  2. [...] to SBL” published in the July/Aug 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. I commented on Dr. Hendel’s letter [...]

  3. [...] the SBL’s warming up to religious scholars. You should Jim West‘s take as well as Dr. Cargill‘s, as well as [...]

  4. [...] there is too much to be worried about, but also doesn’t think that SBL is beyond criticism.  Robert Cargill believes that SBL must pursue alliances with critical scholarship, not popular membership. [...]

  5. Great article overall Dr. Cargill. I have been reading up on this issue. It just proves why I am still a proud member of the American Academy of Religion. :)

  6. [...] June 27, 2010 · Leave a Comment So the week began in a controversial fashion without yours truly, oddly enough, instigating the debate. Rather, the Biblioblogosphere was hit with a surprise by Ronald Hendel’s critique of the Society of Biblical Literature. [...]

  7. Is your cornerstone scholership or the bible? Some of the defences of scholarship suggest a higher elevation of scholarship.

  8. scholership? defences?
    one need not be a biblical scholar to be a jew or christian. (the ability to spell has its advantages, however…)

    there is no such thing – none whatsoever – as bible without scholarship! if you read an english bible, you are relying heavily on scholarship for translation, judgments in redaction, socio-linguistic analysis, etc.
    there is no such thing as ‘bible’ without scholarship. the difference is the quality of scholarship being applied to the bible.

  9. (the ability to spell has its advantages, however…)

    Ha! Well played Bob. :)

  10. Yes well played Bob, a mocking tone is always encouraging and useful

  11. brian,

    you didn’t find a wee bit of irony and yes, humor in the fact that you misspelled ‘scholarship’ and ‘defenses’ in a critique of scholarship?

    all study of the bible is scholarship. the issue is what level of scholarship one uses.

    pitting the bible vs. scholarship is like praising the law while criticizing law school and lawyers. most forget that lawyers wrote the law. scholars (ancient ones) wrote the bible, and it has been scholars who have interpreted it ever since. the modern notion of sola scriptura is a sophomoric oxymoron because never has the bible been interpreted without the aid of scholarship. (those who claim they do simply ignore or do not credit the scholarship.)

    interpretation is 9/10 of the law – all laws, including biblical ones.

    bc

  12. I can certainly recognise the irony, perhaps your focus on my typo though led me to feel the point was dismissed due to an error. I am writing in the UK so you have to forgive some differences in spelling. I would agree to a point with your first post and am not dismissing scholarship, it is an essential ingredient in approaching the Word. As for the second post, I struggle to identify all of the writers of the Bible as ‘scholars‘, perhaps we have differing definitions.
    As I say, scholarship is important,; however, I think the point I am trying to make is that we submit the Bible to scholarship but if we believe it to be the word of God we must be careful not to elevate the scholarship above the Bible. I would not want to put scholarship vs the bible, scholarship is a tool but the risk is admiring the screwdriver and ignoring the engine. I think Sola Scripture is more about making sure the Bible is given a higher esteem than the traditions, not dismissing scholarship.
    Perhaps Soren Kierkegaard can put it (and yes, indeed spell it) better than I can

    ‘The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
    Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.’

    I suspect the view is that the scholarship referred to is the misuse of scholarship, it is perhaps the misuse and exaltation of scholarship I am concerned about, not a complete dismissal of some of the great work done.

    Thanks

  13. Interpretation is 9/10 of the law – all laws including biblical ones.

    What God requires from you is conditional upon how you interpret that requirement? hmmmm, interesting.

  14. @ steve.
    exactly. like this one:

    matthew 19:21 – Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    it appears that christians are asked to sell all that they own and give it to the poor before they come and follow jesus. all christians must sell all that they own, that is, own no possessions and assume a life of poverty in order to be a follower of jesus.

    would you agree, or do you have a different interpretation?

    bc

  15. One could argue that ‘if you want to be perfect’ could come in to play but I accept the point as I know full well that there are many other examples. The question remains, where then do you draw the line. ‘I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me’ – up for interpretation?

  16. I think my previous post didn’t quite upload properly.

    I certainly see the irony, perhaps it appeared/felt lke my point was dismissed due to a typo, I am writing in the UK so do excuse any differences in spelling.

    I accept your first post about interpretation being essential to approaching the bible (although I may consider there to be no such thing as bible without revelation, it doesnot necessarily require our study but God’s intervention), my concern though remains that scholarship risks being raised above the bible. We should be sure that scholarship or interpretation is still an act of worship.
    Perhaps Soren Kierkegaard could put, and indeed spell, my concerns in a better way.

    ‘The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
    Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend it-self against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.
    Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.’

    This may be considered the refer to the misuse of scholarship but the point is that if we hold the bible to be the word of God, regardless of your choice of hermeneutics, it must be studied with reverence and that study of it should not become the focus itself.

    Regarding Sola Scripture, I think as a reaction to the elevation of other issues to the same level of scripture it was valid, perhaps the study of the Word can still sit within a sola scripture definition? (I’m sure another debate in there)

  17. @’bob’

    correct. the bible says lots of things, as does the u.s. constitution. they need to be interpreted, and how one interprets the bible determines (what it says). interpretation is 9/10 of the law.

    re: way, truth, life: of course it is. who is ‘i am’ referring to? jesus? the ‘i am’ mentioned in exod 3:14? and what is ‘way’? the way mentioned in acts 9:2? or a more general ‘way’? truth? life? certainly it is possible to have life without believing jesus. athiests do it every day. so is this spiritual life? eternal life? ‘come to the father’? what is that? to approach god in prayer? to enter the kingdom? ‘through me’? what does it mean to go ‘through me’? simply call on the name in jesus? believe ‘in’ him? follow him? do what he says? be baptized? profess that one is a christian?

    people read this different ways. these are loaded, religious terms. interpretation is 9/10 of the law.

  18. @brian

    i find it ironic that the above quote comes from the christian existentialist philosopher dr. søren kierkegaard (trained at the university of copenhagen). i’ve mentioned him before.

    btw: was kierkegaard a scholar?

  19. He certainly was, but then self deprecation would be in keeping with some of his works!?! But he recognised the risks involved, as with most things a balance is required.

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