Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jacques Berlinerblau on the SBL

Jacques Berlinerblau’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What’s Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature? (Nov. 10 2006) is attracting lots of interesting comment among the bibliobloggers. See Stephen Carlson on Hypotyposeis for relevant links, and now add also John Lyons's on Reception of the Bible. I am finding the comments of the bloggers, as so often, more interesting and thought provoking than the article itself, which is a bit too grape-shot in its approach to want to present a precise and coherent critique of the SBL. There are so many points at which the author simply throws out a grenade and runs away, that it is difficult to choose only a couple of points for comment. Nevertheless, here are two to add to the other bibliobloggers' comments. First, I am surprised by this point:
Consider that the most popular and widely discussed books about the Bible are almost never written by biblicists . . . On the level of serious scholarship, I find it quite telling that some of the most influential studies — the ones that get reviewed in the major journals of opinion . . . . are written by professors of English and comparative literature. To give a recent example, Harold Bloom has released a quirky, unforgivable, but deliciously provocative book entitled Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. In 2006, as far as I can tell, it has generated more media commentary than any other work of scholarship focused on the Bible in the past year.
But this is nonsense; what about Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, which has been everywhere, radio, TV, the bestsellers lists? I even found myself talking about it to one of my neighbours the other day when he brought it up. (Cf. Danny Zacharias on Deinde for similar thoughts). And the massive interest generated by the Gospel of Judas shows the media and the public's thirst for interesting new discoveries that relate to early Christian history, and of scholarly involvement with that.

My second comment relates to this passage, already isolated for comment by others (including Stephen Carlson and John Lyons):
Another problem: Under the mistaken assumption that it is an academic society like any other, the SBL has encouraged scholarly specialization. In so doing, it has always favored philology and archaeology, all the while avoiding the more capacious domain of hermeneutics. The study of how Scripture has been interpreted across history, and in contemporary society, has traditionally held little interest for a society that places a premium on the examination of ancient languages and artifacts. But the study of hermeneutics really forces one to be a generalist. It is a diachronic enterprise through and through.

Let's say that you are interested in studying depictions of Queen Jezebel in music and art. You will need to know about descriptions of her in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin (if not all three). You will need to know what the learned rabbis and fathers of the church had to say. Then you will need to look at renderings of the queen in, say, 16th-century France and 20th-century Ethiopia. In other words, you will need to abandon any pretense of being a specialist.
I think this misreads the strengths and the attraction of Wirkungsgeschichte. One of the things that is so enjoyable and intellectually stimulating about reception history is that it is a collaborative enterprise. You do not have to be an expert on 16th century French renderings of Jezebel to be an expert on 20th century Ethiopian ones; indeed, you could organize a conference in which you get together a variety of scholars with different expertises to discuss Jezebel, and you could engage, each bringing something different to the table. Let me illustrate. I am not at all an expert on the reception history of the Passion Narrative, but I do know a bit about the Passion in twentieth and twenty-first century cinema. At a really stimulating conference in March 2005, I was lucky enough to talk about the Passion in film as one small part in a larger gathering at which there were experts on music, art and a variety of other things, all towards an appreciation of the Passion across history. I was not excluded from talking about the Passion in contemporary film because I didn't know about the Passion in eighteenth century European music. That the study of reception history is a growing concern at the conferences is quite clear, SBL included, and I repeat that one of its attractions is its collaborative, inter-disciplinary nature.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark for pointing me to the bibliobloggers' conversation on the Berlinerblau piece. I had written a summary and started a series of comments on my own blog, but had not searched the blogosphere for other commentary.

Ross said...

But don't you think he has a point that academic specialists do seem very removed from the world in which the Bible itself is being read and interpreted? Although I thought he rather missed the significance of this by arguing that SBL ought to be more secular.

Anonymous said...

I had noticed the same trend: Enoch Powell, AN Wilson, Barbara Thiering, CP Thiede, Dan Brown (strange bedfellows!) will have their ideas on Christian origins quoted in the national press and ignored in the academy. Conversely works avidly discussed in the academy will be ignored in the national press.

This is not totally a conspiracy. The public will be interested if (a) the ideas are accessible, (b) they are sensational and packaged as 'new' (tho' usually as old as the hills), (c) they seem (to nonspecialists) to be evidence-backed, (d) they fit in with the ideology of the demolition of everything you were taught at Sunday School and/or the American ideal of challenging the establishment.

The problem for the academy is that few works of honesty and integrity fulfil (a)-(d). Bart Ehrman tries to maximise (a)-(d) (if possibly less blatantly than Elaine Pagels) which is the only sure route for a NT scholar to publicity and/or money. But most just feel it is against honesty and integrity to go down that path.

Publishing is all about money, and always will be. Scholarship is not, and never will be. But that doesn't stop scholars writing for a wide popular audience.

Anonymous said...

Mark, Greetings from Wheaton! Thanks for your post. I found it helpful. When reading his piece, I was struck by his assumptions that secularists, not confessional believers, need more influence and need to be teaching biblical studies. My own feeling is that it's more helpful to have confessional believers of a generous spirit teaching the bible, for they are (1) sympathetic to the material, and (2) have some sense of how it works and has worked in faith communities. After all, isn't his ostensible concern the exploration of the role of the bible in church (or synagogue) or society, given its rising cultural influence? Who better to explore that than an insider, rather than a putatively neutral outsider? For me, I'd rather learn Islam from a practicing Muslim, who has loved the text and participated in a Muslim faith community. I think that's more valuable than the other option; I learned about Islam in college from a white Episcopalian who did teach me a lot, but the experience would have been even better had I learned from a muslim.

Thanks again Mark. Hope all is well with you.