Interesting developments with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Ronald Handel of UC Berkely has recently published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) about why he is stepping away from SBL. He feels that SBL has slipped in their commitment to “reason” and “critical scholarship” with regards to biblical studies which has opened the door to conservatives and evangelicals to increase the dimension of faith in the conversation. Below is the article and then SBL’s response. Fascinating…
BAR 36:04, Jul/Aug 2010
Biblical Views: Farewell to SBL
Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies
By Ronald S. Hendel
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.”1 That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.
In the same year as the appearance of the Pensées (1670), another book appeared that changed the practice of Biblical scholarship—Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. In it he showed that the Bible can be the subject of systematic rational inquiry. In the course of his study, he gave persuasive reasons to show that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch. For this and other conclusions, Spinoza was branded a heretic and his book was widely condemned. But Biblical scholarship persisted, and over the last few centuries it has become a full-blooded academic field. Pascal would not have been happy with Spinoza’s conclusions, but in a curious way they agreed on the careful distinction between the paths of faith and reason.
Let’s fast forward to the present. My focus is the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the main organization for Biblical scholarship in North America. In recent years it has changed its position on the relationship between faith and reason in the study of the Bible. I think that it has forgotten the lessons of both Pascal and Spinoza, and is falling into a confused domain of dissension and hypocrisy. The problem, as I understand it, has to do with money.
SBL used to share its annual meeting with the major American organizations for Near Eastern archaeology (the American Schools of Oriental Research, ASOR) and for the study of religion (the American Association of Religion, AAR). But due to petty disputes among the leaders of these groups, ASOR and AAR have dissolved their links with SBL. In order to keep up its numbers at its annual meeting, SBL has reached out to evangelical and fundamentalist groups, promising them a place within the SBL meeting. So instead of distinguished academic organizations like ASOR and AAR in the fold, we now have fundamentalist groups like the Society of Pentecostal Studies and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies as our intimate partners. These groups now hold SBL sessions at the annual meeting. The participation of these and other groups presumably boosts attendance—and SBL’s income—to previous levels.
What’s wrong with bringing in such groups? Well, some of them proselytize at the SBL meetings. One group invited some Jewish scholars to their session, asked them if they observed the Sabbath, and handed them materials intended to convert them. And recently the SBL online book review journal (Review of Biblical Literature) has featured explicit condemnations of the ordinary methods of critical scholarly inquiry, extolling instead the religious authority of orthodox Christian faith. Listen to this, from Bruce Waltke, widely regarded as the dean of evangelical Biblical studies:
By their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, [evangelical scholars] … hear the voice of higher biblical criticism, which replaces faith in God’s revelation with faith in the sufficiency of human reason, as the grating of an old scratched record. Review of Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31 (Anchor Yale Bible), in Review of Biblical Literature (http://bookreviews.org/pdf/7219_7855.pdf)
This is a quaintly stated position, which directly attacks the applicability of human reason to the study of the Bible. Instead of reason, “faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—as interpreted by evangelical scholars—should be the rule in Biblical scholarship. Waltke dismisses critical inquiry as an annoying nuisance, like the scratchy sound of an old LP. This is in the midst of a review of a brilliant scholarly commentary on the Book of Proverbs, written by a Jewish scholar, in the Anchor Yale Bible series.
On the one hand, I give Waltke the respect he has earned as a scholar, and I am happy to listen to his views. But when he says such rationally absurd things as “the factual data validates Solomon’s authorship of Prov[erbs] 1:1–24:33” (which belongs to a post-Solomonic stratum of Hebrew, as Waltke ought to know), and when he asserts that Moses wrote the laws of Deuteronomy (which are written in post-Mosaic Hebrew), we are clearly not in the world of critical Biblical scholarship at all. This is religious dogma, plain and simple.
Why is this a problem? Certainly Waltke is entitled to his views. The problem is that the SBL has loosened its own definition of Biblical scholarship, such that partisan attacks of this type are now entirely valid. When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, 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.”3 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. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster.
The battle royal between faith and reason is now in the center ring at the SBL circus. While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists4 and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting. I don’t want to belong to a professional society where people want to convert me, and where they hint in their book reviews that I’m going to hell. As a scholar of the humanities—and I might add, as a Jew—I do not feel at home in such a place. What to do? Well, I’ve let my membership in SBL lapse. Maybe that’s a cowardly response, but sometimes, as Shakespeare wrote, “The better part of valor is discretion.” Sometimes it’s reasonable to avoid conflict. And like Pascal and Spinoza, I’m partial to reason in matters of scholarship. But my heart, for reasons of its own, gently grieves.
Discussing Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies
Professor Ronald S. Hendel recently published an opinion piece in Biblical Archaeology Review (see “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies,” available online here) in which he argues that “[in] recent years [SBL] has changed its position on the relationship between faith and reason in the study of the Bible.” We encourage all SBL members and other interested individuals to read the article in its entirety, then to join a conversation about the SBL and its standards for membership and organizational affiliations (see further below).
The questions that Professor Hendel raises are interesting and important, and we look forward to the discussion that follows. However, we first must clarify a few points of fact with regard to the article in question. In what follows, each “claim” is a summary of one of Professor Hendel’s main points, not a verbatim quotation.
Claim: The SBL has diluted its standards of critical scholarship, as evidenced in the 2004 change to the Society mission statement.
Clarification: The Society’s mission has been changed a number of times, but in no case did such a revision reflect a decreased commitment to the standards of academic excellence, nor did the changes dilute the standards of critical scholarship. One iteration of the Society mission, quoted in Hans Dieter Betz’s 1997 presidential address, seems worthy of consideration here. The SBL’s purpose includes “stimulat[ing] the critical investigation of biblical literature … [and] widen[ing] the conversation partners of all interested in biblical literature” (JBL 117 : 4). Throughout its history, the SBL has seen no inherent contradiction between “critical investigation” and including in the conversation “all interested in biblical literature,” a perspective that is consistent with the SBL’s current mission statement: “to foster biblical scholarship.” In short, “critical inquiry—that is to say, reason” has not been “deliberately deleted” from the SBL mission. SBL has never “removed the phrase ‘critical investigation’” from any initiative.
Claim: ASOR and AAR stopped meeting with the SBL “due to petty disputes among the leaders of these groups.”
Clarification: ASOR began meeting independently from the SBL in the late 1990s and has reaffirmed on several occasions since then its preference for a meeting in the same locale and just prior to, but independent of, the SBL Annual Meeting. In 2003, the AAR decided unilaterally to discontinue its joint meeting with the SBL. The SBL was informed of this decision at the same time as AAR members, who had no voice in the decision. Very soon after that decision, AAR began an intense review of the decision. In fact, part of the review led to the decision to meet in San Francisco at the same time, since SBL had already contracted to meet there. Since then, the SBL has worked tirelessly to restore a return to meeting in the same city and at the same time. In sum, the issues of SBL’s past and future partnerships with ASOR and AAR are complex and not due simply to “petty disputes among leaders.”
Claim: Since the AAR decision to discontinue joint meetings, the SBL has loosened its standards as to the types of organizations that can be included at the SBL Annual Meeting.
Clarification: The presence of affiliate organizations at the Annual Meeting has a long history, as evidenced by the 2001 program book’s listing of 237 “additional meetings” (i.e., meetings by groups other than AAR- or SBL-sponsored program units), some of which were sponsored by confessionally oriented or denominationally based groups. Further, even granting that the Society for (not “of”) Pentecostal Studies began meeting with the SBL only recently, one doubts that they would agree that they are “fundamentalist,” in light of the prominence they give to their dialogues with the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches U.S.A., the Wesleyan Theological Society, and the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the second example provided, began meeting with the SBL-AAR in 1972 and became part of the Annual Meeting program in 1993. The ASRS has met with the SBL continually. Suffice it to say that the ASRS’s meeting with the SBL is by no means a recent development, let alone somehow related to a claimed loosening of standards.
Claim: The current SBL environment, which includes instances of proselytizing activity as well as veiled theological denunciations of certain individuals or groups, is hostile to a critical approach to biblical studies.
Clarification: Although SBL invites vigorous discussion of all relevant topics, proselytizing activity is neither welcome nor permitted in SBL-sponsored events and publications and is inconsistent with the SBL’s core values: accountability, inclusiveness, collaboration, leadership in biblical scholarship, collegiality, productivity, commitment, responsiveness to change, communication, scholarly integrity, efficiency, and tolerance. Consequently, any instances of proselytizing activity should be reported to SBL staff. Further, we are unaware of any RBL reviews that even “hint” that anyone is “going to hell.” If any SBL member can point us to such a review, we will immediately remove the review and disavow its sentiments.
Discussion: We invite all SBL members to respond to the issues that have been raised. Please send your responses to this email address. All responses will be vetted before being posted to the SBL website; comments containing personal attacks or disparaging remarks about any group or individual will not be posted. Among the type of issues that might be discussed:
- To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?
- Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?
- If you favor a standards-based approach, what specific standards would you advocate for SBL membership?