On Monday Bryce Walker wrote a post titled “A Critique of the Field of Biblical Studies” and he asked if I would be willing to engage in a dialogue with him on this subject. A few people were hesitant to engage Walker because he uses a pseudonym (see the discussion on the Facebook group page of the Society of Biblical Literature). I understand how this can be distracting, but I know that Walker’s reason for remaining pseudonymous has to do with the politics of academia and I am sympathetic. I decided to agree to the dialogue and I wrote my response titled, “A response to a critique of the field of biblical studies.” Walker has written a response to my response titled, “Responding to LePort’s Response to My Critique” to which I am responding in this post. To understand this post you may want to take a few short minutes to read Walker’s last post.
One thing that seems to have caught Walker off guard (as well as at least one other person who commented on my post) was my claim that the field of biblical studies is committed to historicism. I can see how this could be misinterpreted. I tried to find a good definition of historicism as I used it. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia definition (please pardon me) was the best fit: “…a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture.” I am fully aware that the useful of a historical-critical approach is debated by historians with one another, by historians with philosophers, and by historians with theologians. I tried to emphasize that I am not arguing for an either-or here. I am not saying one has to read the Bible through a historical-critical approach or an approach that is literary/philosophical/theological/et cetera. I advocate a both-and hermeneutic here that is determined by the concern of the reader.
For example, if the reader wants to know if there is evidence that the exodus happened in space-time one will consult archaeology, documents of other cultures (e.g., the Egyptians), and a host of other links to the past. If one wants to know the “message” or “meaning” of the exodus they may not need any of these things. It depends on the aim of the researcher.
For the most part groups like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are not concerned with what the exodus means to contemporary Jews and Christians. This may be a topic for the American Academy of Religion (AAR) (a group with which I aim to become a member in January), but not SBL, at least not for the most part. SBL members may be concerned with whether there is evidence that Egyptians knew anything of an exodus, or how ancient Israelites interpreted and understood the exodus, or how second temple Jews interpreted and understood the exodus, but as you can see the concern is with how something was (past tense) not how something is (present tense).
There can be a philosophical flaw here because for someone in the present to ask about something in the past indicates present concerns. Historical research always reflects present concerns. Present concerns dictate whether a document is read or ignore, whether archaeologist dig in a certain spot, an so forth. No one was concerned with the Qumran community to the extent that we are now until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The Gospel of Judas was not given much attention until codex were recently discovered in Egypt. Furthermore, there is a reason for why we study the Dead Sea Scrolls (present Christians and Jews and outside observers do have contemporary interest in the historical implications). There is a reason for the Gospel of Judas receiving so much attention when so-many pieces of s0-many manuscripts have been found in places like Nag Hammadi. Our present interest determines historical value.
So Walker is absolutely correct that historical research is not dry and objective. He says this is what prevents it from being a science. I disagree because the sciences are not influenced by dry and objective research either. We engage the sciences based on contemporary interest and some of the methodology of historical research can be quite scientific, papyrology for example.
For the most part the field of biblical studies exists because contemporary concerns determine historical interest. This is not to say that what a pastor does in preparation for a sermon is not “biblical studies,” but it is not biblical studies in the context of academia. N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God is biblical studies in the academic sense: present concerns determining historical investigation. Wright’s Simply Jesus is biblical studies at the broader, popular level. Wright is concerned about what contemporary Jews and Christians think about Jesus of Nazareth now even if that is influenced by his research on what Jesus meant then.
I hope this clarifies my statements about biblical studies being a subset of historical studies. I meant to address it from the perspective of academia as exemplified by groups like SBL. I do not deny that there are academic approaches that emphasize contemporary readings and meaning like AAR or even your local church or synagogue!
I think biblical studies faces some of the same difficulties as philosophical studies. It seems to me as an outsider that more and more students of philosophy are taught how to explain the canons of western philosophy then to philosophize. This is not always the case though. One student may be a Platonist and she may do her philosophical studies from a perspective that shares a worldview with Plato or other thinkers influenced by Plato. Another student may not care to tell you whether Plato’s views of reality are real and true. He is concerned with explaining Plato in Plato’s historical setting attempting to remove the interpretive layers from Plato’s thought in order to recover the original Plato himself. Whether this is possible is debatable.
I do not deny that the field of biblical studies inevitably moves from historical interest to contemporary interest, but that is because the Bible matters today. A historian of Assyriology is not likely to study a text that is still read and studied today by people who believe that it explains the truth about gods, the cosmos, human origins, the meaning of life, and so forth. A student of Israelite literature, Jewish literature, or early Christian literature has the unique conundrum of studying an ancient text that has major contemporary implications. If someone denies the historicity of Xerxes they may upset some fellow historians, but no one’s contemporary religious values are threatened. If someone denies the historicity of David it is a different ball game.
So yes, Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, Craig A. Evans, Morna Hooker, James D.G. Dunn, and many others do live in both worlds. They share a starting point with Assyriologist in historical investigation and this is the academic side of the discipline, but the world in which we lives requires contemporary interpretation and explanation because Judaism and Christianity make their claims on truthfulness based on their understanding of history.
Let me know if there is anything I should clarify.