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The SBL and Secular Biblical Studies

March 18, 2011

Recently, Dr. Jim Linville posted an article that dealt with the probation letter received by the secular biblical studies section When an Academic Society Does the Church’s Work. Can Elephants in the University be Academic?

The problem for Dr. Linville is that The SBL is the primary organization for the critical study of the Bible. There really is no international organization of a comparable scope and size. Yet, the SBL lives in two worlds: the theological and the secular. Among the ranks of the SBL are many devout Christians and Jews, and truth be told, they make their fair share of valuable contributions to the secular study of the Bible and its cultural contexts.”

However, Dr. Linville goes on to highlight the nature of some of the (ridiculously) theological sections that are allowed legitimating space at the SBL while the secular section is allotted probationary status.

Dr. James McGrath also opined on the matter, “At present, my inclination is to view the matter thus: I don’t mind other people doing things that I don’t personally find valuable, as long as (1) there is academic rigor; and (2) all viewpoint are free to hold their program units. And at present,  there does indeed seem to be legitimate cause for concern in both these areas.”

Legitimate cause for concern indeed.

In this era of political correctness, and frankly in North America, the untouchability of Christian religious ideology and practice, I find Dr. Linville’s concerns valid, and view an irony in the very nature of the discussion.

While the Society of Biblical Literature may proclaim in its Mission Statement that their goal is to foster biblical scholarship, they seek to facilitate broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives, and their core values include “inclusiveness” the groups that Dr. Linville highlights in his post are confessional Christians.

And confessionalism by its very nature is exclusive and non-academic

Therefore, secular scholars are asked, nay demanded, by the nature of academic practice (which I believe is right and true) to give ground and be ‘inclusive’ with those who practice exclusivity the majority of the time. In fact, as any practitioner of a religious group knows this exclusivity indwells their religious practice and worldview. Ultimately then, even if (ideally) confessional attitudes are not ‘practiced’ at SBL they are a large part of the assumptions of confessional scholars.

This is a minor point. It is not practiced as far as I can tell–and that may only be because I do not attend sessions such as “pentecostal ‘studies'”–but I do find it ironic that in a group largely comprised of people who practice exclusion, ‘inclusiveness’ is a core value.

More disturbing for me is a group such as the Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture. From the SBL group’s website:

Theological interpretation does not reject out of hand the importance of the bread and butter of modern critical study of the Bible — viz., historical investigation and linguistic inquiry — but insists that these do not exhaust the subject matter of the Bible, nor the ways in which the biblical materials might be engaged critically, nor the role of Scripture among God’s people.

A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities. Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church, and in critical reflection on the church’s practices. This is biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not only as a historical or literary document but as a source of divine revelation and an essential partner in the task of theological reflection. (highlighting from Dr. Linville)

At what point does a group move from ‘hermeneutics’ to outright fideism? Is it anti-religious to explicitly label and identify ‘fideism’ in an academic setting?

Because Fideism by its very nature is exclusive and non-academic

Any ‘interpretation’ of biblical material in an academic setting that would claim superiority based on ‘faith’ or ‘divine revelation’ should always be labeled and decried. There are legitimate places for such discussion, however, I am very skeptical whether SBL is one of those places.

Finally, I am extremely skeptical whether the SBL should be a place where the normative nature of ‘scripture’ should be discussed. We could go a lot of different places with this one: different religious groups have different versions of the Bible, and even similar groups such as protestants have widely differing views of interpreting scripture.

But certainly the SBL, an academic meeting, is not the place for sermonizing cloaked in an obfuscating word ‘normative’, that allows for any sort of suggestion of what the text ‘really means for us today.’

Because some discussions of a biblical text as ‘normative’ are, by their very nature, exclusive and non-academic

In fact, I would think one of the core concerns of secular scholars (and if any are reading this correct me if I am wrong) is persons, or groups of persons, approaching and indwelling some biblical material as ‘normative’. Simply put, biblical cosmology should not be normative for twenty-first century persons; some biblical views of women should not be normative for twenty-first century persons, biblical material that promotes othering should not be normative for twenty-first century persons.

I’m not entirely convinced that a secular biblical studies group should not be organized that is a separate entity from the SBL that refuses to validate in any way scholars, groups, or sections who explicitly or implicitly practice exclusion based on faith, fideism, othering, or the promotion of ancient literature as normative.

Certainly, some sort of affiliation with the SBL for meeting places and economic purposes would be necessary, but refusing to treat certain issues with kid-gloves might be more important in the long run.

What I am not saying: There are incredible scholars who have had amazing careers whose bootstraps I am not fit to tie and have no chance to ever accomplish what they have in the field. Some of my favorite scholars are persons such as George Nickelsburg and Peter Flint (for whom I worked and is a fantastic scholar and human being). Some great scholarship takes place at SBL (but also some bad stuff as I witnessed first hand last year in Atlanta). I think the above are legitimate concerns; however, these concerns, which may only be a small part of the SBL, do not become illegitimate if only a small part of the constituency practice them.

56 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 18, 2011 11:55 am

    Scott, Thanks for this!

  2. March 18, 2011 9:31 pm

    Hi Scott,

    What you are really after is a festivus for the rest of us:

    SBl has always been many things at once, including a Petri dish in which confessionalisms of various kinds thrive. You might want to consider the society’s history. Moving into your beloved 21st century, the Petri dish will include, I’m sure, whatever crazy -ism Linville takes at god’s truth, and whatever -isms, Scott, get your particular goat.

    That, you see, would be a fair definition of inclusivism, not the one you propound above.

  3. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 19, 2011 8:52 am

    Which only shows how much Hobbins really understands about scholarship. All the SBC group is wanting is an academic society with the same kind of boundaries as scientists, anthropologists, historians, etc. have.
    Just how “inclusive” should academics be? Should we include scientology perspectives? Perhaps we can assume the ark of the covenant really is in Ethiopia. Hell, there is a church that believes that, so it must be a valid academic point of view, so how it got there is a proper research project, right? And what of the Baal texts from Ugarit. Surely this must be the word of some god since people at least once believed it? Or does it count only if there are still believers? Hobbins, you are not asking for any kind of academic inclusiveness, but a selective privileging of only some religious voices, an assortment of those with a vested interest in the Bible (or should we include the King James Only crowd? Grow up. There is a big difference between the church’s work and academias work. If you can’t recognize that I suggests you start trying to figure it out.

  4. March 19, 2011 10:00 am

    Hey Jim.

    I have a question, too. Are self-identifying secular biblical scholars prone to suffer from a persecution complex? Like James McGrath, I believe you protest too much.

    People who make negative judgments about the content of the Bible and other elements of widely accepted canons, people who say things like:

    “Shakespeare’s works have no intrinsic value.”
    “[T]he Bible has no intrinsic value or merit.”
    “I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.”

    Such people are welcome and included at SBL. SBL is one outlet among many in which such statements are heard. You know that.

    SBL is also a place where other people, a whole lot of people, do their scholarship on a different assumption: the Bible is a resource of the first order, a life-enhancing and life-transforming textual corpus, the “Great Code” of western literature per Northrup Frye, the source of the Exodus paradigm foundational to the history of revolutions per Michael Walzer, the earliest well-attested example of the invention of a vernacular of resistance per Seth Sanders, or, in a thousand different ways still in the process of discovery, a light before one’s feet and a lamp before one’s path.

    That really seems to bother you.

    It’s fine with me that you are a Bible basher. With all due respect, however, I think you are so fixated on being naughty that you miss a lot of the complexity that comes with any discipline of research in the sciences or humanities.

    In the larger academic world, there are many interesting contrasts and parallels to the situation in biblical studies. That situation is that biblical studies is dominated by believers albeit of various kinds, with non-believers nonetheless not excluded.

    Take Buddhist studies. It has long been dominated by “outsiders,” which is the opposite of the situation in the case of the academic study of Judaism and Christianity. Is this is a good or a bad thing?

    I would contend that it is a bad thing. I’m biased, since the University of Wisconsin is in my blood, a university famous for having a program taught by believing Buddhists. Without hesitation I would suggest that outsiders to Buddhism, if they want to specialize in Buddhism, need to study the texts of Buddhism under a believing Buddhist for an extended period of time.

    Another example. Constitutional law. There must be exceptions, but every constitutional law professor I’ve ever read treats the constitution as scripture to be exegeted in accordance with precedent and a particular hermeneutical approach (there are several).

    Now there might be a point to constitutional law professors taking seriously, I don’t know, a Marxist historian who sees the Constitution as above all a tool of the capitalist class. This would be equivalent to biblical scholars taking seriously a post-colonial colleague who sees the Bible as above all a tool of colonializers.

    But do constitutional law professors humor Marxist historians with a dime of their time and interest? Not that I know of. If so, the interaction is buried in an obscure journal read by a few dozen people in a good year.

    The amnesia about the history of SBL this debate bears witness to strikes me as odd.

    The fact is that there has been, since the Reformation, very robust forms of biblical criticism practiced by believers. A history of this kind is unattested in Islam, Buddhism, and even in Judaism until quite recently. It’s only about a 100 years old in Catholicism.

    SBL, whether you like it or not, is an expression of that paradigm. People who regard the Bible as normative in a way tradition, reason, and experience are not, continue to prove adept at appropriating it again in critically constructive ways.

    That is the ethos of SBL. It’s fun to watch Mormons and Pentecostals buy into it – some more convincingly than others (this is nothing new).

    As for Bible-bashers like you, take your place in Fellini’s parade. Shake your boody like everyone else. No one is going to stop you.

  5. March 19, 2011 12:21 pm

    John Hobbins wrote:

    “The fact is that there has been, since the Reformation, very robust forms of biblical criticism practiced by believers … It’s only about a 100 years old in Catholicism.”

    Your statement doesn’t seem to reflect the “facts.” Could you give some examples of those believer who practice “very robust forms of biblical criticism.” I assume that you do no consider Catholics to be “believers,” right? Then, could you tell us who are believers and who aren’t? Thanks!


  6. March 19, 2011 12:46 pm


    If I was not express enough in the last paragraph, please forgive me: I have an enormous amount of respect for many scholars whose academic work is peerless, and who also consider themselves persons of faith. For example, George Nickelsburg who was a pastor at a Lutheran church (I think it was Lutheran) and who is at the present one of, if not the most, respected scholars of enochic material. James Scott, my thesis adviser, is the smartest man in any room into which he walks (including probably most of the SBL sessions!) and has done some great academic work, and also happens to be a person of faith. I could continue naming scholars whom I respect and are persons of faith for a lengthy period of time because as you noted, persons of faith comprise a large portion of the biblical studies community. My position is not throw the baby out with the bath water, i.e., any scholar of faith is to be dismissed.

    That said, I would disagree with you on a couple of points: one, just because an organization has always been one way it does not logically follow that it has to remain so, or that the constituency is necessarily reflective of the organization’s principles just because they have been allowed entry. There was a time when groups of persons thought slavery was a good idea (and biblical!), there was a time when groups of persons thought the subordination of women was a good idea (and biblical!). Just because the SBL has functioned in a certain manner it does not necessarily mean that it cannot improve or that members cannot express views and concerns pertaining to different issues.

    My guess is that little will change within the SBL, and by and large, it’s probably not a bad thing. However, I would hope that many academics would at the least, the very, very least, be seriously concerned if fideistic principles and practices began to dominate a certain section or group.

    Finally, secular criticism of the Bible should be given a prominent voice at the SBL simply because it is the methodology that many scholars employ and it works so well, especially in comparison to some faith positions of the literature, e.g., who wrote the Torah; how many authors for Isaiah, etc, and there are many scholars who do not have a faith position and their voice should have a valid place of expression within an academic community.

    Ironically–and I’m not sure there is a way around this, it’s kind of like Plato decrying writing in the form of writing!–if a faith position seeks to exclude the secular, or practices othering, or claims faith as a superior method of knowledge outside of accepted academic methods… then the excluder should be excluded!

  7. March 19, 2011 1:22 pm


    Nice to meet you, if only online. You will get a kick out of the fact that I was twice asked by la chiesa valdese (that is my confessional identity; I taught a bit at their theological school in Rome Italy) to teach for an extended period at ISEDET. Thanks to my wife who vetoed that proposal both times, our paths never crossed in Buenos Aires.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Catholics, Jews, Mormons, whatever, are not believers. Of course not.

    Nor do I have my facts wrong about the history of biblical scholarship or of SBL. The long-standing antipathy of many branches of believerdom to historical-critical scholarship is well-known. The field of critical biblical studies achieved critical mass, and not without enormous conflicts, within branches of the churches of the Reformation first of all. Were you in Rome at ISBL when Kugel gave his delightful lecture? If not, go here and follow the link:

    Perhaps you are aware of the anti-modernist legacy of the Catholic church. I would argue that that legacy is neither entirely good or entirely bad. Regardless, in the last hundred years, there has been a significant aggiornamento.

    I can’t quite tell but perhaps you are trying to say that the historical-critical method is not robustly critical. If so, I would like to know why.

  8. March 19, 2011 2:37 pm


    Always good to go back and forth on these things.

    I’m glad you’ve noticed that SBL is full of persons of faith, of all different flavors for that matter, and that the quality of their scholarship is not affected by their confessional location.

    The same holds for feminist scholars, post-colonialists, queer theorists, self-identifying secularists like Avalos, and so on.

    We have all heard terrible papers or read awful articles by fervent believers in a faith or an ideology. On the other hand, we have all heard or read excellent scholarship by believers and anti-believers alike.

    So why frame the question as you did, as if the problem is that SBL’s membership includes, I don’t know, too many insufficiently reconstructed believers, Jewish (have you noticed how some wear kippot?), Roman Catholic (do you notice how some dress as the friars and nuns they are?), Eastern Orthodox (have you noticed how spiffy the profs from St. Vlad’s are?), and evangelical (flannel suits and wide ties give the worst away)?

    SBL is a big tent, bigger now than it has ever been before. It’s a good thing.

    It’s also a good thing that SBL includes the rabidly secular, and a large assortment of former this and former that, of recovering this and recovering that. Even if that means that I sometimes feel as if I am surrounded by dry drunks, if you get the metaphor.

    Here is where we differ. My *confessional location* – not my membership in the category of 21st century persons, a piece of rhetoric on your part – puts me at odds with a vast number of fellow SBL members on this and that issue. For example, I am an egalitarian across the board (my bishop is an African-American woman from Detroit, to give you some idea; she is also great at doing altar calls).

    Still, I don’t go around shaming people and institutions who do not allow women to be, say, rabbis, priests, or pastors. On the contrary, I try to talk about such things in a civil manner, as you will know if you’ve read exchanges on my blog on these questions. It’s about building bridges, not burning them.

    Since forever, if you ask me, SBL has been about building bridges, not burning them.

    Again, my *confessional location,* not my reading of biblical literature, separates me from many other SBL members in terms of faith and practice on the issue noted above. That is, it is obvious that traditionalist, complementarian, and in my view also egalitarian frameworks of marriage and institutional polity are compatible with biblical literature read as a rule of faith and practice. All three. In fact, it is fair to call someone like Paul or whoever wrote Ephesians a “love-patriarchalist” (Troeltsch; Osiek).

    In this a number of traditionalists, complementarians, and egalitarians in effect agree, But there are others, radical feminists on the one hand and biblical egalitarians on the other, who differ. That is, the former are convinced that if you read the Bible correctly, it is a fundamentally misogynist text; the latter are convinced that if you read it correctly, it is feminist ante litteram. In my view, the extremes in this debate are mythmakers with little skill in reading ancient texts, thinking historically, and reconstructing an honest, organic history of ideas.

    Yet I still want partisans of all sorts on such issues at ETS and SBL meetings.

    A place like SBL needs to be seen as a place where people do contradictory things: (1) allow themselves to be challenged by people who pursue approaches to texts and life at serious odds with their own; (2) hang out with their own; (3) make (in)appropriate comments about hairstyle, cleavage, and shoe fashion.

    For the rest, I am tempted to engage you further on the issue of fideism, but I’m tuckered out at the moment. Wolterstorff’s Reason within the bounds of Religion is a classic and effectively demolishes the fidestic / rationalistic dichotomy.

  9. March 20, 2011 11:03 am


    I’m not quite understanding your–I’m not sure of the right word–dismissal of my ‘precious’ 21st century (I am reading your view of my rhetoric as having some negative value, but I could be reading wrongly). I merely mention we are in the 21st century… well, because we are! If we are to recognize the learning and memory of our forebears then I suggest that we also incorporate recent developments. I am located in time and space within this century; I cannot help that. I also think that some of the progress that has recently been made in humanity is worth incorporating.

    You wrote “Still, I don’t go around shaming people and institutions who do not allow women to be, say, rabbis, priests, or pastors. On the contrary, I try to talk about such things in a civil manner, as you will know if you’ve read exchanges on my blog on these questions.” Are you suggesting that I, or someone else, is interacting in such a manner? While I may have raised serious concerns on my and others part I hope (though my writing does fail me at times) that I have been collegial within this discussion. If I have not been please highlight for me so that I may apologize. I’m not attempting to shame anyone but simply say whoa this really concerns me. If it has come across as shaming then that is something I will have to analyze in my discourse. (I realize I do this with extremists religious movements, however, I do not do this academically. Westboro Baptist Church deserves shaming and scorn; the SBL does not.)

    Again you wrote, “So why frame the question as you did.” And again we may be at the problem of my writing, or perhaps what I was assuming from Dr. Linville’s piece. My concern in a nutshell: a secular section would not be allowed while several that featured heavily influenced faith based ‘scholarship’ would be allowed to proliferate. Whether this happens or not, I believe it is a valid concern. As we do not know each other, I cannot express to you enough how many friends and colleagues of mine are persons of faith whose scholarship I enjoy interacting with and are great human beings whom I love spending time with. I’m not sure, perhaps because I sided with Dr. Linville my writing is being read with a negative bias, however, I am not suggesting the truncation of other voices, merely that the expression of a particular voice be included.

    You are correct when you express that your confessional location can separate you from many at SBL. I don’t have a confessional location but I do have an ideological and social location that would separate me as well, nevertheless, I would wholeheartedly echo your suggestion for partisanship on all sorts of issues. Except of course if there is an instance that partisanship is not being practiced, then I may raise my voice, congenially but unambiguously.

    I have not read Wolterstorff so I cannot comment on his argument, however, I’m not sure there is a ‘dichotomy’, I would think of the issue in a more tripartite manner. One, there are those that believe reason does not exhaust the biblical text and that faith informs us certain things about the text that reason cannot. There is a minority in this group, even if we are talking extremist Christianity, who believe this to an extent that reason is almost entirely discarded. Second, there is the faith seeking understanding, reason and faith being compatible and informing rigorous scholarship. Probably describes a good number of SBL participants. Third is the ideological secular rational position (reverse fideism?) in which faith has no place, it can only misinform concerning the text, and logic and reason are the primary and only ways to properly understand texts. I’m not sure here can be a dichotomy from this position because it considers only humanistic understandings of the text legitimate. I’m sure we could probably find some sub-groups or gradual changes between the categories.

    Ultimately, my primary concern would be that the secular criticism section would not get a spot; however, as both you and Dr. Linville noted this does not mean that many sections would not feature scholarship following these standards. If it was the case that a secular section could not function then perhaps those who supported such ideology would have to seek a place to conduct such scholarship; however, as you have repeatedly noted: the SBL is a big tent and quite inclusive, therefore, very likely, they will allow this sort of section to happen.

  10. March 20, 2011 11:49 am


    Thanks for the conversation and for sticking to your guns.

    I think we made some progress.

    I did read your post as suggesting that a section such as the Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture is out of order at SBL, since it caters to people of Christian faith without necessarily excluding others (there are for example Jewish scholars such as Jon Levenson who partner with Christian scholars in the realm of theological hermeneutics), whereas a section such as the one Linville and company want, which caters to Bible bashers in particular without necessarily excluding others, is *not* out of order.

    I happily stand corrected. You are not saying that. You are exercising your right from another ideological location to decry the location of Christians who make the Bible a rule of faith and practice. That’s fine.

    I exercise my reciprocal right early and often to decry the incoherence of the New Atheists, and the list goes on.

    Your comment that set me off was the following:

    “There was a time when groups of persons thought slavery was a good idea (and biblical!), there was a time when groups of persons thought the subordination of women was a good idea (and biblical!).”

    I am probably over-sensitive and taking contrarian thinking too far, but your words struck me as offensive in the sense of making sweeping value judgments of the kind I associate with a-historical and anachronistic thinking. Which is why the 21st century sreference set me off.. Chalk it up to a poor reader response on my part.

    Your comments on faith and reason are well-taken. Most everyone who is a believer and a member of SBL is a proponent of fides quarens intellectum. Why else would they attend so many boring lectures and buy 10 lb books?

    There are a few extreme fideists and reverse fideists in the SBL fold – rightly or wrongly, I think of someone like Avalos, who also does excellent scholarship BTW, as a reverse fideist. They take a militant approach. They are welcome too in my book, so long as their particular ideological project does not occupy center stage at SBL.

  11. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 20, 2011 12:57 pm

    John Hobbins’ responses avoid the central issue of Jim Linville’s argument, and add claims that are not germane or are contestable.

    As Jim has succinctly phrased his argument: “All the SBC group is wanting is an academic society with the same kind of boundaries as scientists, anthropologists, historians, etc. have.”

    To me, all of these disciplines work within the boundary of methodological naturalism. Hobbins attempts to frame the argument as one of including or excluding persons of faith. As long as persons of faith are using methodological naturalism to explore the Bible, then they can work
    with secularists in any field.

    When people of faith use theological presuppositions in biblical studies, then they are no longer within the boundaries that we expect of all other humanities and social sciences. The SBL, as a member of the ACLS, should adhere to the same boundaries as all other fields in the humanities and social sciences.

    For similar reasons, Hobbins’ references to postcolonial studies, parabiblical literature, or queer biblical studies miss the point. Nothing in those fields requires working outside of methodological naturalism and so those areas are not analogous to SBL units that entail dependence on theological presuppositions.

    The reference to Nicholas Woterstorff is unclear within Hobbins’ objections to Linville. Hobbins claims: “Wolterstorff’s Reason within the bounds of Religion is a classic and effectively demolishes the fidestic / rationalistic dichotomy.”

    In my humble estimation, Wolstertorff has done no such thing in that book or in the essays he wrote in Faith and Rationality edited by Wosterstorff and A. Plantinga. These two philosophers, in particular, simply rehearse old arguments for retaining the place of theology in the modern academy.

    Any supposed demolition of the fideism/rationalism dichotomy certainly has not been felt in other areas of the humanities or social sciences. The influence of Wolterstorff and Plantinga remains largely confined to religiously based institutions (or in philosophical discussions), and not the much broader public academia.

    Where, for example, in the Modern Language Association meetings (where I have presented papers), do we have papers that use “fideism” when approaching Shakespeare or Milton? Where do we see any sort of supernatural causation being used to explain Shakespeare’s writings in the MLA? Or where in the MLA do we have scholars claiming that God still speaks through Shakespeare regardless of the textual condition of his manuscripts?

    This brings me to Hobbins’ repeated appeal to this quote of mine: “Shakespeare’s works have no intrinsic value.”
 I am not sure why this very uncontroversial statement is viewed by Hobbins as some sort of proof that I am an extremist.

    As far as I know, this is a fairly standard view of the value of Shakespeare and most authors in the academy. I have been a member of the MLA in the past, and I teach a course on religion in modern Latino literature, some of which includes reading and discussing Shakespeare. I have written a book on religion and Latino literature (Strangers in our Own Land: Religion in U.S. Latina/o Literature [2007]), where I discuss issues of literary canon formation in Anglophonic academic traditions.

    Indeed, Hobbins’ comments are devoid of any awareness of the history of the study of literature in the academy. Shakespeare’s academic value is a relatively recent invention. If you look at Harvard’s early curriculum, you will not find Shakespeare. Harvard did not think Shakespeare was essential or intrinsically valuable for an education.

    In fact, the Statutes of Harvard (ca. 1646) stated: “The Scholars [= students] shall never use their Mother tongue [= English] except that in public exercises of oratory or the like, they be called upon to make them in English.” Source: R. Hofstadter and W. Smith, American Higher Education: A Documentary History (2 vols.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), vol. 1, p. 9.

    What was valued was the Latin and Greek classics.

    As Gerald Graff (Professing Literature: An Institutional History [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987] p. 37) notes, in 1895 it was possible, even at Yale, to go through four years of college without hearing the name of a single English author or the title of a single English classic.

    If Shakespeare had “instrinsic” value, then why was that value not recognized right away and made an essential part of an American education from the 1600s and onward?

    Hobbins might also profit from reading Coppelia Kahn’s Shakespearean Educations: Power, Citizenship, and Performance (2010), which charts how Shakespeare rose to prominence as a standard of English literary achievement.

    In any case, Hobbins should focus directly on Linville’s arguments and refrain from using extraneous rhetoric that serves no purpose but to obscure the issues Linville raises.

  12. Zeba Crook permalink
    March 20, 2011 1:35 pm

    Hector, you devote far too much effort to addressing Hobbins’s assessment of your “Shakespeare” comment. Far more chilling, and ad hominem, is his repeated representation of secularist scholars (or perhaps he just meant the SBC supporters more narrowly) as “Bible bashers.” I have no hope, or interest, frankly in persuading Hobbins otherwise; if he was open to persuasion, he cannot have come to such a ridiculous conclusion. But if others out there are interested in the facts, here they are.

    We treat the Bible with the same respect as we treat the votive offerings dedicated to Asclepius, the Golden Ass, the Illiad, the Homeric Hymns, Aelius Aristides’s reports of search for divine healing, reports of Vespasian’s curing a man’s withered hand, etc. etc. In case this is too subtle, we accord them quite a high respect. We take them as serious testimony about public (or more likely elite) perceptions about the gods, about their cosmos. They are invaluable primary resources, and tell us a great deal about human nature and human experience. Do we “bash” them because we do not accept their world view? Do we “bash” them because we don’t take them literally? The answer is no to both.

    Would we be surprised to encounter a Classicist in the modern academy who did take them literally, who did their work motivated by faith in their truthfulness? Yes we would. Do we think the ancient Greeks and Romans were crazy for “believing” in these gods? No we don’t. And we don’t think modern Christians are crazy for believing what they do. We would be extremely surprised, however, to find a Christian historian of WWII arguing in an academic setting that God had a part to play in the outcome of that war. It’s not “Bible bashing” or “God hating” that we fully expect the modern historian to leave God out of their study; it’s not a problem that we expect Classicists to study ancient religion without presupposing the inherent value or Truth of the claims their religious texts make. Why then do we who expect Biblical scholarship to play by the same rules as other disciplines that study religion and the past get branded “Bible bashers”?

  13. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 20, 2011 2:02 pm

    Hi, Zeb,
    Thanks for your comments. Hobbins has now been using this Shakespeare comment of mine for years, and he kept using it because he apparently thinks it has some sort of probative value for
    my secularist position (and perhaps for the broader secularist position). Thus, I felt that comment had to be addressed once and for all.

    Your comments are very much on the mark. Hobbins apparently thinks only HIS theological
    views should be allowed in the SBL, and not those of Zeusians, Asclepians, or of those who worship

  14. Rebecca Raphael permalink
    March 20, 2011 2:16 pm

    To riff on Zeba’s last question: It’s a fallacy of false dilemma to claim that either one accepts the Bible (whichever canon) in faith commitment, or one is a “Bible-basher.” There are more alternatives than these two, and Zeba sketches at least one of those.

    So the further question is what anyone hopes to gain by using this particular fallacy.

    There’s also a straw person argument lurking here. Why is it that these discussion so often get side-tracked into questions of membership and identity — when the real issue is is method? Method is an activity (feel free to pluralize these nouns), not a category of persons.

    The SBL isn’t clear, and should be, about whether the core value of “inclusiveness” refers to inclusiveness of persons only, or also of viewpoints, methods, etc. At the business meeting in Atlanta, I raised this question, but so far, no further specification of what the core value means is forthcoming. For my own part, I don’t even care to try to influence the needed clarification in any direction; I just want to know what the organization stands for, so that I can then decide whether it’s an appropriate venue for my future work.

  15. Zeba Crook permalink
    March 20, 2011 2:24 pm

    More for Hobbins’s edifcation from Rebecca’s post: one can be Christian and do secular criticism at the very same time, just as one can do redaction criticism, or feminist criticism, or textual criticism and be Christian at the same time. That Hobbins thinks that “Christian” and secular critical method are mutually exclusive (re. Bible bashers) is a figment of his imagination and a symptom of his greater interest in ad hominem over substantive argumentation.

  16. March 20, 2011 6:20 pm

    It’s a delight to be accused of making ad hominem arguments in the context of what are often defined as culture wars. I was worried there for a moment that I wasn’t going to awake anyone from their dogmatic slumbers. It appears I have.

    Hector complains that I trot out his barbaric comment about Shakespeare too often. Thanks for the invitation to contextualize the sense in which an expression like “Bible-basher,” not just “Shakespeare-basher,: fits someone like Avalos. From an old post on one of Hector’s books:

    Avalos’ basic point seems to be that if a text like Isaiah 40 is a literary masterpiece, then so is the Great Hymn to Osiris, an Egyptian composition that also soars from a literary point of view. I agree: but what’s the scoop? I plan to keep reading one as a masterpiece of ancient Hebrew literature and the other as a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian literature.

    Avalos also rightly notes that ancient Hebrew literature is characterized by asymmetries as well as symmetries. I’ve made the same point recently on this blog. Is Avalos channeling Roman Jakobson here, who famously noted in his analysis of Baudelaire’s Les Chats that the sonnet is based precisely upon a tension between symmetry and asymmetry? No, according to Avalos, the beauty of a text must be located in its symmetry or asymmetry, not both. On this score, Avalos’s approach to literature lacks sophistication.

    Avalos tars the biblical texts he discusses with adjectives like “ugly,” “morally objectionable,” “vicious,” and “mangled.” His treatment of the book of Jonah may illustrate. He uses comments made by Jack Sasson as a foil. Sasson notes that the book of Jonah is remarkable for its “jaggedness, imbalance, asymmetry, and discord.” He also urges that the book of Jonah is “haunting,” “comforting,” “serene,” and “purposeful.”

    To which Avalos replies, “[W]hy not just say ‘distorted,’ ‘aggravating,’ ‘annoying,’ [or] ‘ugly ‘. . .?”

    End quote. And why not indeed? If your goal is to bash the Bible, that’s exactly the kind of adjectives it makes sense to use.


    I would love to go back and forth with you about methodological naturalism, Wohterstorff’s contribution to an understanding of epistemology of faith and reason, and other odds and ends. But I wonder whether this thread is the best place to do it. Perhaps we ought to do that on our respective blogs.

  17. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 20, 2011 6:35 pm

    I think Hector, Zeba, and Rebecca have said enough about Hobbins, so I’ll stir up a few more hornets:

    The betwixt and between nature of the SBL is only one part of the issue that I’m concerned about. The publishing industry itself rarely discriminates between theology and Religious Studies and neither do a lot of libraries (academic and public). Most commentary series, for example, are written from within some faith perspective or another (although many from a very liberal one).

    This situation serves the faith community far better than it serves the secular Biblical Studies crowd. The standard literature in our field is shot through with theological agendas and modern (liberal Christian) myth making about ancient Israel: e.g., how they were “historical” instead of “mythic” in focus, an idea that still persists. The debates over the establishment of the Israelite and Judean monarchies are not solely academic disagreements but have a faith component too. The same with academic constructions of prophecy and a host of other issues.

    The issue is bigger than just the SBL.

  18. March 20, 2011 7:05 pm


    It’s nice to make your acquaintance, if only online. I value your scholarship very much and will be recycling some of the points you make in your excellent critique of the history of effects of Malina’s scholarship in JBL 128 (2209) later this semester in a course on the Bible and Current Events for undergrads.

    I am flattered that you are intent on edifying me. Let me edify you back. You say:

    [O]ne can be Christian and do secular criticism at the very same time, just as one can do redaction criticism, or feminist criticism, or textual criticism and be Christian at the same time.

    End quote, Of course: I never said otherwise. But this is also true:

    One can be a non-Christian or an anti-Christian and make a positive contribution to an academic project with a Christian theological focus.

    The more non-Christians and anti-Christians choose to do so, the better. SBL has and will continue to be, among other things, a venue for that to happen. How could it be otherwise, given that SBL never has been and never will be a coffee clutch of people with purely antiquarian interests.

    Academic projects whose point of origin is a particular confession, particular ideology, or particular anti-ideology, all have a legitimate place in SBL.

    When self-identifying secular scholars make a point of their platform a litmus test for all, this can only be understood as a political move, and I do not use the term “:political” in a pejorative fashion. Go right ahead. And if you identify with Hector’s “our” in a choice quote from one of his books, that’s also fine, but would be news to me:

    “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.”

    What boggled my imagination was Linville playing the victim card. Here is my comment from another thread:

    I find it hard to fathom that Jim Linville sees fit to imply that the following SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee is guilty of a bias against “secular” biblical scholarship:

    Francisco Lozada, Jr. Committee Chair, Brite Divinity School
    Tamara Eskenazi, Hebrew Union College
    Robin Jensen, Divinity School, Vanderbilt University
    Jeffrey K. Kuan, Theological School, Drew University
    Halvor Moxnes, University of Oslo
    Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    Laura Nasrallah, Harvard Divinity School

    Is he that unacquainted with the persona and academic profiles of said scholars?

    Secondly, Linville seems to define secular biblical scholarship in contradictory ways:

    (1) When scholars for whom the Bible is a cultural resource come to conclusions he or some other scholar who thinks of the Bible as so much rot might concur with, they are doing secular scholarship; if not, it is faith-based;

    (2) When scholars make comments of the kind Avalos is famous for, we are being offered secular biblical scholarship of the highest order and of the greatest academic rigor.

    Neither definition is persuasive.

    End quote. I’m convinced you agree.

  19. March 20, 2011 7:16 pm

    “Dr. Jim” comes to the rescue. With friends like Jim, secularists hardly need enemies. The same goes for historical minimalists.

    SBL colleagues have been complaining about West for years. Excellent scholars with secularist loyalties included. Hector Avalos and Alan Lenzi come to mind. I am not a secularist but I too have complained:

  20. Zeba Crook permalink
    March 20, 2011 7:28 pm

    John, I do think you very clearly said “otherwise” (vis. my comment about how one can be do secularist method and be Christian at the same time). Surely mutual exclusivity of the two in the only possible point behind characterising secular biblical criticism as “Bible bashing.”

    I disagree with your characterisation of Linville’s definitions of secular biblical scholarship. You would do best to accept his clarification of his point, which he has made elsewhere, for you do a disservice to the scholarly integrity of this discussion by persisting in your representation despite him correcting you. At a certain point, it’s impolite not to take someone’s correction of their OWN position seriously.

    And a brief comment on your criticism of Avalos’s Adjectives, some of which include “ugly,” “morally objectionable,” “vicious.” When I read 2 Samuel 12:14-19, in which a child is killed because of the sin of his father, I am repulsed. Perhaps it is because I am a new father, but I find this sort of text, and this sort of moral structure which punishes the innocent for the sins of a ancestor morally objectionable, and yes ugly. And there is plenty other material in the bible justifying (or simply presupposing the morality of) genocide and likewise. That this material is best described as “ugly” is surely confirmed by the effort theologians must put into sanitizing texts like these, into rendering them inoffensive. I am no Bible basher, but there are some extremely chilling and morally disturbing texts in that Bible of yours!

  21. March 20, 2011 7:29 pm


    I’m ashamed to admit you are a scholar I have yet to read, but I will. I just did a unit on the Bible and Disabilities for a class of undergrads. The session would have benefited from attention to your work. A point of departure for the session was the film, “Praying with Lior.”

    I found this quote from a newspaper article of yours:

    “Biblical scholars don’t set out to debunk the Bible. Nor do they set out to prove its inerrancy.”

    Prescriptive statements of course, disguised as description. I’m not complaining about that.

    I just don’t think your prescriptions work. In practice it would be like issuing a gag order on scholars like Avalos and Linville among the debunkers and you take your pick among the inerrantists.

  22. March 20, 2011 8:05 pm


    I supplied documentation for my claim that someone like Avalos is a frank Bible-basher. There *are* frank Bible-bashers among self-identifying secular Bible scholars. His stated goals are clear. My comments are to be read against that background.

    If Jim Linville has responded to my comments on a James McGrath thread off that thread. without alerting me for that matter, how can I be held responsible for not taking them into account?

    If Linville wants to interact with my comments, I invite him to do so on thread. As he did above.

    No one doubts that there are texts of terror in the Bible. It is your prerogative, however offensive and simplistic I may regard it, to tar the history of interpretation of those who regard the Bible as “theirs,” Jews and Christians I assume, as a “sanitizing” operation.

    The history of interpretation of the Bible by those who regard it as theirs is rich, contradictory, and extremely multi-faceted.

    If you want to defend Avalos by suggesting that theologians, qua theologians, must sanitize texts of terror, I wonder what you think of Phyllis Trible and Carolyn Osiek qua theologians.

    Just as the majority of constitutional lawyers treat the constitution as scripture to exegete, in fact “worship” the Constitution as a great professor of law put it, so also a very large number of biblical scholars concur with this passage from the Mishnah:

    Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

    You are more than welcome to disagree with the above sentiment. I trust that I am welcome to agree with it.

    • Zeba Crook permalink
      March 21, 2011 5:42 am

      John, you are much too easily offended if you find a comment on how the Hebrew Bible texts of terror have been sanitized over the history of their interpretation “offensive.” The work of Trible, Osiek (and Radford Reuther, Schuessler-Fiorenza, etc) do not contradict my point; they support it precisely because their work stands out powerfully against a long and hallowed history of finding way of making unpalatable texts palatable, or just looking away from them.

  23. March 20, 2011 11:50 pm

    The questions being tossed around here are ones that have significance even for those who would never have any desire to attend an SBL function. I find it amusing that the secularists are all up in arms about SBL hosting people of faith. I had always assumed that SBL was 100% secular and the accepted (normative) methodology was built upon a framework of naturalistic presuppositions. Bible bashing is just bad scholarship even if does make you rich and famous.

    John Hobbins is putting himself in a position where he will attacked on both fronts. I do not agree that a person of faith can practice methodological atheism and get away with it. The framework colors everything. If you can write papers just like an atheist, then you are an atheist or psychotic.

    • Zeba Crook permalink
      March 21, 2011 5:54 am

      The secularists are not all in arms because the SBL hosts people of faith. That would be silly. Which is of course why it serves Bartholomew’s purposes to caricature it that way. Secularists are all up in arms because despite the SBL’s including MANY groups of explicit faith, it could not find room at the table for one group explicitly operating outside of faith. It’s so simple, really, that one wonders what might explain the fact that both Hobbins and Bartholomew can’t understand it.

  24. March 21, 2011 6:42 am


    Now we’re talking, even if I continue to disagree strongly with some of your emphases.

    It is the case that theologians – and many others – have found in the Bible a resource for projects of liberation, and/or a compass of the imagination, not to mention a polity-creating mechanism of the first order. And none of this new: it is written into the formation of the literature itself (Bernard Levinson).

    The history of revolutions cannot be understood without reference to the work of theologian reformers who appropriated the Exodus paradigm (Michael Walzer). The scripture-based religion which has come to be known as Christianity was a powerful movement of liberation in its first centuries (Rodney Stark). The Bible is the “Great Code” of western literature (Northrup Frye). At root, ancient Hebrew literature is a literature of resistance to empire (Seth Sanders).

    Wake up and smell the coffee. Many texts have been construed since forever to be liberating and life-transforming,. and continue to have that function, precisely by and for those who think theologically. In light of arguments by Jurgen Habermas, a *secular* moral philosopher of the first order, it is arguable in fact that secularism is DOA if understood as an alternative to the core insights of Judaism and Christianity:

    “Strange books of the Bible” (Bickerman) and other texts, including ones Avalos regards as “ugly” or wants “excised” from the canon (Psalm 137), have had a history of effects that has been far from ugly. At the very least, a study of the history of effects of the Bible has to be seen as one of the greatest intellectual adventures conceivable, and each of us, theologian and secularist alike, make our own contribution to that history of effects. No wonder, then, that there are sections at SBL dedicated to theological hermeneutics.

    It isn’t possible to mention people like Trible, Osiek, and Schuessler-Fiorenza in one breath and then turn around in the next breath and say that “the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities” is an off-limits topic at SBL, or is off-limits unless feminists are doing the heavy lifting.

    SBL is a place of dialogue, theological dialogue included, between people of the most diverse confessional and ideological perspectives. Let’s keep it that way.

    • Zeba Crook permalink
      March 21, 2011 6:56 am

      Now John, why would you go and say something like this?

      “It isn’t possible to mention people like Trible, Osiek, and Schuessler-Fiorenza in one breath and then turn around in the next breath and say that “the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities” is an off-limits topic at SBL, or is off-limits unless feminists are doing the heavy lifting.”

      Any reasonable person reading your post would conclude that I’ve suggested otherwise. If you can find me a place that even carries that implication, I’ll apologize and try to be more clear about my position. In fact, Jim hasn’t said what you need him to say either. One last time, because the repetitiveness is starting to bore me: our complaint (I’d hardly call it militancy [your term] or “up in arms” [Bartholomew’s phrase], both extremely rich accusations given the history of ACTUAL violence within Christianity) is not that there are people of faith, or organizations of faith at SBL. Our complaint is that SBL purports to function within the broader community of secular academic disciplines, no doubt drawing legitimacy from that association, and yet by all appearances excludes the explicitly secular while including the explicitly theological and apologetic. It’s really that simple and basic.

  25. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 21, 2011 6:44 am

    twice you have deliberately misread (or chose not to read) what I wrote.
    On James McGrath’s site you claimed that I insulted the integrity of the program committee of the SBL and claimed that there was a conspiracy against me. Of course, anyone who is willing to look fairly at what I wrote could hardly come to that conclusion because of overt statements I made directly to the contrary! I responded to you gross misrepresentations in a second post on my site.
    And here you are repeating you unfounded (indeed, lying) accusation here, just cutting and pasting you original post as if your words are some kind of gospel proof text.

    For those interested, here is my response to Hobbins first set of lies.

  26. March 21, 2011 6:47 am

    “The secularists are not all in arms because the SBL hosts people of faith. That would be silly.”

    The trope of making prescriptions in the guise of descriptive statements is wonderful. Thank you for a fine prescription. Just what the doctor ordered.

  27. March 21, 2011 6:51 am

    Thanks, Jim, for pointing out to me your interaction with comments I made on a McGrath thread. Once I write this up and respond on my blog, I will post a link here.

  28. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:19 am

    RE: Hobbins/ “End quote. And why not indeed? If your goal is to bash the Bible, that’s exactly the kind of adjectives it makes sense to use.”

    You are misreading my argument. My argument is that despite the fact that beauty is a subjective judgment, many biblical scholars treat beauty as an objective feature in the Bible in order to justify privileging it above other ancient literature.

    Thus, in Chapter 5 of The End of Biblical Studies, I provided examples of how biblical scholars (not I) sometimes choose symmetry as the standard by which to judge texts, but then use other sorts of apologetic arguments to explain asymmetry. Others use emendation to get the text symmetrical again. So it is not that they regard asymmetry as also beautiful, but rather assymetery is something that has to be explained or textually modified.

    It is NOT my argument that a text cannot be both symmetrical and assymetrical to be called beautiful. My argument is that NEITHER standard is objective.

    Again, my problem is with biblical scholars who claim that they are following a consistent standard (whether it is symmetry or some other feature) when they are not. My problem is with biblical scholars who cannot see that any text that they call beautiful can be called ugly just the same. So it is not about whether I think the Bible is ugly or not. It is about whether it is equally possible to say that any biblical text is ugly or beautiful.

    That chapter of EOBS also talked about the intersection of morality and aesthetics. Judged on moral grounds, many biblical texts are indeed ugly to me. So it does depend on whether you judge a text by its formal features or its ethical features.

    Given that there are no objective aesthetic features that could justify privileging the Bible, many scholars such as yourself also are using an even more meaningless notion of “intrinsic value” to justify such privileging. You are treating “intrinsic value” as though it were an objective feature when it is not.

    Otherwise, please define “intrinsic value” for us.

  29. March 21, 2011 8:04 am


    For the context of my remarks, I refer you back to the post at the top of this thread.

    This is how you come across to me. You deal in the following dichotomy. On the one hand, there are people like me, who identify with a faith guilty of ACTUAL violence, and on the other, there are people like you who identify with “explicit” secularism, full of sweetness and light, which SBL “by all appearances” has chosen to victimize.

    I was wondering when someone on this thread would resort to capitalizing entire words.

    “By all appearances” is a great qualifier. “By all appearances” the SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee (names above) arbitrarily disallowed explicit secularists from organizing a unit.

    Yeah, right. One can only reply: “by all appearances” explicit secularists are playing the victim card.


    Thank you for your calm and reasoned reply. I continue to happily prefer taking a approach to Jonah for example in line with that of Jack Sasson, not Hector Avalos. I mean no harm by it. Nor do the many other biblical scholars who prefer a take on Jonah similar to Sasson’s not yours.

  30. Zeba Crook permalink
    March 21, 2011 8:21 am

    John, do you think yourself clever because you can devise a response that focuses on a capitalized word in a parenthetical clause and on your perception of our feeling of victimization without ACTUALLY responding to the substance of my post, especially my attempt to clarify our position vis. theological groups at SBL and my invitation that you illustrate how I have said or implied that there is no place at SBL for them?

  31. March 21, 2011 9:34 am


    I am happy to see you clarify “our” position – your “our” – the position, I assume of explicit secularists. It certainly was in need of clarification.

    One more clarification might be helpful: for whom do you speak exactly when you say that you, a secularist, have no problem with SBL “hosting” faith-groups? The “our” you use begs for clarification.

    This has been my difficulty all along: trying to decide if and when you are speaking on behalf of an “our.” Throughout this conversation, I have taken your comments in the context of published and online comments of other members of the implied “our.” Perhaps I can be faulted for doing so. You can help me in the future by using the secular equivalent of a Pauline device: “I, not the Lord”; “the Lord, not I.”

    As an aside, I would note that *I*(not the Lord) have problems with the way SBL interfaces with faith groups, even if you don’t.

    What you refer to as “our feeling of victimization” is exactly the point of departure of this brouhaha.

    Finally, I want to thank you and everyone else on this thread for a delightful discussion.

    I wish explicit secularists Irish luck as they become more “sectually explicit” about their viewpoint. Join the Fellini-parade. Shake your boody. I wasn’t able to find the Fellini scene I have in mind as an objective correlative for the field of biblical studies, but this one isn’t too far off:


  32. Rebecca Raphael permalink
    March 21, 2011 3:51 pm

    This comment will by my only response to Mr. Hobbins’s claim about my statements.

    First of all, in attempting to recover a link to this opinion-editorial, published 17 August 2005 on the _Austin-American Statesman_ opinion page, I was not able to access the text from either the _Statesman_ or the _San Antonio Express-News_, which ran it a few weeks after the original pub, on that paper’s Saturday religion page. The only accessible link I can find is here:

    This is a blog of which I had no knowledge before two hours ago; the text of my work appears to be correct (you have to scroll down a bit), but the blogger did not ask my permission or notify me about the re-posting. I include the link so that my colleagues can, if they wish, judge for themselves both the nature of the statement and its truth or falsehood.

    Second, regarding the statement Mr. Hobbins quotes. It’s a generalization, and yes, a descriptive one. Had I said “No biblical scholar sets out, et cetera” with a similar negative in the second clause; or had I said, “All biblical scholars do such-and-such;” then these statements might be construed as prescriptions in the form of descriptions. But that’s not what I wrote. I was expressing my sincerely held belief that most biblical scholars do not proceed from forgone conclusions of either religious or anti-religious kinds, and that few people did biblical scholarship from the motivation of confirming such preconceptions.

    Generalizations, by nature, do not cover every possible case. There are always exceptions. But the existence of exceptions by itself doesn’t render a descriptive generalization a covert prescription.

    Now, I might have made other errors in this piece. It’s quite possible that I over-generalized; after all, I was thinking of my friends and colleagues and the vast majority of articles and books I have read in the field. Perhaps I was naive, too. It is also possible that even a more modest generalization in this direction is false; maybe biblical scholars do, generally, work from foregone conclusions, religious and anti-religious. Good sociological research would decide the question, and I would accept the results of a well-constructed study on this question. In any case, I wish that Mr. Hobbins, if he thought that my statement was an incorrect descriptive generalization, would simply have said so.

    So my description may have been incorrect, but it was not a covert prescription.

    Finally, I note that genre and context are important in assessing this statement. The genre is the American op-ed, a form requiring fewer than 750 words, and intended for the general public. In this case, the occasion that prompted me to write was a situation that arose in the state of Texas, in relation to Mark Chancey’s report on Bible electives in public high schools. My generalizations and examples were directed at misconceptions that I encounter frequently in Texas, specifically, the belief that any study of the Bible must, by fact of the object, be devotional, and the belief that any study of the Bible that was not devotional must, by *that* fact, be anti-religious. There are other alternatives, and I thought that academic biblical study was one. Where the public schools are involved, both academic quality and constitutionality become important considerations. I hoped that I was informing the public in Central Texas that academic biblical studies (a) existed and (b) could meet these demands.

    Mid-decade, I published two newspaper op-eds on biblical studies in public schools. But I found it frustrating to advance an argument on complex matters in the constraints of the form: the word limit is stringent, and the audience has little prior information. Also, I discovered that this form of writing causes kooky email. For those two reasons, I stopped writing this sort of material.

    I leave it to everyone’s speculation why I do not maintain a biblical studies blog.

    • March 21, 2011 9:26 pm

      “This is a blog of which I had no knowledge before two hours ago; the text of my work appears to be correct (you have to scroll down a bit), but the blogger did not ask my permission or notify me about the re-posting.”


      I am the ‘blogger’ here that you have no knowledge of, and I can assure you and prove that I am not the person that reposted your comments A) I can show you that this comment and the one prior originate from the same email address and ip address, though I do not know why. B) I had the same knowledge of yourself before the comment above (though I did like the comment)

      Actually, at this point I’m a little confused. If you did not write the above comment, who did? Will the real Rebecca please stand up!

      • Rebecca Raphael permalink
        March 23, 2011 8:45 pm

        Agathos — is your blog?

        On this thread, I posted an initial comment. Then Mr. Hobbins called attention to this statement from the Statesman op-ed. Then I replied with a second comment, the one to which you directed these questions.

        This comment is my third on this thread (also on this blog).

        I hope that clears things up.


        • March 24, 2011 9:32 am

          Thanks Rebecca. No that is not my site. In an original quick scan of your comment I thought you were suggesting that someone had reproduced comments from there, here. Poor reading on my part. Sometimes when other people start to engage each other I do not read fully every single comment. This is simply a matter of time. The comments on this post could be collected into a fairly long essay at this point! John was asking you a question based on reading something of yours from another site. I get it now. Scott gets an F for comprehension in this particular case! Thanks for the clarification (and I really did like what you said in your original comment).

          Nice to make your acquaintance. Be well!

  33. March 21, 2011 6:05 pm


    Thank you for your meticulous clarifications.

    Perhaps it will interest you that Hector Avalos, the chair of the sec bib crit unit whose current probationary status set Jim Linville off in the first place and provided an occasion for this thread, has been a blogger since 2008 over at Debunking Christianity. One of the methods this site uses to debunk Christianity is to debunk the Bible.

  34. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:00 am

    Dear John Hobbins,
    Actually, my posts at Debunking Christianity are often dedicated to debunking speculative historical
    reconstructions such as the one you proposed concerning the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription. See:

    Otherwise, is it your position that biblical scholars can advocate or promote Christianity, but scholars are not allowed to challenge Christianity’s historical claims?

  35. March 22, 2011 7:04 am

    Dear Hector,

    I appreciate what you do over at DC. You have every right as a scholar to expose errors wherever you believe to find them: in the work of a colleague; in the Bible; in Judaism and Christianity.

    On the other hand, I am convinced that your call for an end to biblical studies as we know it is ham-handed. Your project, to mimic your rhetoric, has no intrinsic merit. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

    The thing I like best about your anti-Bible rhetoric is that it encourages many to give the Bible a closer and more sympathetic read. Your arguments, like those of anti-god Ditchkins and company, are so flawed and so outrageous that they push smart people to come down on the Bible-side, just as Eagleton and Fish came down on the god-side after seeing what nonsense the New Atheists are spewing.

    I am grateful that you take the approach you do. You are a better evangelist for the Christian faith now than you ever could have been as a child.

  36. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 22, 2011 7:30 am

    Dear John Hobbins,
    I hope you can provide better empirical support for your assertions than just say-so, especially
    regarding the effect of my approach to biblical studies. I have many testimonials to the contrary.
    Any more precise statistics would be appreciated.

    In any case, “intrinsic value” is not something that I applied to my work, nor do I think it is necessary to pursue what I do. I am simply saying that any thought that we should privilege the Bible as a cultural authority because of some claimed “intrinsic value” is a flawed argument because “intrinsic value” is not an objective feature.

    If you wish to privilege the Bible as a cultural authority on other grounds, then that is a different argument. There may be grounds other than “intrinsic value” for privileging the Bible as a cultural authority, but you have not presented any that I find convincing (e.g., “I like the way Jonah reads,” to paraphrase one of yours).

  37. March 22, 2011 8:15 am


    The evidence I have for the history of effects of your anti-Bible rhetoric is of the same sort as yours: anecdotal. Your writing has what one might call a Michael Moore effect. It makes people run in the opposite direction. Not that I want to convince you about that. I don’t. Please continue. You are an evangelist for the positions you condemn, unawares.

    It’s fine with me if you think your scholarship has no intrinsic value, and that there is no reason to pursue what you say

    That’s the problem: your rhetoric opens the door to an a fortiori argument. If the Bible and Shakespeare have no intrinsic value, how much more is it true that the work of Hector Avalos has no value, beyond that which he and his acolytes attribute to it, on purely subjective grounds.

    I offered to go back and forth with you on Wolterstorff’s Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Are you up to it?

  38. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 22, 2011 8:42 am

    Dear John Hobbins,
    One reason I am encouraged is that I do see the effect secularists are having. You would not be so
    intensely fighting secularists if you thought that they did not matter.

    Yes, my work appeals to many of those who don’t think we should value texts that endorse
    killing women, children, slaveowning, etc. My work appeals to those who value methodological naturalism as central to modern scholarship.

    Besides, you are switching terms. No “intrinsic value” does not mean NO value. I am simply arguing that “intrinsic value” is just as relativistic as almost any other value. After all, the best response you had to Jonah is that you just preferred to see it as beautiful, which opens the door to those who just prefer to see it as ugly. “Preference” does not make for much of a compelling objective argument.

    Statistically, I can show that the Bible is no longer held to be an authority by many in America
    as compared to 100 years ago. I include many such statistics in the End of Biblical Studies.

    The goal of some secularists (not all) is to denude that text of all of its remaining cultural privilege and authority, and simply regard it the way we do almost any other piece of ancient literature. The Bible remains as the subject of historical inquiry, and nothing more.

  39. March 22, 2011 10:43 am

    Dear Hector,

    I enjoy engaging with anti-bible and anti-god crusaders like you because your polemics are a useful foil for a presentation of what I consider to be saner and more thoughtful points of view.

    I read the Bible with students in a secular university. They are moved and challenged and disturbed – in a good way – by what they read. Almost to a person, they are able to understand how a book like Jonah is high satire designed to aid in self- and communal reflection. They have no trouble understanding why this book is treasured by Jews and Christians. If they are believers, their faith is challenged and sometimes deepened as they explore the text with the help of commentary from someone like Sasson.

    Your own efforts at commentary on Jonah, by contrast, are not worth asking them to read – except as a foil to more thoughtful interpretation.

    You are the only Bible scholar I know who doesn’t get this. No wonder you feel isolated and think out loud about doing something “more useful to humanity.”

    It is your prerogative to make bone-chillingly superficial comments about texts most people consider to be masterpieces regardless of the extent to which they make themselves vulnerable to the text’s conceivable claims on their lives.

    Your comments serve mostly to give the vast majority of Bible readers for whom the literature is foundational, if not to them personally, to traditions and literatures and art they value highly, a reason to discount everything else you say.

    In short, your let’s ditch the Bible book is a goldmine of outrageous nuggets of heuristic value for those of us who are not anti-Bible, anti-God, anti-Jewish, or anti-Christian.

    The adjectives you use for the book of Jonah, “annoying,” “aggravating,” “ugly,” do not cross the minds of my students because, though they are freshmen and sophomores, they are more sophisticated readers than you are.

    They have greater facility than you do in identifying the aims of the book’s author and seeing the extent to which the author was successful in accomplishing those aims.

    You and others like you shy away from sustained engagement of the kind I offer. Wolterstorff deals a death blow to your approach to epistemology. No wonder you refuse sustained engagement. What a compliment you make to W.

    Without a vision of life in which the true, the good, and the beautiful cohere, you are left with nothing more than subjective preferences. You have no basis on which to form a canon to propose to anyone but yourself. You have no basis on which to do anything other than react against the canons of others. If I am wrong here, I ask you to motivate a canon of your own choosing for the common weal.

    You are more than welcome to the shock-and-awe style of polemics you apparently find congenial. Go ahead, interpret the Bible with the same sort of reverse fundamentalist assumptions that so many have critiqued in the New Atheists.

    Do not be surprised however if the vast majority of your SBL colleagues turn to very different authors – I look up from my keyboard and notice among commentaries I am currently consulting those of Michael Fox, Jeffrey Tigay, Adele Berlin, John Goldingay, Walter Brueggemann, and Erich Zenger – in order to better understand biblical literature.

    If you are the poster boy of sec bib crit, it does not look good for sec bib crit,

  40. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 22, 2011 11:18 am

    Dear John Hobbins,
    My experience is much different from yours in public universities. Personally, I have never
    been busier with invited writing projects, media interviews, and speaking engagements, including in churches. Yes, even though some churches may disagree with me, at least they are willing to listen.

    Thus, I am not sure where you get the impression of some increasing isolation.

    Also: Never have Atheist books sold as in the last 10 years. Why is that?

    Bart Ehrman, who is non-confessional, has had national best-sellers, but not Brueggemann.

    Student secular/atheist groups, including one I founded at Iowa State University, are flourishing more than ever before, as noted by an article in USA Today. See

    Why are those secular student groups growing?

    Perhaps you have missed some of the more recent sociological surveys, such as those summarized
    in “UNchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters by David Kinnaman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), which shows how “Unchristian” younger generations are becoming.

    Otherwise, your examples of what students are reading are addressed in EOBS as part of the ecclesial-academic complex that still controls much of what students read. Your examples are
    akin to Muslim clerics citing Muslim theologians/scholars for proof that Muslim students are interested in Islamic writers in institutions where Muslim theologians/scholars have assigned the texts for students to read.

    Also: Take a look at any other discipline in the ACLS, and tell me where they are using fideism or Wolsterstorff in solving literary-historical issues, and then you might have a better case. Could you name me at least one such organization?

    Once you go past anecdotes, and use some real sociological and statistical data, your position does not seem so tenable.

  41. March 22, 2011 12:13 pm


    I am glad to hear that you are happy and busy and feel as if you are riding the crest of a wave.

    It would seem that you and Bart are holding down the reverse-fundamentalist fort. No more doubts, then, about your “calling,” if not to biblical studies, to reverse-fundamentalism. It’s nice to know.

    It is also a shame that Bart doesn’t join you in your sec bib crit project. You guys seem weak on the New Testament side. What gives?

    You commitment to reverse-fundamentalism explains why you are difficult to pull down from your soapbox, ignore questions that do not serve your purposes, and avoid engagement with topics at one remove from your talking points.

    Congratulations. There is no business like show business.

    It has been a pleasure to go back and forth.

  42. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 22, 2011 12:34 pm

    Dear John Hobbins,
    I still don’t see any direct refutation of any claim or argument I have made. I have provided
    numerous sources and statistics, and you provide say-so.

    Re: Wolterstorff. Please take a look at the PhilPaper survey of philosophers, and show me
    in which category he has made progress with philosophers or why you regard him as having
    demolished anything.

    Note, for example, what surveyed philosophers answered when asked if they prefer theism or atheism. Have they not read Wolterstorff?


    God: theism or atheism?
    Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
    Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
    Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

    The atheist as “fundamentalist” is a frequent trope I have already addressed here:

    In fact, if you had read that piece, you would have saved yourself some time not using so
    many of these easily refutable tropes and themes against secularism.

  43. March 22, 2011 2:27 pm

    Dear Hector,

    “I still don’t see” – you can say that again. I wonder what it would take to get you to see that the way you savage the contents of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian faiths has a Michael Moore effect.

    There is a rudeness about it that wins you friends in some circles, and earns you a mixture of disdain and pity in others.

    You cite a study or two that you take to support your point of view; you trumpet the fact that “secular” clubs are growing. I can attest to that. At the public university where I teach, there is no secular club, but there is a pagan club. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but for the sake of argument I will say its numbers are growing. 500% growth, from 1 to 5 on a good day. Meanwhile, the Christian clubs on campus organized a concert; over 3,000 attended; over 600 turned in inquiry cards with contact information. For the sake of argument I’ll say those numbers are down from the last time. In that case you would be right: your numbers are growing, and those of the hated Christians are declining.

    Even if it could be shown that youth in today’s America are right behind you, that doesn’t make your position any more tenable and mine any less. You might as well claim that Hitler’s claims were tenable in direct proportion to their popularity among the youth of his day.

    There is a sadness about the numbers game you play that reminds me of a song:

    Chris­tians have their hymns and pages,
    Hava Nag­i­la’s for the Jews,
    Bap­tists have the rock of ages,
    Athe­ists just sing the blues.

    Ro­man­tics play Claire de Lune,
    Born agains sing “He is risen,”
    But no one ever wrote a tune,
    For god­less ex­is­ten­tial­ism.

    For Athe­ists there’s no good news. They’ll never sing a song of faith.
    In their songs they have a rule: the “he” is al­ways low­er­case.
    The “he” is al­ways low­er­case.

    Some folks sing a Bach can­ta­ta,
    Luther­ans get Christ­mas trees,
    Athe­ist songs add up to nada,
    But they do have Sun­days free.

    I apologize for not citing and linking more.

    I haven’t posted much on Wolterstorff yet but you have convinced me I should.

    In the meantime, here are a few links for old time’s sake:

    Marilynne Robinson took Pinker and other new atheists to the cleaners not too long ago, for a summary, go here:

    That secularism is dead in the water from a sociological point of view is something not only sociologists understand, but also philosophers:

    Don’t get me wrong, though. Secularism in the sense of reverse-fundamentalism is a growth stock in the US. I prefer value stocks myself.

    At least we know what kind of arguments are available to a secularist like yourself. I hear them as follows:

    (1) Nothing has intrinsic value. Comment: least of all, the theses of Hector Avalos.
    (2) The more people take something to be true, the more they like something, the more tenable it is. Comment: have you thought about joining the production crew of “Dancing with the Stars”?Your worldview is identical to theirs.

    Seriously, am I missing something?

    I can see why you found it necessary to take on the reverse-fundamentalist charge. It fits you well. So does the saying, “once a fundamentalist, always a fundamentalist.”

    Just because you tried to refute it doesn’t mean you did.

    Always fun to chat with you, Hector.

  44. Hector Avalos permalink
    March 23, 2011 10:32 am

    Dear John Hobbins,
    Empirical data do not support your contention that atheists are generally angry or sad people. Empirical evidence shows that some of the happiest nations are actually the most secularized countries in Western and Northern Europe (e.g., Denmark, Finland, Norway).

    See, for example, the sociological data published by Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations can Tell us About Contentment (New York: NYU Press, 2010), especially pp. 25-29.

    You can see a more popular report on such surveys here:

    In my own case, you can consult this article: “An Unlikely Atheist Teaches Others,” Iowa State Daily (November 10, 2010) at

    You also continue to present subjective judgments as though they were objective evidence. If I understand you, theism is superior because it has better music. I must have missed this as one of Wolterstorff’s supposedly profound arguments. Otherwise, the quality of music can be quite subjective.

    Given that you emphasize ancient Hebrew poetry, I was also surprised that you would concur with the claim that “Atheists just sing the blues.”

    First, the book of Psalms, the premier songbook in the Bible, contains many individual and communal laments, which express no less distress and unhappiness than any blues song I know.

    Second, you seem to ignore that historically the blues arose partly because of the oppression African American felt at the hands of many Christians. Indeed, many composers of the blues were also Christians, and so I am not sure why you would say that atheists just sing the blues.

    Atheists, as human beings, have a full range of emotions, and I usually find among atheists an eclectic repertoire of music, ranging from sad to happy songs, just as is the case with Christians I know.

  45. March 23, 2011 12:47 pm

    A song is a song, Hector, not an argument, though a song may be worth a thousand arguments.

    For a video clip of the song I quote, go here;

    Loosen up a little. Enjoy.

  46. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 23, 2011 7:26 pm

    For those interested, I made a long post on some of these issues here:


  1. [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #12: Blogosphere roundup, March 23, 2011
  2. Articles of Interest for Scriptural Study | Moje Da Poet: Meditations & Musings
  3. Articles of Interest for Scriptural Study « Variegated Vision

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