The Secular Study of the Bible

The Society of Biblical Literature exists to promote the historical-critical study of the text of the Bible and its historical context.  The SBL is for all scholars who have an academic and professional interest in the Bible, especially professors at university religious studies or humanities departments.

Recently a member of the SBL announced his resignation because the SBL has become too open to expressions of faith and also what he refers to as “proselyting activity” and anti-Jewish remarks.

Read professor Hendel’s remarks, then express your own opinion.  Should there be a society where all who have an academic interest in the Bible can come together and share the results of their research?  Should we at times separate faith from research?

The SBL published its own response to professor Hendel’s complaints.

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5 Responses

  1. In my opinion, there should be an organization in which those with academic interests in the Bible can come together and sharpen each other. Nearly every profession, whether it is engineers, surgeons, writers, musicians, architects, or biblical scholars all seem to have their own society or association that brings its members together to share and exchange information. These organizations are developed with the goals of unifying, organizing, and supporting each other for the purpose of serving its members, serving humanity, and making improvements and contributions to their respective fields of study.

    However, this doesn’t mean these organizations always operate conflict-free and avoid disagreements. As we learned from reading Professor Hendel’s article and the SBL’s response, we see that biblical scholarship is no exception.

    The Society of Biblical Literature website reports to be the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies with over 8,500 members coming from all walks of life. It states the members share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible. However, with a member base this large, coming from all walks of life, I doubt that Professor Hendel’s situation was the first conflict and certainly won’t be the last.

    Church history shows us a pattern in which there has been a pendulum effect which swings from an emphasis on emotions to an emphasis on intellect. History tells us that we as people have struggled with balancing the relationship of the heart and head and either extreme will cause us problems. As I stated in the beginning, I believe there should be an organization committed to strengthening biblical scholarship, but with that being said, there must also be a personal responsibility to avoid the extreme. In my view, the ideal situation is to couple our intellectual learning with our faith and put them into action.

  2. I agree that the ideal situation would be a combination of faith and learning, but I think that it exactly what Professor Hendel has a problem with. It sounded like he was pretty offended that some Christian groups were trying to proselytize, which I can understand. He said, however, that he didn’t have a problem with faith groups being represented at the conferences, just the faith groups with which he happens to disagree. Which brings us to the real crux of the problem, I think: Who gets to decide whose ideas are and are not worthy of discussion? It has been mentioned by others that it is their critical reading of the Biblical text that impels them to proselytize, so for them, ignoring the faith part is tantamount to ignoring the scholarship.
    If we’re going to have an open discussion about anything, but especially the Bible, Hendel has to be prepared to admit people he thinks are cranks; otherwise, it’s not really an open discussion and he runs the very real risk of throwing out the faithful with the fundamentalists.

  3. I personally find Hendel’s remarks to be quite interesting, and I cannot blame him at all for leaving the SBL. The views he expresses (i.e. reason being the driving force behind scholarly inquiry), to me, seem to gel very much with the society’s stated purpose. He freely states that the groups and scholars in question are entitled to their views, but the attempts at proselytizing he describes have, in my mind, no place in an academic setting like the Society of Biblical Literature. Those groups or individuals have every right to exercise what they see as a vital component of their faith, but the annual meeting of a group like the SBL, whose stated interests lie in the realm of critical inquiry and academic objectivity, is not the place for it.

    As an aside, I also find it interesting that in its response, the SBL makes no attempts to refute Hendel’s claims that “the problem … has to do with money.” Not a major point, but worth a little thought nonetheless.

  4. I think Professor Hendel’s article was very interesting. While I don’t know the Professor’s spiritual status, it seems to me that he is very passionate about his study of Scripture. The study of the Old Testament without the dimension of faith, I think would be trying to come to a conclusion without having all one would need to reach that conclusion. Perhaps this point is underscored knowing that even the tax collector-turned-evangelist Matthew quotes Jesus quoting the prophet Isaiah when he writes: “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’”

    To quote Prof. Hendel’s article, “…facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.” An important point to understand is that God never promised us a book in which every historical fact would be reconciled and that our curiosity would be satisfied. He did, however, provide us His Word, which is sufficient for every need—not every want.

    If secular-based study of Scripture is so rewarding to Professor Hendel, can you imagine his reaction if he could relate to the added dimension of faith that he seems to be omitting? From his perspective he may have a point…

  5. I read a book written by Nancy Pearcy called “Total Truth.” I think Hendel is exactly what she bemoans as a problem in Christianity. People try to separate their faith from their lives. Although Hendel is not a Christian and from what I understand is a Jew, but still appears at least from his words to be a man of faith. The question I would have for him or anyone who claims to have some sort of faith, if your faith is important to you, enough to be upset about the proselytizing how can you separate your faith from what you are? If it doesn’t affect all of you, including your reason, do you really have faith in anything then but your reason? It seems to me he is happy as long as he is surrounded by like minded people who do not challenge him past a mere intellectual challenge. Possibly methinks he doth protesteth too much.

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