The End of Biblical Studies – Part 1

I got my copy of ‘The End of Biblical Studies’ by Hector Avalos today, after a run in on Sabio’s blog where I got the wrong end of the stick.

I know the title is provocative, but I don’t like it. I do like biblical studies. It is fun, challenging and intriguing. I do like the book, however. I think I’ll post some responses. First to the summary to the introduction.

Biblical studies as we know it should end. We should now treat the bible as the alien document that it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day.

I understand more what Avalos is saying here. And I think it is to an audience for whom the bible does have substantial purportive authority and is used to exert political control. That isn’t the case in the UK to the same extent, so before I missed the obvious subtext (which we’ll see below). So although I now understand why he says this, I still disagree: I don’t want to see the bible ignored. But that’s not because I think it is intrinsically important in any way.

Biblical studies should be geared to helping humanity wean itself off of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world.

Yes, amen brother. The most important task for biblical scholarship is to combat the malevolent forces of bibliolatrous fundamentalism. But after that task is won (and please God, let it be*), I still think biblical studies will be an interesting field of study.

Focus then could shift to the thousands of other ancient texts still untranslated and unread.

This would be great. I’m all for this. 100%.

But the Bible would still be important for one crucial reason. It is by far the most researched, analysed and semantically tagged piece of literature in existence. One of the things it allows, I think, is the ability to build tall, in scholarly terms. Taller than perhaps any other canon of literature. For example, I’ve done some work analysing the text of the NT using statistical linguistics. That was only possible because folks have literally gone through the bible word by word and annotated every word for part of speech, root, sense, variation, etc. Folks have catalogued all known uses of the (non-trivial) words in the NT among a huge range of other ancient texts, for example. That kind of resource just doesn’t exist elsewhere, at least not to the same degree, and it allows unique kinds of questions to be answered. Questions that translating another Oxyrhynchus papyrus just wouldn’t. For that reason, while I hope those other works get translated, we shouldn’t be ashamed to take one text (it wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t the bible, but the groundwork has been done) and really see what our science can do with it.

One day, the Bible might even be viewed as one of the curiosities of a tragic bibliolatrous age, when dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress.

I really, really hope so. Again, we’re switching from scholarly to humanistic arguments here. And I’m back to being with Avalos again 100%. Uncritical adherence to the bible has caused and will continue to cause untold suffering. Biblical scholarship has a big role to play in fighting that, I think. I have said it many times, but I think there is no better atheistic tool than detailed, honest scholarship of the bible.

We might then study the Bible as a lesson in why human beings should never again privilege any book to this extent.

This is a third thing, I think. In the Utopian rational days of the future when the forces of evil religion have been defeated, we might want to use the bible (and so called biblical religion) as an example to our children. Yes. But in much the same way as a textual scholar might do valuable scholarship into Mein Kampf while a teacher across the street uses Hitler as an anti-role model in a history lesson; the task of educating our children against religious tyranny is orthogonal to biblical studies as I understand it.

* I hope you didn’t need this footnote to explain this was facetious.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The End of Biblical Studies – Part 1

  1. I am glad you are enjoying Avalos. As I posted, I found Avalos’ choice of wording to be almost counterproductive but I am enjoying the book and agree with him as he broadens my insight into professional Christianity.

    I love your “”build tall, in scholary terms”. That was a fascinating argument and I would imagine Dr. Avalos would agree. His only concern is that the vast majority of study is not geared that way and in ways just reinforces the misuse of the texts. (I think).

    Excellent essay — I agree 100%. Well said, thanx.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but i’m facinated by the three different reviews i’ve read of it. yours is the one i agree with the most. i agree that the texts shouldn’t be misused and i have my own different reasons for that, as i don’t come to the same conclusions as my more fundamental brothers and sisters, nor do i land where you do either. but then again, we have different starting presuppositions then don’t we. 😉

  3. Ian

    Thanks Luke, I appreciate that comment, and from you particularly.

    No, we probably don’t start from the same point. But we end up in the same neighbourhood quite often, it seems 🙂

    I think a lot of liberal Christians / religionists that I do know would agree with both of us: that it is not healthy to focus one’s religious energies into the bible. If there is a God, then surely those religious energies *have* to be focussed on him/her/it. It seems to be to be obvious, so I’m always a little taken a back when I do come across a biblioator.

    I had a conversation once with someone who said (in all honesty). Well Jesus is the “Word of God” and the bible is the “Word of God”, and the purpose of the Word is to be God incarnate on the earth. When Jesus was around, he was God incarnate, now the bible is.

    Jaw, floor…

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