Posted by: Ken Brown | November 22, 2011

What is Biblical Scholarship?

Polyglot Bible; image by sukisuki on Flickr, by Creative Commons licence.

Perusing the bewildering array of sessions at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, it would be easy to wonder whether “Fostering Biblical Scholarship” (our official mission) can mean fostering just about anything to do with the Bible. Is there anything beyond an interest in the Bible itself that holds us together as a society? What, after all, has “Bakhtin and Biblical Imagination” to do with “Economics in the Biblical World,”  “Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew” to do with “Bible and Film”? Are our approaches to the text so diverse that there isn’t even a common standard of measure?

I have a theory: The art of biblical scholarship—all biblical scholarship—is the art of making meaningful connections between a text and something else. “This text is better understood in connection with X” or “X is better understood in connection with this text” could summarize the vast bulk of what we call biblical scholarship. That might seem like nothing more than a restatement of the problem, since X could be almost anything: another text or set of texts, another aspect or portion of the same text, a tradition or source or redactional layer, a scribal practice or transmission error, the history of transmission, the history of tradition, a genre or typescene or trope, a symbol or metaphor or any other particular form of language, a literary theory, a sociological theory, a way of life (whether ancient or modern), a ritual or custom, an archeological find, an image or icon, a people-group, an historical event, a theory of history, a theory of midrash, a theory of myth, a theory of mind, a method or methodology, a social, religious, political or economic movement, a philosophical system, a theological system, a theological tenet, a theological error, an ideology, modern science, ancient science, modern film, medieval children’s stories, teaching, preaching, blogging.

But this is not just to restate the diversity of biblical scholarship, it is also to see that each of these otherwise very dissimilar topics shares a similar structural relation to the text. Each of them is drawn upon to argue either that some aspect of the text can be seen more clearly in the light of the thing to which it is compared, or vice versa. Such a wide range of things to which the text can be connected explains the wide range of kinds of scholarship we engage in, the wide range of standards of evidence and argument we employ, and the wide range of conclusions we come to, but all such comparisons operate within a similar set of parameters.

Namely, virtually all good biblical scholarship, regardless of its methods and emphases, 1. makes an original connection, 2. provides compelling reasons for accepting that connection, 3. acknowledges the limitations of the connection, and 4. shows how the connection helps us to better understand either the text or the thing to which it is compared. Whether focused on historical criticism or queer theory, semiotics or Christology, any good biblical scholarship will try to show how the connection it proposes is original, convincing and fruitful. Any particular piece of scholarship may focus on one of those areas more than others, but one cannot completely ignore any of them for long.

When biblical scholarship goes bad, it tends to happen on one of those same points (whether due to poor writing or poor thinking): Either it fails to make connections that are original or non-trivial, or it fails to offer cogent, relevant and compelling reasons for accepting the connections it proposes, or it fails to counter damaging objections to its proposals, or it fails to show a significant interpretive pay-off that would result from accepting them. Non-scholarly readings of the Bible, in general, are uncritical in their making of such connections–even if sometimes insightful–but they cannot avoid making them, whether they are drawn from one’s personal life, social context, theological framework, secondary sources, or their own familiarity with the text. All of us are in the business of making connections with the text; what makes our reading of the Bible “scholarship” is our attempt to do so critically, by being explicit about the reasons, sources and implications of our proposals.

That’s my theory, anyway. Whether it is original or has any interpretive pay-off, I’ll leave for you to decide. 😉

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