Hector Avalos, 'The End of Biblical Studies'
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
What a refreshing book! Professor Avalos questions the utility and advisability of continuing to keep the superannuated field of Biblical Studies alive in its present form: as a species of apologetics on behalf of Christianity, whether in its evangelical/apologist form or its academic/ecumenical/liberal form.
Avalos urges that, minus the arbitrary partisanship for the Bible that Christian allegiance brings, there is no particular reason to keep the patient on the respirator. The period of productive scholarship (which “happened” to coincide with the shattering of the Bible’s credibility) ended a century (or even two centuries) ago. The alien, immoral, and irrelevant character of the Bible has been evident long enough for us to realize it cannot and should not be accorded status as the moral authority we have made it. What we clearly ought to do is to place the book on the shelf and devote the huge amount of resources and energy now directed to Biblical Studies to other fields of research more likely to benefit a starving and oppressed humanity. There remains a task for biblical scholars in the meantime, namely to reverse the course of mainstream (in-the-pocket-of –religion) scholarship. Whereas every issue of the JBL, every meeting of the SBL, is devoted to hiding the ancient offensiveness of the Bible, scholars ought henceforth to highlight and accentuate these features of scripture so as to dissuade the masses who still mistakenly look to the book as an authority. The discerning reader of Avalos will understand that he does not mean to vilify the Bible, only to destroy it as an idol. No one would attack the morals of the Iliad and the Odyssey unless some fanatics started litigating to have Homer made the basis of our laws and morals, as people do with the Bible.
Avalos argues in considerable detail that Biblical Studies pretty much finished its job long ago. He shows how Biblical Archaeology, once, in Albright’s day, thought to vindicate Bible accuracy, actually turns out to deprive the Bible stories of any hint of historical accuracy. Avalos is always imaginative and shows how, if one resists the conclusions of the so-called Minimalists (who are unsure even of the existence of David and Solomon), one might as well maintain the fact-character of the King Arthur legends. Similarly, he shows that any apologist who argues for a historical resurrection of Jesus had better make room in his pantheon for the Virgin Mary (the apparitions, that is), too, since the same arguments “prove” both.
Barring some dramatic discoveries of manuscripts, Avalos proposes, Textual Criticism, too, has run out of gas. It cannot breach the wall of silence between the original autographs and the earliest copies we possess. And, on the other end, the widespread adoption of eclecticism has reduced the method to sheer, albeit principled, subjectivity. Sadly, the Magisterium of the United Bible Societies has ended up manufacturing and defending a new Textus Receptus which, in the absence of the irrecoverable original, is now officially anointed as (to paraphrase Ritschl) “having the value of the autographs for us.”
Translation of the Bible has rendered scholarship moot, since Bible publishers refuse to incorporate critical results into their renderings, remembering the book-burnings that greeted the debut of the RSV. Scholarship is ruined, utterly compromised, by marketing considerations. Often new Bibles are Targums, retooled according to either Politically Correctness or Evangelical devotionalism or, nightmarishly, both! But it gets even worse, since all this is only a more crass version of the whole “hermeneutical” enterprise of scholars: making the Bible sound like it fits the modern day when clearly it does not. Again, such gap-crossing might be necessitated by a commitment to make the Bible an authority for our day, come hell or high water, but that would be incumbent upon scholars only if they were still Christians. And most are. Like apologetics (of which it is but a species, after all), hermeneutics poisons itself with a built-in dishonesty, the substitution of a false, familiar Bible for the real, unpalatable one.
Historical Jesus studies come in for Avalos’s righteous wrath, too. Has there been any advancement beyond Schweitzer? Or rather a shocking retreat, a cringing away from his insight that Jesus scholars cannot help using “Jesus” as a ventriloquist dummy for their own wise views? In a few brief strokes, Avalos lays bare criteria new and old for determining what Jesus “really” said. It can only be the will to believe that has scaled over the eyes of so-called critics who, e.g., discovering that a “tradition” that Jesus said something is attested in two sources, vote it “red,” oblivious of what ought to be obvious: groundless rumors may have any number of attestations that are “independent” in the trivial sense that one is not a direct copy of the other.
Avalos’s indictment of the Society and Journal of Biblical Literature, which comprises the real-life Sitz-im-Leben of American Biblical Studies rings true to me. It is a “professional society” in both the best and the worst senses. The SBL is a Lonely Hearts Club for up-and-coming wannabes who haunt the meetings, trying to prove themselves worthy of employment (even though there are virtually no jobs for them) by presenting papers (with a due sense of pomposity) dealing with ever more microscopic minutiae. The more of them there are, the less there can be to say of an original or valuable nature, and so the farce continues and the field grows self-stultified. There are still new thing to be learned at these meetings and in their publications, but I think Avalos’s diagnosis is on the mark. The very “professionalism” of the profession is quickly reducing it to absurdity and uselessness.
One detects an altogether different spirit in the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar. A younger and fresher endeavor, as well as a very much smaller one, it lacks the baggage of the SBL. But it has been marked with an irony that illustrates another of Avalos’s points. Robert W. Funk (like Avalos himself, a veteran boy evangelist turned unblinking biblical critic) sought to bring Biblical Studies out of the ecclesiastical ivory tower where its revelations never trickled down to the Babbitts in the pews. He wanted Biblical Studies to thrive in secular institutions, but, like Avalos says, even in university religion departments the field was isolated, insulated, and semi-covertly confessional. So Funk took it to the streets, founding the Westar Institute as a gadfly think-tank that could feed its results into the popular consciences via cultivating links with mainstream media. It worked, and the index of that was the hue and cry raised in the media and in churches. But that was all right: any publicity was good publicity: even if the Seminar was slandered and vilified (as it usually was/is), it got people talking about the issues. Funk and the others were not shy about calling the bluff of hermeneutics, repudiating (in language reminiscent of Bishop Pike) the whole metaphysical worldview of Bible religion. The Seminar Fellows always liked to think they (we) were pure historians of early Christianity, not defenders of it, despite our own various religious stances.
But the Seminar’s critics (or so I always thought) were right on one crucial point: permeating the whole endeavor was an implicit Christology of a Politically Correct kind. Jesus was remade yet again into a chic savior for the 1990s. And, once the basic work was done (it took eleven years), weighing both the sayings and the stories of the gospels, there was an interim period of drift in which the further direction was up for grabs. In this window period it became more and more obvious, really overt, that Funk’s goal for the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar had always been to reinvigorate the Christian Church for the new millennium. To this end the Seminar cultivated liberal religious superstars (Bishop Spong, Karen Armstrong, Ann Primavesi, Lloyd Geering, and Don Cupitt among them) who had no business being there—unless the agenda had changed. And it had. Or it had become explicit. And this is a perfect example of what Hector Avalos is talking about. Even what first appears to be objective, outside-the-box new versions of Biblical Studies eventually reveals itself as a new Bible Society seeking to propagate the true faith. It will be interesting to see what may come of even newer efforts, like The Jesus Project, which, without opposing and denigrating religion, exist for the very purpose of keeping New Testament scholarship honest.
In this radical critique of his own academic specialty, biblical scholar Hector Avalos calls for an end to biblical studies as we know them. He outlines two main arguments for this surprising conclusion. First, academic biblical scholarship has clearly succeeded in showing that the ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and humanity that are fundamentally opposed to the views of modern society. The Bible is thus largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of contemporary human beings. Second, Avalos criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today’s world. In effect, he accuses his profession of being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account of its own findings to the general public and faith communities.
Dividing his study into two parts, Avalos first examines the principal subdisciplines of biblical studies (textual criticism, archaeology, historical criticism, literary criticism, biblical theology, and translations) in order to show how these fields are still influenced by religiously motivated agendas despite claims to independence from religious premises. In the second part, he focuses on the infrastructure that supports academic biblical studies to maintain the value of the profession and the Bible. This infrastructure includes academia (public and private universities and colleges), churches, the media-publishing complex, and professional organizations such as the Society of Biblical Literature.
In a controversial conclusion, Avalos argues that our world is best served by leaving the Bible as a relic of an ancient civilization instead of the "living" document most religionist scholars believe it should be. He urges his colleagues to concentrate on educating the broader society to recognize the irrelevance and even violent effects of the Bible in modern life.