It amazes me—though it probably shouldn’t—how often students express interest in a biblical studies PhD despite the numerous warnings about meager job prospects in the field, many of which have appeared online in blog posts and editorials. I saw it recently on Facebook in the SBL Student Members group. We all want to hear that our desire to pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies is justified.
This particular student on Facebook received advice I have heard many times before, indeed it was advice that I myself had received. While there is never one determining factor in answering this question, I have grown wary of one particular piece of advice that is regularly offered:
If you can see yourself doing anything else, pursue some other interest.
My problem with this advice is not so much what it says but with what it implies: If you can’t see yourself doing anything else, pursue the PhD! When stated outright, it usually comes with the appropriate qualifiers. Be realistic. It may not work out. It will cost lots of money. Etc. These caveats are appropriate, but they don’t mitigate the fundamental problem in the advice above:
If we only encourage students with a single-track education and narrow interests to pursue a PhD in biblical studies, we do a disservice to our discipline and to those whose education will not serve them well when they fail to land an academic career.
Our discipline does not need more people who see the discipline of biblical studies through the lens of a traditional biblical studies education. What we need are English and history majors, psychologists and political theorists. What we don’t need are more Bible majors! The Bible majors, more often than not, are the ones who cannot see themselves doing anything else. The Bible may be the only subject they have studied in college and graduate school. Those with majors outside of biblical studies have expertise and career opportunities that lie outside biblical studies. It is these people who we discourage when we offer the advice above, but these are precisely the kinds of people we should be attracting to the guild. As the academy continues to embrace interdisciplinary thinking and tenure boards expect innovative scholarly careers, we need to invite students with eclectic interests to pursue biblical studies PhDs, not students with a single-track focus on the Bible!
Furthermore, we must keep in mind the lives of those who will pursue a biblical studies PhD. We know that most of these students will not end up with a tenure track or relatively stable academic posting. Bible majors or those who can’t imagine doing anything else do not need to be encouraged to pursue an education that only further narrows their career opportunities. Certainly PhDs can find work in non-traditional roles, but shouldn’t students with a narrowly focused Bible education be encouraged to broaden their education, interests, and career opportunities rather than spend four, six, or eight more years studying the Bible? Moreover, if we attract students with a broader education to spend a few years working on a PhD in biblical studies, they can find careers in other fields (if the tenure track doesn’t work out) and help infuse their biblical studies expertise in other disciplines and careers.
It is well-meaning advice, but we should no longer counsel students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they cannot see themselves doing anything else; rather, we should advise students to pursue a PhD in biblical studies only if they have eclectic interests and alternative career opportunities.
Writing an “intertextual” analysis or using the “method of intertextuality” has become a veritable rite of passage for scholars in biblical studies, as though this were a well established critical practice in our discipline. Unfortunately this is not the case, and those who use the term are entering, often unwittingly, into an academic battleground for which they are ill equipped. Intertextuality is a contested term, and those who use it would do well to understand the nature of the controversy at hand. The literature on this subject is vast, spanning countless works in literary theory and biblical studies. Below, I have compiled a core bibliography that represents essential studies within the two fields.
Those whose interests concern literary allusions would do well to avoid the language of intertextuality altogether and focus on the more relevant theoretical literature.
Saussure, F. de. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign,” and “Immutability and Mutability of the Sign.” In Course in General Linguistics. Translated by W. Baskin. 65-70, 71-78. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.
Bakhtin, M. M. “Discourse in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by M. Holquist. Translated by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. 259-422. University of Texas Press Slavic Series 1. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Kristeva, J. “The Bounded Text,” and “Word, Dialogue, and Novel.” In Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, edited by L. S. Roudiez, translated by T. Gora, A. Jardine, and L. S. Roudiez, 36–63, 64-91. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by M. Walker. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 59-60.
Barthes, R. “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by S. Heath, 142–48. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Culler, J. “Presupposition and Intertextuality.” Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 1380–96, reprinted in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 100–18. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Clayton, J., and E. Rothstein. “Figures in the Corpus: Theories of Influence and Intertextuality.” In Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, 3–36. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
van Wolde, E. “Trendy Intertextuality?” In Intertextuality in Biblical Writings: Essays in Honour of Bas van Iersel, edited by S. Draisma, 43–49. Kampen: Kok, 1989.
Hatina, T. R. “Intertextuality and Historical Criticism in New Testament Studies: Is There a Relationship.” Biblical Interpretation 7, no. 1 (1999): 28–43.
Tull, P. K. “Intertextuality and the Hebrew Scriptures.” Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 8, no. 1 (2000): 59–90.
Miller, G. D. “Intertextuality in Old Testament Research.” Currents in Biblical Research 9, no. 3 (2010): 283–309.
Moore, S. D., and Y. Sherwood. The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Barton, J. “Déjà Lu: Intertextuality, Method or Theory?” In Reading Job Intertextually, edited by K. Dell and W. Kynes. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 574. New York: T & T Clark, 2013.
While rereading Samuel Sandmel’s article, “Parallelomania” (JBL 81.1 , 13), I was struck by a line I found particularly poignant given ongoing events in Washington D. C.
Someday some cultural historian might want to study a phenomenon in our Society of Biblical Literature. Two hundred years ago Christians and Jews and Roman Catholics and Protestants seldom read each other’s books, and almost never met together to exchange views and opinions on academic matters related to religious documents. Even a hundred years ago such cross-fertilization or meeting was rare. In our ninety-seventh meeting we take it as a norm for us to read each other’s writings and to meet together, debate with each other, and agree or disagree with each other in small or large matters of scholarship. The legacy from past centuries, of misunderstanding and even of animosity, has all but been dissolved in the framework of our organization. Would that humanity at large could achieve what has been achieved in our Society.
It is frustrating when one stumbles upon a good quote, only to discovering a dubious attribution. Nijay Gupta writes about his recent discovery—an apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quote. Gupta discovered the innocent ruse because, in his own words, “I try to be a respectable scholar.” Indeed, you would think that checking your sources would be a fundamental tenant in the life of all scholars.
You would be wrong.
In an article published in the most recent issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, “The Ethics of Inclusion: The גר and the אזרח in the Passover to Yhwh” (23.2 : 155-66), I conclude with a quote often attributed to Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century Jewish philosopher:
The alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, religious community, or people; but because he was a human being. In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.
Having seen this quote in numerous studies, including one Anchor Bible commentary, you would think the source of the quote would be easy to locate. Again, you would be wrong. I spent the better part of the day tracking this quote down at the library using both digital and print media. Eventually I was force to resort to two interlibrary loan requests before I confirmed to my own satisfaction its apocryphal origins. Trying to be a respectable scholar, I included this footnote:
To my knowledge, the first attribution of this quotation to Hermann Cohen was made by J. H. Hertz in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary (London: Soncino, 1937) 313. The quotation does not appear in the original publication of the Exodus commentary; Exodus (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary; London: Oxford University Press, 1930) 259. Hertz generally references Cohen’s “Juedische Schriften” and “Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums” as works he consulted in preparation of the commentary. The quotation captures well Cohen’s sentiments from the latter work in the chapter entitled “The Discovery of Man as Fellowman,” though it does not contain the quotation itself; Religion of Reason Out of Sources of Judaism (trans. S. Kaplan; 2nd ed.; American Academy of Religion Text and Translation Series 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 113–43, particularly pp. 125–28. Unfortunately, Hertz is not more specific about the provenance of the quotation, and I am unable to verify its authenticity.
The moral of the story is simple. Check your sources!
If you have clicked through to read a blog post raising a question about the academic rigor of evangelical scholarship, chances are good you already have your own answer to the question. But I recognize that such a polarizing question requires many nuances, qualifiers, and subtleties. For example, are we talking about American evangelicalism or its British variety? Are we talking about the “Big-tent” model of Fuller Seminary or the more exclusionary version championed by certain high-profile so-called “evangelical intellectuals?”
I want to focus specifically on two dissertations turned “academic” monographs recently published by Wipf and Stock, a publisher with a growing reputation for publishing books of uneven quality. Of course, this unevenness might be expected when a publishing house that employs 25 people publishes 60 books in one month (July) with the entire production being done in-house. With these numbers, I’d expect the quality of their published books to reflect the variable quality of their authors, not their overworked editors.
The first book is Tracy J. McKenzie’s Idolatry in the Pentateuch: An Innertextual Strategy. Sven Petry of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen recently reviewed the book in RBL, and his extensive critique at the conclusion of his review speaks volumes. He begins saying, “I must admit that I am not sure how to evaluate this volume.” This is never a good sign. He summarizes the book’s contents again, this time with a focus on things that academically are either unjustified, uninteresting, or already well established. He also mentions the lack of sufficient editing. (Wipf and Stock take note!)
He then lays down the gauntlet:
Further, I suppose I have difficulties understanding and valuing McKenzie’s arguments because I come from a different world and speak a different language—and here I do not think in terms of geography. What I read shows me how large the gap between my notion of academic critical scholarship and McKenzie’s evangelical ideas are. Although I consider myself “critical,” I (as many other critical scholars) do believe that the final shape of the biblical text does matter. In this regard I fully consent to the opening sentence of chapter 1: “A central concern for Old Testament theology is an understanding of the final shape of the canon” (27). But while I regard a concept of the stages of textual growth as beneficial to this understanding, McKenzie’s concept of authorship that equalizes “author” and “composer” (49–50) sweeps away the value of any likely textual development prior to the final shape.
Petry raises an important point that often goes unrecognized by evangelical scholars who eschew historical criticism. Nonevangelical critical scholars can be just as enthusiastic about the final shape of the biblical text as an evangelical scholar. The difference between these and evangelical scholars is that critical scholars take seriously the claim that this is the final shape of the biblical text. Critical scholars acknowledge and examine both earlier and later forms of the text. Many evangelicals believe the “final shape of the biblical text” is the only shape—the only shape that matters or the only shape that has ever existed.
But Petry is not finished. He then raises the question of the function of “innertextuality” in this study. Now I should mention that I am writing a dissertation on “intertextuality,” and I argue most biblical scholars who use this term, evangelical or otherwise, are guilty of engaging in a practice that is un-academic. What I found to be interesting are the religiously motivated ends to which McKenzie so casually wielded this unwieldy nominalization.
Third, I simply do not get the point of “innertextuality.” If innertextuality actually does not say much more than that two texts are intentionally connected, that is, somehow related, the term does not contribute anything new and therefore is dispensable. Following McKenzie’s notion and terminology, the presence of “innertexts” should raise questions of tradition and dependence. But in fact innertextuality is presented as if it was the answer. I can hardly avoid the impression that the term’s purpose is to provide a category for observations that in the critical realm would raise questions McKenzie refuses to answer. As he presupposes the Pentateuch as a “unified textual work, the direction of dependence is not necessary to know” (50). Therefore, while McKenzie’s book may have its value within the evangelical realm, from the perspective of critical, that is, academic, biblical scholarship, it is not necessary to read.
Again, I want to stress that “intertextuality” as it occurs most frequently in biblical studies is a problematic term. It often serves as a one-size-fits-all academic signifier for a theoretically and/or methodologically under-developed idea. But I think Petry is on to something when he observes that McKenzie’s use of it allows him to sidestep tradition- and source-critical questions.
The second book I want to consider was written by Deuk-il Shin, The Ark of Yahweh in Redemptive History: A Revelatory Instrument of Divine Attributes. (I do not know why the advertised subtitle departs from the subtitle on the picture of the book’s cover.) David G. Firth of St. John’s College (Nottingham, UK) reviewed this book recently in RBL. Like Petry, he has concerns about the “theological position” of the book.
It is clear from the above summary that Shin is operating from a very conservative theological position, and this impacts the whole work. The book’s strength is that it shows that a consistent reading of the ark across the Old Testament is possible and that traditio-historical interpretations are not necessarily required. That is, a synchronic reading of the text can present a coherent interpretation of the ark. But in a sense, that is also its weakness. It is because Shin starts with this as a presupposition that we do not really get to see substantial arguments that show that his approach is a better interpretation of the data. This concern particularly emerges in his reading of the historical texts that discuss the ark where, beyond the importance of reading the Bible from the perspective of Reformed theology, we do not really encounter a clear method for showing how these texts reveal the aspects of Yahweh’s character that he suggests. In the end, Shin’s conclusions present his presuppositions in more detail than noted at the outset, but his conclusions are still his presuppositions. So, while his conclusions might be correct, and there is an attractive degree of coherence to his reading, the book lacks the methodological rigor that would establish them as probable.
Firth’s assessment intrigues me for a couple of reasons. Having published numerous books with InterVarsity Press, an evangelical publishing house, Firth operates within evangelicalism. This criticism does not come from outside evangelicalism. (Perhaps I have framed the question in my title in too binary a mode.) Furthermore, Firth does not seem altogether opposed to Shin’s conclusions; rather, he questions the foundation upon which these conclusions are established.
Notice how Firth distinguishes between presuppositions and “substantial arguments.” When critical scholars talk to many evangelicals today, the conversation will often arrive at the question of presuppositions. The idea that the critical scholar begins with problematic assumptions becomes a kind of trump card, a way of prematurely ending the conversation or academic debate. Firth argues, to the contrary, that presuppositions must be established by methodological (i.e., academic) rigor. Otherwise, all one has to go on are one’s presuppositions. Presuppositions alone are simply not the basis of a rigorous academic approach to the Bible.
The answer to the question of this post depends on one’s perspective. I would suggest that evangelical scholars need to take seriously the critique of these two recent monographs if they intend for their work to participate in the theoretical and methodological rigor of academe.
Ron Hendel has made available the most recent volume of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel which includes his article, “The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Its Aims and a Response to Criticisms.” Those familiar with the OHB project are no doubt aware of the many substantive critiques (e.g., H. G. M. Williamson) of the project as originally laid out. Hendel responds, conceding some points and defending others.
I have a couple observations from reading the article, both positive and negative. Both of these concern the issue of an “original” text. First, I note that Hendel puts appropriate emphasis on the “purely theoretical” nature of the enterprise (69).
The original is a chimera, a purely abstract goal, which can never be fully achieved, and we cannot know the extent to which we have achieved it (85).
Practically, this means Hendel is willing to follow the critiques of those who say we must “give up” the idea of an original text (e.g., Brooke, G. J. “The Qumran Scrolls and the Demise of the Distinction Between Higher and Lower Criticism.” In New Directions in Qumran Studies: Proceedings of the Bristol Colloquium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 8-10 September 2003, edited by J. G. Campbell, W. J. Lyons, and L. Pietersen, 26–42. LSTS 52. London: T & T Clark, 2005). Theoretically, Hendel still embraces the idea.
Second, Hendel continues to perpetuate a problem I see with Tov’s discussion of the original text which is similar to Hendel’s “archetype.” With Tov, the original status of a text is two-fold. At times, it is something achieved in the past. A scribe would have been aware that their text was “original” or copied from an “original.” At other times, it is something achieved in the present, always subject to change when new text forms require an “earlier” text that can account for all available evidence. Genetically, we can compare these two alternatives to the difference between a historical Adam and Eve on the one hand, and Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve on the other.
In his introduction to the project, Hendel articulates his interest in the “earliest inferable textual state.” He remains committed to that idea, but he describes it in this new article as the “latest common ancestor.” (If we were using the language of science, we would speak of “the most recent common ancestor.”) This indicates that he, more so in my opinion than Tov, understands the archetype/original(Tov) as an accident of history like Y-Chomosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve. And yet, when he describes his goal “to come closer to the original literary composition of a book,” he is implying an original model that corresponds more to a historical Adam and Eve, a text that acheives its “original” status in history. (Tov’s perspective is biased toward this model, though he too vacillates.)
Hendel’s response makes me feel better about the OHB project, especially considering the positive response to some of the criticism it received. And yet, I remain unconvinced that Tov and Hendel have successfully responded to critiques against an original text or who have blurred the lines between textual and literary criticism.
One of the most penetrating book reviews I have ever read is James Kugel’s review of Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. I could wax eloquent the virtues of this review, but let me for now draw attention to one particular item of interest.
In Biblical Interpretation, Fishbane uses terms borrowed from Douglas Knight’s Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel to describe the relationships between texts and their subsequent interpretations. In Knight’s work, tradition is composed of two aspects: the traditio signifies “the process (in its totality and in its details) whereby traditional material is passed from one generation to the next;” the traditum signifies “the traditional material itself that is being transmitted” (5). Fishbane conceives of innerbiblical exegesis as a literary continuation of a primarily oral understanding of the tradition-historical process. The traditium becomes the “(increasingly) authoritative teachings or traditions whose religious-cultural significance is vital (and increasingly fundamental)” while the the traditio focuses on “the concern to preserve, render contemporary, or otherwise reinterpret these teachings or traditions in explicit ways for new times and new circumstances” (8).
Kugel remarks, “Now this little bit of naming, although it might seem rather trivial at first, begins to loom a bit larger as Fishbane’s references to traditum and traditio, . . . pass from the dozens into the hundreds and (who knows?) perhaps the thousands as his study rolls on” (273). One can sense Kugel finds this “little bit of naming” somewhat taxing. This subjective dissatisfaction is followed by a more objective critique. Kugel draws attention to the fact that neither Knight nor Fishbane have used Latin terms that sufficiently distinguish themselves from one another—they do not exclusively signify the distinct concepts for which they are employed. If this were not enough, Kugel goes on to highlight how Fishbane uses the two terms in ways at odds with how he has already defined them. Essentially, traditum functions as the anterior text and the traditio functions as the posterior or interpreting text. Kugel suggests “Fishbane would have done better, I think (as future studies will do better), to forego the temptations of Latin and say a little more specifically what he means in each case” (274).
I think Kugel’s suggestion for future studies is sound. The temptations of Latin are too infrequently virtuous to be a reliable tool for academic writing, much less Stylish Academic Writing. I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot use Latin (German, French, etc.) responsibly, just that most do not. In his footnote to the previous quote, I think Kugel drives the observation home in a most poignant manner.
It is to be remarked that, quite apart from this particular issue, Fishbane does have a weakness for foreign words and phrases, and not only in Latin. Readers of scholarly books ought no doubt to be indulgent in this regard; yet one cannot but occasionally wonder if Fishbane’s saying indicia instead “clues,” au fond instead of “at bottom,” Wiederaufnahme instead of “resumption,” legenda instead of “legends” (sic), Rechtspraxis instead of “legal practice,” ab origine for “from the beginning” (i.e., ab initio?), responsum for “answer,” per definitionem for “by definition,” Umwelt for “environment,” animadversiones for “observations” etc. etc. does not more serve some obscure need in the author’s own psyche than the causes of clarity and precision.
I argue that Qohelet’s words are used to draw in an audience who finds his query and methodology compelling, only to show them that the quest is pointless. By creating a sympathetic link between the audience and the character Qohelet, the author has cleverly avoided immediately alienating the audience by simply telling them that they are wrong. The leaking of the “Climategate” emails in 2009 illustrate the power of such an approach, doing far more damage to the credibility of climate science than did the direct confrontation of numerous “climate change deniers” over many years. Similarly, the honest words of the most highly regarded sage do more to undermine the legitimacy of speculative wisdom than any direct confrontation.
In other words, just as the words of climate scientists were more damning than skeptics arguments, so also Qohelet’s own words are more damning than any rebuttal the narrator might make. (Don’t feel bad if you couldn’t make sense of the analogy the first time through; I had to read it three of four times before it made sense.)
I find this curious, if not problematic. Did “Climategate” do damage to the credibility of climate science? No. It only hurt the public’s perception of the credibility of climate science because the public understood neither the emails targeted by skeptics and pundits nor the nature of the science in question. (In case you are not already aware, eight different committees investigating “Climategate” have found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.)
I guess it is possible that the frame-narrator let Qohelet speak without a point by point rebuttal as a clever way of letting Qohelet “damage” his own credibility. But I think that, like the “Climategate scandal,” this reading betrays either the ignorance or the predisposition (or both) of those who think Qohelet’s words are self-evidently flawed.
In Christian circles, children learn from an early age the song, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Setting the issue of Jesus aside for the moment, it strikes me that early Jews and contemporary Christians have very different epistemologies. What do I mean? I don’t think that “for the Bible tells me so” was the kind of explanation that would have satisfied the curiosity of early Jewish children or adults.
If you have read my recent article in the The Journal of Theological Studies (see here), you will have noticed my interest in the rationales that are embedded in over half of the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible. However, I was not aware that this was a significant area of study for early post-biblical traditions. I am thankful to have discovered Lawrence Schiffman’s blog where he recently posted a series on the rationales for the commandments (ta`amei ha-mitzvot) in Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his conclusion to this series, Schiffman summarily observes that “seeking explanatory rationales for the commandments as a consistent approach and fostering the conception that such rationales can, in fact, be offered for almost all the commandments, is a product of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple period.” This coincides with my own conviction that a strict divine command theory is not the proper way to interpret the function of obedience to God in the Hebrew Bible. My argument is based on how the text of Scripture presents itself, but Shiffman’s discussion suggests that early Jewish audiences were similarly (and increasingly?) in tune with the Torah’s own rationalizing tendencies.
Use the language of “myth” when describing certain parts of the Bible (e.g., Genesis 1-11) and you are sure to upset many Christians. Creation and flood narratives provide the foundation for the worldview of many sincere believers today. They struggle to see this language as anything but an affront to their cherished beliefs. No doubt many would prefer this language applied to evolutionary biology. But notice what happens when Michael Pollan does this very thing in his recently released book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:
Like any such theory–indeed, like evolution itself–the cooking hypothesis is not subject to absolute scientific proof. For that reason, some will no doubt dismiss it as another ‘just so’ story, Prometheus in modern scientific garb. But, really, how much more can we expect when trying to account for something like the advent of ourselves? What the cooking hypothesis gives us is a compelling modern myth–one cast in the language of evolutionary biology rather than religion–locating the origins of our species in the discovery of cooking with fire. To call it a myth is not to belittle it. Like any other such story, it serves to explain how what is came to be using the most powerful vocabulary available, which in our case today happens to be that of evolutionary biology. What is striking in this instance is that classical mythology and modern evolutionary theory both gazed into the flames of the cook fire and found there the same thing: the origins of our humanity. Perhaps that coincidence is all the confirmation we can hope for. (p 62)
And perhaps Christians should not feel so afraid of seeing this language applied also to certain biblical texts. Far from an affront to sacred Scripture, this could prove to be one of the more affirming claims made on its behalf.
More on Michael Pollan’s important book: