Why RBL Should Be Utilizing Fledgling Scholars

I frequent the RBL site and volunteer to review those volumes most germane to my areas of research. (Yes, I know you must be at least A.B.D. before you can review for RBL, which I am not. More on that below.) Earlier this summer I volunteered to review the recent collection of essays edited by Kathrine Dell, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. I was reading this book as a part of an independent study on Old Testament ethics, and thought it would be a happy coincidence if I could review it in conjunction with my study. Naturally, I was disappointed (though not surprised) when I learned that once again my request to volunteer was cordially rejected.

As you might imagine, I was interested to see who was selected to review the book and to compare their evaluation of it with my own. Today, RBL posted Walter Kaiser’s review of the book. In many respects, Walter Kaiser is a logical choice to review a book on Old Testament ethics. His own book, Toward Old Testament Ethics, was one of the earliest works devoted to the subject. He is a senior scholar with a prolific pen and a respectable career in Evangelical institutions. While many of his own books have been reviewed in RBL, this is the first time (as best I can determine from the RBL search engine) he has reviewed for this venue. The editorial board for RBL made a rational choice in selecting Kaiser for this review.

That having been said, the review is a disaster. After introducing the conference from which the papers in the book originate (in what is, I might add, one of the larger paragraphs in the review!), we encounter the first signs that the reviewer has given up before he has even begun:

As with all multiple-author books, it is difficult to give an in-depth or an even review of all fourteen authors in the space allotted.

I think this is a cop-out. RBL does not limit their reviewers to 1200 words (the mark Kaiser’s review falls just shy of), nor are they unwilling to publish lengthy reviews of multi-author volumes. Late last year/earlier this year, they published two reviews of the Texts@Contexts Genesis volume, each of which topped 10 pages! Ethical and Unethical is equally as significant and the contributors are top scholars in their fields. I simply cannot believe that Kaiser exhausted his “allotted space” in the recent review.

Kaiser proceeds to summarize each essay in one to four sentence summaries. In only one of those summaries do Kaiser’s own opinions regarding the value of the content emerge: “Carol Dray, now deceased, has one of the most interesting chapters on. . . .” (It is ironic that he writes only one sentence about this “most interesting chapter,” the only one-sentence summary in the review!) Even this one comment is hardly illuminating.

What of the value of the summaries themselves? Consider the first one:

Robert Gordon (Regius Professor of Hebrew, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of St. Catharine’s College) has the opening chapter, in which he focuses on the debate between James Barr and Walter Moberly as to whether God or the serpent in the garden of Eden spoke the truth, when threatening death in Gen 2:17. Gordon suggests that God may have been speaking metaphorically rather than literally in Gen 2:17 or that God may have mitigated his own threat later. Instead, Gordon wants to shift the debate away from the topic of death to that of wisdom and immortality.

This is a less-than-accurate representation of the contents of the article. It is Barr and Moberly who have advocated that Genesis 2:17 is best explained in light of divine mitigation and metaphorical death, respectively. What Gordon does in his essay is to lay out the issues involved, challenge a number of assumptions, and clarify some misunderstandings between the two scholars (e.g. Barr misreads Moberly and confuses metaphorical death with spiritual death). He concludes that it is God, not the serpent, who is a truth-teller, thus siding with Moberly (however cautiously).

Why would Kaiser poorly represent the contents of the essay? Simply because he is not summarizing Gordon’s essay! How do I know this? Kathrine Dell, the editor of the volume, penned an introduction in which she summarized each essay, and Kaiser is actually summarizing Dell’s summary! After providing a much longer and more informative synopsis of the contents, Dell concludes her summary of Gordon’s essay saying:

The possibility of God speaking metaphorically rather than literally in Gen 2:17 is raised, as well as the idea that God may have mitigated his threat at a later point. Gordon wishes to shift the emphasis of the Eden narrative away from death as the central issue, towards the key elements of wisdom and immortality.

In the first sentence, Kaiser’s summary converts Dell’s passive “is raised” into an active “Gordon suggests” (which turns an ambiguous statement into an inaccurate one). In the second, he exchanges Dell’s “Gordon wishes” with “Gordon wants.” The similarities here are disturbing. But this is not all.

When Dell summarizes in the introduction of her book the essay she contributed, she concludes with these words “Whether God behaves ethically or not in this context probably comes down to perspective—by human standards of justice the answer is that God is probably being unethical here, but who are we mere mortals to judge God?” Now compare this with what Kaiser writes, “Her conclusion is that God probably acted unethically in Job, but who are we mortals to judge God?” That Kaiser is here summarizing Dell’s own summary of her essay is incontrovertible in light of the fact that this latter phrase, “who are we (mere) mortals to judge God?” does not appear anywhere in her essay—it only appears in her summary in the introduction to the volume!

Elsewhere it is less/unclear where/if Kaiser is dependent on Dell’s summaries. His summaries are consistently shorter and less thorough than Dell’s, and he tends to use key phrases/words that Dell likewise includes in her summaries. For example, Dell and Kaiser both use Lipton’s phrase from the introduction of her essay “handle with care,” though it does not occur anywhere else in her essay. In summarizing Marlow’s essay, both refer to Isa 34 as a “key text.” While Isa 34 is a key text in her essay, Marlow never refers to it as such.

I cannot prove that Kaiser did not read the book he reviewed, and whether he did or did not is actually of little significance. (It is possible to review a book well that one has not read exhaustively, though this should probably be the exception, not the rule.) My concern is with the fact that (parts of) his review is (are) nothing more than a summary of the book’s introduction, itself the original work of a scholar providing a synopsis of the contents of the book. In at least one place where Kaiser is summarizing the summary, he misconstrues the contents of an article. Moreover, some of the language of his summary seems dependent on Dell’s own language, and as such he appears to my eyes to be flirting with plagiarism. (How ironic that he is reviewing a book on ethics!)

The point of this post, however, is not to accuse Kaiser of plagiarism. I hesitate to use the word because I fear it could distract from the purpose of this post. Whatever Kaiser has done, it is in poor taste and produced a lackluster review. But there is one element I have left to address—his conclusion.

Each chapter comes with a selected bibliography. Due to the subject matter and the wide variety of offerings, this volume will no doubt attract both advocates and those who feel the negative note is not altogether consistent with all of the biblical evidence. Nevertheless, it is still welcomed as another fresh signal that the subject matter of biblical ethics is enjoying a fresh comeback. It is hoped that these essays will spark many others to join the conversation.

In essence, “Some people will like this book. Others will not. This subject is clearly in vogue!” This much could be said of nearly every multi-authored book published! There is no evaluation of the contents; no assessment of how successful the book is at allowing the Old Testament to speak for itself about is characters, both human and divine. This is a review unworthy of the name. Anyone interested in the book would be much better served by reading the book’s introduction on Google Books. Given that the introduction of the book already contains a thorough synopsis of its contents, Kaiser should have mentioned this and then moved on to engage the strengths and weaknesses of the book, if not of the individual articles. But I digress.

RBL’s policies state:

a. When a review copy becomes available, an RBL editor first offers it for review to a scholar with recognized expertise in the subject matter of the book. Editors repeat this process until at least two such scholars have been offered a book for review.
b. If two editor-identified scholars decline the invitation to review a book, an editor may offer the book for review to a volunteer.
c. Only SBL members who have earned a terminal degree (e.g., Ph.D.) or are in the dissertation stage of such studies are eligible to volunteer to review a book for RBL. Volunteers are required to state their credentials qualifying them to review in RBL’s online volunteer form (http://bookreviews.org/volunteer.asp).

I find it terribly frustrating as a student ineligible to review for RBL to see their policies cater to senior scholars who, from time to time, produce mediocre (or ethically questionable) reviews. Would those of us currently ineligible really produce as many or more poor reviews as are already being published by the eligible reviewers? (The internet is rife with complaints about sub-par RBL reviews. See one from me, here.) I doubt so. Fledgling scholars have something to prove, and as such they are motivated to take professional opportunities like publishing a review in RBL seriously. Moreover, as the SBL is re-envisioning their role in helping student members develop as scholars, why not encourage them to contribute reviews that help them develop and hone their skills of critical thinking, all while building their CV and contributing to their discipline. I think it is interesting that I was encouraged in my master’s program to develop the skills of writing book reviews alongside the skills of writing papers. Why does SBL and JBL believe us qualified to do the one, but RBL not believe us qualified to do the other? To add insult to injury, the RBL reviewers sometimes have difficulty finding reviewers for certain books (e.g. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens published in 2009!), but even still they refuse to send it to someone like myself (PhD student with an emphasis in Old Testament Theology).

I am under no illusions that the RBL policies will change. So let me say this, to those of you who are eligible to review for RBL, please take it seriously. Some of us would appreciate having the opportunities you have. And to Walter Kaiser: If you aren’t going to read Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament for yourself, would you mind sending your copy to me? I’d like to have it.


John Anderson describes in a comment below his own experiences as a younger scholar reviewing for RBL. They help to dispel some of my assumptions while confirming others. Give it a look!

10 thoughts on “Why RBL Should Be Utilizing Fledgling Scholars

  1. It is posts like that is that keep me checking my blog feeds. Good bit of investigative reporting here ;-)

    Seriously though, this is one more sign that the editors of RBL are asleep at the wheel.

  2. RBL reviews are a mixed bag. I don’t want to push either extreme of “they’re all awful” or “they’re all sterling” (and I’m not suggesting this is what you, Joseph, or Charles even, are insinuating), but I do think it is extremely unfortunate to have a review like Kaiser’s slip through. I thought the same thing when I read his review–which I was very eager to do when I saw it was him reviewing a book on OT ethics–that it sounded a lot like the intro summaries from the editor, and that there were essentially NO critical comments from someone certainly well-equipped to offer both words of glowing praise and critical reflection. And his is not an anomaly, certainly. I’ve published 4 RBL reviews, soon to be 5 (I’ve written and submitted it, just waiting for them to post it), and RBL never said anything explicitly about the length (my shortest review is about 7 single spaced pages, longest being over 10 single spaced pages). They do state that the average, expected length is about 3 pages, but my reviews show this obviously is not a hard and fast requirement.

    The whole RBL review process is a bit of a mystery to me, despite what you outline above. Don’t misconstrue me, I’m glad to be reviewing for them. But in terms of how they define those most qualified first to review books–the initial two invites–I would caution you against thinking this is only senior scholars getting such invites. My most recent review, forthcoming, of Blenkinsopp’s Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11 was one I actually volunteered for, but then received a rejection. But what was odd is that before I got the rejection I had received an offer to review it. Confused, I emailed RBL, and they said my volunteer entry to review the book was denied because they had chosen to offer it to me (presumably as one of the first two offered the book) based upon my “merits.” I’m hardly a senior scholar, but I am glad that RBL sees me as qualified to write that review, which I understood stemmed not from my four earlier reviews but from the fact that I chair the Genesis SBL program unit, just published a book on Genesis, etc.

    All in all, though, I think book reviews are a great place for budding scholars to hone their craft. And I do think, given SBL’s overt policy of encouraging the next generation of scholars–something we in the Genesis unit have been intentional about doing, inviting a few younger scholars, some fresh out of grad school or some ABD, to present papers over the next two years. I see no reason why this shouldn’t be extended to others.

    1. John, this is really helpful information. As was clear, I had to make certain assumptions in the post. Your comments have dispelled some assumptions and confirmed others. Thanks for posting!

  3. No worries, Joseph. I’m not trying to debunk anything you’ve said, just giving my sense of the process. But hey, if SBL considers me a “scholar with recognized experitse” in Genesis, I’m not going to quibble! Now hopefully someone with a tenure track position will feel similarly!!

    It is interesting, though, re: length. One of my former teachers, who will remain nameless (and you won’t guess who it was anyways, and that’s inconsequential to the overall point), actually said after reading my Text@Contexts review that I needed to practice being a little briefer in my reviews. It’s through this conversation that I learned of the 3 page minimum/standard, which again is hardly the norm.

    And while this may sound hokey, when I do reviews like I have, they aren’t long and thorough just to get my name out there (though that is a part of it), but also because I genuine want to contribute to the guild, and part of doing that is not just summarizing but evaluating and engaging another’s work critically.

    1. Kaiser is right that it is particularly difficult to know exactly how to do justice to multi-author works with limited space (though it is more economical not to say this in the review and to reserve all the space for salient, critical interaction with the book). That having been said, a key review, positive or negative, can prove significant for scholars with limited time/energy who need to know if a work is relevant for their research. Books are not cheap, as you well know. Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament is $150!!! Reviews that tell you nothing more than what you can get from a Google Books or Amazon preview are worthless, a much greater waste of space than overzealous reviews. The ideal reviewer is one who writes economically, selectively, and makes every word count. The reviewer who falls just short of the ideal is the one who writes too much, not the one who writes too little. The one who writes too little isn’t trying.

  4. I also read the review immediately (as the topic and reviewer seemed tremendously interesting to me and that tends to be how I pick which reviews to read). Having not read the volume (and only being interested in it) I was highly disappointed by the review myself (so I’m happy to know I wasn’t the only one). I was also expecting some particular critiques of the chapters so that I might know if there were any salient essays or ones worth skipping. It does make sense now to hear that it comes across as little more than a summary of the original summary. Very disappointing indeed!

  5. First off thanks for the information that you have to be ABD to review for RBL. I have requested to review at least four books and keep getting turned down. Now I know at least one reason.
    I likewise volunteered to review this book. When I saw the review was listed and the reviewer was Kaiser I interested in his take on the book. I guess it is needless to say that I was tremendously disappointed by Kaiser’s review. I would like to think that although I am not ABD I could have offered a better review of Dell’s work. Maybe next month when I obtain ABD status I will be granted an opportunity. :)

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