Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff

My main research focus, when I can get to it, concerns literary allusion in the Bible (also called “inner-biblical interpretation,” or “inner-biblical exegesis”).

Insofar as I have a Big Idea, it mostly involves running around like Chicken Little and yelling that the field of biblical studies isn’t producing a coherent conversation about “inner-biblical allusion” because we quarantine ourselves (as we so often do) from the secular ancillary scholarship (in this case, on the poetics of literary allusion).

What disturbs and intrigues me recently is, I think that there is another scholarly context to which I’ll need to tether my continuing work in biblical allusion. You know it well, and most recently, it looks something like this.

Upside: maybe I get to blow the dust off my Akkadian again. Downside: Hier werden deutsche.

[Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/16. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Stop Making the Blogosphere So Damned Interesting, Jim Getz

Grades are due Monday evening, and I am still crawling along.

As if I don’t have enough distractions, a riveting conversation on Pentateuch criticism broke out at Jim Getz’s place. The trigger was David Carr’s RBL review of Joel Baden’s J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch. When the RBL newsletter had come out, some friends and I emailed one another about the tone of the review (as junior scholars, our reaction amounted to “There but for the grace of God…”).

The comments thread to Jim’s post is striking for the attendance of actual players and other luminaries. Bloggers tend to be more junior than senior, and the place of senior scholars in the blogosphere has sometimes been isolated, rarely-updated news-release outlets, not closely in conversation with other Bible-centric blogging. At Jim’s post, the comments thread became the kind of discourse, with the kind of participation, that I think we’d all like to see more of.

Which really ticks me off this week, because as I have said, I don’t have time for that kind of thing right now. :^) Back to papers.

Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL

What does it look like for a person of Jewish or Christian religious faith to—as a matter of method—bracket her sectarian claims about the Bible in her investigation into the content and context of biblical texts? And why is it necessary that she be willing to learn to do so?

As some of you will know, a conversation has been underway about book reviews in biblical studies that appear, as a matter of academic method, to privilege sectarian claims (sometimes along with the reviewed book itself). Alan Lenzi has raised up occasional samples, and one in particular has generated some conversation. Calvin at the Floppy Hat wrote a thoughtful post that garnered some comments.

The readers at Art Boulet’s finitum non capax infiniti, especially, have produced a comment thread especially worthy of attention. It’s not a record-breaker in terms of length or number of participants, but it is clearly drawn and notably free of distracting polemics.

The basic question underlying the discussion—what does it mean for anyone, religious or not, to engage in “academic biblical studies” over against sectarian apologetics—may be of special value to students in higher education who are being asked to make this distinction, or to religious laypeople who wonder how seminary “book learning” differs from confessional “Bible study.” By all means, take a look.

[Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/27. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Dealing with DeWette: Evaluating Bias and Evidence in Biblical Studies

You know what my favorite thing is about blogs? Comments. By which I mean, “commenters.” A comment thread is sometimes no more than a string of unconnected exclamations or diatribes, but at best, the comments to a blog post take a genuinely interactive course and add some serious value to even the best of posts. When authors devote the same kind of care to their comments as they would to their own blog posts, sure, they add value to their own name, or “brand,” since they often (but not always) are linked to their own blogs or profiles. But more, they add value to the posts to which they comment, unpaid and (outside of the small circles who do this “web” “log” thing), unacknowledged.

I woke up this morning to belatedly discover a short exchange on DeWette, a biblical source critic who preceded the better-known Julius Wellhausen. Kevin Edgecomb finds himself rightly appalled at the anti-Judaic biases that have animated Protestant biblical scholarship, especially early source criticism. Briefly, his commenters judge that, while Kevin is correct in discerning bias, he has not made his case that a) DeWette’s source-critical conclusions lack evidentiary support, and that b) later biblical scholars have uncritically preserved DeWette’s (or Wellhausen’s) conclusions and ignored the anti-Judaic biases with which those scholars approached the biblical evidence. Doug Mangum has posted a response and a follow-up.

On the one hand, Kevin is doing exactly what he should be doing: reading the early source critics with a hermeneutic of suspicion (self-link). How do their arguments and conclusions reflect their anti-Judaic (and for that matter, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-ritual) biases? How does the rhetoric of their arguments and conclusions seek to reproduce those biases in the reader? Terribly important questions, these.

On the other hand, I’d argue that Kevin’s initial post dismisses DeWette’s conclusions without addressing his use of evidence and line of reasoning. Doug brought up the “intentional fallacy,” and I would further specify the fallacy of “poisoning the well”: the fallacious idea is that, once DeWette has been brought into (deserved or undeserved) ill repute, we can just assume that his arguments are inconsequential. Finally, Kevin makes the rather sweeping claim that later biblical source criticism has willfully ignored the plain biases in the work of its predecessors. In other words, he argues that while he reads DeWette with a hermeneutic of suspicion, biblical scholars on the whole (who agree with DeWette on dating the core of Deuteronomy to the 7th century) have not done so.

I call attention to the comments to these three posts, because they represent the kind of conversation typical of strong scholars concerning this procedural issue. How do we acknowledge the biases of our forebears (once recognized as such) while still engaging in our continuing work their use of evidence and their lines of reasoning?

It is essential that we model “best practices” in this regard, because our own students and their students will learn from our example and read us accordingly when our own biases, invisible to us, come to be recognized. On the matter of bias and evidence, as on any matter, as we comment, in such a mode can we look forward to being commented on.

Bible Woo and Easy Answers to Complicated Problems

Bryan Bibb writes today about religious hucksters in the business of getting rich on false promises. There, he compares the marketing of false hopes by religious television with the woo-hawking infomercials run by the same stations. I encourage you to read the whole piece. Here, I just touch briefly on one element noted by Bryan—the promise to solve all or most problems with a single easy solution—and relate it to best practices in biblical studies.

Bryan writes of those who send their money off to the innumerable heirs of Jim Bakker:

They might take a chance on a $25 book, or a $100 donation, or a $500 conference session if they think it will fix what is wrong (without them having to actually do anything about it, if there is anything indeed that can be done).

Dupes send their money to a televangelist in exactly the same way that they send it to a purveyor of quack nostrums, in the same hope of a quick cure-all that will fix what is wrong. The RationalWiki identifies this false promise as one defining characteristic of pseudoscientific woo:

A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many diseases or problems.

In my developing ideas about “Bible woo,” I am thinking about analogous “quick and easy cure-alls” in the reading of the Bible. A major breeding ground of Bible woo is the reader’s perception of a problem in the text: not in the value-neutral sense of “some odd data that call for explanation,” but rather in the value-laden sense of “some apparent feature that can’t and shouldn’t be there, whose logical explanation is intolerable to me, and that therefore must me explained away.” A ready example is the clear evidence of multiple sources in what are traditionally called the “five books of Moses.” In this context of biblical studies, a part of Bryan’s words above leap out to me:

…if there is anything indeed that can be done…

An axiom of critical inquiry is that data are good: you follow them, and they lead to you unpredictable places that you couldn’t have found unassisted. If the logical explanations of textual data lead you to an understanding of events that makes you uncomfortable, well, nothing to be done: there you are.

The woo-meister crouches in the doorway of that uncomfortable place, promising glib solutions to these and all other uncomfortable facts of life, for a reasonable price, whether a few dollars out of one’ purse or pocket, or only a few tolerable compromises in one’s God-given human capacity to reason.

A Little Help: Milestone Women in Biblical Studies

What women would you include in a list of major figures in the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament? In particular, who are among the movers and shakers: critical scholars whose work must be taken into consideration by anyone approaching their subject matter?

I invite you to be as subjective and idiosyncratic as you like in your proposals. Nobody has to defend their choices, though by all means describe your reasons as you like.

I ask because I am drafting up some reading lists to use as a resource for designing some courses and for revising courses I already teach. I don’t want to limit myself to the women scholars toward whom I already habitually gravitate.

For obvious cultural reasons, we tend to tick off the major turning points in biblical studies according to men’s names: Wellhausen, Gunkel, Noth, von Rad, Muilenburg. From that point, it has been easier (relatively speaking!) for women’s work to be published and to receive regard. As much as possible, I would like to get names from a broad range of periods and approaches.

Taking the study of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as a whole—old names and new, from every aspect of critical biblical study—what women would you include in a list provisionally titled, “Women biblical scholars with whose work you really must be in conversation, if I am to take seriously your treatment of texts”?

New Blog: Biblical Scholars and Personal Religion

Folksaretalking about Alan Lenzi’s new blogchild, “Biblical Scholars and Personal Religion.” As you can see from the introductory post, the plan is for biblical scholars to reflect on how they find the ongoing academic study of the Bible to affect their religious faith. This could be an exciting and illuminating collaborative work, and I hope scholars—especially those with long experience, but ideally a range of contributors—choose to participate.

I only have a moment today, but two thoughts come to mind, aside from my unbounded enthusiasm for the idea:

  • The academy does still suffer ambiguity concerning blogging, especially self-revelatory writing. On the one hand, the academy is still somewhat uncertain about its scholars having an online presence at all. On the other hand, there is a sense that distance learning can solve certain pressing problems, and distance teachers are increasingly inclined to break out of closed CMSs and make use of the fullness of the interactive possibilities of Web 2.0. With some 2/3 of higher educators being “contingent faculty” (non-tenure track), scholars who write on the Web under their true name are aware that what they write may come under the scrutiny of hiring committees or review committees. Eventually the residual stigma of online writing will likely pass, while we are not there yet. That said, we only get past it by making it happen: respected scholars contributing to unstructured online discourse is exactly what the doctor ordered.
  • What a great learning opportunity for M.Div. students! The mere fact that this topic is discussed by biblical scholars could really help put some nervous students at ease. And it is discussed: the topic  comes up regulary in my personal talks with colleagues. I will be watching very closely for the possibility of involving my students in some conversation about any entries.

So who will be first to thank Alan by stepping out from us nervously smiling, foot-tapping onlookers and getting out onto the dance floor?

Pay No Attention to Those Facts behind the Curtain

What do we try to keep from our students, and why? On examination, it often turns out to be stuff that’s too good or too bad. And either way, that’s too bad.

A number of Hebrew Bible professors and their doctoral students were discussing fine points of the “local origins” approach to the Israelite settlement question. One asked, “How might we communicate this to our M.Div. students?” Almost reflexively, some replied, “Oh, we won’t, of course.” The implied warrant wasn’t that the material might be too advanced, but that it might be too upsetting (or, as I suspect, too disruptive: and let’s face it, taking away the exodus can lead to an eruption of disruption). I have pretty well completely rejected this idea in my practice. True, on practical grounds, some concepts are too advanced for an introductory class to explore deeply, and potentially upsetting ideas must be introduced with care, but their existence is not a secret. Solid food, please.

So it was with surprise that I realized I habitually keep another set of facts from my students: the Bad Stuff, the junk food. As do many professors, I teach my students to recognize and find peer-reviewed or time-tested scholarship, and except in carefully controlled circumstanes I restrict them to those sources. “No Internet Sources” is a dictum seen in many syllabi, and for excellent reasons. It is also for excellent reasons that Josh McDowell is not on in our reading for the Israelite origins question.

In principle, I have always been willing for students to read low-quality scholarship, if only they are willing to subject it to the critical knife. In practice, the main obstacle is time. But assuming for the sake of argument that you have a new syllabus that finds room for critical evaluation of sketchy claims (upcoming entry), then why not?

As a starting move in that direction, I have begun to create public pages of aggregated web-feeds for my students. (A shout-out to Michael Wesch here and to AKMA for bringing him to my attention). These are rudimentary at this time, just a set of searches for key terms: much more is possible.

Later, I will discuss two issues that this practice brings in:

  • How do we teach the critical reasoning that helps the student to know the solid food from the junk food, and to taste sanely of the junk?
  • Where do we find time for that task?

The “tabs” of my aggragate page are called “Hebrew Bible,” “Hebrew Language,” and “Holiness/Purity” (this last for an independent study on holiness and purity in the Priestly Writer), and they can all be found on my NetVibes page.

Hearing Out the Text: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion and Openness to the Voice of the Other

Bryan Bibb posted recently on Ben Witherington’s review article of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus, Interrupted. I have not closely followed Ehrman or conversations about his work, but Witherington’s review gripped my imagination, because he brought the “Ehrman conversation” into the context of some of the essential critical questions that animate biblical studies. I am interested in his words on the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a mode of reading in which the reader remains warily alert to the text’s worldview with its peculiar heirarchies and how the text at hand will 1) reflect and reinforce that worldview, silencing and marginalizing other voices with their concerns, and also 2) seek through its rhetorical devices to reproduce in the reader that worldview and its heirarchies. (The phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” is Ricoeur’s but the definition mine, expressed in terms of ideological criticism). Witherington writes in part:

to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.

Reading this, I remember once hearing a biblical scholar argue that we should read without a hermeneutic of suspicion, equating a hermeneutic of suspicion with being “suspicious of God.” In that instance, my sense was that the lecturer was calling for us to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, to stop reading in that vein. I do not know Witherington’s work as well as I would like, but I do not want to read him here as calling for an end to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, I want to read him more literally: that a hermeneutic of suspicion is not a productive starting place in the reading process, that its right time is simply later in the game than one’s “approach to the text.”

I see a parallel claim in an essay by Norman R. Petersen, “Literary Criticism in Biblical Studies,” 25–50 in Orientation by Disorientation (ed. Richard A. Spencer; Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980). His question is how the critic can most productively use both historical-critical and literary-critical methods when reading biblical texts. He concludes that questions intrinsic to the text (“what is its form,” “what devices does it deploy,” “how is it structured”) allow us to keep reading to the end, to “let the narrator have his say,” whereas questions extrinsic to the text (“who wrote it,” “where/when/why,” “to whom did he write”) force our attention away from the details of the text at hand. Therefore, he proposed that after having established one’s text textual-critically, one should first approach the text with literary questions, and then only after completing uninterrupted readings of the whole approach it again with historical critical questions.

It is in the same spirit that I would agree with Witherington’s admonishment that we not “approach the text” with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Taking Hosea 2 as an example: if a hermeneutic of suspicion is my initial mode of reading, I may jump straight into a moral critique of the metaphor and reject precipitously the text’s ability to speak an appropriate word to modern listeners. I would then have failed to “giv[e the text] the benefit of the doubt and hear [it] out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into [its] own world and thought processes,” as Witherington puts it. By postponing (not indefinitely) a hermeneutic of suspicion, then I have the opportunity to let the metaphor work on me to convince me of its underlying claims about God’s ways with the people Israel and with creation, before I go on to consider rejection of the metaphoric vehicle Hosea has chosen.

I do not mean to say that such an exercise of mental division can really be accomplished in strict terms; Petersen, too, certainly acknowledges that we’re talking more about mutually-infectious cycles of reading than a linear “step program.” Also, I have reservations about seeking even to postpone a hermeneutic of suspicion: once you let your guard down to a text’s attempts to persuade you of its worldview, well, there’s little point in trying to bar the door when the intruder is already in the house.

What are your thoughts on a hermeneutic of suspicion? Is it more pressing than ever, given that the marginalized are with us always, or are there reasons to think that we are “beyond” it? If we hold to a hermeneutic of suspicion, how do you describe its right relation to a vulnerable openness to be changed by the “other” whom we meet in a text?