The Invention of The Biblical Scholar

April 25, 2013 — Leave a comment


In reviewing a book like this, I’m not really sure where to start. This is a small, yet incredibly dense volume. The density makes it almost impossible to summarize in a review form that is not just a recreation of the back matter. The book is only 131 pages long and only has 3 chapters. Yet, as the authors, Stephen D. Moore and Yvonne Sherwood note in the preface, these chapters began as a single conference paper, “After ‘After Theory,’ and Other Apocalyptic Conceits in Literary and Biblical Studies.” In exploring where biblical studies might go after Theory, the authors want to retrace the path created the biblical scholar in the first place.

The first chapter is concerned with Theory with a capital “T,” which is the proper name for poststructuralist theory (read: postmodernism). In exploring the rise and fall of Theory, the authors discuss all things methodology, the perennial scholarly obsession even to the point of methodolatry (their word). If you were ever curious about postmodernism’s rise, effect, and fall in literary studies in general, this chapter will get you up to speed.

Chapter 2 turns to the rise of the biblical scholar proper and is rather illuminating. With a brief stage setting in precritical biblical studies, the authors then detail the invention of “moral unbelief” a la Kant. This gap between the scholar’ personal religious beliefs and his scholarly focus is what would pave the way for the modern biblical scholar. In a state of “moral unbelief” the focus in biblical studies turned toward a primarily historical focus (are these stories true?) rather than a religious focus (should these stories inform the way I live?). The religious focus was increasingly denied, and the Enlightenment solidified this stance. The “Enlightenment Bible” was a book of problems (mainly historical) to be solved, not a book of solutions for how to live.

Chapter 3 then takes a critical look at the state of modern biblical studies and offers a proposal for a way forward. The chapter starts with detailing the biblical sub-sub-sub specialist. They use the example of a “Markan literary critic,” who is a subspecialist (studying the literary nature of Mark) in a subdiscipline (Markan studies in general) of a subdiscipline (New Testament studies) of a main discipline (biblical studies in general). Here is a person who’s entire publishing career may be devoted to a specific type of reading of 20 pages of the Bible. This leads to a field of study that is not only isolated, but increasingly in conversation only with itself, as the authors detail toward the end of the chapter. Instead of feasting on the text directly, the “picnic is increasingly being postponed” as the authors put it (107). The suggestion, in the closing pages, is that we move onward to the past and recover and in the final word of the authors, “we need to find religion.” (131)

This is a book for Ph.D students, and primarily those in biblical studies programs. While the type of biblical scholar the authors have in mind is the mainstream critical scholar, the insights will be helpful to those even in a seminary environment. It helps to explain why biblical scholars focus on the topics that they do and provides a helpful reminder that many professional biblical scholars treat the Bible merely as text to be dissected. The temptation is always present to move in that direction if you’re part of a graduate study program, but that is not an approach you will find in the major streams of the Christian the faith. It is recent, post-Enlightenment invention and these authors help to explain how it all came about. The book is heavy sledding, so its not for everyone. But if you’re in seminary or pursuing a Ph.D in biblical studies, this might be a good book to pick up.

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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