Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Has SBL Said Farewell to Reason?

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has recently published an opinion piece in the current Biblical Archaeology Review, “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies”, (available online here). According to Hendel, SBL "has changed its position on the relationship between faith and reason in the study of the Bible."

Here is an excerpt:
The problem is that the SBL has loosened its own definition of Biblical scholarship, such that partisan attacks of this type are now entirely valid. When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”3 The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry—that is to say, reason—has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster.

Hendel concludes with his personal "farewell to the SBL" – he has let his membership lapse.

Subsequently SBL has published an official reply to Hendel on the SBL website, "Discussing Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies," specifically offering clarifications on four of Hendel's claims (as SBL understands them):

1) The SBL has diluted its standards of critical scholarship, as evidenced in the 2004 change to the Society mission statement.

2) ASOR and AAR stopped meeting with the SBL “due to petty disputes among the leaders of these groups.”

3) Since the AAR decision to discontinue joint meetings, the SBL has loosened its standards as to the types of organizations that can be included at the SBL Annual Meeting.

4) The current SBL environment, which includes instances of proselytizing activity as well as veiled theological denunciations of certain individuals or groups, is hostile to a critical approach to biblical studies.

Finally, SBL invite members to respond to the issues to this e-mail address suggesting the following type of issues for discussion:

* To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?

* Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?

* If you favor a standards-based approach, what specific standards would you advocate for SBL membership?

Joseph Kelly (kolhaadam) sums up the story providing a lot of links to other bloggers' responses (Jim West, John Loftus, Doug Magnum, Jim Davila, John Hobbins, Michael Bird, Carl Sweatman, Stephen Carlson, Robert Cargill and Chris Brady). Apparently, there is now also a Facebookgroup urging that the SBL should put the word "critical" back into their purpose statement.


  1. It is a helpful response from SBL, although not very clear on the dropping of the word "critical" in 2004 (which I presume they did do quite deliberately [reading between the lines]).

    I think the SBL should promote critical investigation of the Bible. Especially in the OED sense: "Involving or exercising careful judgement or observation". I think we need more of that, not less.

  2. I agree. Now that you have become so active on Facebook maybe you should join the group.

  3. Hmm. Dr. Head is a friend of a friend of a friend. And, Dr. Lipit-Ishtar, there is no more privacy for you on Facebook, now that Google has linked your profile page to this blog.

  4. I tend to agree that dropping the word "critical" had some deliberate tendentious reason. But I have trouble believing that it was driven by some secret fundamentalist influence over the SBL board. I think it's much more likely to have been done to accommodate post-modernish ideas than fundamentalist ones. There are plenty of sessions at the SBL annual meeting that don't fit the profile of what normally gets subsumed in the category of "critical" study of the Bible and related texts. But those sessions are oriented toward things like LGBT theology, and not thngs like creationism.

    Granted, in their own way, some of those approaches could also be called "fundamentalist," but I don't think that's what Hendel had in mind.

  5. Every movement has its traditionalists, its conservatives, and its liberals. "Fundamentalism" is typically applied without discretion to both traditionalists and conservatives, leaving only liberals to escape the label. But liberals can very quickly become traditionalists when they start a movement of their own and endeavor to keep its founding principles unchanged.

  6. I think a bit of editorial input into the RBL might help.