Monday, November 22, 2010

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?

Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download - I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL. I spend most of my time attending sessions organized on midrash, or early Jewish and Christian mysticism, Bible and Qur’an, early Jewish and Christian relations, and the like – and in these sessions scholars approach their research from the relevant critical perspectives. This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website ( describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR's conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their 1:00 p.m. session on Sunday was a book review of “Filled with the Spirit” by John R. Levinson. Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

The group’s website ( describes its mission as follows: “The Society for Pentecostal Studies began in 1970 and is an organization of scholars dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God. The purpose of the society is to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.”

In addition to a number of sessions organized by confessional groups, the book display was dominated by presses presenting predominantly Christian perspectives, or university or trade publishers that sent only the books they appeared to think would appeal to people coming from a particular Christian perspective. There have always been a certain number of presses or other organization selling books and other materials from an explicitly confessional perspective, but the percentage (in my eyes) was higher than it had been before.

I am Jewish. Since I started going to AAR/SBL meetings as a graduate student in 1985, I have always felt welcomed at the SBL. My religious identity (or whether I had a religious identity at all) seemed irrelevant to the society of scholars who were interested in studying the Bible and other early Jewish and Christian religious texts together. I felt that I was joining a group of people who could speak and do critical research across differences of religious affiliation and practice. Perhaps I was naïve. The field of biblical studies has certainly been marred (and fatally damaged, some people might argue) by a wide variety of forms of prejudice and institutionalized discrimination. It has been used to foster even the most virulent forms of racism, as when Protestant biblical scholars in the Third Reich used the tools of scholarship to support the genocide of the Jews (see Susannah Heschel’s book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany []).

Nonetheless, my experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true? In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries.

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