Conservatives and Liberals in Biblical Studies

Josh Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and author of the Oxford title Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism, writes:

In biblical studies, there are two types of practitioners: genuine scholars, and conservative scholars. The former are presumed innocent, motivated only by the disinterested and rigorous search for truth and guided solely by the dictates of rational inquiry, unmodified and uncontaminated by ideology. The latter are presumed to be agenda-driven, and to have donned academic cap and gown only to achieve a surreptitious panache of legitimacy for their cherished and unreconstructed religious dogmas. To those it wishes to marginalize and delegitimize, the mainstream establishment will apply the label “conservative.”

Nota bene: I’m a conservative, and I have seen conservatives don cap and gown illegitimately. But I find that when the moderator at liberalism’s table (“a title deeply revealing,” Stanley Fish says) is himself a liberal, others who share his views will seem to him unremarkable and need no extra label. What can I say except that I pick up this feeling among biblical studies academics, too?

The solution is not to admit that conservatives—people who believe in the truth of the Bible they’re studying—can be objective, too, but to acknowledge that everyone has an agenda. Everyone has a worldview driven ultimately by loves at the center of his or her heart. I love God, and insofar as I love him and my neighbor I am liable to reach truth in my biblical studies. I also believe in the grace of God, so I believe that I and others can come to know the truth, the True truth and not merely the party line. But there will be disputes about who’s got that truth until the day when a fire will burn through the glass through which we now see darkly, the day when we know even as also we are known.

Berman again:

When a scholar adduces evidence for the unity of a text, even if he makes no mention of theology whatsoever, he is liable to be labeled a conservative and the academic form in which he expresses his argument will be dismissed as an impermissible weave of scholarship with the suspect ideology behind it. In Revelation & Authority, author JoshSommer explicitly and unabashedly reveals his theologically liberal views, but I suspect he would bristle at being labeled a “liberal scholar”—for to be so labeled would suggest that he lacks impartiality in considering evidence and that his reading of that evidence is driven by his liberal theology. But he need not worry: as things stand in the profession, and in marked contrast to the one-sided employment of the delegitimizing label “conservative,” the label “liberal” would never be applied, let alone applied pejoratively, even to a scholar who marshals one side in a scholarly debate to advance an openly liberal agenda.

Berman tells an interesting story—one that could surely be told about conservatives, too.

“Could you tell me when scholars say the Torah was written?” The question, posed to me by an Israeli student just after the last class of the day—an hour when most of his peers were heading out for the evening—was voiced by a secular kibbutznik in his mid-twenties who in the classroom had impressed me by his thoughtful demeanor. As we sat down, I began by mentioning the vast range of scholarly opinion on this issue.

“Well, then,” he interrupted, “what do most scholars say? What’s the consensus?”

Again I stressed the difficulty of defining a consensus, especially in light of the many scholars who believe that the Torah includes pre-existing traditions much older than the final text. Moreover, I continued, we have virtually no epigraphic attestations to the Torah from the biblical period itself, and the events described in it occurred many centuries prior to our oldest copies, which are copies of copies. “Perhaps the truest answer,” I suggested, “is that we may not be able to know when it was written.”

He pounded his fist on the table. “But we have to know!”

Pausing tentatively, I probed. “Why do we have to know?”

He pounded a second time. “Because they’re ruining the country!”

Were “they” the Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria, the Ḥaredim, perhaps both? I was bemused by his apparent belief that if only he could march into the yeshivas of Bnei Brak with “proof” that the Torah wasn’t written by God, the students would chuck their yarmulkes and follow him out like the pied piper. But I was unsettled by his lack of intellectual honesty. He had posed an academic question but was willing to accept an academic answer only if it provided ammunition for his side in the culture wars…. In many quarters critical study of the Bible today has become weaponized in the service of cultural warfare.

May we submit to the word rather than make it submit to us. That’s the issue.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Conservatives and Liberals in Biblical Studies”

  1. I feel like I’ve had that same conversation myself multiple times (“but we have to know… they’re ruining the country!”). Except the circumstances in almost every case were different. The only common thread I can trace through them all was that I could not have anticipated the connections people would draw between the topic I had been discussing and the social agenda item they had in mind.

    Those social issues were not illegitimate concerns, but the tangential connections are startling for sure.

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