We’ve been told here in the past, and again more recently, that scholarship on the Bible starts from the assumption that the Bible was divinely inspired, and that this is a wrong-headed assumption that renders most of Biblical scholarship intellectually useless.
One piece of supposed evidence for this claim is a video interview of a “Dr. Richard C. Miller” by an ex-fundamentalist, atheist interviewer named Derek Lambert. This interview can be found at:
Now, the focus of this interview is on a particular group of scholars, i.e., those who are members of the SBL – Society for Biblical Literature. Richard Miller paints the SBL as a group dominated by piety, subservient to the theology of the various churches from which SBL members have arisen, and not very much interested in studying the Bible as one would study any secular literature. He accuses the SBL scholars as, in the main (he acknowledges rare exceptions), failing to approach the Bible in an objective, “scientific” spirit, the spirit that normally rules in historical research. He has withdrawn from the SBL, because he has no interest in carrying on dialogue with such scholars.
Miller compares the scholars of the SBL with witch doctors or shamans, and at one point asks the interviewer if he would prefer to have witch doctors rather than scientifically trained modern physicians look after him when he was seriously ill.
The less said about the interviewer in the video, the better. He is an inept interviewer, clumsy, wordy, with questions that are more like paragraphs than sentences, and often indirectly puts words into Miller’s mouth by his framing. But the main problem here is not the interviewer’s style, but the agreement of the interviewer and Miller that modern Biblical scholarship is so laced with piety that it lacks all objectivity.
It’s clear from Miller’s statements that, though the particular group called the SBL is his main explicit target, Miller imagines that Biblical scholarship generally (whether produced by SBL members or not) is largely pious in its orientation. One gets the impression from Miller that one would be hard-pressed to find schools in the USA where one could get an objective historical approach to the study of the Bible, free of explicit or implicit pro-religious bias. Thus, Miller paints himself as one of an embattled, very small minority of scholars who is having great trouble convincing an “establishment” of Biblical scholars that the field lacks objectivity, is subservient to churches and to Christianity generally, and needs to be transformed into a purely historical academic discipline.
This claim is all the more remarkable given that Miller is a recent scholar, graduating with his Ph.D. only in 2013. How Miller can imagine that he is accurately presenting Biblical studies from 2013 to the present is beyond me.
First, though I am not a member of the SBL, I have known many people who are, and not all of them are pious, church-bound types. But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that 90% of people who are SBL members and regularly participate in SBL conferences are more motivated by piety than by the desire to do objective historical and literary scholarship, the SBL is hardly the only game in town. There is another huge body of Religion scholars known as the AAR – American Academy of Religion. Many of its members are Biblical scholars. And many of those do Biblical scholarship in exactly the way Miller says it should be done!
Miller keeps giving examples such as Yale Divinity School. Well, duuuhh… doesn’t the phrase “Divinity School” suggest that the institution’s scholarly efforts will be influenced to some extent by the religious aims of the denomination(s) that run the school? Even if YDS is a particularly liberal place, there would still be some remnantial Christian genuflections expected of its faculty. Why isn’t Miller mentioning all the secular university departments of Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, Judaic Studies, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, etc., where the Bible is studied? Such departments are numerous in the USA and all around the world. And does Miller not realize that in many and probably most of these departments, the “scientific” spirit he advocates is the dominant one in the study of the Bible?
I studied religion starting back in the 1970s and 1980s, in a secular Religious Studies department. The profs there earned their PhDs in the 1960s and 1970s, i.e., about 40-50 years before Miller did his. The Biblical studies faculty almost uniformly adopted a non-pious, secular, religion-neutral approach to the texts. Most of them were secular humanists in private life, and the few that weren’t kept their private religious commitments out of their scholarship, trying to be “scientific” Biblical scholars. The Biblical studies section of the department was a place where many undergrads and grad students went in as pious Christians and came out as atheists or agnostics, and graduate students whose dissertation proposals sounded too “religious” were advised that perhaps they should be studying at a seminary rather than a religion department.
I can vouch for the fact that these attitudes were common among Biblical studies profs in secular Religion departments across the continent. I attended many academic conferences and heard many papers read on the Bible, and in most cases, neither in the papers themselves, nor in the discussion of the papers afterward, was there much piety. Questions of literary and historical method dominated. Questions of social science methodology were often front and center. Feminist approaches were often employed, and quite often, secular feminist approaches. Attending one of these conferences, one hardly felt one was in a church setting.
This is not to say that there were no devout Christians in these departments or in the AAR. It’s only to say that even the devout Christians were usually bending over backwards to adopt a position of religious neutrality when communicating their scholarly results to their peers and their students.
The number of secular religion departments is large. It is perhaps not as large as the number of seminaries and Bible colleges, but it is large. Most universities and colleges of any size have a Religious Studies department. Many of the very large schools have Ancient Near East, Judaic Studies and other departments where the Bible is studied. And while individual professors and individual students in these departments may be deeply religious, the common scholarly discourse attempts to be neutral.
It has to be, because one feature of modern Biblical studies, since the 1960s, is that it brings together Christians and Jews. Jewish scholars are not going to accept, as a working assumption, that their religion has been superseded by Christianity. Nor are Christian scholars going to accept Jewish assumptions. So the effort is made to separate Biblical study off from theological and confessional assumptions, and concentrate on texts, historical background, philology, archaeology, methodology, and so on.
Miller, in the interview, speaks as if these developments never happened, or as if they were exceptional or rare. But in secular departments, they are the norm, not the exception. Miller is letting his own pious church background color the way he sees Biblical studies. This causes him to take the SBL, which is dominated by churchy types, as typical of academic Biblical studies. He hasn’t spent enough time, it seems, away from seminaries and pious folks, and he misdescribes the sociology of modern Biblical studies academics. I certainly met many pious Biblical scholars of the type Miller describes, but they were largely non-factors in most of the university departments I had any knowledge of.
It’s not surprising that the above video was posted here earlier by Boris, who has the same misconception of Biblical studies as Miller. But in any case, the terrible pain that Miller portrays himself as having gone through as a Biblical scholar was completely self-inflicted. Miller could have chosen to get his training in Biblical studies entirely in secular Religion departments rather than in seminaries. That’s what I did. My impression of Biblical studies was thus the opposite of Miller’s: if you were a Christian and chose to major in Biblical studies in a university setting, you had better make sure you had a super-strong piety going in, or you sure wouldn’t have any piety left in you when you came out. The attitude of the profs, the attitude of your fellow students (especially grad students), and the whole “scientific” (read: reductionist) ethos would slowly and surely eat away at your most cherished religious assumptions.
I write this for the benefit of many of the people here who have never studied religion, and who might take the picture painted by Boris and by Miller as an accurate description of academic Biblical studies. It is not. It is a slanted, partial picture, based on one segment of modern Biblical studies. And to the extent that there is any truth to it, it applies more to the USA, which is crawling with Bible colleges and very conservative seminaries, than to just about any other country in the world. Biblical studies as an academic discipline, taken in its worldwide context (Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc.) is much closer the approach Miller champions than to the approach Miller denounces. For this reason, I found the interview parochial in its range of vision, and uninformative.