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Biblical Studies: A Discipline in Danger?

June 16, 2015

I was recently sent advance notice of an article devoted to a (misguided) critique of one I published a year or so ago.  My article = “Fashions, Fallacies and Future Prospects in New Testament Studies.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36 (2014): 299-324.  The editors wanted to know if I wished to write a response.  Under other circumstances I might have considered it, but the press of other/prior commitments made that impossible.  In any case, as I say, the supposed critique was wide of the mark, and about the only thing I could have said in response was that.

In the critique, the author claimed that Biblical Studies departments were closing (at least in UK universities) and/or in danger of closing, and the remedy he proposed was to steer in what he regarded as more progressive and innovative directions.  My own emphasis in my article on the examples of transitory fashions and also on (for a time) widely-held fallacies was, I guess, deemed unprogressive.

Similarly, a few years back when I blogged about the importance of languages in Biblical Studies (e.g., Koine Greek in New Testament/Christian Origins), there was an almighty blowback from some individuals.  I was accused of trying to stifle creativity, holding back a younger generation as a moss-backed senior, trying to impose a “Victorian straightjacket” on the field (by one particularly exercised fellow in the antipodes).  I should think that anyone who read the blog after having one’s morning coffee would have seen that I simply stated what many/most scholars in the field would think obvious:  That you need to be able to read the primary sources in question in their primary language, if you wish to be taken seriously as a commenter on them.

Well, here in Edinburgh we do not flinch from emphasizing language-preparation for scholarship in Biblical Studies.  Our masters degree requires at least one biblical language for entrance, and requires 1/3 of the course-credits taken to be in biblical languages.  For PhD work in NT, for example, we require good reading ability in Koine Greek, and at least a basic reading ability in Hebrew, German and French, these to be demonstrated within the first year of PhD work.  So, we’ll let applicants decide what they want, and what places they find most attractive and appropriate for their aspirations.

Oh, and so far as I can tell, in Edinburgh we’re not in danger of closing.  Indeed, Biblical Studies seems to be thriving, and particularly New Testament & Christian Origins.  There are, to be sure, some places that have suffered in recent years.  The factors involved likely vary from one place to another.  But it would be an interesting project to see whether there are factors that can be identified.  I rather doubt, however, that it has anything to do with the sort of emphasis that I’ve placed on languages and on gearing up to be a contributing scholar in the field.  I’d guess that one positive factor would be to identify a given field of study and promote what it takes to excel in it.  Also, I’d say that departments are wise to stake out the territory that they want to address well, and not try to be everything to everyone.  That might involve a bit of traditional thinking, and my antipodean critic will again perhaps find this objectionable.  Is Biblical Studies in danger?  It depends perhaps on the department.

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  1. I have a minor amateur’s interest in biblical studies, and I can’t begin to understand the notion that language study is somehow optional or even superfluous. Could I be considered a scholar of classical Greek literature if I didn’t know classical Greek? An expert on Schiller if I couldn’t read German? I’m not really trying to come off as self-righteous, I just don’t understand. What’s the argument that biblical languages are not necessary to the making of a biblical scholar?


    • One argument involves re-defining “biblical studies/scholars” to include the sorts of study that don’t focus on the biblical texts, such as Jesus-in-films, etc.

  2. Requiring proficiency in the Biblical languages in order to enter a doctorate program in Biblical Studies seems as obvious as requiring proficiency in mathematics in order to enter a doctorate program in physics. It is a sad commentary that the obviously necessary has become a point of controversy.

  3. Jason permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Can you elaborate on this statement that you made?
    “Indeed, Biblical Studies seems to be thriving, and particularly New Testament & Christian Origins.”

    Is this in terms of student enrollment? Publications? And I assume that this statement is only in regards to the department at Edinburgh?

    • Yes, it applies to Edinburgh, as clearly stated in my posting. And that’s in terms of undergrad and postgrad enrolments, as well as the atmosphere and productivity of colleagues.

  4. Ray Downen permalink

    I slipped past two years of Greek, hating every minute of it. I love ENGLISH and teach exclusively in ENGLISH to people who understand ENGLISH. I am never invited to teach in Greek or Latin or German or any other language than ENGLISH. I’m pleased by most of the translating done in recent years of the New Testament Scriptures. I have one bone to pick with translators who capitalize “spirit” when the obvious meaning of the writer was NOT the Holy Spirit. But I don’t quarrel with them in Greek. We both speak English. I advocate more thorough study in ENGLISH of the apostolic writings. Those who thoroughly understand apostolic teachings can then go farther and study in some other language, but the language used in most places I hope to visit is ENGLISH. I’ve known some scholars who loved language and who dug deeply into the original manuscripts for additional light. One such scholar was SETH WILSON, long time Academic Dean of Ozark Christian (then it was Ozark Bible College) College. His advice was always good. He understood moods and tenses and such other matters. I like ENGLISH and try to communicate clearly in ENGLISH.

    • Ray: I’m sorry to have generated such a defensive attitude in you. Of course, you can read ancient texts in translation, if you’re prepared to be at the mercy of translators. But my point was that if you wish to be a contributing scholar in the field (for which role the PhD is traditionally conceived), then adequacy in the relevant original language of the texts in question seems to me an obvious necessity. Even if we teach in English!

  5. According to your critic, I must be some kind of dinosaur. How could one hope to seriously study the Bible without at least some familiarity with the Biblical languages?

  6. Ryan permalink

    It would be interesting to read this critique (though, I admit I will have to look up “antipodean” to see if it is as insulting as it sounds!).

    Anecdotally, it does certainly seem to me that biblical studies departments are in a serious decline. In the last ten years I have either personally experienced or have colleagues who have personally experienced:
    -class size declining by as much as 2/3rds.
    -core classes cancelled due to lack of enrollment
    -entire degree programs being cancelled
    -departments being shut down
    -lay-off or “early retirement”

    and that’s just the ones who were able to find jobs to begin with!

    It strikes me though that *whether* or not there is a decline is not the type of question we should be able to debate or parry anecdotal arguments: shouldn’t there be factual data for that kind of thing? At least in North America, I imagine the ATS accreditation body should have those kinds of figures, and settle the matter quite easily.

    The question for debate then would be: why? I highly doubt it is due to “lack of innovation” as this critique alleges. Rather, I should think the decline is simply, as Larry mentioned, part of the greater decline of all of the humanities. Humanities as a whole are declining, the newspaper offers proof enough of that with story after story of leading universities shuttering literature and language programs. I don’t think innovation is the cause of that, but rather simply the economy: there are hardly any jobs for humanities graduates, and those that do exist pay very little. Students are simply not going to spend years of their life and accumulate great debt on training that will not, subsequently, land them a job that will allow them to do things like buy a house, raise children, live their life – and don’t forget paying off that debt! Undergrads are simply following a natural inclination to the more lucrative fields of study. The last New Testament Introduction course I taught was populated primarily not by eager young freshmen, but by older “second career” students who had already experienced great success in a different field, retired early, and now had the time and money to study their interests simply for the joy of it. Most undergraduates today, in my experience, cannot afford learning for learning’s sake.

    In regards to biblical studies specifically, the primary “paying field” would be the clergy. That too is shrinking as churches close (or, as is increasingly popular in North America, simply become video-fed satellite branches of a larger mega-church, and therefore get their pastor imported on the video screen every sunday and thus have no need to employ their own), so it is less and less the well of students that it used to be. Churches, as a whole, tend not to require indepth language studies for ordination, so I think that explains a large part of the drop in the study of biblical languages right there. Outside of the clergy, the only other paid future would be as a biblical studies professor. But as the field declines and programs shrink, there are far fewer of those jobs than ever. I do believe I remember reading statistics that, at least in North America, we currently have more unemployed biblical scholars than employed. I know my primary income is not from the field. I suspect in the future we will see only more of that. I would not be surprised if, a generation from now, biblical studies was not a “vocation” so much as a “boutique craft.” Much the way many other old skills like fine furniture making or quilting or writing literature are no longer the types of things one could do “for a living” as the industries based on those skills were left behind in the new economy, and as a result those skills are largely preserved and kept alive by hobbyists or boutique craftsmen who do something else as their day job, and pursue such passions in the evening on their own time. In such a future, we might have a handful of paid professors like Larry at the largest universities around the world, and their reach would be multiplied through massive online courses, that type of thing. The majority of primary research, however, would be conducted privately, in the evenings, at kitchen tables or little offices under the stairs, by people who worked all day at some other job. There would be a lot of cons to a future like that, though I suspect there’s not much we can do to stop it from coming. On the plus side, it would vastly cut down on the fantastic amount of arcane and useless material published every year just in time to sit around on the vendor’s tables at SBL!

    • Ryan: Your “cry of the heart” resonates. Yes, there are many more applicants for academic posts than there are posts, and this has been the case for the 40+ years that I’ve been in the field. So, I advise people to start a PhD in biblical studies only if they are prepared to have no ill feelings afterward if there is no post.
      Yes, I hear that the Humanities subjects as a group are declining in the USA. I’m sure people are gathering statistics on that. But my posting was intended to say that not all depts are in decline, and to suggest that we might explore why.

  7. I am intrigued by the debate on original language study, and long have been. I am aware of the consensus that original language study is necessary to acquire depth of meaning and nuance, but how long does such a process take? To take a possibly trivial example, in English, 1966 could just refer to a number, but it could also evoke a whole multi-stranded narrative that includes football, the triumph of the underdog, subsequent four-yearly over-anticipation, the defeat of an ‘ancient foe’ etc.

    How much language is enough? Enough to read a text? In which case, isn’t what is happening a mere word-substitution – ‘adelphos’ means ‘brother’ etc. Or is it enough to be ‘fluent’ and apprehend the semantic and textual nuances? And why is it more valid to do that oneself than go to several thorough commentaries?
    This is not an attempt to be bloody-minded or perverse for the sake of it, but I am genuinely interested. I am hoping to begin a part-time PhD in the autumn looking at Job. i have no Hebrew and barely basic Greek, and am fully expecting to have to learn more of both, but I have never found a convincing explanation for why original language study is such a lodestone.

    • Philip: There are obvious levels of proficiency in languages, from elementary word-by-word translation to reading the text without consciously doing that wooden translation. Likewise, one can grow in the familiarity and feel for the idioms of a given language. For a text such as Job, with its intricate linguistic and literary qualities, I’d think a good grounding in Hebrew essential, if, that is, you wish to make a contribution to understanding the historical text. If, on the other hand, you wish to study how the text has been rendered in English and interpreted as such, then one just might squeeze by without good Hebrew. But still I’d think that an ability in Hebrew would give an added perspective on a study of Job-in-English too.
      If you can’t see the relevance of reading an author in his own language, well, I’m not sure I can open your eyes.

  8. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Not as a scholar but as a Pastor, I have found it necessary to have a working knowledge of Greek and a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew and German a bonus. I find the idea that one could proceed to the doctoral level in Christian origins or other related fields without such training disappointing.


  9. What’s next? Medical students wanting to study medicine without the requisite study of anatomy? As it is written: “Thus saith the Lord , Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.” Jer. 6:16

  10. Daniel King permalink

    In Cardiff University, we have found that studying Greek and/or Hebrew are very popular among undergraduate theology students and that strength in language teaching is attractive to prospective applicants. Not all university managers appreciate this fact, and they tend to see language classes as unsustainable due to the relatively low ratio of students to tutors in these sorts of classes. Thus the tendency is for these sorts of excellent courses to get watered down.

  11. Hugh Scott permalink


    Your blog entry allows me to raise a point which is constantly on my mind.

    How is it that the impressive SCHOLARLY confirmation (let me call it almost a consensus) of the historical nature of the New Testament record of Jesus Christ and Christian origins, fails to reach down to and to influence the massively disseminated and much more influential popular anti-religious writings which is all that the majority of people feed on?

    To rephrase it, why do the scholarly biblical departments not manage to produce writings with a popular appeal? Why do religious practice and belief continue to fall, while scholarship defends biblical historical reality?

    (Edited for brevity. LWH)

    • Scholars tend to want to affect scholarly views of their subject. They also get advancement and promotion through being seen to do so. Populist writers, on the other hand, aim for maximum dissemination (and sales) among a general public ill-equipped to judge the worth of what they write. There are exceptions on both camps, but as a generalization this works. Some true scholars have also written for a wider readership. But the additional factor in getting a major distribution of a popular work is that it be, in one way or another, perceived to be “sensational” or “provocative.” So, you can write any unfounded nonsense you want, the more nonsense the better, and you’re sure to get popular attention. Scholarly work, however, is subject to peer-review, critique, etc.

    • Dave Miller permalink


      As someone with expertise in another field (physics) who is nonetheless interested in Biblical studies, I think I can answer your question from the perspective of a layman.

      Everyone who has any serious interest in the NT knows that parts of it are certainly historical: there really was a Caesar Augustus, a Pontius Pilate, etc., and many other parts of the NT are almost certainly true (i.e., many of the letters attributed to Paul were really written by him, though perhaps redacted by later editors).

      On the other hand, when many of us who are laymen first become aware of various problems in the NT (the differing reports of the Resurrection in the four Gospels, the two different genealogies of Jesus, the discrepancy between the dates for Herod and Quirinius, and many other problems), we become a tad suspicious of the “official” stories we were fed as children and begin looking at all sorts of alternative views.

      That does not mean we take all of those views seriously. I have read authors ranging from Hurtado and Ehrman to other authors you would no doubt consider beyond the pale, weighing them against each other, trying to see who has evidence for his views, etc.

      Frankly, I find the “mainstream” views, as presented, say, by Prof. Hurtado, to refute the religion I was taught as a child.

      To be sure, Biblical scholarship and, for that matter, natural science and philosophy leave unresolved the most fundamental questions such as whether God exists.

      C’est la vie.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

      • Dave: I’m afraid you’ve missed the points of my posting, which weren’t about the fortunes of traditional Christian faith but about the academic discipline of Biblical Studies. But I rather doubt that my work or that of other “mainstream” scholars refutes Christian faith as such, even if it seems to debunk some version of it you were taught as a child.

      • Hugh Scott permalink

        Dave Miller in Sacramento,
        I find your comment helpful. Although Professor Hurtado is stressing especially the overall existence and role of university biblical departments, and the importance of the biblical languages and of the scholarly literature in the main modern European languages (an emphasis with which I wholeheartedly agree), there is an essential overlap with one purpose of biblical scholarship, which is that it should filter down to the masses of the men and women and children ‘in the street’.

      • Hugh: I agree. That’s the main purpose in my dedicating time I could use for other things to this blog site.

      • Dave Miller permalink


        I got your point in the original post: I was responding rather to Hugh’s issue with the “unfounded nonsense” that makes it into popular publications.

        The various definitions of “Christian faith” are so disparate that you are certainly correct that neither your work nor anyone’s work could refute all of them: although I would count myself a skeptic, agnostic, or atheist, there are definitions of “Christian” by which i should be counted as a Christian. For example, I am less of a reductionist, materialist atheist than Rev. Jack Good (see his fascinating book The Dishonest Church): Rev. Good seems pretty certain that no traditional God exists, that all that exists is matter, etc.; whereas, I suspect that the universe is far more complex that we scientists yet understand.

        In any case, the important thing is simply to tell the truth, regardless of whether doing so has a positive or negative effect on “faith”: I honestly believe that you and many of your colleagues are indeed trying your best to tell the truth.

        All the best,


  12. Does anyone have a clear image about how many departments are closing and what the trend has been in the past 50 years? How many have opened and how many have closed?

    What are the main reasons for these changes? Are they solely financial? Who takes the decision to close a department? How are similar fields faring? Are the classics doing better or worse?

    • Short anwers: No, we don’t have firm data on depts opened and closed, in the UK or elsewhere to my knowledge, or reasons for closure/demise. Nor do I have such data on other depts., although reports from American academic visitors are that the Humanities in general are in decline in North America.

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