Biblical Studies: A Discipline in Danger?
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.